Monday, December 14, 2009

Postscript: AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body

Part I: Babes in Boyland by Guy Trebay

When I was thinking about my recent blog post, AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body, I was reminded of an article I had read many years ago that discussed how the use of steroids to prevent muscle wasting by some HIV+ gay men had given these men extremely muscular bodies. I could not remember the title or author of this article, but I knew that it had appeared in the Village Voice. Luckily, a Voice staffer named Lily responded to my general query and found the exact article, Babes in Boyland by Guy Trebay. The article appeared in the August 17, 1999 edition of the Voice.

The article details the change in the bodies of (s0me) HIV+ gay men who began in the 90’s to become more muscular. The article addresses this change through a discussion of the “muscle scene” in The Pines on Fire Island. As I also stated in my post, Trebay contends that this corporeal change was in part precipitated by the advent of AIDS in which gay men sought to replace the disease ridden (gay) body prevalent in the early days of the epidemic with a body of health, vigor and action on both the level of representation and actuality. But in a perverse sense, this new muscular (gay) body was not just a reaction to AIDS, but its by-product. Trebay quotes journalist Steve Bolerjack, a seasonal Pines resident: “The fact is that a high percentage of guys here are [HIV] positive and able to get steroids easily. For some of us, it's a medical and not a vanity issue; I'm on testosterone therapy myself." But among the unanticipated side effects of combination therapies for HIV and AIDS, Bolerjack says, "is that protease inhibitors can increase your vascularity and testosterone and steroids can increase muscle mass. So, if you work out, you can really get so pumped up you wind up looking better than you ever have in your life.” I would argue that this development did not just occur with gay men who were HIV+. This group is just an example of a wider paradigmatic shift in which the muscle jock body became the new gay archetype in the realm of representation and for some in lived experience in the 1990’s.

The question now is whether or not this (gay) body is still the dominant representation and if it continues to exert meaning in the real lives of men who desire other men. In my earlier post, I argued that indeed this muscle body within (white) gay culture still prevails despite challenges and was concerned that no one asks what it means to have and display these muscles and how this display relates to whatever degree to masculinity, homophobia and misogyny.

Moreover, what is The Pines on Fire Island like today? Is it still the “muscle scene” that Trebay describes or has it changed? If anyone has stories to contribute about The Pines today or in 1999, please share them so that this body knot can be further unraveled.

Finally, Trebay’s article garnered a tremendous reaction when it was published. The responses were gathered in an article called Pec'ing Ardor. They range from agreement to sour grapes.

Part II: Jack Mackenroth

In my earlier post, I mentioned AIDS activist, athlete and fashion designer Jack Mackenroth as perhaps emblematic of the new (gay) body with(out) HIV. Mackenroth kindly reposted my blog on his website. I still hope to talk with him in the near future about his reactions to the post.

So far one comment has been left on Mackenroth’s site and I would like to respond to it here. The comment reads:

The article is interesting. I would be interested to know the age of the author. How much is this based on personal experience and how much in research into a time not personally experienced? Having lived through nearly three decades with HIV I’ve seen the history of HIV/AIDS as a participant.

I suspect the increased gym attendance among gay men in the late 80’s had more to do with how they wanted to be perceived by other gay men than by how they wanted to be perceived by the larger culture. Bluntly put, looking “healthy” meant getting laid a lot more. My recollection is that the majority of the activists involved in ACT UP and other AIDS activists (people who were consciously attempting to change the larger culture’s views on gay men and HIV/AIDS) were not gym bunnies. I remember lots of skinny, intense, angry, determined men changing the world with their intelligence and words, not with their appearance.

I found the reference to recent articles about bellies being “in” amusing, in that the same “new” trend among gay men was widely reported in the mid-90s. “Buddha Bellies” were reportedly the new essential body requirement for cool, young, gay men. If memory serves, that “trend” lasted for about three months and then the media was back to focusing on six pack abs.

Overall, my general observation on gay men's body image over the last 30 years is that we’ve worked our asses off to achieve whatever we believed would attract the most positive attention from other gay men without a whole lot of thought about what the rest of the world thought of us. That may not be so very different from what gay men did for the 30 years before AIDS…

First, it is intriguing to me that the comment’s author wonders about my age. Perhaps he thinks I am in my twenties and thus, have limited experience with HIV/AIDS. Well, I am 42 and have lived in New York City for the last 20+ years. Like every gay man in that time, I have had to contend with HIV/AIDS through an effort to practice safer sex, being tested, dating and having sex with positive men and so on. Perhaps my post seemed a little obtuse because in part I was discussing the (gay) body on the level of representation and not just in everyday life.

Indeed, the commenter is correct that (some) gay men want a more muscular body in order to get laid more, to be more attractive and desirable to themselves and other gay men. However, I would argue that this meaning is not the exclusive or only one, nor does it preclude my consideration of this (gay) body as a reaction to AIDS. These somatic meanings are also not confined to gay culture; we all, gay or straight, live under the same ideological regime. Just consider the rise of the metrosexual which in part must be seen as a reaction and emulation of certain (c0rporeal) aspects of gay culture by straight men.

And whether AIDS activists were gym bunnies or skinny guys is of no consequence. All gay men, activists and muscle boys, had to contend with the reality of HIV and AIDS. Again I would say that I was talking about the (gay) body on the level of representation which in turn does exert an influence on the actual lives of gay men no matter their body type or personal preference. Not all gay men respond to the muscle body as an expression of their desire. For me, that body produces a kneejerk reaction; a desire that lasts until the cumshot, but it does not endure. I understand my personal relationship to the muscle body as the difference that Roland Barthes notes between the pornographic and the erotic photograph. For a discussion of this difference see my post Notes on a Photograph. And while this statement may seem esoteric, it does accurately convey my lived experience in terms of my own desire and sexual history.

I have to thank the commenter for reminding me of the “Buddha Belly” moment in the mid-1990’s. It does seem strangely similar to the recent Times article on Brooklyn Bellies and equally amusing. More importantly, it reminds us how capitalism continually recycles stories and trends as if they are something new and different. It seems to me that these so-called fads while perhaps speaking to the actual lived experience of gay men are in fact used in the long run to confirm the dominant representation of the muscular (gay) body.

Conclusion: The Pansies in All of Us

But what does it mean when mainstream gay white culture fetishizes the straight male jock, his body, his clothes, his masculinity? What does it mean when gay men want to adopt this body and its trappings and see this somatic paradigm as a natural and direct expression of their masculine gender? No one seems to ask what it means, what it does, how it constructs and limits our identities as men who desire men, how it bears traces of homophobia and misogyny and how it makes us uncomfortable with the pansies in all of us.

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