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.