Fairies, Bears and Leathermen

Fairies, Bears and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine
By Peter Hennen
Chicago: 2008 University of Chicago Press
Cloth: £26.00 ISBN 0-226-32727-2; Paper £10.50  0-226-32728-0
Published August 11th

By Ken Plummer

A homosexual is not a homosexual is not a homosexual: the idea of a homosexual –once useful -is now profoundly unhelpful. The study of lesbian and gay lives in all their global richness and pluralities has I believe advanced enormously over the past half century. History, anthropology, psychology and sociology – alongside literature- have firmly killed off any idea of a universal or  fixed homosexual species marching through evolution. Only traditional biologists seems to have escaped these ideas – with their continuing search for the essence of the gay brain or the gay gene. What we now know so clearly is that there are multiple and contested social  worlds of ever shifting and pluralistic sexual experiences fleetingly grasped through a historically limited language which in itself, and inevitably, keeps on  changing. Just as we cannot learn much about anyone by saying they are ‘heterosexual’, so the term ‘homosexual’ restricts vision- and imagination. Now we have sexualities in all their incorrigible pluralities. A homosexual is not a homosexual is not a homosexual.
This study enhances our understanding of one area of this plurality. Peter Hennen is a sociologist in the mid West who has delighted in hanging around with three identifiable groups of men who play around with their diverse potentials for sex and gender. Here are the Radical Fairies – the gay men who prance and frolic with their femininities; ‘men in dresses’, most manifestly neither transgender nor transsexual not transvestite, but living at ‘the margins of the margins’ whilst parodying and playing with gender.  Here are the cuddly pot- bellied Bears who display a kind of homosexual masculinities – easily passing as straight, and not at all effeminate: and pretty raunchy  in their ‘masculine’ sexualities. And here come the Leather men– those dark winged messengers of oh-so-serious heavy duty male dungeon sex. Each of these groups have their own quite long genealogies; and are now well organised cultural tribes.

Peter Hennen is a queer ethnographer and is at his best when locating the cultural forms at work- when he is observing and talking with the men doing their lives. He enters  ‘The faerie’s sanctuary, the Bear’s bar night, and the Leatherman’s dungeon’, showing how each provide an ‘identity cove, a calm place of relative stability’ from the wild excesses of putative twenty first century identity chaos. He shows the playfulness and the eroticism of much gay life and the tensions and movements within the groups.

But at the heart of his study is an interest in the ways in which the styles resist, or at least negotiate, the linkages of traditional homosexuality with effeminacy. There is a long history and wide cross cultural evidence for effeminate masculinities – from dandies and fops, through passivos and trannies- and on to sissies, queens and the like. This is a study of how some men have responded to this effeminacy charge, and he works with an overlay of theory (all the usual suspects – Butler, Bourdieu, Connell- are here). Through observation and interviews , he locates a series of creative innovations going on in these communities – as they live in and are restrained by ‘hegemonic masculinity’. The Bears and Leatherman actively build their masculinity; the Fairies actively reject and create their new style femininities. None of them, it turns out, have much political impact on the wider cultural definitions of masculine and feminine. For most participants, they are not political. But they do display multiple ways is which gender gets done. Leather men, for instance, are sometimes ‘more men than men’.

This is a rich ethnography which tells us much about masculinity, effeminacy and the different sex that men get up to. It is a must for all gender scholar book shelves.

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