thank you, tom petty

on humiliation + how the male gaze made me gay

i read a book last year called humiliation by wayne koestenbaum where he meditates on many different ways one can be humiliated. there is a really great section on the humiliation of writing.

"i don't like confident literature, or literature that seems immune to self-incrimination; literature should bear witness to the fact that the writer was humiliated by the very process of writing the work. the production of language—making words happen—is a lowering act, like revealing my sperm-stained dress at a trial, or showing the judge the inside of my mouth. language isn't transcendent. every sentence, however stuffed and upholstered with confident maturity, attests to that earlier, infant time when we couldn't master words."

in short, i am pushing myself out of my comfort zone to share and create more in writing. my safety net in the realm of humiliation is that i have sworn in (on the bible, of course) several confidants to flag me if i reach a moment of true humiliation. this basically means that if i share something that is so "bad" it would also embarrass them for being associated with me. true friends!

and now: welcome to my first newsletter! this is a vessel in the form of an email, which will probably appear different every time. i'm popping the cherry with a personal essay i wrote mostly on a delirious plane ride home from los angeles. reframing my life experience of hyper-hetero-sexuality (before age twenty one) as a very gay adult is extremely weird and something i think about a lot. i also just want to caveat a super important note - what i wrote about (the "male gaze" or mainstream beauty standards) is something i have worked hard to unlearn and am still working to unlearn and i invite you to do the same.

————

it’s true that i was once heterosexual, boy-obsessed even. like, giving blow jobs when i was twelve. it’s interesting to honor this as part of my past especially now that i’ve mined my true sexuality like diamonds in the male-gaze-fueled media i consumed in my adolescence. as in, kind of like, “the male gaze made me gay!” stick with me here. growing up without many rules, i stayed up late as a child watching lots of inappropriate tv. i loved the howard stern show most of all because it made me feel funny things between my legs. i both understood what that feeling meant (as someone who began masturbating very young), and at the same time i didn’t quite connect the dots that watching women be turned into sex objects caused me to feel this way. i never wanted to be the women on the howard stern show. i did, however, align with the men who were turned on by them. is it anti-feminist to believe my desire for women blossomed from the myriad and extreme examples of the male gaze i witnessed as a child? maybe. but i guess we contain multitudes. the women, mostly porn performers, who were guests on the howard stern show knew what they were getting into (objectification, degradation) and yet they seemed to love it, which made me love them more. i think that i understood on some level, whether or not i liked how the men were treating them, that the guests were in control of their sexualities and seemed to be having fun entertaining in this erotic way. late at night and in my parents’ absence, the gay seeds of perversion were being planted. 

what i do know explicitly is that i have always been drawn to femininity, so much so that i cannot trace its origin. some of my earliest memories are of admiring my hip, young aunt with her huge aqua net hair and leather jacket (think ‘80s biker babe). when she visited i would wear her high heels around the house, a balancing act in hopes to look half as cool as she did. at school i always befriended the prettiest girls with the shiniest lip gloss, in skirts just long enough to not get suspended. i marveled at the energy and dedication to their craft, while wanting to mirror it myself. i was always dressed up; there were entire years in high school where i didn’t wear jeans or flat shoes, a high femme in training. i didn’t yet know about the queer “do-be-do” complex, but it’s clear to me now that my own proximity to traditional femininity was an auto-fetish.

i have a playlist of songs from my childhood that comfort me and i return to them often. because i grew up on mtv music videos, it’s almost impossible for me to hear certain songs and not visualize the video in my head. this playlist made me realize that some of these music videos, like the howard stern show, contributed to my sexuality. i think about singing adina howard’s “freak like me” in the shower when i was nine years old. i think about how under proper parental supervision i would have been watching sesame street instead of delighting in gyrating hips, big hair, and even bigger breasts. under proper parental supervision i might have ended up straight, vanilla. it would be almost two decades before i would come to understand the impression these videos left on me. 

aerosmith’s “crazy” came out when i was in third grade. the music video featured two hot wild teenage girls (one of whom was lead singer steven tyler’s real life seventeen year old daughter) who ditch school, as well as their uniforms, to ride around the desert and cause trouble while the very sexual song plays in the background. (you turn me on …) they meet a creepy old man at a gas station who explicitly wags his tongue at them (i am also him) causing them to flee in their convertible in disgust. the young liv tyler enters an amateur night contest at a strip club while her best friend (played by alicia silverstone) watches on in a very butch suit and tie. after liv wins the contest, they meet a smoking hot farm boy, seduce him, steal his jeans, and leave him to ride his tractor home naked. who needs hot farm boys, i thought, when they have each other. 

back then, i wanted to know these girls, i wanted to ditch school with them, to be in the backseat of their convertible, catching whiffs of their long windblown hair as it smacks me in the face, to cheer them on at amateur night as i throw every penny of my lunch money on stage. i now understand this video to be a story about best friends turned lovers who run away from their homophobic catholic school to tease men for sport and support themselves by doing sex work. i now understand that the lyrics are entirely reminiscent of the lesbian condition, a fact that aerosmith no doubt intended!!!! this is also my first memory of the bad school girl, uniform so short you can see her panties, which has left a lasting impression on me. the fact that steven tyler allowed his teenage daughter to be sexualized in this overt way by millions of viewers immemorial perhaps also marks the origin point for my desire to be called Daddy. but who’s to say?

tom petty’s mary jane’s last dance reaches an even darker place in my queer psyche. the gothic video stars a dead kim basinger as the lifeless object of desire while the song about a post-mortem lovers’ dance plays in the background. tom petty, a LHB, steals his dead bride from the morgue after spending some time sensually unzipping and rezipping her in a plastic body bag (hng). after getting her home to his goth castle, he dresses his dead bride in her wedding gown and mourns her by dancing with her corpse in a beautiful parlor surrounded by candles and flowers. the spectacle of grief is evident in the resounding lyrics “one more time to kill the pain,” which touches on a longing and sadness i believe is parallel and resonant with lesbian desire. 

i remember there being some controversy about the video promoting necrophilia, vocabulary i somehow had as a seven year old, even though he doesn’t actually sleep with her corpse. i suppose that “one last dance” could have just been a euphemism all along. the beautifully grotesque romance between a man and his dead wife bridges a gap between heterosexuality and queerness that seems just in grasp for the early 90s. i’ve always read longing as a markedly lesbian trait, and starved for representation, i guess we find it anywhere we can. 

the darkness evident in playing with the dead and theorizing how she died (we as viewer are never privy to this information) introduces a playful element that i can now liken to a bdsm scene. the desire to be “killed” and coming up with a backstory for how that happens is fairly common in my practice of leatherdyke SM. and thus mary jane’s last dance offers another meaningful root for my sexuality. 

i have been femme4femme for as long as i can remember. as a feminist, it feels wrong to locate both desire for and desire to enact extreme portrayals of feminity in the male-created media i consumed as a young child. this is dark and uncomfortable, but also undeniably true. because of this, i will always love women with big hair and big tits, with short school girl skirts and hair bows, women who want to submit to me by asking me to kill them. and despite my own gender, i will always see myself as the creepy man completely mesmerized by the slow swaying hips of women, sniffing hair, and giving all my money to strippers who so much as glance in my direction.