Attack of the Clones: Aesthetic and Political Conformity Among White Gay Men.

Entering into the new year in January 2021, social media lit up with news reports of a scandalous nature — a boat which was the venue for an illicit gay circuit party had sunk off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, leaving its affluent, largely white clientele stranded in the waters of the North Pacific. Not a new trend by any stretch of the imagination, social media had been laser-focused on the exploits of this cadre of men through the lens of @gaysovercovid on instagram.

Started in the mid-summer months of 2020, when the first lockdown was at its height, the @gaysovercovid account is dedicated to the pursuit of exposing gay men breaking lockdown restrictions all across America. From Fourth of July pool parties, to twenty-five-man (and indeed, there are never women present) Thanksgiving dinners, to the aforementioned Puerto Vallarta Boat Disaster, the anonymous proprietor of the account has created a platform through which they can expose these often dangerous pursuits of immediate personal satisfaction over any sense of communal solidarity in the middle of the worst disease outbreak in several decades. The account has attracted the ire of many, incensed that they or their friends might be held accountable, even while their ranks are filled with practising nurses and medical workers alike.

Scrolling through the account, one might be struck by the resemblance these men all bear to one another. They are, almost uniformly, white, cis, of a certain class background, with well-toned bodies — whether courtesy of ceaseless work in the gym, or other more synthetic aid — similar clothes, and a borderline pathological desire for sex. One might even arrive at the fanciful conclusion that these men are all clones of one another, popped out of a machine one by one in a factory, somewhere deep under the streets of West Hollywood.

Indeed, the term ‘clone’ actually has a historic precedent in gay culture, arising in the 70s to describe a subculture of gay men who Martin Levine describes as “a specific constellation of sociosexual, affective and behavioral patterns that emerged among some gay men in the urban centers of gay American life” (Levine, 7). Histories of these men — specifically ephemera encompassing photographs, magazine articles, and event fliers from the time — are documented all over the internet, most notably on another Instagram account @danceoftheclones, which has amassed quite the collection of such artefacts. The account is linked here with permission from its owner.

In short, the purpose of this article is to trace the lineage of the clone, from its appearance in the wake of the post-Stonewall era of gay activist culture, to its modern day incarnations voiceiferously calling for legislative action which serves only their personal interests and aspirations. My argument is that the culture of the clone — from its nascence in the fuzzy in-between of Stonewall and AIDS, to its modern manifestation in the blank faces and vapid lives of identical Instagram hunks — puts forward an aesthetic of conformity to traditionally hegemonic values of white masculinity, thus granting access to the spoils of the system to which Queer people have historically been denied. In other words, this performance serves to “integrate them into [capitalism’s] structure of exploitation as long as they don’t upset the status quo” (Nair, loc 323), at the expense of the efforts and activism of the rest of the Queer community (of whom the most prominent in the fight for political reform and representation have been non-cis people of colour) who have created and fostered a cultural environment which allows for this to occur. At the same time, behind this aesthetic lies a dualistic hyper-fixation on sex and sexuality which — far from being hidden behind closed doors, as one might expect of a group attempting to integrate with conservative societal norms — is flaunted, often in public spaces, showing us that, despite “an increase in policing, surveillance, and arrests in cases of public displays of sexuality” (Nair, loc. 299), the protective nature of whiteness, performed masculinity and wealth agglomeration will trump this criminalization of sexuality.

To plot this complicated trajectory of the clone, I’ll be starting at the beginning, looking at historical accounts of the clone in print and in visual media — focusing on three areas; the uniform, the physique, and the culture, as originally theorised by Martin Levine in his book Gay Macho. Following this will be a historical segue, taking a broad look at how we moved from the relative stability of the 70s, through the AIDS crisis, into the cultural reconfiguration of the 90s and early 00s, right through to marriage equality and the saga of gay wedding cakes in the modern day. This will take us to the modern clone, which I will dissect in the same manner of its ancestor, in order to highlight the manner in which the clone has evolved in light of these political and cultural upheavals. Finally, I will argue that in order to counter this aesthetic of conformity put forward by the clones, we must turn to a vision of Queer Unity, returning to a sense of alterity as political motive, resisting assimilation into a system which requires dismantling. 

What is a Clone?

What we understand as traditional conceptions of sexuality — namely, the clear-cut divide between heterosexual and homosexual practicies and inclinations — are relatively recent sociological inventions, arising, roughly, in the last 150 years or so. There is a huge historical precedent for the normalisation of male-male sexuality in a variety of pre-modern cultures — “the most common manifestation of homosexuality in the evidence [of Ancient Greek culture] concerns pederasty, the quasi-ritualized, transient, physical and emotional relationship between an older male and a youth” (Thornton, 100) — in which the act of penetration is conceived of as a way of establishing the central marker of masculinity. What we note from this is that the reverse — being the passive, receptive partner, was seen as shameful, once the boy had come of age and become a man. To be penetrated was to lower one’s status as a man as it was, effectively, an imitation of the role of the woman. Further still, there exists in Ancient Greek Culture the concept of the kinaidos, “the adult male who perversely enjoys being penetrated by other males and who has sex with women only because of societal pressure” (Thornton, 100). Moving through the Christianisation of the West in the centuries that followed, male-male sexual practices become immediately the subject of moralisation and persecution, with statutes punishing the act of ‘sodomy’ arising quickly in the Middle Ages. Yet, as Chauncey notes, there existed in more recent centuries a culture in which “many men alternated between male and female sexual partners without believing that interest in one precluded interest in the other” (Chauncey, 65). In other words, we have a situation in which men are having sex with men without considering themselves as gay in the way that we would conceptualize it today. Chauncey explains that these men, through the mediator of the ‘fairy’ archetype, were able to have sex with other men without being perceived as Queer “so long as they maintained a masculine demeanour and played (or claimed to play) the ‘masculine’, or insertive role” (Chauncey, 66). It is only then with the pathologization of homosexuality as a psychological disorder in the 1950s with its addition to the DSM (Baughey-Gill) that “erotic contact between men was expelled from the legitimate repertoire of dominant groups of men” (Connell, 736). In short, the historical record demonstrates that masculinity in its most base form is defined along sexual parameters — to be a man is to penetrate — and therefore to deviate from these parameters is to render oneself not a man. In addition to this, as sexuality becomes pathologized and moralized, it flattens the scope of what is deemed acceptable behaviour in society. Therefore, to be a man is not only to penetrate, but it is to penetrate a woman, meaning that those who do not engage in such acts are denied their masculinity by default. This, then, is the culture into which the clone emerges. Automatically perceived as demasculinized by a society defined along rigid gender roles, the clone embodies, as this section will demonstrate, “almost parodying references to stereotypically traditional masculinity, and its self-conscious embracing of that very stereotype at the same time”, rendering itself “both parody and emulation” (Levine, 59).

To begin with the clone, it makes most sense to start with the physique — or, how the gay clone physically manifests their performance of heteronormative masculinity. The male body, for many reasons which should be strictly obvious, is a major fixation in gay culture. In surveying a particular moment in mid-century visual culture, we observe an interplay between the mechanics of sexual desire, subsumed within the overall presentation of the male form in an ideal sense — in other words, in a sense which evokes the masculine ideals of the dominant culture. The work of George Quaintance — the male form depicted in an evocation of the Classical style of men among nature, and one another, as well as in more contemporary modes such as the cowboy, the lumberjack — emerged in the pre-Stonewall years, to be followed by the more overtly sexual work of Etienne and the ever-ubiquitous Tom of Finland. Immediately apparent in these artists’ work is the male form at its physical peak — rippling muscularity, the traditional shape of the inverted triangle (Strong, 168), as well as ample endowment, particularly in the work of the latter two artists. In addition, we have the photography of Bob Mizer and the Athletic Models Guild, embodied in the form of Physique Pictoral (1951-present), which outwardly presented itself as a bodybuilding magazine, perfect for the young man interested in cultivating his shape. Or rather, as one might readily assume from the occasional cover provided by Tom of Finland himself, interested in the shapes of other men. Indeed, what we see in these expressions of form is this multiplicitous play between desire — particularly desire obscured through deference to a more nebulous masculine ideal — emulation and parody. Thus, we arrive at the clone who, according once again to Levine, “had a gym-defined body; after hours of rigorous body building, his physique rippled with bulging muscles, looking more like competitive body builders than hairdressers or florists” (Levine, 7). What we see here in Levine’s description is the clone’s adherence to the physique of these representations of the male form, and particularly their rejection of a feminized notion of gay masculinity — the hairdressers and florists standing in for the queens, fairies and inverts of the time — in favour of one which remained firmly entrenched in hegemonic masculine ideals. Yet, beyond mere imitation, the physique of the clone was also an exercise in sexual expression. Indeed, Cole notes that the physical appearance of the clone was effectively a mirror, an outward projection of the affection they were looking to receive (Cole, 130). In short, the clone wanted to appear as masculine as possible — in conformity with those same ideals established in the hegemonic culture — in order to attract men who portrayed this same masculinity. Hence, the title of clone — men seeking not merely other men, but their mirrored half. In this way, masculinity becomes not only valorized as an identity marker separating oneself from deviant expressions of gender/sexuality which would preclude one access to the benefits of a patriarchal paradigm, but reciprocally desired in its own right. The dominance of masculinity thus reinforces itself not solely through exclusion — creating a dynamic wherein those excluded seek at all times to be ushered in — but through presenting itself as not only aspirational, but desirable.

It should be noted that the body of the clone is, in its archetypal form, white, cisgendered and able-bodied. The racialization of the clone, and of contemporary gay culture, will be discussed in the sections following. 

Previously, we have discussed the use of style references heralding from traditionally masculine professions — the lumberjack, the sailor, the cowboy — in the visual culture of the clone decades. These ideals — embodying the idea of the ‘rough trade’, and the fetishization of the working class — ultimately came to inform the dress code of the clone, as “a positive move away from effeminate stereotypes, and in search of an ‘out’ masculine image gay men looked towards traditional images of rugged masculinity (Cole, 128) in order to fulfill this self-actualization as what they, and society at large, perceived as manliness. The actual garb of the clone was fairly rigidly defined, “straight jeans (at a time when flares were all the rage), plaid shirts, hooded sweatshirts, bomber jackets and lace-up work boots; they cropped their hair short and grew moustaches” (Cole, 128). As Cole notes further, all of these clothes are symbolic manifestations of this particular ideal of masculinity. In many ways, this actually emphasises the performed aspects of gender identity, as masculinity is revealed to be a literal costume which one can don and remove at will. Additionally, this exposes the rigidity of these gender constructs, despite their apparent flimsy nature, as Cole notes that it was the manner in which the clothes were worn which described the nature of the wearer, by which he means that in gay men, outifts were styled in such a way which betrayed concern over image, which is antithetical to the “nonchalance about appearance (Cole, 128) which is so integral to the heterosexual male identity. Specifically, this concern manifests itself with regard to sexuality, in which the manner of dress is utilized in order to demonstrate virility and availability. In the short film Tell Me Why: the Epistemology of Disco (1991), the ultimate symbol of the clone is discussed — the Levi’s 501 jean. Aside from its obvious association with masculinity through the synthesis of imagery discussed above, the jean becomes important as a symbol of sexuality — explored in the film in poetic, associative terms, which although interesting are beyond the scope of this essay — as the garment “exposed and emphasized the bulge of their genitals and buttocks” (Cole, 130) which the clone had so tirelessly worked for. Thus, the entanglement of sexuality, performance and parody deepens itself. 

Important to note also is the nature of class as an element of clone culture. The feitshization of working class professions and the men who performed them is apparent, as these men are deemed closer to the masculine ideal, due to the nature of their jobs often involving manual labour, which even today is understood as directly oppositional to white-collar work, which is implicitly feminized. What we observe in this growing fetishization however is the emergence of a class divide amongst gays and their straight peers. This divide is important to bear in mind as it contributes to our understanding of the ideology of the modern clone, and its preservation — and furthering — of the neoliberal regime, which runs entirely counter to the historical Queer, leftist liberational political model.

In James McCourt’s novel Time Remaining, an ailing drag queen describes the four tenets of gay (clone) culture: “Drugs, dick, disco and dish” (LaPointe). We see in these tenets the specific manifestation of behaviour which is entirely deviant from the archetypal hegemonic masculinity which up until this point in our discussion has been the sole focus of the clone lifestyle. 

The relationship between the — largely white, as previously noted — gay community and the music genre of disco is well known. Again, in The Epistemology of Disco, there are shots of a man dancing, wearing a t-shirt with the phrase “Well, Miss Thing, for one thing, gay people just invented disco” across the back. This notion that gay men are responsible for disco is widely-believed while also not being based in any discernable reality. Disco as a musical genre was created, pioneered, and popularised by black artists. While it is true that the genre saw widespread success after its appropriation by the gay community, it is nonsensical to attribute this to gay men specifically. Rather, this hijacking, as it were, of disco as a genre speaks to a larger continuity of appropriation among the white gay community. It is often said that culture, at least in the West, originates among black communities, only to filter down and be appropriated by whites in order to mass-produce and profit from it, as we observe with the rise of rock n’ roll music in the first half of the 20th century. In many ways, white gay men become intermediaries, linked to the black community through their shared ostracization (itself compounded for Queer black individuals), white gay men then pass this stolen culture on to their white peers, who go on to poach these cultural practices, leeching them of any embedded histories, sanitizing them for mass consumption. 

Of the remaining three D’s, ‘dish’ in particular is interesting, as it represents on one hand what we understand as the feminized practice of gossiping, which stands in stark contrast to the clone’s outward projection of masculinity. At the same time, the ritualised practice of ‘dish’ was also used “to create exclusivity and desirability” (Hancock, 77), through the complicated politics within groups in Queer spaces. Thus, clone culture creates its own mirrored pantomime of the larger structure within hegemonic masculinity of exclusivity and consequential desirability identified above. The use of recreational drugs to induce euphoria — in addition to any number of other states — must also be noted, as one can interpret it as a remedy to the stifling conformity of this masculine performance, where the chaos of the drug-addled mind grants the clone the freedom from their rigidly self-imposed image. 

Finally, ‘dick’ remains possibly the most important of the four, as it narrows succinctly the bulk of what was understood by broader society to be gay culture. Promiscuity is observed not only from within, as in McCourt’s novel, but also without, wherein Christian Right groups push narratives of gay hypersexuality. Infamously explored in the decidedly graphic Al Pacino film Cruising (1980) — in which Pacino poses as a clone, replete with the uniform, physique and recreational huffing of poppers whilst in a barely-lit nightclub, bearing the aggressive male gaze of the other patrons — the culture of semi-public, semi-anonymous sex has a dual significance. On the one hand, it is in many ways an expression of sexuality which is entirely unfettered of notions of what hegemonic society might deem appropriate, a counter to almost ritualistic practices of intimacy which govern the lives of the heterosexual. On the other, it is a culture born, at least in part, out of institutional homophobia itself. In a world where consensual sex between two men within the privacy of a bedroom was deemed illegal, it follows logically that discretion became the norm — even if this secrecy is defiantly flaunted in the public sphere. Yet, as shown rather gratuitously in Cruising, this marginalization of queer sexuality brings with it inherent dangers, leaving the community vulnerable to violence as well as, more tragically, disease.

What we see is how this culture of sex — particularly sex which is vilified, rendered illegal, and thrust to the margins — has a direct historical link with the coming AIDS pandemic, which would see a monumental shift in Queer culture, especially with regards to its emergence into the mainstream. In the mishandling of the AIDS crisis, particularly its brushing-off as some kind of divine justice against the sin of homosexuality , we may observe that despite their best efforts, no amount of conformity to a specific culture of masculinity would fully allow gay men to integrate into society as would their straight counterparts. And as sexuality is integral to at least a gay man’s identity (for what is a gay man but a man who has sex with men?), what we are seeing thus is that no matter how closely the clone conforms to masculinity in its most hegemonic ideal, the very core aspect of his being — his desire for other men — will at all times render him outside of this society to which he wishes to gain entry. 

To their credit, I do not believe that these men were stupid. I believe they understood their marginalization in a pure sense, and that their adoption of masculine ideals arises only partially out of a desire to integrate. This, after all, is the generation of Stonewall, of the Gay Liberation Front — calling for an end to this very same hegemony (Ashley, 28), standing alongside the other, more severely marginalized members of the community — predominantly femme, predominantly black and non-white. What the section following this one attempts to illustrate is how we arrive from this somewhat self-aware community, to the present cadre of pandemic-denying, upwardly mobile, occasionally Trump-supporting gay men.

My argument is thus, that this culture of appropriation, epitomized by the relationship between gays and disco, continues in a more insidious way into the contemporary moment, wherein white gay men — the modern clones — are able to hijack radical political movements begun by queer people of colour, appropriating their language, publicity and rhetoric in pursuit of goals which serve only to further their integration into the hegemonic project of patriarchal society.

The following section will provide an overview of the historical period between the clone and the modern day, covering roughly the period from the late 70s, through the AIDS crisis and Reagan’s establishment of the neoliberal state, as well as an analysis of the cultural output of the 90s and early 2000s which contributed to the normalisation of (cis, white, masculine) gays, ending with the passing of marriage equality and what that means for the modern gay clone, as well as the Queer community at large. 

From AIDS to Marriage Equality

The AIDS pandemic is potentially the most important event in queer history, period. Earlier in the previous section I described the political and media response to the AIDS crisis as a ‘mishandling’. This is in no uncertain terms, an understatement. Histories of the pandemic are multitudinous, spanning so broadly that they constitute in their own right an entire field of study. The purpose of this section is not to reiterate the history of AIDS from start to finish, but rather to expose how AIDS affected the clone specifically, and what its effects had on future generations of gay men. 

What we have observed in the previous section is the construction of the self-identity of the clone in terms which were expressly centred on notions of physicality — whether this referred to the actual corporeal body, in its musculature, endowment, and stature, or in a more abstract sense wherein the physical form represented the clone’s capacity to be desired and to enact upon his own desire. In other words, the clone inhabits a deeply embodied state of being. AIDS, and more specifically the HIV which causes it, threaten this embodiment directly. “Epidemiologists, […] were struck by its seemingly exotic preference for young, homosexual men” (Fee and Kreiger, 1478) among whom, casual sex was effectively a base foundation of the community itself, the perfect vector for transmission of the virus. For the clone suffering from AIDS, the condition represents a loss of identity through the emaciation of the body. Klein-Scholz notes that while “the issue of looks was central to the construction of gay identity” (Klein-Scholz, 5) through the almost obsessive cultivation of a muscular form, the associated process of gym-going and exercise in the age of AIDS takes on an entirely different purpose; “before AIDS, he went to the gym to have a body that would trigger desire; after AIDS has hit his community, he goes to the gym in order to tame his desire” (Klein-Scholz, 4). Sex — once integral to the clone’s experience of his own identity and those of his fellows — now becomes anathema, forcing new pathways of identity formation to be forged. Coupled with the political position in America at the time of AIDS as a condition affecting only the lowest of society, unworthy of sympathy, or treatment — gays, drug users and black people — it seemed that the only solution was to politicize identity. Wilde argues that “[HIV/AIDS] made gay men a community as never before, gave a new political impetus to gay consumer clone culture, through problematising excess, and instigated radical groups such as ACT UP” (Wilde, 5, emphasis mine), showing that by creating a moment of pure crisis, the AIDS pandemic reignited a political drive in the clone, by threatening every facet of their carefully-constructed and maintained identity. Further to this, when faced by the reality of the ever-growing numbers of sick, dying and dead, what we observe in the particular moment of AIDS is the rise in care networks, wherein groups outside of the gay community — namely, the lesbian community — stepped in to provide the palliative care which was denied to many of these dying men through their exclusion from the systems of state-provided care, as well as joining in the continued lobbying of the government to treat the pandemic as a pandemic. In this sense, the AIDS crisis created not only a sense of political impetus among gay men, it added to this impetus a further sense of solidarity between communities. It will be important to analyse in future sections how and when this political impetus metamorphoses into the arguably warped politics of the modern clone, and how as culture evolves in the 90s and beyond how this solidarity with groups beyond the cis, white, gay sphere begins to fade.

Throughout the 90s and into the first decade of the new millennium, a shift in public perception of gay and Queer people — set in motion by the upheaval of the AIDS crisis and ensuing fight for representation and visibility in the political sphere — was still ongoing. Unsurprisingly, this shift was most visible in the production of mass media — particularly the realm of the television sitcom — where gay characters were beginning to cement themselves as regular fixtures on prime-time screens. On the other channels, gay men graced the nightly news on a regular basis, as the ongoing fight against AIDS drew increasing focus on “gay martyrs [which followed] two decades of stories featuring the doomed homosexual victimized by an immature culture” (Castiglia and Reed, 159). What we will see, however, from these televised appearances is the presentation of gay men — and the Queer community as a whole which they came to overshadow in public opinion — as uniformly cis, white and middle-class. 

Will and Grace (1998-2006; 2017-2020) is, in most people’s mind, the premier sitcom in which gay (and indeed bisexual) characters were at the forefront of the cast. While television, and sitcoms in particular, have a long and varied history with gay and Queer characters, it is with the advent of Will and Grace at the tail end of the 90s that we may see the codified projection of what a gay man ‘is’ to the general viewing public. “The program follows the lives of Will Truman, a successful, attractive, Manhattan lawyer, and his best friend Grace Adler, a beautiful, self-employed, interior decorator” (Battles and Hilton-Morrow, 87) who share an apartment together. At first glance, the show appears as any other sitcom, with its defining characteristic being that Will is gay. While outwardly groundbreaking in its candid representation of a gay man and his friendships and romances, Battles and Hilton-Morrow argue that the show “makes the topic of homosexuality more palatable to a large, mainstream television audience by situating it within safe and familiar popular culture conventions” (89). In other words, Will and Grace broaches the topic of homosexuality, and thus Queerness in general, through the sanitizing mediation of the onscreen characters and their paradigmatic lives and experiences which ultimately pave over any of the revolutionary or anti-paradigmatic thrust of the previous generation of Queer activists. Castiglia and Reed again note a joke from the show, in which Will’s more flamboyant (i.e. feminized) best friend Jack arrives at a party, expecting debauched revelry typical of the clone party scene as described earlier, only to be dismayed at the “play-date for gay couples with children” (159) which he observes. This, as we will see later in this section, sheds light on the shifting political alliances of gay men in particular, as their activist mindset shifts away from radical cultural restructuring in favour of campaigning for access to the spoils of the system itself. The show is able to do so, as Battles and Hilton-Morrow argues, through its nature as a sitcom, which they assert utilizes “familiar comedic conventions for addressing homosexuality—equating gayness with a lack of masculinity” (89) and that these “Taken together, these conventions work to confine homosexuality within its paradoxical position in dominant heteronormative discourses; homosexuality can only be represented through heterosexist categories and language,while at the same time it is marked as a deviation from the norm” (101-02) In other words, as we have observed previously with the clones, masculinity (and whiteness, which is at all times unspokenly integral to this construction of Western patriarchy) is the mechanism through which gay men may shore-up the innate threat to hegemony which their sexuality suggests, allowing them to vault the barriers which would otherwise prevent them form accessing this society’s benefits. We see this play out on a micro scale between Will and Jack; the former a well-off lawyer, who projects outwardly in an openly heterosexual manner, even going so far as to cohabitate with a woman in an ersatz marriage; while the latter remains a perpetually out-of-work actor, distinctly feminized, infantilized and promiscuous, representing all that general society mocks and reviles in gay and Queer people. Will represents the ongoing evolution of the clone — no longer emulating the working class, instead striving to become part of the upper-middle bourgeois, a white collar vision of masculinity for the neoliberal age.

Further to their portrayals in fiction, gays on the news contributed, in their own ways, to this continuing crystallization of gayness as whiteness (as masc-ness, as wealth and upward-mobility). Only a month after the premier of Will and Grace, in October of 1998, the body of Matthew Shepard was discovered in Laramie, Wyoming, leading to a media frenzy which became laser-focused on the image of Shepard as martyr for the gay cause. And a more perfect martyr couldn’t possibly have been devised. Shepard was white, college-educated, on the (admittedly vague) path to humanitarian work, beloved in his community, and lacked any of the outward flamboyance or femininity that would have made him just another dead Queer in middle America. While tragic in its own right, Shepard’s story ultimately leads us right to the shifting politics of gays in America, as the last vestiges of radicalism and solidarity are sidelined in favour of individualism and a baffling acquiescence to the established order which, up until this point, has shown them nothing but contempt. 

Throughout this essay, there have been references made to the Against Equality anthology, a collection of works positioned against the current trend in ‘Queer’ (gay) politics, wherein true transformational work and activism is sidelined in favour of symbolic legislative victories (and many defeats) which prioritize (white, wealthy) gays and their interests — namely, climbing the social hierarchy at the expense of their less acceptably-Queer peers. Eleven years on from the murder of Matthew Shepard — as well as the racist murder of James Byrd Jr., often overlooked — Barack Obama signed in a piece of anti-hate legislation which would grant extra judicial powers to those prosecuting and punishing crimes believed to be motivated by ‘hate’. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project writes in the anthology that this bill, and many like it, serve only to “expand and increase the power of the same unjust and corrupt criminal punishment system”, the same system to which this bourgeois class of gays now appeal, in service of what they perceive as their own safety. What the essay goes on to posit however is a truth already understood intrinsically by many, that these “laws increase the already staggering incarceration rates of people of color, poor people, queer people and transgender people” due to the improper and corrupt manipulation of these laws by the governing hand of the racist, classist, etc. system. In the same collection, an entire section is devoted to the cause against gay marriage, which the contributors elucidate as just another mechanism through which the American government (and indeed, Western governments on the whole) can restrict access to benefits — namely, healthcare, among countless others — which should be available to all citizens by locking them behind the barrier of marriage. In all cases, these legislative victories (if we can truthfully call them victories) are broadcast as major triumphs for the Queer community on the whole, despite serving only the interests of a very specific cadre of largely white, wealthy men who possess the means to marry and lead lives in accordance within the neoliberal agenda. 

What we have seen in this section is the fracturing, and ultimate reconstruction of the clone figure through the last three decades of its lifespan. Faced with the anonymizing, fatal threat of AIDS, the clone was forced to reconsider his place in society. Having been explicitly exposed once again to the stark indifference of the hegemonic institutions which he believed would protect him, the clone had two choices; revolt, or conform. Given their already-established predilection towards conformity, it is perhaps unsurprising that a certain subset of these white, affluent gay men chose to double down on their privilege, and to pursue even greater integration into a system which they had just observed turning its back on them at their lowest point. To this end, the clone rebranded. Their sexual appetites — already quashed by the spectre of AIDS — were tamed further, shoved into the proverbial closet, traded for aspirations of marriage and children and expensive suburban homes paid for by their white-collar jobs. The public, inundated with images of gays on screen — Cam and Mitch of Modern Family and their adopted Asian daughter, the cruelly ironic Chief Holt of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the ever-present face of Neil Patrick Harris and his various lookalikes (clones?) — become at ease with the idea of Queer people as Just Like Them, upholding the same institutions of marriage, the family, and (white, masculine) order. It is into this cultural milieu that the modern clone emerges — gay men who present themselves almost, and in some cases explicitly, against the liberatory origins of the community out of which they were birthed.

The Modern Clone

In this section, we will be examining the clone as it appears in its contemporary incarnation. To facilitate this, we will follow much the same structure as we did with his predecessor, examining the uniform and the ideology of the modern clone. The function of this section, and indeed this essay on the whole, is not to harp on petty grievances within the Queer community, but rather to show how a culture of conformity to hegemonic ideals and structures resists and actively hampers the necessary work which must be done to dismantle the various inequalities which currently define our society, which this group represents on a micro level.

Writing on the marketing practices of Abercrombie and Fitch, Hancock observes that the brand associates itself with “hypermasculinity and themes of gay clone culture [in order to create] a distinctive male niche for itself” (83). Indeed, the consumer can easily observe this ethos in the decoration of their many flagship stores, which bear murals depicting male homosociality in a style very reminiscent of the preeminent gay artist Paul Cadmus, or in the carrier bags received with purchase — a toned male torso, sans head, echoing the ‘headless torsos’ which plague gay dating apps. This embracing of male sexuality in a very explicit and engineered way is not exclusive to A&F. In 2010, Calvin Klein released a campaign video for their new underwear line which flaunted the sexual appeal of its famous models in a very clear-cut, specific manner. With the growing acceptance of gays in larger society, what we see from these brands is a concession to their desires. Put simply, gay men become another demographic to whom products and services can be marketed. As noted by critics, coming into the new millennium, masculinity became defined less and less by profession (as seen above with the cowboys and sailors of Quaintance’s work) and more by consumption (Clarkson, 238-9). Clarkson argues further that shows like Queer Eye For The Straight Guy (2003-2007) making this process of transition explicit, as we see heterosexual men evolving their style, agglomerating formerly gay-exclusive processes of grooming and styling into the overall masculine aesthetic, yet always in service of the heterosexual ideal (239-241). Yet, far from dissolving within the greater masculine milieu, we observe new trends arising within gay culture, and in particular modern clone culture, which distinguish them from the broader heterosexual peer group. Cole, in conversation with multiple young gay men on the subject of style in fashion, observes that “gay men change their appearances over the course of the day, blending invisibly during the day and being more overt at night” (194) which represents an evolution of the coded uniform of the old clone. The contemporary clone now exists within a stylistic limbo, wherein those hallmarks of otherness which otherwise defined him have now been absorbed into the grander mechanism of hegemonic masculinity, simultaneously granting him greater access to this mechanism, while also allowing him greater freedom to express his alterity in new ways. In other words, the clone now exists as an agent of the establishment, with his othered identity (i.e. his Queerness) subsumed within the larger overriding categories of whiteness, maleness and class.

So far, we have established that in its transformation from the 70s through the last forty years of cultural progress and change, the modern clone is — at least during the day — dressed in the typical uniform of any other man. It is then during the night that the individual manifestations of queerness abound. For this section, I want to examine two articles of clothing, showing how each relates back to this notion of the modern gay clone as operating firmly within the bounds of white hetero-patriarchy, the shielding of which allows him to indulge in those behaviours which would otherwise preclude his entry into that system.

It is difficult to discuss gay culture in the contemporary moment without referring to RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-present), a television franchise which has grown in the last ten years to one of the most watched and most awarded reality programs in history. As the show continues, it seems that with each queen who passes through the doors, so too does a veritable mountain of merchandise bearing their likeness. It is these drag queen t-shirts which provide an interesting microcosm of the contemporary clone culture. First and foremost, the wearing of one of these shirts operates in much the same way as the earlier uniform of the old clone — signalling to those in the know, i.e. who are aware of the show, that the wearer is one of them. Yet, despite arguments over the current process of ‘mainstreaming’ of the art of drag due in part to the show’s success, the art itself remains sidelined in mainstream culture, decried as immoral and perverse due to its destruction of the clearly defined lines between the established genders. There is some ideological disconnect occurring here, where the clone — representative and beneficiary of white heteropatriarchy — bears the symbol of an institution (the art of drag) which positions itself firmly and squarely against this hegemony. Once again, whiteness and maleness are able to supersede the innate discontinuity between Queerness and hegemony. Further still, we can observe this dynamic of whiteness as it operates within the boundaries of the show and its contestants. Although the show has crowned several non-white winners, what we observe in the aftermath of each season is a meteoric rise in success for queens who skew whiter, who skew thinner and who skew more strictly ‘feminine’, while the same cannot be said for their black and brown counterparts whose bodies may or may not subscribe to these ideals. In other words, the most successful queens post-show tend to be those which already embody ideals embraced by the hegemonic culture. This is due in part to the show’s own portrayal of black and brown contestants — often placing them within the roles of villains or instigators, a storyline which was explicitly exposed by a season 10 contestant, The Vixen, who has since been hounded by bad press, racist comments from fans, and death threats. Even more malignant is the show’s treatment of trans women who are implicitly excluded from the competition and who, once their storyline of ‘coming out’ has been produced and utilized for ratings, are often discarded. Again, within the micro-scale of the show, these dynamics of Queer politics in which whiteness and maleness are favoured over all else still dictate the stories produced by the show, which in turn reinforce the culture, and so on.

The other item of clothing which presents an illustration of the relationship between alterity and conformity within clone culture is, naturally, the jockstrap. Beginning its life as a functional garment, used to hold a groin protector, or ‘cup’, in place during physical sports, the jockstrap’s design has the unintended side-effect of emulating the Levi 501, in that it “exposed and emphasized the bulge of their genitals and buttocks” (Cole, 130) in much the same manner. Further to this explicitly sexualised nature, it is impossible to overlook the jockstrap as symbolic of hegemonic ideals of sportsmanship and the figure of the athletic body which the clone thus attempts to emulate. In wearing the jockstrap, the clone is marking himself as sexually available (or, at least, suggesting this), while also donning the costume of the masculine. The marketing of jockstraps through popular brands aimed at gay men also demonstrate a furthering of a particular ideal of masculinity as it pertains to gay sexuality. Brands such as Andrew ChristianJJ Malibu, and Marek Richard present their products in line with an idealised mascluline form — as embodied in their models, who often double as porn actors — while also touting sexuality as their primary marketing thrust. The jockstrap, and more specifically the connotations which surround it, represent a focalisation of gay identity around sexuality, due in part, I posit, through the absorption of all other identity markers — historic oppression, radical political activism, anti-hegemonic solidarity with marginalized communities — by the white heteropatriarchal order.

It should be noted that to wear a drag queen t-shirt or a jockstrap does not innately render someone gay, or even queer. Rather, these clothes are, as were the Levi 501s of the old clone, part of a broader costume which itself stands for a more complicated political and social identity structure, bound within the confines of white masculinity. The question remains then, how does one identify a modern clone, if not by their dress? The answer lies within ideology, which presents us with the notion of the White Gay — itself just another translation of the new clone.

Ideologically speaking, the contemporary clone is hard to pin down — in the current political climate, where relatively simple stances like calling for universal healthcare and social safety nets are seen as gauche and radical. They seem, as in all categories discussed up to this point, to occupy a liminal space, wavering between outwardly liberal political positions which, when examined further or put into practice — i.e. through voting and non-political activism — appear to resemble more closely the ideological positions of their historic oppressors. Take for example the widespread applause at Nancy Pelosi’s tearing of Trump’s State of the Union address, or her sarcastic clap levelled at the former President at the same event, both of which became emblematic of resistance, defiance in the face of the personified figure of white male privilege. Yet, it must be stated that these gestures are simply that; gestures. Pelosi, in the face of the ongoing pandemic and the economic turmoil that faced millions of Americans, allowed paltry stimulus bills to be passed through Congress, while at the same time refusing to challenge Trump’s inflated military spending. What we may observe here is what I have identified as a gestural commitment to progressive ideals — the endless calls to ‘stand against hate’ and to ‘do better’ playing out against vocal skepticism of the methods of Black Lives Matter protestors, petulant defiance of lockdown restrictions in the face of the pandemic, and voting habits which adhere more closely to their heterosexual peers than many would care to admit. Mikki Kendall writes in Hood Feminism that white women vote more closely in line with their white male peers than they do with any other group with whom they might claim identity-based solidarity. In the introduction to this essay, I shared articles noting surveys which, although admittedly informal, suggested that white gay men appear to vote in much the same way, with almost half professing support for the incumbent President. Gone is the activist spirit, gone is the inter-community solidarity, gone is the vision for a future beyond the white, heteropatriarchal, neoliberalism project. What we are left with instead is a community of men who, concerned only with individual personal pleasure and preservation, conform to a prevailing ideology which seeks at all times to annihilate them.

Where does this leave us?

Unity vs. Conformity

The goal of this essay has been to explore gay clone culture as an expression of a culture of conformity to traditional hegemonic ideals of masculinity which open the door to these gay men to the spoils, safety and security of the established order. In following the history of the clone from its birth amidst the political upheavals of the mid-20th century, through its deconstruction via the all-consuming force of AIDS and its subsequent reconstruction according to the prescription of the neoliberalist project, to its modern-day manifestation comfortably secure in their position in the social hierarchy, we have established the clone as a figure warning of the dangers of conformity, and the methods through which the hegemonic order replicates and reinforces itself. 

Throughout, we have seen the potential for resistance against this order — be it the historical proclamations of the GLF calling for an end to the hegemonic paradigm, or the radical groups of today who rally against the opiate legislation of marriage equality and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Within each of these resistance groups, we observe calls to unity, a community-based alternative to the aggressive politics of individualism expressed by the neoliberal order. In the midst of the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests globally, there was a call from within the movement to honour specifically the lives of the black transgender community, who face compounded violence. Despite calls from certain facets of the movement that this would be a needless dilution of the message, the response was a resounding positive, with the resultant demonstration in Brooklyn, New York attracting a crowd of thousands. 

It is only through a communal sense of unity that positive identity structures may be constructed outside of the realm of influence of these entrenched, dogmatic ideals and traditions. Appeals to hegemonic masculinity only reinforce its capacity for violence levelled against women and femmes, furthering their marginalisation. A refusal to confront white complicity in the system of oppression against the black community serves only to make legitimate the cycles of oppression to which they are subjected. Without unified calls to abolish and restructure the systems which govern our lives — rejecting a culture which calls for us to conform, to submit, to be subsumed within — there will be no freedom, except for a few.

Bibliography

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Filmography

Cruising. Directed by William Freidkin, 1980.

RuPaul’s Drag Race. Created by RuPaul, et al., VH1, 2009-present.

(Tell Me Why) The Epistemology of Disco. Directed by John Di Stefano, 1991.

Will and Grace. Created by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, NBC, 1994-2004; 2017, 2020.

One thought on “Attack of the Clones: Aesthetic and Political Conformity Among White Gay Men.

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