Visibility is one of the greatest achievements in the fight for equality. The images of gay men we see today, however, are radically shifting our ambitions and our desires. Will Grove explores the changing gay male fantasy.
“Do you want to dance, and hold my hand? Tell me you’re my lover man…” Those are the first words that the record-buying public heard coming out of Bette Midler’s mouth in 1972 on a sultry, slow reworking of Bobby Freeman’s classic doo-wop hit Do You Want to Dance. In the houses of the record’s straight listeners, this was about them and for them.
The record sleeve didn’t tell the history. It didn’t say how Bette Midler started out her career by singing tunes at the Continental Bathhouse in New York City. It didn’t show how the sweat of the sauna’s patrons helped to form the unmistakable mist in her voice. It didn’t picture her rising like a star above a mess of glistening, thrusting, nude gay men in a lurid and irresistible tableau that could only justifiably be photographed by Bob Mizer.
Of course, that’s the problem with nostalgia. It’s difficult to look at the facts (she sang, gay men fucked) without forming a fantastic, imagined view of what it might have looked like. That’s because a lot of what is known about the pre-AIDS disco and bathhouse scene has been relayed by other people. She sang, they fucked behind closed doors. We mainly know what happened through the words and the tongues of the people who lived it.
This gay fantasy, forced by the time, was barely visible. It was a scab that could be picked if you knew where to look, but the viscous throb of the bathhouses couldn’t be heard by the sweethearts slow dancing to Bette Midler in their living rooms.
The medium and form of gay erotica has changed as the visibility of gay men in society and culture has increased. As Midler was finding her voice, Touko Laaksonen (known to most as Tom of Finland) was just gaining credibility. After over a decade of publishing beefcake comics that challenged the US censorship codes – which banned the depiction of “overtly homosexual acts” – his photorealist work began getting acclaim in the international mainstream art world.
By 1973 – a few years since commercial gay pornography started gaining traction in both the US and the UK, and 6 years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK – he was, as they say in the movies, a star. His images of brute, beautiful male bodies were successful enough to allow him to “live in jeans and [live] on my drawings.”
As Tom of Finland was drawing pneumatically muscled masculine archetypes, Robert Mapplethorpe was stipping, fisting, shooting until his death in 1989. In the wake of the sexual revolution, and in the flotsam of the AIDS epidemic, these two men traded with an unapologetic and confrontational representation of homosexuality.
In his most famous self-portrait, Mapplethorpe is bent in a squat with a bullwhip coming out of his anus and his eyes, almost hidden below a dark brow, looking directly through the film. His art sparked mass international debate. His work was chastised by conservative and religious organizations, but the more they tried to silence him, the more interest the general public took in his work.
We should never stop thanking Tom of Finland, Robert Mapplethorpe and their contemporaries for the way that they forced distinct, overt homosexual masculinity into the eyes of the public and the collections and cuttings of gay men around the Western world. Their art, at least symbolically, opened up the doors of the bathhouses and made the invisible, visible.
But not every gay man joined in with the acid parties in New York. Not every gay man could go to Fire Island or had access to the galleries where Mapplethorpe’s photos hid. Not every gay man could be bold, or be brave.
There’s a dying form of gay fantasy. It’s the erotica that lived in magazines stylised as paperback books. It’s the stories about young cowboys, sailors on leave, camping trips with curious, always surprisingly aggressive, friends. It’s the poorly structured stories that read like they were written with the same trembling hand that might later grip the book’s spine.
Before gay porn became so accessible on the internet, these books were where a lot of fantasies would live. In hidden aisles in bookshops, in paper bags. In words that could easily hide in a busy house and live in a hungry imagination.
And there’s something small to be mourned in the discontinuation of these magazines. Before mass gay porn came along in flashes on our computer screens, we had more of an imagination. An imagination, of course, that was a sad necessity of having to hide; to not be able to go out and just have sex with someone. But an imagination none the less that fed the mind more than PornHub ever could. An imagination that somehow feels like a better fix than the mind-numbing orange glow of Grindr. Of the way that we put ourselves out there, every day, in the hope that we are a gay fantasy. That we have the porn star body, the filtered face, the pneumatic muscles, the unapologetic attitude.
By becoming our own fantasy, we’ve created a culture that’s fully and completely eaten itself.
For a lot of gay men, the fantasy of having the stable life that our straight friends have been able to enjoy for so long is insatiable. And now, in an age where we’re lucky enough in the UK to be afforded a lot of equal rights, we can be that straight man. We can live the straight life fantasy. We can marry and have children and get the promotion and drive the car.
In New York, some of the gay men who used to party on Christopher Street are now living as parents above the sex shops that they’re now petitioning to shut down. As gay men have become more visible, we’ve wanted to become less challenging. We want to be seen as less sexual, less aggressive and, in many ways, more ‘straight’.
Visibility has changed our need, and priorities for fantasy. When rights have been won, do we need Mapplethorpe’s aggressive fantasies? When we can go online and see men fucking, do we need to fetishise the life of the sauna? And when we don’t need to imagine, do we need to have more creative ways to express our base fantasies?
The art and literature of historic gay fantasies are relics of our struggle, artefacts of times where we weren’t afforded the luxury of being visible. They are our cultural history, and they should be celebrated.
On the second track of her debut album The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler sings, “today’s the day we’ll say I do, and we’ll never be lonely any more”, a cover of Chapel of Love. As she sang that to the sweaty masses in the Continental Bathhouse, few of the men in the room could have imagined that this dance could turn real.
Words: Will Grove