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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Soul Beneath the Skin

The Unseen Hearts and Habits of Gay Men

David Nimmons

St. Martin's Press


"You meet the most interesting people on Christopher Street."
—Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Wonderful Town, opening number

If you have ever had a hunch there was something special or different about gay men; if you have by turns felt you are glad to be gay, yet found yourself disappointed by the forms "gay community" takes; if you have wondered, "Is this all there is to us?"; if you have sometimes wished men like us could be different with each other; if you have craved more affection and tenderness in your gay social world, but weren't sure how to get it, this book may offer some new answers.
The story begins at a place called The Loft. Even if you have never set foot in it, you've been there. You enter past the Herb Ritts monochrome of that begrimed mechanic and his oversized tire (one wonders: Does some poor customer await in a gas station front office somewhere, ever hopeful?). Your eye catches the array of sassy bumper stickers ("I'm not a slut—I'm just popular"), the assorted condoms nestled beneath the rainbow baseball caps, and then settles on a fitted T-shirt ($42.00) stretched across the ample pectoral acreage of a mannequin seemingly on steroids. The display confronts the shopper with a daunting sartorial choice: Will it be the "Nobody knows I'm gay" muscle-shirt in gray, or the "What Daddy wants, Daddy gets—I'm Daddy" tank top in black?
The Loft's big claim to fame is its address: 156 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village. That puts it about one hundred yards from the Stonewall bar; you know, the site-of-the-uprising-that-marked-thebeginning-of-an-out-and-proud-visibly-organized-gay-community. The place the tour-bus driver points out to illustrate an upbeat urban fable of how the spangled fairies bested New York's Finest (conveniently separated in his user-friendly narrative). "Two days of street skirmishes" … blah, "riot police" … blah, "drag queens" … blah blah. In his mythic narrative—easily framed as our Boston Tea Party, in nine-inch heels—it took those two days, give or take about a quarter century, for that social movement to morph into an entity shorthanded as "the gay community." Which, of course, is why this straight married bus driver from Newark knows to tell this story at all.
The Loft is one of those places where the community he refers to goes to buy its boxer shorts and muscle T's. This is where one comes to scratch the itch for a box of penis-shaped pasta, locate a cowboy-with-a-rope birthday card, or find that special lube gun shaped like, well, a lube gun. If you can't find what you want at The Loft, try Rainbows and Triangles on Manhattan's Eighth Avenue, Gay Mart in Chicago, A Different Light in Silver Lake, Castro Gulch in San Francisco's Castro, Lobo in Houston's Montrose. In Boston, your receipt will read Copley Flair; in Raleigh, White Rabbit. In Portland, Maine, it's Drop Me a Line, and in Portland, Oregon, Rainbows. You'll find such venues from Seattle to St. Louis, from Atlanta to Anchorage, in Columbus, Chicago, Des Moines, Phoenix, on rue de la St. Croix de la Bretonnerie in the Paris Marais, on Madrid's Chueca Plaza, lining Amsterdam's bustling Regulierstraat.
That familiarity is, in fact, the point. You can count on finding the same iconic inventory: a faux-outrageous jumble of carnality, Carnivale, and kitsch that mocks one set of bourgeois values even as it re-inscribes another, onto refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs, baseball caps, and keychains. Whether the address is L.A. or London, the display window offers an accustomed iconography of rainbows and triangles, flags and flesh. On the shelves inside, the saints repose in their accustomed niches. St. Tom of Finland, St. Quentin of Crisp, St. Raymond slaying the Dragon. In stacks by the door, you can be sure to find the local bar rag, with newsprint pages and a glossy cover bearing the charmed face or body of a someone who can't recall where he was when John Lennon was shot because, well, he wasn't. You can close your eyes and know by feel which page will have the bar and dance clubs listed, which the personals, and where you'll find the smudgy thumbnails of doe-eyed escorts hawking their cockles and muscles like so many Victorian street girls.
This place is a cultural outpost, as certainly as East L.A. bodegas sell rice, beans, and Virgin Mary calendars, as self-assuredly as Rodeo Drive boutiques offer water-processed decaf and Bed-Stuy barbers vend'fro combs and African flag decals. These emporia, whatever their locale, are boutiques of belonging. Here is where you say Calvin, and nobody within earshot thinks Hobbes. In such places, inventory shades into affirmation, brands become bromides. Be an International Male. Don't Panic. It's good 2(x)ist. Help yourself to a Lifestyle on your way out. Places like The Loft are the purveyors to a culture inventing itself. They stock the retail inventory that a stirring new population, a novel kind of urban man, has come to claim as his own.
From the soft-core posters in each dressing room to the underwear boxes, all seems to suggest that what lies beneath the skin is … just more skin. The very walls speak in an eloquence of muscles and flesh, whispering a thousand seductions to one killing illusion: that this detritus, this skintight swirl of testosterone and camp, has something essential to do with what you're made of.
But shopper beware. Retailers of rainbows are rarely what they seem. If only what was most powerful in this place was merely skin deep. In truth, what most counts here is not what hangs inside the window, but what strolls on the streets beyond it. Because whether this store is in Madrid, Silver Lake, or Madison, it demarcates homospace. Look in its mirrors and you peer into an enchanted looking glass. This place is an entry portal to the world's newest culture, a tribal homeland where the defaults and protocols of social life shift subtly, and where new rituals and norms hold power. It is a place of different rules and language, where customs and values are not what they seem.
It matters little if you are gay, straight, or somewhere in between. Cross the threshold, walk past the Bears 2002 poster, and step out onto Planet Gay. Here, the clothes fit right, the men are men, and the Joint Chiefs are nervous. Glance back over your shoulder. Your one clue was that T-shirt in the window: "You're not in Kansas anymore." Nobody in this shop has been in Kansas for a while now. Memo to the Joint Chiefs: You have good reason to worry.

Some people say we're just the same as straight people except for what we do in bed. I say what we do in bed is the only place where we're the same.
—Harry Hay, founder, Mattachine Society

In the early 1950s, when homophile leader Harry Hay got up to speak before a room of Mattachine Society activists, few of those listening could have imagined how profoundly the following five decades would confirm his words. By the time, more than a quarter century later, the French philosopher Michel Foucault could speak of "developing a way of life," one group of American men had been doing just that, and calling themselves "gay." (Readers with an interest in Queer Theory might want to glance at the theoretic note on page 221 about the use of "gay" in these pages. For less academic types, who hear the term gay subject position and think "doggie style"—go pour yourself a drink and we can get started.)
In the last fifty years gay communities from Mendocino to Maine have undertaken a range of profound, spontaneous social experiments. These men set simmering a series of radical cultural transformations, scarcely recognized and even less understood, even by themselves. Few could imagine all that this set of experiments would come to mean.
As they grew, these innovations were not very evident. Under the shadow of a plague, many of these changes bubbled unseen. Cultural practices and rituals that first glimmered on blocks with names like Christopher and Castro began to sprout in towns with names like Liberty, Tennessee, and Ukiah, California. As they did, they left their imprint on America's life. The innovations taking shape in these male communities would come to shape mass cultural institutions from prime time to the Pentagon. They put into play fundamental assumptions and givens about how men work. Now these changes and shifts reverberate in the larger American society, bringing the potential to redraw the map of American maledom.
Yet the power of the cultural experiments now taking shape in these communities of men has been little recognized, either by those of us who participate in them or by society as a whole. These changes have largely drifted in below the cultural radar. Their import has been obscured by a set of truths commonly held to be self-evident. Most who (for better or worse) take an interest in commenting on gay lives have adopted an all-too-familiar conventional narrative. As a consequence, that one-dimensional view has been accepted by many of us—gay as well as straight—as our accurate, if depressing, story. You know: that we live in a bodyobsessed, shallow, sexually profligate, consumerist culture. That gay cultural values inculcate competition and isolation, narcissism and hedonism. That our community practices—especially in gay enclave cities and neighborhoods—recapitulate a ruthless competition of the flesh as they discourage any true intimacy of the heart. Most of all, just in case you've missed it along the way, the inevitable moral of the story is that, if gay men don't pay heed, we will party, dance, and sex ourselves into an early oblivion.
Most of us have at one time or another wallowed at the trough of this conventional caricature. If we are gay, we roll our eyes about our fellowmen: "You know how gay guys are," we smirk. Sometimes feelings boil into hurt, despair, or bitterness at how "gay men" seem to treat each other. We bemoan the "lifestyle," wonder if we will be happy. Will we find a place that feeds our hearts and hopes in this thing called gay? If we are straight onlookers, we may be the parents who fret over a son's safety, the siblings who wonder at our choices, the friends and colleagues who cluck and matchmake and shake their heads.
The pages ahead propose that this particular fairy tale is profoundly incomplete, and that a careful reading of facts supports a far different conclusion. As we will see, a wealth of evidence powerfully contradicts this narrow version of gay male lives. That evidence includes a growing body of fact from public health and epidemiological studies, sociological and psychological inquiry, marketing and public opinion surveys, anthropological texts, and ethnographic studies. More powerfully, it arises in personal stories, anecdotes and community knowledge, the lived experience of these communities of men. It echoes in the range of cultural practices and new kinds of institutions gay worlds have developed. Taken together, the facts raise the distinct possibility that all of us—gay and straight alike—have overlooked the most telling aspects of the story. Along the way, we may have unwittingly adopted a shared view of gay men and our habits that obscures a set of far deeper, more important truths about the experiments now going on in these lives and communities. In short, we may have profoundly missed the point of us.
A radically different interpretation awaits. We need to remain open to the possibility that this accustomed gay narrative is both factually incomplete and grossly misleading. That, at best, the stories told by and to ourselves, by and to the larger culture, are stunningly incomplete and inaccurate. That, at worst, our accepted narrative bristles with unexamined, willful, deliberate distortions. For complex reasons, and at great cost, we have allowed ourselves to see only a part of the story about ourselves and our ways of life.
Much empirical evidence suggests that self-identified gay men are engaged in a striking range of cultural innovations in social practices. Our levels of public violence are vastly lower. We volunteer more often, demonstrating levels of altruism and service quite distinct from other men. Our patterns of intimacy and interpersonal connectedness take new forms. We are redefining gender relations in powerful and novel ways. We have distinct patterns of caretaking in sexual and communal realms. We are enacting new definitions of public and private, family and friends, as we are vastly transforming relations of pleasure, community, and authority. We are pioneering a wide range of untried intimate relationships, with new forms, rituals, and language.
The chapters ahead chronicle some unseen habits of identified gay male cultures. They rely on words and stories from many men talking from their own lived experience, as well as on the scholarly literature. Whether you are a gay man or just care about one, you are invited to step through the looking glass into a new world and to take a clear-eyed look at what is to be found there.
These pages offer our story, half-told. They document a set of social innovations and experiments the likes of which have no clear precedent in our culture. Taken together, these experiments compose what can only be termed a distinct new code of male love and nurture.
Collectively and individually, however, we do not always realize the full potential of these experiments. All too often, adopted gay cultural habits can rub our hearts raw, leaving us feeling more lonely, isolated, and wounded than we would like. We confront that problem in the book's final chapters. There, we examine our world, half-made, moving beyond data to discern the larger meaning of these cultural experiments. Those pages examine the notable chasm between the public aspects of gay culture and our unmet needs of heart and soul.
If you are a gay man, the first chapters may surprise you. You may, at times, wonder just what gay terrain is being mapped, especially if you have not experienced all that is being described. The later chapters open a radically different view of gay male "community," one where we find more sustaining ways to be with and for each other. They offer one vision of how we will build the kind of gay world we most wish to inhabit. That is, where the practices and habits, the language and debate, the customs and rituals, the institutions and organizations, better reflect our values and hopes, which now so often go unmet. Especially if you are wondering if this book speaks to your own personal experience, I hope you will take the time to read chapter 9 before you decide.
Throughout, one cornerstone fact remains. Coming out and into gay community is at its core an impulse of hope. It is a dream shared, of finding an intentional community of like-hearted men. We were drawn into this thing called gay, and found ourselves originally called to each other, in pursuit of a dream of love. Although that hope may often feel betrayed and bruised, we have a unique opportunity to adapt our shared cultures to more truly celebrate and deliver on that hope.
That undertaking is the heart and soul of this book, and of the movement called Manifest Love that is now growing among gay men in various locales. It holds that, far from inhabiting an ethical wasteland, we are evolving a new community whose practices are without any clear modern precedent, one whose core values resonate deeply with a range of spiritual traditions. Our communities of men are experimenting with entirely new forms of public life, with a potential to radically change ideas of power, love, and the nature of American community. Until now, these experiments have remained largely unseen, hidden in our hearts and habits, obscured by what we think we know about ourselves.
It is time to explore the meaning for the larger culture of the radical experiments now arising in gay male worlds. We are undertaking an evolution of values, one that lives in our rituals, practices, and norms. That will have enormous implications and effects as it becomes more widely understood, celebrated, and embraced in the broader American family.
The more closely we look at the variety of cultures gay men have created among ourselves, the more it is clear that we do many deep and important things differently. Obviously, those differences are not exclusive, consistent, unique, or monolithic. Not all the men described here necessarily live in "gay ghettos" in cities, or even label themselves "gay." Not all gay men do these things, any more than all heterosexuals don't.
Thus the picture is far more complex than some homo-supremacist "gay-guys-good/straight-guys-bad" chauvinism. For example, one cannot discuss the significant caretaking and nurture of heterosexual men without talking about spousal and parental bonds. For those men, in American culture, that's where nurture is most easily manifested and channeled, experienced and enacted. Yet what is demonstrably different about nurture in gay worlds is the way male caring and service translate in our communal practices, institutions, and rituals.
Another clear difference involves the role of public violence in the constituted cultures of gay male worlds. The point is not that most straight men live in a milieu of public peer violence—they don't—but that virtually no gay men do. In the places where we settle in sufficient density, we have built a public sphere markedly free of interpersonal violence among our own. (The situation is more shaded in the case of domestic violence, which we tackle in chapter 2.)
We find similar innovation in our patterns of intimacy. It is no surprise that familial and social expectations channel and constrain heterosexual men's range of permissible intimacies. The affectional and intimate attentions of heterosexual men tend to turn inward, duly vested in the sacred trinity of family, career, and children. It occurs in their relations with women, with other individual men, and with communities of other men. As we will see, the gay male habit tends to more diffuse and expansive forms of intimacy. We extend intimacy in novel forms like care teams and "buddies," with more porous kinds of relationships like fuck buddies, communal homes, and three-way loverships, and innovative community practices, such as the touch and massage networks spawned from Body Electric or the historical development of j/o clubs as a communal solution to AIDS. When one considers heterosexual men's constraints on explorations of sex and sensuality, the poverty of opportunities for the pursuit of bliss and creative play, you see a different set of constraints and conventions from those that operate in gay communities. The same is true of gender roles, where it seems self-evident that the paterfamilias is more apt to anchor gender expectations than to trouble them. So go the differences, on down the line.
The focus here is less on innate, essential, individual differences than on remarkable cultural, collective patterns and practices found in the interlocking male worlds, so easily—and wrongly—labeled "the gay community." Obviously, any reckoning must include enormous variance and diversity. As one scholar put it: "Assertions about complex societies must necessarily be statistical distributions, not exceptionless pronouncements. However … it seems necessary to stress that there are evaluative norms and statistical ones in urban gay communities."1 Sociologist Gilbert Herdt writes of "a distinctive system of rules, norms, and attitudes and, yes, beliefs from which the culture of gay men is made."2
As Australian sociologist Gary Dowsett has written of the gay world of Adelaide, Australia, such enclaves are far better described as a "tartan rug," a complex patchwork shaded with different colors and hues, intersecting stripes, as interwoven as they are distinct. They are not all white, all pumped, all employed, and all in the same Castro zip code. But as we gaze deeper into this rich male mandala, read the studies, sift the weight of factual evidence accumulating in sociology, criminology, anthropology, public health and epidemiology, hear men's stories and dreams, hang out in the watering holes and the Lofts of the world, one cannot help but be struck by the variety of uncommon practices in the lives of these men.
If gay men were simply finding new ways to be with each other, it would hold some descriptive sociological interest, like a treatise on Mennonite or Hopi Indian customs. But the pages ahead suggest a deeper story in several ways, for upon examination it becomes clear that the breadth and scope of gay male social innovations have no clear parallel in contemporary culture. To put this into relief, imagine that another group of men, say a previously little-known order of devout monks, has been discovered living scattered among the populace in our major cities and countryside. Social scientists document that these brothers are characterized by a virtual absence of public violence, high levels of service and volunteerism, and novel forms of caretaking with strangers and each other. Researchers further note that they manifest an uncommon amity across gender lines, enjoy distinctive rituals of bliss, worship, spectacle, and public play. Their patterns of friendships are distinctly powerful, with wide-ranging networks of intimate and intertwined social relations, whose members often live in closely woven networks of intentional communities.
If such a hypothetical band were indeed found, its discovery would arouse great excitement. The brotherhood and its members would be lauded, lionized, if not canonized. They would be hailed as role models. The President might cite them in his State of the Union address; the Pope would praise them as moral exemplars. Before you know it, Time magazine would put them on its cover and they would be trooping onto Oprah for their fifteen minutes of media spotlight.
Yet although every one of those attributes has been well documented among varied communities of gay men, no such attention has materialized. We've gotten no calls from Time, no invites to the White House, not a peep from the Vatican. Not even a message from our pal Oprah. The wider culture seems to have missed the story that these homosocial laboratories are brewing a set of values experiments without modern precedent.
Objectively, we are innovating in areas of male care and nurture, altruism and service, brotherhood and peacefulness. We are crafting powerful changes around bliss and ecstasy; gender roles and sexuality; intimacy, friendship, and communalism. Yet because it is gay men who are both the innovators and subjects in these experiments, their dimensions have gone largely unremarked, their meaning virtually unseen. We have paid little heed to the most interesting implications of it all.
The metaphor of the monks is closer to truth than it might first appear, for one would have to examine highly determined male cultures—religious orders, intentional spiritual brotherhoods, fraternal organizations, places where rules and codes are formalized and enforced—in order to observe such similar male patterns. These habits, customs, and practices in our communities, this gay culture of male care, pacifism, intimacy, and service, recall a range of spiritual teachings. Yet in gay neighborhoods from San Diego to San Antonio to Seattle, one sees these habits arising natively as everyday social practice, the indigenous manifestations of chosen social norms.
It would be easy, and wrong, to read this as a smug brief for gay men's superiority. Instead, this book attempts a more nuanced set of claims. First, that the lives that many gay men have been building do indeed hold demonstrable, culture-changing implications both for ourselves and for the larger society. Second, that we have long overlooked them in part because the accustomed stories offered to, told among, and accepted by gay men dangerously obscure central truths about the values evolution we are engaged in. Third, that viewed together, these queer cultural experiments can best be understood as a new, evolving public ethic. They are complex and contested, they do not happen everywhere nor uniformly, and not all of us are included in them. But throughout, they have a rich ethical basis in thought and theory, in action and relation. At its core, we are witnessing the birth of a new set of male possibilities, outlined in lavender.
The fourth implication may be, to some, the most provocative of all. Far from describing some latter-day Sodom, a society of sluts and sybarites, many of the customs of gay enclave cultures echo traditions of Judeo-Christian brotherhoods and intentional communities. Stroll down Eighth Avenue, La Cienega Boulevard, or Halstead Street, and you can just hear echoes of utopian philosophic traditions of caritas and beloved community. Wipe your eyes in the sweaty and smiling crowd at 2:00 A.M. at New York's Roxy or South Beach's 1771 or Los Angeles's Factory, and you may well feel you've stumbled into a postmodern rendering of Whitman's "dear love of comrades." One might almost imagine that we were a society of friends, if only we knew it.
Queer-inspired practices, from Radical Faerie gatherings to AIDS volunteer buddy teams, shimmer with notions of communal caretaking and altruism. At their best, they recall nothing so much as New Testament teachings of agape and caritas, male embodiments of service and nurture, nonviolence and gender peace, brotherhood and friendship, all spiced with equal dollops of sexuality and spectacle. Only in this case, the apostles are wearing Calvins or Abercrombie and Fitch … and sometimes not even that. Yet look at the soul beneath the skin, and you see we are rewriting the defaults of what a culture of men can be with and for each other.
The time has come to note the experiments of heart and habit now arising in gay worlds, to discern what they mean for gay men ourselves and for the shared world culture. Because our cultural practices don't just differ from those of the dominant society, they shape them. America is a synthetic culture, with a long history of cultural borrowing. In that light, this people—public, self-identified gay men, gathered in communities—are just a few short decades off the boat. But ours is an odd niche, for we are emigrants and immigrants both, all without ever having left our own shores. Perhaps we are more accurately understood not as immigrants at all, but as a recently emerging indigenous American culture. We are still in the process of becoming, the ink still wet on our ways and practices. But we have already proven ourselves a prolific source of societal change.
It turns out that the T-shirt was right: We're not in Kansas anymore. And because we're not, neither is Kansas. Many aspects of gay male values—social, moral, communal, and sexual—powerfully challenge those in the dominant culture. As we see norms and practices born in West Hollywood and Chelsea take root in Wyoming and Chattanooga, we are already shifting deeply held practices of majority culture. They open a larger question: Do these practices offer any pragmatic hope? In a culture where male violence is endemic and male nurturance and caregiving contested; where gender relations roil with confusion and distrust; where faith in community wanes and we struggle to support volunteerism and service; where one marriage in two ends in divorce; where isolation crowds out intimacy and the pursuit of pleasure arouses suspicion—are there lessons to be gleaned here? Abundant data suggests that gay men's communities are inventing a new mode of male. Can our nation find gifts here, a cultural patrimony for our shared life as a people? Might not these cultural innovations hold potential to address some of the best—or redress some of the worst—of what daunts contemporary America? The experiments of these men may catalyze wider change in the broader American family. Who stands to gain, and how, if they do?

Philosopher Michel Foucault once spoke of gay social worlds as "unique historic opportunities for an elaboration of personal and ethical creativity analogous to that practiced by certain moral athletes in classical antiquity. Only now such creativity need not be restricted to a social elite or a single, privileged gender, but could become the common property of an entire subculture."3 Here, on homo home turf, it has. Here we get to write our own codes of conduct, codes that are themselves being invented through the rich social experiments we undertake. Together such codes compose, proclaim, and celebrate, then transmit and enact, a newly chosen social ethics.
Such is the world one enters at The Loft. This book is an open invitation to step beyond the looking glass. It is written for every mother who has always sensed something special about her gay son; for every straight woman who has shared late-night secrets with a man she will never sleep with; for every single heterosexual guy who has envied our getting so much sex; for every teenager who has ever danced at our clubs because she won't get hassled; for every husband frustrated that his wife seems to speak some foreign language; for every woman who's asked why all the cute guys are gay; for every tourist who has walked our streets and found herself agape; for every straight couple who has ever laughed at drag; for every grandmother who shares a special bond with her unmarried grandson; for every frat brother who calls up his gay college pal late at night when he really needs to talk; for every neighbor who wonders what those guys do when we leave the house all dressed up at 1:00 A.M.; and, most of all, for all the men like us, who are engaged in something so big we may not have realized it. For all of us who have noticed a different kind of man in our midst, step through the mirror. Welcome to Planet Gay.
THE SOUL BENEATH THE SKIN. Copyright © 2002 by David Nimmons. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.