Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Ballet and Push Ups 

Last week's "Putting Out for the Planet" post requested by my friend Mark was admittedly on the darker side. Perhaps as a result of that, a reader named Frank suggested in the comments that I should write about "ballet and push ups".

At the time, I didn't think it was a particularly helpful suggestion for saving the planet, but it occurred to me later that it might be a great help for my recent bout of writer's block. So I decided to take it up as a challenge.

Therefore without further ado I hereby present the second in a row of "On Demand Posts" as requested by readers of The Evangelist humbly entitled, as per Frank's request, "Ballet and Push Ups".

In the last post, I suggested that my subscription to Real Simple magazine was a clear sign of my being a metrosexual. (Perhaps this inspired the suggestion for this post?) I used the term metrosexual because it had been (until recently) the best term I knew of to describe my general lack of affection for the American heterosexual culture.

I have never been much interested the traditional trappings of that style of "manhood" which includes - centers on, really - bars, sports, and Maxim. While it amuses me somewhat to see it portrayed faithfully on Entourage as the silliness it is, I have never been able to stomach the company of those who embrace it without any sense of irony. (And no, The Man Show was not in truth particularly ironic gloss on the subject. It's just two guys who are smart enough to
know what gets attention selling - and endorsing - the hetero culture back to its primary consumer under the protective guise of belabored humor.)

When I think about how I ended up so out of touch with the mainstream, it occurs to me that perhaps it did all start for me with ballet. Or at least with Mikhail Barishnakov. When I was a child and saw him dance on TV, it seemed to me that he'd achieved every kid's dream: he could FLY. He didn't need anything to do it, either. No machines, no gimmicks. The man could just launch himself in the air and fly enormous distances.

I desperately wanted to be able to do that. I would leap around the kitchen hoping that I would somehow gain the ability to do what he did. I didn't particularly grok anything else about ballet. Not the plot, not the music. I just wanted the ability to fly like Barishnakov.

While I never did learn to fly like Mischa, I found that as I grew older that I was only fleetingly able to care much about the traditional "boy" pursuits. I liked playing sports in school. But I didn't find watching someone else playing them to be particularly interesting. So watching games on TV was not high on my list of things to do. Frankly, I preferred to do anything else. The truth is, if I was going to watch a sport at all, it was most likely to be Olympic figure skating.
By the time I got to high school, I was pretty comfortable in my status as a geek far removed from "cool" male society. But high school changed me in some fundamental ways. I went to a Quaker school and somehow mid-way through, I began to switch grooves. I grew into my body. I got contacts. And I found the alternative music scene.

Some interesting things were happening in the popular music culture in the 80s in terms of male imagery. All of groups within the Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music-inspired New Romantic movement (Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, New Order, Orchestral Maneouvers in the Dark, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure...), not to mention the more mainstream Duran Duran, Prince and Culture Club began leaning into and, in the case of Boy George, moving pretty far beyond the 70's androgeny made acceptable by David Bowie, the Dolls and many others. My personal style influences began with Adam Ant (I grew a tail), moved through a Billy Idol style of pseudo-punk (I had the spiked hair, the dangling cross earring, and the spiked leather bracelets), and then became a sort of cross between Prince/Robert Smith androgeny and Bauhaus/Peter Murphy Goth.

Around the same time, the girl who was my best friend (Hi, Amy!) came out. This confluence of events crystallized something. I was very protective of Amy and wanted to support her. People would wonder if you were hanging out with someone who was gay if you were gay, too. And I began to think rather confrontationally about the issue: what if I were? Would that change something? If it would, then take a long walk off a short pier, buddy.

So I began to remove any conscious signals of my sexual preference. At the time, it didn't take much. My earring was on the left, which was a signal in that culture that I was straight. (This particular signal varies from generation to generation and state to state.) But I could easily confuse that by balancing it with an ear cuff on the right side. A little carefully applied eye liner helped, too.

When the time came to choose a college, I chose Vassar. Notoriously liberal and willfully gender confused, the largest event of the year after Founder's Day was undoubtedly the Gay People's Alliance "Homo Hop". Since gender preference signals were muted at best, the safest assumption was that everyone was bisexual until they specified a preference to you. Many of my classmates assumed I was gay. But I didn't care. And neither did they.

Since I initially pursued a theatre career after college, I didn't have to worry too much about macho American culture ("Push Up World" as we might call it in deference to dear reader Frank.) But I'm a pretty big guy. So while on occasion I was called a fag in public it was always muttered under someone's breath. No one dared to say it to my face.

When I found that my survival job was cater-waitering, I discovered that it was advantageous to pass...as gay. All of the guys who controlled the booking and had the highest paid parties were gay. And it was no fun for them to have an uncomfortable straight guy around while they were in their element.

So I needed to pass or I wouldn't get the best jobs. It wasn't hard. I referred to K. simply as my "partner" so as not to accidentally lead anyone on. And then I "played Mary" with
the best of them. Only after I knew someone really well would I "come out" as straight. This led to my having following conversation with a co-worker:

Tony: Um, Jim. I need to tell you something, but you can't tell anyone else.
Jim: What? You can tell me anything.
Tony: I mean it.
Jim: OK! Spill it!
Tony: Jim...I know this is going to come as a surprise. But I'm...straight.
Jim: Ha, ha, HA! You are NOT.
Tony: I know this is hard to believe. But I am.


Jim: You're kidding, right?
Tony: Nope.
Jim: Are you SURE?
Tony: Uh, yeah. I mean, I live with a woman. We're probably going to get married.
Jim: STOP!
Tony: I'm serious. Now you understand why you can't tell anyone.
Jim: Of course! I get it. I won't tell a SOUL. But look. Have you at least TRIED being with a man? I mean, because if you haven't maybe you're not 100% sure about this being straight thing.
Tony: Well, no. I mean, I've had offers. But when push came to shove, I didn't feel like pushing or shoving.
Jim: So you're sure.


Jim: This is really blowing my mind.
Tony: Yeah. I know. I'm sorry. I had to tell you though.
(Needless to say, this story delights gay friends. They have had more than their share of traditional coming out conversations and naturally are amused to hear about the shoe being so clearly on the other foot.)

It was only years later when I entered the corporate world that I fully encountered "Push Up World" for the first time since high school. And I HATED it. The talk about beer and getting drunk. And endless talk about sports. And cars. And how wonderful the administrative assistant's ass was who just happened to be walking by. (It's not that I didn't appreciate her ass. I just didn't need a 30 minute monologue on it.) The "refined" version of this style of conversation I would hear frequently was a "who's is bigger"-style conversation about the best kinds of WINE. Conversation about any subject in the world does earn the adjective "cultured" when the not-so-subtle subtext is how much can spend on the pursuit in question.

I began to experience uncontrollable urges to subvert this culture. Standing in a group of guys admiring another guy's suit, I'd say exactly they would have said if they were admiring a woman's wardrobe: "I'd fuck him." Awkward pause. Shuffle. Laughter. After a while, I got a reputation as a bit unpredictable, funny, and clearly left of center. Real assholes avoided me. The merely misguided would get the point and play more by my rules.

So given my personal history, when the term "metrosexual" surfaced a few years ago. I thought, "FINALLY, a word for a straight man who doesn't buy the hetero worldview. What took so long?"

But then, this weekend the New York Times blew up my identity by introducing a new term: GAY VAGUE.

Now I've argued with a gay friend (Hey, David - you got a mention!) about this article because it appeared in the same issue with the NYT Magazine article on the conservatives who oppose gay marriage. Some folks feel that the two articles are contradictory: the style article says straight men are more comfortable with not having to so clearly signal their sexual preference because being gay is not a stigma and the magazine article says the reason there is a sea of opponents to gay marriage is because they believe that homosexuality is an aberration and needs to be stamped out.

Personally, I see the articles as clearly reinforcing each other. The anti-gay marriage folks claim that gay people have a specific agenda: since they cannot procreate they have to recruit. And they believe that homosexuals recruit others through a concerted campaign to make "the gay lifestyle" acceptable. And the haters point to entertainment like "Will & Grace" as both the proof of the "gay agenda". I'm certain these people feel that trends like gay vagueness are FURTHER proof of the "danger" they perceive.

In any case, I felt that the gay vague article hit on something that resonated with me far more than any of the articles on metrosexuality: that some men do not accept the need to brand themselves as traditionally masculine and do not care about sending "the wrong signals". All of the text on metrosexuality focused on shopping and clothing. (And yes, I'm a clothes horse. In truth, K. calls me her "peacock" because of my wardrobe.) But the shopping focus of the metrosexuality articles and references trivializes any larger philosophical issues. This first article defining gay vagueness, while still pretty darn trivial, at least begins to bring some more interesting ideas to the pop culture dialogue. And in truth, I suppose we probably wouldn't have had gay vague without metrosexuality to pave the way.

In any case, I'll say in closing that I'm pleased that the NYT article has started some dialogue about shifts in American male hetero culture. It's not really a huge deal for me. But I have to admit that it is nice to see a little representation in the media of the lifestyle I have lived for a long time. Unlike actually being gay, being gay vague actually is a lifestyle choice.

Frank, I hope you liked your post.
Tony, HANDS DOWN this is my favorite post of yours EVER! So freaking wonderful on many levels...
Thanks, Jeanne!

Out of curiousity, where does A. fall in the continuum? Inquiring minds want to know. :-)
What a good question! Um...left of center emotionally and philosophically (I fell in love with his homemade chicken soup immediately when I met him). And he is completely comfortable with himself and has no need to engage in "testosterone-y" exchanges with others of his gender. (Which I really like about him.) Handles tiny babies like a pro, loves interior design. He is more of an introvert, so it's harder to pin him down to the spectrum based upon his actions. I think he'd like to know more about men's fashion. He would choose Real Simple over Maxim in a heartbeat. And then? Basketball season rolls around and he's glued to the telly... :)
Hmmmm. Watching sports. *sigh*

Well, he's a keeper on so many other levels, so I suppose you'll just have to put up with it.

Many women I know try to adapt by teaching themsleves about the sport in question and then "learning to care" about it. :-)
You guys are both keepers :) As wives, we're lucky ladies.

I think the basketball thing has to do with the push to get him into basketball when he was growing up in Nebraska and 6'7". He played for awhile and enjoyed it, but not enough to play it (or any other sports) in college. Instead, he majored in philosophy and started painting. Again, awesome on so many levels...the both of you.
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