Masculinity, Muscle Worship, HIV/AIDS, and Gay Men

In addition to this arguably “professional” blog, I also maintain an active Tumblr account. It’s a great place to follow pop culture news, but the site also maintains a fairly active community of members engaging in discussion of social justice issues. A recent popular post by Tumblr user boyonboy [warning: NSFW] contained a screen shot similar to the lead photo of this post of the “Most Woofed” profiles on the gay GPS based social app Scruff.  He wrote:

The gay desire for muscle gods came out of the AIDS epidemic as a means to determine who was healthy and who was not.

When AIDS allowed for opportunistic infections to occur, many PWAs (people with AIDS) would find it near impossible to keep weight on, often resigned to wasting disease and constant gut infections. This combined with AZT’s propensity to induce a lack of appetite during its height meant many people with AIDS were unable to lead a healthy life, especially in regards to muscle mass.

As a way to counteract the “image of AIDS,” gay men in the 80s and 90s (continuing into the 2000s, etc) became infatuated with body builder physique as a means to determine immediate who was sick and who wasn’t. While muscle-bound physique tends to be the preferred norm in today’s society as a whole, the role it became as the “gay image” would not be so dramatic if not for the AIDS epidemic.

boyonboy. January 30, 2017.

As of the writing of this post, his original post has been liked and reblogged nearly 16,000 times. Many other Tumblr users have added additional supporting information to the post.  For example, one user discussed the prevalence of steroids in the gay community throughout this time as witnessed by their father who was a doctor in San Francisco during the crisis. Another user included an excerpt from this review of the art of Daniel Goldstein:

Goldstein collected his skins from the Muscle System, a San Francisco gym located in the predominantly gay Castro district, the epicenter of the American AIDS epidemic during the eighties. Each piece in the series is named after the machine from which its skin comes–Incline, Hack Squat, Bench. Until recently, the goal of exercises performed on these machines was the creation of the attractive and healthy body. But AIDS has severed the link between these twin concepts.

For the HIV-infected the goal is likely to be the creation and maintenance of the attractive, healthy-Iooking body as a signifier of normality in the face of a frighteningly abnormal condition. Goldstein alludes to these oppositions in his series title: Icarian is the name of the work-out machine manufacturer whose benches he’s skinned, but it also refers to the mythological youth who briefly soared, and then fell.

Bodily Presence and Absence,” by Robert Atkins, Queer Arts Resource.

This story is an important discussion in the iconography of gay masculinity and body performance, however, I would argue that norms around masculinity are actually a greater factor in the perpetuation of gay muscle fetishization than the HIV/AIDS crisis. While the HIV/AIDS crisis might have enhanced the fixation on muscled bodies in the gay male community, it was not the cause.

One of the earliest forms of “pornography” available to gay men was the physique magazine. Physique magazines included photos of nude or nearly nude athletic and muscular young men. These magazines often ran afoul of the Comstock Act, which banned the mailing of obscene materials through the mail. (Incidentally, the Comstock Act was also used to ban mailings by early homophile movements such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis which prevented the dissemination of information on homosexuality.) Physique magazines were popular throughout the early and mid twentieth century. The semi-documentary Beefcake contains more information on this phenomenon with archival footage in addition to its dramatic recreations of the time.

The mid-twentieth century also saw the rise of artists like Tom of Finland and Etienne whose drawings of hyper-masculine and hyper-sexual gay men were fairly common and widely adored by gay men. This art was also subject to censorship in the US, but in the 60s and 70s it gained a fairly widespread appeal among gay men (more on this later).

The 70s was an era where coming out of the closet was the new political action for gay rights. The 70s saw many gay men who rejected ideas of masculinity–what we would see today as a precursor to a queer identity. In The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, Daniel Harris argues that being excluded from mainstream masculine culture and the family lead gay men to excel in the arts and other scholastic and solitary athletic pursuits and created the emphasis on these knowledges within the gay community. The gay culture that arose as a result was a marker of gay mens exclusion from masculinity. Protestors at the Stonewall Riots explicitly rejected hegemonic masculinity (see: Out of the Closet: Voices of Gay Liberation edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young for a lot of really great examples)

Just as some gay men rejected masculinity, many embraced it whole-heartedly. Gay men had long been portrayed as effeminate and ineffectual both in mainstream media, and even in gay-themed media (see: The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo [also a documentary], or watch The Boys In the Band). In opposition to this effeminate portrayal, a lot of gay men adopted a hyper masculine identity based on working class ideals–particularly inspired by the roles of James Dean and Marlon Brando (both themselves bisexual). You can see this hyper-masculine working class look in the “Castro Clone” phenomenon (and in the work of Tom of Finland). Gay men in the Castro during the 70s wore Levis, White t-shirts with a sleeve rolled up with cigarettes, had a mustache, and worked on muscular physiques to represent the masculinity they’d been told they couldn’t achieve.

In the end, HIV/AIDS might have created the signifier that muscles mark a healthy physique, however, the glorification of muscled physiques and masculinity as well as the rejection of femininity was a part of the gay male community throughout the 20th century. HIV/AIDS added new dimensions, certainly, but it drew on already established cultural norms within the gay community concerning muscles and masculinity.

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