Rumps arousing, tongues wailing: one, two, three, four men were running a train along the Manhattan dance floor of a starlet LGBTQ+ nightclub in New York. A festival for the carnivores: beefcakes, bears, and wolves galore; among these Adonises were a few influentials that transcended the confines of Instagram, babbling about with their stiff brews in-hand and rhythmic nods to the disc jocky's well doing. In gay culture, "trade," or "straight-passing" homosexual men, are romanticized by many for representing a visual ideal of masculinity. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, an author and activist critical of dominant social norms in marginal sex cultures notes, "As in the dominant world, there are similar hierarchies, unfortunately. Especially the hierarchy of desirability in terms of masculinity—they may be a little shifted."
Cultural assimilation trends among LGBTQ+ youth with regards to desirability and attractiveness are increasing and the prevalence of traditional masculine imagery throughout consumer marketplaces by and large is an effect of social media. Today, many gay men of the millennial generation have taken on "butch" qualities as a means to survive in a world that chastises full representations of male effeminacy. "Nothing can be more damaging in this world overall than traditional masculinity," says Sycamore. "We can see that in terms of the shifts in national government right now and in the ways in which a mandatory masculinity is enforced in public, in social spheres, in work, and in sex lives." Reflecting this sentiment, a running exhibition at Museum of the City of New York, "Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York," and an accompanying series of talks commemorate an oft-derided and repressed cultural history embedded in the city’s fabric as early as the 1900s. “Making the Queer Scene” was one panel hosted on December 6, 2016; the next conversation engages with the ideas of "Ungendering Fashion" slated for January 12, 2017.
Visually, the fashion industry is split on fluid representations of masculinity. "[High fashion] labels always want to put a man in women's clothing, but that doesn't challenge anything," notes Sycamore. "It reinforces these norms by creating a false spectacle out of something that really isn't resisting the paradigm. If we are relying on consumer culture to represent us, we will never be represented." On the other hand, mass clothiers such as ASOS, H&M, and Zara, whose price points are most accessible to the millennial generation, are lacking presently in branding efforts that acknowledge displays of masculine style outside of traditional "in-the-box" notions. Aside, within the past 7 years, the fashion system commoditized androgyny through waves of new male models and genderless divisions of clothing, which was then made passé by the "trans" moment. "Once something becomes commoditized, it’s dead," observes Sycamore.
On February 1, 2017, the museum’s final discussion in the series will examine how LGBTQ+ artists have developed alternative senses of autonomy for their craft. Creation of the gay man's world ought to lean on self-reliance rather than the winning of validation from bipolar mainstream heterosexual culture. Next steps, says Sycamore: "Figuring out ways to express our contradictions, our possibilities, our flamboyance, and our imaginations for something else in everyday experience."
“Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York” will be at the Museum of the City of New York from now until February 26, 2017.