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May 18th, 2012

Denial: Not Just A River In Egypt

A Facebook friend’s status post and subsequent comment thread tosses me back to a memory of my pre coming out to myself days that is both funny and cringe inducing at the same time.   Funny how often memories of our teen years are like that…

A friend is posing for an underwear fashion shoot and he’s asking for advice on getting a nice pair of black briefs because black is the specified color of the shoot and all he has are a pair of AussieBums that he doesn’t like.   He points to a link to the AussieBum page and I take a look.   They’re nice, thinks I. I have a thing for briefs and find it regrettable that they’re not the fashion in the younger set anymore. When I was a kid, boxers were what the old men wore.   Now I’m getting old myself and boxers are what the young guys wear and they think briefs are old guy underwear.   But briefs are still out there, gay guys at least still like wearing them, and the AussieBums I’m looking at are very nice…except like a lot of underwear companies these days, the waistband is like a damn billboard with the company name occupying almost as much real estate as the material below it.

I can appreciate a company wanting to get its name out there…but I really hate it when the branding on clothes demands more attention then the body wearing them. I am not your walking billboard. Plus, when I see an attractive guy, and especially if he’s not wearing very much, I don’t appreciate advertising getting in the way. My Facebook friend merely replies that it’s all about the branding, and that normally it’s only a glimpse of the wasteband that’s visible. A company has to get your attention when and where it can.   Okay.   Fine.   I get that.   But I’m still annoyed by it.

And then suddenly I’m remembering myself as a teenager, and those first confusing, thrilling times when getting that glimpse of an elastic waistband peeking out above a guy’s   belt line would make me all hot and bothered for some reason I really didn’t want to explore just then.   I touched on it in Episode 10 of A Coming Out Story…

There’s a toss-off line in John Fox’s The Boys On The Rock, where the young protagonist Billy takes note of the different kinds of underwear he and his new boyfriend are wearing as they are undressing each other.   It’s the kind of detail, that the kid even knows how some brands of underwear are different from other brands, that tells the reader this kid has been looking at guys in a sexual way for a while now. I suspect some of my straight peers back then could tell just by glancing at a girl’s tight shirt who made her bra, and whether it had hooks or snaps. They’d have probably been surprised to learn that men’s underwear differed from brand to brand in anything more then just price. Had I told them I could tell what make of underwear they were wearing just by looking at the waistband they’d have known more about me then I was ready to tell anyone. Including myself.

In the 1960s, long before they’d come out with such things as designer underwear for men, you had maybe four major brands of underwear.   There were Fruit of the Looms, Hanes, BVDs and Jockeys. Back then your choices were white cotton, high in the waist and cut such that the leg openings didn’t rise up the thigh much.   Not terribly sexy by today’s standards. All the same to a gay kid whose hormones had tentatively started percolating the underwear pages of the various catalogs suddenly became pretty riveting reading. I started ogling them when I was nine or ten I think.

I can hear the snickers now.   A catalog? Given the level of open sexuality these days, gay and straight, it’s probably hard for people who didn’t live that period to get how sexually repressed it was, and how shocking the free love morality of the Beat and Woodstock generations were to their elders.   My peers and I grew up in their shadow and in the 1960s even my heterosexual peers had to resort to the catalogs to get their fix, though they could also at least find the occasionally discarded Playboy in the trash bins.   I remember a friend finding one of those and gleefully passing it around as we gathered in one of our secret hiding places. There was an article about a nudest camp and I remember being completely riveted by the few naked guys I saw in the pictures. My companions were all making admiring comments about the women and parrot like, I mimicked them. But I never took my eyes off the naked guys. That was discovering sex when you were a kid back in those days. You and a bunch of the other guys, in your treehouse or fort or secret hiding place, passing around a Playboy someone had found in the trash.   There was no Internet you could browse alone in your room when your parents weren’t looking.

I was careful to ogle the catalogs when I knew I was alone in the house, knowing full well at some level what I was doing and yet at the same time not admitting it to myself. And true to form the budding little geek in me began around then to critically analyze the object of my fascination. It wasn’t long before I could spot the difference between a Hanes and a BVD at a glance. The catalog retailers, Sears, Montgomery Ward, J.C.Penny, used to buy from one of the big companies and rebrand them with their own names. I could tell just by looking at them.   These are made by Fruit of the Loom…these are really BVDs…

Most spellbinding of all were the Jockeys. The first time I saw another kid in the gym locker room wearing one of those Y fronts my jaw almost hit the floor. I’d never seen anything so…alluring. Particularly on that one kid who had a body that looked like it had stepped out of one of my anatomy for artists books. It was junior high and I was fourteen or fifteen.   Being careful not to gawk in the locker room wasn’t usually a problem though. It was so embarrassing to have to undress, let alone shower naked with a bunch of other guys, that I became adept at tuning everything out and just getting on with it (I joke sometimes that it’s a trick I learned in Vacation Bible School). Plus, even at that age when you are busy becoming all hormones and nerve ends my libido was very low key and persnickety. But there were close calls. When the other guys my age began rhapsodizing about advertising for bras and woman’s lingerie I knew I had to keep my mouth shut. But I wasn’t ready to admit to myself why.

In high school, in the early 70s low riser bell bottom jeans started coming into fashion and I began seeing other guys my age wearing them in school.   Not every guy who wore them really had the body for it, but those who did drove me nuts every time they walked by.   The best of these really showed off a guy’s…attributes…nicely.   And if the shirt wasn’t tucked in you might see a glimpse of elastic peeking up above the belt line.   By the time I was 17 I had become I became expert at telling the brands apart just by the waistband because the stitching each company used was different. Fruit Of The Looms had a small blue stripe with a yellow stripe below it. BVDs had a black dotted line, sometimes with a red dotted line below it.   Nowadays on a lot of brands the elastic waistband is a damn billboard.   Back then it was something you decoded stealthily, like a secret message.

How I could become such an expert on men’s underwear and at the same time remain clueless about my sexual orientation is something I’ve been trying to delve into in my cartoon, A Coming Out Story.   It was a combination of the horrible things I was taught about homosexuals back in my ninth grade sex-ed class, and the relentless stereotypes of that time. On the one hand I knew I could not possibly be a homosexual because I was none of the horrible things that I’d been taught homosexuals were.   On the other, I knew perfectly well what would happen to me if it became common knowledge that I was one.   Already through most of my grade school life I’d been tormented and bullied severely because I was small, scrawny, and I hated sports.   Faggot was a routine insult kids like me got whether we were actually thought to be queer or not.   I didn’t need the extra added threat of the other kids knowing for certain that I was, in fact, a queer.

So I kept it all inside. But sex is an instinct older then the fish, let alone the mammals, let alone the primates, let alone humans, let alone teenage boys. You can try to bottle it up inside of you, but it will find its way out no matter how much you’d rather it just went away. Even such a tame little apologetic libido as my own.   It just kept…insisting that I look at all the beautiful guys.   Especially the ones with a tempting bit of skin showing between the belt line and the shirt.   Insisting that I look as they walked by.   Oh…look over there…that one…well now, his hips move very nicely as he walks don’t they?   Long legs…   Nice jeans…   Oh look…he’s wearing Jockeys…

I count it as a blessing that I was able to avoid the years of self loathing other gay guys of my generation endured.   I fell in love and in that wonderful glorious rush of teenage first love was able to finally come out to myself and not see myself as perverted, mentally ill or an abomination in the sight of God.   But I understand completely how it is that some people, strident cultural conservatives getting caught with rent boys, politicians getting caught soliciting vice cops in parks or public restrooms, can do the things they do, things that fairly write I Am A Homosexual on their foreheads in neon lights, and still resolutely not consider themselves to be gay.   All I have to do is remember back to when I was a kid alone in the house with one of the big mail order catalogs, gawking at the men’s underwear pages, one part of me completely entranced, the other just keeping its mouth shut.


[Edited a tad…]   I had to add the words “advertising for” to the end of one of the paragraphs there to make it clear my childhood friends weren’t transvestites.   I’m not saying any of them aren’t…just that back then they were ogling advertising for bras and women’s lingerie like a lot of boys that age did back then, not fantasizing about wearing it.   A couple wise guys here apparently thought I meant otherwise…

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