Tuesday, December 29, 2009

AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body Part III: A Conversation with Jack Mackenroth

jack_mackenroth_200907_3Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Jack Mackenroth, fashion designer, Project Runway contestant, AIDS activist and medal winner in swimming at the 2009 Gay Games. He kindly reposted my article entitled AIDS, Masculinity and the (Gay) Body on his website and I wanted to hear about his reactions to the post.

In this earlier post, I had discussed Mackenroth and his physical prowess as emblematic of the new (gay) body paradigm which emerged after the rise of AIDS. I argued that in response to the sick body of the early days of the epidemic so prevalent within representations of the disease in popular culture that gay men on a cultural level wanted to instead display a body of health, strength and vitality.

Thus, the paradigm of the gym jock body became paramount within gay culture (and personal life) as exemplified by the Abercrombie & Fitch ads of the mid 1990’s. abercrombie_ad The appearance of this new body was also the result of the changing nature of the disease that not only allowed gay men with HIV/AIDS to live healthier and longer lives, but also employed the use of steroids to prevent muscle wasting which in turn transformed their physiques. And of course, this new (gay) body was not confined to only HIV+ men, but to all gay men as they sought to confront the challenges and representations of the disease.

Mackenroth found my analysis interesting. But he also wanted to share his own personal experience about the development of his own hyper masculine, extremely muscular body. On one level, it really had nothing to do with AIDS or his HIV+ status except a desire to live a healthy lifestyle. Actual lived experience is of course essential to a discussion of sexuality and its manifestations. In my earlier blog post, I was analyzing the new (gay) muscle body more on the level of representation and paradigm. The experience of each individual gay man may of course vary widely from that ideology, but I still think that those images have an effect whether it is a confirmation of one’s own body, a repudiation of that body, a desire for that body etc. I tried to speak about my own relationship to this somatic paradigm in a follow-up post entitled Postscript: AIDS, Masculinity and the (Gay) Body.

mollycoddlemarcel Effeminacy & homosexuality in popular culture, postcard circa 1910

For Mackenroth, producing a muscular body is essential to combating what he sees as not only his own effeminacy, but also the perceived effeminacy of gay men in the wider culture. Indeed, since the origin of the homosexual as a species circa 1870 as Foucault has stated, the paradigmatic definition of the homosexual was gender inversion, a woman trapped within the body of a man even though many types of same-sex identities existed- masculine, feminine, in-between in actual practice. With Stonewall and the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement, the inversion definition although still pervasive was changing both within gay culture and outside it. Masculinity was no longer seen as just solely the object of gay male desire, but it could be his identity as well. (See my early post, AIDS, Masculinity and the (Gay) Body. for a discussion of gay “masculinity” in the 70’s and how its nature changed with the emergence of AIDS.)

tom_of_finland_example-thumb-400x288-232 Tom of Finland circa 1970’s- Masculinity as masquerade

Mackenroth talks about how he was perceived as effeminate growing up and candidly related a painful story about a teacher who thought that he was a girl for 2 days in high school. We all know and have experienced how the trauma and pain of childhood and adolescence to whatever degree often influences and directs our adult lives and experience. To create a exaggerated masculine and muscular body seems to me a valid response to such a situation where one’s sense of self is challenged and negated. Perhaps, muscles become an emotional armor against the past.

What is interesting is that Mackenroth himself realizes that while his body is meant to dispel his effeminacy, he simultaneously seems to display that effeminacy and is comfortable with that display. As he says, “As long as I don’t move, I’m perceived in a certain way (muscles, masculinity)”. He also said, “When I open my mouth a purse drops out.” And finally, “I think I developed a masculine body because I could change that part of myself rather easily by working out. Changing mannerisms and voice tone or inflection is possible (and I know some gay men who have gone to great lengths to achieve this) however, I either did not have the desire or the need to do so as I became comfortable in my new, muscular skin.” The muscles again could be conceptualized as a sort of metaphoric armor (my new muscular skin) that not only provides protection against a negative past, but as a new corporeal vessel which contains and transforms his effeminate gestures, mannerisms etc., so that they are not the whole story. This armor is also a part of a growing maturity. Mackenroth states,”I also think I developed my physique when I was young and insecure, and now I am not insecure at all so I have no problem ‘nellying it up’. I will never be Tom of Finland and I don't care to be. I couldn't keep up that charade for very long anyway so why bother?”

There is something of a disruption between Mackenroth’s corporeal image and his behavior, his “nellying it up” which I think can be seen as a critical response to traditional masculinity. In other words, he is not pretending to be other than he is and has been; straight-acting is not his game. As he said, his physique is a “fuck you” to all those straight boys who gave him grief in the past and a challenge to those in the present. Mackenroth can look like those straight boys (and even possess a bigger body and be better looking), adopt their somatic paradigm, but his same-sex desire and effeminate display disrupts the dominant culture’s sequence of sex/gender/desire. A biological display of masculinity through the muscle body does not, therefore, guarantee a heterosexual desire as the dominant culture continually asserts and needs to maintain a binary system of gender. This undermining of the sex/gender/desire sequence is problematic to the wider culture. Mackenroth’s honesty and awareness of himself is an example once again of how lived experience often differs from paradigm and representation.

Conversely, I think one could argue that Mackenroth is hailed in Louis Althusser’s sense by a dominant ideology that is already deeply homophobic and misogynistic. I am not saying that he is a misogynist or homophobe himself (indeed we all are to a degree having grown up in a homophobic and misogynistic culture)merely that in a way it makes sense that he chooses to adopt the hyper masculine, muscle body because masculinity is already valued and validated within our culture and gay culture in particular. This valuing and validation is performed in part through the constant negation of women and gay man and that must be problematic if you perceive yourself as effeminate. There is often a call within the gay community itself for its more flamboyant members to “tone it down” so as not to make it harder for the rest of the community. It is shameful that such a sentiment exists and points to the fictitious nature of the gay community itself which is often divided by race, class and even body type. The muscle body, then, is perhaps a defense against that which is already devalued both in gay culture and society in general.

However, this body type still troubles me both on the level of representation and everyday life because there are plenty of gay men who don’t express the insight that Mackenroth does about it nor do they display proudly his duality of body and personality. For me, this body paradigm does indeed have traces of homophobia and misogyny in its uncritical display of an ultra masculinity. Also, there is a sense that such a body is mandatory within gay culture. Mackenroth himself stated that in going to the Roxy nightclub in New York City in the 90’s, one needed this corporeal accessory or one was invisible to the other patrons. When I first moved to New York City in the early 90’s at the age of 22, I went to the Roxy once and indeed felt invisible and alienated. I learned though that there were other venues where my desire could flourish like the extraordinary club SqueezeBox where the other’s other reigned. And I realized that I wasn’t exactly gay, but queer and vext.

After reaching this point in the post, I emailed Mackenroth with 2 specific questions that were still on my mind. I am quoting his answers to each question in their entirety.

1. How do you or do you even feel the need to reconcile your appearance- muscles, masculine, handsome etc, with your personality which seems to express the effeminate nature you are trying to dispel or mitigate with that very appearance?

Mackenroth answers, “Well I think they offset one another. Honestly if I was still a skinny little man--which I still sometimes feel like inside--and still had the effeminate mannerisms I think I would be very insecure. I like the idea of muscles as armor. Becoming muscular in tandem with years of therapy has helped me become very secure about who I am. If you would have asked me about my perceived effeminacy 20 years ago, I would have been horrified and filled with shame. Now I am much older and evolved and I don't care if other people judge me because I am not the most masculine man skipping down the street. I value all aspects of who I am and I am no longer trying to mask or change them. We all adapt to social expectations all the time. I know it's not appropriate to walk into a business meeting and do a high kick, but it doesn't mean that I don't do them at home from time to time. And as I mentioned before--my personality is multi-faceted. I'm not always effeminate--not that I judge that part of me in any way.”

2. Have you ever been in a situation where that dichotomy of your appearance/personality has been negative or really positive because of it?

Mackenroth states, “Hmmmm--Interesting. I've met people before who had seen photos of me and when they met me said they expected me to be more masculine. I'm never sure how to respond to that. I think the mixture of the perceived and unexpected is perfect for my personality. Part of my humor is based on shock value or sarcasm and it suits me that as a 200 pound muscleboy I am comfortable vacuuming in high heels. Generally it's been beneficial. I also think there is an aspect of "acting gay" in certain situations, especially where straight men are involved, that helps alleviate any uncomfortable feelings a straight man might have. I think it is threatening to many straight men to have a big, muscular man in their comfort zone so I temper it with effeminacy so as to show "it's ok I may be big but I'm just a queen so socially I am less than so its all good." I have never analyzed this way. Very interesting.”

Mackenroth’s answers I believe exhibit a degree of maturity and self-awareness about his own relationship to his body and personality, how that relationship developed and where it came from in his own life. It has been fascinating for me to talk with this “muscleboy” because if nothing else it exemplifies how complicated we all are and how what we present to the world in appearance is not always the sole answer to who we are as individuals. Paradigm and representation cannot contend with the actual lived experiences of individuals although they do shape that experience and can cause as much joy as misery.

abercrombie_ad Abercrombie & Fitch Ad 1990’s- Masculinity as biology

However, I still feel uncomfortable with the (gay) body paradigm and that in part is because of my own history and past. But, it also stems from an understanding of the regime of sexuality and gender to which we are all subjects. The muscle paradigm still embodies for me a degree of homophobia and misogyny and it’s uncritical validation of (straight) masculinity does nothing to undermine this current regime, but rather supports it. There is also something about it that is not mature, that seems adolescent and obsessive. And while Mackenroth may embrace the pansy that is in all of us, there are those gay man that do not and who see muscles and masculinity as the natural, biological state for those creatures possessing a penis. In this regard, the penis is (mis)recognized as the Phallus and in the long run we all (gay men, lesbians, transsexuals, straight women) suffer for it.


  1. This internal tension is familiar to me "as a woman" (hate that phrase but needs must). When am I fulfilling my own desires/ambitions/impulses and when am I sleeping with the enemy? This is why some women get nervous around the word 'feminism' - they worry that it devalues their complicity in the system.
    Mackenroth may value personally the diversity of the queer world but as a representative of the dominant aesthetic it is his prerogative to do so. He is not despised/ignored for his appearance, so he may travel throughout the whole world of sexuality - gay, queer, straight - as a valued participant, rather than a distrusted spectator. It is his privilege to say where he wants to be; no one will throw him out. This is the glittering prize of playing by the rules.
    Courtney Love said that her band Hole only achieved any success after she lost 40 lbs. When she shed her fat cloak of invisibility, she began to interest others in her personal opinions and behaviour as well as her creative expression.
    You can be as badly behaved/fascinating/repulsive/brilliant/outrageous/expressive as you like, but it doesn't really matter unless you are invited to the party.
    Maybe for the internally queer, the real magic of the external muscle is that it allows you to reject whatever benefits are extended by those who would reject you if you were still a 98 lb weakling.

  2. Thank you Holly for a great response! I think your notion that Mackenroth's muscles give him access, value and privilege is correct. As I wrote in the post, a hyper masculine body is on some level his only option because masculinity is already validated within gay as well as the wider culture, both of which are already homophobic and misogynistic. And it is true that possessing this body is as you say "playing by the rules" of the current gender regime and of course there are rewards for that even if you are an effeminate gay man. Reading your response makes me realize I am still troubled by the (gay) body paradigm and its consequences.

  3. I'm sorry but things have gone too far , off the deep end . I can appreciate his feelings and why he feels this way but as a consequence gay men have now painted themselves as nothing more than gym bunnies and twits. instead of building their minds and their values they have become to use a muscular body as the end all and be all. Do you ever see any gay men anymore who are not all pumped and primped and waxed and like some stautue used as an example of the new gay culture ? things went too far and they need to now stop this destructive trend. gay men like all men should put stock and value in what they are not what size their chest is .

  4. Because the muscles thing has been so overdone by gay men, isn't it no longer a masculine stereotype but rather has become a gay stereotype itself...?

  5. It's easy to be accepting of one's own perceived "feminine" characteristics once one has the muscle body armor to achieve a balance (that is, within one's own head). It is not an evolved or enlightened perspective. It's like the ridiculous movie archetype: Beautiful school teacher tells put-upon ugly duckling student that "beauty is on the inside". Yeah, easy for her to say.

    Acknowledging the sissy inside and saying that you are comfortable with it is easy when you have a hyper masculine physique. The real proof of emotional and intellectual maturity is to have the same sincere response if you were six foot tall, limp-wristed, and weighed 135 pounds.
    REMEMBER, the gay rights movement was started by drag queens and sissy boys at the Stonewall Inn. They had a powerful self identity. The muscle leather boys at the other bars who were harassed by the police never fought back.

  6. Thank you Matt for your perceptive comment. It is important for all of us to remember that it was drag queens and sissy boys who stood up to the police at Stonewall in 1969. This fact is often overlooked, but it is essential for an understanding of the Gay Liberation Movement. It also reminds me how often the queens of our (fictitious) community are often told to tone it down because they stand in the way of assimilation. This is shameful and speaks to the deep homophobia and misogyny which exists in society in general and in gay culture in particular.

    Thanks again, Kelly

  7. Thank you Mark for your comment. I think, indeed, the muscle/masculine gay body has become a stereotype, but one that still has political and personal implications.

  8. Thank you Davide for your comment. As I said in the post there is something very adolescent or "high school" about the need for the masculine, muscle body by gay men. It comes across as obsessive. If there is emotional eating, there is emotional gym going and you are right that some balance needs to be achieved and other things given more importance than just the size of your arms or chest.