PRINT April 1994

“My” Masculinity

A GAY GUY IN A MOVIE described his desire. He was touching his own penis while he spoke. He said, “I like to touch myself, I like to feel located.” That was what the gay guy said. And the straight guy? The straight guy said something inscrutable. It eludes me, at the moment, what the straight guy said. The gay guy had ineffable beauty—he touched himself companionably, without hostility or program. I wanted to be that gay guy in the slow movie, touching himself without program. The gay guy expressed glee when he found another gay guy. In the movie those were gaiety’s hallmarks—glee and echo. . . .

Wait. I made a mistake. I reified gaiety. Next time I speak I will not reify. I meant to bore into the word “masculine,” to faux-etymologize the word “masculine,” to rim the word “masculine.” To rim is not to reify. For example: “mask” inside “masculine.” “Ass” inside “masculine.” “Culinary” inside “masculine.” “Line” inside “masculine.” “Me” inside “masculine.”

What people have said about “my” masculinity, 1958 to the present:

“Boys don’t spit or bite when they fight.”


“Is this the lady of the house?”

“If you don’t shut up I’m going to kick your balls in.”

I dreamed about modern masculinity: early gay-lib pamphlets were scattered “like autumn leaves” near the grammar school’s slaughterball wall, and I marveled at the Tower of Babel Pebbles-and-Bamm-bamm hairdos of the aristocratic family in which I was a changeling, while, far off, the spectacle of Guy Hocquenghem came into focus, GH alive again, at a podium, intoning, “Interpellation of the subject, up the ass, interpellation of the subject, up the ass,” while incense burned.

Masculinity sucks; it divides into pieces. “You’re broad chested, just like your father,” my mother said, erroneously, when I walked topless into the kitchen, decades ago, in pursuit of a peeled orange. The coach in gym said “jock check” and we pulled down our shorts to show that we’d worn athletic supporters inside our white briefs. White briefs grow gray with time.

Masculinity should be taken out of circulation, or its franchise opened up—but if masculinity ended, would I be able to speak? In a dream movie I lay on the plump chest of a composer, he was conventionally masculine, he caressed me, I told him about the murderer loose in the house, I’d read about it yesterday in the paper, and the composer crooned Gershwin, which assuaged my anxiety. I climbed Jacob’s ladder toward masculinity. Masculinity is not the same as virility; I have a little of each, fading.

Reading Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose, I pity the incarcerated narrator. What he loves he degrades. Compare Genet’s masculinism to Joseph Cornell’s —Cornell with his love of pastries, of long, desultory trips into New York to spelunk and cruise, of small, precisely composed boxes. If I were to start keeping a scrapbook of my masculinity, how would I organize the scraps?

Am I constructing a masculine sentence? That was a question, not a sentence. I like to interrupt the line with an effort of listening. Men don’t listen. Masculine men don’t listen. I have swallowed the word “masculine”—even my shadow talks too loudly, as if to an amphitheater full of auditors. But I am not the least masculine person I know, I find masculinity when necessary; I am not a conscientious objector to it, it involves me. Yet I don’t know what “it” is. I dropped it—will you pick it up? It fell between us, somewhere, a lost resource, like the Venus de Milo, or a bag of marbles. It is a drag. I wonder where you can buy it. It rotates counterclockwise, like a doorknob into a room named Cain.

Trying to define masculinity, I grow too masculine; I must deflect the task of definition. If I were to organize a discussion of masculinity, I would start with balls—there’s too much talk about the penis, not enough about balls, their lumpy, pistachio contribution. Not enough has been said, either, about erections as the absence of power: getting hard, revealing your desire (say, in the high school gym shower), may mean that in the eyes of witnesses your masculinity is finished, kaput. Most of my energy in a certain era was spent making sure I did not get an erection in public.

Masculinity: is that what I “want” in a man? Sick of the cult of muscle among the queer (myself included), I have developed a style, borrowing from self-conscious femmes like Ronald Firbank, that derives its tangential power from the deliberate avoidance of the appearance of masculinity. I wonder if secret, underwater masculinity accrues to this pose. Femminess seems masculine to me, I mean it seems virile to me, a femmy man seems a hunk in unpatented ways, particularly the unwritten area of shade around the wrists and the neck. I should disentangle masculinity and sexiness. But why bother? They will disentangle themselves before the evening is over. If I am in bed with Cavafy, where am I? In the bower of what I’ve read and what has read me. I can step outside of heterosexuality but it is not as easy to step outside of masculinity, and that is why I am trying to divide this sentence into several boxes; that seems the best way to deprive it of familiarity. I don’t want to have to moralize my pleasure in order for it to pass muster.

The best way to figure out masculinity is to figure out how you talk, why you talk, at what tempo, what hesitations and interruptions threaten and provoke your talk, and then to stage the talk as clearly and nakedly as possible. All I have is my voice, it is here, I have shown you it, it has a gender—no, it has a style, a series of tics. I like short lines because they allow me to interrupt myself. I don’t want to make a point. Darling, I irradiate meanings. If you came for points you can turn right back.

Wayne Koestenhaum is a writer, poet, and associate professor of English at Yale University. His books include Ode to Anna Moffo, and Other Poems (New York: Persea, 1991) and The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (New York: Vintage, 1993), and his next book of poetry, Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, will be published by Persea this month.