I am not the guy behind the bar. This is clear. The guy behind the bar is the male body. Correction: The guy behind the bar is the male body as imagined in the fantasies of every gay man who has ever lived and ever shall live. All the same, on this night in Toronto, having stepped inside a gay bar for the first time in a year, I am again reminded that I am definitely and incontrovertibly not the guy behind the bar.
I am supposed to be. We are all supposed to be. When the homo-hating grandmothers of Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Grand Forks, North Dakota, go to bed tormented by nightmares of their little, rosy-cheeked grand-babies growing up to be limp-wristed queers, more often than not, you’ll find that they’re imagining highly-muscled wrists. In the night, they conjure up images of rippling chests, of granite-hewn arms. In most people’s imaginations, this is what the gay man looks like.
And “most people” includes most gay males. Tonight, it’s quite evident: the power of the image, the power of the desire to obtain it and be obtained as an expression of it. It’s In the rules- in the protocols of searching and being searched for, in the convention of the shirtless Facebook/Instagram/A4A/Grindr photo, in the way a man dresses and stands and scans the room, in the way that you treat him and talk to him and look at him and mark him out, tracing his place along the continuum, his position in the hierarchy. One looks for a certain kind of man and one finds him, searching for someone who meets the same guidelines to which he adheres.
There are, of course, a number of theories as to why this is the case: that it comes out of the AIDS Crisis and a natural embrace of a stereotypical image of vital, muscular, healthy manhood in contrast to a reality of frailty and mortality; that it comes from the objectification of being dehumanized; that it comes from having an excess of time in which to work out as a result of gay men not having spouses and families. I think it’s just, quite simply, an attraction to what is attractive, and a desire to be desired. We look for what is beautiful, and upon finding it, want it and want to be it.
There’s an argument to be made that the very awareness of one’s own gayness is dependent on this: on the primacy, the tyranny of the eye. At 12 or 13, scared, confused, overwhelmed by everything, you stare at that boy in English class and what you can’t look away from you want both to possess and to be. In Confessions of a Mask, Yukio Mishima talks about this: the moment when the boy falls in love with an ideal, and both admires and envies It, strives to both obtain it and to epitomize it, regards it both with lust and with envy.
10, 20, 30 years later, some of us are still there, close to that point of initial contact, still measuring ourselves, still measuring others.
As the years pass, though, the image becomes, perhaps, a little less affecting, a little less insistent. It, like all things that delight and overwhelm and consume us initially, loses its power to do so with time. In other words, the guy behind the bar, if he is remarkable in isolation, becomes somewhat unremarkable in company. The eye, with so much to look at, does not dwell too much on him or on anyone else, or, for that matter, on the crowd in general. It, like the men who make up parts of it, is just one of many, just one group among a million others.
In the mirror, these days, it’s pretty much the same. The flaws are, honestly, glossed over (“I’ve seen worse”). The better features are, honestly, minimized (“I’ve seen better”). My eyes have resigned themselves to the fact that they will never see my abdominal muscles. My arms have resigned themselves to the fact that they will probably always be meager.
In retrospect, it seems so comically trivial: focusing so obsessively on these things in the first place, spending so many hours intently studying other people’s bodies and my own, constructing mental Venn-diagrams with this limb here and that limb there, constantly marking minuses and pluses, constantly trying to transform the former into the latter. It was always fruitless- this process- always devolving back into jealousy and self-criticism.
As is evident, though, I am still not- and never will be- the guy behind the bar, and, for the moment, with my eyes and me at rest, with things as they are and as they should be, it suits me well enough.