Maybe you’ve seen the recent video that purports to show “what actually happens when gay guys see other gay guys and straight people aren’t around.” While I can’t confirm or deny the accuracy of the clip’s subject matter (still waiting on clearance from the Gay Agenda), I can say that its comedy is rooted in a rich history of signaling, flagging, and other forms of non-verbal communication between gay men.
The video finds actors/comedians Brian Jordan Alvarez, Stephen Guarino, and Mitch Silpa running into one another in their apartment building’s stairwell.
Upon recognizing one another’s gayness, and realizing they’re in a space utterly devoid of heterosexuality, the three men launch into some light runway…
…’80s face-modeling 101…
…and low-key Bernadette-ery…
…with a collective “Brunch!” at the end.
The underlying tension of the scene stems from the idea that these men are only free—or perhaps safe—to unleash their purest gay selves in the company of others like them. Feminine mannerisms might be accepted within the confines of the stairwell, but those pursed lips, popped hips, and fingers allongés could compromise the guys’ safety in the outside world.
“As a rule, any activity that can be construed as ‘performing’ will turn out to be risky business as a man,” David M. Halperin writes in How to be Gay. Because masculinity is the only “natural and authentic identity” in a patriarchal society, expressing one’s femininity is viewed as a performance on top of that state of being. A feminine “performance” can prove dangerous for men, regardless of sexuality, just as failing to sufficiently “perform” femininity can prove dangerous for women.
(Actually, a woman’s feminine “performance” can also be used against her—see knee-jerk questions about rape victims like “What was she wearing?”—so I guess the world’s just a hostile place for women, or anyone who invokes femininity, period.)
The need to navigate one’s identity through different social situations, mixed with the desire for recognition, has led gay men (and women, obviously, but this article is focused on the male side of this phenomenon) to develop subtle, often wordless methods of communication with others in the know.
Some of these systems have been historically used to broadcast sexual desires, like the hanky code, which saw its peak usage in the 1970s and ’80s. Men who participated in this form of flagging placed differently colored handkerchiefs in the back pockets of their pants: the left side for dominant sexual partners (tops) and the right side for submissive sexual partners (bottoms).
Here’s an example: let’s pretend that the red hat in Bruce Springsteen’s back-right pocket on the cover of Born in the U.S.A. is actually a red handkerchief.
According to this hanky-code chart, the color red pertains to fist-fucking. And a handkerchief worn in the right-back pocket connotes a submissive sexual role. Therefore, on the cover of his 1984 album, Bruce Springsteen would be flagging that he wants to be fist-fucked; Q.E.D.
Gay men have historically used clothing to signal identities outside of sexual contexts, as well. In Gay New York, George Chauncey cites red neckties as one of the major “fairy” signifiers of the 1890s, and in the 1930s there was “practically a homosexual monopoly” on dark brown and gray suede shoes in the 1930s.
Hairstyles and slang have also been used to similar effect. Physical mannerisms, too.
So, why do gay men continue to create and cultivate these systems of mostly non-verbal communication with each other?
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that gayness doesn’t come with inherited physical traits or other visible identifiers on the body; we’re forced to create our own. These signals allow us to recognize one another in a crowd full of straight people, and, on the flip side, they allow that crowd to recognize us, to see us in the full Na’vi sense of the word.
In closing: brunch. You know what I’m talking about. Oel ngati kame. I see you.