| TOM OF
FINLAND: Sexual Liberator or Enslaver?
The swastika is prominent in at least one drawing, bold,
assertive, dominating the foreground of two men in a master-slave
relationship, which recurs in the drawings. Shiny black
boots are licked hungrily, whipping is courted and accepted
ecstatically, hands beg for handcuffs. This is all willing,
of course. There is never the suggestion of actual force.
Instead, ecstatic faces celebrate their performance, a
miming of violence, however suggestive it may be of actual
violence, rape, punishment.
Although the bodies depicted are outrageously muscled,
they are seldom entirely naked--here and there a twisting
body is glimpsed. Feet are always covered with boots.
No trace of pubic hair peeks through the bursting pouches.
For full display, the beautiful bodies here require camouflage,
as if the naked body is not sensual enough, as if the
participants need the uniform to sustain their fantasized
The point is often made that symbols lose their primary
meaning, become merely decoration. True. But some symbols
not only do not lose their symbolic power but gain strength
as time puts into glaring perspective the events that
they evoke, and so they become stronger. The Christian
cross is one of those symbols, good or bad; so is the
hammer & sickle.
The Nazi swastika cannot be extricated from evoking one
of the most monstrous events of the 20th century, and
earlier, the systematic incarceration, torture, and annihilation
of millions of Jews, gypsies, the handicapped. And homosexuals.
How then to separate Mr. Finland's fantasy figures from
the harsh--if perhaps deeply buried--suggestion of gay
self-loathing, the celebration of a master race? How to
separate the miming of the actual punishments gay people
have been exposed to in a heterosexual world?--humiliation,
Many gay men--especially "leathermen" spawned
by Mr. Finland --are able to disengage all symbolic resonance
from antecedent cruelty, pointing out that the leather
faction, among all gay factions, is perhaps the most tolerant
and often generous to minority causes among homosexual
groups. That is true. Certainly that faction is the least
ageist, although no one in Mr. Finland's drawings appears
to be over 30.
And so, here now, in this exceptional collection, are
all the extraordinary drawings, for the first time. They
will unquestionably delight thousands of fans throughout
the world who will argue against any negative insinuation,
including mine. Others will be able now, with this collection,
to scrutinize the drawings as to the reasons for their
undeniable significance, positive or negative, within
the gay world.
January 1, 2006
punishing belts, tongue-polished boots, handcuffs, iron
collars, harnesses--how to reconcile those props of enslavement
with gay liberation? All are used in rituals of mimed
punishment and humiliation in the turf of gay S&M;
and all are celebrated in detail in the best-known drawings
by that faction's hero-artist, Tom of Finland. A serious
discussion of the symbolic implications of those props
and rituals is taboo in certain quarters. Merely to attempt
to explore such aspects is to invite a barrage of outraged
It is important to emphasize that I once frequented gay
leather turfs and experienced the excitement of its rituals.
I do not speak as an outsider but as a former avid participant.
I still retain the views expressed in the Foreword about
aspects that are admirable in Finland's drawings--the
democracy of sexual positions, the lack of shame among
the protagonists in their overtly gay identification,
the "outlaw" nature of their disregard for locations
of sexual performance; i.e., everywhere.
The leather faction is deadly serious and passionately
defensive in its attitudes and rites. "Perfect trust"
between "master" and "slave" is proclaimed
as its underlying rationale for ceremonies of mimed punishment--which,
however, often spill into untrustworthy excess. Dozens
of advertisements for leather bars in a gay San Francisco
newspaper include one that vaunts a "Pig Trough"
and shouts this exhortation, "Fuck my mouth, swine!"
(A touch of welcome gay wit is provided by another advertisement
on the following page; it despairs: "It is not difficult
to find a good harness, but very hard to find a good cologne.")
Some of the symbolic implications of the props of punishment
and humiliation drawn lovingly by Finland seem to me to
be inescapable. Consider the costume itself. Undeniably
visually striking--spatters of glisteny studs upon velvety
black leather, enhanced by intricate configurations of
crisscrossed sequiny belts--it is also camouflage; a hood
or mask often is added as further disguise. The transformative
power of the costume is so strong that the mild-mannered
antique dealer of gay lore (physically not unlike Tom
of Finland the artist himself), may appear, once decked
out, as a messenger of dark power.
That transformation is dramatic. In my incursions into
the world of leathermen, I found that some of the most
menacing and dedicated performers in the theater of gay
S&M were, out of their role-playing uniform, among
the sweetest and kindest men of my acquaintance.
In leather bars, the costume may become the main bait
for cruising, rendering what is under it, the body, less
seductive. I have seen men completely covered in leather--pants,
boots, jackets, gloves, masks--cruised hotly. No sliver
of flesh is uncovered. (There might be an implicit puritanistic
aversion to the naked body in assigning it such a lesser
In its basic extremity, the antecedent of this costume
is that of the medieval executioner, boots, leather chaps,
a hood, a whip. More contemporary antecedents, all revered
in Finland's drawings, are cops, militarists, storm troopers.
All are representative of legendarily heterosexual homophobic
forces; cops arrest us, the military labels and shuns
us, storm troopers rounded us into camps.
In Tom of Finland's drawings, just as in rituals of S&M,
the leering sadist may become the pleading masochist.
In his exploration of masochism and sadism in "The
Trial of Gilles de Rais," French philosopher Georges
Bataille advances the notion that the language of S&M
is the language of the victim. That is consistent with
the telling irony that the designation "S&M"
refers as easily to "sadist and masochist" as
to "slave and master." Thus the revealing and
leveling equation: "sadist-slave," "masochist-master,"
both alternating as victims.
Finland's fans do not hesitate to laud him as a worthy
artist; gallery exhibitions of his work draw myriad admirers.
How does he compare with other gay artists of the time?
Kris of Chicago produced spindly drawings, ghosts of muscular
figures; they amount to no more than bad sketches. There
was Quaintance and his lithe men, cowboys and Indians
often posed in a Western bar, sinewy muscles kissed by
silvery moonlight; the best of Quaintance's drawings have
a romantic three-dimensional quality.
more seriously: Audrey Beardsley's drawings are notably
satirical and witty. The giant phalluses--celebrated religiously
by Finland--become comical May poles to be garlanded and
danced around with feathery dusters. In Cocteau's erotic
drawings, an economy of white lines against a black background
and black lines against a white background appear strikingly
Paul Cadmus's paintings are gorgeous, a feast of bold
colors; they are also unblinking representations of some
aspects of the gay world. In "Bar Italia," the
faces of the desired are beautiful and grotesque, a combination
of the two extremities of Dorian Gray, what he is, what
he will become. Grotesqueness is exaggerated into depravity
in the surrounding faces bloated by lust. Those intimations
of sexual anarchy are contained within an architectonic
symmetry. Highly erotic paintings often comment on social
issues--strikebreakers in the "Herrin Massacre."
A discarded newspaper announces the death of thousands
killed in war as, in the foreground, sailors and whores
revel drunkenly on a lawn in "Sailors and Floosies."
Finland's drawings are devoid of satire, lacking in reflective
commentary, largely wanting in wit. (There are exceptions,
a good one in which a dowager is poking with an umbrella
the bubble butt of a muscular hero flirting with another).
Finland's drawings are cartoons, one-dimensional. Paradoxically,
his supermen may become feminine in their exaggerated
musculature. Round pectorals without natural striations
look like breasts atop wasp waists. Finland's primary
effect is to arouse sexually--and there is nothing wrong
with that, a noble goal indeed. The allure he excites
among legions of gay men testifies to his enormous success,
acknowledged and respected.
For me, the relevant question is this: What is the real
reason these figures, these masturbatory images, fascinate
gay men so powerfully?--and the fascination extends to
scores of gay men far beyond the demarcations of leather
quarters, including even some who disdain more conventional
pornography. What so fascinates in the famous drawing
of a man enchained by a tight iron collar and ankle holds,
nipples clamped, genitals squeezed into bursting engorgement
as two uniformed men, a pseudo- "executioner"
and a pseudo-SS man, prepare to punish him further? Is
the sexually arousing element the muscular bodies and
the monumentally aroused cocks of the three protagonists?
Or is it the powerful suggestion of punishment for gay
Original material by John Rechy appears
frequently on these pages.