THERE’S MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
In our first installment, freelance writer Ross Middleton takes a look at the seemingly contradictory, oft-spurned world of gay skinheads.
With a look at the movement’s origins, the rise of so-called gay skins, and the employment of skinhead imagery in queer cinema, Middleton reaches some intriguing conclusions.
Best known for breaking Geraldo’s nose and providing a career boost to Edward Norton, skinheads trace their roots to the mingling of Jamaican immigrants and the British working class of the 1960s. After shifts in politics, music, and fashion during the 70s and 80s, far-right and frightening neo-Nazi hate groups eclipsed the aggressively non-racist skins in the media.
Fragmented and hotly contested, the skinhead subculture defies easy categorization, and the skin “look” – closely cropped or shorn hair, tight t-shirts, jeans, and military-inspired boots – often appears in gay erotica. Why do some gay men fetishize this hyper-masculine aesthetic and its problematic connotations of aggression? Can a gay skinhead exist outside of a John Waters fever-dream, or is he simply the butch caricature the Village People forgot to include?
Pedro Angel Serrano, a producer and host of a Rutgers-based radio program, publisher of the zine Boots and Roots, and a fixture of the New Jersey punk and skin scene, is keenly aware of the division between the skinhead look and the ill-conceived erotic costuming practiced by certain gay men. “The impression I have is they think it looks ‘hot,’” he writes, noting that the skinhead aesthetic is, “an easy look to copy with no need to research the history of the subculture… It’s ready-made for [non-skins] to appropriate with little effort.” Serrano understands the appeal of the skinhead aesthetic among a segment of the gay population – he “bonds emotionally and romantically with men,” but stopped referring to himself as gay in the 1990s – and admits that the potential for humiliation may be part of the lure for some skinhead admirers. A skin fetishist who goes to a punk show without a solid knowledge of the scene (Serrano recalls one gay man who made the fashion faux pas of wearing an American flag in his pocket like a Cruising-era hankie during a band performance) might be setting himself up for skeptical glances, or worse. Any gay man who takes his fashion cues from media coverage of skin hate groups had best leave his swastika patches at home; a fraternity of punk and hardcore music enthusiasts, the non-racist skinhead community bristles at the popular belief that all skins are of the American History X persuasion. Serrano, who is Puerto Rican, points out that a gay neo-Nazi is “a special kind of stupid.”
Fueling the gay skinhead debate, filmmaker Bruce La Bruce imagines the gay skin as both nightmare and erotic figure in his 1999 release Skin Flick. La Bruce (whose most recent picture, The Raspberry Reich, garnered strong reviews after playing at Sundance and other major festivals) gives gay men plenty of tattooed flesh for fantasy in Skin Flick, depicting violent characters on their “daily quest for sex, gang banging, granny theft, petty pilfering and general mayhem.” The director’s delight in playing with stereotypes is evident throughout the picture: his cast of hard bodies includes a randy plumber and a young man masturbating over a copy of Mein Kampf, and the plentiful dirty talk is spoken in comically hollow line readings (the actor who delivers a graphic monologue about his dreams of becoming a “living toilet” can barely keep from laughing at the biological impossibilities outlined in his dialogue). The look of the skinheads, rather than the ideological variants within their subculture, is one of the central but unspoken jokes in the film. Once the suspenders come off, the actors and their uniformly smooth builds look like they’d be at home in any other pornographic venture – until Skin Flick “climaxes” in a disturbing home invasion/gang rape sequence complete with knives, gun-fellating, and racial epithets. Though the film’s skinheads lose the struggle (they flee the crime scene, get shot, or end up on the receiving end of vengeful sex), La Bruce leaves his audience with Skin Flick’s unsettling combination of the erotic and the horrific, and a resonant but narrow portrayal of skinhead life.
Vivid though they may be, the gay skins in La Bruce’s film are only characters, sites of terror and intrigue within a growing spectrum of skin-inspired erotica. Excluding the costumed performers of niche pornography, however, out gay skinheads appear to be relatively rare. To many people, being both gay and skin seems improbable – even those within the skinhead community don’t always accept the idea. A search for gay, bi, queer, or trans skinheads on Skinheads.net, an online community that bills itself as “one of the largest non-racist, non-political skinhead websites on the internet,” yielded some support of the idea – one member claimed there are “plenty” of gay skins out there, while another argued that “its all about what you got in your heart and in your head.” The majority of responses were decidedly less forgiving. “Take a hike, tooty fruity” wrote one (now banned) commenter, while another active member declared (in a run-on sentence framed with both an incomprehensible Magic Johnson AIDS reference and an animated winking emoticon) “its fuckin sick and some aint even skins they dress like that because they say it’s a manly image fuck that shit last thing I need is a fag dressing like me [sic].” The dominant anti-gay skinhead sentiment was echoed in the post of another member, who argued: “Being a homosexual is one thing. Being gay is something else. Being gay and a skin is very, very dodgy.”
Serrano is no stranger to this type of anti-gay sentiment among skinheads. “I’ve spoken with skins that bond with men or men and women sexually as well as emotionally, and most just don’t know how to express themselves on the issue,” Serrano writes in an email interview. “As a scene/community, that’s something we’re still figuring out for ourselves.” Serrano finds the “gay” label more useful as political term than a personal identity: “I feel I have more personal responsibilities as a skinhead than I do as a gay man. I obsess more over what it is for me to do as a ‘gay’ man than I do as a skinhead. I know what my role is as a skin. My identity as a skinhead is about being a part of a community and having a role to play.”
It’s rare – but not impossible – to find a gay man among non-racist skins. Serrano notes that he received an email last year from a man who wanted advice regarding a fellow skinhead who might be gay, and that awareness is growing in the scene. But awareness, he astutely points out, “does not equal acceptance or appreciation” – Serrano has met individuals who identify as both gay and skin, but they are “very few in number.” Whatever allures the skinhead look might hold for a gay aggression enthusiast, most boots-and-buzz cuts dreams will remain the stuff of fetish erotica. To take a cue from the straight man’s perennial fantasy of a girl fight, just because they hit each other in a mosh pit, it doesn’t mean the skinheads will kiss.
- The Totally Frightful Issue: Gay Skinheads, Queerty, 16 October 2006, by Ross Middleton https://web.archive.org/web/20080716040245/http://www.queerty.com/queer/the-totally-frightful-issue/the-totally-frightful-issue-gay-skinheads-20061016.php