Recent books outed Gandhi and Malcom X as gay, but that may be the wrong word.

Malcom X may have “serviced” an older man when he was young. One of Gandhi’s great loves was a German bodybuilder. I am not sure either qualifies as gay. A poor black kid spreading talcum powder (and whatever) on an old white guy for pay does not make him gay. And while Gandhi was clearly smitten with his buddy (much like Abraham Lincoln, or David and Jonathan from the Bible) we also know he wrestled with attraction to women later in life, not a common affliction for gay men.

Gandhi, Sonja Schlesin, and Hermann Kallenbach in Johannesburg, 1913; and the ever-powerful Malcom X

So how can we think of these men’s sexuality? We currently view sexuality as two polarities, straight and gay, with bisexuals the muddle in the middle. This was not always so.

First of all, gay is a modern invention. The scientific revolution unleashed by Darwin sorted everything into a rational taxonomy, and Freud applied that logic to our psychologies. The idea that someone was “gay” as a category of human being did not exist before the Victorian era. There were, of course, homosexual acts since the beginning of time, and there were people who partnered with people of the same sex, but the idea that this constituted a different category of human is recent. (That’s part of why the idea the Bible is against gay people is nonsense. The concept of gay as we now understand it did not exist in biblical times, so it couldn’t speak to it.)

Even after Freud, we had not really settled on categories. In pre-WWII New York, they divided homosexuals into three categories: fairies, queers, and trade. Fairies were the overtly effeminate men, also referred to as pansies and fags. Queers were homosexuals who were more masculine so they could pass as straight, a double life we now call living in the closet, a more modern term in itself.

Note that these categories were not describing sexual attraction, which is how we think of sexual identity today. These terms described effeminacy, not sexuality, indicating the degree of deviation from the public norms of masculine behavior.

Trade is the really interesting category, as it has disappeared in our modern language. Trade was a man who had sex with other men, but only in the active role. A classic example of trade was the sailor on shore leave, drunkenly hanging out in an area known for fairies, and letting another man suck his cock, or even more intimate sex play, without questioning his straight identity. The word only survives in the antiquated phrase “rough trade,” which derives from trade who were abusive, not necessarily a negative for the fairy with low-self esteem. (See teh literature on abused women to make sense of that dynamic.)

In his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey quotes a man lamenting the loss of trade in America:

Most of the crowd [in the 1930s and 1940s] wanted to have sex with a straight man. There was something very hot about a married man! And a lot of straight boys let us have sex with them. People don’t believe it now. People say now that they must have been gay. But they weren’t. They were straight. They wouldn’t look for [it] or suck a guy’s thing, but they’d let you suck theirs. If you want to say they were gay because they had sex with a man, go ahead, but I say only a man who wants to have sex with a man is gay.

Addison’s complaint also suggests that “trade,” as a practical matter, had become harder to find in the 1960s, a change in sexual practice that suggests “straight” men as well as gay had redefined the boundaries of normalcy.

As Chauncey says, “It had become more difficult for men to consider themselves ‘straight’ if they had any sexual contact with other men, no matter how carefully they restricted their behavior to the ‘masculine’ role.” In that way, gay liberation caused trade to go away. There used to be a middle gray zone that was not “bisexual.”

One reason this concept is important is that the gay-bi-straight categories may not be accurate. They don’t apply to women so well, who turn out to be more fluid than men, the subject of a future post. It also doesn’t apply to a lot of other cultures. Places like Brazil and the Muslim world are famous for men being available for same-sex experiences without considering themselves gay in the slightest.

My favorite description of this phenomenon is from the gay pornographer Kristen Bjorn. Bjorn tends to film exotic casts from around the world, so he’s worked with many men who call themselves straight but are willing to have extensive sex with other men for the paycheck, or “gay for pay.” Filming men having sex certainly makes him a keen observer of male sexuality.

In response to a question about the gay-for-pay phenomenon, he offers his perspective on male sexuality:

I suppose that after having worked in this field for so many years, I have long ago reconciled myself to the fact that straight identified men can and do have sex with other men when they have the right motivation to do so, such as money. This is probably difficult for us as gay men to understand because we envision (or try not to envision) ourselves having sex with women, and can’t. However, I think that, from everything that I have witnessed over the years, that “gay” men have a far narrower scope to their sexual nature that “straight” men do. “Straight” men have much more bisexual tendencies than “gay” men do. So are they “really” straight? Well, as far as I know, that is the lifestyle they lead, and their behavior during filming is different from that of the gay models. One of the basic differences I see between the gay and straight identified models while filming is this: the “straight” models get turned on if anyone sucks their dick. The “gay” models get turned on only when they are sucking someone else’s dick. I suggest that everyone just get used to the idea that sexual categories aren’t as defined as we seem to think. That is the reality.

Amen, Brother Bjorn.