Sweetgum’s Own Voice

anxiety, sex

Author’s Note:
In a previous post, I introduced a character from my past named “Derek.” That’s not his real name, and so I’m not sure why I broke from the established (by me) convention of naming my characters after trees. I’ve done it with all the women, but not all the men. Admitting this makes me feel sexist. But instead of going back and editing the last essay to “correct” my error in judgment, I’m just going to ask for forgiveness. I’ll openly say I made a mistake, okay? Furthermore, Derek will now be known as Sweetgum, but it’s the same dude.

The cheerleading squad held tryouts in the fall and announced their picks before winter break. The new lineup became active at the start of the spring term and remained through the next semester. This meant outgoing seniors never cheered the second half of their last year. But they still painted their faces and attended spirit events.

I don’t know if this is the established schedule for high school cheerleading, or if it was just that way at my school. It doesn’t really make sense to me, but nobody asked my opinion.

During our junior year, Sweetgum and two of his buddies decided to reboot the tradition of yell leaders, the name given to male cheerleaders. We hadn’t had any of these in about four years, which means our class had gone through high school having never seen any yell leaders on campus.

It doesn’t matter that they existed at many of the other seventeen area high schools we played sports against. And it didn’t matter that men had been part of cheering squads traditionally for as long as there were cheering squads – which was what, decades? Maybe a couple centuries? I’m not going to waste my time doing the research.

But as far as the bullies were concerned, Sweetgum and his friends were weirdo jerk faggots. Why? Because cheerleaders were girls. Their chief tormentor was Sandy Smith, a soft-bodied rich kid too entitled and undeserving for a pseudonym (maybe Crabgrass applies, but at least crabgrass is useful). Sandy was a vile child who thought he was super fashionable because he shaved the lower ¾ of his head all the way around and dressed in a manner that probably annoyed his parents. He wore “shreds,” extra wide-leg jeans with the bottom hems cut off and left to fray, and oversize polo shirts (barf) to go along with his spaghetti string gold chain necklace. The kid had big teeth and tracks of braces and to imagine this pineapple head brat as a bully now is laughable. Thinking he and his friends are now all likely parents is a scary thought.

At some schools, the cheerleaders represent the elite mean girl super hot and popular visible top notch of the social structure. But at other schools, it’s just an elective club populated by some cliquish subculture or minority who like to dance and wear uniforms and flirt with jocks. My school was somewhere in the middle, but leaning closer to the first one.

The ladies on the team welcomed Sweetgum and the other two, for no other reason, than because it was nice to get some solid stalks for the base of their pyramids. They were neither attracted to or repulsed by these boys, whom they immediately adopted like younger step brothers (but not in the cliché pornographic sense, trust me).

The irony, of course, is that Sweetgum and his buds joined the squad because they wanted to be visible and get closer to girls. It was the opposite of the toxic masculinity tossed at them from Sandy and company. I truly believe if they were actually out gay men Sandy would have been too intimidated by their confidence to talk trash to them.

But it was insecurity on both sides – Sandy’s taking the form of overcompensation, while Sweetgum risked nothing to taste the sweat of the angels – that made them adversaries. They were the same, now that I think about it, except Sweetgum was courageous at a time when conformity amounted to safety.

I no longer remember the point, if I ever had one. I’m sure neither of these guys remember any of this, which makes me wonder why I’m thinking about it at all.

Maybe the answer lies in a speech Sweetgum delivered at the end of his run. I guess the idea was to encourage underclassmen recruits to keep the tradition of cheerleading in pants alive. “Nobody will think you’re gay or anything,” Sweetgum said. He said other things about it being fun and good exercise and all that, but this is the line that stands out. “Nobody will think you’re gay or anything.”

This was probably true, but who knows? Some people certainly said that being a boy cheerleader was an indication of homosexuality. There is plenty of room for a debate about gender expectations and assumed sexual orientation and all viewed through a contemporary lens. But I’m not going to indulge in that at the moment.

I will ask, why did Sweetgum think it was important to add this? It’s ridiculous. And I’ll say I know with almost certainty that Sweetgum did not mull it over first. He wasn’t the type to think before he spoke, or consider the words he said for long afterwards either.

Gay is now a lot more mainstream, of course. Maybe it’s not en vogue exactly, but marginalized voices are almost di rigueur for the storytelling industries. I don’t have a problem with that because I understand the importance of optics. And I believe in equal rights. Also freedom from social stigmas, inasmuch as this is possible, would be nice.

But here’s the thing: I’ve never been one to make much association between arbitrary activities and sexuality or sexual orientation anyway. Sexual activities might suggest one’s sexuality, but other activities? One sport versus another? Theater? Look, I worked as a Beauty Advisor and Makeup Artist for seven years. There are not many straight men doing that. Mostly it’s women. And plenty of these women, and many gay men assumed I was gay simply for being there. I wrote a whole big blog about it asserting my straightness, though I sometimes wish I hadn’t done that. I sometimes wish I was more gay, though I do recognize the fluidity of the spectrum much more now. Can one be more gay? Or less gay?

The associations have never made much sense. What’s a man’s man? What’s a sissy? Is it how you look, how you talk, what you do, who you do it with?
Is it emotional literacy relevant? Real men can cry, right? What’s a real man, though?

Cisgender heterosexual (usually white) men seem to be the ones committing the most acts of domestic terrorism in America. Is that a reach? I’m not saying it’s because they’re closeted gay or anything like that. I am observing that they don’t seem to know how to relate to each other in a philadelphian way.

A guy like Sweetgum – who by the way later joined the military after dropping out of a very good California State University – is not likely to become a mass shooter. Why? I don’t know. But I know he’s not an alienated dude.

Self-Presentation & Self-Preservation

booze, sex

I used to write a blog called COSMENAUT: true adventures of a straight male makeup artist. It was about me working in the cosmetics section of a legacy department store, my experiences in the makeup and beauty industry, and my personal life – not always in that order. But I usually tried to connect these elements in a novel way, because I thought it was interesting coming from a place with no understanding about this business to having heavy awareness for its effects.

As a man who dates women, in seemed appealing to learn and share insider knowledge of the beauty industry, both as I was exposed to it through sales and marketing campaigns, and in the practical use and application of products by my friends and lovers. To be sure, I regret a lot of what I wrote during that time. I was learning and drinking and exploring. It’s only worth revisiting to see how far I’ve come and I’d prefer if I was not vilified for whatever I wrote back then about people and circumstances I did not understand well.

Selling products I thought were useless and unnecessary, and answering questions about bullshit concerns created by a culture of marketing inane and superficial competition, enlightened me about our perceptions of personal values and individual worth. But it seemed like I was suddenly expected to make priority out of absurdity. And I was not passionate about sales.

Especially sales derived from preying upon natural human insecurities.

I named my blog Cosmenaut as a play on words, like a cosmonaut for cosmetics, an explorer in a foreign land blah blah blah. But it was the subtitle that was meant for exposure. That was the hook: I was a rooster in the hen house. I did not belong there, but I was there, and I was sensitive enough to see the secrets.

Someone sent me a message asking why I “felt the need” to exert my hetero-masculine (assumed cis gender) sexuality into my branding. Was I “insecure” about it, they wanted to know.

The truth is I never was. I was simply just trying to be distinct. The cosmetics environment as I experienced it was something like 85% women, 12% gay men, and the remainder could be anybody else, but really that means trans women and me.

As far as these trans women were concerned: they were women, both in my view and theirs. But that did not keep them from being the subject of vicious gossip.

The store had a fairly progressive attitude toward inclusion, at least. There were expressed, written policies on tolerance, acceptance, and accommodation for customers and staff, though I never heard any issues about access to appropriate bathrooms or dressing rooms or any of that. It was San Francisco, after all. (Personally, I’ve long believed that every rest room and dressing room should be a single occupant all gender inclusive situation because I like privacy).

There were some other straight men in the department, but they almost exclusively sold fragrances and skincare. These products, like the men who sold them, fit safely behind a gender line defined on their packaging. The classic view of the perfume lady spraying unsuspecting passersby had long ago been replaced by the flirty dude with a car salesman’s grin plastered across his face.

The main difference between the fragrance bros and myself was that I also sold color by performing practical applications. In other words, I did makeovers. I knew about makeup.

Our brand had a men’s line that consisted of the exact same products packaged into steely gray containers with the words FOR MEN stamped across them for safety. These were skincare products, but occasionally they’d try out a concealer or something.

Thanks to toxic masculinity, straight guys need reassurance like this. The marketing might say the formulations are specific to men’s skin, but that’s just pitch sizzle. In truth, it’s so the fragile heteronormative cig gender man can feel safe in knowing people won’t wonder about him if they see his facewash. That’s because he’s been told that unqualified vanity is gay.

Image result for vanity smurf
Vanity Smurf

I wrote back to my inquisitor that the subtitle to my blog was just a gimmick. But, just to clarify, I suggested that sexual orientation is who about who you desire, and sexuality is about how you demonstrate that desire.

Dan Savage commonly defines it as a layer cake: at the bottom is who you want, in the middle is who you get, and the top is what you tell people. Within that, there’s a difference between sex and romance, and room for fluidity on each tier.

Still, you hear about “guyliner” & “manscaping” put in such common usage that people don’t think about them anymore. Why do fragile heteronormative cig gender men need alternative terminology for the same shit? Toxic masculinity. Duh. Or is that the joke?

One of my lady coworkers (from Great Britain) told me that if she went over to a guy’s apartment and saw flowers there that were not left by or intended for a woman, she’d immediately assume he was closeted gay. So, I asked her, if I like the look and smell of fresh flowers in my home, how does that somehow mean I also like to suck dicks?

Then there’s the whole question of ass play. Women asked me all the time if their boyfriends were gay because they wanted their salads tossed. So, I replied, your boyfriend wants you to lick his anus. You’re not a man. If he wanted a man to lick him, that might be gay, but if he wants you to do it, why is that an issue? He likes when you blow him, right? Many gay men like to give and receive blowjobs, but your boyfriend wants to receive one from you, so…

There’s an element of toxic masculinity outside of abusing women, though certainly related to it, that speaks to male competition. Consumer culture has long exploited this. But is it more than machismo?

I recently asked an old friend who is now a married father of two young children if parenting in a more inclusive and socially conscious time (like now) has affected his view of himself as a younger man. From my perspective, I see him back then as an alcoholic cokehead who’d frequently say, “Treat them like shit, that’s what they like,” about women. He had apparently determined that indifference sometimes reads as confidence, both personally and professionally; often enough, it seemed, that he could be self-destructive and indulgent and still get laid occasionally.

At first, he told me he was afraid of his kids getting bullied. Maybe that’s because he’d mostly been a bully himself, I think. I clarified the question, explaining that I was interested more in his view of himself than I am in his concerns as a parent.

This was his answer:

Yes, a confusing triple negative preceded by a joke and then redirected onto a disgraced celebrity for comparison. Throughout the conversation he made several attempts to change the subject, but I’m not sure he ever got the point. I was not accusing him of sexual assault against women. I was asking him, probably not directly enough, if he knew he’d been afflicted with toxic masculinity. Or if he saw it that way now. Did he remember drunkenly punching me in the face to show his dominance? Does he regret constantly accusing his straight friends of being gay just to watch them squirm? Did he care about making historically marginalized people feel welcome in his presence?

If we now live in a time when straight men can sometimes have gay sex, and when gay men can occasionally screw women, and women are so whimsically fluid that being a woman has indefinite meaning – physiologically, we’re all women for at least six weeks anyway – if masculine and feminine energy can apply to anyone, if being a mascot or a femme bot are just fleeting fashion choices, if chromosomal biology carries no dictates, so much the better. But I wonder if it kind of makes some of these labels obsolete. Or does it?

Like Gore Vidal said, we are all potentially bisexual.
Like RuPaul said, it’s all drag and life is hard for everybody.

So, is identity how we see ourselves or how we want others to see us?
Sometimes safety requires wearing a mask. I’ve worn many.

Post Script: One night in 2004, which was well before makeup artistry came into my life, myself and two blonde American women encountered a Swedish man while out drinking. He told us casually that he sometimes had sex with men. “I’m not gay,” he said, “Just horny.” The ladies said they thought this was very hot. I felt a little reduced for not being regarded as so adventurously open-minded. Of course, we ended up back at his apartment, where one of the women hinted at a group sex possibility. The other woman shut her down because she claimed she hadn’t shaved recently and said she did not want to “be the hairy girl at an orgy.” The ladies ultimately fell asleep huddled together on the couch. The Swede brought out a futon mattress for me to crash on, and he might have alternatively invited me to join him back in his room. I politely declined, but this exchange may have been imagined or part of a semi-conscious dream sequence. The next morning, the ladies and I left early without seeing our host again. The supposedly hairy girl said to the other one, “I can’t believe you wanted me to fuck that gay guy.” Did I mention these two were sisters? They had the same father.