A dapper gentlemen wearing a hat and red bowtie and carrying a walking stick puts his hand to his heart and declares his patriotic duty, but then invalidates this very duty because he might “get all dirty.” Herein lies the humor of the postcard. As a viewer we are meant to laugh at the very idea of this queer/fairy/invert/homosexual wanting to or even possessing the very capacity to fight in The Great War (the trenches) as well as his superficial reasoning to decline enlistment in the military. The humorous nature of the postcard is vacated in 2009, yet the image still presents an intriguing representation of homosexuality in the mass culture of the early 20th century.
The queerness of the figure is signaled not only by the text (“goodness me”, “I’ll get all dirty”) but is also predicated on the visual signifiers of homosexuality displayed by the figure. First and foremost, is the red bowtie. It removes him from the male sartorial realm of his time and evokes difference; but it is important to note that a red tie in the urban spaces of homosexuality circa 1918 was a visible signal of one’s queer identity that was understood by others who shared the wearer’s desires. It helped to form connection, community and culture.
The red tie was not only a sign within the subculture of early 20th century homosexuality, but it was recognized as such by the dominant culture. A New York invert at the time explained:
to wear a red necktie on the street was to invite remarks from newsboys and others…a friend told me once that when a group of street boys caught site of the red necktie he was wearing they sucked their fingers in imitation of fellatio. (Quoted in Gay New York by George Chauncey, p. 52)
The red tie expressed not only the visibility of homosexual men to one another but was also clearly within the visual vocabulary of mass culture.
The operation of the red tie reminds me of the work of French philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault. He argues that homosexuality:
was not so much the enemy as a support; it may have been designated as the evil to be eliminated, but the extraordinary effort that went into the task that was bound to fail leads one to suspect that what was demanded of it was to persevere, to proliferate to the limits of the visible and invisible, rather than disappear for good. Always relying on this support, power advanced, multiplied its relays and effects while its target expanded, subdivided, and branched out, penetrating further into reality at the same pace. (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 42 )
The production of homosexuality by the medical establishment, the legal system as well as here in an image of mass culture as deviant, as marginal and as an object demanding visible inquiry and representation was in a sense necessary in order to establish behavioral norms for both sexuality and gender for all individuals. The postcard is a means (small, insignificant perhaps, but still working) by which the center of heterosexuality and its gender regime are established through the margin of homosexuality. Real men fight in wars and are not afraid of dirt, nor do they wear red ties.
The various discourses on homosexuality, therefore, did not seek the disappearance of same-sex behavior despite the dire consequences of its real life attempts, but rather sought proliferation, codification and reification within a definable and discrete individual “the homosexual” which served and still serves to privilege homosexuality within society and culture. This individual needed to be visible.
Specifically, the paradigmatic definition of the homosexual man as a female mind trapped in a male body functioned and still functions to enforce and regulate behavioral norms according to a rigid binary gender system. This binary system of masculinity/femininity is mapped onto and structurally reinforces a binary system of desire. Within these two systems femininity and homosexuality act as negative terms which patrol the borders of gender and sexuality in order to validate and secure the masculine heterosexual term. Misogyny and homophobia are twin practices which accomplish this goal.
After that enjoyable yet vital detour with Foucault, let’s return to the postcard and its signification of homosexual/queer/invert/fairy. Along the red tie, the gesture of hand on heart connotes the figure as feminine. Women are associated with the heart, men are defined by the mind.
The facial features of the figure, the arched eyebrows which imply a sense of thought (Should I enlist?) perhaps indicate the figure as queer with a suggestion that they are plucked. There is also a hint of color on the cheeks and a redness to the lips which evokes makeup.
And what of the walking stick held up to the figure’s mouth. On one level, a gesture of touching one’s mouth with the fingertips suggests again a moment of deliberation and thought (Should I enlist?).
Here, however, the use of the cane with its curved handle and close proximity to the figure’s mouth becomes a mock fellatio and signals the figure as possessing or displaying a feminine erotic zone, the mouth, rather than the typically masculine one of the penis.
All of these visual signifiers along with the text operate together to denote the figure as different, as queer. Humble though it may be, this postcard is part of the discourse of homosexuality which sought to make it visible, to make it the prop which supports and defines the center of heterosexuality and its rigid binary gender regime.