In general this blog makes the case that 1970s culture in particular was not a hive of evil ignorance as I often see it described, but then again … OK, here’s a list of things to know about from the late 70s into the mid-80s.
Throughout 1974-1976, several dozen gay men, probably more, were murdered in and around San Francisco either by stabbing or being beaten, and some bodies were dismembered. Apparently one man dubbed “the Doodler” was responsible for at least five stabbings (see Yesterday’s Crimes), and there was also at least one murder committed by a local cop who turned out to be a frequenter and active participant at the gay bars on his own time. The police were blatantly dismissive of the crimes and even when they weren’t, men were sufficiently terrorized by decades of anti-gay discrimination (penury, the social death of genuine ostracism, institutionalization, “medication,” electroshock
therapy torture) to seek law enforcement. Please keep in mind that this was known throughout my home culture of the California coast.
A frequent gesture referencing gay men in general was to present your hand with the wrist limp, usually while making a whining noise. It was totally about the Other, as Them, and always good for a laugh – even without any sensible relation to an immediate topic at all. More personally, it was used to derogate someone or something as failing to be male, an unfunny form of “lame,” more like “you pussy.” Among friends it was a minor but definite putdown, among anyone else it was a serious insult. Did I say “frequent?” From right about the time of the murders I mentioned, try constant.
(Maybe I should clarify that this was also the cultural period of the arm-wrestle. A challenge to arm-wrestle was perhaps the top form of dominance-bullying at the time; it could not be refused and the challenger could not be called out as infantile. All men, all ages.)
Here’s a commonly-heard joke from not too long after that: You know what G.A.Y. stands for, right? Got AIDS Yet?
My childhood was pretty radical by almost any standards, and I’d known, lived with, and worked with people with open same-sex preferences. You’ll have to trust me, or not, when I claim that I never automatically thought of the preference as deviant. But my behavior was still Bigotry 102 – as in, I wouldn’t conceive of mocking or other-izing anyone I knew, but it was still open season on someone I didn’t know or on gay men in general. I threw the limp-wrist and told that joke. I remember the exact year and moment, spring 1985, that I took stock, realized that any social capital I gained through such behavior counted only among people I didn’t like at all, also realized that “open season” wasn’t a metaphor and had never been, and decided that all “Fag!” and derisive referencing needed to be set aside.
That’s not a virtue, though (look, everybody, I’m not a total asshole, praise me!). My only virtue is that I sometimes remember to beware self-congratulation on my own enlightenment. Toward that end, let’s take a look at two informative Marvel characters from early and late in this period I’m talking about, and as it happens, until recently, I didn’t even know about them.
The first is Arnie Roth, in Captain America 296, introduced in 1982, authored by J. M. DeMatteis, to be a major supporting character for quite a while. He’s pretty amazing – beginning with the excellent notion of the kid from Steve Rogers’ childhood neighborhood who protected him from bullies, now aged into a completely believable middle-aged adult, the one guy from Cap’s long-lost past who maintains a friendship with him. Then taking him – oh yeah, also Jewish – seriously out of the closet to the reader. Although the g-word is never spoken and his lover Michael is consistently the “roommate,” I can’t imagine anyone not getting it, and you don’t have to be discerning to see that Cap knows too, and isn’t bugged by it.
The story is … tangled, to say the least. I frankly haven’t been able to get through it. Way too much of the plot involves a cockamamie mind-control scheme by Baron Zemo and the Red Skull, something about “grrr, I shall torment your closest friends, Captain, because I am so evil.” But Arnie is solid as a throughline, for which see Captain America’s gay best friend, the MarvUnApp link, and You’re my best friend.
It culminates with one of the grimmest psychological groundings for MCI I’ve ever seen in comics, when Arnie is forced to bare all of his fears and loathings, including toward himself and especially toward Cap. It’s extra-brutal because instead of mouthing inanities that the villains put there, the torments are real. It reminds me of the play Bent and lots of others from the time. (I don’t think I’ve summarized my years in theater at the blog yet. They weren’t too many, but were damned active; they ended in 1985, and for the next couple decades, I was a constant theater-goer, favoring street, basement, and indie productions. You get sorta attuned to gut-revealing topical stuff that way.)
Mixed up in there, unfortunately, is “Bury your gays” again, when Michael gets safely killed off, but I reluctantly admit that it’s probably too much to expect the comic to show the relationship rather than grieve at its ending. Nuances aside, Arnie is the first out-gay-guy in mainstream U.S. comics, without a bit of objectified nonsense. Or he was with DeMatteis writing him, 1982-85 – Mark Gruenwald brought him back to kill him in 1994-1995, one of the latter writer’s lowest points in my view although I suppose you might invoke “but he’d be so old” if you must.
I view mid-80s Marvel as generally ignorant and ham-handed in its politics, with only a few exceptions that are themselves more discussable than admirable. However, I’m also bitter about the decapitation of the 1970s, so my reading was biased. Every time I do look now, something strong like this pops out from the cruft. Re-reading Miller’s work of the time shows me embattled thought, not thoughtlessness. DeMatteis and Roger Stern rate more reading from me for sure.
The second character is Jim Wilson, who technically precedes Arnie as a supporting character in the mid-late 1970s Incredible Hulk. I sort of remember him from then, or rather, I only remember that I’ve forgotten him. A Facebook comics-group friend provided me the records, that he first appeared in #131, in 1970, was retconned as the Falcon’s nephew in #232, in 1979, and he appeared once more in Marvel Team-Up #114 (I wasn’t reading the title at the point of the latter two).
But my interest here begins when he reappeared to be a major supporting character again much later, in Hulk #388. By then, it was 1991, absolutely classic The Eighties in all media, during Peter Davids’ long run as writer. As with Arnie, I wasn’t reading the title so I don’t know the entirety of his story/plot role. David’s work was ambitious enough that friends would hand me this-or-that issue, so it’s not as unknown to me as the Captain America run with Arnie. You can read about the whole picture here (warning, much Marvel logic on display).
My first reaction upon investigating was Jesus fucking Christ, that’s offensive. Some of the artwork is so straights-friendly Flashdance I could scream, and then he dies? Magical Negro + Magical Queer + Bury your gays indeed: oh goody, he’s already black, now make him gay and charming, so we can kill him off for twofer Oscar bait.
Welll, sort of. Then I did some more looking and found that other depictions and the actual storyline were reasonably hard-hitting. Credit where it’s due, there’s no tap-dancing about his sexuality and it’s never pathologized. I really like his dialogue scene in coming-out about HIV, played with weary patience rather than shock and tantrums. One might quibble over the final story concerning what Bruce Banner’s blood will or won’t do, which as I see it distracts from the actual human/politics, but there’s strength overall.
In 1988, chronologically perfectly in between the two characters, Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia (AARGH) was published in protest of the infamous Clause 28 in the U.K. This was the first of several excellent works by Alan Moore and others under the Mad Love imprint (which is complicated; see Independent period and Mad Love: 1988-1993). If you haven’t seen it, get a copy somehow; it includes about 40 stories from an all-star gallery of comics.
I was long past limp-wristing or “just joking,” and yes, I bought it, read it, shared it around, discussed it, and was clearly on-board … but what I remember too is how I grumped about how straight guys were depicted in it as hung-up, abusive, stupid brutes. I was a bookish, thoughtful, uninterested-in-sports, low-income guy just like the gay guys in the stories, howcum “I’m” the bad guy …?
C’mon, self, easy for me to say! I’m not gay and I was living in the U.S. I may not have felt personally appreciated by the creators of the comic, but obviously they had more important fish to fry than to acknowledge any such thing, and their justifiable rage and fear concerning real-actual government homophobia, and its social base, were the most important things to get onto the page. The range of creators’ genders and preferences themselves is ample demonstration of more, and admirable, inclusion than anyone should expect. The leading image of this post is from Dave Sim’s hilarious piece, for example.
Perhaps to confuse any clarification and to add TMI, people sometimes tagged me as not-making-sense about straight vs. gay. The essentialism doesn’t work on me. My experiences are varied; my preference to the point of “totally” is het. The alleged variables themselves are bonkers – e.g., a bi friend telling me he was confused that I flatlined on his gaydar but was very “maternal” as a parent, or women getting squicked by the hugs or dancing I might do with guys (neither of which, incidentally, are rare in parts of the world that are supposed to be beknighted), or a gay guy being confused when I wasn’t interested in sex but also not weirded-out or mad about it. And these observations come from late in the history; for some reason, I got less social heat about this back in the more ‘phobic days.
Throughout my 20s and 30s, I was an avid drinker-and-dancer at live music venues of all sorts, usually alone, not in a protective group. Gay bars were well within my range, because they were fun. During the 1990s, my grad school years, men I knew from the halls of academe were sometimes astounded to see me at the deceptively neutrally-named University Club, boogeying to “I Will Survive” or stuffing dollars in the appropriate garments of the cross-dressing acts. Sue me, I like a good time. (Side note: women who say “I’m just here to dance” in het venues aren’t kidding.)
The trouble is how damn hard it is to talk about any of this without all the classification fucking things up. I’d often get aggravated by well-meaning straight people who felt it necessary to explain their newfound awareness all the time, usually didactically. I have little use for the guilty-liberal schtick with its tendency toward tokenism, careerism-as-character, and need for reassurance.
Sometimes, a gay person I’d meet – especially a man – would self-efface, or be extra-charming-funny, or unnecessarily smooth the waters of interaction, thinking I might be explosive or whatever if I “knew.” I get that he would have no reason to think that I would be anything but a reflexive bigot, and that’s the problem right there. But what to say? “Hey, some of my best friends …” Yeah right.
Nor am I the easiest person most willing to defer for peace, either. Staying with the early and mid-90s, I was personally enmeshed in all sorts of unclassifiable relationships with gay women, and more incidentally as a fan of pre-breakout Dykes to Watch Out For, I considered myself “allowed” to use the word dyke in terms of solidarity, especially to contrast radicalism with upscale normalized lesbians. Women who knew me didn’t think twice about it. But it didn’t play with straight women who didn’t know me, who considered themselves sisters with lesbians, and who felt that a man’s use of the term was simply out of bounds. I get it, in full – they saw it as exactly the same thing I’d long ago decided was no longer self-permitted regarding “fag.”
There’s no winning that argument; in fact, it’s not an argument, it’s a clash, with no good way out for anyone once in it, and with a nasty tendency to devolve into name-calling, ragequits, and complicated social feuds. The issue under discussion disappears under a wave of irritation with one another, hiding under pious cover of the issue. You can see the tension running through all of this, I’m sure: “No, say/do it the right way, which happens to be my way.” Geez, “If you’d just say it my way then we’ll be fine,” is the default response across the cultural landscape for the past two-plus decades. Be sensitive to the issues, be aware that yadda yadda.
If sensitivity and awareness are to have any literal meaning at all, then they should apply to the possibilities of such a clash between two people who happen to be two different people and are not policy-enemies, rather than merely tag a given term as bad or good. The concept of “no blood, no foul” deserves a dusting-off. Who knows, maybe “your way” would look good to me after all.
Thanks to Mic Gee for posting about Jim Wilson at Facebook and helping me with the references.
Links: My predecessor post for this one is That’s “Mister Faggot” to you. There is a queercore band called Limp Wrist which I think is about the best possible historically-appropriate response to the phenomenon I described.
Next column: So not making friends here (April 30)
Posted on April 23, 2017, in Politics dammit, The 90s me and tagged AARGH, Alan Moore, Arnie Roth, Captain America, Dave Sim, Hulk, J. M. DeMatteis, Jim Wilson, Mad Love, Magical Negro, Magical Queer, Mark Gruenwald, Mind Control Incident (MCI), Peter David. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.
> Maybe I should clarify that this was also the cultural period of the arm-wrestle. A challenge to arm-wrestle was perhaps the top form of dominance-bullying at the time; it could not be refused and the challenger could not be called out as infantile. All men, all ages.
Meanwhile, in Tunnels & Trolls’ _City of Terrors_ solo dungeon…
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I’ve got nothing on the comics-angle with this one, but man, you nailed the history/context. I’m ashamed of the casual, homophobic cruelty of my youth, happy but unwilling to over-credit the transformation I see in my peers (and, hopefully, myself), and frustrated that … stuff (the classification? OK, I’ll buy that as a big part of it) still makes it hard to talk about/do things right in this area. “I’m not gay, but …” is an absolutely lousy way to begin any sentence, that nonetheless often seems necessary.
I think it makes sense to tell this story here … I abruptly developed my own, very conventional sexuality the summer between junior high and high school. I had a friend in junior high, who I flat-out ignored – as in pointedly kept my attention on the book in my hands rather than even acknowledge him – when our paths crossed in high school. If you’d asked me at the time, I’m sure I couldn’t have told you why. Even today, I remember it as an automatic reaction. But of course, there was a reason – he now seemed very gay to me. Not even WAS gay – I didn’t, and don’t, know that – SEEMED gay. So I needed to ignore him. Definitely among the most shameful memories/acts of my life.
Later in high school, two brothers of two very close friends independently came out as gay. And I read “The Left Hand of Darkness” (really, it was a big deal to me). Lots of stuff, that somehow changed me, unquestionably for the better. And, as I said, my peers – almost no one I know nowadays is on what I’d consider the wrong side of this issue. I’ve been perpetually amazed at the controversy over same-sex marriage. But then I’d remember my youth …
PS(s), on arm-wrestling – Nailed it again! I remember being SO proud of doing better at this than the other guys expected. But of course, there was always someone who was bigger/better/stronger, and my pride never lasted long. I hadn’t thought about that in forever!
And Ed – I have that book – another blast from the past!
Perhaps interestingly, a somewhat-recent Russian-designed computer game I played included an arm-wrestling mini-game. I’m sure I could use that to explain some tiny aspect of Putin-psychology if I worked at it hard enough.
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