06 August 2007

Men (3): The Beauty of Men


For my father, sitting uncomfortably in that petit-point chair without arms, manliness was not discussable, but had it been, it would have included a good business suit, ambition, paying one’s bills on time, enough knowledge of baseball to hand out like tips at the barbershop, a residual but never foolhardy degree of courage, and an unbreachable reserve; to the headmaster manliness was discussed constantly, every day, and entailed tweeds, trust funds, graciousness to servants, a polite but chilly relationship to God, a pretended interest in knowledge and an obsessive interest in sports, especially muddy, dangerous ones like lacrosse or hockey or rugby that ended with great sullen lads hobbling off field to lean on sticks on the sidelines, the orange and blue vertical stripes of their jerseys clinging to panting diaphragms, bare knees scarred, blond hair brown with sweat, an apache streak of mud daubed across a wan, bellicose cheek.


Edmund White


My assumption of masculinity was relatively straightforward. You take the stereotype and you embody it. In some ways, you actually take it further than straight men, firstly because you can (you are aware of the representation) and secondly because you are performing more explicitly for a gay sexual economy that has, in many ways, uncritically exalted masculinity without critically engaging the limitations of such a paradigm. For what I learned from the Beautiful Amazons was that sexuality and gender were primarily performative, if also be grounded in the materiality of the body. However, to hold this view in relation to masculinity is, in some essential way, what makes one queer in the first place.

As Cherríe Moraga was led back to Chicanism@ through her lesbianism, I was led back into masculinity by my gayness. The men who taught me to be a man were other gay men, wrapped up in their own fetishistic desire for real men, straight men, masculine men, their fathers and brothers and school chums and roommates, and the gay porn stars and sex gods who most closely hewed to this representational ideal. A gay roommate taught me, using the mechanism of a cucumber, the proper way of briefly agitating the penis after urinating (my mother had instructed, curiously enough, the use of toilet paper to dry the tip). Gay men instructed me on the appropriate mannerisms of (gay) men: the stance, the walk, the look, the glare, the hunt. Gay men, natural born killers, introduced me to the sexual arts of homosexuality, the joy of gay sex, so to speak: the art of fellatio, the pleasure of anal sex, the recovery of the fecundity of the male body from loathing and disgust. And the larger shift was palpable.

Suddenly, I had cracked the code of sex, and combined with sexual sophistication, realised that the hard part wasn’t getting laid, it was figuring out everything that came with that. While gay men honored my femininity, my queenliness, my campy nature, they also instructed through their sexual opprobrium the proper assumption of butchness. Out with the cream-coloured sweaters and slacks, the hennaed hair, the precious affectations, and in with the buzzcuts, hoodies, jeans, goatees and beards, keeping one’s hands at one’s side, loving privately but liking publicly, at least when on the prowl.

One of the curious effects of Stonewall for gay men was a reification of an ersatz masculinity that was toe-to-toe with its heterosexual counterpart, if grounded in an open acknowledge of the homoeroticism of male culture. What is a urinal other than an institutionalised voyeurism? What is the communal shower room but an opportunity to gaze, however surreptitiously, at other men and their bodies in the heat and steam? Or contact sports, a manner of legitimised male touching, fondling, and physical intimacy? It is no accident that post-Stonewall gay culture exalted these spaces exactly, either through the domain of public sex or reconstructed in gay-specific sexual spaces. For not only do these spaces form the formative primal scenes of sexual desire for most gay men, they are also highly eroticised and charged as male-only vulnerability (a man is never as vulnerable as when he is naked among other men).

Of course, one of the primary critiques of feminists and lesbian-feminists of the 1970s (and those since) has been the paucity of a radical critique of gender among gay men. Authors like Andrew Holleran and Larry Kramer posed the question, in various guises, as to why gay men turned liberation into an orgy. To the first, I would guardedly agree, to the second I have no succinct answer, but suffice it to say insofar as gay men openly acknowledge the performative nature of their masculine games, their bears and wolves and cubs and “straight-acting” and “masculine” as teatro, there is a critique of gender occurring: a playful and subversive excavation of the ahistorical masculine ideal. If you want butch, we’ll bring it (and then some).

Where we lose the thread is when gay men begin to believe their performances, begin to mistake playacting for the real, the natural, and then exalt such simulacra as transparent and self-evident. In this fundamental confusion, they have not been alone. But the lash is particularly sharp for the boys who grew up as girls, desiring the feminine, outside of masculine normativity. The quest to attain masculinity on our own terms is a journey often met with refusal from both men and women of all sexualities. And ironically, the gender games of gay men have now reached mainstream heterodominant society, through the guise of metrosexuality and an increased attention to grooming, self-presentation, and through feminism, concepts of emotional capacity and demonstration. Gay men now return to mainstream (“straight”) masculinity their own sharp sense of performance, of desire, of longing, taming on some level the beast that made most of our lives hellish in another place and time. Whether or not this return of the repressed is a good thing remains open to debate.

The risk, of course, if that these diffused notions of gender lose their critical edges in translation, transmitting the worst of gender (self-doubt, obsession, illness, the fetish of performance) without the liberation, without the release, without the understanding of the drama. I can embody masculinity more easily now because I realise I have options. There is a reassurance in the mimesis, a comforting ability to pass unmolested on a daily basis, to meet gender expectations. But this is not necessarily forever. In my experience, most men, whether straight or gay or someplace in between, are fundamentally confused about masculinity, and what it means "to be" a man. There are recognisable archetypes, ideals, tropes of desire, but for any individual man, the answer to the question “What is a man?” is most often either fuzzily stereotypical or a retreat into the self as a modicum of example.

On some level, this series of entries was actually prompted by my scopophilic pleasure, at appreciating the beauty of men. We have a popular culture notion of what that means: the athlete, the model, the star, the buffed and beautiful. Rather, as a sexual omnivore, what I mean by the beauty of men is the celebration of men in all their quirky strangeness— fat and skinny and tall and short and those that are handsome and others not so much. The ability to appreciate a wide variety of men and their bodies and their personalities as exciting, as desirous, as fleeting moments of potential, exciting in their own right as ideas and ideals.

An oft-discussed montage scene in the film Lianna concerns the central character’s movement into lesbian identity, her realisation of her lesbian desire, as she walks down the street and she notices many different types of women in space as objects of her desire. This random, inchoate sexual and social joy is what I am reaching for here, the open acknowledgement of homoerotic desire. For to enter into the tribe of gay men was to fundamentally recognise the beauty of men, the opportunities and stories and drama that every man potentially represents. Both Holleran and Kramer reach for this wondrous joy, this hunger after deprivation, as a potential reason for gay promiscuity, and that no doubt is part of it.

But the simpler reflective space that such longing provides is more important than the actual bodies of men. For if part of mainstream masculinity now is gayness, than gayness also contributes that open, frank acknowledgment of men and masculinity both as object and aesthetic site, terms we don’t necessarily associate with progressive politics but that are central to the drama of gay identity formation, for better or worse. The better side of this coin is that it frees men, gay and potentially straight, to recognise each other not only as objects of desire but as subjects of desire as well, as honouring a type of intimate and affectionate and appreciative masculinity that is new and old simultaneously, buried under the modern heteronormative loathing of same-sex desire that arguably constrains and tortures most men into a very small, very dark corner.

Becoming a man for me meant acknowledging this desire, this greater beauty of men. It was only then that I could occupy that space that for so long I thought excluded me.

1 comment:

adjunct whore said...

wow, this is a lovely and fascinating post. i have nothing critical to add--but your analysis of enculturation into queerness and particularly its similarity to straight culture is interesting especially given your own performative perspective.