A Jock With Glasses Is Not a Geek

As mainstream gay culture transforms “geeky” into little more than a sexy look, how does an actual geek find his people?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus; ajr_images/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

You’ve probably heard of the idea of a queer “scene,” perhaps most often from people who don’t care for it. But what, exactly, is this scene? Who’s a part of it? Who isn’t? Who decides? Is there more than one? What happens when a scene evolves—or when it doesn’t? These are the questions we’ve gathered a group of writers to consider for an Outward special issue on “The Scene” in LGBTQ life today. You can read all of the stories in the issue here, and you can listen to a full episode of the Outward podcast covering more of the queer scene by subscribing on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio.

So when I first came out as gay, it was easy to embrace my new identity because of the experiences I’d already had as a geek. In a sense, both involve rebuffing the expectations of society and taking pride in what made me me, regardless of what anyone else thought. But socially, there were big differences. Connecting with friends who share your geeky affinities is relatively easy, but finding community among other gay men has proved to be more of a Water Temple–level task.

Comparing the gay community to a stereotypical high school’s clique culture is unoriginal, but apt. Social capital is valuable and similarly earned by being attractive, cool, and “popular.” As I figured out how being gay intersected with the rest of my life, I immediately felt that participating in “the scene”—here meaning social clubs or bars—came with certain expectations about how I should look, what I should prioritize in my life, and what I should take an interest in. It was like there was a direct contradiction between what it meant to be a proud non-conforming geek and what it would take to be a proudly conforming gay man. As the dating apps came about, however, I noticed that they universally provided an option to self-identify as a “geek,” and I wondered if it was becoming increasingly possible to have the best of both worlds. But that’s not what happened.

When the Borg assimilate an individual, they retain any attributes that would add value to the Collective and replace all other parts with cybernetic adaptations. As the traditional lodestars of geekdom (like fantasy, sci-fi, and video games) have achieved more mainstream appeal with the advent of superhero blockbusters and binge-able prestige television, I’ve watched the gay community process the “geek” identity in much the same way, incorporating certain aspects into the calculus for how to achieve gay social capital while dismissing the rest. I’m now left feeling like the word “geek” just means “a jock with glasses”—and I’ve only got the glasses.

There was a somewhat recent milestone that demarcated the progress of this assimilation for me. In the first week of September 2016, many of the gay blogs were tittering about a new Men.com porn film called “Fuckémon Go.” With stars Johnny Rapid as Ash and Will Braun as Brock, the film capitalized on the popularity of the Pokémon Go app with campy fanfare. What struck me, however, is that unlike the rest of the site’s musclebound superhero-themed films, this particular parody took something I personally considered purely geeky and sexualized it with stereotypically twinkish, fit bodies. My takeaway: Geeks are welcome in a mainstream gay fantasy space like Men.com so long as they’re hot enough to turn a profit.

As someone who also identifies with the “bear” tribe (and not the similarly appropriated muscle- and daddy- varieties), it’s been hard not to see body image superficiality as the main gravitational force at the center of almost all gay scenes. Particularly as apps increasingly dominate our social interactions, what I have to offer in terms of personality, hobbies, or sense of humor takes a back seat to whether or not I measure up aesthetically. This has left me feeling betrayed by those who check the “geek” box on their profiles—and who maybe even list some geeky interests that catch my eye—then refuse to engage whatsoever. Are you really a geek if you’d let a person’s looks get in the way of connecting with someone who shares your niche interests?

But even among people I already know, engagement doesn’t always meet my expectations. I remember one brunch a few years ago with a group of gay men who I believed shared at least some of my geeky affinities. Not knowing all of them well, I tried to engage on topics I thought would serve up some stimulating dialogue. The brunch, however, ended up being dominated by discussion about the gym, including but not limited to: workout preferences, stories about other men they’d seen at the gym, and encounters flirting with men at the gym. It was a topic I had little interest in and little to contribute to.

Finding community among other gay men has proved to be more of a Water Temple-level task.”

I’ve been a geek as long as I can remember, certainly as far back as fourth grade, when I’d regularly wear the Star Trek: The Next Generation T-shirt I’d picked up at a convention. This aspect of my identity has meant having a deep (if not obsessive) appreciation for aspects of culture that are nuanced, complicated, high-minded, and importantly, not caring how anyone else feels about it. For example, I refused to read Harry Potter—for years—just to spite my friends who said it was “so much better” than “boring” The Lord of the Rings, even though they had only made it halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring. Popularity could not sway me from what I personally enjoyed.

I left the brunch feeling ostracized, like the admission price to communing even with fellow gay geeks was buying into an obsession with improving my body and feeding into others’ same concerns. But whatever other people think of my body, I’m not insecure about it, I don’t enjoy exercise, and I know—from trying—that forcing myself into that world was not a positive experience. I’m a geek: I want to like the things I like and not worry about conforming to everyone else’s expectations. I’m not here to demand anyone take up my geeky passions, but I don’t feel like the same respect is reciprocated when it comes to my disinterest in fitness.

That’s not to say I haven’t found occasional opportunities for my gay and geek identities to intersect. Groups like Geeks OUT create great little social meetups, and D.C.’s newest gay sports bar is equipped with some video game consoles. These inconsistently available experiences, however, still pale in comparison to what feels like the weekly takeover of the bars by the kickball teams. In high school, the jocks might have picked on us gays, but as gay adults, we’ve re-created the exact same social structure for ourselves.

Another entry point to the stereotypical scene I’ve found has been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race out at bars with friends. They might not admit it, but many people have a geek-like obsession when it comes to following their favorite queens, and discussing who should win the current season is a great icebreaker. The kink and leather community has also felt far more geek-friendly, which is not surprising given the similar investment many people make in that aspect of their lives (not to mention the taboo it still faces in society). But I don’t love drag or leather nearly as much as others do, so I’m still on the hunt for my gaggle.

To be sure, as a cisgender, white gay man, I know that my request for “the scene” to be more welcoming of geeks is small potatoes compared to some of the other work the queer community must undertake in terms of inclusion, particularly around race, gender, and gender identity. But with so many gay men already identifying as “geeks,” it seems like there’s an easy opportunity for the community to mature beyond the high school cafeteria and show that it’s capable of becoming a bit more heterogeneous without losing its distinct

A great place to start would be on the apps, which are increasingly serving as a substitute for the bars and community centers where the queer community traditionally communed. Don’t be afraid to let your geek flag fly in your profile! And if you see someone with some similar interests, why not throw a fellow geek a bone? For example, you could ask me about my favorite captain, Doctor, or Final Fantasy, come to a live West Wing Weekly taping with me, or help me theory-craft my next Path of Exile character build.

It’s fine if we’re not a sexual match. There’s still something joyous about finding someone who’s as obsessed with a certain fantasy universe as you are. And if we start building more social bridges that way, maybe someday we’ll be the ones taking over “the scene” in our brightly colored Stonewall Board Games or Stonewall Smash Bros. T-shirts. I happen to think there’s room for all of us. Can I get a “so say we all” up in here?

Reference

The American Government Once Intentionally Poisoned Certain Alcohol Supplies, Resulting In The Death Of Over 10,000 American Citizens

In an effort to scare people away from drinking alcohol, the American government once poisoned certain alcohol supplies; this resulted in the death of over 10,000 American Citizens.

This, of course, was during Prohibition.  The government became frustrated with the fact that despite the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol being banned, the number of people drinking alcoholic beverages was markedly higher than it was before Prohibition.  So to try to get people to stop drinking, the government decided to try a scare tactic.

One way bootleggers of this time made alcoholic beverages was to use denatured, industrial alcohol as the base.  Denaturing the alcohol is simply a process to make it undrinkable, usually by adding something that makes it taste or smell disgusting or will induce vomiting.  This was originally done (and is still done to this day) in order to allow companies to get around having to pay the high taxes associated with the manufacturing and sale of alcohol meant to be drunk.  Alcohol used industrially, for non-beverage applications, are denatured and thus, they don’t have to pay these taxes and so it is significantly cheaper, gallon for gallon.  Without this tax break, literally thousands of industrial products would become drastically more expensive than they currently are.

During prohibition, this denatured alcohol was often stolen from companies that made industrial alcohol used in various paints and solvents and the like.  The bootleggers would then have their own chemists whose job it was to make the alcohol palatable again, basically undoing the denaturing process or to “renature” the alcohol.

With an estimated 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol stolen annually in the 1920s to be later renatured and sold as drinkable alcohol, the government, under President Coolidge, decided to up the stakes and make some of the denaturing formulas lethal, instead of just designed to make the alcohol unpalatable.  To do this, they’d generally add things like methyl alcohol (the main denaturing chemical at 10% added, even today); other chemicals added are things such as kerosene, brucine, gasoline, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde, chloroform, carbolic acid, acetone, and many others that were difficult for the bootlegger’s chemists to get out when they’d renature the alcohol.

After the first 100 or so people died shortly after the new denaturing process was released around Christmas, health officials were outraged and the news media picked up the story as intended.  Unfortunately, the government’s plan didn’t quite work from that point on.  It didn’t scare people away from drinking and rather had little to no effect on people’s consumption of alcohol; instead, the estimates are that it resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 people with a much larger number severely sickened and many blinded by the poisoning.

As New York City’s medical examiner Charles Norris stated: “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol.  Yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.” (Chuck Norris fighting the man even back then) 😉

People at the time, though, were split on the poisoning program, even with the deaths that were happening because of it.  One side felt that the people who were drinking the illegal alcohol got what they deserved, particularly because they knew the risks and broke the law anyways; the other side felt it was a national experiment on exterminating members of society that the government felt were undesirable as American citizens.  As one Chicago Tribune article in 1927 stated: “Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified.”

Now, to be clear, the various governments of the world still require denaturing of alcohol that is not for oral consumption and the standard requirement of 10% methyl alcohol is still in effect in most countries.  This isn’t really a problem anymore because people have much better ways to get their alcohol than trying to deal with denatured alcohol.  The problem at the time was that the government knew full well that people would be drinking this poisoned alcohol and they hoped the deaths that resulted from this would scare other people away from drinking.  Further, when it was clear that it wasn’t scaring anyone away from drinking and literally thousands were dying per year with significantly more than that severely sickened, they kept the program going anyways, though it was hotly debated in Congress.

So next time you start thinking the U.S. government is impossibly screwed up today; headed down the tubes; and beyond fixing, well, if you study American history much at all, it’s pretty clear it used to be a lot more screwed up than it is today, not just concerning this issue, but many, many others.  And yet, we’re still here. 🙂

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Boring facts

  • The term “The Real McCoy” originated in the prohibition era.  Captain William S. McCoy was a rum runner who coordinated most rum transported by ship during prohibition.  He was known for never watering down his imports; thus, his product was “The Real McCoy”.
  • This wasn’t the only time the U.S. Government decided to poison the supply of some illegal substance in order to try to scare people away from using it.  In the 1970s the government sprayed marijuana fields with Paraquat, which is an herbicide.  They thought this had the dual benefit of killing large portions of the crop and also scaring people away from buying marijuana in those areas because the surviving plants would essentially be laced with a mild toxin.  Public outcry at the time however, forced the government to stop doing this.
  • It was the 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States (note: it didn’t ban the consumption of alcohol).  The Volstead Act, officially the “National Prohibition Act”, then laid out the rules for this ban and was passed on October 28, 1919, despite President Wilson’s veto; prohibition itself began on January 1st, 1920.  Only 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents were hired to enforce this act, nationwide.
  • The Volstead Act was amended on March 22, 1933 by the Cullen-Harrison Act, which allowed the manufacturing and sale of certain kinds of alcoholic beverages.  The 18th Amendment itself was repealed in December of 1933.    When President Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, he made the now famous remark, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”  A mere one day after the Cullen-Harrison Act went into effect on April 7, 1933, Anheuser-Busch, Inc, sent a case of Budweiser to the White House as a gift to President Roosevelt.
  • As happens quite often when people are told they can’t do something, the banning of alcohol resulted in alcoholic beverages being consumed at an estimated three times the rate it was before the banning took effect.
  • Prohibition was widely supported by diverse groups across the nation when it first was made law, even among the heavy drinkers.  It was widely thought that a ban on alcohol would drastically improve society as a whole (many of society’s problems of the day were thought to be a result of rampant alcohol use; some were even actually valid points, though many were not).  Thus, sacrificing alcoholic drinks was a little thing compared to creating a better society.  Will Rogers often joked about the southern prohibitionists: “The South is dry and will vote dry. That is, everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls.”
  • One of the chief controversies of the day among medical professionals was that alcohol was prescribed by physicians for medicinal purposes.  As such, medical professionals across the nation lobbied for the repeal of prohibition as it applied to medicinal liquors, such as beer, which was often prescribed.
  • While the Volstead Act banned the manufacturing, sale, and transport of alcohol, it did allow home brewing of wine and cider from fruit.  An individual home was allowed to produce up to 200 gallons per year.
  • Grape growers of the day began selling “bricks of wine”, which were primarily blocks of “Rhine Wine”.  These often included the following instructions: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.”
  • Also because the Volstead Act did not ban the consumption or storage of alcohol, before the act went into effect, many people stockpiled various alcoholic beverages.
  • Notorious gangster Al Capone, Bugs Moran, and many others made their riches primarily through illegal alcohol sales and distribution.  Capone controlled over 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago alone.  Speakeasies were basically places that discreetly served liquor.  They often also served food and had live bands to make themselves look like credible institutions.  Others were simply regular businesses that kept alcohol on hand to sell to patrons who knew of their side-business.
  • The term “speakeasy” comes from bartenders telling patrons to “speak easy” when ordering, so as not to be overheard.
  • The repeal of the Volstead Act not only took the primary funding away from numerous gangsters, but also created thousands of new jobs at a time when they were desperately needed in the United States.
  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATF) maintains a list of approved formulas by which to render the ethanol undrinkable, which can be found here.  These range from formulas to make it taste gross all the way to being very lethal.
  • Today in the United States about 50% of people report drinking more than 12 alcoholic beverages in the last year; about 14% say they drank 1-11 alcoholic beverages in the last year; with the remaining 36% abstaining from alcoholic beverages in the calendar year the survey was done. Source: Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2008, table 27
  • The total for all alcohol related deaths per year in the United States is around 85,000 deaths a year.  For comparison, the number of deaths associated with Tobacco annually is around 400,000-500,000;  poor diet and physical inactivity at around  365,000; prescription drug related deaths around 32,000; suicide around 30,600; homicide around 20,000; gun-related deaths around 29,000; aspirin related deaths around 7,000; all illicit drug use at around 17,000; and Marijuana deaths around 0. 😉
  • The word “prohibition” comes from the Latin “prohibitionem”, meaning “hindering or forbidding”.  It was used to mean “forced alcohol abstinence” as early as 1851.

Reference

Gay History: History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements

Most historians agree that there is evidence of homosexual activity and same-sex love, whether such relationships were accepted or persecuted, in every documented culture.

A brief history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender social movements/Bonnie J. Morris, PhD

On June 12, 2016, the popular gay dance club Pulse in Orlando was the site of a mass shooting by one assailant. With at least 49 dead and another 50 injured, this hate crime is being called the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. It occurred during what was LGBT Pride weekend for towns and cities in and beyond the United States. The immediate, caring response from mayors, police and FBI authorities, local and national politicians, and the President of the United States, who reached out to express outrage and concern, demonstrates the enormous shift toward acceptance and public support for the LGBT community. Although the LGBT community and individuals remain targets for hate violence and backlash throughout the world, the hard work of activists and allies made it possible to reach this era, where the perpetrators of violence, not the victims, are condemned as sick.

Social movements, organizing around the acceptance and rights of persons who might today identify as LGBT or queer, began as responses to centuries of persecution by church, state and medical authorities. Where homosexual activity or deviance from established gender roles/dress was banned by law or traditional custom, such condemnation might be communicated through sensational public trials, exile, medical warnings and language from the pulpit. These paths of persecution entrenched homophobia for centuries—but also alerted entire populations to the existence of difference. Whether an individual recognized they, too, shared this identity and were at risk, or dared to speak out for tolerance and change, there were few organizations or resources before the scientific and political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Gradually, the growth of a public media and ideals of human rights drew together activists from all walks of life, who drew courage from sympathetic medical studies, banned literature, emerging sex research and a climate of greater democracy. By the 20th century, a movement in recognition of gays and lesbians was underway, abetted by the social climate of feminism and new anthropologies of difference. However, throughout 150 years of homosexual social movements (roughly from the 1870s to today), leaders and organizers struggled to address the very different concerns and identity issues of gay men, women identifying as lesbians, and others identifying as gender variant or nonbinary. White, male and Western activists whose groups and theories gained leverage against homophobia did not necessarily represent the range of racial, class and national identities complicating a broader LGBT agenda. Women were often left out altogether.

What is the pre-history of LGBT activism? Most historians agree that there is evidence of homosexual activity and same-sex love, whether such relationships were accepted or persecuted, in every documented culture. We know that homosexuality existed in ancient Israel simply because it is prohibited in the Bible, whereas it flourished between both men and women in Ancient Greece. Substantial evidence also exists for individuals who lived at least part of their lives as a different gender than assigned at birth. From the lyrics of same-sex desire inscribed by Sappho in the seventh century BCE to youths raised as the opposite sex in cultures ranging from Albania to Afghanistan; from the “female husbands” of Kenya to the Native American “Two-Spirit,” alternatives to the Western male-female and heterosexual binaries thrived across millennia and culture. These realities gradually became known to the West via travelers’ diaries, the church records of missionaries, diplomats’ journals, and in reports by medical anthropologists. Such eyewitness accounts in the era before other media were of course riddled with the biases of the (often) Western or white observer, and added to beliefs that homosexual practices were other, foreign, savage, a medical issue, or evidence of a lower racial hierarchy. The peaceful flowering of early trans or bisexual acceptance in different indigenous civilizations met with opposition from European and Christian colonizers.

In the age of European exploration and empire-building, Native American, North African and Pacific Islander cultures accepting of “Two-Spirit” people or same-sex love shocked European invaders who objected to any deviation from a limited understanding of “masculine” and “feminine” roles. The European powers enforced their own criminal codes against what was called sodomy in the New World: the first known case of homosexual activity receiving a death sentence in North America occurred in 1566, when the Spanish executed a Frenchman in Florida. Against the emerging backdrop of national power and Christian faith, what might have been learned about same-sex love or gender identity was buried in scandal. Ironically, both wartime conflict between emerging nations and the departure or deaths of male soldiers left women behind to live together and fostered strong alliances between men as well. Same-sex companionship thrived where it was frowned upon for unmarried, unrelated males and females to mingle or socialize freely. Women’s relationships in particular escaped scrutiny since there was no threat of pregnancy. Nonetheless, in much of the world, female sexual activity and sensation were curtailed wherever genital circumcision practices made clitoridectomy an ongoing custom.

Where European dress—a clear marker of gender—was enforced by missionaries, we find another complicated history of both gender identity and resistance. Biblical interpretation made it illegal for a woman to wear pants or a man to adopt female dress, and sensationalized public trials warned against “deviants” but also made such martyrs and heroes popular: Joan of Arc is one example, and the chilling origins of the word “faggot” include a stick of wood used in public burnings of gay men. Despite the risks of defying severe legal codes, cross-dressing flourished in early modern Europe and America. Women and girls, economically oppressed by the sexism which kept them from jobs and economic/education opportunities designated for men only, might pass as male in order to gain access to coveted experiences or income. This was a choice made by many women who were not necessarily transgender in identity. Women “disguised” themselves as men, sometimes for extended periods of years, in order to fight in the military (Deborah Sampson), to work as pirates (Mary Read and Anne Bonney), attend medical school, etc. Both men and women who lived as a different gender were often only discovered after their deaths, as the extreme differences in male vs. female clothing and grooming in much of Western culture made “passing” surprisingly easy in certain environments. Moreover, roles in the arts where women were banned from working required that men be recruited to play female roles, often creating a high-status, competitive market for those we might today identify as transwomen, in venues from Shakespeare’s theatre to Japanese Kabuki to the Chinese opera. This acceptance of performance artists, and the popularity of “drag” humor cross-culturally, did not necessarily mark the start of transgender advocacy, but made the arts an often accepting sanctuary for LGBT individuals who built theatrical careers based around disguise and illusion.

The era of sexology studies is where we first see a small, privileged cluster of medical authorities begin promoting a limited tolerance of those born “invert.” In Western history, we find little formal study of what was later called homosexuality before the 19th century, beyond medical texts identifying women with large clitorises as “tribades” and severe punishment codes for male homosexual acts. Early efforts to understand the range of human sexual behavior came from European doctors and scientists including Carl von Westphal (1869), Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1882) and Havelock Ellis (1897). Their writings were sympathetic to the concept of a homosexual or bisexual orientation occurring naturally in an identifiable segment of humankind, but the writings of Krafft-Ebing and Ellis also labeled a “third sex” degenerate and abnormal. Sigmund Freud, writing in the same era, did not consider homosexuality an illness or a crime and believed bisexuality to be an innate aspect beginning with undetermined gender development in the womb. Yet Freud also felt that lesbian desires were an immaturity women could overcome through heterosexual marriage and male dominance. These writings gradually trickled down to a curious public through magazines and presentations, reaching men and women desperate to learn more about those like themselves, including some like English writer Radclyffe Hall who willingly accepted the idea of being a “congenital invert.” German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld went on to gather a broader range of information by founding Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science, Europe’s best library archive of materials on gay cultural history. His efforts, and Germany’s more liberal laws and thriving gay bar scene between the two World Wars, contrasted with the backlash, in England, against gay and lesbian writers such as Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. With the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, however, the former tolerance demonstrated by Germany’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee vanished. Hirschfeld’s great library was destroyed and the books burnt by Nazis on May 10, 1933.

In the United States, there were few attempts to create advocacy groups supporting gay and lesbian relationships until after World War II. However, prewar gay life flourished in urban centers such as New York’s Greenwich Village and Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The blues music of African-American women showcased varieties of lesbian desire, struggle and humor; these performances, along with male and female drag stars, introduced a gay underworld to straight patrons during Prohibition’s defiance of race and sex codes in speakeasy clubs. The disruptions of World War II allowed formerly isolated gay men and women to meet as soldiers and war workers; and other volunteers were uprooted from small towns and posted worldwide. Many minds were opened by wartime, during which LGBT people were both tolerated in military service and officially sentenced to death camps in the Holocaust. This increasing awareness of an existing and vulnerable population, coupled with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of homosexuals holding government jobs during the early 1950s outraged writers and federal employees whose own lives were shown to be second-class under the law, including Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Allen Ginsberg and Harry Hay. Awareness of a burgeoning civil rights movement (Martin Luther King’s key organizer Bayard Rustin was a gay man) led to the first American- based political demands for fair treatment of gays and lesbians in mental health, public policy and employment. Studies such as Alfred Kinsey’s 1947 Kinsey Report suggested a far greater range of homosexual identities and behaviors than previously understood, with Kinsey creating a “scale” or spectrum ranging from complete heterosexual to complete homosexual.

The primary organization for gay men as an oppressed cultural minority was the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by Harry Hay and Chuck Rowland. Other important homophile organizations on the West Coast included One, Inc., founded in 1952, and the first lesbian support network Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955 by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. Through meetings and publications, these groups offered information and outreach to thousands. These first organizations soon found support from prominent sociologists and psychologists. In 1951, Donald Webster Cory published “The Homosexual in America”, asserting that gay men and lesbians were a legitimate minority group, and in 1953 Evelyn Hooker, PhD, won a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study gay men. Her groundbreaking paper, presented in 1956, demonstrated that gay men were as well-adjusted as heterosexual men, often more so. But it would not be until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as an “illness” classification in its diagnostic manual. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, gay men and lesbians continued to be at risk for psychiatric lockup as well as jail, losing jobs, and/or child custody when courts and clinics defined gay love as sick, criminal or immoral.

In 1965, as the civil rights movement won new legislation outlawing racial discrimination, the first gay rights demonstrations took place in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., led by longtime activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The turning point for gay liberation came on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the popular Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village fought back against ongoing police raids of their neighborhood bar. Stonewall is still considered a watershed moment of gay pride and has been commemorated since the 1970s with “pride marches” held every June across the United States. Recent scholarship has called for better acknowledgement of the roles that drag performers, people of color, bisexuals and transgender patrons played in the Stonewall Riots.

The gay liberation movement of the 1970s saw myriad political organizations spring up, often at odds with one another. Frustrated with the male leadership of most gay liberation groups, lesbians influenced by the feminist movement of the 1970s formed their own collectives, record labels, music festivals, newspapers, bookstores, and publishing houses, and called for lesbian rights in mainstream feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). Gatherings such as women’s music concerts, bookstore readings and lesbian festivals well beyond the United States were extraordinarily successful in organizing women to become activists; the feminist movement against domestic violence also assisted women to leave abusive marriages, while retaining custody of children became a paramount issue for lesbian mothers.

Expanding religious acceptance for gay men and women of faith, the first out gay minister was ordained by the United Church of Christ in 1972. Other gay and lesbian church and synagogue congregations soon followed. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), formed in 1972, offered family members greater support roles in the gay rights movement. And political action exploded through the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the election of openly gay and lesbian representatives like Elaine Noble and Barney Frank, and, in 1979, the first march on Washington for gay rights. The increasing expansion of a global LGBT rights movement suffered a setback during the 1980s, as the gay male community was decimated by the AIDS epidemic, demands for compassion and medical funding led to renewed coalitions between men and women as well as angry street theatre by groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Queer Nation. Enormous marches on Washington drew as many as one million gay rights supporters in 1987 and again in 1993. Right wing religious movements, spurred on by beliefs that AIDS was God’s punishment, expanded via direct mail. A New Right coalition of political lobby groups competed with national LGBT organizations in Washington, seeking to create religious exemptions from any new LGBT rights protections. In the same era, one wing of the political gay movement called for an end to military expulsion of gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers, with the high-profile case of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer publicized through a made-for- television movie, “Serving in Silence.” In spite of the patriotism and service of gay men and lesbians in uniform, the uncomfortable and unjust compromise “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” emerged as an alternative to decades of military witch hunts and dishonorable discharges. Yet more service members ended up being discharged under DADT.

During in the last decade of the 20th century, millions of Americans watched as actress Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television in April 1997, heralding a new era of gay celebrity power and media visibility—although not without risks. Celebrity performers, both gay and heterosexual, continued to be among the most vocal activists calling for tolerance and equal rights. With greater media attention to gay and lesbian civil rights in the 1990s, trans and intersex voices began to gain space through works such as Kate Boernstein’s “Gender Outlaw” (1994) and “My Gender Workbook” (1998), Ann Fausto-Sterling’s “Myths of Gender” (1992) and Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors (1998), enhancing shifts in women’s and gender studies to become more inclusive of transgender and nonbinary identities. As a result of hard work by countless organizations and individuals, helped by internet and direct-mail campaign networking, the 21st century heralded new legal gains for gay and lesbian couples. Same-sex civil unions were recognized under Vermont law in 2000 and Massachusetts became the first state to perform same-sex marriages in 2004; with the end of state sodomy laws (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003), gay and lesbian Americans were finally free from criminal classification. Gay marriage was first legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada; but the recognition of gay marriage by church and state continued to divide opinion worldwide. After the impressive gains for LGBT rights in post-apartheid South Africa, conservative evangelicals in the U.S. began providing support and funding for homophobic campaigns overseas. Uganda’s dramatic death penalty for gays and lesbians was perhaps the most severe in Africa.

The first part of the 21st century saw new emphasis on transgender activism and the increasing usage of terminology that questioned binary gender identification. Images of trans women became more prevalent in film and television, as did programming with same-sex couples raising children. Transphobia, cissexism and other language (such as “hir” and “them”) became standardized, and film and television programming featured more openly trans youth and adult characters. Tensions between lesbian and trans activists, however, remained, with the long-running Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival boycotted by national LGBT groups over the issue of trans inclusion; like many woman-only events with a primarily lesbian base, Michfest had supported an ideal of ingathering women and girls born female. The festival ended after its fortieth anniversary in August 2015.

Internet activism burgeoned, while many of the public, physical gathering spaces that once defined LGBT activism (bars, bookstores, women’s music festivals) began to vanish, and the usage of “queer” replaced lesbian identification for many younger women activists. Attention shifted to global activism as U.S. gains were not matched by similar equal rights laws in the 75 other countries where homosexuality remained illegal. As of 2016, LGBT identification and activism was still punishable by death in ten countries: Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and Yemen; the plight of the LGBT community in Russia received intense focus during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, to which President Obama sent a contingent of out LGBT athletes. Supportive remarks from the new Pope Francis (“Who am I to judge?”) gave hope to LGBT Catholics worldwide.

Perhaps the greatest changes in the U.S. occurred between spring 2015 and spring 2016: in late spring 2015 Alison Bechdel’s lesbian-themed Broadway production Fun Home won several Tony awards, former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner, and then in June of 2015, the Supreme Court decision recognized same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges). By spring 2016 the Academy Awards recognized films with both lesbian and transgender themes: Carol and The Danish Girl. And the Supreme Court had avowed that a lesbian family adoption in one state had to be recognized in all states. However, the United States also saw intense racial profiling confrontations and tragedies in this same period, turning LGBT activism to “intersectionality,” or recognition of intersections issues of race, class, gender identity and sexism. With the June 12 attacks on the Pulse Club in Orlando, that intersectionality was made plain as straight allies held vigils grieving the loss of young Latino drag queens and lesbians of color; with unanswered questions about the killer’s possible identification with ISIS terrorism, other voices now call for alliances between the LGBT and Muslim communities, and the greater recognition of perspectives from those who are both Muslim and LGBT in the U.S. and beyond. The possible repression of identity which may have played a role in the killer’s choice of target has generated new attention to the price of homophobia –internalized, or culturally expressed— in and beyond the United States.

Reference

  • History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements, American Psychological Association, 2009, by Bonnie J. Morris, PhD George Washington University Washington, D.C. https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/history
  • Article References
    • Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Houghton Mifflin, 2006
    • Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaws: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, Routledge, 1994
    • Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States, Beacon Press, 2011
    • Devon Carbado and Dwight McBride, eds. Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African-American Fiction, Cleis Press, 2002
    • David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, Macmillan, 2004
    • Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell, Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, Harper Collins Publishers, 2016
    • Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, Simon & Schuster, 2015; and To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America – A History, Houghton Mifflin, 1999
    • Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors, Beacon Press, 1996
    • Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality and Spirituality, University of Illinois, 1997
    • David Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, University of Chicago Press Books, 2004
    • Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Persephone Press, 1981
    • Daphne Scholinski, The Last Time I Wore a Dress, Riverhead Books 1998
    • Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, St. Martin’s Press, 1987
    • Donn Short, Don’t Be So Gay! Queers, Bullying, and Making Schools Safe, UBC Press, 2013
    • Ryan Thoreson, Transnational LGBT Activism, University of Minnesota Press, 2014
    • Urvashi Vaid, Virtual Equality, Anchor Books, 1995

    Gay History: February 12, 1976: Actor Sal Mineo Murdered In West Hollywood

    Salvatore  Mineo Jr. better known to the world as Sal Mineo, was the baby-faced American actor whose legend and cult following largely stems from his iconic role as the doomed ‘Plato’ in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 classic of ‘switchblade cinema’ – ‘Rebel Without A Cause’. In the movie Mineo played a troubled high-school kid who emulates (actually as far as 50’s cinema could push that envelope)  falls in love with James Dean’s character Jim Stark, although there are reports of a real-life love affair between the two off-set).This was the role for which he would earn the first of two Academy Award nominations.

    In 1962 Jill Haworth Mineo’s “girlfriend” kicked open Mineo’s closet door, catching the 35-year-old actor bedding his buddy Bobby Sherman. (Yes. thatBobby Sherman.)  “But he didn’t stop,” she said. “He kept going at it.” Rumors of Mineo’s sexuality circulated. He found serious work even more difficult to procure, predominantly because filmmakers saw him as an embarrassing relic of the 1950s.

    On the night of February 12, 1976, actor Sal Mineo returned home following a rehearsal for the play P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. After parking his car in the carport below his West Hollywood apartment, the 37-year-old actor was stabbed in the heart by a mugger who quickly fled the scene. At first, the e police  suspected that Mineo’s work for prison reform had put him in contact with a dangerous ex-con. Then their focus shifted to Mineo’s personal life. Investigators had discovered that his home was filled with pictures of nude men. But the gay pornography also failed to turn up any leads and later became the basis for a hotbed of rumors that Mineo was killed by a “trick gone wrong”

    Out of the blue, Michigan authorities reported that Lionel Williams was arrested on bad check charges and was bragging to everyone that he had killed Mineo. Although he later retracted his stories at about the same time Williams’ his wife back in Los Angeles told police that he had come home the night of the murder drenched in blood. However, there was one major discrepancy in the case, Williams was black with an Afro and all of the eyewitnesses had described the perpetrator as a white man with long brown hair.

    Fortunately, the police were able to unearth an old photo of Williams in which his hair had been dyed brown and processed so that it was straight and long. In addition, the medical examiner had made a cast of Mineo’s knife wound and police were able to match it to the description of the knife provided by Williams’ wife. Lionel Williams was eventually convicted and given a sentence of life in prison. He was paroled in the early 1990s but rearrested after committing other crimes. Today, Williams whereabouts is unknown or weather or not he is still even alive.

    ***NOTE:  Because of the time period many are unsure of Mineo’s true sexuality.  Some have said that Mineo was “bisexual” but because of the time period in the 1970’s many gay men used the claim of bisexuality as a stepping stone to fully “coming out”.

    Reference

    The Cursed, Buried City That May Never See The Light of Day

    It was the biggest set ever built for a Hollywood film in the 1920s, and then it was buried in the sands of the California Coast. The real story begins when a young filmmaker embarks on a decades-long attempt to excavate it.

    Thirty-three years ago, Peter Brosnan heard a story that seemed too crazy to be true: buried somewhere along California’s rugged Central Coast, beneath acres of sand dunes, lay the remains of a lost city. According to his friend at New York University’s film school, the remains of a massive Egyptian temple, a dozen plaster sphinxes, eight mammoth lions, and four 40-ton statues of Ramses II were all supposedly entombed in the sands 150 some-odd miles north of Los Angeles.

    “It was an absolutely cockamamie story,” Brosnan says. “I thought he was nuts.” The ruins weren’t authentic Egyptian ones, of course. They were the 60-year-old remains of a massive Hollywood set—the biggest, most expensive one ever built at the time. The faux Egyptian scenery had played the role of the City of the Pharaoh in one of Hollywood’s first true epics, Cecil B DeMille’s 1923 film The Ten Commandments. The set had required more than 1,500 carpenters to build and used over 25,000 pounds of nails. The production nearly ruined DeMille and his studio. When the shoot wrapped, the tempestuous director supposedly strapped dynamite to the structures and razed the whole set, burying it in the sands near Guadalupe, California, to ensure no rival director could benefit from his vision.

    “If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe,” the director teased, “I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast.”

    Bullshit, Brosnan thought. But then his buddy pointed him to a line in DeMille’s posthumously published autobiography. “If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe,” the director teased, “I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast.”

    By 1982, Brosnan had graduated from film school and was earning a living as a freelance journalist, but he couldn’t shake his friend’s story. The film student in him was enchanted by the idea of uncovering and preserving a forgotten bit of Hollywood’s history. That summer, Brosnan and his friend drove across the country, from New York City to a stretch of coast near Santa Barbara, to see the ruins for themselves. The whole affair, he thought, would make for a hell of a documentary.

    “We were young, wannabe filmmakers, and I thought this was golden,” Brosnan says today. “We’ll find some archeologists, we’ll find the set, we’ll dig it up. The story writes itself.”


    The City of the Pharaoh was not so much a movie set as it was a monument to the man who built it. DeMille was already a towering star in the early days of Hollywood, but in 1922 he was recovering from a streak of critical flops. He had gained a reputation for his sense of spectacle in films like Joan the Woman and Male and Female, and The Ten Commandmentswas to be his comeback.

    Delivering DeMille’s blockbuster meant deploying a barrage of special effects, at least by the standards of the day. In 1923, set design was the only way to visually transport viewers to the Sinai in the time of Moses. The “desert” DeMille chose for his Israelites to wander, while certainly more convenient than filming on location in Egypt, presented a logistical nightmare. There were no nearby cities, no paved roads, and no place for his cast of thousands to stay. The 22,000 acres of sand dunes that separated the small farming town of Guadalupe from the Pacific Ocean was harsh and desolate. The sharp-grained sand that gives the wind there its added sting is devoid of nutrients, and, combined with constant salt sprays from the sea, makes life a rarity in the dunes. For DeMille, it was perfect.

    The sphinx on set in 1923. (Photo: Courtesy of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center)

    “Your skin will be cooked raw,” DeMille told his army of 3,500 actors and extras, according to a Los Angeles Times reporter on the scene. “You will miss the comforts of home. You will be asked to endure perhaps the most unpleasant location in cinema history. I expect of you your supreme efforts.”

    The costs were mounting even before DeMille arrived in Guadalupe to begin shooting. Preproduction expenses were already approaching $700,000—an astronomical sum in the early days of Hollywood. More than a million pounds of statuary, concrete, and plaster were used to construct the 120-foot-tall, 800-foot-long temple and surrounding structures, and whole plaster sphinxes were sculpted and loaded onto trucks bound for the dunes. Every day on location meant feeding and housing the thousands of workers and animals. DeMille drove his construction team to work faster. Paramount Studios, the film’s backer, began sending DeMille increasingly desperate letters demanding that he cut costs. One receipt, for $3,000 spent on a “magnificent team of horses” for the pharaoh, pushed the studio over the edge, according to Sumiko Higashi, a professor emeritus at The College at Brockport, SUNY, and author of Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: the Silent Era, a biography of DeMille.

    “You have lost your mind,” telegraphed Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount Pictures. “Stop filming and return to Los Angeles at once.” DeMille refused. He took out a personal loan and waived his guaranteed percentage of the movie’s gross to ensure the production continued. “I cannot and will not make pictures with a yardstick,” he wired back to the studio. “What do they want me to do?” he was rumored to have said, according to Higashi. “Stop now and release it as The Five Commandments?”

    Despite the warnings, DeMille pushed on. Bugles sounded every morning to 4:30 a.m. to wake the 5,000 workers and actors that populated the 24-square-mile tent city he’d built in the dunes. (It earned the nickname the City of DeMille.) His workers raised the 109-foot-tall Great Gate—an archway covered in intricate busts of rearing stallions—and buttressed it with two 35-foot-tall clay-and-plaster statues of the Pharaoh. They erected a “city wall”—built 750 feet long because DeMille refused to work with painted backgrounds or limit his cinematic choices. Five mammoth sphinxes, weighing over five tons each, lined the entrance to the ersatz Egyptian city.

    Filming was done at a madcap pace and condensed into a mere three weeks, according to Scott Eyman’s biography, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille. But even with the Exodus in the can, one more problem loomed. According to a prior agreement with the landowners, DeMille’s monumental set had to be dismantled before he left. Production costs had already ballooned to over $1.4 million, more than any other film previously made. DeMille considered reneging on the deal, Brosnan says, but likely worried about another issue: If he left is city standing, rival directors from other studios could easily swoop into Guadalupe and produce an epic on the cheap. DeMille would not have that. Rather than pay workers to take the set down, he settled on a faster method. Dynamite was supposedly strapped to the great temple he had built, and the City of the Pharaoh was brought down. According to legend, he ordered bulldozers to mound sand over the scattered remains and quickly left town.

    Sixty years later, in 1983, Brosnan arrived at the dunes like the Children of Israel before him—completely lost. He knew the set was buried somewhere, but the dunes stretched nearly 30 miles, across two counties. Looking for clues, he called the Air Force base that occupied much of the coastline. (“Sir,” he says the sergeant on the other end of the line told him, “There is no Egyptian city buried at Vandenberg Air Force Base.”) He haunted local libraries. He hounded municipal politicians. No one could provide hints about the set’s exact location.

    Then he stumbled upon an old ranch hand at a local tavern who had run cattle through the dunes for decades. On a cold and dark morning, after a savage storm had rearranged the topography of the dunes, Brosnan and the rancher hiked the sea of hundred-foot-high peaks, making their way a mile toward the pounding surf of the Pacific. Eventually they spied what locals called “the dune that never moves”—the sandy tomb that covered DeMille’s set—and saw a chunk of Plaster of Paris statuary poking through.

    The sphinx before excavation. (Photo: Courtesy of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center)

    The discovery made headlines around the world and Brosnan fielded calls from The New York Times, NBC Nightly News, andPeople magazine. His documentary idea, which had seemed pie-in-the-sky a few months earlier, looked promising. And his pitch—that the lost city is the oldest existing Hollywood set left; that props from more modern shoots have already been preserved for posterity; that early set design was, in a sense, an American art form—struck a chord in the industry. Brosnan tentatively called his documentary project The Lost City.

    Charlton Heston, star of DeMille’s 1956 remake of the film, publicly wished the project well, and local archaeologists volunteered their time to help in the excavation. A curator at the Smithsonian expressed interest in acquiring some pieces, once the dig wrapped. Promises for funding came in from Paramount Pictures and Bank of America. Brosnan moved to Hollywood with the intention of pursuing a career in the ‘biz. But first, he had to start digging.

    “This will be a scientific exploration by highly trained personnel,” said a Cambridge-educated archaeologist who signed on in 1983. “Not a case of simply digging up stuff like potatoes. And if we’re serious about documenting movie history, then let’s do it properly.”

    Excavating the City of the Pharaoh. (Photo: Courtesy of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center)

    The excavation and documentary progressed, but Brosnan constantly faced two problems: funding and permitting. When he had the money, the county wouldn’t let him touch the environmentally sensitive area. (The western snowy plover, a federally protected species that nests along california’s coast, keeps the dunes off limits to people for half the year during breeding season.) By the time he got permission to dig, seven years later, funding had dried up. In 1990, several organizations, including the Smithsonian and the DeMille Family Trust, agreed to partially fund the project, and Brosnan and an archeologist used ground-penetrating radar to show that much of the set remained intact. But he couldn’t raise enough money to excavate the actual ruins. He needed $175,000 for an archeological dig to recover 60-year-old fake relics. “We don’t see this as a fake Egypt,” Brosnan told a reporter at the time. “We see this as real cinema history.”

    But by the mid-1990s, Brosnan had been scraping by in the movie business for a decade, writing scripts and directing small projects. Lacking the money, he gave up the dig.


    That DeMille’s ruins have survived intact to this day, albeit buried in the sands, is a quirk of geography. The dunes, which cover some 35 square miles of the coast here, formed about 15,000 years ago, according to Doug Jenzen, executive director of the non-profit Dunes Center in Guadalupe. Jenzen and his team run a small museum out of a craftsman on the town’s main (and only) drag and head up conservation efforts for the Dunes preserve. It’s a charming little museum that seems out of place among the shuttered movie theater and boarded up buildings of Guadalupe, but the Dunes and DeMille are the only source of tourism dollars in this largely agricultural area, Jenzen says.

    Thousands of years ago, rivers swept mineral-dense rocks and boulders from the nearby coastal range down to the sea, eventually pummeling the earth into fine grain sand. “One of the reasons the movie set is preserved so well is because of the minerals in the sand,” Jenzen says. “You know how when you order something mail order and it comes with the silica packets? The sand actually acted as a natural desiccant that preserved the plaster for the statues.”

    For 15 years, the ruins were left undisturbed. Every few years a reporter or a researcher would call and Brosnan would humor him or her with details of his odyssey in the dunes. Each time, he hoped the new round of publicity would inject dollars into the effort, but nothing ever came through.

    In October 2014, archeologists preserve decaying remains from wind-blown sand at Guadalupe Dunes. (Photo: AP)

    In 2010, though, after the Los Angeles Times ran yet another piece on his unfinished dig, a woman—who wishes to remain anonymous—contacted Brosnan and offered to put up the money needed to finish the film. But by then he was married with children and had been away from the project for two decades. “My first response was a moment of panic,” Brosnan says. “There’s no way I could do this.”

    But Brosnan hired a producer and an editor, and last fall, with the help of a Santa Barbara County grant, a team of archeologists excavated most of a sphinx. Brosnan was on hand to film it. “We had always wanted to end with a shot of the sphinx being found. And we got it,” he says. Using his early footage shot in the 1980s, Brosnan has pulled together a rough cut and has an editor working on a final draft. He says he’s looking for distributors and considering the film festival circuit soon.

    In the Dune Center, Jenzen and his team display parts of one of the large plaster sphinxes and smaller relics that have been successfully pulled from the sand. “All of the statues were made of plaster,” he says. “They were built to last two months—92 years ago. I don’t think this could have happened anywhere else on earth.”

    However, Jenzen says the ruins may not survive another 92 years. Powerful storms in the last few years have shifted the sands of the dunes dramatically—more of the set is now exposed to the elements than ever before. The Dunes Center needs $100,000 to unearth another sphinx to add it to the display, Jenzen says, before it’s too late. “It’s disappearing so fast,” he says, “Archeologists originally thought it’d last until 2090—but every time we go out, more is gone.”

    Reference

    Buddhism 101: The Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra) Symbol in Buddhism

    Frankhuang / Getty Images

    The dharma wheel, or dharmachakra in Sanskrit, is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe, it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism. It is also one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. Similar symbols are found in Jainism and Hinduism, and it is likely the dharmachakra symbol in Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism. 

    A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with varying numbers of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center, there may be three shapes swirling together, a yin-yang symbol, a second wheel, or an empty circle.

    What the Dharma Wheel Represents 

    A dharma wheel has three basic parts: the hub, the rim, and the spokes. Over the centuries, various teachers and traditions have proposed diverse meanings for these parts. Here are some common understandings of the wheel’s symbolism:

    • The circle, the round shape of the wheel, represents the perfection of the dharma, the Buddha’s teaching.
    • The rim of the wheel represents meditative concentration and mindfulness, which hold practice together.
    • The hub represents moral discipline. The three swirls often seen on the hub are sometimes said to represent the Three Treasures or Three Jewels: Buddha, dharma, sangha. They may also represent joy.

    The spokes signify different concepts, depending on their number:

    • When a wheel has eight spokes, the spokes represent the Eightfold Path. An eight-spoke wheel is the most common form of the wheel in Buddhism.
    • When a wheel has ten spokes, the spokes represent the ten directions—in effect, everywhere.
    • When a wheel has twelve spokes, the spokes represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.
    • When a wheel has 24 spokes, the spokes represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination plus the reversing of the Twelves Links and liberation from samsara. A 24-spoke dharma wheel is also called an Ashoka Chakra.
    • When a wheel has 31 spokes, the spokes represent the 31 realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.
    • When a wheel has four spokes, which is rare, the spokes represent either the Four Noble Truths or the four dhyanas.

    The wheel often has spokes protruding beyond the wheel, which we might imagine are spikes, although usually, they don’t look very sharp. The spikes represent various penetrating insights.

    The Ashoka Chakra 

    Among the oldest existing examples of a dharma wheel are found on the pillars erected by the Ashoka the Great (304–232 B.C.E.), an emperor who ruled much of what is now India and beyond. Ashoka was a great patron of Buddhism and encouraged its spread, although he never forced it on his subjects.

    Emperor Ashoka the Great. Heritage Images / Getty Images

    Ashoka erected enormous stone pillars throughout his kingdom, many of which are still standing. The pillars contain edicts, some of which encouraged people to practice Buddhist morality and nonviolence. There is typically at least one lion on the top of each pillar, representing Ashoka’s rule. The pillars also are decorated with 24-spoke dharma wheels.

    In 1947, the government of India adopted a new national flag, in the center of which is a navy blue Ashoka Chakra on a white background.

    Other Symbols Related to the Dharma Wheel 

    Sometimes the dharma wheel is presented in a tableau, supported on a lotus flower pedestal with two deer, a buck, and a doe on either side. This recalls the first sermon given by the historical Buddha after his enlightenment. The sermon is said to have been given to five mendicants in Sarnath, a deer park in what is now Uttar Pradesh, India.

    According to Buddhist legend, the park was home to a herd of ruru deer, and the deer gathered around to listen to the sermon. The deer depicted by the dharma wheel reminds us that the Buddha taught to save all beings, not just humans. In some versions of this story, the deer are emanations of bodhisattvas.

    Typically, when the dharma wheel is represented with deer, the wheel must be twice the height of the deer. The deer are shown with legs folded under them, gazing serenely at the wheel with their noses lifted.

    Turning the Dharma Wheel 

    “Turning the dharma wheel” is a metaphor for the Buddha’s teaching of the dharma in the world. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is said the Buddha turned the dharma wheel three times.

    The first turning was the sermon in the deer park, after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Here, the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths. The second turning was the introduction of the perfection of wisdom teachings on the nature of sunyata (emptiness). The third turning was the introduction of the doctrine of Buddha Nature.

    Reference

    O’Brien, Barbara. “The Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra) Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-dharma-wheel-449956.

    Gay History: An Organiser of the Black Cat Protest Revisits That Fateful Night

    Outside the Black Cat on February 11, 1967 Photograph: Courtesy ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

    On New Year’s Eve in 1966, undercover officers at the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lakebegan to handcuff and beat the patrons and staff as everyone was exchanging celebratory midnight kisses. An estimated 14 people were arrested, many charged with lewd conduct and forced to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.

    Other Silver Lake gay bars, including New Faces, a few doors down, were targeted the same evening. Two years before the Stonewall uprising, more than 200 people came together outside the Black Cat for one of the earliest U.S. LGBTQ-rights demonstrations. Picketers gathered on February 11, 1967, to peacefully protest the police raids that had been conducted weeks before. Alexei Romanoff, a former owner of New Faces, describes the Black Cat demonstration as a turning point. During a time in which homosexuality was illegal in most states, LGBTQ people developed elaborate codes and survival strategies to avoid arrest. But that February night, Romanoff says, the community stood up and fought back.

    Now 82, he is the last surviving organizer of Personal Rights in Defense and Education (P.R.I.D.E.), one of the groups that helped stage the 1967 stand. We traveled back to that monumental moment with Romanoff.

    Romanoff in 1968 Photograph: Courtesy Alexei Romanoff

    How were the protests organized?

    We didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cell phones, but what we did have was called a phone tree. One person would immediately call another 10 people and tell them what had happened, and then each of them would call 10 more people. It took us about two weeks to organize the protest. The Hub Bar [in Alhambra] was the only place that allowed us to meet. We were cautious. We kept moving the demonstration up and down the block so we couldn’t be charged with loitering. We had flyers printed up. People would ask what was going on. We’d give them a flyer, and if they dropped it, we would rush over, grab it and pick it up so we wouldn’t be considered to be littering.

    What was the protest like?

    If you look at the pictures, none of the regular news media covered us. They were all from the Free Press at the time. They were the only ones that covered the demonstration. A couple of years ago, I met with [former] police chief [William J.] Bratton, and we were looking at the pictures, when I said, “Do you see anybody smiling there?” He said no. And I said, “That’s because [the protesters] were all terrified to do this, but they knew they had to.” It took place in the evening because they had jobs they would likely lose the next day.

    What were the risks?

    If the major news media would have covered that demonstration, their faces would have been in the newspapers, but the newspapers didn’t think it was very important because it was only those “unhappy homosexuals.” At that time, we could be put into a sanitarium for being gay. And our families could have us committed if they were embarrassed by us. There, you were subject to shock treatments and chemically castrated. We were afraid, but we couldn’t take it anymore. You couldn’t just come in, beat us up and take us to jail because we were who we were.

    What was the aftermath of the protests?

    Once you let the cat out of the bag, there’s no stopping it. I started an organization, Santa Monica Bay Coalition for Human Rights. In 1970, we were marching in the LA Pride parade, and we had this big banner. I was in the front, and there were mounted police officers. I was nervous, but one of them turned his horse away from all the rest and gave me a V-for-victory sign. I knew we were going to be okay.

    And what was the legacy at the Black Cat?

    We got the Black Cat designated as a historic landmark. There’s a plaque on the front of the building now. When I went back one time, there was a note that was attached to the plaque, and all it said was “thank you.” That was enough for everything.

    Romanoff discussed the evening’s events with Time Out, and his account has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

    Reference

    Woody Harrelson: My Father, The Contract Killer

    Woody Harrelson plays psychopaths brilliantly. It couldn’t be anything to do with his dad’s day job, could it? He talks about coming to terms with the terrible truth and his new film, Rampart

    Woody Harrelson: ‘He wasn’t the greatest husband. Or father. But…’ Photograph: Luke Stephenson for the Guardian. Click on image for full portrait

    I’m not looking forward to meeting Woody Harrelson. I’m a bit scared, to be honest. I’ve just seen Rampart, his new movie in which he plays a racist, psychopathic police officer. Harrelson is terrifying in it. Terrifying when he’s chasing villains, bullying juniors, beating the crap out of innocents, stalking the mothers of his children. He’s even terrifying when he’s making love. His body, specially slimmed-down and muscled-up for the part, pulses with a tension permanently on the cusp of violence.

    It’s not as if this is a one-off – there’s his sickening Mickey Knox in Natural Born Killers (“At birth, I was cast into a flaming pit of scum”), deranged killer Tallahassee in Zombieland, Charlie in the forthcoming Seven Psychopathswhose title says it all, and we’ve barely started. Even when he plays it nice, like he did in Cheers all those years ago as dopey bartender Woody, there’s something in the goofy smile that makes you worry – for his sanity, and your safety. And it’s not as if the weird stuff is just confined to acting – there are numerous stories of him hitting photographers or police officers or taxi doors.

    It’s Sunday afternoon and when I arrive at the London hotel, there’s no sign of Harrelson. His publicist apologises and says the bad news is he’s still in bed, but the good news is he’s woken up. A few minutes later he arrives, looking a little the worse for wear. He stretches, gulps from a hefty bottle of water, and drawls a lazy Texan apology. “I tied one on last night,” he says, “I drank too much.” Where did he go? “We went to a few places… but I’m waking up now and everything seems nice and, erm, Victorian in this room.” Harrelson takes another swig, and as he does, I’m again thinking of the crazed cop in Rampart

     Even when Harrelson plays it nice, like he did in Cheers all those years ago as dopey bartender Woody, there’s something in the goofy smile that makes you worry. Photograph: NBCUPHOTOBANK/Rex

    Doesn’t it take a lot out of him making a film like that – after all, he’s in virtually every scene, inflicting damage of one sort or another? “It was an intense time,” he says. “The problem was being seeped in paranoia because that was so much the attitude of the character. That really affected me because I don’t normally do paranoia.” He pauses. “Well, sometimes, of course. But it’s an emotion I try not to affect myself with. I had weird shit happening.” What weird shit? “Not stuff I’d care to talk about. But being aggressive and strange with friends who had not been offensive, but I took it as offensive. A couple of friends said, ‘I can’t wait till you’re done with this role because I know this ain’t you doing it.’ “

    What messed with his head more, Rampart or Natural Born Killers? The latter film, directed by Oliver Stone, was blamed for a series of copycat killings after it was released in 1994. “I’d say this, but then when I was doing Natural Born Killers I was doing some weird shit, too.” I tell him I can’t bear watching it; that it freaks me out. He smiles. “Really, it’s a misunderstood romantic comedy.” And now his smile is truly worrying. “It’s a dark comedy.” Pah. I tell him I reckon Natural Born Killers features more Hollywood headcases than any film made – Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr, Tom Sizemore, Tommy Lee Jones, Juliette Lewis. “I know, it was a mad little time. After we’d been working on it for a while, I felt I was the sanest guy in it. I really did. This has never happened… I’m the sanest guy in the whole deal.” He whoops at the very idea. Who was the most insane? “Tom and Juliette went a little crazy. Yeah. I felt in a way Oliver encouraged madness. He needed to create that mayhem because that’s what was on the screen.”

    Harrelson, 50, is one of Hollywood’s most interesting actors. It’s not only the roles he plays (he has often worked outside the mainstream with directors such asMichael Winterbottom in Welcome To Sarajevo and Milos Forman in The People Vs Larry Flynt) and the way he plays them, it’s his whole backstory – disturbing family history, sexcapades of youth, militant veganism, political 

    campaigning (not all of it for the legalisation of marijuana). It’s the multiple contradictions and what-ifs that make him fascinating.

    He could, for instance, easily have ended up as a minister of the church. His mother is a religious presbyterian and so was he through his childhood. Did he see it as a calling? “I did a little bit.” He studied theology alongside drama at university, and it was only then that his belief system started to collapse. “I remember Dr Matthews; a great teacher teaching progressive ideas. I started seeing through the way the Bible got constructed. For example, there were two angels outside the tomb when Jesus rolled back the stone and rose from the dead. Why? Because in Jewish law there had to be two witnesses for it to be legal. But when it was first written it was one, so little things like that.”

    Talk to Harrelson and you might think his reverse Damascene conversion was the first significant event in his life. But it wasn’t – by a long stretch. In the past, he’s been surprisingly private about his family life. He would talk about the love for his mother, his two brothers, growing up in Texas and Ohio, and it seemed a pretty regular childhood. I’ve read that Harrelson’s father was a contract killer but assume it’s an urban myth – one of those apocryphal stories actors come up with when bored. I ask him how he got on with his father. “Pretty good,” he says. “They separated young, he was not around too much.” Then nothing. He ended up in prison? “Yeaah,” he says slowly as if chewing on a tobacco leaf. “Yes. That explains his absence.” He laughs wryly, and waits for the subject to change.

    You’re the first star I’ve interviewed whose dad was a professional killer, I say. No comment. I tell him I recently interviewed a woman whose son became a serial killer, and that she had been suicidal as a result. He looks interested. “Ah man, that must have been devastating for her. You never really think of that shit when you hear these stories,” he says quietly. He tells me a bit more about his father. “I think they separated when I was seven. But he was gone a lot before that, in prison. Away and back. Away and back. It wasn’t like he was there all the time prior to that.”

    “They call him a contract killer in the cuttings,” I say. “Is that a glamorisation or simplification of what he did?” Harrelson chews some more on the imaginary tobacco. “Yeah, I mean that’s probably a fair, erm…” He stops. Fair job summary? “Yeah, job summary. I was 11 or 12 when I heard his name mentioned on a car radio. I was in the car waiting for a lady who was picking me up from school, helping my mum, and anyway I was listening to the radio and it was talking about Charles V Harrelson and his trial for murder and blah blah blah blah and I’m sitting there thinking there can’t be another Charles V Harrelson. I mean, that’s my dad! It was a wild realisation. Then the woman got in the car and saw my face and realised something was up. She was a very kind lady.”

    He says he went home, in shock, and tried to talk to his mother about it. But there was little to say – the truth was out there, on the radio and in the papers. Did your mum know what he did for a living? “Oh yeah, she was pretty hip to all that.” Did she love him? “Well, no, she was well out of love with him. You know, I’ve got to give her credit because she never really soured us on him, she didn’t talk negative about him, never, ever. And she could have – he wasn’t the greatest husband. Or father. But…”

    Charles V Harrelson was jailed in 1973 for the murder of grain dealer Sam Degelia Jr. He was sentenced to 15 years, but released after five for good behaviour. In 1981 he was given two life sentences for the assassination of district judge John H Wood – the first murder of an American judge in the 20th century. At times, he also claimed to have assassinated John F Kennedy.

    It was in 1981, after he heard his father had been arrested for killing the judge, that Woody tried to get in touch with him, aged 20. Were they ever reconciled? “Oh yeah, oh yeah. I tried for years to get him out. To get him a new trial.” Why did you think he deserved a new trial? Harrelson stops, and thinks about it as if for the first time. “I don’t know he did deserve a new trial… just being a son trying to help his dad. Then I spent a couple of million beating my head against the wall.” A couple of million, I say, astonished. “Easily. Lawyers upon lawyers…”

    Do you see much of your father in you? “Quite a bit… I was born on his birthday. They have a thing in Japan where they say if you’re born on your father’s birthday, you’re not like your father, you are your father, and it’s so weird when I would sit and talk with him. It was just mind-blowing to see all the things he did just like me.” Such as? “Idiosyncratic things. The way he laughed. The face, very similar.”

    Did it scare you that you were so similar? “No, no.” He laughs, uncertainly.

    Charles V Harrelson died in prison in 2007. Were they friends by then? “Yeah, we got along pretty good. When you can’t hang out and go to a pub, you know what I mean, it’s hard.”

    Harrelson in Rampart, his latest film. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

    It’s difficult to imagine that Harrelson’s character has not been shaped to some degree by his father – the early religion, the subsequent hell-raising, the campaigning (against environmental devastation, testing on monkeys, unethical energy, defence spending). He says if it were down to him, he’d scrap the defence budget and reallocate it. “The first thing I’d do is buy up every bit of rainforest or ancient forest – you could buy it all up with $2.5tn, no problem.”

    It’s funny that you make such a convincing redneck, I say, when you are famous for your lefty-liberal views. He grins, and says it wasn’t always like that. “I was a freshman in college in 1980, the year that Reagan was elected, and I went around badgering people to vote for him.” What? Why? “I was part of the Young Republicans and bought all the bullshit. I’m embarrassed to tell you this because I really think he’s one of the worst presidents in history. I was 18 when he went into office. Then almost immediately I noticed these cuts to the aid that I had to go to school – Reagan’s first thing was to cut all the social shit.”

    By his early 20s, Harrelson had long given up on God and Reagan – he was starring in Cheers, had been introduced to environmental politics by fellow actor Ted Danson, and was having a wild time. He had a voracious appetite for pretty much everything. At one point, he was quoted as saying he slept with three women a day. Was that true? “No, no, no, no, not at all.” He realises he might be protesting slightly too much, and starts again. “There was definitely a time of, what would you call it… of Satyricon. A time of definite excess, but I like to think everybody in that situation is probably going to go through that. I’ve always believed the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” He goof-grins. “It’s been one of those thoughts that consoles me.”

    One of the many surprising things about Harrelson is that he has been with the same woman for 22 years. You wouldn’t expect it, I say. “None of my friends did either. It is kind of shocking.” Then he shocks me even more by telling the lovely, soppy story of how he and his wife got together. Laura was his assistant, and it was only over time he realised he was in love with her. “I went to Africa and I’m sitting around the fire out there, in Nairobi, thinking about her, fantasising about her.” He looks embarrassed. “She’s my assistant. It’s baaaad! I came back from Africa and I couldn’t even say I was in love with her because I was so nervous. I’d been sitting there with a guitar, so I wrote this song to her, and I sang it to her and at the end of it she goes, ‘Woody, I’ve been in love with you for the last two and a half years.’ Then I picked her up and carried her in.” He and Laura finally married in 2008.

    Harrelson takes out his phone to show me photos of Laura and his three daughters. “They are the best thing going. The oldest has just gone off to college. It was one of the single most difficult experiences of my life when it was time to separate and she walked off to the dorm and we drove away. I bawled my eyes out.”

    Twelve years ago the family moved to Hawaii. He’d been introduced to America’s 50th state by the country singer Willie Nelson. “I went to see Willie play and at the end up comes Annie his wife and she goes, ‘Willie wants to hang with you on the bus.’ We open the door, and I see through the fog this guy holding up a big fatty. So I go in and start hanging with the Willie and I don’t know this is going to become one of my best buddies in life.” Nelson invited him to his home in Hawaii, Harrelson and Laura discovered Maui, the remote part of the island, and that was that. For three years he didn’t make a movie – he just got on with remaking a life, hanging with the Willie on his porch, strumming guitar, smoking big fatties and writing (his play, Bullet For Adolf, co-written by Frankie Hyman, premiered in Toronto in 2003).

    Are the hell-raising days over, then, or is he going to walk out of here and smack another photographer? “Oh yeah. I will never, ever even touch a cameraman. Never.” It’s funny how your sweet and scary sides happily coexist, I say. “Yeah. Heh! Heh! Heh! Heh!” And now he really does laugh like crazy. “Hey, man, the paparazzi, they will make you angry, that’s their whole thing. It’s a better picture. I’ve had a lot of expensive lessons on that score.” With anger or the paparazzi? “The combination.” Did something change in you? “No, I still have emotions bubble up, but I think I probably have a better rein on them. My whole thing now is I put my head down and keep walking.”

    A man comes into the room carrying two huge green smoothies.

    “Hey, buddy!” Harrelson says.

    “Hey, buddy!” the man says.

    “This is Simon,” Harrelson says. “This is Stan the man.” He tastes the smoothie. “That is just awesome, the best smoothie on earth. Lots of berries, kale, kiwi, plum, pineapple, cinnamon, hemp seed.” Harrelson eats mainly raw food. “There’s a spoon right there, have some.”

    So I do, and it tastes wonderful.

    “Wo, I can see you transforming in front of me,” Harrelson says.

    “It’s good. Did you say that was kiwi in it?” I say.

    “No,” says Stan the man. “Ki-weed!”

    “I forgot to tell you, it’s spiked!” Harrelson says. And the pair of them fall about laughing.

    As he finishes his smoothie, I say to Harrelson that he seems to have had a pretty amazing life. He nods and slurps. “It’s quite a dichotomy,” he says and he tells me one last story. “I was in a taxi the other night, and we started talking about life and the taxi driver goes, ‘Chaos and creativity go together. If you lose one per cent of your chaos, you lose your creativity.’ I said that’s the most brilliant thing I’ve heard. I needed to hear that years ago.”

    Buddhism 101: The Vajra (Dorje) as a Symbol in Buddhism

    Thomas L. Kelly / Getty Images

    The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.

    A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means “unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal”. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, “emptiness.”

    Buddism integrates the word vajra into many of its legends and practices. Vajrasana is the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The vajra asana body posture is the lotus position. The highest concentrated mental state is vajra samadhi

    Ritual Object in Tibetan Buddhism 

    The vajra also is a literal ritual object associated with Tibetan Buddhism, also called by its Tibetan name, Dorje. It is the symbol of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, which is the tantric branch that contains rituals said to allow a follower to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, in a thunderbolt flash of indestructible clarity.

    The vajra objects usually are made of bronze, vary in size, and have three, five or nine spokes that usually close at each end in a lotus shape. The number of spokes and the way they meet at the ends have numerous symbolic meanings.

    In Tibetan ritual, the vajra often is used together with a bell (ghanta). The vajra is held in the left hand and represents the male principle—upaya, referring to action or means. The bell is held in the right hand and represents the female principle—prajna, or wisdom.

    A double Dorje, or vishvavajra, are two Dorjes connected to form a cross. A double Dorje represents the foundation of the physical world and is also associated with certain tantric deities.

    Tantric Buddhist Iconography 

    The vajra as symbol predates Buddhism and was found in ancient Hinduism. The Hindu rain god Indra, who later evolved into Buddhist Sakra figure, had the thunderbolt as his symbol. And the 8th-century tantric master, Padmasambhava, used the vajra to conquer the non-Buddhist gods of Tibet.

    In tantric iconography, several figures often hold the vajra, including Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. Vajrasttva is seen in a peaceful pose with the vajra held to his heart. Wrathful Vajrapani wields it as a weapon above his head. When used as a weapon, it is thrown to stun the opponent, and then bind him with a vajra lasso.

    Symbolic Meaning of the Vajra Ritual Object 

    At the center of the vajra is a small flattened sphere which is said to represent the underlying nature of the universe. It is sealed by the syllable hum (hung), representing freedom from karma, conceptual thought, and the groundlessness of all dharmas. Outward from the sphere, there are three rings on each side, which symbolize the three-fold bliss of Buddha nature. The next symbol found on the vajra as we progress outward are two lotus flowers, representing Samsara (the endless cycle of suffering) and Nirvana (release from Samsara). The outer prongs emerge from symbols of Makaras, sea monsters. 

    The number of prongs and whether they have closed or open tines is variable, with different forms having different symbolic meanings. The most common form is the five-pronged vajra, with four outer prongs and one central prong. These may be considered to represent the five elements, the five poisons, and the five wisdoms. The tip of the central prong is often shaped like a tapering pyramid.

    Reference

    • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Vajra (Dorje) as a Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/vajra-or-dorje-449881.

    Why is There No Gay Men’s Body Liberation Movement?

    Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash.

    “Gay Fat”

    “You’re not fat fat, but you are gay fat,” said the guy I was dating at the time when I expressed that I felt like I didn’t particularly fit into gay culture.

    These words, which at the time were deeply hurtful, continued to bother me for years. They illustrate the ridiculous, restrictive, and unattainable body norms that govern gay male culture. I often ponder what exactly it means to be “gay fat.” “Fat” is a social construction, a term that often functions as a general category in which we place anyone who does not meet cultural standards of size and/or appearance. The notion of being “gay fat,” as opposed to simply “fat,” illustrates that gay male culture and Western culture have different body standards.

    I call this ideal gay male type the normate gay: the slim, toned, appropriately masculine, appropriately hairy, white, cisgender, and able-bodied gay man who embodies the collection of characteristics gay culture values most. The bodies of gay men who have less social and sexual capital because they are regarded as “deviant” — those who are of color, trans, disabled, fat, or fem — are defined in contrast to the body of the normate gay. The normate gay does not, in fact, exist, but is an idealized and unattainable cultural figure. Though some gay men may embody the normate gay to a large extent, appearance standards are set to create a constant state of lack that aligns with consumer capitalism in the form of diet culture. As sociologists Nathaniel C. Pyle and Noa Logan Klein observe:

    “The prevalence of these media representations [the body promoted by mainstream gay media] creates an enormous pressure on gay men to conform to this narrow ideal body type, much like the beauty standards that are imposed on women and have been thoroughly analyzed by feminists. Rates of eating disorders and other body image disturbances are high among gay men, which may be taken as evidence that body image ideals exert pressures on gay men similar in strength to those faced by heterosexual women.”

    Gay men clearly suffer from a host of body image issues, disordered eating, and full-blown eating disorders. Yet, despite existing similarities between appearance standards for women and gay men, there is no gay men’s body liberation movement to the extent that one exists within contemporary feminism. In gay men’s culture there is little discussion of diet culture, body positivity, the concept of “health at every size,” or feminism.

    The absence of a sorely needed gay men’s body liberation movement is the product of cultural ideas of toxic masculinity — aspects of masculinity that produce socially harmful effects such as domination, misogyny, homophobia, and violence — and toxic gay masculinity, a subcategory of toxic masculinity that describes aspects of masculinity within gay male culture that are similarly detrimental.

    Toxic masculinity, as a set of cultural standards for what men should be or do, is not monolithic. Gay men can simultaneously be victimized by toxic masculinity, as expressed by straight men, and perpetuate toxic masculinity against other marginalized men. Toxic gay masculinity functions around the desire to embody the normate gay type and to police those who fall outside the parameters of this cultural ideal, thereby reinforcing structural forms of oppression such as sexism, cissexism, racism, lookism, sizeism, and ableism.

    I prefer the terms “body liberation” and “body justice,” as opposed to the more popular term “body positivity,” because body positivity is increasingly co-opted by the weight loss and diet industry. Some diets, for example, market themselves as involving “body positive weight loss.” Body positivity as a feminist concept stemming from the Fat Acceptance Movement, however, is about radically accepting and making peace with one’s body as is. “Body positive weight loss” is therefore at odds with the original intentions of body positivity.

    The now widespread use of the term may also prevent us from seeing sizeism as a social justice issue. It is not enough to feel “positive” about one’s own body or the bodies of those one interacts with on a daily basis. The word “positivity” can prevent us from seeing body liberation as a civil and human rights issue and that body size should be a protected category similar to race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. The terms “liberation” and “justice,” which imply the need for systemic change where body size is concerned, are, by nature, more radical and less co-optable by diet culture.

    There is no gay men’s body liberation movement because norms of masculinity prevent gay men from seeing and addressing the extent to which diet culture and gay male culture are enmeshed.

    A Brief History of the Gay Male Body

    When the gay liberation movement emerged in the United States in the late 1960s, body standards for gay men were not the gym-toned aesthetic of today, but the thin, androgynous hippie style often adopted by New Left men of the period. As the Gay Rights Movement progressed, and gay people became more socially and culturally visible and enmeshed within emerging forms of consumer capitalism, body standards for gay men became more idealized, unattainable, and rigid. The expansion of gay gyms, bathhouses, sex clubs, and porno theaters represented the co-optation of the philosophy of gay liberation by capitalists.

    The normative body type that emerged during the mid-to-late 1970s is what some have referred to as the “Castro clone,” or, the sexualized image of the ideal white, working-class gay man. This look grew out of the Castro district of San Francisco, which became a gay mecca as urban gay communities expanded during the post-Stonewall period. The “Castro clone” often sported masculine fabrics such as denim and leather and typically wore form-fitting plaid shirts or t-shirts and Levis jeans, worn tight to emphasize the crotch area. A mustache or facial hair often topped off the hyper-masculine look. Some have also likened the “Castro clone” to the image of the Marlboro Man, a character of a rugged, working-class man used to market Marlboro cigarettes, who first appeared in advertising in 1954.

    Body norms for gay men shifted with the arrival of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s to an even further idealized slim, toned, white, and able-bodied aesthetic. The amplified masculinity of the rugged “Castro clone” was replaced by an imperative to be smooth, hairless, and clean shaven. Though scientifically inaccurate, AIDS was described by medical professionals and the media as an explicitly gay disease or “gay cancer” (the initial name used for the condition by the Centers for Disease Control was GRID, or, Gay Related Immune Deficiency). In contrast to prevailing notions that gay men were diseased, the ideal body aesthetic of the time was one that connoted health, cleanliness, and physical fitness in the form of muscularity.

    Activist and journalist Michelangelo Signorile, in his 1997 book Life Outside, argued that the muscular gym imperative heightened during the early years of the epidemic because doctors recommended steroids to HIV-positive gay men to combat wasting and other physical signs of illness. Signorile famously observed that, at this time, the most physically beautiful men were often those who were the most ill. Though doctors prescribed steroids with the intent to help patients combat the symptoms created by AIDS, steroid use in response to the epidemic further solidified gay culture’s masculine muscular ideal.

    The anti-identity movements of the 1990s, such as third wave feminism and radical queer and transgender movements, which questioned the efficacy of the gender binary and other gender and sexual norms, led, in part, to the emergence of bear and twink subcultures, though the gay gym aesthetic still predominated in the mainstream. Gay culture and sexuality remain taboo and attaining an ideal physique is a way for gay men to visually demonstrate their morality, virtue, and control in the face of a society that regards non-heteronormative ways of being as deviant and shameful. Due to internalized homophobia, some gay men might regard their sexual desires and practices as “excessive” and seek to mitigate shame by disciplining and exerting control over their body size and shape.

    Some historians trace the beginnings of contemporary diet culture to the work of the nineteenth-century social reformer Sylvester Graham. Graham argued that one’s appetite and morality were linked and that one could use food as a path to moral virtue. He prescribed a bland diet as a way for men to control their desires and exercise sexual restraint. It is therefore unsurprising that during the HIV/AIDS epidemic the ideal gay body type shifted from simply thin to a physique that was lean, sculpted, and hairless. The ideal gay male body type has developed over time to represent not just morality and virtue, but moral virtue on hyperdrive. Consumer capitalism, including gay media, further employs the precepts of diet culture to prey upon gay men’s desires to be socially and sexually worthy.

    Dear Gay Men, You Are On a Diet

    Lookism, or the personal, institutional, and social privileges and benefits conferred upon persons whose physical appearances align with cultural preferences, is rampant in gay male culture. The term was first coined during the 1970s by activists within the Fat Acceptance Movement. Michelangelo Signorile defines this concept as follows:

    “the setting of a rigid set of standards of physical beauty that pressures everyone within a particular group to conform to them. Any person who doesn’t meet those very specific standards is deemed physically unattractive and sexually undesirable. In a culture in which the physical body is held in such high esteem and given such power, body fascism then not only deems those who don’t or can’t conform to be sexually less desirable, but in extreme sometimes dubbed lookism also deems a person completely worthless as a person, based solely on his exterior. In this sense it is not unlike racism or sexism, or homophobia itself.”

    Lookism, then, does more than position someone as merely unattractive. It denies one’s very humanity on the basis of culturally-determined aesthetic standards. In gay male culture, it is not enough to be thin; rather, one must embody a set of idealized aesthetic characteristics in order to be considered desirable and worthy. Sizeism and lookism combine to create an ideal that is impossible for most to achieve.

    Diet culture is hard to recognize within the context of gay male culture because it often appears dressed in a masculine guise to make its precepts more palatable to gay men. Gay men talk about “fitness journeys,” “gyming,” “gym goals,” and “meal prepping” — not dieting. But as Harrisonexplains, diet culture also “masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness.” This facet of diet culture is only amplified within the masculinized space of mainstream gay male culture.

    Gay men may also engage in “clean eating” — another form of dieting under the guise of “health” — as a way to manage the stigma of being gay through appeals to bodily cleanliness and moral superiority. The assumption is that if we eat foods that are “clean,” we are, by extension, “clean,” and if we eat “unhealthy” foods we are therefore “contaminated” or “dirty.” I admit that for awhile I got into “clean eating,” in part, as a way to feel morally superior to other gay/queer men. My thought process was that if I didn’t have the ideal body aesthetic, I could at least feel better about myself because I was eating “cleaner” in comparison to others. In reality, food holds no moral value outside the value a culture — in this case Western diet culture — ascribes to it.

    The invisibility of diet culture within gay male culture also results in some gay men seeing the end results of their personal “fitness journeys” as something all gay men can attain through discipline and hard work. The message is that anyone can achieve acceptance within gay culture if only they hit the gym and eat “healthy.” Such messages are diet culture dressed up as “fitness inspiration.” They may further be seen as anti-homophobic messages — not diet messages — because gay men may link their “fitness journeys” to overcoming bullying, harassment, and internalized shame.

    The majority of these men, in the words of Harrison, “were born on third base but think they batted a triple.” Genetic privilege allows them to more easily conform to the normate gay ideal. Feminist activist and educator Warren Farrell refers to this phenomenon as “genetic celebrity,” or, the largely unearned adoration we bestow upon those whose physical appearances, based upon random combinations of genetic factors, fall within the parameters of what a particular culture deems “attractive” and thus desirable and worthy.

    While thin or “fit” gay men may also suffer from body image issues that intersect with experiences of homophobia, they should simultaneously acknowledge their thin privilege and the fact that they do not have to face the pervasive stigma and stress experienced by those who live in larger bodies. Put differently, there is no system of oppression that marginalizes thin people in the ways sizeism and lookism oppress those who are larger.

    Pointing out the extent diet culture and gay male culture are enmeshed is challenging because it unsettles notions gay men have long held as truths. It is difficult for some gay men to acknowledge and surrender the social and sexual privileges conferred by normate gay status and to work towards collective body liberation.

    Riot, Not Diet

    The Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969 are often cited as the origin myth of modern gay liberation (though, in fact, the Gay Rights Movement began several decades prior and a liberationist mentality developed across the United States simultaneous to Stonewall). Our gay ancestors, nevertheless, rioted, fought, and died so we would have the right to exist proudly and without shame. This includes the liberation of our bodies — not just sexually — but in all ways.

    The solution is not for women and fems to prioritize the inclusion of gay/queer men within ongoing body liberation movements. Gay men must do it themselves, must create their own movement informed by existing critiques, and must give up the hesitance to address diet culture and body liberation because dismantling long-held ideals means relinquishing the status and privilege that comes from normative masculinity. An essential first step is to recognize where and how diet culture operates within gay male culture. We must, as our gay predecessors did, and as a popular third-wave feminist slogan tell us:

    “Riot, not diet. Get up, get out, and try it.”

    Reference