In 1985 James Baldwin published his last long-form essay, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” which he would later include in his final anthology of essays, The Price of the Ticket, under the title “Here Be Dragons.” It appeared, notably, in the magazine of note for red-blooded American men, Playboy. In the essay the 60-year-old firebrand waxed at length about the price of toxic masculinity, before that was a buzzword or even a concept, on the soul of America.
“The American idea of masculinity: There are few things under heaven more difficult to understand or, when I was younger, to forgive,” Baldwin writes.
According to Baldwin, America’s obsession with masculinity has resulted in a form of arrested development both for this country and its ideologies, as well as for the men who inhabit it:
This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden—as an unpatriotic act—that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.
“Freaks” also marked one of the few occasions in which Baldwin dealt explicitly with his own queerness. Though he does not address the AIDS crisis, he does recount his formative years and the sexual dalliances and violent attacks that shaped them, as well as how these, too, was informed by the American masculinity ideal.
Baldwin encountered men from many different walks of life, men who lived ostensibly heteronormative lives—a luxury Baldwin and so many other gay men could not access for lack of resources, a lack of the ability to “pass,” or a sheer lack of desire—yet still grappled with their own queerness, seeking his company in the dark of a movie theater or in the anonymity of a bathroom stall:
These men, so far from being or resembling faggots, looked and sounded like the vigilantes who banded together on weekends to beat faggots up.… These men looked like cops, football players, soldiers, sailors, Marines or bank presidents, admen, boxers, construction workers; they had wives, mistresses, and children. I sometimes saw them in other settings—in, as it were, the daytime. Sometimes they spoke to me, sometimes not, for anguish has many days and styles.… At bottom, what I had learned was that the male desire for a male roams everywhere, avid, desperate, unimaginably lonely, culminating often in drugs, piety, madness or death.
Reading this today, it feels as if Baldwin is somehow still hanging around, elegantly swirling a cocktail in the corner of the bar or logging onto Grindr, only to find himself drowning in a sea of fragile masculinity.
But Baldwin, especially as of late, is famous for the prescience of his writing, as evident in a new report from the American Psychiatric Association warning about the dangers of “masculinity ideology” and linking it to misogyny, homophobia, bullying, sexual harassment, depression, and myriad other problems.
For queer men, this ideology can bleed into one’s own self-perception and feelings of inadequacy, leading to overcompensation of, alienation from, or an outright rejection of those principles:
[S]ome gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals [may feel ostracized] from an inherent sense of male identity, leading to feeling pressured to adopt dominant masculine roles to reduce feelings of minority stress. Additionally, some sexual and gender minority individuals do not wish to label their gender identity and do not feel masculine behaviors are an essential component of male gender identity.
There’s this part in City of Night, John Rechy’s 1963 classic novel about my favorite literary subject: gay hustlers. Though I haven’t read it in years, there’s a part that has always stuck with me. The protagonist—a young, unnamed, white street hustler who werqs his way from Times Square to the west coast and back—spends a quintessential New York night with some strangers in an apartment drinking and doing drugs (the kids loved their grass and their quaaludes back then) till the wee hours. One of the strangers is this very butch leather daddy who, as the night wears on, becomes more and more “queeny”—to the revulsion of the protagonist.
This leather daddy, this butch queen, wears a facade of masculinity, no doubt heavily guarded, as a means of attraction—and it serves him well, considering the reaction he receives. This particular kind of masculinity performance by gay men eventually became a camp parody of itself—exemplified by the success of the Village People, named for the historically gay Greenwich Village (whose streets a young Baldwin once haunted) and featuring icons of stereotypical manhood: “cowboys and indians…cops, football players, soldiers, sailors…” and the like. It really doesn’t get more knowingly ironic or more high camp than a bunch of queens singing about stunting in the navy, having fun at the YMCA, or being a macho, macho man.
But while the performance of masculinity has nearly endless camp value, the idea of masculinity has endless cache within the gay male community. It’s 2019 and faggots still sincerely, and often anonymously, tout their masculinity; they demand it in their partners on apps; they unapologetically reject any whiff of femininity at bars; they are both victims and propagators of this ideology Baldwin and the APA warn about.
Ultimately, it’s America’s dogged pursuit of a patriarchal, heteronormative status quo that leaves so many queer men feeling inadequate, forcing them to conform to and seek a brand of manhood just to feel accepted by themselves, their prospective partners, their families, and society itself. Or, as the APA puts it:
Clinicians may also assume that masculinity is not a significant topic for gay and bisexual men. However, internalized heterosexism dramatically shapes masculine identity, due in part to the importance of gay and bisexual men of appearing heteronormative. For instance, gay men rated masculine gay men as significantly more likeable than feminine gay men and, on average, wished to be more masculine than they perceived themselves to be. This may lead gay men to be extremely conscious about masculinity and inhibit emotional disclosure.
Say it with me: arrested development.
Though I appreciate the APA report, and acknowledge it as an important step in confronting the looming specter of toxic masculinity, it follows what has already become a trend in America—and by extension, thanks to the internet, the world, since toxic masculinity is not a problem inherent to only this country—and as usual, the queer community is at the forefront.
While the queers are happily running all over the gender spectrum—in a heel, thank you—the white, heteronormative patriarchy is all the way shook and trying to steal our rights like they stole credit for western civilization. One could argue, then, that subscribing to these preconceived notions about masculinity as a means of compliance or performance for the benefit of others is just another way of succumbing to the war on one’s ability—nay, right—to simply be.
Some, however, are trying to correct the course this current administration is intent on setting us down—take for instance this highly divisive commercial from Gillette.
Much like the APA report, I appreciate it, but it’s a reaction to what is already happening. Sure, Gillette is a corporation that has been complicit in promoting the very idea it now challenges, just like Axe did a few years back with its inclusive “Find Your Magic” campaign, after years of hypermasculine imagery that dove full-bodied into parody. Whereas Axe’s campaign was applauded for its message, Gillette has been met with a litany of criticism—for being accusatory, or condescending, or that it’s just not Gillette’s place to tell men how to act. To those men who find fault with this, I simply say: You’re part of the problem and you can go fuck yourselves.
My entire life I’ve been told—by my family, my peers, and overwhelmingly by the media and marketing—what a man is supposed to be and how a man is supposed to act. I’ve been told it so often and with such vehemence that I made it a point to consciously reject those messages, only to find those messages still powerfully prevalent in the community in which I sought friendship, companionship, even love.
So if Gillette or any brand wants to chime in and tell men to stop acting like shits, they have my support because the messages media send are reflective of and influential to the culture of America. Those messages are important—they may not always be perfect—but then again, the onus shouldn’t fall solely on brands to be the moral compass of this nation. Not when we all have a say in what we value and we all, as Baldwin said in “Freaks,” are “part of each other”—whether we like it or not:
Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.
Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks—though we are rarely what we appear to be. We are, for the most part, visibly male or female, our social roles defined by our sexual equipment.
But we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.
And that’s putting the “tea” in masculinity.