Sep 20, 2014

Fall 1976: Discovering What Gay Means

Up until my junior year in high school, I had no idea that gay people existed.  I knew about fairies, boys who had the audacity to pretend that they were girls (bad at sports, good at schoolwork), and swishes, monstrous beings who conflated masculine and feminine. But I never associated these beings with same-sex desire or acts.

No one did.  Everyone I knew dismissed same-sex desire as something else, hero worship or friendship, and same-sex acts were simply beyond the boundaries of what could be imagined.

Even though I engaged in some at music camp during the summer after my sophomore year.

Still, I didn't figure out that gay people existed until that fall.

1. September 29th: On TV, Alice met an ex-football player (Denny Miller, left), who said that he was gay.  So of course he has no romantic interest in her.  But all men, I was told, spent their lives in passionate pursuit of the feminine.  Who was this exception?  What was "gay"?

2. October 6th: in Rolling Stone, Elton John stated that he was "bisexual."  Nowhere in the article was the word defined, but I knew"bi" from "bisect" and "bicentennial": divide into two.  Did he have "two sexes"?

October 9th: On TV: a  new patient (Howard Hesseman) joined Bob Newhart's therapy group, and the others were horrified to discover that he is gay.  Elliot Carlson (right) is particularly worried about...something.  But what?

November 1st:  On TV, Phyllis dated a man who did not find her attractive.  He explained that he was gay.

November 10th:  Mr. Manary's Political Science class car-pooled down-town to the County Courthouse to see a real criminal trial in progress.

The case was about a shooting that took place outside the Hawaiian Lounge, which we all knew was a fairy hangout.  Sure enough, a swish was called to the witness stand: tall and gaunt, with long, greasy hair and mascara-ed eyes. He explained that he was parked across the street at the time, so he saw everything. The attorney wanted to know why he was parked in downtown Rock Island on a bitter cold January evening.

“We had just come from the Hawaiian Lounge, and we were deciding where to eat.”
“Who was in the car with you?” the attorney asked.
He named two men and a woman.
“Why was there a woman with them?” I whispered to my friend Darry. “Swishes hate women.”
“Maybe it was two of Them and a normal couple,” he whispered back. “Maybe it was two swishes on a double date!”

This made no sense. Swishes hated women, so how could they date. ..unless he meant. ..but they couldn't possibly date each other! They were both boys!

But if you don't find women attractive, maybe you find men attractive, so you want to date....

November 14th: in the public library, researching prisons (for the same civics class), I was leafing aimlessly through a book, when I happened upon a black and white photo (not this one).

It took a long moment for me to comprehend what I was seeing; it simply didn't make sense.  Two male prisoners were standing in front of a chain link fence, with their backs to the camera. Holding hands.

I stared for a long time, thinking “No, this is impossible.” Only little kids, parents and children, and boyfriends and girlfriends held hands.. Men didn’t even touch each other’s hands. If their hands met by accident, they would jerk away, too disgusted for words.The caption talked about the “problem of homosexuals in prison.” So fairies  -- swishes -- homosexuals -- gays dated each other, held hands.

Suddenly embarrassed, as if I had been caught viewing pornography, I slammed the book shut.  Darry looked up at me quizzically.

November 15th: On TV: Maude's husband (Bill Macy) dreamed that he kissed a man, and worried that he might be gay.

So gays not only dated and held hands: they kissed!  Maybe they reached under frilly sweaters to feel each others' powdery marshmallow bodies.  Maybe they even had sex.

But I still didn't connect gays holding hands with the boys holding hands among the candles in the Don Grady song.  Or gays dating with my dates with boys.  Or gays having sex with me and Todd spending the night together at music camp.

I wouldn't make the connection for another year and a half, not until the summer of  1978.

Sep 19, 2014

The Gay Werewolf of Steppenwolf

When I was an undergraduate at Augustana College in the early 1980s, I took three German classes with tall, gray-haired, constantly-scowling Professor Weber, who was obsessed with demonstrating that homosexualitat did not exist in modern Germany.

Stefan George, Thomas Mann, the Physical Culture Movement, Robert Musil, Magnus Hirschfield, the Kit-Kat Club of Berlin between the Wars?

"Posh!  Nonsense!  About friendship and the nationalist ideal, not homosexualitat!"

He would allow no discussion of current campus favorite Steppenwolf  by Herman Hesse: "Posh!  Nonsense!  A book of monsters!  Fit only for the Late-Late Show!"

So of course, I had to read it.

The cover illustration of two nearly-naked women nearly turned me away.

As did the clueless school librarian who kept trying to point me to the music section, insisting that the book was about the rock band Steppenwolf.

But finally I managed to get a copy.

I saw immediately why Dr. Weber forbade the class from discussing it.

The protagonist, Henry Haller, feels depressed, friendless, and alienated from the world he no longer understands -- what adolescent hasn't felt like that?  Especially gay adolescents.

The source of his alienation: he is a werewolf, a man with two natures, one civilized and stable and heterosexual, the other wild.

Wild, savage, untamed, homoerotic.

While wandering aimlessly through the city, he sees an advertisement for "Magic Theater -- not for everybody." (Or, in this Spanish sign, "for lunatics only.").

 Maybe in the Magic Theater he will find a way to reconcile his two natures.  Or maybe it will lead him to oblivion.  He resolves to seek it out.

En route, he meets two people.  Hermine nurtures his "civilized" side, introducing him to the pleasures and constraints of heterosexual normalcy, including sex with women.

Seductive saxophonist Pablo offers him a "walk on the wild side."

(In the 1974 film version, Henry is played by Max von Sydow, and Pablo by Pierre Clementi).

Eventually Henry kills his "civilized side," and Pablo announces that he is ready for the Magic Theater. He walks inside, through a narrow corridor into the future.

For the gay men of my generation, it sounds precisely like your first visit to a gay bar.  You circle the block a few times, then park, and walk slowly, terrified, to that door marked "Magic Theater: Not for Everybody."  Your future lies behind it.

Hesse envisioned several other close male "walks on the wild side," in Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) and Magister Ludi (1943).  

See also: Death in Venice; and Male Nudity in German Class;

Sep 18, 2014

Bring on the Spider-Men

I'm not a big fan of superheroes in general, and Spider-Man is at the bottom of my list.  I walked out on the first movie (2002) starring Tobey Maguire, and I've never seen The Ultimate Spider-Man, in spite of its 10 Ultimate Hunks.

So the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Night (2011-2014) was not high on my must-see list.

It was one of the most expensive musicals in history, riddled with production accidents (Spidey has a lot of web-swinging to do).

It was panned by critics, who complained that it combined the worst set-pieces of the 2002  with pretentious Greek-chorus stuff, and ignores Spidey's comic book origins.

It was certainly heterosexist, with Mary Jane being captured and melting into Spidey's arms every five minutes.

But it has something that the comic book never had:  multiple Spider-Men.

You need a lot for all the stunts, and because they keep getting injured.

Spider-Men include man-mountains like Matthew Wilkas (top photo), Reed Kelly (left), Adam Ray Dyer (below).

Jake Odmark, Justin Matthew Sargent, Matthew James Thomas, Marcus Bellamy, and on and on and on....

And the Spider-Men's costumes seem particularly bulge-worthy.  Apparently being bitten by a radioactive spider adds considerable bulk beneath the belt.  How many can you count in this curtain call of four Spidermen sans mask?

How about now, with nine Spidermen strutting their stuff on Times Square?

New productions are being planned for major cities in America and Europe, so you may yet have a chance to gawk at your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Men.

Fall 1987: My Date with Richard Dreyfuss

See Tales of West Hollywood.

Sep 17, 2014

Fall 2006: My Personal Trainer

For twenty years, I only went to gay-specific gyms.  Who wanted to work out with a bunch of heterosexual gym rats talking about breasts and making homophobic jokes?  So I went to:

1. The Hollywood Spa (now the Hollywood Gym) on LaBrea, less than a mile from Alan's apartment in West Hollywood.
2. L.A. Fitness on Wilshire.
3. The Sunset Gym on Lincoln Way in San Francisco.
4. Crunch Gym in Manhattan.
5. Barney's Gym in Wilton Manors.

But in 2005 I  moved to Dayton, where there were no gay-specific gyms.  I had no choice but to try the Better Bodies Fitness Center.

Sure enough, whenever I worked out, I heard constant "bzz bzz bzz girls bzz bzz bzz girls bzz bzz bzz girls” like background music.  Plus snippets of :
“Lots of fine ladies here tonight!”
“Man, she was hot!”
“I wish he was single, he’d bag her in a minute!”

One day as I was plodding along on the treadmill at my middle-aged speed, the tall, lanky hunk on the tread-mill to his left kept glancing over at me. Was he interested, I wondered, or just waiting to administer CPR?  We jogged in silence for awhile, and his glances became more bold, more openly appreciative. So I smiled and said hello.

He smiled in return. “She’s pretty hot, huh?

It seems that the whole time he had been glancing past me, at a lady jogging to my right.

The mistake is commonplace – how often have you returned a startlingly enthusiastic greeting from an acquaintance or stranger, only to discover that someone else was being addressed? Today, however, it reinforced my awareness that I was an interloper in Kansas, a stranger – it had never occurred to me that he might be looking at the lady to my right, and it had never occurred to him that I might be looking at anyone else.

But the worst heterosexism came in the fall of 2006, when I hired a personal trainer.


Thomas was bronze, buffed, and cheery, with a severe military buzz-cut and the granite-chiseled jaw of a sports announcer. He was a semi-pro bodybuilder, with a few minor awards but not enough money or endorsements to quit his day job.

Gay or straight?  Not enough evidence to determine, until he read from my chart, “So you want to lose weight, increase your muscle mass, get popular with the ladies?"

I protested that I didn't want to get popular with the ladies, but Thomas was already heading toward an incline press machine.

Three sets of twelve reps later, he returned to the la-ies: “You have pretty broad shoulders already, so you should concentrate on your pecs. Women go crazy over a nice chest!"

I decided to go for a shock reveal: "So do I. But I go even crazier over six-pack abs. And biceps!  He could be the poster boy for ugly and eat cats for breakfast, and I’m still asking him out to dinner and a movie!"

But Thomas continued without comment or expression of surprise. “For the lateral raise, we’ll start you at thirty pounds.” He demonstrated, brick-wall chest against my back.  Then he said: “If you like the toned, athletic type, you should come in on Tuesday nights. You can take your pick of the muscle babes.”

Surely Thomas meant male “muscle babes”? At least, I pretended that was what he meant. “Great!” he exclaimed. “Are any of them gay?”

“No, no.  Nothing like that.” Thomas relieved me of the thirty-pound dumbbells. “I mean, if you do run into a lesbian, just move on to the next. There’s plenty of girls to go around.”

He still thought I was straight!

See also: My Relatives Still Closet Me; and The Secret Life of Rod the Pharmacist.

Sep 15, 2014

Henry Danger: A New Nickelodeon Gay-Subtext Classic?

The Disney Channel loves teencoms about kids who are training to become singers.

Nickelodeon puts them into bizarre, unexpected situations.

Which would you rather watch?

In Henry Danger, the new Nickelodeon teencom, average kid Henry (13-year old Jace Norman) lands his dream job: Danger Boy, teen sidekick to superhero Captain Man (Cooper Barnes).

He gets to wear a superhero costume, hang out in a cool futuristic hideout, and fight colorful Batman-like villains.

Did I mention that the job pays $9 per hour?

Of course, Henry can't tell anyone, but that's part of the fun.  What kid doesn't want to live a secret life?

Especially a gay kid.

Jace Norman is exceptionally androgynous -- with a change of outfit, he could easily be a girl -- so the gay symbolism seems almost deliberate.

He has two best friends, the sarcastic, sassy Charlotte (Riele Downs) and the rather dimwitted Jasper (Sean Ryan Fox).  No doubt a heterosexual romance is in the offing with one, and a gay-subtext romance with the other.

Captain Man (Cooper Barnes) was heterosexualized in the first episode with a set-piece of his alter ego romancing a woman, but he's probably going to be up for some gay symbolism, too.

Cooper Barnes, seen here as Hawkman, is no stranger to gay subtexts.  He starred in a short video about football fans engaging in unconscious homoerotic behavior,

And Nickelodeon seems dedicated to filling supporting roles with musclemen.

Like Ben Giroux, seen here flexing in a commercial, as the villainous Toddler.

It's still too soon to know if Henry Danger will become a gay-subtext classic, like Drake and Josh and Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide. But it's off to a good start.

See also: Henry Danger Grows Up

Winthrop: A Gay Kid in 1960s Comics

When I was a kid, if you wanted a good comic strip, like The Wizard of Id or Doonesbury, you had to go across the Mississippi to Iowa and buy the Davenport Times-Democrat. A lot of people did.  Rock Island's newspaper, The Argus (what kind of stupid name was that?), ran only thousand-year old strips like Out Our Way and Alley Oop.

And bargain-basement knock-offs.  Instead of Peanuts, with Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy, we got Winthrop, about a similar group of kids, but with none of the humor or ironic wit.

Apparently Winthrop wasn't intended to be a Peanuts knock-off.  Dick Cavalli started it in 1956 as Morty Meekle, about a mild-mannered office drone who was dating Jill Wortle over her father's strong objections.  Eventually he found the "disapproving dad" schtick too limiting, and started centering strips around Jill's preteen brother Winthrop.  In 1966, Morty and Jill vanished forever, and the strip was renamed Winthrop.

But at least it had gay-vague characters.

Winthrop had a set of quirky friends and relatives, most of whom I don't recall. There was a parrot who quoted Shakespeare, a best friend, a girl with a crush on him, a sister, a bully...nothing special.

But Spotless McPartland was nattily dressed, an intellectual, not into sports, and a germaphobe, sort of the Felix Ungar of the comic strip crowd.

And Foster Norman encapsulated the childhood fear of balloons: they might lift you off the ground and send you soaring into space.

He floated, balloon in hand, over the landscape, week after week, year after year.  He couldn't come down; he was lost  He looked on from above, occasionally making ironic comments about a world that no longer made sense, with rules that he no longer understood.

Even his name was evocative: "Foster," a foster child, someone who doesn't really belong, and "Norman," close to "no man," a boy who will never become a man.

I understood being an outsider, looking onto a world that made no sense, where the cries of "What girl do you like?" filled the air, and same-sex bonds were trivialized and ignored.

I was floating, observing but not belonging.  I was the boy with the balloon.

See also: Gay-coded Peanuts.

Sep 14, 2014

Manga: Gay Japanese Comics

When I visited Japan in 1986, I saw manga everywhere: thick, heavy books of sequential art, similar to Western comic books but with a different history, a distinctive style, and a much larger audience.  Everybody was reading manga, not just fanboys, and they came in many different genres, from comedy to drama to the hardest of hard-core porn.

In the absence of Western hysteria concerning gay people, same-sex desire and relationships are commonly portrayed as unremarkable facts of life, even in manga aimed at juveniles.

Yaoi are manga involving romances between teenage boys, both drawn as ultra-feminine and girlish, aimed at an audience of teenage girls.  They seem to be the Japanese equivalent of Western teen idols, who are commonly presented as androgynous.

(Yuri are the female equivalent, involving romances between teenage girls.)

If you prefer more masculine men, try bara, manga involving hirsute man-mountains in love.

Here are some of the more popular (but non-pornographic) gay-themed manga available in English translation.  Many have also been turned into anime (Japanese cartoons).

But be careful...they are convoluted, multi-volume, so once you start, you'll have to read a dozen or more to get the whole story.

1. Close the Last Door! Nagai is a salaryman who is secretly in love with his coworker, Saito, who is about to marry a woman.....

2.Silver Diamond. High school student Sawa teams up with the intergalactic outlaw Chigusa, to try to save Chigusa's planet from evil plant creatures.

3. Punch Up. Sophisticated young architect Motoharu has lost his pet cat.  Rough, husky factory worker Kouta has found it.  The two mistrust each other at first, but....

4. Three Wolves Mountain. Kaya runs a cafe in a small, isolated town.  One night he meets two werewolf brothers (fox spirits in the original Japanese).  He falls in love with the younger brother, but the full moon is coming....

5. Antique Bakery. Famous baker Ono is accustomed to getting any guy he wants, using both his superlative physique and his baking skills.  But his boss, Tachibana, seems oblivious.  Until....

6. One Thousand and One Nights.  The sultan keeps marrying women and killing them, and Sehara's sister Shahrazad is next in line!  He is willing to do anything to save her, including....

7. Loveless. Ritsuka is a "catboy," who will lose his cat-like qualities when he loses his virginity.  He and an older man named Soubi team up to find his brother's killer, and encounter a mysterious organization called The Seventh Moon....

8. Hetalia Axis Powers. World War II is recreated by characters named after the countries involved: Italy, Germany, Japan, America, England, France.  Except now they can form hidden alliances and fall in love...

9. Crimson Spell. Prince Vaid suffers under a curse: he turns into a demon every night!  He seeks out the assistance of the powerful sorcerer Halvi, who is afraid to tell him about the one act that can break the curse....

10. G-Defend. Ishikawa is an instructor for the Japanese Security and Anti-Terrorist Squad. His assistant, Iwase, has a secret crush on him....