Monday, June 8, 2009

Talkin' About Grizzly Bears and Girly Men

First published in 1948 in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the Kinsey Scale -- which tried to define a man's sexuality according to his sexual activity -- ranged from zero (100% heterosexual) to six (100% homosexual). Curiously, Kinsey's metric did not measure a subject's behavior or willingness to embrace traditional gender roles. Nor did it examine whether its subjects tended to act more masculine or feminine. It certainly didn't take into account the behavioral patterns of people who might ricochet back and forth between two extremes.

Although a subsequent study allowed for an "X" factor of people who were basically asexual, Kinsey's work never attempted to probe the mysteries of roleplaying, marrying one's shadow, or using one's skill at crossdressing to build a career in show business. Legendary entertainers like Craig Russell, Liberace, Danny LaRue, Charles Pierce, and Dame Edna Everage (whose sexuality were quite clearly defined) might have blown Kinsey's findings to smithereens. Nor did Kinsey question why years of suffering from a body dysmorphic disorder that left a person of one gender feeling trapped within the body of the opposite gender might lead some people to seek out sexual reassignment surgery or commit suicide.

What about the role models people aspired to for their definitions of gender roles? While some men may have ached for a chance to dress up like Marilyn Monroe or Dolly Parton, others had hopes of becoming the Marlboro Man or wearing some kind of military uniform. How many young men responded to Charles Atlas's famous challenge to stop being a 98-pound weakling? How many gay men embraced the hypermasculinity found in Tom of Finland's drawings? How many confused women saw themselves as a tomboy or Calamity Jane figure?

In viewing a series of features and short films that will be screened at Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) several things become quite clear:
  • Finding a comfort zone within one's own definition of masculinity is often a life-long quest for some gay men.
  • For many "masculine" men, gay sports activities (ranging from rugby to rodeo events) have provided the social networking platform and common interests that allow them to feel comfortable in the presence of other men who are attracted to men.
  • For many "feminine" men, seizing the power over their oppressors was what finally gave them the freedom to simply be themselves. In some cases, their acquired skills at being a total bitch in high school left some jocks cowering in fear and with a newfound respect for the class sissy.
  • In an age where up-and-coming entertainers and athletes like Adam Lambert and Johnny Weir don't feel they have to hide their sexuality, more and more young people have felt free enough to take self-expression to creative extremes.
  • Some gay men like being able to switch back and forth between performing as a drag queen and then being just one of the guys.
  • Whether it is shaped, styled, or covering someone's chest, hair is still a big issue.
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Back in the mid Sixties I was working at a YMCA summer camp on Rhode Island's Point Judith Pond when I was invited to join some of the top staff and their wives for an evening at a suburban dinner theater. They all knew that I was head-over-heels in love with the "the-ay-ter" and thought I might enjoy the show. What none of us knew (except for the person who booked our reservation) was that the featured entertainment was a female impersonator.

This was at a point in time where I was just starting to get in touch with my sexuality. At the finale of the big dance number, the entertainer pulled off his wig and defiantly faced the audience as a man. I was shocked and confused (I'd seen drag queens before, but only in a bar like the Stonewall). I was also slightly repulsed by the reaction of the people around me, who were laughing their heads off at "that sick pervert." Their enthusiasm reminded me of the time when, after taking my first airplane flight, the very straight friends who picked me up at the airport salaciously inquired: "How were the stewardesses? Huh? Huh?"

I hadn't thought of those events for many years -- until I watched Michelle Lawler's new documentary entitled Forever's Gonna Start Tonight (which will be shown on Friday, June 19th at the Roxie). The film stars Vicki Marlane (billed as "The Lady With the Liquid Spine"), a 71-year-old drag queen/transsexual who still performs at Aunt Charlie's Lounge in the heart of San Francisco's Tenderloin District.

You couldn't invent something like Vicki's life story if you tried. Growing up as "poor white trash" in Minnesota, Vicki worked in carnivals as the "alligator woman" and is quick to explain how carnies created the illusion of a hermaphrodite for traveling freak shows. She hustled, hitchhiked, did drugs before going onstage, and became one of San Francisco's leading female impersonators, often headlining at drag clubs around the country.

In many ways, Forever's Gonna Start Tonight offers audiences a fascinating trip through a rarely-seen underground of American entertainment. Whether listening to Vicki describe the numerous times she was arrested for dressing as a woman or what it was like to get a standing ovation for her strip act from Ethel Merman and Sandra Church (the original stars of Gypsy: A Musical Fable), this film shows a segment of gay life in American that thrived below the radar of mainstream entertainment. An interesting piece of homework might involve reading I Survived Stonewall: An Interview With Big Roy McCarthy before seeing this film.

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If Vicki Marlane represents the old school approach to entertainers who play with gender roles, Johnny Weir: Pop Star On Ice (which will be shown on Saturday, June 27 at the Castro Theatre) offers a pretty strong taste of where the future is headed. Directed by David Barba and James Pellerito, this documentary follows Weir's development from a scrawny kid with a talent for linguistics to a controversial Olympic figure skater and flamboyant three-time U.S. Figure Skating National Champion.

While this documentary follows Weir's path from growing up in rural Pennsylvania to becoming a professional ice skater, it shows a more rounded picture of what it took for the now 25-year-old Weir to get where he is today. In between designing his costumes and making campy appearances on a fashion runway, audiences see Weir training at the gym, on the ice, and blowing off steam with his close friends.

As with many documentaries about gifted athletes there are conflicts with his coach (Priscilla Hill), mood swings, and a penetrating look into the personal pressures of trying to compete against oneself as well as professional rivals. The blatant homophobia expressed by some sportscasters about Weir's language and lifestyle choices as a "free spirit" who shatters their cherished stereotypes of what a male athlete should be sounds increasingly childish and churlish.

Regardless of how you feel about Weir's ego or performances, there are moments when he's little more than a kid at heart ("Oooh, look, shiny new onesies!") whose talent has vaulted him into international arenas. Funded almost entirely on credit cards and filmed over a two-year period with a crew of only two people, Johnny Weir: Pop Star On Ice benefits from thrilling footage of Weir in action (both on and off the ice). Here's the trailer:

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A series of films on Frameline's Fun In Boys Shorts program asks audiences to examine how some people behave with regard to perceived gender roles. In Dish, a 16-minute film by Bryan Harris Krinsky, two gay teens in East Los Angeles remain focused on texting their friends with the latest news about who gave it up to who. Although Israel (Matthew Monge) and Louie (Jeff Martin) are at that point in adolescence where they spend lots of time thinking about sex, like many kids in high school Israel has one cardinal rule: "Don't touch the hair!"

In Branden Blinn's Thirteen or So Minutes two strangers who have just had sex try to understand what just happened. Lawrence (Nick Soper) and Hugh (Carlos Salas) both have girlfriends and have always thought they were straight. After a few drinks (and on the pretext of going up to one man's apartment to look at a certain website), clothes have been shed, men's bodies have been embraced and tongues have not only met, but probed and tasted forbidden flesh.

The more open-minded of the two men (Lawrence) is secure enough to trust his instincts. Although this is the first time he's ever been attracted to another man in "that way," the moment felt right, ripe, and rich with promise. He has no doubt that it was a rewarding experience and would gladly do it again with Hugh.

Until, of course, Hugh opens his mouth and starts to talk. Less instinctive, more introspective, and definitely more repressed, Hugh's first instinct is to deny what just took place, to negate the pleasure and joy he felt, and insist that he can't really be "like that." While Lawrence can accept and embrace this new aspect of himself, Hugh seems bent on destroying its memory.

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Not everyone is quite as confused as poor Hugh about what they want. Indeed, some men have clearly-defined approaches to how things are and how they should be. In Steam (Damien Rea's hilarious three-minute festival of beefcake), the audience is offered a veritable smorgasbord of bulging biceps, shiny pecs, tantalizing triceps, awesome abs, and a surprise ending which is at once highly erotic yet tinged with a dollop of iron-y.

Then, of course, there is Peter Pizzi's most appropriately titled Sucker. In this droll 17-minute short, a man who has no compunctions about advertising his skills as "the best cocksucker in town" describes how, although he has never had problems finding sex, what he really wants is someone with whom he can cuddle.

Much to his surprise, one of the biggest and butchest daddybears in his stable of drop-by studs rises to the challenge with a magnificence that matches his regularity. Here's the trailer:

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Last, but by no means least, we come to The Butch Factor, a documentary by Christopher Hines that will be shown on Saturday afternoon, June 26 at the Victoria Theatre. This film features a wide range of interviews with gay men at all points of the masculine/feminine spectrum. Whether it be someone like Vince (a familiar San Francisco sheriff's deputy who used to be a regular volunteer at Frameline's festivals) or a skinny, effeminate young man who spent most of his school years getting beaten up, people talk freely about how the absence of role models had a profound effect on their level of confidence and self image.

For many men who participated in sports during their school years (whether they are now beefed-up bears or a gay midget playing baseball), the team spirit and camaraderie found on the playing field has become their emotional anchor. Much of their socializing is done around sports events and drinking as they seek out the company of "masculine, straight-appearing men."

Not surprisingly, it is often the more feminized interviewees who found their core of self-confidence at a much earlier age. Many of them could not "pass" as straight even if they had wanted to. Some of them had no interest in sports, violence, or conformity. What is perhaps most noticeable in the footage is how the average bulk of a gay man has grown in the decades since gay men were thought to be 98-pound weaklings or skinny, helpless little fairies. Like it or not, the word "overcompensating" frequently comes to mind. Here's the trailer:

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