Archive for December, 2009

AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body Part III: A Conversation with Jack Mackenroth

Posted in The Fierceness on December 31, 2009 by jackmax2
This is an interesting follow up to the article I posted last week. This writer Kelly is extremely interesting.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


jack_mackenroth_200907_3Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Jack Mackenroth, fashion designer, Project Runway contestant, AIDS activist and medal winner in swimming at the 2009 Gay Games. He kindly reposted my article entitled AIDS, Masculinity and the (Gay) Body on his website and I wanted to hear about his reactions to the post.

In this earlier post, I had discussed Mackenroth and his physical prowess as emblematic of the new (gay) body paradigm which emerged after the rise of AIDS. I argued that in response to the sick body of the early days of the epidemic so prevalent within representations of the disease in popular culture that gay men on a cultural level wanted to instead display a body of health, strength and vitality.

Thus, the paradigm of the gym jock body became paramount within gay culture (and personal life) as exemplified by the Abercrombie & Fitch ads of the mid 1990’s. abercrombie_ad The appearance of this new body was also the result of the changing nature of the disease that not only allowed gay men with HIV/AIDS to live healthier and longer lives, but also employed the use of steroids to prevent muscle wasting which in turn transformed their physiques. And of course, this new (gay) body was not confined to only HIV+ men, but to all gay men as they sought to confront the challenges and representations of the disease.

Mackenroth found my analysis interesting. But he also wanted to share his own personal experience about the development of his own hyper masculine, extremely muscular body. On one level, it really had nothing to do with AIDS or his HIV+ status except a desire to live a healthy lifestyle. Actual lived experience is of course essential to a discussion of sexuality and its manifestations. In my earlier blog post, I was analyzing the new (gay) muscle body more on the level of representation and paradigm. The experience of each individual gay man may of course vary widely from that ideology, but I still think that those images have an effect whether it is a confirmation of one’s own body, a repudiation of that body, a desire for that body etc. I tried to speak about my own relationship to this somatic paradigm in a follow-up post entitled Postscript: AIDS, Masculinity and the (Gay) Body.

mollycoddlemarcel Effeminacy & homosexuality in popular culture, postcard circa 1910

For Mackenroth, producing a muscular body is essential to combating what he sees as not only his own effeminacy, but also the perceived effeminacy of gay men in the wider culture. Indeed, since the origin of the homosexual as a species circa 1870 as Foucault has stated, the paradigmatic definition of the homosexual was gender inversion, a woman trapped within the body of a man even though many types of same-sex identities existed- masculine, feminine, in-between in actual practice. With Stonewall and the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement, the inversion definition although still pervasive was changing both within gay culture and outside it. Masculinity was no longer seen as just solely the object of gay male desire, but it could be his identity as well. (See my early post, AIDS, Masculinity and the (Gay) Body. for a discussion of gay “masculinity” in the 70’s and how its nature changed with the emergence of AIDS.)

tom_of_finland_example-thumb-400x288-232 Tom of Finland circa 1970’s- Masculinity as masquerade

Mackenroth talks about how he was perceived as effeminate growing up and candidly related a painful story about a teacher who thought that he was a girl for 2 days in high school. We all know and have experienced how the trauma and pain of childhood and adolescence to whatever degree often influences and directs our adult lives and experience. To create a exaggerated masculine and muscular body seems to me a valid response to such a situation where one’s sense of self is challenged and negated. Perhaps, muscles become an emotional armor against the past.

What is interesting is that Mackenroth himself realizes that while his body is meant to dispel his effeminacy, he simultaneously seems to display that effeminacy and is comfortable with that display. As he says, “As long as I don’t move, I’m perceived in a certain way (muscles, masculinity)”. He also said, “When I open my mouth a purse drops out.” And finally, “I think I developed a masculine body because I could change that part of myself rather easily by working out. Changing mannerisms and voice tone or inflection is possible (and I know some gay men who have gone to great lengths to achieve this) however, I either did not have the desire or the need to do so as I became comfortable in my new, muscular skin.” The muscles again could be conceptualized as a sort of metaphoric armor (my new muscular skin) that not only provides protection against a negative past, but as a new corporeal vessel which contains and transforms his effeminate gestures, mannerisms etc., so that they are not the whole story. This armor is also a part of a growing maturity. Mackenroth states,”I also think I developed my physique when I was young and insecure, and now I am not insecure at all so I have no problem ‘nellying it up’. I will never be Tom of Finland and I don’t care to be. I couldn’t keep up that charade for very long anyway so why bother?”

There is something of a disruption between Mackenroth’s corporeal image and his behavior, his “nellying it up” which I think can be seen as a critical response to traditional masculinity. In other words, he is not pretending to be other than he is and has been; straight-acting is not his game. As he said, his physique is a “fuck you” to all those straight boys who gave him grief in the past and a challenge to those in the present. Mackenroth can look like those straight boys (and even possess a bigger body and be better looking), adopt their somatic paradigm, but his same-sex desire and effeminate display disrupts the dominant culture’s sequence of sex/gender/desire. A biological display of masculinity through the muscle body does not, therefore, guarantee a heterosexual desire as the dominant culture continually asserts and needs to maintain a binary system of gender. This undermining of the sex/gender/desire sequence is problematic to the wider culture. Mackenroth’s honesty and awareness of himself is an example once again of how lived experience often differs from paradigm and representation.

Conversely, I think one could argue that Mackenroth is hailed in Louis Althusser’s sense by a dominant ideology that is already deeply homophobic and misogynistic. I am not saying that he is a misogynist or homophobe himself (indeed we all are to a degree having grown up in a homophobic and misogynistic culture)merely that in a way it makes sense that he chooses to adopt the hyper masculine, muscle body because masculinity is already valued and validated within our culture and gay culture in particular. This valuing and validation is performed in part through the constant negation of women and gay man and that must be problematic if you perceive yourself as effeminate. There is often a call within the gay community itself for its more flamboyant members to “tone it down” so as not to make it harder for the rest of the community. It is shameful that such a sentiment exists and points to the fictitious nature of the gay community itself which is often divided by race, class and even body type. The muscle body, then, is perhaps a defense against that which is already devalued both in gay culture and society in general.

However, this body type still troubles me both on the level of representation and everyday life because there are plenty of gay men who don’t express the insight that Mackenroth does about it nor do they display proudly his duality of body and personality. For me, this body paradigm does indeed have traces of homophobia and misogyny in its uncritical display of an ultra masculinity. Also, there is a sense that such a body is mandatory within gay culture. Mackenroth himself stated that in going to the Roxy nightclub in New York City in the 90’s, one needed this corporeal accessory or one was invisible to the other patrons. When I first moved to New York City in the early 90’s at the age of 22, I went to the Roxy once and indeed felt invisible and alienated. I learned though that there were other venues where my desire could flourish like the extraordinary club SqueezeBox where the other’s other reigned. And I realized that I wasn’t exactly gay, but queer and vext.

After reaching this point in the post, I emailed Mackenroth with 2 specific questions that were still on my mind. I am quoting his answers to each question in their entirety.

1. How do you or do you even feel the need to reconcile your appearance- muscles, masculine, handsome etc, with your personality which seems to express the effeminate nature you are trying to dispel or mitigate with that very appearance?

Mackenroth answers, “Well I think they offset one another. Honestly if I was still a skinny little man–which I still sometimes feel like inside–and still had the effeminate mannerisms I think I would be very insecure. I like the idea of muscles as armor. Becoming muscular in tandem with years of therapy has helped me become very secure about who I am. If you would have asked me about my perceived effeminacy 20 years ago, I would have been horrified and filled with shame. Now I am much older and evolved and I don’t care if other people judge me because I am not the most masculine man skipping down the street. I value all aspects of who I am and I am no longer trying to mask or change them. We all adapt to social expectations all the time. I know it’s not appropriate to walk into a business meeting and do a high kick, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t do them at home from time to time. And as I mentioned before–my personality is multi-faceted. I’m not always effeminate–not that I judge that part of me in any way.”

2. Have you ever been in a situation where that dichotomy of your appearance/personality has been negative or really positive because of it?

Mackenroth states, “Hmmmm–Interesting. I’ve met people before who had seen photos of me and when they met me said they expected me to be more masculine. I’m never sure how to respond to that. I think the mixture of the perceived and unexpected is perfect for my personality. Part of my humor is based on shock value or sarcasm and it suits me that as a 200 pound muscleboy I am comfortable vacuuming in high heels. Generally it’s been beneficial. I also think there is an aspect of “acting gay” in certain situations, especially where straight men are involved, that helps alleviate any uncomfortable feelings a straight man might have. I think it is threatening to many straight men to have a big, muscular man in their comfort zone so I temper it with effeminacy so as to show “it’s ok I may be big but I’m just a queen so socially I am less than so its all good.” I have never analyzed this way. Very interesting.”

Mackenroth’s answers I believe exhibit a degree of maturity and self-awareness about his own relationship to his body and personality, how that relationship developed and where it came from in his own life. It has been fascinating for me to talk with this “muscleboy” because if nothing else it exemplifies how complicated we all are and how what we present to the world in appearance is not always the sole answer to who we are as individuals. Paradigm and representation cannot contend with the actual lived experiences of individuals although they do shape that experience and can cause as much joy as misery.

abercrombie_ad Abercrombie & Fitch Ad 1990’s- Masculinity as biology

However, I still feel uncomfortable with the (gay) body paradigm and that in part is because of my own history and past. But, it also stems from an understanding of the regime of sexuality and gender to which we are all subjects. The muscle paradigm still embodies for me a degree of homophobia and misogyny and it’s uncritical validation of (straight) masculinity does nothing to undermine this current regime, but rather supports it. There is also something about it that is not mature, that seems adolescent and obsessive. And while Mackenroth may embrace the pansy that is in all of us, there are those gay man that do not and who see muscles and masculinity as the natural, biological state for those creatures possessing a penis. In this regard, the penis is (mis)recognized as the Phallus and in the long run we all (gay men, lesbians, transsexuals, straight women) suffer for it.


AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body

Posted in The Fierceness on December 8, 2009 by jackmax2

Interesting article. I’m not sure I agree with all of it but I’m mentioned in it so I thought I would pass it along.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

by  Kelly T Keating   Original blog post here.

Aids is not only a medical crisis on an unparalleled scale, it involves a crisis of representation itself, a crisis over the entire framing knowledge about the human body and its capacities for sexual pleasure.- Simon Watney

The body is…directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out certain tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.-Michel Foucault

In a recent blog post entitled, The Absent Body: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, AIDS, Homosexuality and Representation, I discussed a black and white photograph by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres called Untitled from 1991. The image depicts an empty bed consisting of 2 pillows, a sheet and rumpled top sheet torres1 For Gonzalez-Torres, me and many others, this image is a depiction of AIDS that at first glance expressed simply and strongly mourning, loss and death. The image is a memorial to those who have died in the AIDS epidemic and indeed the work was a personal memorial to Gonzalez-Torres’ lover, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991.

But, this photograph is more than just an elegy to Ross and the many others who have died. By not actually depicting a body within the work, (it is merely indicated by the depressions in the 2 pillows) I argued that the Gonzalez-Torres photograph was in the words of art historian and critic Douglas Crimp not only an act of mourning, but also militancy. A4 This simple, quiet image challenges, resists, subverts and exposes the paradigmatic representation of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic when homosexuality and AIDS was routinely and viciously conflated within culture. The dominant image of the disease at that time was a homosexual man, alone, gaunt, covered with Kaposi sarcoma lesions, a victim of his own perverted desires. A photograph of Donald Perlman from 1988 by Nicholas Nixon exemplifies this prevailing depiction. In contrast, the Gonzalez-Torres photograph, by refusing to represent the body or bodies with AIDS is a work of cultural activism which engaged and undermined the authoritative AIDS discourse operative at the moment of its production.

Yet, much has changed since the early days of the epidemic and 1991 when the Gonzalez-Torres photograph was created. Changing medical treatments have allowed those with HIV/AIDS to live longer, more healthier lives. Also, a grass roots movement of people with the disease has struggled and to a great degree succeeded in changing the definition and representation of the disease. The previous paradigm of depicting AIDS such as the Nixon photograph is no longer valid. It can no longer function as the dominant imagistic discourse about the disease even though the conflation of homosexuality and AIDS is still actively in operation.

In this regard, how has AIDS and its evolving nature changed the relationship between gay men, masculinity and the (gay) body? Trevor Hoppe in his blog post, From “Tom of Finland” to “Abercrombie and Fitch” — Or, Did AIDS Radically Restructure Gay Masculinity? argues that AIDS precipitated a change in the relationship of gay men to masculinity. Before the epidemic in the 1970’s, gay masculinity operated on the level of the performative and the masquerade. tom_of_finland_example-thumb-400x288-232 It was self-reflexive and self-conscious. Hoppe cites the work of Tom of Finland in its combination of hyperbole and eroticism as an example of this performative impulse. He writes, “(Tom of Finland) was both clearly hilarious in its outrageous spectacle, and at the same time extremely sexy for the way it exacerbated what gay men love about masculinity in men. It makes you both want to laugh and jerk off when you look at it.”

With the advent of AIDS, there was a shift in the relationship of gay men to masculinity. In the face of the epidemic, gayness for political reasons needed to be seen as biological in order to foster a new movement for equal rights. As Hoppe writes, “We needed heterosexuals to believe that we did not choose our sexual predilections, because if we did then AIDS was our punishment…(and) if being gay was the result of some biological origin, then perhaps we deserved legal equality and some protection under the law.” Within this new context, the masculine masquerade of the 1970’s could no longer function because it signaled and heralded gender as performance rather than biological.*

*Of course, this notion of gender is/was already predominant within our culture. I , however, do not want to suggest that I believe gender is natural or that there is an orderly chain of sex/gender/desire in which male sex=masculine=heterosexual. Gender is a social construction. It is not prediscursive; it gains and deploys its meaning within culture.

Instead of the exaggeration and masquerade of Tom of Finland, the Abercrombie and Fitch jock model of masculinity became the new gay paradigm of the (gay) body and (gay) gender. This shift emerged in the 1990’s. The masculinity of this model provided gay men with a representation which was already naturalized (through heterosexuality) and eroticized within culture.abercrombie_ad

I agree with Hoppe generally, but I would also add that the rise of the muscular jock body was also a visceral somatic reaction to the paradigmatic depiction of the AIDS body in the early days of the epidemic. To become muscular, cut, buff and hairless was in part a rejection and transformation of that diseased body which was gaunt, marked with lesions and waiting for death. Muscles became a metaphoric armor against the disease. They signified health, strength and vitality while simultaneously projecting the new (gay) masculinity as exemplified by the Abercrombie and Fitch jock.

This new (gay) body can also be seen in the context of the campaign to end the military ban on gays which gained prominence as an issue when President Clinton entered the White House (and still is today). Besides being a call for equality, the focus on the military ban was also an attempt to replace the (homosexual) body of AIDS with a body of strength, action, patriotism and masculinity. The desire to end the military ban must be seen as a need to overcome images of the sick (homosexual) body that had prevailed since the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

But this somatic reaction was also perhaps a result of the disease itself. In order to prevent muscle wasting, many HIV+ men take steroids which have transformed their bodies. In a perverse sense, AIDS has created the new (gay) body archetype, the muscle jock. This new corporeal paradigm works in tandem with what Hoppe sees as the current (gay) masculinity precipitated by the epidemic. Muscles are seen to confirm and display the individual’s masculinity within a biological conception of gender. The muscular body becomes metaphorically an hard, erect penis that believes it possesses the Phallus. This understanding is troubling.

So, is the new paradigm of the (gay) body with(out) AIDS/HIV someone like Jack Mackenroth, openly HIV+, a fashion designer, Project Runway contestant, athlete, Gay Games gold medal winner in swimming and AIDS activist?293_mackenroth_jack_111507 I am not here making any assumptions about the personal or medical life of Mackenroth. Nor am I suggesting that Mackenroth is uncritical about his own muscular body and its relationship to masculinity. He is, however, a fairly visible public figure who is open about his HIV status and has photographically displayed his physique to a great degree. On the level of representation rather than lived experience he could be considered emblematic of this (gay) somatic paradigm which has jack_mackenroth_200907_3continued to be authoritative from its emergence in the 1990’s. His physical display (and accomplishments) are a strong rejection of the (homosexual) AIDS body of the early epidemic and a testament of how people with the disease have changed the definition and understanding of AIDS. Although I would note that AIDS and homosexuality are still intrinsically linked within culture.

But is this (gay) body type still the prevailing one in 2009? This past August, the New York Times published an article entitled “It’s Hip to Be Round”. The article claimed that bellies were now fashionable among the hipsters of Brooklyn and perhaps among gay men as well. Aaron Hicklin, the editor of Out, was quoted in the article, stating, “I sort of think the six-pack abs obsession got so prissy it stopped being masculine. It’s not cool to be seen spending so much time fussing around about your body.” Indeed, Lacan said that bodybuilding is the most feminine of arts, but I find the claims of this article to be a bit incredulous as any gay man with(out) “a body” can probably attest to both in the realm of lived experience and images. On the other hand, although paradigms may reign within representation, actual lived experience differs in terms of who we desire and what we find sexy and erotic, but the archetype still exerts its influence to varying degrees.

The muscle body remains preeminent in mainstream gay culture. Perhaps there has been some shift with the advent of the bear and bear culture. Body hair and facial hair appear to be more popular now, but the emergence and distinction of the “muscle bear” seems to be the same paradigm, just a bit hairier and beefier than the Abercrombie and Fitch model. But, no matter, there is still value placed on muscles as a natural expression and confirmation of its wearer’s masculinity.

But what does it mean when mainstream gay culture fetishizes the straight male jock, his body, his clothes, his masculinity? What does it mean when gay men want to adopt this body and its trappings and see this somatic paradigm as a natural and direct expression of their masculine gender? No one seems to ask what it means, what it does, how it constructs and limits our identities as men who desire men, how it bears traces of homophobia and misogyny and how it makes us uncomfortable with the pansies in all of us.

Backstage and Pink Carpet at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show 2009

Posted in The Fierceness on December 6, 2009 by jackmax2

Presidential Proclamation– World AIDS Day

Posted in The Fierceness on December 1, 2009 by jackmax2


Our Nation joins the world in celebrating the extraordinary advancements we have made in the battle against HIV and AIDS, and remembering those we have lost. Over the past three decades, brave men and women have fought devastating discrimination, stigma, doubt, and violence as they stood in the face of this deadly disease. Many of them would not be here today, but for the dedication of other persons living with HIV, their loved ones and families, community advocates, and members of the medical profession. On World AIDS Day, we rededicate ourselves to developing a national AIDS strategy that will establish the priorities necessary to combat this devastating epidemic at home, and to renewing our leadership role and commitments abroad.

Though we have been witness to incredible progress, our struggle against HIV/AIDS is far from over. With an infection occurring every nine-and-a-half minutes in America, there are more than one million individuals estimated to be living with the disease in our country. Of those currently infected, one in five does not know they have the condition, and the majority of new infections are spread by people who are unaware of their own status. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate as it infiltrates neighborhoods and communities. Americans of any gender, age, ethnicity, income, or sexual orientation can and are contracting the disease.

Globally, there are over 33 million people living with HIV. While millions have died from this disease, the death rate is slowly declining due, in part, to our Nation’s global effort through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program. However, HIV remains a leading cause of death worldwide. Women and children around the world are particularly vulnerable due to gender inequalities, gaps in access to services, and increases in sexual violence. While the statistics are distressing, new medications and scientific advancements give us reason for hope.

Tackling this disease will take an aggressive, steadfast approach. My Administration is developing a national HIV/AIDS strategy to bolster our response to the domestic epidemic, and a global health initiative that will build on PEPFAR’s success. We will develop a strategy to reduce HIV incidence, improve access to care, and help eliminate HIV-related health disparities. We have already ensured that visitors to our shores living with HIV are not marginalized and discriminated against because of their HIV status. We have also secured the continuation of critical HIV/AIDS care and treatment services. Today, we recommit ourselves to building on the accomplishments of the past decades that have dramatically changed the domestic and global HIV/AIDS landscape.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim December 1, 2009, as World AIDS Day. I urge the Governors of the States and the territories subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, and the American people to join in appropriate activities to remember those who have lost their lives to AIDS, and to provide support and comfort to those living with this disease.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-fifth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth.