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Letter to Councilman LaBonge
Real People as Fictional Characters
Female Actors, Part Two
One Culture Hero Award
Adelante Gay Pride Gala
Best Work of Fiction?
Tom of Finland: Sexual Liberator or Enslaver
Lying Writers
Review of The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson
Promiscuous Thoughts
A Crime of the Heart
A Letter to Michael Silverblatt
"Have you no decency, sir?"
Political Incorrectness: Female Actors and Trojans
He Hugged Moms and Dads
What is a Girly Man?
Review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
From Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive
The Gay Mammies
A Writer Protests
Review of Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro
A Spirit Preserved in 'Amber'
The Supreme Court Case
Review of "Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal"
Review of "Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951" by Christopher Isherwood
Review of "Out For Good"
Review of "Hoyt Street: an Autobiography"
Review of "Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict"
Review of "Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation"
Review of "Whores for Gloria"
Muscles and Mascara
Review of "Blonde"
Brother Paul, Sister Jan, Brother Hinn, God and the Folks
Advice to the Next Generation
Sins of the Fathers
Beatin' Around the Bush

Cruise Not Gay! The Judge Has Spoken

The Horror, The Horror
LA--a Cliché?
Dominick, Mark & Orenthal
Holy Drag!
Ms. Hill & Mr. Tom
Mrs. guy Ritchie 
Supreme Court 
Tom Cruise 
New Times Article 

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Muscles and Mascara

Note: This is a longer version of an essay which originally appeared in "Art Issues." 

In the mid 1950's a revolutionary event occurred with the publication of a few small-format magazines with names like "Physique Pictorial," "Male Physique," and "Tomorrow's Man." Featuring muscular men wearing only posing straps (a mere peek of pubic hair guaranteed legal prosecution) those "pictorials" were aimed unapologetically at gay men, no pseudo-workout routines, no health tips, just titillation.

     Simultaneously, circulation plunged among so-called bona fide bodybuilding magazines like "Muscle Power," "Strength & Health," and "Iron Man." Since the 40's, those "muscle" magazines had featured lots of workout routines, lots of health tips. Virtually every editorial comment made it clear that those publications were aimed at heterosexual men, and that their goal was to encourage the hyper-masculine activities of weightlifting and bodybuilding. That did not keep those same magazines from carrying, in every issue, several modeled photographs of men in tiny posing straps, photographs aimed at gay men and offering the same titillation the new gay pictorials were providing without subterfuge.

     Instead of lamenting the real reason for their distress, the decline in subscriptions, editors of "muscle" publications decried this catering to "perverts." 

     Bodybuilding had, in a sense, been outed. Not only had the subscribers to muscle magazines "come out," but so had the models in "physique" magazines, models often well known in gay circles. "Out," too, were some of the photographers who had contributed to muscle magazines--Bruce of Los Angeles, Lon of New York, Kris of Chicago.

     What did not "come out" were the muscle magazines themselves. While no longer overtly disdaining gay readership, those publications still continue to assert that their subscribers, and the bodybuilders appearing in their pages--especially the "stars" of physique competitions--are super heterosexual.

     There have always been those who have known otherwise. Many years ago, a sage queen, observing this writer and modest bodybuilding practitioner loitering--shirtless chest oiled--on a Hollywood street late at night, cut to the core of the matter by declaring, "Hon, your muscles are as gay as my drag."

      However denied by its professional practitioners, bodybuilding fits squarely in the realm of gay theater. On that stage, there are three main categories of players, the queen, the leatherman, and the muscleman. All rely for effect on visual assault--they are living trompes l'oeil: the queen with her sequined drag, the leatherman with his stud-sequined leather, the muscleman on stage with his oil-sequined body. (All apparently share an impressive knowledge of the decorative power of sequins.)

     In extremity, artifice, and effect, all three presentations are forms of glamorous camouflage. They reveal roots in common, an aversion to appearing to be a "sissy." All convert the "wearer" into someone else. The drag queen becomes a "woman"; the leatherman displays himself as a menacing presence; the muscleman signals, with his pumped armor, that he will not be the proverbial object of "sand in the face" as depicted in the famous Charles Atlas comic-strip ad.

     In that comic-strip, a painfully thin, nervous man--a stereotype of a kind of gay man--is ridiculed by a beefy man who kicks sand in his face. The assaulted man learns his lesson, orders the Atlas course, as so many of us did, and is transformed into a bully himself. Muscles bulging, he can now face, mano a mano, his oppressor. Perhaps, after their ardent encounter on the beach, they went home together.

     Now a few words are in order about the tawdry beauty of professional bodybuilding. It's a world that is at once sleazy and alluring, cheesy and elegant, hypocritical and honest. While extolling ultra-masculinity, it indulges a bitchiness that makes squabbling divas seem tame. Self-avowed heterosexual bodybuilders resort to bizarre meanness, "psyching out" rivals, remarking on "bitch tits," a condition caused by steroids. Widely derided, bodybuilding is in ill repute because it is spectacularly narcissistic.

     There are grounds for considering it an art form. The self-sculpting of a body requires as much discipline as ballet and acting. Bodybuilding has a rich heritage. Atlas, Hercules, and Michelangelo's God and Adam are its progenitors in art and myth. So is Sisyphus, who must have developed a terrific physique from having to cope with that infernal rock. In paintings, martyred saints have killer abs and obliques, exhibited lovingly to the very edge of sexy loincloths. Christ on the cross has awesome definition--and knows how to pose sensationally. 


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