Bi the Bear
18 July 2017
anal penetration, Art, artist, big dicks, Bisexuality, blowjob, F. Valentine Hooven III, Female Masculinity, Gay, Gay Leather Fetish, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, giant cocks, Homosexuality, Homosexuality as mental illness, Humor, Jack Halberstam, Kake, leather, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Pornography, Queer Theory, sexual Education, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, soldiers, Sucking Cock is a Great Way to Spend a Friday Night, The Advocate, The Complete Kake Comics, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Well of Loneliness, Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland: His Life and Times, Touko Laaksonen, uniforms, Working Class Men
A man goes into a bathroom to take a piss. Another man walks up, whips it out, and starts to pee. The men look at each other’s cocks, smile, and start to fool around. In the middle of their fun another man walks in and joins in, the next man who walks in is a sailor, this is followed by a young student, then a black man in a suit, and finally a biker dressed in rough denim and a sleeveless leather vest. The story ends with all the men fucking butt to butt to butt to butt to butt, and my reader gets it from there. Despite the graphic intensity of this image what is absolutely important about this story, which is told as a series of pictures, is that all the men who are having sex in this bathroom are smiling.
That may not seem terribly important, but for the time this story was drawn out it was not only controversial, it was unprecedented.
I don’t apologize for admitting that I’m a consumer of pornography. And to be perfectly honest, there isn’t anyone living in this contemporary period who should. Pornography has transcended its previous space in society which, until recently, was at the bottom of your dad’s sock drawer or filing cabinets. The days when little boys (and some girls, let’s be fair here) would steal their father’s Playboys and tremble as they turned pages discovering the awesome power of airbrushing has passed, and now generations of little boys (and girls, again, let’s be fair) now have an unlimited supply of images and videos of naked people fucking. Now there’s plenty of discourse about whether this new openness and ease of access to pornography is negatively affecting the population, but that’s for another essay.
I am a consumer of pornography, and while at times this is a fact that can be embarrassing there is one crucial fact that needs to be observed: I watch and consume gay porn because I’m queer and I want to remain faithful to my wife.
It’s taken quite a while to develop the kind of confidence to admit this, both out loud and to millions of anonymous strangers on the internet, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Since I came out I’ve begun to read more and more about bisexual identity, homosexual identity, and more specifically about sexual intimacy between men. My growing Queer library is almost completely dominated by men (phrasing) and one book in this ever-rising mountain of same-sex intimacy has become not only one of my favorite books, but also the most important: The Complete Kake Comics.
Kake, pronounced Kah-ke or cake, dealer’s choice, is the creation of a man by the name of Touko Laaksonen and has become since his early appearance in the 1950s and 60s, and icon of gay and bisexual male culture. With his leather jacket, slim moustache, and black leather cap Kake established a visual ideal from which gay men the world over identified and mimicked in their dress and overall behavior. If the reader has never observed or read any of the Kake comics I’ve provided some images within the body of this essay, some of which are obviously hyperbolic and purely pornographic. I
discovered Kake, and his creator Tom of Finland, completely by accident. I wish there was a dignified way of explaining this serendipity other than “I googled hot guys and look what came out” but, yeah, again, dignity, that’s a thing I don’t possess.
In my defense, however, after discovering the snippets of online content of Tom’s work I managed to track down a complete book on Amazon which I purchased and read. Studying the drawings was entertaining, not just for the obvious perverted reason, but because Tom of Finland manages to illustrate beautiful scenes of men fucking in a wide variety of contexts and locations and each page is beautiful for the perspective and attention to detail. Reading the book I enjoyed seeing these handsome men having fun and enjoying themselves and fucking with abandon because, unlike most of the pornography in the contemporary market, these men looked like they were actually having fun while they fucked. The sex wasn’t about berating your partner, calling him a bitch or a fag, and then relishing in any pain. The sex was just about enjoying yourself.
That, and there’s also lots of gargantuan cocks.
This is a long introduction however to my real focus which is a book that few people will ever actually read. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times by F. Valentine Hooven III is out of print and so it’s unlikely that outside of a few die-hard fans the book will ever be encountered by the casual reader of queer studies. It’s because the book is out of print that I felt compelled to write about it, but also because, as I noted before, Tom’s men are beautiful examples of what sex between men (and sex between people) should look like.
Hooven observes this as he examines Tom’s men:
The Third element of Tom’s art was its sense of humor. For whatever reason, sex and laughter have been linked throughout history. From Lysistrata to Tom Jones to Lolita, the preponderance of the great works of erotica have been comedies and even in the narrower field of hard-core pornography a large number of better works […] combine humor with their graphic depiction of sex. Tom followed
firmly in this tradition and consciously imbued his drawings with a general sense of light-hearted play. No heavy-handed drama, no sense of “the love that dare not speak its name” was permitted to intrude. Even when Tom’s men steal and fight and tie one another up, there is an overall feeling of “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again!” (92-3).
It’s a pathetic state of affairs when this paragraph hits a familiar ear. Hooven I would argue accurately sums up the problem of much of the early pornographic writing, or even simply romantic writing, of the time because anyone who has ever read much early queer fiction recognizes that much of it is nothing but queer people mourning their very existence. This isn’t just my own observation, for even queer critics and historians have noted this tragedy in works that are now cannon of queer literature, the most obvious example being Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
The novel is a romance that was published in 1928 and told the story of two lesbians, one of which assumed a kind of personality and physical make-up that many would refer to as butch. It’s a mode of being that assumes what some in culture would refer to as “masculine traits” but it retains the gender identification of female. The Well of Loneliness was made a bit of hubbub when it was first published, and in their book Female Masculinity Jack Halberstam observes the gender matter in the novel, while observing this narrative trend:
Both novels [The Well of Loneliness & The Picture of Dorian Grey] depict homosexuality as congruent with some kind of gender inversion, and both depict the subterranean worlds of homosexuals as lonely drug dens filled with moral perversion. […] Some lesbian critics have begun the work of recuperating The Well of Loneliness by referencing it as a brave depiction of butch sexuality that replaces a model of lesbianism as a sin with medical and sociological models of the lesbian as invert and victim respectively. (98).
I could get into a long explanation as to why many of the early queer authors were forced to write about homosexual existence as a morbid affair, but the simplest explanation is the fact that homosexuality was still considered either a vice or else a mental disorder. Many homosexual people could face outright persecution, exile from loved ones, incarceration in mental hospitals where all manner of tragedies including lobotomy and electroshock could occur, and outright death sentences. Is it any wonder then that homosexual life, and sex, was often portrayed by writers as gloomy and miserable?
Taking this knowledge into account Tom of Finland’s work is simply incredible for its time. It’s not just that the art work is provocative and satisfies what is sometimes referred to as “hard-core pornography.” One crucial element makes his work as powerful and dynamic as it is and Hooven explains it to his reader.
But there was one aspect of Tom’s work above all the others that made it unforgettable. This element was the very one Tom worked the harde
st to add to his drawings. It was partly a compendium of the three qualities already mentioned: the sense of humor, the feeling of immediacy, and the more and more blatant homosexuality; but it was more than just a sum of these three. It could be as simple as a smile, yet it was one of the hardest things to draw deliberately; Tom managed to portray it. Namely, his men were unmistakably happy.
Happy homosexuals? That was new! (94).
If the reader is not familiar with the history of homosexual people, this sentence could almost be eyerolling in its sentiment. Current media being what it is, many people might immediately push back and wonder why this presentation was so unique. Hell, just a casual glance through the perverted landscape of Tumblr is enough to make anyone question why would the presentation of happy queer men be so shocking or important? My response to this, dear reader, is exactly the last line of Hooven’s analysis. These happy homosexuals were new.
Queer artists interested in presenting homosexual sex, both in terms of serious art as well as pornography owe their freedom in this capacity to Tom of Finland because the man’s work established a precedent where men could illustrate sex between men as something that was fun. And considering the presentation of sex that often occurs in art this is still something relevant. Watching sex scenes in movies and T.V. shows and even in pornography, most of it isn’t about fun. Sex is often just about scratching an itch, completing one’s sense of identity, showing it as part of a lifestyle, filling an emotional void, or at its worse, proving your virility. There really hasn’t been any presentation of sex as something fun as far as I can see apart from a few obscure artists and Tom of Finland.
In fact, to be honest, the last sex scene I watched on television that made it appear that sex was something fun was the sex between Gabe and Samantha White on the Netflix show Dear White People, or the masturbation scene with Lionel. Both of these scenes show people have sex or masturbating and at the end it’s clear that the act was about enjoying yourself and just having fun.
Looking at my own desire I think this is the reason why I keep returning to Tom of Finland over and over again, because while it is just about the itch of masturbation, there’s always another level in it for me. I want my desire to be something healthy, and I want the expression of it to be something fun. Even if I can’t have sex with another man, if I could I wouldn’t want the experience to be just about proving my virility or enjoying a lifestyle. There should be an honest joy in fucking because fucking is supposed to be fun.
It would be enough to observe that Hooven notes Tom’s approach to illustrating gay men as happy and content, but one other characteristic of his work is noted and catalogued in this biography. The reader will probably observe in the images of Tom’s work an attention to clothes, specifically the way men are dressed in jeans, leather, or military uniforms. I’ll admit freely this is also part of the appeal of these men for me. I’ve noted in several essays that growing up I felt less than fully confident in my masculinity, not out of misidentification with my gender, but because I didn’t feel like I was a “real man.” This still exists to some extent (it’s hard to feel any kind of macho when you spend most of your working hours in dress pants and bow-ties), but part of the fun of my bisexuality has been discovering what kind of man turns me on, and it’s almost always working class men.
These men embody the kind of masculine ethos that I lacked with their denim, callused hands, and their down-to-earth attitudes. And, if I can speak plainly, it’s mostly because they’re fucking hot as fuck.
This image of queer men however was something that, much like images of happy men, were unheard of. Queer men of the previous era were resigned to the “invert” or else the “fairy,” characters who were effeminate, flambouyant, and almost always self-loathing. It should be noted that effeminate queer men were and are legitimate personality types, and while not every queer man subscribes to that label no one should feel bad if they are a queen. Still for many men this gender presentation wasn’t true to their selves and so they found in Tom of Finland’s work a mode of dress that matched their perception of what masculinity was.
From 1957 on, Tom’s Work set up a series of powerfully masculine images for large numbers of gay men. In the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the advent of gay pride, many of those men were no longer satisfied to merely lust after Tom’s men. In the seventies, San Francisco’s “Castro clone” look—Levi’s, boots, and work shirts—swept the gay scene, and gay men began to try to be Tom’s men. Even as the baby-boom gays aged during the eighties, they strove to emulate the Tom of Finland ideal. More and more of them began working out; super-butch haircuts and outfits and attitudes spread in popularity. So Tom’s work in the eighties presented an older but butcher male. In a way, this alteration was a reflection of changes in gay male society that were in turn partially a reflection of Tom’s work in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. (164-5).
I’ve divulged a lot about myself in this essay, and probably revealed aspects of my personal life many people were probably happy never knowing, but after I finished Tom of Finland: His Life and Times I realized that I had to write about this book, not just because of what Tom’s work has meant for me and my personal sexual development, but for millions of men across the world. New generations of gay, bisexual, and queer young men will discover the man’s work and find in his images their own erotic truth. They’ll find images of men that satisfy their erotic interest, and some of them will be so inspired that they’ll pick up a pen and start drawing.
Pornography as a mode of art does not receive a great deal of credit or respect, and studying it as I have it’s pretty clear not much of it deserves credit. Pornography as an art is usually a back-scratcher: it’s designed to take care of an itch and then be laid aside and quickly forgotten. Growing up the way I did, I realize however that pornography was an intimate part of my sexual development and has been for millions of young people. As human beings progress forward into this Information age, online pornography is going to shape the sexual lives of young people and so the work of someone like Tom of Finland is not just an esoteric study, it’s something important to talk about.
If people are going to be exposed to pornography at young ages, it’s important then that they understand what healthy sex is. Looking at the landscape of pornography Tom of Finland’s work is a beautiful exception because it encourages people to be themselves and be happy. Rather than present sexuality as something violent or misogynistic, Tom’s work is just sexual play. It’s appeal to the imagination where human beings can just imagine fun situations that can be repeated over and over again by turning the page and seeing a new angle or a new position. It may be pornography, but at least it offers a healthy view into sexuality.
And, if I can make at least one more appeal, it offers a firm reminder that there’s something about a man in uniform.
All quotes taken from Tom of Finland: His Life and Times were provided from the First edition St. Martin’s Press hardback copy.
NOTE: This book is currently out of print, therefore tracking a copy down for yourself will be difficult…unless you follow the link below to amazon where you can buy a copy. Tom of Finland is just too important to be forgotten
And if the reader would be interested in finding The Complete Kake Comics, you can follow the link below:
My reader may have observed me using the word Queer in place of Gay for most of this essay. I’ve decided that whenever I write about same-sex intimacy between men that I will use queer in place of Gay, not out of a desire of homosexual erasure, but more as a way of leveling the playing field. I’m a bisexual man who prefers the term queer because my desire is pretty open ended. Plus, not knowing the sexual identity of my reader I feel queer provides more of a safety net. Writing out “queer man” is far simpler than “gay, bisexual, pansexual, man.”
If you hate me for this please remember that we’re all united in our love of cock. It is, to quote the great philosopher, just fantastic.
I also found, during research, a link to an article about a film recently made about the life of Tom of Finland. If the reader is interested simply follow the link below:
I also found an article published in The Advocate about the lasting importance of Tom of Finland:
Batman, Benedict Cumberbatch naked sunbathing, Bisexuality, Book Review, Comics, Essay, Evil Bear Man, Gay, Gay Batman Sex Fantasy, Gay Men Comics, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, Homo-Social Relationships, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, I Like It Like That, I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire, Justin Hall, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Michael Fassbender, Naked, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Sex, Queer Theory, Sexual Exploration, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Space, The "Fairy", Writing
I’ll admit that I wanted it both ways. And yes, that is a bisexuality pun.
My regular reader will remember, because I won’t shut up about it, that I’m bisexual. My graphic novel memoir I Like Dick, I Like Vagina, I Like Me is still several years away at this point but that’s only because the publishers fail to see my brilliance and so I languish in obscurity. Because I’m married however, and because my wife and I hold to a “No Sharing” policy, exploring my sexuality is often limited to the wonderfully perverted world of Tumblr or else my traditional outlets, books. There’s a problem on this second front because as I said before I want it both ways, and this time it’s not a pun. I have been, since I started reading works about Queer theory, looking for a book which would explore queer male sexuality while also not being ungodly academic.
Surprise surprise this has been difficult.
Most writing about sexuality between men remains rigidly fixed in academic analysis in which case your spending most of your time reading about Freud or Marxian realities inherent to Postmodern identity politics. The other alternative is pornography, and as I stated before, Tumblr exists and seems to do a far better job at it then most erotic male writers I have read. What has always been missing in book after book of male-male erotica is some level of intellectual exercise. Reading about X putting his dick in Y’s mouth and or anus can be fun, but after a while the characters become archetypal nobodies and I wanted to explore sexuality not just scratch an itch. It seemed then that there wasn’t any book out there where I could really get another person’s perspective on their sexuality in a way that was physically and psychological satisfying.
Until Half Price Books. This chain has largely been responsible for whatever emotional development I’ve had with my sexuality because unlike the bookstores in my home town of Tyler, Texas, they carry (unashamedly I might add) an entire section dedicated to gender, sex, and sexuality books. On yet another of my family’s recent pilgrimage to Dallas I headed for the LGBTQ Studies after cleaning up in the dollar section, and my cart filled up within a space of five minutes. Most of my books were studies of queer male sexuality or their history and so when I spotted I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire it was just one of the many books in the pile. It was a few minutes later when I was vetting my pile that I took the time to figure out what I was buying, and after reading just the back cover I knew I had to own this book.
I Like It Like That is not just a collection of testimonials for I’ve read and still own several books like that. Most books about queer men tend either to be outright pornography, or else testimonials about their first time or about their coming out. Books like that are valuable and should be read and studied, but again there was always something missing for me whenever I read them. The way my own mind works I always prefer a work that takes the time to introspect or analyze a condition or situation. The men writing their personal essays are not just describing their sex life, they’re offering assessments and deeper understandings of what sex has meant to them, or how it has changed their life, or shown in what way they have explored or expressed their sexuality. Each essay acts alone and independently from the other, but while reading this book each essay feels like it’s is arranged in reaction to others so at times the book is like reading a group of men talking together about their sexuality. The best part about the collection however is the actual range of sexual expressions that are understood and discussed. One article titles Tom Selleck’s Mustache is one man’s realization that he possesses a fetish for mustache’s in general and therefore kissing men with mustache’s is his favorite erotic act. Another essay, which is in fact a comic strip, titled Amanuensis is a short story about a top who helps two husbands who are both bottoms. Big Black Daddy-Dick, or The Joys of Being Fetishized is really everything the title suggests as a middle aged black man explores the pleasure derived from others who look at him and his dick in a kind of worship. Bathhouse Desires covers the territory of a man visiting a bath house for the first time and feeling lost in lust and desire. Straight Guy Fetish explores a personal essay of a man caught in a one sided relationship with a straight man. And finally Evil Bear Man is a comic strip about a man who works as a fetish escort and has sex with his boyfriend in front of his client dressed up as Batman and Robin.
This last one, for the record, is my favorite only because I couldn’t stop laughing while reading it.
This basic list serves to demonstrate what an odd and wonderful book I Like it Like That really is for the reader interested in exploring libidos. Reading these essays feels so personal because too often the subject of sex is something that is hushed up or hidden. But something powerful happens when a writer opens their secret heart and shows you something. To wit, observe just one passage from the essay The Weight of My Desire:
I like men. And I like that I like men. But more than that, I like that you like them too. […] Sometimes, I think, the only thing greater than my desire for a man is my desire for his hunger. Do you know what I mean? His yearning to touch, or be touched by, another man. His willingness. His lust. His lack of inhibition. The thought that maybe just the book of another man’s smile is enough to get him hard. That perhaps even you might think of me and quiver. That I might hold the power to do that to you. Then I could pull you close, press your forehead into mine, and gaze into your eyes as we fuck. And in your eyes I will see that you like it. I will hear it on your warm breath and in the wet sound of your tongue on my skin. We are not that different, you and I. Your balls ache the way mine do. (207-8).
It’s incredibly painful to me how long it took for me to be able to read the first two sentences and agree with them. For the longest time I hid behind the random imitation of the “fairy” whenever the issue of same-sex intimacy between two men was brought up. Whenever I would discuss Benedict Cumberbatch or Michael Fassbender I would become fay and limp-wristed and raise my voice to sigh dreamily. I still sigh dreamily after Michael Fassbender for the record because…because…Ahem
Ahem. And Jason Moma is…
…well…yeah. The point is though while reading this passage I recognized the similar physical sentiment, “your balls ache the way mine do,” but I also recognized how much I had grown into my own comfort of my sexuality. Being attracted to another man wasn’t funny, or at least wasn’t just funny. It could also be real, and it could also be something to enjoy about myself.
Having said that though humor is important especially when dealing with sex. That’s why Evil Bear Man is without doubt my favorite essay in the collection. The fact that it’s also nothing but comics doesn’t hurt either.
The essay is about a fetish escort who gets paid by one of his clients to dress up as Robin and “break in” to his apartment so his client can pretend to be a villain by the name of Evil Bear Man. Evil Bear Man’s evil scheme? To force Batman and Robin to fuck.
With the help of his boyfriend, who plays the role of Batman, the pair of them eventually play out the fantasy for the client who enjoys a nice, quick wank. The description is enough to make even the most patient and open-minded reader to stop and ask the question: why should I be giving a damn about this. With the incorporation of images this moment sounds like nothing but pornography? But looking back over the essay again I can counter this immediately. Pornography is designed to titillate and arouse the viewer and/or reader of the work. Evil Bear Man works to occasionally arouse the reader, but often Justin Hall, the writer and illustrator who’s work I have appreciated in other books such as Boy Trouble and True Porn, breaks the serious erotic’s to show small moments of humility. His boyfriend complains about the utility belt, on the way over a kid tells him that the Robin outfit looks gay, after the client has paid he hopes the pair of them don’t laugh too hard and of course they do, and at the end the pair of them eventually continue to fuck in the outfits while the onomatopoeias of BLAM, WHAM, and KER-POW pop up between the phrases “Take it.” Anyone who watched the old Adam West Batman like I did surely remembers this and having them subverted, or perverted if you prefer, was funny and charming.
The point is while the reader observes this small tale they explore the fantasy of the client and observe how the escort and his boyfriend eventually perpetuate it, both together, and also to the reader. The individual reading the book I Like It Like That, is most likely someone who will derive some kind of erotic interests from the essays being presented and so there’s an invitation to not only observe the little distractions that can take place during sex (you always wind up placing your weight on their hair for some reason), but also to see if maybe some part of you isn’t also slightly turned on by watching Batman and Robin fuck.
I’ve never had a Batman fetish myself, and I still don’t. However, studies of tumblr have demonstrated that even without my participation this fantasy will continue into the future.
I’ve probably said more than I need to in order to the pique the interest of the reader who’s willing to sink $20 into a nice slim little book of erotic essays, but as always my point in these writings isn’t just to review books. Anyone who wants a quick review should try Goodreads. These essays are about my own exploration and so I prepare for my contester who interrupts me to ask, “Why should I bother picking this book up? I’m not gay, I’ve never had any gay feelings. Why should I waste my time reading about a bunch of gay men having sex?”
To this criticism I really don’t have much of a defense. If you’re a straight guy this book probably doesn’t offer much for you. I’m sorry but that’s where it stands. Though it should be noted that there is a small populace that call themselves straight who engage in same-sex activity, but that’s for a later essay.
Buying the book, and taking the time to write this out I wasn’t really writing for straight men. I wasn’t writing for gay men either. And in fact I wasn’t writing to any men at all, simply myself. As I noted before, my bisexuality is an odd creature because it can only exist in an odd erotic space. Because I don’t want to cheat on my wife, but because I also am unwilling to hide my, what Alison Bechdel calls in her brilliant graphic novel Fun Home “Erotic Truth,” this books is a real gift. It affords me the space to explore my sexual feelings towards other men without violating my marriage or without making me feel guilty.
And, along with helping me find my sexual self, it also affords me a few opportunities to think. Such as the following passage from the essay The Truth of His Nakedness:
It wasn’t about sex. Until it was. But it took me years to realize that nothing had really changed. These days, my nakedness is usually reserved for sexual situations, but that only reinforces the point—the erotic space is the same. The erotic space is the space of unavoidable truth. The erotic space is who I am.
In the end, all there is nakedness: two bodies coming together, sharing their common humanity, their naked vulnerability, the ultimate truth that we are not alone. (184-5).
The essays in I Like it Like That, much like this review/reflection of the entire book, finds its heart in the preceding passage because everything about these essays is about nakedness. “Naked” as a word always suggests vulnerability and by exposing your body, and by extension your desire to another person there is always a risk. Writing these words, and publishing them on the internet for all the world to see is a risk because there will always come those who will reject my desire, and by extension my person in general. I’ve listened to horror stories from some of my friends in the queer community and so I do not write and publish this essay without some reservation. It would be a mistake though to suggest that this was purely about the actual act of sex, because these essays prove sex is not only about the act of inserting something up an anus, into a mouth, or into a vagina. Sex is about a space in which desire is allowed to breath and be and the only way for a person to figure out what they “like” is to find some kind of space in which to work with.
Queer men exist in a wonderful space in which to explore their desire, and I’m happy to contribute to it in any way I can, even if it’s just suggesting a book through this shitty blog.
Looking over these words I’ve reminded myself that the reason I’m able to be and exist is because of the agency and space I possess. Others aren’t nearly so lucky. I’ll probably never have sex with another man, and while there is some sadness in this declaration there is still a happiness in recognizing I have enough “space” to openly acknowledge it’s still something I would like.
And if that “space” should ever include Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch, well, I mean, I wouldn’t complain. Would you?
Alan Ginsberg, Bisexuality, Chicago, Creative Writing, Drunk, Ezra Pound, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Harold Bloom, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, Jazz, Joshua Jammer Smith, Lines Composed in a Downtown Jazz Bar, Poetry, Queer, Queer Theory, Rose Petal, Semen, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Walt Whitman, Writing From Below
I have been published. It’s damned beautiful to actually see that written out, and twice as much fun to actually write it myself. This post only serves a link to the actual work itself. About a year ago, and I really do mean a year ago, I sent away a poem that had in fact only been a poem in the sense that it was a series of words I scribbled down while drunk in a Jazz bar in Chicago. I was attending an academic conference for the fraternity Alpha Chi, and one of my local chapter’s sponsors grew up in Chicago and was an avid fan of Jazz. He took us there, I got drunk, and for whatever reason while the base was thumping and the saxophone was taking to a place somewhere outside of time where the world was more of nothing but colors and feelings I began to write about Walt Whitman and fathers.
It was written on a cheap pocket notebook, later transcribed onto a yellow legal pad, and then stuffed away for several months until a friend of mine sent me a link to a Call for Submissions for the Queer Theory journal Writing From Below. I decided to come up with something, sure and positive that nothing, NOTHING, I would write would get published and during that search I found the poem again. I typed it up, touched it up in places, and submitted it, forgetting about it after just a week. It was about five months later that I received an email back.
At this point any and all letters from publishers is assuredly a rejection letter and so when it shifted to “We are pleased…” It was all a lovely blur after that. It took several more months of revisions, and actually having to cite a source (which is its own story) but now at last I have a real publication to my credit.
If the reader is interested in reading the poem they can follow the link below. When they arrive at the site simply click on the image I’ve included above and it will take you to the Table of Contents where they can find my poem as well as several fascinating essays about masculinity, which I would highly encourage you to look up.
TO READ THE POEM FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW:
Academic Book, Ang Lee, Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain, Chris Packard, Clint Eastwood, Cowboys, Fievel Goes West, Heath Ledger, Homo-Social Relationships, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jane Tompkins, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Kirk Douglass, Literature, masculinity, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowyboys, Novella, Queer, Queer Cowboys, Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Queer Theory, sexual Education, Sexual identity, Sexuality, The "Fairy", West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Westerns, Wiley Burp, Willie Nelson, Working Class Men
Just remember, Fievel – one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn. I don’t know what’s out there beyond those hills. But if you ride yonder… head up, eyes steady, heart open… I think one day you’ll find that you’re the hero you’ve been looking for.
–Wiley Burp, Fievel Goes West
Like many closeted young men at the time, I refused to believe that cowboys could be gay. I also refused to acknowledge the fact that cowboys had in fact, always been gay, or at least gay in the sense that they exhibit homoerotic tendencies. When Brokeback Mountain came out in theatres, pun not intended, it caused a bit of an uproar and not just because it was one of the few watchable Jake Gyllenhaal movies made at that point, but because it was a mainstream film which featured openly gay, or at least bisexual, characters as the center point of the plot rather than as quirky side characters. An unapologetic gay love story, while not unprecedented, hadn’t reached mainstream audiences in such a way. The fact that Ang Lee dared to make a movie about honest love between two grown men in an atmosphere that satisfied the typical qualities of a Western, a film genre that is looked upon often with reverence despite the fact no film director since Sergio Leone has managed to make one worth watching (unless you count Django Unchained and I do), created a controversy for the reasons I just stated. Brokeback Mountain challenged the masculinity of the Western because it placed two gay, or at least bisexual men, alongside men like Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglass, and, my hero at the time, John Wayne.
As I said before I was closeted at the time and didn’t recognize that that weird feeling I got looking at the underwear models wasn’t just bad Chinese food I had eaten, and so at the time my reaction reeks of the typical desperation of those wanting to cling to the heterosexual identity. Cowboys for me were figures who answered the faults in my own masculinity because I was the young man often presented in cartoons and movies on the sidelines of the game, either my nose stuck in a book, or trying desperately (and pathetically) to talk to girls. Growing up John Wayne was the answer to my masculinity problems, because he seemed to exemplify everything that a man was supposed to be. Men were strong laborers and heroes while gay men were prissy fairies.
Growing up, cutting the shit, and reading lots of books has a remarkable way of changing your perspective. In graduate school I took a Queer theory course (which I won’t shut up about as some readers may know) and while reading Butler, Bersani, Halberstam, and Sedgwick I decided to finally get around to reading Brokeback Mountain, the novella by Annie Proulx. I’d bought the novella for a dollar curious, in every sense of the word, about the book because the media had portrayed the story as a homoerotic pornographic snuff film. I’m sure like many people I was slightly disappointed when I opened the book and discovered, not an erotic masterpiece, but an emotional melodrama that was beautiful to read and imagine in my mind.
It was while studying this book, and producing a paper about how it queered the landscape of the Western, that I realized I was bisexual, came out to a friend and my wife respectively, and began to read more and more about male same-sex intimacy.
There are only two moments of intimacy between Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist described in the novella and Annie Proulx writes it carefully:
Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear-slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s chocked “guns goin off.” Then out, down, and asleep. (14).
It speaks to a heteronormative standard that the first sexual act between these two men is anal sex rather than a blowjob and in truth this is something I’ve struggled with as both a writer, a reader, and a critic of the novella. On the one hand because Annie Proulx is a straight woman it does make sense that physical penetration would be the first sexual scene described, but many literary and queer critics have bashed her for this. The argument is that it perpetuates the idea that the only kind of sex that can occur between men is anal sex because of old heteronormative standards of “active vs passive partner” best exemplified by the bullshit question: “So which one is the girl?” I recognize the problem these critics have with the text and I agree that this does perpetuate a bad example of what male-male sexual behavior is, but at the same time I’m willing to forgive Proulx for this description simply because it makes sense to Ennis and Jack’s economic background.
Ennis and Jack are both working-class men who come from poor upbringings. If I can write this without sounding elitist, it does stand to reason that both of these men are not exactly literate and so the nuances of sexual behavior and identity, or the idea that they could experiment sexually before anal sex occurred, would not be developed. Proulx even goes so far as to write this out herself:
They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state […] both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. Ennis, reared by his older brother and sister after their parents drove off the only curve on Dead Horse Road leaving them twenty-four dollars in cash and a two-mortgage ranch, applied at age fourteen for a hardship license that left him make the hour-long trip from the ranch to the high school. The pickup was old, no heater, one windshield wiper and bad tires; when the transmission went there was no money to fix it. He had wanted to be a sophomore, felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it, pitching him directly into ranch work. (4-5).
Ennis and Jack are both men who have received little education and come from traditionally heterosexual families, as such both of these men have been raised with the idea of what masculinity is, what it isn’t, and how people are to behave during sex. Looking back at the previous passage, this is clear when Proulx notes that Ennis “ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock.” Ennis in this moment has clearly bought into the idea that men do not “receive” during sex; that their role is instead to be active and penetrate their partner. As such Ennis becomes the “top” and Jack becomes the “bottom.” Both of these characters may be acting a traditionally heteronormative sexual behavior, but I think it would be unfair to expect anything else from these men.
At this point my contester emerges wondering why they should care? I’m not gay and I don’t care how gay people fuck, that’s none of my business. Why should I care about a novella about two gay guys who bang each other in Montana? Where’s the relevance?
The relevance dear contester is in the fact that this sexual act opens up a new territory in the Western which, whether they like it or not, typically defines the American landscape in the minds of countries around the world. The United States contribution to the collected consciousness tends to be “The West” and with that image came the figure of “The Cowboy.” The other night at Graphic Novel Book Club we were reading Preacher and the idea of “The West” came up. While we largely trashed the book, we did all recognize that the image of Texas, specifically cowboys and the desert, are usually the images of America that the rest of the world immediately perceives. Cowboys have come to define what and who Americans are, and anyone from Texas can attest to the fact that Texas itself captures a mythos. Mentioning to someone that you’re from Texas usually creates a strong of questions running from “Do you ride horses to school” to “Is it true everyone has an oil well in their backyard?”
For the record only queers and democrats ride horses, Texans ride longhorn bulls to school, and we each only have one oil well and that’s only so we can fertilize the endless fields of blue bonnets planted by Pecos Bill before he and Elvis Ascended to Enlightenment.
That’s a joke for the record.
My pathetic attempts at humor aside Brokeback Mountain is important because of this perception of the Western as the definitive narrative of the United States. The important idea that emerges after Brokeback Mountain is that “The Cowboy” is no longer only straight. Although there are some who would argue the cowboy never was truly straight in the first place.
Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, apart from having a monstrously long title (though it’s actually relatively short for an academic book, trust me on this) came to my attention after I received a rejection letter for my Brokeback Mountain paper. One of the reviewers mentioned that I had clearly never read Queer Cowboys, and that any work on homoerotic behavior in westerns had to reference this book. I could say that I pouted for several weeks imagining that reviewer’s face as a butt, but given what normally happens after criticism of any of my work I immediately looked for the book and devoured it. Chris Packard’s small tome is a brilliantly researched text that looks at the genre of the Western and observes how homoerotic and homosocial bonds between men in Westerns constitute a queer lifestyle. That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying Packard’s book looks at how cowboys were pretty gay in their own right.
Looking at just a small passage from his introduction he makes some compelling points:
Most people, if they think about it at all, assume that the cowboy in history and in literature practiced sexual abstention until he arrived in a town, where he practiced the acceptable vice of dalliances with female prostitutes. But this explanation is counterintuitive and is not supported in the literary record. Particularly in Westerns produced before 1900, references to lusty passions appear regularly, when the cowboy is on the trail with his partners, if one knows how to look for them. In fact, in the often all-male world of the literary West, homoerotic affection holds a favored position. A cowboy’s partner, after all, is his one emotional attachment, aside from his horse, and he will die to preserve the attachment. Affection for women destroys cowboy comunitas and produces children, and both are unwanted hindrances to those who wish to ride the range freely. (3).
Packard’s argument can be clearly seen in Proulx’s novella, for after Jack and Ennis have reconnected after four years apart they retreat to a hotel room and after they make love there’s a brief exchange where Ennis lays it out plain:
“I doubt there’s nothin now we can do,” said Ennis. “What I’m saying, Jack, I built a life up in them years. Love my little girls. Alma? It ain’t her fault. You got your baby and wife, that place in Texas. You and me can’t hardly be decent together if what happened back there”—he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment— “grabs us on like that. We do that in the wrong place we’ll be dead. There’s no reins on this one. It scares the piss out a me.” (27).
It’s important to realize that while Proulx is laying out a melodrama about being closeted in rural communities, there’s still this idea that domestic relationships are what’s keeping the two of them apart. Keeping in the tradition of the Western as a genre Garth and Ennis are left unsatisfied in their marriages, not because they don’t care for the women they’ve married, but because the opportunity to have a truly satisfying relationship together is denied to them.
If I can go back to Packard one more time, there is one passage that digs into the conflicts of marriage to the Western:
The trouble with wives in Westerns, at least until Wister’s The Virginian came along, is that they come with a doctrine that annihilates the identity of a free spirited cowboy. But as Wister showed, the partnership with a same-sex friend, when it resembles a marriage, provides safety, consolation, and perhaps erotic satisfaction either prior to marriage or alongside it. (60).
Brokeback Mountain is, as I alluded to it a moment ago, a melodrama because the conflict of the plot is taken almost from Romeo & Juliet. Two lovers discover one another in a fit of passion, express that love through physical acts, get swept up in their love, they are separated, and then ultimately they have to hide their love until it destroys them. For Jack it’s being queer-bashed by his father and some locals, for Ennis it’s a lifetime of isolation and dissatisfaction. Being gay in rural areas is ultimately going to lead to destruction, or at least that seems the end point of the novella, but looking to another book there is a logic behind the destruction of Jack and Ennis.
Jane Tompkin’s book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns is a vital book in my library because it seems that hardly a day goes by when I don’t pluck it off the shelf to read or transcribe some quote from it. When I was actually writing my original Brokeback Mountain paper I cited heavily from it largely because Tompkins is a damn good writer, and partly because she opened my eyes to many of the tropes of standard Westerns I’d been watching and then reading for years.
In one passage she lays out a central concern for genre:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and antifeminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. (28).
And in a later passage she explains out part of the embedded homoeroticism:
In the course of these struggles the frequently forms a bond with another man–sometimes his rival, more often a comrade–a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homoeroticism. There is very little free expression of the motions. The hero is a man of few words who expresses himself through physical action–usually fighting. And when death occurs it is never at home in bed but always sudden death, usually murder. (39).
And I suppose, with that in hand, my contester may still wonder then why they should bother reading it, but the previous quotes should be enough to explain. Brokeback Mountain is a book which, by exploring the romance between Ennis and Jack has not only allowed a part of the Western that was always there to “come-out,” it does so while also following the standard “rules” that makes the genre what it is.
For my own part it goes back to the early passages of Brokeback Mountain when Jack and Ennis are watching the sheep and falling and love:
As it did go. They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, ‘I’m not no queer,’ and Jack jumped in with ‘Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but our ours’ (15)
I wouldn’t realize that I was bisexual until a year ago and this knowledge is troubling to me. Growing up I always felt a sense of lacking in myself and I answered that largely by watching Westerns with my dad. Most of them John Wayne films, but there was also Feivel Goes West. The men in those movies, with their pistols, quick hands, horses, and cynical wisdom about humanity seemed like the kind of men I wanted to be when I grew up, and when I made my discovery there was some part of me that felt that lacking again. Brokeback Mountain checks that resolve however, for it in effect levels the playing field. While the novella may be a melodrama about the tragedy of being gay, Ennis and Jack do queer the Western genre by their very existence. Looking over articles and academic books about the genre I became more and more aware as well that cowboys weren’t the sole property of white male heterosexual audiences. There was a queer behavior embedded in those mythic men who defined the identity of Americans to peoples all over the world.
To the young bisexual or homosexual man, unsure about the possibility of possessing masculinity and their sexuality, Brokeback Mountain provides them a model to work with. Queer men aren’t just prissy fairies (though if you want to be that be it and rock it), they can be working class men as well; hard men that work the land and have to fight for paychecks. Proulx’s novella does an important job of reminding readers that while John Wayne might have gotten Angie Dickinson at the end of Rio Bravo, somewhere out there was a little boy who wanted to see Dean Martin wind up with Ricky Nelson too.
The cowboy was my hero growing up, and he still is. Whether it’s Roland from the Dark Tower, Chance in Rio Bravo, Sherriff Wiley Burp in Fievel Goes West, or Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, all of these men have taught me how to be a man, and at least one has helped me finally understand why those SEARS underwear models made me feel funny.
All quotes from Brokeback Mountain came from the Scribner paperback printing of the novella. All quotes from Queer Cowboys came from the Palgrave Macmillan paperback printing. All quotes from West of Everything came from the Oxford University Press edition.
The title of this essay is a line of one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite singers. Willie Nelson breathes the American spirit and sings the voice of long dead men. Anyway, I could wax poetic for days about the man, but the reader should listen to the song My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys at least once. If you’re interested follow the link below:
***Writer’s FINAL Note***
I didn’t get a chance to put it in but another reason to read the novella is simply because Proulx as a writer has a beautiful prose that, when read aloud, rivals poetry in its ability to blend aesthetics with mood. Take for instance this description of Brokeback mountain:
Dawn came glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire. The cold air sweetened, banded pebbles and crumbs of soil cast sudden pencil-long shadows and the rearing lodgepole pines below them massed in slabs of somber malachite.” (9)
There are few passages about landscapes that ever achieve such beauty, and damn is Proulx doesn’t knock it out of the park.
****Writer’s REAL FINAL Note****
This is still one of the best conclusions to a Western.
Academic Book, animation, Be Wherever You Are, Bisexuality, Cartoons, Changes, Chemical Bonds, Crystal Gems, David Bowie, family, Feminism, Fusion, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, Garnet, Homosexuality, Jack Halberstam, Lesbianism, Mrs. Doubtfire, Nuclear Family Unit, pearl, Queer, Queer Theory, Queer Women, Relationships, Robin Williams, Ruby, Saphire, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Steven Universe, television, television series
(Turn and face the strange)
–Changes, David Bowie
Why don’t you let yourself just be somewhere different.
Whoa, why don’t you let yourself just be whoever you are.
–Be Wherever You Are, Rebecca Sugar
To be frank I have often considered myself more of a fan of We Bare Bears. Growing up I didn’t have a brother, I was blessed with a sister who would frequently whoop my ass, and so watching the show there’s a nice opportunity to watch a relationship I never had. That and I love Ice Bear, his monotones are the stuff of genius. As for my wife her favorite Cartoon Network show is still The Amazing World of Gumball. It’s incredible to see how a show riddled with so many smart jokes that range in satire of government bureaucracy to economic strategies retail outlets employ in order to sucker people into impulse buying. Along with these shows we also enjoy watching Adventure Time, Uncle Grandpa (at least I do), and even Clarence. Let’s not talk about Teen Titans Go! however, it’s still too soon.
It may seem odd at first that a man in his late twenties enjoys cartoons designed for children and young adults, but I can assure you there’s a harmless albeit pathetic explanation for this: my wife and I are often out of the house and so we leave the television on for the pets. It may seem ridiculous but since we were in school most of the day, and now entering “the real world” whatever that is, we weren’t comfortable just leaving the pets in the dark of the house with no noise. My Huckleberry is a bit of a weenie and I wanted to make sure he felt like someone was still there and I don’t have the heart to leave FOX News on for him. Sometimes it would be PBS, other times it was CNN, but after a while the go-to channel was Cartoon Network because…well, there it was. In my madder moments I would imagine the pets asking me to leave on Cartoon Network because they wanted to watch Adventure Time, but that’s revealing information my wife will need for the committal. After a while we would come home, either together or separately and over time we found that, after a long day at work and school, it was nice to just sit down and watch an episode of Gumball or Clarence. The shows were designed for kids, but the humor was often smart in these shows and so they became a staple. One show in particular however I resisted for reasons I honestly don’t know.
Steven Universe, for those unfamiliar with the show, is rather Queer is almost every sense of the term. I won’t be the first person writing on a blog that has observed this, and I surely won’t be the last, but recently I began reading J. Jack Halberstam’s book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal and so looking at Steven Universe and my recent upsurge in watching the show it seemed like a good time to throw my hat into the ring if I can use an over-used yet still effective visual metaphor.
Steven Universe is about a young boy growing up in a small town on the edge of the ocean called Beach City. It has a donut shop, the local blogger/conspiracy theorist, a group of trendy teenagers resisting the fact that they’re going to wind up working and living mundane lives in the city when they get older, and at the very edge of town live a group of outcasts by the name of The Crystal Gems. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are three survivors of an ancient war between a civilization known as Gems. Gems are anthropomorphic feminine humanoids that are, in the most basic explanation possible, rocks. A Gem’s main body is a single gem that contains their spirit, energy, and soul and from it they are able to manifest a physical body which assumes different personalities depending on the gem which can run from pearls, amethysts, diamonds, rubies, paradot, lapis lazuli, quartz, jasper, etc. and within this society is a rigid class system which assigns “roles” to gems given their stone. The Crystal Gems are the last of a rebellion army that tried to fight this system and their former leader, a gem known as Rose Quartz but often referred to as “Rose,” has been remade after falling in love with a young human named Greg Universe. Steven is their “son,” but he’s also Rose for on his stomach he bears her quartz. The show then, is about the Crystal Gems raising Steven along with Greg and often encountering gems from the Home World who are in constant effort trying to defeat them.
The reader may wonder where the Queerness comes into play, and I have to start first with the most obvious example of the character Garnet who is in fact a “fusion” of two smaller gems named Ruby and Sapphire. Now it’s important to clarify the misinterpretation, that many casual viewers including myself early on made about what “fusion” actually is. The Gems in Steven Universe, while they don’t possess any kind of sex, do exhibit feminine gender presentations and even use female pro-nouns when referring themselves or others. This by itself wouldn’t be so terribly interesting since we’re living in a period of Third-Wave Feminism and so seeing more and more female representation in cartoons isn’t that shocking. It’s refreshing and fun to watch, but not necessarily shocking. Many have objected to Steven Universe however for the show relies on Garnet as well as other gems “fusing” which many see as sex, when watching the show regularly clearly demonstrates something far more important.
Fusion is not sex, but rather a kind of energy relationship.
To give the best explanation I can I have to go to chemistry. I tutored biology for four years, married a biologist, my best friend is a biochemist, and through these regular interactions I learned a bit about chemistry particularly about chemical bonds. What my friends, wife, teachers, and eventually I would stress to students was that chemical bonds, that is bonds between the various elements that exist in nature, were not physical objects. Many people would show bonding by holding hands, but what I eventually learned was that that visual didn’t actually work. Chemical bonds were described as “energy relationships” in which the elements would remain connected through the electromagnetics of the bond, and while there was nothing physical holding them together, there was still energy drawing them towards one another.
This to me is the best way to explain “fusion” in Steven Universe for it’s clear that the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar, wants to introduce young kids to the idea of queer relationships and queer families.
Recently at San Diego Comic-Con Sugar came-out as bisexual to an adoring crowd:
These things have so much to do with who you are, and there’s this idea that these are themes that should not be shared with kids, but everyone shares stories about love and attraction with kids. So many stories for kids are about love, and it really makes a difference to hear stories about how someone like you can be loved and if you don’t hear those stories it will change who you are. It’s very important to me that we speak to kids about consent and we speak to kids about identity and that we speak to kids about so much. I want to feel like I exist and I want everyone else who wants to feel that way to feel that way too.
It might just be because of the region I grew up but this has been seen by some as a radical approach, and while some parents have tried to make the argument that kids should wait until they’re older Sugar’s response has both tact and wisdom:
“You can’t wait until kids have grown up to let them know that queer people exist. There’s this idea that that is something that should only be discussed with adults — that is completely wrong. If you wait to tell queer youth that it matters how they feel or that they are even a person, then it’s going to be too late!”
The first person I ever came out to was a transgender man. I use the word “man” loosely because they confessed to me later on that my use of the word “man,” “dude,” “sir,” and “he” made them uncomfortable, the argument being that, while they understood it was hardwired Southern gentility on my part and not an effort to write the narrative of their life, it was still an act of “gendering” them which felt far more nuanced and personal. There are some that might immediately ask “well dude is it really that important,” but I try to avoid being an asshole to the best of my ability and so when somebody tells me they don’t like something I try to avoid doing it. They became J—- instead. I’ve censored their name because I don’t wish to “out” them. J—- remains such a crucial part of my life, not just because he was the first person I came out to as Bi, but because he introduced me to Jack Halberstam.
I’ve mentioned before, some would say ad nauseum, that I took a Queer Theory course in graduate school and while I read Bersani, Sedgewick, Butler, and Foucault, Halberstam was an entirely different animal, and in fact I originally had no real intention of reading their work. Before one of our meetings J—- showed me the book Gaga Feminism and encouraged me to read it when I could, but whenever people tell me I should read a book it’s like placing a letter in a mass mail box. I’ll eventually get to it, but it’s going to be buried beneath dozens of other suggestions, considerations, and recommendations. After reading the first half of Female Masculinity however I was hooked and I realized Halberstam was not only an important Queer theorist, they were also someone that had a unique perspective into multiple areas of culture.
And its Lady Gaga who provides the working model.
Halberstam argues in the first chapter of their book that Lady Gaga’s stage performance provides a fascinating new platform for a new kind of feminism:
Gaga feminism proposes that we look more closely at heterosexuality, not simply to blame it for the continued imbalance of the sexes but to find in its collapse new modes of intimate relation. And this form of feminism actually imagines that men as well as women will feel liberated by the possibilities that the end of heterosexuality and the end of normal create. (22).
This quote is perfectly functional for an opening thesis, and while I understand Halberstam’s point, I feel genuinely that the passage that follows it lays out a far clearer message of what their creative and intellectual goals are:
But…what if we incorporate all the macro changes that we have experienced in a few short decades into the everyday? What if we start noticing that the families in which children grow up are far different from the families in which many of us were raised, and that those changes have often been for the better? The claustrophobias of the nuclear family was formerly only alleviated by more family, extended family, by cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. But now, children are apt to have many adults in their life, adults, moreover, to whom they are not even related. […] What would happen if we actually began to incorporate this version of the family into our mainstream representations? (22-23).
Growing up I was raised in what is often referred to as a “nuclear family unit” and this structure is made up of the characters of father, mother, and two children usually of different sexes. This working model of the family is the stuff of 1950s white suburbia and came to embody the cultural consciousness in television programs like Leave it to Beaver and also in later shows like Happy Days, The Simpsons, and Boy Meets World. Even animated television programs like Doug and Rugrats growing up would rely on fact that the nuclear family was the standard unit that made up the family of America, and while most mainstream films and television continue this model for fear of offending or upsetting the heterosexual “majority,” Halberstam’s analysis does beg the question: is the nuclear family still “the norm?”
For my own part I’ll say no because growing up I watched many Robin William’s movies, one of which was Mrs. Doubtfire. On a small note I watched this movie and wept on the night I heard that Robin Williams had died, but then again who didn’t? The film was unique for the fact that it freely dealt with the topic of divorce, and while the film does rely on heterosexual relationships for it’s “norm,” the final lines of the film do seem to echo the sentiment of Halberstam’s questions:
Mrs. Doubtfire: [reading a letter] “Dear Mrs. Doubtfire, two months ago, my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. My brother Andrew says that we aren’t to be a family anymore. Is this true? Did I lose my family? Is there anything I can do to get my parents back together? Sincerely, Katie McCormick.” Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country – and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months… even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear… those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet, you’re going to be all right… bye-bye.
Throughout Gaga Feminism Jack Halberstam cites the examples of contemporary films noting how heterosexuality is often painted as “the norm” or ideal relationship model for people living in contemporary society, but as Mrs. Doubtfire, Halberstam, and Steven Universe have demonstrated that particular model is not only not always efficient, sometimes it just doesn’t work for everyone and so different family models emerge. This is not to suggest that heterosexual people are doomed to suffer unnecessarily in their relationships and that only Queer people will find happiness. While I am bisexual, I married a woman because I loved her and so far it’s not only worked, it’s given me what I needed psychologically, philosophically, personally, etc. My success in the heteronormative model of relationship however should never be looked upon as “the norm” because my wife and I are far too odd to ever be called normal (just to put it in perspective I’m an atheist who spends most of his time reading and talking to himself and my wife reveres “Ceiling Cat” …Google it).
To be honest, having finished Gaga Feminism now I recognize some flaws, or perhaps just perceive some, in Halberstam’s final answer to the flaws and weaknesses in the marriage narrative, but looking back to Steven Universe there is one point Halberstam notes that is pressingly relevant:
Marriage pits the family and the couple against everyone else; alternative intimacies stretch connections between people and across neighborhoods like invisible webs, and they bind us to one another in ways that foster communication, responsibility, and generosity. (110-1).
Steven Universe is an odd and wonderful show because it offers a chance to see a side of the world that has, up to this point, largely been ignored by mainstream cartoons: the lives and relationships of queer women. I recognize that technically the gems are not women in the sense that human beings are women, but female humanoids interacting and forming homo-social, homo-erotic bonds is enough of a political statement to argue that the characters are at least queer. In that past cartoons have afforded only minimal access to queer men and women, and often their sexuality is pushed to only a brief reference to a lost love or an old friend, but now a space has been provided in which animators and writers can actually explore queer relationships in cartoons.
Rebecca Sugar is the first female creative director of a cartoon for Cartoon Network, and the cast list of Steven Universe is made up of a wide variety of female actresses from different racial and ethnic background. These achievements are important, but more important is the fact that Sugar pointed out earlier which is that young children who are queer finally have a voice and a presence on T.V. Steven as a character is raised not only by queer women, but also in a queer family structure that satisfies, as far as my reading is concerned, Halberstam’s model of Gaga Feminism, for while gems and characters may form relationships, the topic of marriage is largely left out. Marriage isn’t important or necessary because the energy relationship sustains and nurtures Steven. The best part is despite all the weirdness in his life, or perhaps even better, because of the non-stop weirdness, Steven is a kind soul who only wants to help people.
Part of growing up is asking your parents how they met, how they fell in love, or in the case of children missing a father or mother, what their parent was like. Psychologists most likely have an explanation for this behavior, but for my own part children learn early that narratives are how they shape their identity and eventually find a mate to share their life with and the model that parents establish for their kids at a young age helps them formulate what they understand an ideal mate to be. Queer families may be a recent phenomenon, but as time continues on it’s likely that they’ll become far more prevalent and as such Queer parents, and queer kids, can use a television program like Steven Universe because it offers the same story but with a new face.
Prince Charming may not find Sleeping beauty resting in the tower, but that’s only because another princess got to her first.
I’ve provided a few links to articles about the LGBTQ themes in Steven Universe, two of which provided the quotes by Sugar herself:
If this hasn’t sold you to Steven Universe, then I can at least win you over to Rebecca Sugar. She wrote a song for the show Adventure Time and it kind of broke the internet there for a while.
I went ahead and posted a link to the end of Mrs. Doubtfire because watching the scene is far better than ever just reading it, plus it’s a special video that acts as a kind of “tribute” to Robin Williams:
****Writer’s FINAL Note****
I discovered this right before publishing this essay and so here it is, Rebecca Sugar’s Demo of the song Be Wherever You Are. There is a version of Steven singing the song, but to be honest, Sugar’s voice just gives the song a more soulful delivery, and the way she says “Be” just makes me feel happy. Enjoy:
Academic Book, AIDS, anal penetration, Book Review, cisgender men, Epistemology of the Closet, Female Masculinity, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, Gender Expectations, Gender Trouble, history, Homos, Homosexual Clone, Homosexuality, invert, Jack Halberstam, Keep it Gay, Manhood in America: A Cultural history, Martin P. Levine, masculinity, Michael Kimmel, Queer Theory, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, The "Fairy", The Penetrated Male, The Producers
A friend of mine recently asked, why are you so interested in all that Queer stuff? This reminds me that my mother is really enjoying my mail.
While I no longer live with my parents, most of my mail still goes to their address, specifically whatever I buy on Amazon. Since I recently graduated I decided to treat myself to a small splurge of books, only ten or eleven…or fifteen. My regular reader will probably not be surprised that a significant number of books in that pile had to deal with Queer theory (in my defense I bought a Billy Wilder Movie called The Fortune Cookie as well as The Seventh Seal which is a film about Death playing chess with a knight in Medieval Europe…obviously, I am a nerd). The reason my mother, as well as my sister, has derived so much pleasure from this is because it’s my father who usually gathers the mail, and while he is not homophobic by nature, he does sigh whenever he opens one of the packages and discovers a title like Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone. My mom and little sister have come to enjoy and anticipate those sighs, going so far as to cheer “Yay Jammer’s Gay Books!” I believe this is usually followed by Dad retreating the office and opening a bottle of bourbon.
That’s a joke, it’s actually scotch. My father has class.
I admit freely that one of the main reasons I bought Gay Macho was because of the cover. A young fit man, most likely in his early twenties, is wearing just leather chest straps held by a metal circle. His face is cut off above the mouth which is stoic but for a faint smile, and the reader catches a small glimpse of the start of abdominal muscles before the title so rudely interrupts to remind you that you bought the book because it’s actually an academic work and not The Male Nude…which I also own. Don’t judge me.
The appeal of the cover was not just for enjoying a stud (that’s what the internet’s for), it was also for the fact that many of the books I have purchased and read for classes take a particular theoretical approach, by this I mean they’re largely esoteric affairs that analyze the choice of color in a man’s tie in a specific paragraph of an obscure French novel published in 1797. That’s hyperbole, but only so much. Much of the early work of Queer theory, especially books like Epistemology of the Closet being one the best (in every sense of the word) examples, tended to focus on the existence of Queer desire. As such most of the books looked backwards to the Victorian, Romantic, Neo-Classical, Renaissance, etc. periods in order to establish a pattern of same-sex desire and understand how it was understood and conveyed. From there much of the work was designed to begin to understand how the desire operated in order to validate it for contemporary critics of homosexual/same-sex desire.
The conflict with this is that expression of sexuality has always interested me more than just the desire.
Books like Homos, The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, Masculinity, Gender Trouble, and Female Masculinity were interesting, and important milestones to begin with, but I was and still am pursuing a different route. Martin P. Levine lived the lifestyle of the “homosexual clone” and his book stands as an important document not just for the fact that he recorded the desire and the way it was expressed, but for the fact that he placed the movement of cisgender male homosexual lifestyles and expressions into an important historical context, specifically the rise of AIDS and why Gay men in the 70s were susceptible to it because of their sexual expression, but more importantly their attitudes towards Masculinity.
I should note that this will be one of two reviews of Gay Macho. The book is divided between the first half which explores how men began to create a unique sexual and psychological culture around their idea of masculinity, and the second half deals with the fallout as AIDs gripped the community and their gender dynamic. Levine’s book is packed…poor word choice, and I think it would be better to tackle this beast in two rounds…phrasing.
You get the point.
This essay could not explore the entirety of Levine’s book which is both brilliantly researched and written so that almost anyone could approach the work in one sitting. As such I’ll tackle the first half and review the second section at a later date.
The first half of the book is aptly titled as “The Birth of the Gay Clone.” Levine’s concern is to demonstrate how the cultural stock figure of this man came to be, what were his morals and ethics, what were his desires, how did he perceive himself, how and why did he fuck the he did, and most importantly how did he view himself. This is an important idea, for even if Levine’s book is exploring the idea of masculinity through a feminist lens his concern is still to understand men as men, and speaking as a man this idea of “manhood” is still something I, like many of my fellow penised-individuals, am working out. Masculinity and manhood were important ideals for the homosexual clone because up to this point the homosexual man was not virile in any real sense. In fact, in terms of his title, he was mythic: he was a fairy.
The reader probably recognizes this character from some examples in popular culture, most likely a Mel Brooks movie. Think the song “Keep it Gay” from The Producers. You’re seeing it now aren’t you?
The “Fairy” is a character originating in the 1800s, though dates can be tricky*, as homosexuals began to be perceived, and thus perceived themselves as “inverts.” Jack Halberstam explains this “clinical” term in their book Female Masculinity:
When the idea of sexual identities did come to dominate people’s thinking about sex and gender, it was not some idea of an autonomous lesbian desire between women or a nation of outward hermaphroditism that provided the basis of those notions of identity; it was gender inversion. “Inversion,” then, was the medical term used in the late nineteenth centuries to explain the phenomenon of homosexuality… (76).
Simply put the homosexual individual was not truly man nor woman but an inversion of their gender. Gay men were effeminate “fairies” because they weren’t really men, they were simply inverted women. That’s not to suggest that behaving in a feminine manner is totally unfounded in all homosexual men. Ru Paul exists and damn if he isn’t fabulous in every sense of that wonderful word. However in in the 1970s a large gathering of middle class men, often white, during the 1970s wanted something besides this identity and so they fashioned a new working model of homosexual masculinity.
Levine describes some of the attitudes:
The emergence of the gay liberation movement in the early 1970s resolved this tension among mainstream gay men, and reorganized the presidential strategies of closet culture. Activists rejected the belief that gay men were womanly, claiming that to believe so was a symptom of internalized homophobia (self-hatred based on the dominant culture’s view of homosexuality as deviant or immoral). Gay men were simply men who loved men. They were not deviant, were not failed men. They were real men—and in their presentational styles they set about demonstrating their newfound and hard-fought conformity to traditional norms of masculinity. (57).
This masculinity manifested in various trappings:
The physical appearance of the clone was the first signal of a new type of gay masculinity. Clones used such stereotypically macho sign-vehicles as musculature, facial hair, short haircuts, and rugged, functional clothing to express butchness.
They wore Western, leather, military, laborer, and uniform looks for going out or partying. Lastly, they favored the sleaze look for cruising. All these looks called for short hair, thick mustaches, or trimmed beards. (59-60).
All of the outer appearances were really one rhetorical gesture on the part of these men to become something more than that they had, and Levine says it outright when he notes that:
Like most middle-class men before him, the gay male middle class found the upper class feminized and effeminate; if he was going to prove his masculinity he needed to embrace the rougher, courser masculinity of the common laborer. The gay fop of the 1950s wanted to be Lord Chatterly; the gay clone wanted to be the gardener. After all, he got all the good sex. (60).
Male motivations usually aren’t that difficult to follow. It would be an asinine mistake to suggest that all decisions made by men are for sex, for in my experience most men are looking first and foremost, like all people really, for comfort and happiness. The idea of sex is something that became of such paramount importance for these men, but I want to understand the performance of the Homosexual clone before I look at Levine’s cataloguing of his sexual expression.
Masculinity has become a complicated word in the last few decades, and while some have become readied and able to scream and shout about the death of the “Real Man” thanks to “Feminazis and the PC Police” I do believe this issue is a little more complicated. Masculinity is a performance that is entirely unique to circumstance, time period, ethnicity, race, nationality, history, culture, and the general paradigm you’re living under. Expressing Masculinity then becomes a life-long struggle and discovery that, like any real study, will leave you both satisfied and dissatisfied and often wondering why you’re even bothering in the first place. I’m almost thirty and I still have no idea what Masculinity really is even though I try, and probably succeed in small instances, to appear “manly.” My wife tells me my beard helps though I should probably ditch the high heels, but they flatter my hips damnit. The problem is it requires more than a pair of denim jeans and a Slipknot t-shirt to pull this off, though I do believe making a handle-bar-mustache work is still the golden standard of masculine performance.
Looking for any kind of clear answer is impossible, but I do believe some of the best answers come from Michael Kimmel. A gender scholar by trade, Kimmel writes extensively about masculinity, both contemporary as well as the past, and before Martin Levine died of AIDS Kimmel helped him edit and compose Gay Machos going so far as to write the Introduction. In the Introduction of his own book Manhood in America: A Cultural History he gives what is to my mind one of the best explanations of the complicated nature of Masculinity:
American men have no history.
So how can I claim that men have no history? Isn’t virtually every history book a history of men? After all, as we have learned from feminist scholars, it’s been women in the title, it’s a good bet that the book is largely about men. Yet such works do not explore how the experience of being a man, of manhood, structured the lives of the men who are their subjects, the organizations and institutions they created and staffed, the events in which they participated. American men have no history of themselves as men. (1)
At this point the “Men’s Rights” activists will launch to their keyboards eager and willing to catch the first woman who comments so they can drop this quote as a justification for odious behavior, and for cutting out Elizabeth Cady Stanton from high school textbooks. It’s true that being a “man” has become a complicated identity in the twenty-first century because being a “man” has changed from what it was. Shows like Madmen have been glorified and praised, rightly so it’s a damn good program, and many men have looked back to that time period with some nostalgia because the “rules” and “mandates” concerning masculine behavior were far clearer…or, really, were written by men so they could be whatever they wanted women be damned. Despite what many malcontents and naysayers write about on blogs and comment sections Masculinity is a highly personalized construction, and while some would prefer an outdated misogynist model to return, the conflict with this position is that that model of masculinity has been demonstrated to be hollow and vapid.
Which, brings me back to sex. Levine describes in intimate detail, see what I did there, about the sexual expression of gay clones noting that the performance was often one of desperation. Sex was part of what it meant to be “manly,” but more important than just sex was the attitude towards sex. Levine explains “Cruising”:
Cruising was the mechanism that created most sexual contact among gay men, although some sexual contact, such as glory holes or orgies, didn’t require even that much initial social contact with a potential partner. Cruising was the vehicle by which the clone either signaled sexual attraction or characterized the search for erotic partners. They cruised for affirmation of their hotness as sexual contacts. (79)
Cruising was the way many gay men lived at this time because it was through these acts that their idea of manhood was expressed, and more importantly, validated:
Masculine erotic norms and self-fuffilment values shaped the patterns of cruising. These norms called for detached, objectified, and phallocentric, sexual conduct. In other words, they told men to engage in recreational sex for orgasmic release with partners selected for physical attractiveness. They also instructed men to affirm manly prowess through sexual conquests. (79).
Levine makes a conclusive point a few pages after this when he notes that:
This explains why the men at the baths said, “suck that dick” or “fuck my ass.” (92).
I’ve quoted Levine at length for the purpose of letting the reader observe for themselves his effort which is clearly a critique of the model of masculinity so many of his fellow Clones aspired to and performed. It would be a mistake though to interpret this book as a condemning criticism of that lifestyle. Men like Larry Kramer would criticize the homosexual community for its voracious misogynistic sexual behavior, and through his novel Faggots a book which has the tremendous capacity to shock and disgust any first time reader, his opinion is perfectly clear. As a gay man he sees what all the fucking and no loving is doing to these men. Levine does not judge his fellow homosexuals for acting this way, for he himself embraced this lifestyle while he was alive. Levine’s strategy is akin to an anthropologist deconstructing the numerous behaviors to try and get at the core idea, which, for Levine, is understanding why these men were so desperate to Cruise and fuck and assert their own masculinity.
Gay Clones were trying to distance themselves from the “Fairy” character that had become stock footage by that point and so by experimenting and borrowing the trappings from straight middle class America they created something new. Something that was entirely their own. Levine notes:
To affirm their identity as men, clones masculinized their sexual script. Accepting reformist images of liberation, they regarded themselves as real men. To demonstrate their sense of self, they exaggerated male expectations during sex. Having learned that men are tough, adventurous, and daring, they engage in rough, uninhibited, experimental sex. This accounts for the gagging, ramming, and slamming occurring at the baths. They justified this erotic style on the grounds of self-fulfillment. The script sets the standards for sexual activity. Defining “hot sex” as “butch sex,” it led clones to “take it like a man.” (92).
The first half of Levine’s book comes to a head with that final sentiment. These men wanted desperately to be seen by others, as well as themselves as real men. The Homosexual Clone is demonstrated as a man trying to find some sense of what it means to actually be a man, and while the book’s frank discussion of sexuality based upon research and first-hand accounts is likely to keep some heterosexual men from reading and enjoying this book, Levine’s work does the important job of contributing knowledge to the history of Masculinity.
What it means to be a “Man” is something that is constantly changing, and each man discovers for himself what that title ultimately means. That may sound like a pathetic platitude, but in my experience this is one that possesses real truth behind it. Masculinity as the Homosexual Clone experienced it was a cultural gathering of friends and family of men who were all trying in their own way to escape the feminized characterizations of their sexuality in the past. By becoming “Butch” and “Macho” they were in their own way able to fashion a working masculinity that provided many physical and, sometimes, emotional satisfaction.
It’s important to note that Levine explores the emotional toll this sexualized culture had on many men, but it’s the sexuality these men expressed with wanton abandon that led to a proliferation of venereal diseases and eventually the AIDS crisis that most impacted this community. Levine’s book is an attempt to look at this masculinity model through a feminist lens and discover some flaws. He certainly finds plenty as many of the men were clearly trying to fill something empty in themselves through sex, but it must be understood that Gay Macho is, for lack of a better phrase, a love letter to his community. Rather than condemn the actions, he tries to simply present the community to the rest of the world. By showing this community as a real collective and culture their behavior becomes more human. More recognizable to outsiders.
Gay Macho presents what it meant to be a Gay man, but more importantly how that identity was entirely the same as men in general. While there may have been some desperation to prove masculinity, the performance itself still remains a validation of masculinity. The “fairy” character has never really left, and it probably never will, but in their own time and way the Homosexual Clone introduced a second model of man that, to this day, can rival the heterosexual male in his own right, if only for the fact he seems to get laid far more than the straight guy does.
I myself have had some trouble with the dates of when the “fairy” character began to emerge in the historical and literary record. Realistically there have always been effeminate men. As such trying to pin-point an exact date is not daunting, but near impossible.
For my own part I have explored the first half of Levine’s book because as I said above sexual expression has always fascinated me more than pure theory. Levine’s book does incorporate some theory into his book, however the collections in the book tend to take a more objective view of the homosexual male community of this time, citing facts, studies, and direct testimony to contribute to those larger theories.
The next section of the book tracks the AIDS Crisis and the effect it had upon this community and I intend to fully explore this half at a later date.
The reader may have noticed some awkward treatment of pronouns concerning Jack Halberstam. The reason for this is because even Halberstam refuses any clear preference for “correct” pronouns. They simply go by Jack as far as I can tell. If the reader would prefer a more personal or nuanced account they can follow the link below to an interview they gave over this topic:
I didn’t get much chance to develop it in the essay but it should be noted that race did not play too much role in determining the attractiveness of the man to another:
This standard democratized clone types. The men perceived other men as sexy as long as they were macho. Nationality and class were irrelevant. A man could be Anglo or ethnic, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, but if he was butch he was hot. Even race was unimportant. Manly Latino or black men were viewed as handsome. In fact, racial minorities and working-class men might even have a higher currency in clone circles. Since gay clones were mostly middle-class white men, the air of authenticity hung around working-class men and men of color, so that these men were often more highly prized for tricks. Given racial and ethnic stereotypes as well as class-based beliefs about sexuality, black men, Latino men, and working-class men all guaranteed great sex and affirmed the masculinity of the clone with whom he tricked. They were virtually always in great demand. (82)
I will admit there is some fetishization taking place in this description of minorities, however it should be noted that the reason Latino or Black men were so “prized” was determinate on whether or not they presented a “Butch” image. At the end of the day whether a stud was black, white, yellow, brown, red, or orange the point was he was a stud.
Alison Bechdel, Apollyon, Bisexuality, Christian, Comics, Coming out, Coming out Narratives, crossed legs, Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, fathers, Fun Home, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, Gender Expectations, graphic novel, Homosexuality, John Bunyan, Literature, Martin P. Levine, masculinity, Matthew Shepard, metacognition, On Writing, Pilgrim's Progress, reflection, religious allegory, Ryan Renyolds, Sexuality, That's Gay, The Green Mile, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, often just called Pilgrim’s Progess, The World According to Garp, Ulysses
I recognized Bruce the moment I picked the book off the shelf, even though I had never met him before in my life. It’s a sentiment I’ve read before in many of the testimonies by homosexual, pansexual bisexual, transgender, and everything in-between people in the amassing Queer Theory library within my own library and I think that idea of “recognition” is vital for Queer people. My recognizing Bruce Bechdel however wasn’t because he “looked gay”…okay, it wasn’t ONLY because he “looked gay,” but rather because he, like me, sat with his legs crossed.
The reader might immediately object, wondering what the fluffy duck that has to do with anything? Before I continue I like that expression and I’m totally stealing it.
When I was a kid, and I do mean kid, I was rather effeminate. That may be too strong a word to characterize my behavior because, boys are especially precious and exhibit some level of hyperbolic behavior but looking back I was a rather effeminate boy. Part of this might have been because I always preferred hanging out with girls rather than boys. The girls were nice, wanted to play Pokémon like I did, they didn’t laugh at me when I cried, they didn’t play sports which I hated, they had interesting things to talk about, and, Freud’s latency period be damned, I thought most of them were really cute and it was more fun having them chase me that kicking a ball across a field. Whether it was my extended interaction with them, or just genetic conditioning on my part, I often sat with one leg crossed over the other with my arms crossed over and balanced on the knee while my back slumped forward. If that position sounds familiar it’s because it is often the position that female models in magazines assume, and that hot girl in your third period history class sits in that drives you crazy because you know you could ask her out and you think she wants you too but you’re too much of a coward to and next period you find out the Baseball teams manager did…so yeah. Good times.
The legs crossed over the other was one of my go-to stances growing up, and when I was standing I often placed my hands on my hips and puffed out my chest. Both of these positions apparently were signs of femininity and some asshole-clown-fuck once picked on me enough about it that it was dropped until I graduated from high school. My shitty childhood aside, this example from my own life is rather revealing of a great number of boys who failed the “look of manhood.” Masculinity is often a performance, and a phallic performance at that for the way that “Men” sit is the uncrossed, open legged stance in which your body penetrates as much space as humanly possible.
Since it’s the start of the summer months, and I’ve recently graduated with my Master’s, I thought I would enjoy a nice period of just reading, playing Fallout 4 non-stop, and digging into some old writing projects. At the top of the pile of books I formed was a book that caught me, like Fun Home, from the cover alone. Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone tracks the history of Gay men in the 1970s before and then after the rise of the AIDS crisis. Martin P. Levine, who lived the lifestyle and also subsequently died of AIDS, tries to understand what were the codes of Masculinity that lead to the debacle of the disease and early in the book he observes how boys learn the codes of masculinity alongside sexuality. Levine says,
At the same time, boys also begin to learn what it means to be a man. This role also takes a variety of forms; there are multiple definitions of masculinity based on other social factors such as age, race, ethnicity, region of the country (Stearns 1979). The culturally dominant construction is male gender role stereotype, which includes a wide variety of traits and behaviors. Sociologist Janet Saltzman Chafetz listed seven areas of characteristics of traditional masculinity: (1) Physical—virile, athletic, strong, brave. Sloppy, worry less about appearance and aging; (2) Functional—breadwinner, provider; (3) Sexual—sexually aggressive, experienced. Single status acceptable; male “caught” by spouse; (4) Emotional—unemotional, stoic, don’t cry; (5) Intellectual—logical, intellectual, rational, objective, scientific, practical, mechanical; public awareness, activity, contributes to society; dogmatic; (6) Interpersonal—leader, dominating; and (7) Other Personal Characteristics—aggressive, success-oriented, ambitious; proud, egotistical, ambitious, moral, trustworthy, decisive, competitive, uninhibited, adventurous (see Chafetz 1974, 35-36). (12-13).
This is a rather long list, and looking over the qualities of masculinity I recognize some that I do embody, and others that I don’t or never have. Still it’s a stereotype for a reason. I’ve written before about the conflicted nature I’ve had with the idea of manhood, and while I’ve never questioned my gender identity I have often wondered about whether I have passed the rites of manhood. Part of it may have been my effeminate nature, but other parts of it might have had something to do with the stirrings of my sexuality. Which brings me to John Bunyan. No not the lumberjack that was Paul. Played by Oliver Platt in Tall Tales. I’m referring to the 17th century Baptist writer and theological scholar.
It’s an odd moment, and even in retrospect I don’t know where it came from. In my sophomore year of high school my teacher always had two books assigned, one to read for regular class discussions, but also another for outside reading to be done by a set date. One of the books was The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, often just called Pilgrim’s Progess. The story is a religious allegory (story where everything builds towards a didactic moral lesson and everything in it is usually symbolic) and is told in two parts. My class only had to read the first half which is the story of a man named Christian who has fallen from the Grace of god and goes on a long journey in order to find Heaven and Paradise and while he searches he encounters angels and demons of all sorts. One of said creatures is Apollyon, whose name literally means “Destroyer,” who has fish scales, a lion’s head, a second mouth on his stomach, and fights Christian in the Valley of Humiliation in hopes of returning him to the village to live his life out in dutiful service. For the record, as far as I know, Bunyan was not on drugs when he wrote this book though I imagine the people who turned Alice’s Adentures in Wonderland into a stoner’s paradise would get a nice kick out of this odd book. The reader may be getting frustrated with me by now but I’ve come to the important point.
I was in my home reading the book and this specific scene. My sister was sitting across from me doing homework while classical music was playing. I don’t know where my parents were, I think they were in the back watching television. I was in the middle of the fight with Apollyon when I had a thought that flooded my entire body and had come, seemingly out of nowhere: “Oh my god I’m gay.”
My body trembled. I felt like throwing up. I ran to the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. The next half hour is a blur because I talked to the figure in the mirror assuring him that I wasn’t gay. I liked girls. They had boobs and boobs were great. I wasn’t gay. I was not. Once he had been convinced of this truth I smiled to myself and left the bathroom completely forgetting about the thought.
In hindsight I had been both right and wrong.
To this day I don’t really have any explanation for this sudden conviction of homosexuality. Perhaps the image of Christian, a man desperate to hold onto his faith fighting an inverted monster was a convenient metaphor for myself, but at that time I was dealing more with budding atheism than my bisexuality. Perhaps my teenage brain imagined these two beings fighting one another, and the image of two male torsos pressed against one another in Grecian style combat created some stirring of desire which reared its ugly head up. Or, and this is entirely possible, I was just a confused teenager who didn’t know what I wanted.
This sensation would never return in such violent and intrusive quality, but it did occasionally appear over the course of my development. I would take more than just a casual notice of men in magazines or on the internet, and occasional dirty movies that I would pretend desperately hadn’t happened but Browsing histories don’t lie. It was always there and I had no real name or title for it.
I suppose that’s why recognizing Bruce on the cover of Fun Home there was once again a dormant stirring. I didn’t just want to buy the book, I needed to read it and find the man on the cover. I wish I could say I had heard of Alison Bechdel and her work in Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, but I was pushed by another force. I wanted to learn and study the behavior of men who desired other men sexually because I hadn’t yet realized I was one of those men. I tucked the book into my pile, and when my family had returned home I opened the book and began to read. The only other time I have devoured a book with such veracity was The Green Mile, and like that experience which made me recognize that I had to be a writer, Bechdel’s book instilled in me the idea that human sexuality, as well as my own, was something vital to the discourse and would forever after be part of my existence.
Reading the book I felt sorry for Bruce, but honestly there was more pity and concern aimed at his family who had to deal with his compulsive desire for perfection. Bechdel shows her reader numerous instances of her father’s at times erratic behavior whether it be during dinner where she compares him to the Minotaur:
Or else the numerous fights that took place between her parents:
Allison would describe her father as a towering malevolent presence:
And even Bruce himself would, in his own way acknowledge his faults:
The reader may at this point ask whether or nor Bruce Bechdel is really a sympathetic figure? Given the way he allowed his mania for perfection and closeted sexuality to come at the expense of his family can anyone really look at the man and see him as a good man? To this, I don’t have any clear response.
I’ve read Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic about three times a year every year for the last three years, and each time I read the book I’m struck by the character of Bruce, specifically the conflict of his “erotic truth.” Bechdel employs these words in the last section of the book to imply the idea of person’s sexuality and that Bruce’s conflict was ultimately rooted in the fact that he was conflicted with his own erotic truth. She doesn’t say outright that Bruce is gay, for he might have been bisexual or pansexual, and without his outright testimony we’ll never really know. For my own part this idea of “erotic truth” became something incredibly important for me. I didn’t want to be something I wasn’t, more importantly I didn’t want my marriage to suffer. I told my wife I was bisexual, and she was happy for me but reminded me that unless Ryan Reynolds demonstrated any interest nothing was going to happen, which I’m perfectly fine with. (*in hushed whisper* Mr. Reynolds if you’re out there call me.)
This essay is not my usual objective approach to looking at a work of literature, but recently my friend Tom who leads our Graphic Novel Book Club announced that the new book for this week would be Fun Home, and seeing as how much this book has meant for my personal development I was thrilled and, as usual, forced into a bit of metacognitive reflection.
Fun Home is a book that, much like Ulysses, The World According to Garp, and On Writing, has left me so entirely affected that to consider my life without it now is unthinkable. Much the way Bechdel presents the moments in her life in relation to books so do I, and considering it’s place in my life the story of Fun Home is the story of my coming out. “Coming Out” stories have the potential to become cliché over time, but nevertheless queer authors, writers, artists, actors, statesmen, journalists, memoirists, and biographers have the duty of performing this right.
The “Coming Out” story is not just public declaration for the sake of acknowledgment by the masses, it also serves the purpose of recognition. Bechdel describes her own realization after reading The Word Is Out, a book which was a collection of interview with self-identifying queer people. This idea of “erotic truth” is important because ultimately is we cannot be honest with ourselves about our honest nature, sexually, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and everything else then we’re not really living. Bruce lived a life of quiet desperation, and while his family wasn’t ruined by the experience they did suffer at times the wrath of a man who might have served everyone better had he the gumption to be honest.
Of course there are extenuating circumstances and the man did the best he could with what he had, but finishing the book after reading it for the first time I was struck by yet another of my seemingly endless thoughts: I don’t want that to be me. I’ve now spent the last two years studying sex, gender, and everything in between and I’ll continue to do so because that’s my erotic truth. Fun Home, and Bruce with his prissy stance, kicked my ass out the door that would lead me to where I am now.
Recognition is everything. When we recognize the people we instinctively know as our own, whether they be men, women, or even fish-scaled demons with lion’s heads, then we start community and the process that leads to a fully functioning self, and, sometimes, access to people who suggest good books to read.
I’ve included below a link to a web series I’m a fan off that covers the way “coming out” is often presented in media and television. That’s Gay is a series that was always, alongside Modern Lady, the best part of Infomania for me and I hope you enjoy it too.
I’ve also included a link to a comic essay by Bechdel called Coming Out that I would really encourage you to read, you can begin to see the inklings of the work that would eventually become Fun Home as well as numerous scenes that would later actually be included in the book
“That’s Gay”-Brian Safi
“Coming Out” by Alison Bechdel
*Writer’s Second Note**
For the record Ryan Renoylds is not my go-to man crush, nor, believe it or not, is Benedict Cumberbatch. Now if Matthew Shepard were to…to…to…
Sorry, I seem to have lost my train of thought.
Art, Book List, books, Children's Book, Comics, Coming out, Gay Men, Gender Studies, graphic novel, history, Lesbianism, Literature, Politics, Queer Theory, Sexual Health, Sexual identity, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, television series, Theory, Transgender studies
A few weeks back a friend of mine asked me if I knew any good books about Feminism or Queer Theory. I might have suffered a small stroke for space and time converged momentarily and I transcended mortality to reach the Palace of Infinite Wisdom where Ul-Thath the Bear awaited with my jacket and glasses and….anyway I said, “Yeah sure, I’ll make up a list and give that to you. I have an entire shelf in my library dedicated to the subject, and what should have been five minutes became and a few hours of searching through my library, the bibliographies in the back of that, Amazon, goodreads, and just a quick Google Search. I eventually compiled a WORKING list and emailed it to her.
She thanked me for the help and forwarded the list to a friend. Once she mentioned the list in casual conversation a co-worker overheard the conversation and demanded a copy of the list and then another.
On the whole I distrust lists but it was a 14 book list that eventually got me involved in Queer Theory and so I realized that more and more people could use such a list.
As such I created a new blog which serves now as a functioning list of books for anyone interested in gender studies, masculinity studies, sex, sexual health, sexual rhetoric, Trans studies, Queer studies, Queer Theory, and everything in-between.
This list is ONLY about being a resource. I cannot in good conscience call myself an authority in Queer Theory because there is no such thing. But anyone interested in sexuality, masculinity, feminism, gender, or just what Queer is in general is welcome to this site.
If you are interested, or curious (I don’t judge) follow the link below