Macho Man With Batteries
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 Lewis were to…to…to…
Sorry, I seem to have lost my train of thought.