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Academic Book, anal penetration, Art, Art Commentary, biography, Book Review, Dirty Pictures, Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland Masculinity and Homosexuality, Gay, Gay Men, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, Kake, leather, Male Body, Martin P. Levine, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Micha Ramakers, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Robust, Robust totally TOTALLY means gay, Sexual Exploration, Sexual Fantasy, sexual idealism, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland Foundation, Working Class Men, Writing
There’s something about marines. I really can’t explain it. It’s like how there’s something about men wearing denim. Or men wearing leather. Or men wearing lipstick. Or men wearing cowboy hats. Or men wearing police uniforms. Or men wearing work boots. Or men with long hair. Or men with tattoos. Or men shopping for vegetables. Or men handling wood at hardware stores. Or men…actually, you know there’s just something about men period. Maybe that’s what lead me to Tom of Finland in the first place.
Justifying book purchases is getting more and more difficult, and my regular reader probably knows this already if they’ve ever read my homage to Christopher Hitchens. The space, or, really lack of it, is the primary concern, however there’s also now the issue of mortality. As I am just a few months away from turning thirty, and becoming yet another in a long line of cliched individuals who realize that they’re youth is quickly becoming a thing of the past, my concern now with purchasing more books is the worry that I won’t actually have time to read them all. This creates a compulsion towards priority. DO I really want to read that Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Andrew Jackson when I can’t fucking stand Andrew Jackson, and do I really need to sit down and read Finnegan’s Wake when I realize now that I will never read Ulysses ever again? There are some positives here, as I have realized more and more that there are books and topics that I legitimately want to read about. Whether it’s books about Ancient Greece, the Ottoman Empire, anything having to do with Queer identity, and the entire collected works of Vladimir Nabokov these are books that I will read and will make an effort to read.
And so as I reevaluate my priorities I can honestly write that I felt neither fear nor guilt in purchasing a $50 book about the work of Tom of Finland titled Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality.
I only feel guilty that, after the book arrived in the mail, I hopped into a couple volumes of the manga One Punch Man before actually reading it, but in my defense One Punch Man is freaking hysterical and I apologize for nothing.
I’ve written before about what Tom of Finland’s work has meant to me, as well as to the homosexual community. It’s not just that the man was able to help establish an unashamed model of gay porn for queer men to use and gravitate towards, it’s the fact that this pornography and art was able to validate the viewers with men who were attractive and quite visibly happy to be gay. No matter what Tom’s men were doing (sucking, fucking, sexually harassing postal workers) they always managed to find something to enjoy about being sexual with one another, or, to put it another way, they were having fun being gay.
This happiness helped establish Tom, real name Touko Valio Laaksonen, as one of the most important gay pornographers and artists, but this happiness, coupled with the fact that the men he drew were typically butch and traditionally masculine, did more for the queer male community who often had been regulated to the “fairy” and “queen” identity. Tom created a new model of masculinity for queer men, one they were happy to embrace.
Ramakers notes this as he observes the emergence of an unapologetic gay culture:
In the seventies, gay subcultural reality in the United States began to bear an even closer resemblance to Tom of Finland’s images of gay sexuality. According to sociologist Martin Levine, in that decade there was a noticeable growth in anonymous erotic activity. Gay meeting places were decorated with Western, leather, or high tech styles and sported “masculine” names such as The Eagle, Badlands, Ambush, Anvil and so on. In many bars, sparsely lit or darkened rooms were designated for cruising and tricking (spontaneous sex). Crusing and tricking became the sexual norm. Sexual techniques were rough and phallocentric and consisted mainly of “deep-throating” (blow job with the entire penis thrust down the throat), hard fucking (jamming entire penis into anus while spanking hard), and heavy tit work (robust sucking, pinching, or biting of nipples). (106-7).
Before I address this quote I really need to observe that the adjective “robust” always sounds gay to me. I don’t know what it is. Just saying the word “robust” it sounds like something a fairy (such as yours truly) would say while describing the repairman who showed up to fix his plumping. And then maybe, while he was working and trying to keep his long hair out of his face, his shirt would get wet and he’d have to take it off revealing a mess of thick black chest hair that would curl while light would reflect in the small beads of water clinging to…
Oh, I’m sorry, I got distracted. Anyway, “robust” always just sounds super-gay to me for personal reasons.
Ramakers quote is important though because it reveals where queer men of the seventies were at sexually as well as personally. It’s easy to forget in an age of Grindr and Scruff and Tindr, but free and casual sex between men was actually quite would have to use codes to find one another, and even then men could find themselves accidentally exposing themselves to straight men who might not always be so happy to discover another man’s hand on their leg. Compounding this is the fact that, before the seventies, and even some-time after that, being open about one’s queerness could wind one up in a mental institution where there are all manner of nightmare stories.
The ability to suck and fuck, and be sucked and fucked, without fear of social reprisal was not only liberating it was revolutionary. And in this new erotic atmosphere men began to look for a new character to embody.
Ramakers points his reader to Martin P. Levine, who’s work I’ve reviewed in the past, but then tries to show that the push towards a more traditionally “masculine” culture was an effort by queer men to become something new. Rather than continue to the idea of the “invert,” or the feminine “fairy,” guys wanted to act and behave more like straight men, only with a lot more sex. And in this new desire for a masculine ideal, Tom’s work was a great boon. If the reader has never seen any of Tom’s work the first thing they will observe is, obviously, that it’s pretty gay. But after this observation what becomes obvious is the fact that his men incredibly masculine. Ramakers notes this earlier in his book when he observes:
Tom’s men are paper constructions of the ideal body, less a reflection of a particular reality than a representation of a social ideal or mental vision. Tom’s male bodies are reminiscent enough of reality to be credible, but just far enough beyond that reality to form a nigh unattainable ideal. (72).
Now Ramakers observes that body-building culture impacted this but then later on he observes how Tom accounted for this:
In the later years of his career, Tom attempted to retain idealization, by exaggerating his men’s muscles even further […]. Because of this tendency, however, Tom’s man increasingly became a caricature: “when people criticized him for that, he would tell them, ‘I’m not trying for realism. I want to express our fantasies.’” (73).
Tom’s work was never, and has never truly been about capturing some kind of realism. While erotic art and pornography as an institution can at times create and capture the beauty of real and accurate sex, the fundamental purpose of the medium has always been to celebrate and enjoy sexuality, and in this action there is often a great desire for hyperbole. Looking through some of the many drawings Tom did over the course of his life (the man was amazingly prolific given the fact he began this art at a time where it could have cost him dearly) there is often a great amount of play in his drawings.
Breasts and shoulders tend to be well defined while hips and legs tend to be slimmer, although the buttocks can often be large and round. The men, regardless of race or nationality, tend to have similar bone structure in the face, becoming more or less the same copy over and over again. And, of course, the penises range from simply large to ridiculously gargantuan.
Not that I’m complaining but at some point one has to wonder how these men don’t throw out their back.
At this point the reader may question the immediate relevance of Ramaker’s book. So what? Why should I care about the analysis of pornography? There isn’t any redeeming value in smut, it’s just dudes banging each other so other dudes can jerk off. How could any of this be considered art?
As always my contester has some excellent points. It is important to recognize that Tom of Finland’s work was and still is considered pornography by a significant portion of the population, and because the work is homoerotic in nature his appeal is going to be largely limited to a number of queer men, some women, and then a few art critics bold enough to make a serious assessment of the man and his work. And, to be fair, the typical aesthetic goal of any erotic material is to inspire sexual arousal in the viewer, a sensation which is largely considered base and temporary in most people’s minds. Looking at this then, Tom’s drawings does not seem to have a great amount of relevance to many people.
But if I can make a solid enough case, this criticism reveals a larger truth about the perception of sexuality in our culture. Sex is often, at least as far as the United States is concerned, portrayed in the media in a dichotomy. While there is near constant reference to human sexuality, the lingering Puritanic trend in most Americans ensures that this sexuality is portrayed as obscene, disgusting, or even grotesque thus leading to “abstinence only” environments which have been demonstrated time and time again not to actually work. The conversation about sexuality is almost non-existent at the same time it is ever-present.
Tom of Finland entered my life entirely by accident, and since he did I’ve been able to explore a facet of my sexuality that feels not only true but liberating. In Tom’s leather-clad supermen I found my sexuality and discovered that while at time it could be a serious, all-consuming drive, it could also be something funny and enjoyable. Rather than feeling my desires as something grotesque or morally wrong, my sexuality, my attraction to women and men, was a chance to play and appreciate an idealized world where men could have sex freely without fear. And while there are probably few straight men that would gravitate to the man’s artwork, the spirit of the work is something that is, at least in my estimation, universal.
Sex is supposed to be fun, and Tom’s men are often smeared with the word pornography, they seem to find even in this distinction something to revel in.
And on the note of fear, Ramakers observes something incredibly powerful in Tom’s work:
Tom’s work is dedicated to the glorification of the male body, in all its vulnerability: his bodies are constantly being penetrated in every possible way and through every orifice. (165).
Soon or later every essay about gay sex leads to the anus, and those people who enjoy having their’s penetrated or stimulated. For the record I tried getting the previous sentence put on a t-shirt but the printers told me that they could move the shirts but there wouldn’t be enough room for the little cartoon anus I illustrated so I decided to scrap it. If I’m going to make t-shirts about anal penetration you can bet there’s going to be a cute cartoon anus on them. Integrity matters damn it.
I’ve written before about how the “problem” of penetration in gay sexuality has been discussed by writers and theorists and so I won’t bother my reader with long academic quotes that totally kill the vibe. The simple matter is often the practice of anal sex between men, and the frequent use of the “top/bottom” dynamic within the community, has lead to this perception that gay sex is simply about which partner acts “like the girl” during sex. What’s important about Tom’s work is that this dynamic is not only not apparent, it simply doesn’t exist.
Whether it’s construction workers, cops, sailors, soldiers, business men, or the leather-clad Kake himself, Tom’s men love to suck and fuck, and be sucked and fucked. And so while some readers used to the concept of a pure top/bottom dynamic may at first be bothered by Tom’s presentations, there is actually a real and powerful disruption in the man’s work. Tom’s men simply enjoy sex, and so rather than constructing identities where sexuality is limited to one action or one sexual organ, his men simply embrace the concept that they are sexual objects and beings and so they are willing to simply play with their sexuality.
Ramakers observes the power of this presentation:
Straight porn is for the most part based on the possession of the penis, which is used as a weapon against those who no not possess I. In Tom of Finland’s work it is precisely the penis that is possessed by both—or all—parties, thus unhinging that basic tenet from its supposed immutable position. This allows the power to fluctuate between partners, none of whom can lay claim to “natural” prerogatives on the basis of possession of the penis. (219).
Or to put it another way, nobody is the “girl” in Tom’s work because there aren’t any girls period. The matter of women being the weaker creature in pornography is well documented and in fact is its own essay. For now I simply wanted to focus on Tom’s work because, as I’ve written before in another essay about Tom’s work, the mode of sexuality presented is something I appreciate and respect.
Whether we like it or not, pornography is a staple of the culture, and more and more children will experience pornography as they develop into adults. In such an environment the importance of sexual education is important, but so is sexual representation. Whether it be gay or not, Tom of Finland’s work is an incredible presentation of sexual activity because it does not attempt to present sex as a power-play. Even at it’s most shocking and potentially violent, Tom’s men are not participating in a corrupt or revolting sexual display, they are simply trying to enjoy sex, thus crafting an image of masculinity and humanity that is liberating rather than constricting.
As a queer man, I don’t apologize for enjoying and consuming pornography because it’s an art which has allowed my exploration of self to take place. And I consider it a point of pride that I blame of Tom of Finland for most of my gay sexual development. In the pages of his work I found and fell in love with men who were strong (and “robust”) in a physical as well as personal way. And that in turn was a source of inspiration. My sexuality is something to celebrate rather than fear.
Dirty Pictures is a serious look at a genre of art that is often denied to the possibility for serious reflection and analysis, and as Tom of Finland’s work and life is recognized more and more by the culture such a book is a vital resource. Ramaker’s book is an inspiration for those of us who found solace in Tom’s work, and an inspiration to continue the legacy of the man long after he has died. In this way this review wasn’t just a chance to talk about gay sexuality, it was a chance to thank Ramakers for his book, as well as to thank Tom for his art.
Somewhere on the road there’s a leather-clad superman wearing a winged cock on his hat, and a smile on his face. And it’s because of Tom’s work that a generation of men made it possible for at least the latter to be not so shocking to us. Though as I write this I realize it might also just be because Terry Spots is doing another photo shoot in which case I’ll probably have to stop writing so I can disappear into Instagram for a few wonderful hours.
All quotes cited from Dirty Pictures: Tom of fInland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality were quoted from the first edition hardback St. Martin’s Press edition.
I included this in a previous essay about Tom of Finland, but I’ll put it here again. This website totally and completely supports the work of tOm of Finland and those who try to maintain the legacy of the man’s art. In fact, one such organization is the Tom of Finland Foundation, a sort of museum, archives, community center which maintains the legacy of Tom of Finland, houses most of his work, and actually supports the work of other erotic artists working today. I mention this organization not just because I love Tom of FInland, but also because I’m a member of the Foundation and considered it one of the proudest moments of my life when I received my membership card in the mail.
If you love Tom of FInland, or at least would be more interested in learning more about the man’s work, I’ve included a link below to the FOundation’s website where you can contact them directly as well as see some of the various artists who have contributed to their organization.
I would also recomend, if you get the chance, visiting the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. While their work is not dedicated solely to Tom of Finland, it was partly because of his art that the leather-scene took off in the United States and became not just an aesthetic but an entire lifestyle. Their museum and website is dedicated to collecting and preserving leather-culture and the various arts and artists and peoples who have helped establish the community. you can see their site by following the link below:
If the reader is at all interested I found a few articles and pages about the lasting significance of Tom of Finland and have included them below. Some of them have to deal with the new biopic film about Tom of Finland himself (which I do intend to watch and review at some point) Enjoy:
And finally, if you would be interested in reading (really seeing and owning) Tom’s work for yourself, I’ve provided a link to TAschen’s website where you can purchase some of the beautiful collections of Tom’s work. I would ABSOLUTELY recommend it:
Okay, seriously this time. THIS is the last thing I’ll say. Tom’s work was largely responsible for creating a “working-class” model of homosexuality thus shattering the illusion that queer men could only be upper-class-fairy-limp-wriested-fops. Not that there was anything wrong with being an effeminate queen (lord knows I am), but Tom essentialy gave queer men more room to find themselves, and this perception that anybody could be gay has allowed for some beautiful moments in art.
Case and point my all time favorite scene from The Simpsons. Homer thinks Bart is gay and so he takes him around to see several examples of burly-straight-men all of which turn out to be gay until it culminates in this moment of pure comedic genius.
Don Shewey, Gay Male Identity, Gay Men, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, glasses, Green Tea, Joshua Jammer Smith, lips, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, original photograph, Pornography, psychology, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Swiss Army Knife, The Paradox of Porn, The Paradox of Porn: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture
The Paradox of Porn: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture
13 September 2018
"Love that dare not speak its name", Amira Casar, Andre Aciman, Annie Proulx, Armie Hammer, Attraction, Bisexuality, Bret Easton Ellis, Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name, Elio and Oliver, Esther Garrel, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Film, film review, First Love, Gay, Gay Literature, Gay Men, Homosexuality, Italy, Literature, Love Story, Luca Guadagnino, Masculinity Studies, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mr. Perlman, Novel, Parents of LGBTQ+ Children, Peach, Queer-Bashing, Sexual Exploration, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Timothée Chalamet, Young Gay Love
I’ve never openly considered using any food for masturbation. I know being of the American Pie generation I was supposed to have stuck my penis in some sort of food at this point. Apparently the Millennial coming of age ritual, apart from eating tide-pods, snorting condoms, and killing virtually every sector of the economy according to snarky facebook posts your uncle leaves on your facebook page, is performing some sort of onanistic ritual with a pie, a piece of fruit, or anything sweet and delectable. This demonstrates a clear divide between the generations because, as Portnoy’s Complaint demonstrated, Baby Boomers had the luxury of getting their rocks off by jerking it into raw liver. There’s almost assuredly a writer out there somewhere who is going to write an essay about generational divides and the compulsion to fuck food, and it’s probably me, but I’d prefer to write a few more reviews of great films before I tackle food lust.
Apart from my wife, who reminds me everyday that I’m hers and hers alone and then laughs maniacally before adoring her kitty cats, the reason why I could never date another man is because it would almost assuredly end in violence or bloodshed. Now I’m not talking about Days of Our Lives Soap Opera bloodshed, where people are slapped and/or shot and hit the ground without starting to scream or hemorrhage out all over the credenza before Stefano’s evil twin drags the body away to clone the victim. Violence against LGBTQ couples and individuals, often referred to as Queer bashing, is a mode of violence that has unfortunately become almost tropic. If two gay people in a film love one another the ending will almost always imply that they cannot be together because straight people will not understand their love and will enact violence against one or both partners.
Perhaps the best example of this is the novella Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. A melodrama about two ranch hands for hire who fall in love in the mountains of Montana, the pair are in bed together when Ennis explains why they can’t be seentogether:
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. It ain’t goin a be that way. We can’t. I’m stuck with what I got, caught in my own loop. Can’t get out of it. Jack, I don’t want a be like them guys you see around sometimes. And I don’t want a be dead. There was these two old guys ranched together down home, Earl and Rich—Dad would pass a remark when he seen them. They was a joke even though they was pretty tough old birds. I was what, nine years old, and they found Earl dead in a irrigation ditch. They’d took a tire iron to him, spurred him up, drug him around by his dick until it pulled off, just bloody pulp. What the tire iron done looked like pieces a burnedtomatoes all over him, nose tore down from skiddin on gravel.”
“You seen that?”
“Dad made sure I seen it. Took me to see it. Me and K.E. Dad laughed about it. Hell, for all I know he done the job. If he was alive and was to put his head in that door right now you bet he’d go get his tire iron. Two guys livin together? No. All I can see is we get together once in a while way the hell out in the back a nowhere—” (29-30).
This violence is a threat to existence is often at the root of something in Queer literature often referred to as “Love that dare not speak its name.” Due often to the fact that homosexuality was often listed either as a sin, a vice, or as a mental disorder, homosexuals over the ages have had to bury their sexual and emotional passions, and those of us that were artists had to find a way to express our frustrations and desires through art. Often is two characters in a story were gay, or often as was the case hinted at being gay, then by the end of their story no matter how happy they were there had to be a ending in which they could not be together. Sometimes this resulted simply in heartbreak, but far more often it was the case that one or both partners wound up being killed.
The ‘Love that dare not speak it’s name” is a trope which has haunted queer literature and queer art for decades, even centuries and so when watching Call Me By Your Name I was waiting and expecting for it to happen. And in a way it did, Oliver and Elio did not wind up together, but not because there was anything wrong with their love.
The film, which is based on the novel by Andre Aciman, explores the life of Elio Perlman, the son of a jewish classical art professor. The family lives in Italy and occasionally hosts graduate students of Elio’s father while he performs his research. One such graduate student, an American by the name of Oliver arrives and very quickly catches the attention of Elio who is a teenager and developing his sexual and personal identity as he is on the cusp of adulthood. Elio explores his sexuality with a young woman who lives in town, but he finds himself more and more drawn to Oliver who appears distant until, over time, the pair of them eventually abandon themselves to a love affair. The story is about falling in love in a Pre-AIDS era and how two men were able to find one another, and for Elio, the story revolves around the discovery of his sexuality and the “first love” of his life. By the end of the film the pair of them do not wind up together, Oliver winds up marrying a woman while never completely abandoning his erotic truth.
This would at first seem to satisfy the old “Love that Dare Not Speak It’s Name,” henceforward referred to as LTDNSIN, no never mind that’s a terrible acronym, but watching the film and having read the novel I’m not so quick to slap that label on what is arguably one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever watched. Luca Guadagnino has made a visually stunning film that, even when it is not experimenting with camera angles, is just gorgeous to watch. Guadagnino captures the landscape and feel of Italy taking timeto film the peach trees, the ruins that litter the landscape, the pools of cold water in which the characters swim, or even simply the actual Italians themselves that call this beautiful country home. Elio and Oliver exist in a sort of timeless space caught between antiquity and the contemporary period of the early 1980s. And this attention to detail allows for the exploration of sensuality and sexuality of the characters.
In one moment of the film Elio and Oliver are discussing their mutual attraction beside a roman ruin and the camera follows them around the ruined edifice as they talk:
Oliver: Is there anything you don’t know?
Elio: I know nothing, Oliver.
Oliver: Well, you seem to know more than anyone else around here.
Elio: Well, if you only knew how little I really know about the things that matter.
Oliver: What “things that matter?”
Elio: You know what things.
Oliver: Why are you telling me this?
Elio: Because I thought you should know.
Oliver: Because you thought I should know?
Elio: Because I wanted you to know.
Elio: [to himself] Because I wanted you to know. Because I wanted you to know. Because I wanted you to know.
Elio: [to Oliver] Because there’s no one else I can say this to but you.
Oliver: Are you saying what I think you’re saying?
Oliver: Wait for me here. Don’t go away.
Elio: You know I’m not going anywhere.
The scene is powerful for the shot Guadagnino uses and the way the music builds the dramatic tension. By the end of the scene, even though it doesn’t at first appear that much of anything has actually taken place, the reader feels that something powerful has happened in the film.
The love affair between Elio and Oliver was beautiful to watch, and I admit that the film made me nostalgic for the days when I was young, discovering myself, and falling in love. But for whatever reason the most powerful moment of the film was not any of the scenes between the two lovers, but a moment between Elio and his father after Oliver leaves the villa. Elio is emotional about the separation and he goes to speak with his father, and what occurs between the pair of them is arguably one of the most powerful demonstrations of affection between a gay child and a parent in recent cinema.
Mr. Perlman offers his son several moments of honest sentiment.
Mr. Perlman: You two had a nice friendship.
Mr. Perlman: You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special what you two had was.
Elio: Oliver was Oliver.
Mr. Perlman: Parce-que c’etait lui, parce-que c’etait moi.
Elio: Oliver may be very intelligent but…
Mr. Perlman: Oh no, no, no. He was more than intelligent. What you two had, had everything and nothing to do with intelligence. He was good. You were both lucky to have found each other, because you too are good.
Elio: I think he was better than me. I think he was better than me.
Mr. Perlman: I’m sure he’d say the same thing about you. Which flatters you both.
He clears through the suggestions and offers his honest take on the relationship,
Mr. Perlman: In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away. Pray their sons land on their feet, but… I am not such a parent.
Mr. Perlman: Right now you may not want to feel anything. Maybe you neverwanted to feel anything. And maybe it’s not to me you’ll want to speak about these things. But feel something you obviously did. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!
And finally he offers his son, with obvious tears in his eyes, one last final offering.
Mr. Perlman: Have I spoken out of turn? Then I’ll say one more thing. It’ll clear the air. I may have come close, but I never had what you two have. Something always held me back or stood in the way. How you live your life is your business, just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before youknow it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.
Elio: Does mom know?
Mr. Perlman: I don’t think she does.
There were so many moments during Call Me By Your Name, where I found myself “remembering.” When Elio smells Olivers shirt I “remembered” the discovery of the sensual power of your partner’s smell. When Oliver masturbates into a Peach I “remembered” the early experiments with masturbation. When Elio tries to kiss Oliver I “remembered” the early attempts at demonstrations of affection and how some of them failed. Mr. Perlman’s talk with his son however was the only moment of the film where I felt a real emotion to the point that I was actually crying. I wish had I had a moment like that when I was young, and I wish I had had the courage to be myself, and have someone there to offer such a net. I wish I hadn’t been so afraid to just be who I really was, which was gay.
I love my parents, and I do not wish to speak out of turn towards them. I am who I am today because of them because they offered me endless love and support. All I am saying is, there might have been a different man writing this post if I had had someone in the form of a guardian who allowed me the language and space to feel safe acknowledging my attraction.
And this emotion isn’t just limited to myself, as Bret Easton Ellis points out on his review of the film, commenting first on Michael Stuhlbarg’s final speech,
And yet Stuhlberg sells it with a hushed technical virtuosity that makes every word land and vibrate even though at times he overdoes the saintly Jewish-Daddy thing. Stuhlberg makes this the real climax of the movie—it becomes a primal scene—and in the packed theater I saw the movie you could hear the gay men (at least half the audience) barely holding back muffled sobs. Call Me By Your Name is the movie generations of gay men have been waiting for: the fullest, least condescending expression of gay desire yet brought to mainstream film. It ends with a nearly wordless four-minute shot of a tear-stained Chalamet staring into a fireplace, a myriad of emotions subtly morphing over his face while the credits roll and which reminds us: there cannot be love without pain, the two are intertwined and intractable, and that the boy might be destroyed but a man will emerge and survive.
Mr. Perlman’s speech to his son can at times be just that, a speech. And speeches are, by their nature, a one sided affair where one person delivers their thoughts, sentiments, philosophies, and opinions with an understanding that this is a passive affair for the listener. What felt different while watching it was how the man seemed to be not just lecturing his son, but honestly trying to communicate to him. Mr. Perlman is a man who has obviously experienced great frustration in his life, but just as likely he’s a man who’s starved for desire.
Growing older is a sensation that is often defined by such starvation of spirit. I find myself wondering more and more “what do I want out of life, and shouldn’t I have figured it out by now?” And looking back only feeds such hunger as one feels the advantages of maturity and personal agency and wonders “why didn’t I take advantage of that? Why did I choose not to pursue this?” And this desire tends to feed a bitterness of spirit that can sap one dry. Sexuality especially can starve the soul and leave one often wondering, why was I not more ambitious, spontaneous, more confident, and Mr. Perlman’s speech offers a kind of closure for such pain.
But as Ellis points out, Call Me By Your Name wasn’t an opportunity to mourn the loss of love, but to recognize that love. Too often the “first love” of our lives are encouraged to be forgotten or cynically dismissed as foolish or naive, but such a recommendation is not only barbaric it’s false. That first love is real because it is felt with such profound passion that will never be repeated in our lives, and while some are fortunate enough to turn that love into a lasting commitment, often such passion just cannot last. What’s important about the film is not simply that the film is a “gay movie,” but that it’s a film which explores the first love of homosexuality and does not dismiss it as something obscene, foolish, or doomed. It’s instead portrayed as the first part of a long and beautiful life.
Call Me By Your Name is a film gay men have been waiting for for decades, centuries even. And like the sexual grace carved into the hellenistic statues of Greek Gods, it’s a sexuality that cannot be denied, nor ignored, long after the men who experienced and recorded it are just the dust beneath the treads of bicycle wheels.
All quotes cited from Call Me By Your Name were provided by IMDB.com. All quotes taken from OUT’s review of Call Me By Your Name were provided by their website. If the reader is interested in reading the full review I’ve provided a link below:
I’ve taken the liberty of supplying a few reviews of the film and novel Call Me By Your Name below in case the reader would like a few more opportunities to read about the film instead of just taking my biased opinion.
In case the reader was curious, I really didn’t have any rhyme or reason for including the image below into the essay. I just typed in “supergay” into Google Images and I got this wonder. I used it as the temprary “Featured image” while I waited to get around to editing this one, and by the time I had everything ready I didn’t need it anymore, but I didn’t want to give up this guy because, he’s, well, perfect.
So, please enjoy this supergay photo because lord knows I certainly do.
Academic Book, Art, Dirty Pictures, Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland Masculinity and Homosexuality, Gay, Gay Men, Gay Sex, glasses, Homosexuality, Joshua Jammer Smith, lips, Masculinity Studies, Micha Ramakers, Penis, Pornography, Sexual Exploration, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, still life, Swiss Army Knife, tea, Tom of Finland
Dirty Amber Lips
13 September 2018
"Jammer Moments", "Will They?/Won't They?", Gay Men, Gay Sex, Having erotic dreams/fantasies about sailors and whales is perfectly normal...Todd, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, Humor, Ishmael, Jason Momoa, Literature, Male Sexuality, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Moby Dick, Moby Dick is TOTALLY GAY, Novel, Quee-Queg, Queer, Queer Sexuality, Queer Theory, Sailors, Satire, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, The Hardcore Gay Erotica that is Moby Dick, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, Well Hung Bad Boys Looking for D, Whalers, Writing
I mean if I woke up to find myself in the arms a large, able-bodied, tattooed god I could only hope that my make-a-wish came true and that I was resting next to Jason Momoa. A man can dream after all.
It’s been a strange sort of year, one that has come with numerous changes and developments, but the most recent one was finishing yet another in a long line of 1000 page books, however my most recent challenge was unique because it was not a novel but in fact it was a history book. Since I was a child my father has owned a dense tome wrapped in a black dust jacket marked with a swastika. I knew a fair amount about Nazis because my father would often tell me stories of men like Patton and Ike Eisenhower who defeated these evil monsters that were almost on par with orcs from The Lord of the Rings. I could never understand then why my dad had a book with their logo on the front. This was largely because I didn’t take the time to read the cover. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer is an incredible book, and while I would hope one day to write about it’s significance to World War II history discourse, I began to observe, somewhere in the three hundred pages of Russian-German diplomacy, that I really, really, desperately wanted to read Moby Dick. Again.
I mentioned this the other day to two of my co-workers and they gave “the look.”
It’s an odd sort of look. I can’t say that it’s pity exactly, nor would I go so far as to suggest that it’s jealousy. In fact it’s something in the middle I suspect. A loathing of the self before one comes to the realization that I’m a narcissist and a weirdo who thinks he’s special and interesting and so they pity my strange variety of nerdom. It’s a look I’m familiar with, and one friend even has a name for these moments that he charmingly refers to as “Jammer Moments.” I’ve yet to contact Oxford English Dictionary because the term has yet to develop a significant etymology and I also don’t have the merchandizing rights yet. “That’s so Jammer” will look great on t-shirts, and I intend to make a killing.
Despite my oddity, and my friends and co-worker’s mystification at my desire to read what is widely regarded as one of the most unreadable novels in all of human history, I’ve enjoyed picking up Moby Dick again. The novel is beautifully written, philosophically profound, textually complex, and also a wonderful opportunity to dig into my queer sexuality and find what is surely one of the most delightfully gay romances in American literature.
Now I can anticipate my reader’s objections before I even get into the fun parts. Fun parts for the record are of course queer jargon for ding dongs and buttholes, both of which terms are straight jargon for penises and anuses, both of which are themselves medical jargon for those things that shoot out babies and turds. Why should I care about whether or not the characters in Moby Dick are gay? I’m never going to read the book in the first place, so why should I bother worrying over the sexuality of two fictional people? More to the point, if Moby Dick is a beautiful and philosophically profound novel, why worry about something as petty as sexuality?
My reader makes some wonderful arguments and I understand where they’re coming from, but to be frank I just feel like having some fun and writing a trashy queer romance and maybe, possibly perhaps, find something culturally relevant to observe at the end. So get off my back people, life is hard and sometimes we all need to find a way to relax.
Now our story begins in the city of Nantucket where the gloomy Ishmael finds himself in a bar, the Spouter Inn to be exact. I’ll touch on that imagery in a moment. Our young stud of a protagonist is a country-boy named Ishmael who is caught by a wanderlust that is at times gloomy, which just gives him this precious “dark side” allowing the reader to picture the man as a kind of Goth dream-boat only without eye-liner and leave tattoos. That’s for later. Ishmael is caught by a near-constant desire to travel specifically to go whaling on the ocean for it provides his spirit an unknown, or indescribable satisfaction. The fact that he surrounded by men is unspoken, but I hope my reader will agree, it’s clearly all about the dick, whale.
I meant whale.
Ishmael steps into the ejaculation, Spouter, I meant Spouter Inn, and he walks past a group of butch sailors to inquire about a room. At this point the reader is given the first bits of foreplay to the beautiful party:
“But avast,” he added, tapping his forehead, “you haint no objections to sharing a harpooner’s blanket, have ye? I s’pose you are a goin’ a whalin’, so you’d better get used to that sort of thing.”
I told him that I never liked to sleep two in a bed; that if I should ever do so, it would depend upon who the harpooner might be, and that if he (the landlord) had no other place for me, and the harpooner was not decidedly objectionable, why rather wander further about a strange town on so bitter a night, I would put up with half of any decent man’s blanket. (19).
I suppose I have to sigh and groan that our protagonist should announce himself upfront to be a bit of a slut. It’s not enough that he let’s the barman tap his “head” in front of him without calling him on it, then you have the fact that admits to preferring multiple lovers and that monogamous relations leave him tired and bored, and before he’s even finished the sentence he has admitted that he’s not overly picky about the sort of man who shares his bed. But perhaps what’s worst, or best of all, I’m not sure which at this point, Ishmael states outright that he’s willing to shack up with any guy if it means being warm and dry. I mean I’m as much of a slut as the next guy, but show at least a little deference in selection of sexual partners Ishmael. There are some Creeps out there, and you always find out far far too late in the game. That orthodox priest was not happy when I said I had an early meeting.
Now my reader is sure to object against my interpretation by suggesting that none of that was actually implied. Ishmael was just a young man looking for a place to stay during a nasty storm. Well my reader has some very intriguing ideas concerning Ishmael’s sex-life, however I’m afraid I must continue to the juicy parts.
The reader is given a lengthy passage in which Ishmael deliberates about whether he should share a bed with the strange man that the bar-tender speaks of. I wish I could say that this was enjoyable to read, but Melville really lacks a certain penasch in terms of getting one hot and bothered for random bed-sharing. Chapter four progresses rather slowly until the reader is able to get a juicy couple of pages of Ishmael discovering his bed-mate will be a cannibal, and there is some rather yummy passages in which Ishmael studies Queequeg’s body, but it really isn’t until the start of chapter 5 that the reader gets any sort of hint that the action is starting up again:
Upon waking up the next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife. (36).
Before the reader interrupts my good time let me observe rather quickly that from this point on Ishmael will regularly use marital adjectives when describing his relationship with Queequeg. It’s not enough that the pair of them wake up in a loving, warm embrace. After all, it was a cold, rainy night and they were strangers seeking solace and warm in one another’s…company. But just a few pages on from this Ishmael drops another hint at his developing infatuation:
But at length all the night’s events soberly recurred, one by one, in fixed reality, and then I lay only alive to the comical predicament. For though I tried to move his arm—unlock his bridegroom clasp—yet, sleeping as he was, he still hugged me tightly, as though naught but death should part us twain. (38).
Once again Ishmael employs the adjectives of marriage, and this association of course leads to a somewhat annoying realization that Ishmael is one of those queer men who buys into the idea that one of them is “the girl.” This is a rather unfortunate realization, because up to this point I was enjoying Ishmael’s sluttiness and unbroken frolicking with another man. Perhaps what’s so frustrating is this perpetuated rhetoric in today’s society, most obviously in straight communities. Homosexuality is seen often as a kind of malleable heterosexuality in which two men or two women form a monogamous bond that mimics a straight couple’s. One of the pair is the man, and therefore the active penetrator or licker. I should really consult a lesbian and determine what the inside terminology is. While the other partner is the passive receiver, meaning of course that that person is “the girl.” Ishmael seems to be employing this imagery as he observes Queequeg not responding to his attempts to wake him up, and while it’s hardly a severe reiteration of a tired mode of thinking, it’s just disappointing that Ishmael can’t foster his own working model of queerness.
I then rolled over, my neck feeling as if it were in a horse-collar; and suddenly felt a slight scratch. Throwing aside the counterpane, there lay the tomahawk sleeping by the savage’s side, as if it were a hatchet-faced baby. A pretty-pickle, truly, thought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal and a tomahawk! (38).
The only thing missing I suppose is some leather chest-guards, chaps, some cigars, and one of those swings you have to pay somebody to set up. Who says Literature is boring?
Now my reader interrupts my fantasies because they are compelled by some misguided sense of revisionist intellectualism to remind me that there was no actual sex. Queequeg simply fell asleep and Melville is trying to establish a purely heterosexual friendship between the two characters. The use of the word “savage” as well is not meant to be dirty, but is in fact some unfortunate racism on Melville’s part to appeal to his original audience. These are all fine points, but they’re ignoring the obvious assplay that was exchanged, and Ishmael being a weird slut who totally wanted it.
This is compounded by a later passage in which Ishmael is just watching Queequeg, and thinking about their association together. And after a few moment’s reflection, which, let’s be honest here, men only ever employ that term to mean “thinking about all the sorts of kinky sex I’d love to have with another man,” Ishmael makes a further move:
I drew my bench near him, and made some friendly signs and hints, doing my best to talk with him meanwhile. At first he little noticed these advances; but presently, upon my referring to his last night’s hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he looked pleased, perhaps a little complimented. (73).
If a man told me he’d like to sleep with me more than once I would probably be flattered as well…alas, I have yet to even receive an offer.
I suppose I must sigh here, and gently wave towards my face as Ishmael only gets more steamy in the sheets with his Cannibal lover (Man eats Man would be either a beautiful title for a homoerotic play by Tennessee Williams or else a wonderful title for a gay porno, I’m not sure which, why not both?). After the previous exchange was offered Ishmael offers another sight just a few pages on where he let’s the obvious foreplay be observed:
But we did not go to sleep without some little chat.
How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair. (75).
Again, before I can even get into the juicy parts about what is obviously sexual, my revisionist reader must needs interrupt to inform me that I’m performing a gross disservice to literary analysis. What is being described is not an openly homosexual relationship. Melville is merely using words like “honeymoon” to show a deepening friendship that is developing between Ishmael and Queequeg. They would also like to remind me that strong homosocial bonds were common between men of this time because it was just not socially acceptable to share emotions between people of different genders. Men and women kept their personal selves to themselves, and preferred to share such intimately with members of their own sex. They would also like to tell me that I’m obviously trying to write contemporary homosexuality onto these characters which is unfair because the homosexuality of today’s society is an entirely different animal than homoeroticism that existed in the past.
Well, if I can offer a defense, I never used the word homosexual. We have no idea if Queequeg is homosexual, or pansexual, or bisexual, or just queer. Now Ishmael is most definitely gay though, because this entire book is just one long testament to his fascination and erotic fixation on “THE D.”
Now if my reader is done interrupting I need to get to the last two passages which obvious end with our queer heroes finally getting, if I can borrow an expression the kids are using these days, “Biz-zay.” Immediately following the previous quote the next chapter begins with Ishmael and Queequeg, resting together and just basking in the afterglow:
We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we; when, at last, by reason of our confabulations, what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and we felt like getting up again, though day-break was yet some way down the future. (76).
While this is nowhere near as pornographic as I would like it to be (Ishmael remains to the very end a nasty little tease) it’s so obvious that these two men have spent the night voraciously making love. Queequeg’s invitations might also suggest that he was the one doing the penetrating, but even my skills of queer deduction only go so far. I mean, the dude is the one leading the advances in this scene, literally “filling” the space of the bed and actively “pushing” into Ishmael’s personal space demonstrating his affection, but then again plenty of men like to be the one leading the advances before lifting their rump in the air like a cat in heat. You never really know somebody until you get them in bed.
What’s obvious, apart from the fact that they both spent the night hiding the “sau-seege” is that these two men have developed a deep and caring intimacy. Ishmael and Queequeg can freely touch and talk and fuck to their hearts content, and thus suggests that the opening passages of Moby Dick are offering a classic narrative of the “Will they?/Won’t They?” Readers and viewers enjoy watching this dynamic because people are sexual creatures who tend to get some kind of voyeuristic thrill of watching another romance develop. And because love is an evolutionary development designed to encourage procreation that results in long terms relationships to ensure two parents can raise a child together, sex is always going to be the end result of a love affair.
People want to see people fall in love to see if maybe they don’t see a little bit of themselves in these characters. We want to observe another person’s love affair to see if it resembles the loves that we’ve pursued in our own lives. And, I secretly suspect, this desire to watch another person’s love affair is a chance to explore a sexual dynamic that we did not.
I myself never got a chance to form a love affair with another man, and to be honest I’m not sure if I ever would. I tend to gravitate more towards women when it comes to my emotional self. I like their company, but I can’t deny that my queerness does push me towards a sexual dynamic with men. I guess then I should give my reader one last chance to argue with my interpretation of these early passages of Moby Dick.
It’s ridiculous. This whole essay has been one long, almost mastubatory re-writing of an American classic for the purpose of justifying or exploiting the writer’s personal sexual curiosities and hang-ups. Ishmael and Queequeg do form a strong, homo-social bond together, and while there is some physicality in it, there’s no way that these two men could have possibly been considered lovers. Its irresponsible and indulgent.
And I suppose my reader does have a point. Queer as a word has changed from what it was. That’s the nature of language. It’s a fluid and constantly altering technology that allows human beings to turn thoughts into physical, tangible reality. Queequeg and Ishmael express a companionship that is intensely homoerotic that manifests in physical and emotional closeness, and Melville writes it out as a kind of marriage between these two men, using the language of domestic partnership to allow the reader to see how much Queequeg becomes the most important person in Ishmael’s life. The language of Melville shows that men in the past formed strong homosocial bonds between other men and found some kind of emotional solace in it. So strong were these bonds that often times men found, in other men, more emotional and physical comfort in the arms and bodies and company of other men than they might have had with women. And some men, in these relationships, might have found something akin to a romantic partner who gave them a stability and foundation of love that they could then build a life on that might, as time went on, save them from any and all kind of emotional problems.
I suppose my reader is right about Moby Dick in the end. Men might have loved and fucked one another in the past, but the only thing that’s really changed is the language.
All quotes from Moby Dick were taken from the 2000 paperback Modern Library Classics edition.
As per usual, I really like helping my reader dig into the great works I write about, and so while I was writing this essay I found a few essays about Moby Dick in case the reader would like to dig a little deeper into the text. Enjoy:
On an entirely separate note…seriously, Jason Momoa isn’t the sexiest man of the year? Seriously? Do I really need to…okay. Apparently I do.
"I'm here to recruit you", Allison Pill, Anne Kronenberg, Castro Street, Cleve Jones, Coming out, Dan White, Democracy, Elaine Noble, Emile Hirsch, Gay Men, Gays in Politics, Harvey Milk, Harvey Milk gives me hope, Heroes of the Homosexual community, history, Homosexuality, Homosexuality History, Hope, Individual Will, James Franco, Milk, Politics, Queer, Queer Theory, San Francsico, Scott Smith, Sean Penn, Sexual politics, Sexuality, sucice and queer youth, suicide, suicide and queer people, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, When We Rise
Hope is hard to come by, especially in the queer community sometimes. I haven’t lost any friends to suicide, yet, and the necessary inclusion of that word is part of what keeps me going.
I realize it’s a ridiculous position to take, but part of what keeps me writing is the hope that some young queer kid will find my work, see my life, and be inspired enough to at least keep going and not kill themselves. At the very least I hope they think to themselves “I can write better than this asshole” and start writing essays and novels that will keep me in obscurity. I’m assuming a lot given the fact, as I’ve recognized before, I’m just some dude with a blog, but there is a conviction behind all of this that goes back to one scene in a film that, when I watched, absolutely broke me for reasons that have changed.
The film Milk came out in 2008, the same year I graduated High School, and I had entered into a period of personal darkness as I recovered from the experience. High School sucks for everybody, but something about the experience left me head-fucked for two years but that at least gave me time to read a lot of books, write a couple of books, and see some films which left their mark on my consciousness. I had seen commercials for the film Milk, and while I wasn’t homophobic at the time, I was still in that early phase when same-sex intimacy between men was something that left me queasy. In hindsight I realize it left me that way for an reasons that had yet to bubble up to the surface. The movie Milk was, as Allison Bechdel puts it so beautifully in her graphic novel Fun Home, a Siren calling me on to a new discovery. I checked out the film from Hastings (#RestinPeace) and watched it alone after my family had gone to bed.
The film was beautiful and opened my eyes to the struggles gay people suffered in the 1970s, but at one point I had to pause the film and cry. Harvey Milk is trying to stop a riot in Castro street when he receives a phone call from a young man in the Midwest:
Harvey Milk: [answering the phone] Scotty?
Paul: I’m sorry, sir. I read about you in the paper.
Harvey Milk: I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now.
Paul: Sir, I think I’m gonna kill myself.
Harvey Milk: No, you don’t want to do that. Where are you calling from?
Harvey Milk: You saw my picture in the paper in Minnesota? How did I look?
Paul: My folks are gonna take me to this place tomorrow. A hospital. To fix me.
Harvey Milk: There’s nothing wrong with you – listen to me: You just get on a bus, to the nearest big city, to Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco, it doesn’t matter, you just leave. You are not sick, and you are not wrong and God does not hate you. Just leave.
Paul: [crying] I can’t. I can’t walk sir.
The camera pans out and the viewer is able to see that Paul is in a wheelchair. I can’t describe the emotion this scene still manages to leave in me; the only word that feels accurate is destroyed. Paul was enough for my eighteen-year-old self to realize gay people weren’t monsters, they weren’t sick, they were just human beings. And in my young mind I crafted a fantasy where I could run and save Paul. I wanted to be the ally that would help people like Paul. It’s embarrassing this old hero fantasy, but I had it nonetheless. What I didn’t recognize at the time, was there was another part in me, that wanted to hug Paul and kiss him and hold him close not just because I wanted to keep him safe, but because I was actually attracted to him.
Paul jumpstarted whatever queer longings I had in my heart, it just took my head a while to catch up.
Since coming out I’ve watched Milk again and this time it left me far more impacted because I’ve come out as queer and I’ve watched the progress the queer community has gained and the struggles it continues to face. The atmosphere has sickened and recent events have reminded me, rather painfully, that my existence and the existence of many of my friends, is one that some people would prefer didn’t exist. In such moments, it’s easy to cry, and it’s easy to lose hope and consider crawling back into the closet. But in fact at such moments I find more inspiration in people like Harvey Milk who, even when they felt most terrified, continued to fight.
The closing lines of the film echoes just this very sentiment:
Harvey Milk: [Voice Over, Last lines] I ask this… If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out – – If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door… And that’s all. I ask for the movement to continue. Because it’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power… it’s about the “us’s” out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s. Without hope, the us’s give up – I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you… You gotta give em’ hope… you gotta give em’ hope.
I recognize that my reader may be getting sick of my maudlin and wants me to get to the actual film, but please indulge me this moment of reflection because my queer sense of self has received a few beatings lately because of assholes and I want to just warm myself near the fire of these great queer icons that came before me. And, in fact, the reason Milk remains so powerful to me as a film is because of my sense of failure as a queer man lately.
The film Milk covers the later life of Harvey Milk the man who was one of the first openly gay politicians in the United States to win public office. He wasn’t in fact the first openly gay politician, Elaine Noble who was elected to the Masssechusettes State Legislature in 1974 was in fact the first, but Harvey has managed somehow over time to become a figurehead of queer politics I suspect largely because his time was so short, he was a charming and approachable man, and the fact that he was assassinated. Milk follows Harvey when he meets his lover Scott Smith in a subway station on his birthday, and after they’ve had sex Harvey reflect on his life and realizes he hasn’t done anything he’s proud of. Harvey and Scott move to San Francisco where they’re greeted with homophobia and Harvey decides to rally the neighborhood, which is mostly gay, and from this start Harvey realizes he has a gift for politics. The film then follows his many unsuccessful campaigns for the Board of Supervisors before his eventual victory, his push for legislation for homosexual rights, and then his eventual assassination by fellow board member Dan White.
There’s many things for lovers of cinema to appreciate about the movie Milk, whether it’s the historically accurate costumes, the lighting, the cinematography, or the amazing performances by people like Sean Penn (who won best actor for his portrayal) to Allison Pill playing Anne Kronenburg or Emile Hirsch playing Cleve Jones. As a film Milk succeeds as a biopic which, as a genre, is usually just Oscar fodder for actors looking to nail their first win. For my own part Milk as a film is more important for the way it helps foster new opportunities for queer roles in film.
When it was released Milk had every charge of a “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Use to it!” chant. It was released in 2008 when the united states had been through the Bush Administration which had tried to push a constitutional amendment for heterosexual marriage only and so the queer community at large was fighting the same old fights they had been up to that point, and it echoes in the film. In one scene Harvey discovers two men who’ve been the victim of queer bashing:
San Francisco Cop: [identifying a body] The fruit was walking home with his trick when they were jumped. Name’s Robert Hillsborough. Did you know him?
Harvey Milk: He used to come into my shop. Are there any witnesses?
San Francisco Cop: Just the trick. Jerry Taylor.
Harvey Milk: Jerry wasn’t a trick. They were lovers.
San Francisco Cop: Call it what you will. He’s our only witness and he says he can’t identify the attackers.
Harvey Milk: There’d be a dozen witnesses if they thought you boys had any real interest in protecting them.
It had been about ten years since Matthew Shepard’s murder at this point, and queer bashing was still an issue. Though to be fair it’s still a significant issue and part of the reason why I began this article with the word “yet.” The issue of police defending or protecting the queer community is a nuanced one and not one I’m ready to write about yet, but at the time the film was produced the community was struggling with the idea that nobody really seemed willing to step forward and offer up serious commitment of security. The film also addressed the issue of conservative pundits and commentators becoming cult of personalities by making anti-queer civic rights they’re defining political message. As such queer commentators and political rights organizations had to establish a new rhetoric:
Harvey Milk: If we had someone in the government who saw things the way we see them, the way the black community has black leaders who look out for their interests…
Scott Smith: You’re gonna run for Supervisor, is that the idea?
Harvey Milk: I could go right for mayor, but I think I should work my way up to it… You’ll be my campaign manager.
Scott Smith: Because I have so much experience in politics.
Harvey Milk: Politics is theater. It doesn’t matter if you win. You make a statement. You say, ‘I’m here, pay attention to me.’
My readers who live in major, urban cities may roll their eyes at this or else yawn comfortably at this quote, but that’s largely because major cities have become fostering grounds for queer people. For those of us that live in rural areas, or else the periphery of such hubs the struggle just to express your very existence can be a trial. It’s not always an issue of violence being performed against you, but rather lone voices expressing dissent that queer people should even be recognized. It may not seem terribly dramatic to have displays or parades or books or movies shown in public taken down, but when it’s the closest thing a person has to validating that their existence is real, that their identity is real, such actions leave their mark.
When the world tells you that they’d be more comfortable if you didn’t exist it’s hard not to internalize that and be left feeling hopeless. Recent events that have to remain anonymous have proven that to me, and that’s why more and more lately I go back to Milk and the idea of hope.
In the film a noted anti-gay activist Anita Bryant scores a major victory for gay-opposition politics with a civil housing bill in Florida and Harvey makes a speech:
Harvey Milk: I am here tonight to say that we will no longer sit quietly in the closet. We must fight. And not only in the Castro, not only in San Francisco, but everywhere the Anitas go. Anita Bryant did not win tonight, Anita Bryant brought us together! She is going to create a national gay force! And the young people in Jackson Mississippi, in Minnesota, in the Richmond, in Woodmere New York, who are hearing her on television, hearing Anita Bryant telling them on television that they are sick, they are wrong, there is no place in this great country for them, no place in this world, they are looking to us for something tonight, and I say, we have got to give them hope!
Hope is hard to come by. That’s a platitude but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold any relevance. Looking over my life, and where the Queer community has come since Harvey does leave me with hope, but that doesn’t mean the challenges have stopped. Queer people are still a target, and we’re still being killed for just being who we are, and it fucking terrifies me. I don’t want to lose any friends, and I don’t lose any ground.
I’ve watched friends cry as they tell me it feels like they’re being pushed back into the closet, and I’ve watched my own sense of self being pushed back. It’s in these moments that hope breaks, or twists in the wind before it cracks. But at these moments I think of Harvey, and I think of Paul who eventually made it.
Harvey Milk: Not a good time, Don.
Paul: This is Paul. Don just gave me the phone.
Harvey Milk: Paul who?
Paul: You spoke to me on the phone, a year or so ago. I’m in a wheelchair. I’m from Minnesota.
Harvey Milk: I thought you were a goner Paul.
Paul: When I saw that you won the supervisor seat, I got a friend to put me on a bus to LA.
Harvey Milk: Who do you know in Los Angeles?
Paul: Nobody. I just didn’t want to die anymore. I met your friend Don down here. And I turned 18,
and I voted today against prop 6. I don’t think I’d be alive right now if it weren’t for you.
It’s tempting to say that this scene is sentimental, were it not for the fact this happens. Queer youth are the most likely people to commit suicide largely because they feel like they have no hope. They tend to be isolated or exiled from their families, and rather than have someone like Harvey who tells them that they are loved and that their existence is not something repulsive they often destroy themselves before they have a chance to realize they’re not alone.
It is ridiculous to think this, but I’m a ridiculous, emotional man anyway, so I might as well be honest with myself. I keep writing because I hope some young queer kid finds these words I’ve thrown out into the sea and realizes they’re not alone, and they’re not ugly, and they’re not sick. They’re exactly who they should be and want to be which is sexy as fucking fuck. The fight is ongoing and will leave many defeated but I would hope that they keep going.
Hope is hard to come by, and even more hard to hold onto, but that hope lingers on and keeps people alive.
If the reader is at all interested about the life of Harvey Milk I would recommend Cleve Jones’s memoir When We Rise, as well as the book The Mayor of Castro Street. I own the latter and have yet to read it largely because I keep checking books out from the library rather than read the books I own or buy online. Ah, but that is, after all, the age old struggle of the Bibliophile
I’ve included here a link to the “Hope Speech” by Harvey Milk. The first link is a version in which Sir Ian Mckellen performs Harvey’s words as only he can, which means this delivery is beautiful
I’ve also included a link to a video of Harvey delivering a similar speech himself. Mr. McKellen is beautiful in every sense of the word, but sometimes you need to hear the original voice.
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