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Homoeroticism and American Masculinity

  No one has been more mythologized and more mocked, more revered and more ridiculed, more sanctified and more satirized than the American male. We have this romantic notion of the lone cowboy out on the range, fighting nature in order to scratch a living from the dirt. We also have the (probably more often realistic) comic notion of the weak man playing tough guy, the man whose masculinity is so fragile and in doubt that even the slightest whiff of unmanliness sends him into a meltdown of epic proportions. (For examples of these men, just look at any of the trending videos of men crying about the loss of masculinity because of things like t-shirts with rainbows on them.) The ironic (and funny) thing about this is they seem to be unaware (or just ignoring) how much homoeroticism is intertwined with the things that we traditionally think of as masculine.

Let's go back to what I believe are the beginnings of the romanticized version of the American male that we are currently dealing with. The legend of the solitary man taming the wilderness with his sheer strength and virtue is one of the earliest archetypal myths of our country. Women weren't part of this westward expansion, because at the time they were seen as weaker, more frail and needed the protections that civilization offered. (I know there were most likely exceptions to this, but speaking generally this was the attitude widely held.) So these men were out in the wilderness with only other men to keep them company. And if there's one thing we know about men, it's that they get horny. And when they get horny they are often not discriminating about sexual partners. Remember, they are in the wilderness with only other men. So they only have a few options. 

The first is that they simply refrained from any sexual activity. Now there may have been a few who took this route, but I think we can all agree that this is not the most popular option that was exercised. Second, they could masturbate, and this undoubtedly happened with the regularity of the rising and setting of the sun. Third, they could either seduce or force themselves on native women. This, tragically, was probably not as uncommon as we would like it to have been. But it was probably not a daily occurrence either, and I say this for two reasons. First is the fact that they may not have had access to native women all that often, and second is that there was the possibility of reprisals from the native men for such activity to dissuade them. That leaves one final option for these rugged, manly frontiersmen. Having sex with each other. It may not have been the most common of the options taken, but I think it denies reality to think it did not happen. Do I have any proof? Other than human nature, no. But I think that in itself is pretty strong evidence. We know how men tend to act when horny, desperate and thinking they won't be found out.

Now fast forward to years later, and the Old West is no more but westerns on t.v. are all the rage. The spirit is rugged individualism and the code of being a manly man is still there. By the way, there's a reflex to immediately brand all of this as toxic masculinity, but that kind of reductionism is a disservice. While it's true that some of it was very toxic indeed, reducing a woman to a servant who occasionally takes time off to squirt out another kid, it did actually have it's positive side as well. It taught about being fair in your dealings with people, about standing up for people who for one reason or another couldn't stand up for themselves, about being true to our word and never being cruel. In some ways this code the television cowboys followed was almost progressive, while in others it kept a foot firmly planted in the neanderthal.

But watching those old shows, one thing sticks out. There are sometimes romantic relationships between the lead men and women. But even when that was the case, those relationships were never as important as the ones between the men. (This isn't just a trope of westerns, as you can see it in shows like Star Trek as well, though Star Trek is really just a western that uses a spaceship instead of a stagecoach.) In shows like Gunsmoke romance between a man and a woman is not emphasized nearly as often as the violence of rape. But there is often an almost romantic feeling shown between men, who have braved the dangers of the prairies together or waged war side by side. This isn't unrealistic or even especially strange, except in our tendency to dismiss it's existence. 

Even in our other pastimes, manly things have the whiff of the homoerotic. Sports have men in close physical contact, often even patting each other on the rear. After they all go and shower together. Wrestling can be debated as being a real sport or not, since it's scripted. But it is definitely a pastime in which men watch muscular, well developed men in tights and glistening with sweat manhandle each other. In our movies it turns out some of the male role models were gay, such as Rock Hudson. In literature we have Walt Whitman, whom I have seen celebrated as the first great American poet, who wrote about the wildness and virility of our nation. He also wrote about the allure of manly love, something that doesn't get talked about nearly as much, especially when he is taught in grammar schools. Ernest Hemingway is often cited as being the ultimate man's man. He also had platonic "romances" with men that I have seen some say may not have been so platonic. Even now the guys who tout themselves as "alpha males" on social media seem to eschew the company of women and want to be around other men.

Now you can be around men and not have it be sexual, of course. But there is a correlation between emotion and sex. Romance springs from the sexual impulse initially, no matter how much we may try to intellectualize and deny it. And deep down most, if not all, of us need those romantic connections. So if all your primary relationships are with men, even if there is no sexual contact, is there not something of the homoerotic about it? Even you bang five different women every day, but spend your quiet time gazing into the eyes of another man, that seems to be an indicator of a certain amount of "gayness". And this is not a criticism. In fact I am saying men should be more open to embracing their gay tendencies. I myself am a straight man. I am only romantically attracted to women, which is why I have usually spent more time alone with them than with men. That being said, I have had situations with men. Sexual contact has been made, and it was not unpleasant. Even with this I don't consider myself a gay man. I still like "manly" things. I am just a man who tried these things once. And that is okay.


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