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Facing Sameness: Reconsidering the Radicality of Tom of Finland

Published onMar 21, 2024
Facing Sameness: Reconsidering the Radicality of Tom of Finland
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In the preface to Tom of Finland: The Official Life and Work of a Gay Hero, a new edition of the 2012 book made in partnership with the Tom of Finland Foundation to celebrate the recent centennial of the titular homoerotic artist, author F. Valentine Hooven III states that “times have changed” since his previous authorized biography of Tom from 1994.1 His aim, then, is to bring his prior biography “up to date” by including in the book newly discovered personal stories and photographs, colorized images, an addendum that catalogues posthumous exhibitions and publications, and, “more importantly,” a sampling of Tom’s “most X-rated images,” which were, until recently, deemed “too graphic” for broad appeal.2 Importantly, Hooven makes no mention of other considerations that might have emerged in the ensuing decades. For Hooven, then, to update Tom’s biography is neither to reassess the artist’s legacy in light of a twenty-first-century politics nor is it to question changing attitudes towards transgressive material. Rather, for Hooven, updating seems to be rooted in increasing consumption by catering to the tastes of a now-wider gay audience. And while I may disagree with Hooven’s motivation for updating our reception of Tom’s work, he is nonetheless right to note that times have changed. Since he first penned Tom’s previous authorized biography over twenty-six years ago, we have emerged into a new era of gay life, or what Lisa Duggan calls “the new homonormativity,” which she describes as “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.”3 So, while times have changed, the critical conversation around the artist has insufficiently kept up. For example, the David Kordasnky Gallery in Los Angeles recently promoted the work of the Finnish gay artist in their show Tom of Finland: Pen and Ink 1965-1989. According to the gallery’s press release, “Tom radically hijacked traditional masculine roles; throughout the show, his emboldened cowboys, sailors, and bikers engage in couplings at turns boisterous, erotic, idyllic, and tender.”4 This brief excerpt is characteristic of the continued homonormative discourse surrounding the artist’s legacy in two ways: the first is the adverb use of “radical” to describe Tom’s appropriative relationship to gender; the second is the conspicuous absence of military personnel from the list of masculine figures that the gallery notes one should expect to encounter in the show despite their prevalence in the drawings themselves. Whereas the former seeks to highlight Tom’s liberatory characteristic, the latter elides the fascist underpinnings that permeate his work. Such a reductive portrayal of Tom’s oeuvre, I argue, is both outdated and insufficient.

Representative of the popular opinion surrounding Tom’s work, the David Kordansky Gallery’s press release indicates an unwillingness to confront the Nazi origins of Tom’s art and how his figural strategy reifies of the normative gay male imprint predicated on gendered and racial supremacy.5 Although it is true that Tom’s “dirty drawings” may invoke subversive meanings, their subversions do not prevent the same images from recycling oppressive discourses.6 However, this is neither to say that Tom’s drawings were never radical nor that they do not continue to be radical. Undoubtedly, Tom queered masculinity. He forged a new aspirational identity and a set of visual codes for gay men that challenged conventional understandings of homosexuality as effeminate by embracing hypermasculinity while simultaneously denying masculinity’s full hegemonic implications. In doing so, however, Tom continued a fascist legacy of idealizing a masculinity understood to be white. By situating Tom’s gay erotica within the Nazi tradition, I confront the ways in which masculinity and racial superiority converge. To reconsider Tom’s work is to mark what is often invisible and what goes unsaid; it is to leave behind elision and archaic defenses of parodic masculinity or apolitical eroticism that do not suit our contemporary moment marked by the rise of global fascism, white nationalism, and modern understandings of queer politics. In this way, and like Hooven himself, I aim to update our understanding of Tom’s work. Rather than depoliticize the work for purposes of broad consumption, however, I repoliticize Tom’s art by situating it in discourse indicative of our changing times. Such a reconsideration of Tom’s drawings, I argue, must first begin by reconciling the artist’s subversive intent with the fascist origins of their aesthetics, marking their construction of whiteness, and disabusing attempts to disavow the unsavory elements of the work either by way of eros or parody. In doing so, I replace a homonormative defense of the work with a queer politics of intersectionality, arguing that if the art is still esteemed to be radical, it must confront the multiple systems of power that construct the hypermasculine bodies of its white übermensch, marking their race in order to de-center and dismantle White supremacy.

“Left” in the Past: Intersectional Figuration and Homonormative Histories

Born Touko Laaksonen on May 8, 1920, in the agrarian south of Finland, Tom’s extensive archive is replete with the artist’s sexual fantasies. Illustration after illustration depict libidinous, muscular, square-jawed, and hairless men clad in skintight uniforms of denim and black leather. The men are characteristically homogeneous icons of masculinity brimming with desire for each other. Despite—or because of—the illicit nature of homosexuality, Tom’s drawings were purposefully utopic; he said that he “wanted [his art] to correct the injustices of real life through fantasy.”7 The tension between reality and the fantasy of Tom’s utopian longings are apparent even in his earliest published drawings from 1957.8 These illustrations, although published in the American athletic and muscle magazine Physique Pictorial, are undoubtedly Finnish. It was the Nordic quality of Tom’s drawings that the magazine’s publisher and editor Bob Mizer sought to capitalize on, re-branding Touko Laaksonen—a name too challenging for his primarily American audience to pronounce—to the exotic and singular Tom of Finland.9 Indeed, the illustrations Tom sent into Physique Pictorial not only pay tribute to his homeland but his first sexual awakening of watching a muscular field hand working shirtless in the wild.10 This cycle of illustrations depicts semi-naked, barrel-chested loggers taming the wilderness in impractically form-fitting jeans and thigh-high leather boots. Their bodies are engaged in the same work that has shaped them, which is to say, brutish and manual labor. They cut and haul lumber; they steer logs down rivers; and they engage in friendly competition with each other, fighting with long staffs of hard wood much to the pleasure of shirtless onlookers. These men, then, exist in a homosocial, woman-free paradise. The naturalness of their woodland environment naturalizes the homoeroticism of the images. Tom’s utopic visions of idealized masculinity and same-sex orientations in nature thus undermine contemporaneous understandings of homosexuality as unnatural, pathological, effete, and effeminate, thereby seeking to correct pervasive discourses of homophobia through fantasy. By transposing homoeroticism onto the already-heroic logger, Tom elevates the degraded status of the homosexual to the paragon of national masculinity. Or, in the artist’s own words, he “pointed out that all gays don’t just need to be just ‘those damn queers,’ that they could be as handsome and strong and masculine as any other men.”11

For his proponents, then, Tom’s drawings have always been seen through this prism of social justice and sexual liberation. However, in doing so, they conflate the two, mistaking social justice and sexual liberation as equivalents, hence limiting their perspective to that of single-identity politics. By privileging (homo)sexuality as the primary frame from which to “correct the injustices of real life,” I am concerned that the Tom of Finland Foundation and other supporters of Tom’s work—who not only control and manipulate the discourse surrounding it, but who so strongly cathect with his figures that they often refer to themselves as “Tom’s Men”—ignore the multiple systems of power or identities suggested by this work.12 So, while the exaggerated musculature and proletarian outfits of his men might very well challenge twentieth-century homophobic associations of homosexuality as weak and feminine, they do so by adopting and therefore reinscribing the iconography of hegemonic norms and misogynistic beliefs. In other words, Tom’s men queer masculinity while still largely conforming to it and other systems of power.

While some scholars, like feminist philosopher Susan Bordo, claim that, at times, Tom’s men’s “overabundan[ce]” of masculine symbols “becomes playful parodies of themselves,” such a stance assumes a stable and decontextualized understanding of parody.13 However, parody is not static; it is neither a universal nor transhistorical constant. To assert, then, that the hyperbolic masculinity of Tom’s men “simply cannot be taken seriously” assumes a singular interpretation of the images, one that does not account for the leakiness of parody or shifting ideals of gender.14 Indeed, parody is only successful when its intentions are recognized as such. Should Tom’s drawings mock masculine ideals, as Bordo claims, then their obvious sex appeal becomes negligible because, according to Leo Bersani, “parody is an erotic turn-off.”15 Given what Bersani calls “the dead seriousness of the gay commitment to machismo” and the subsequent earnestness by which some gay men try to both be and be fucked by macho men of Tom’s design, to continue to forward a parodic defense of Tom’s erotica, I argue, is no longer sufficient.16 Instead, a reconsideration of Tom’s archive must account for its dynamism throughout shifting relations and time. A reconsideration rooted in radical queer politics accounts for such instability because radical queer politics acknowledges “the possibility of change, movement, redefinition, and subversive performance—from year to year . . . from day to day, even from act to act.”17 In order for gender parody “to be effective . . . [it] should be seen as parody and not repetition and reinforcement of traditional gender definitions.”18 Therefore, while Tom’s strategy of parody may have been effective during the decades of pre-gay liberation and early gay activism, it has led to and is, therefore, ill-equipped to destabilize our current politics of homonormativity largely defined by assimilation into respectable heterosexual masculinist norms.

Indeed, Bersani identifies parody as part of a larger (neo)liberal enterprise that seeks to sanitize the hierarchical nature of sexuality by masking its relation to forms of gender domination. Gesturing towards contemporaneous academic debates in gay and lesbian studies as well as anti-pornography feminism, Bersani suggests that recourses to parody strategically avert sexual cultures’ complicities with social inequalities.19 So if a leather queen, as Bersani argues, does less to subvert masculinity than to revere it, then the exaggerated musculature of Tom’s men doesn’t so much mock masculinity as it worships it. For Bersani, then, parody is but a hygienic tool of (neo)liberalism; it is an intellectual maneuver that attempts to deny the hierarchical nature of sex within the patriarchal social order. At the heart of what he calls “the redemptive reinvention of sex,” therefore is a palatability to the status quo, or, in his own terms, “a frequently hidden agreement about sexuality as being, in its essence, less disturbing, less socially abrasive, less violent, more respectful of ‘personhood’ than it has been in male-dominated phallocentric culture.” 20

While I share Bersani’s suspicions of parody as a pastoralizing enterprise and admire his refusal to sanitize sexuality, I am skeptical of the larger trajectory of his argument. Developing his theorization of the “anticommunal, antiegalitarian, antinuturing, antiloving” nature of sex into what he describes in a later book as “homo-ness,” or an anti-relational form of being, Bersani advocates for homosexuality as a privileged understanding of sameness.21 Like José Esteban Muñoz and other queer utopians, I worry that an anti-relational understanding of queerness is the domain of whiteness insofar as it is unconcerned with the specificities of other forms of difference, namely racial difference.22 After all, to imagine an escape from relationality—even if only temporary, or in Bersani’s words, “a provisional withdrawal”—risks wishing that sexuality were, at least briefly, a non-contingent category somehow autonomous from and uncontaminated by interlocking systems of oppression.23 So whereas Bersani argues that homo-ness “makes manifest not the limits but the inestimable value of relations of sameness, of homo-relations,” I suggest that within the context of Tom of Finland’s art and the homonormative discourse that surrounds it, the “inestimable value” that Bersani finds in homo-ness is in fact limited to white gay men.24 In other words, a parodic, anti-relational understanding of Tom’s work has run its course, the temporary escape from relationality now having calcified into homonormativity. To continue to forward a parodic defense of Tom’s work as radical in our era of homonormative politics is to focus one’s attention on a single axis of oppression, rather than acknowledge how the work challenges gender at the expense of reinforcing traditional and oppressive hegemonic norms across its other identities. In order to highlight sexuality’s relation to race (an interplay Bersani does not consider), I interrogate what Sharon Holland calls “the erotic of life racism,” or how Tom’s erotica is implicated in and a conduit for the maintenance of the racial hierarchy.25 Thus, I foreground an intersectional analysis of Tom’s figural strategy and the (white) gay male culture it inspires to highlight the relational construction of multiple forms of identity and the pernicious effects of valorizing sameness.

Contextualizing Tom’s figural strategy in the images published in Physique Pictorial can, for example, illustrates the multivalent constructions of identity within the drawings. Aside from the obvious homoeroticism that the works depict, these images celebrate a specific body constructed through interlocking discourses of nation, gender, race, class, and able-bodiedness. Icons of Finnish labor history, the logger represents an idealized masculine identity whose glorified body is sculpted in relation to his work. As historian Ann-Catrin Östman explains, in order to cultivate a sense of ethnic nationalism, Finnish historiography has tended to idealize forest laborers and, by extension, log drivers, “partly by invoking understandings of masculinity.”26 By heroizing the forest-dwelling peasant as “the man with the axe, who cut down the forest, burned the land, and then cultivated it,” the logger emerges in Finnish history as a gendered subject exerting his dominance over the land in support of a developing nation.27 Finnish masculinity, then, is understood as classed and capable insofar as the logger’s ability to wield his axe became a symbol for the strength of man. In this light, manual labor not only makes the body, but it makes the man. Muscularity becomes the signifier for masculinity. And because the musculature of these early logger drawings is ostensibly formed through labor that is linked to discourses of class, able-bodiedness, and white national identity, masculinity, then, is mutually constructed through and imbricated with these social structures. Expectations of Finnish identity become interwoven with masculine proletarianism. In other words, gender not only becomes classed, but it becomes nationalized and racialized too, producing an ideality that is white, patriotic, hypermasculine, proletarian, and able-bodied. Although Tom’s drawings may tease the heterosexual expectation of Finnish identity, they do so by reifying national ideals of class, gender, and ability, prescient to and emblematic of homonormativity.

Therefore, to focus on Tom’s drawings as only constructing homoerotic desire or sexual identity is to ignore and to reduce the complexity of the images’ multivalent constructions of desirability across a plurality of social structures; it is to commit oneself to single-identity politics, or what Cathy J. Cohen refers to as “a single perspective of consciousness.”28 For Cohen, the danger of such an outlook is that it organizes itself around a single privileged characteristic of one’s identity, thereby disacknowledging the multiple and intersecting powers that regulate bodies and livelihoods. Within the popular discourse surrounding Tom’s erotica, such a reductive organizing principle concentrates power in the identities of those most proximate to power, which is to say, affluent gay white men, thus delimiting the coalitional and radical potential of queer life with the assimilative and homogenizing impulses characteristic of homonormativity. To harness the radicality of queer politics, according to Cohen, there “must be a commitment to left analysis and left politics” because “a left framework of politics . . . brings into focus the systematic relationship among forms of domination.”29 Thus, I offer my brief previous reading of Tom’s first published drawings to (re-)orientate us to his work, revealing the construction of multiple interdependent systems of power. If the gay white male community continues to insist upon the radicality of Tom of Finland’s art like the previously mentioned press release from the David Kordansky Gallery does, then one must use the leftist tools of radical queer politics to analyze the artist’s ostensibly radical work. Moreover, if we understand radical queer politics to be leftist, how do we reconcile the artist’s figural strategy with his fetishization of rightist or fascist aesthetics? Additionally, how do we make sense of the willingness to omit or dismiss this historical collusion from the critical conversation of Tom’s work?

Like Cohen, Jack Halberstam and Heather Love also argue for a more variegated and relational understanding of queer politics and history, respectively. Both are interested in the vexed relation of sexual deviance to progress narratives. Turning his attention towards the connection between radical sexual politics and conservative national politics, Halberstam, in a chapter on homosexuality and fascism from his book The Queer Art of Failure, wants to trouble what he sees as a liberal tradition of tidying up gay history by insisting on its radicality, in part, by omitting problematic antecedents. This strategy of omission, he argues, produces a universalizing and historically inaccurate version of a unified homosexuality. In arguing that transgressive eros can dovetail with conservative politics, Halberstam makes the case for the history of homonormativity. It is not that Halberstam argues for homonormativity per se, but rather to understand how homonormativity is a politically viable and purposive form of homosexuality. He argues that by sanitizing and simplifying homosexuality to an identity aligned in perpetuity to a politics of liberation, we foreclose a nuanced understanding of the myriad options and functions afforded by the libidinal and the political.

Similarly, Heather Love is also concerned by contemporary queers’ willingness to jettison the more troubling aspects of our past in order to construct a more affirming history, a more positive image of queer existence. Rather than disavow historical antecedents that we might otherwise wish to distance ourselves from, Love calls for a “politics of the past” that "makes visible the damage that we live with in the present.”30 In doing so, she encourages us to embrace discomfort as a means to better see contemporary structures of inequality. Like Cohen, then, the queer politics offered by both Halberstam and Love is a politics of unsettling and unveiling. “We cannot afford to settle on linear connections between radical desires and radical politics,” Halberstam notes, “instead, we have to be prepared to be unsettled by the politically problematic connections” of history.31 In regards to Tom of Finland, a queer politics of unsettling means two things. The first is that we can neither separate Tom’s representations of gay sex from nor collapse them into a fascist ideology. Instead, we can appreciate his drawings and acknowledge their indebtment to homo-fascism.32 The second is that we must understand what the purposes of a homonormative defense of his work are and how they continue to support fascist traditions of White supremacy in the present.

Boot Licking: Nazi Aesthetics and Racial Superiority

As Tom’s work evolved, he continued to depict utopian male landscapes, replacing his Finnish lumberjacks with other icons of masculinity still inspired by his sexual autobiography—namely, Nazi soldiers. In 1940, Tom was conscripted into the Finnish army. As allies to Nazi Germany, Tom not only fought alongside Nazis on the battlefield, but cruised for them in the safety of darkness, too. Although Tom himself is recorded to have repudiated Nazi beliefs, Nazi aesthetics are a different matter altogether: “In my drawings I have no political statements to make, no ideology. I am thinking only about the picture itself. The whole Nazi philosophy, the racism and all that is hateful to me, but of course I drew them anyway—they had the sexiest uniforms!”33 In attempting to cleave his art and eros from their Nazi referent, the artist seems to recognize what Susan Sontag identifies as the “supremely violent but also supremely beautiful” force of fascist aesthetics.34 Sontag’s influential but oft-critiqued essay on the erotic appeal of fascist aesthetics posits that there is a “natural link” between transgressive sexuality and transgressive politics and that the aesthetic and sexual decontextualization of fascism is tantamount to its neutralization.35 While sex is undoubtedly political, I, like Halberstam, disagree that there is any “natural” relationship between one’s sexual proclivities and one’s politics; one does not determine the other. This is to say, Tom’s representations of Nazis are not to be conflated with an endorsement of Nazism. I do, however, agree with Sontag in that attempts to distance fascist aesthetics from their political ideology allow for oppressive discourses to circulate as seemingly inconsequential. So while Tom’s alleged abhorrence of Nazism may be accurate, it is, ultimately, irrelevant as his intentions are less profound than the impact of his drawings. Furthermore, Tom’s defense of apoliticism is incompatible with his artistic raison d’être, which, as you will recall, was to “correct . . . injustices.” So while we cannot reduce Tom’s erotica to fascism, neither can we so easily separate politics from aesthetics.

In his analysis of Nazi iconography, historian Tim Pursell elucidates the political nature of the very aesthetics that inspired Tom, disabusing the myth that aesthetics stand outside of politics. “Artistic policy in the Third Reich,” Pursell notes, “was intended to promote images of a healthy society. It understood that the portrayal of peasants, soldiers, Sturmabteilung (SA) storm troopers, or allegorical muscle men were ipso facto manifestations of positive social values. The visual cues of health and solidarity drew on earlier traditions of masculine iconography.”36 The Nazi regime, then, understood that they could leverage and deploy the idealized male form to convey virtues consistent with their fascist ideology. Proletariats and soldiers, in particular, were exalted as heroic symbols of national strength that men were expected to emulate. A culture of Männerbund, or male camaraderie, thus pervades Nazi art, instructing its civilians to embody virtues of German nationalism. “The ideal man,” according to Nazi aesthetic practice, “was to be healthy and strong, ready for work or combat” and express the qualities of “heroism, vigor, vitality, [and the] superb anatomy . . . associated with . . . worker[s], farmer[s], or soldier[s].”37 Chastity, too, largely defined Nazi conceptions of idealized masculinity. Referencing Claudia Koonz’s work on the Nazi family, Pursell notes that since “breeding” was understood as domestic and womanly, chastity, by contrast, became a testament to masculine strength—it demonstrated a rejection of the feminine and a mastery of self-control.38 Like the Nazi’s figurative strategy, Tom’s men were also constructed as masculine icons of virility. Through their exaggerated musculature, homosocial environments, and working-class outfitting, Tom continued the Nazi tradition of lionizing a masculinity rooted in gendered understandings of both class and nation. While these themes are apparent in his early work featuring loggers, the connections become more explicit and troubling as he dons his men in Nazi-inspired regalia.

An untitled gouache painting from 1964 illustrates the concatenation of Nazi aesthetic politics and Tom’s queer sensibility.39 Four soldiers of nearly identical appearance populate the scene. Three stand at attention. Chin up, chest out, shoulders back, stomachs in, Tom accentuates the physicality of their bodies and the assertiveness of their pose by depicting them in profile. While belts highlight their tapered wastes, serpentine lines accentuate the girth of their protruding pectorals busting out of their taut khaki uniforms. Their bodies, although static, suggest the action and vigor representative of German Aryan masculinity that Pursell describes. It is important to note, however, that homosexual men were excluded from such understandings of hegemonic Nazi masculinity.40 In his essay on homophobic propaganda under the Third Reich, German historian Stefan Micheler explains that in order to scapegoat homosexuals as another social degenerate, the Nazi party redeployed earlier nineteenth century stereotypes of homosexuality predicated on misogynistic views of weakness. So whereas according to Nazi propaganda, homosexuals were understood to be “soft, effeminate, and unable to exert control over physical urges that was necessary to uphold civil society,” Nazi art, by contrast, depicted men as active and energized “by movement, or if the figure was at rest, by tension, suggesting that action was about to occur.”41 Unlike Nazi art, however, the tension and imminent action this illustration foreshadows is not war but sex between men. The fourth soldier—presumably of higher rank—commands the entire left half of the picture plane. He swaggers towards the viewer, quite literally checking out the attending soldiers. A sheath to a dagger is tightly belted to his upper thigh, accentuating his bulging genitalia that already occupies a prominent space within the drawing as the diagonal line created by the base of an adjacent wall directs the viewer’s eye to his groin. A weapon intended for repeated penetrative stabbing so close in proximity to the soldier’s oversized phallus heightens his physical prowess and further eroticizes the sexual potential of militaristic (i.e., muscular, masculine) bodies. With his left hand, he reaches out to fondle the similarly endowed genitals of the second attending solider while their comrades gaze on desirously, their mouths cracked into half-smiles. Männerbund and Nazi aesthetic codes of masculinity have thus been queered. By projecting overt homosexual content onto the heterosexist politics of the Third Reich, Tom subverts the aspirational heterosexual chastity of Nazi Germany’s masculinist national identity by turning its soldier icon into a homoerotic sexual object. It is through “pure eros,” an anonymous colleague of Halberstam argues, that this strategy of queer subversion negates the original politics of artistic male figuration in Nazi Germany.42 For them, such an erotic resignification means that Tom’s work has “little if anything to do with fascism.”43 Or, as Pursell notes, “by finding a Nazi hero erotically stimulating or failing to see anything particularly Nazi about him, homoeroticism undermines the whole corpus of fascist aesthetic meaning.”44

However, this single perspective of consciousness is untenable as it assumes the principal function of Nazi aesthetic production was to engender national compulsory heterosexuality. As we know, the genocide of homosexuals was only a part of the Nazi’s purity purge. Of course, this is not to minimize the atrocities encountered by those classified as sexual deviants within the rule of the Third Reich. Rather, it is to acknowledge the more complex totality of the Nazis’ particular mode of fascist production that constructed degenerate identities as interdependent on each other. In other words, the Nazis’ construction of a culture that venerated a classed understanding of white male superiority was predicated on a racialized understanding of femininity. Therefore, if the construction of the fascist male figure that Tom borrowed from was produced by co-constitutive discourses of nation, gender, sex, class, and ability, then a deconstruction of Tom’s men must necessarily by intersectional, too. In this light, a homonormative defense of Tom’s work becomes insufficient as it does not adequately address the multivalent and interlocking systems of power that undergird his work. Put another way, to find a “Nazi hero erotically stimulating” may trouble gendered or heterosexual components of the figure, but it fails to destabilize the figure in toto. Rather “[b]y failing to see anything Nazi about” Tom’s figures—as homonormative defenses are wont to do either by way of elision, erotic depoliticization, parody, or a general discomfort in engaging with a troubling history—oppressive discourses are ignored and recycled.

Since, according to the Third Reich’s artistic policy, “a healthy man was heroic, self-sacrificing, and strong, then he was, by definition, not . . . any of the . . . minorities against which the Nazis defended themselves.”45 The plural form of “minorities,” here, is crucial. As it is singularly concerned with so-called “gay issues” or sexual oppression alone, the narrow scope of a single-identity politics like homonormativity does not account for the plurality of “minorities.” On the other hand, however, an intersectional analysis vis-à-vis Cohen’s radical queer politics does account for such plurality. If, as Pursell notes, “above all, manliness was always understood in racial terms” for the men that inspired Tom’s fantasies, then a reconsideration of Tom’s work must foreground the ways in which his drawings construct whiteness.46

The racist discourse innate to the construction of the Nazi stormtrooper is endemic to Tom’s own masculine figural strategy. By eroticizing the masculinity of the fascist solider, Tom also invokes Aryan ideologies of White supremacy that coincide with it. Because masculinity was framed through the lens of race, it carried with it rhetoric that was jointly eugenical and misogynistic.47 Therefore, by exaggerating the muscular physiques and eroticizing the SS uniform and masculine characteristics of his male muses, Tom may have transgressed gender expectations for homosexual men, but in doing so, he codified whiteness as the masculine ideal not simply for his uniformed men but for his male corpus writ large. In other words, because of the previously discussed homogeneity in his men, we cannot isolate specific representations of military personnel, disavow them as Nazi or bearing the traces of Nazism, and claim the remainder of his male figures to be free of such fascist associations. Rather, because Nazi aesthetics undergird his approach to representing the male form, it is all of his übermensch who bare the taint of fascist ideology.

To be sure, while defenders of Tom’s reputation will rightly note that the artist portrayed interracial couplings as early as 1963—predating both the landmark United States Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia and the turning point when U.S. publishers would have deemed such material “acceptable”—such rare depictions do not alter the fascist origins of Tom’s work nor how they construct and circulate whiteness as ideality.48 In fact, according to queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, the occasional appearance of men of color in predominately white spaces might be even more fraught as their inclusion could be construed as simply decorative, an incorporation into—not a transformation of—preexisting systems of power.49 Indeed, a 2002 dispatch from the Tom of Finland Foundation follows this pattern of incorporation as it attempts to address criticisms of racial difference even as it circulates racist rhetoric that both objectifies and distances Black men as exotic others while simultaneously evoking the transnational history of racial capitalism and the slave-trade by saying that Tom “captured . . . African-American [men] . . . as objects of desire taken in from far,” adding that “Tom’s portrayals of men of color found their market through European publishers. Tourists would purchase them abroad [and] bring them home to the States.” 50 Such empty gestures to multiculturalism through racist tropes evince the organizing principals and power-maintaining structures of white male sociality original to the artist’s recuperation of fascist iconography.

Cloning Whiteness: Marking Race in Clone Style and Gay Male Sociality

Rather than evade the White supremacist implications of Tom’s figural strategy, a radical queer politics must mark the whiteness of Tom’s men in order to refuse the normalizing rhetoric of gay male communities that seek to ignore or disacknowledge whiteness as the racial default. Therefore, in thinking about the racialization of Tom’s men, I consider how the artist’s work contributes to and reifies the ways in which gay male society is socialized around whiteness.

The 1991 documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy surveys the legacy of Tom’s aesthetic, noting how his drawings codified an aspirational image of machismo for gay men. Juxtaposing interviews with the artist and his self-styled devotees with images of his erotic drawings and shots of virile white men either working out or caressing their muscled bodies, the film’s audiovisuals attest to the psychic and material influence of Tom’s style on (white) gay culture. Indeed, fellow artist and Daddy talking head Nayland Blake states that Tom’s illustrations created a “blueprint for the appearance of gay men,” while another acolyte confirms the compulsion to model himself after Tom’s drawings, saying that “since I found [Tom’s men] attractive, I thought it would be hot if I could make myself look as close to that as I could.”51 As the testimony of Tom’s Men in Daddy reveals, the proletarian icons of masculinity that filled the pages of Tom’s work could now be spotted in the real world too. Likewise, costume designer Steven Stines identifies the role Tom’s representation of men played within the masculinization of American homosexuality, noting the adoption of Tom’s blueprint first occurred in primarily gay enclaves before integrating into broader popular culture writ large. The homogeneity of Tom’s ideal man eventually climaxed in the production of an embodied and sartorial aesthetic starting in the 1970s that was first nicknamed the “Castro clone” style—a moniker indebted to the San Francisco gay neighborhood that first popularized the uniform and uniformity of Tom’s drawings.52 As the style spread to other places like Chelsea Street in Manhattan, the term lost its geographic specificity to become “clone style” more simply.53 Like Tom’s men, these clones, too, were nearly identical, borrowing the overt masculine symbols of hard bodies, Levi jeans, unbuttoned flannel, white undershirts, leather jackets, worker boots, and other American iconography, which, like Tom’s drawings, were simultaneously understood as working-class to emphasize their raw masculine qualities.54

And yet, while both the Daddy film and Stines highlight the ways in which gender and class are inextricable from Tom’s and his acolyte’s visions of homosexuality, they either gloss over or fail to consider the co-constitutive role that race plays in their creation. Take the name “Castro Clone,” for example. As the vernacular suggests, the clone style that Tom is credited with creating implies mimicry, an adherence to an original. Not only are, as previously discussed, the original drawings by Tom of white men and inspired by his sexual activity with white Nazis who fought for their racial superiority, but the clone style from which they are based originate in white spaces. In his experimental documentary Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs speaks to his alienation as a Black gay man living in the Castro. Despite being surrounded by other gay men, he was “immersed in vanilla” as he tries “not to notice the absence of black images in this new gay life.”55 Referring to the Castro, he states, “In this great gay mecca, I was an invisible man.”56 So while the name “Castro Clone” ties an aesthetic sensibility rooted in a classed masculinity to the gay district, Riggs points out that that same gay district is also socially and culturally white. The cloning, then, that Tom’s drawings inspire, and, by extension, his followers—be they Tom’s Men or Castro Clones—reproduce is not simply a signifier of masculinized homosexuality, but a masculinized homosexuality that is structured on an unmarked whiteness. Just as Riggs’s presence in the Castro doesn’t shift the social organization of the community, the inclusion of Black men in Tom’s drawings doesn’t negate the originary and underlying whiteness of Tom’s world as the film Daddy seems to suggest. Indeed, the film’s only discussion of race is contained in a brief two-minute segment titled “Tom’s Black Men,” an editing strategy that not only focuses our attention on Blackness and thus continues to render whiteness invisible, but suggests that race is independent of the figures’ constructions of gender and sexuality and/or that race is only a concern when a man of color is depicted in an illustration. However, as the chorus of white interviewees whose voices form the refrain of “I am a Tom’s Man/I’m one of Tom’s Men” that is interspersed throughout the documentary attest, identification with and adoption of Tom’s aesthetic is contingent on the coherence of a white gay male community that is not defined by racial exclusion per se, but whose centrality is not impacted by means of racial inclusion.

As the fantasies in Tom’s drawings were brought to life by gay society through the popularization of the clone style, the normative imprint, to borrow Muñoz’s term, was thus reified.57 For Muñoz, the normative imprint is “the normative ideal”; it is “an image of ideality and normativity that structures gay male desires.”58 However, despite the ubiquity of this ideal, it is, paradoxically, made invisible because of its hypervisibility. Repeated ad infinitum, this normative imprint becomes the status quo—an unremarked upon default that structures society and guarantees its power as it constantly reproduces itself as both the norm and the ideal. For Muñoz, the normative imprint “is a body that registers as white—a whiteness that is never marketed as white but is essentially and always central.”59 It is, in other words, whiteness as a mass-produced ideality and a power-securing technology.

Muñozian themes of ideality, mechanization, and reiteration are also found within John Mercer’s theory of the Prototype in gay pornography. According to Mercer, the Prototype is an ambivalent amalgamation of generic iconography as well as physical and presentational qualities. Central to the construction of the Prototype is its status as a manufactured, repeated ideal: “The Prototype is a fantasy object.”60 It is built out of exaggerated masculine signifiers that are produced and proliferated in order to manufacture desire. Although Mercer does not account for race in his taxonomy of the prototypic male in gay erotica, this is not to say that race is not a constitutive element in its manufacturing. Rather, I follow Muñoz in arguing that the Prototype is a normative imprint and that as an ideal, the Prototype is innately understood as white. Indeed, all but one of the one of the eight progenitors of the Prototype aesthetic that Mercer identifies are white. As a white scholar, Mercer’s inattention to race therefore supports Muñoz’s claim that whiteness possesses dissembling properties that make it difficult for white people “to ‘see’ whiteness.”61 By calling attention to whiteness, I hope to take part in the de-centering of White supremacy, refusing the normalizing mechanism of prototypic manufacturing characteristic of Tom’s drawings and its fascist antecedents.

An illustration from 1970 exemplifies how Tom contributed to gay male culture’s organization around the prototypic normative imprint.62 Thirteen nearly identical men gather in an open glade flanked by two trees. One’s shirt reads, “Tom’s Fan Club,” and, indeed, the men are emblematic of what we have come to expect from Tom’s men. They are uniformly handsome testaments to masculinity with their strong jawline, Roman noses, broad shoulders, bubble butts, and enlarged phalluses. Their most distinguishing features are not found in their bodies but in their clothes. Even this difference is minimal, though, as the apparel merely ranges from the clone style to uniforms of blue-collar masculine archetypes. The men thus appear as slight variations of each other, less individuals than endlessly repeated replicas with only the slightest of modifications to differentiate them. The formal symmetry of the image highlights their generic sameness; in a sense, it copies and reproduces itself, invoking aesthetic philosophies that interpret symmetry as beauty perfected. The men gather around and ogle a naked version of themselves who is perched on a boulder. He recalls statuary, perhaps Michelangelo’s David—if David had been a bodybuilder whose cock fell halfway down this thigh.

Through the centrality of the unclothed man, this image reveals how Tom’s work is organized around white masculinity as an ideality. The naked man aloft the rock occupies the heart of the picture. Spatially and visually, he is, quite literally, the center of attention. Because “whiteness . . . is always central” in channeling desire, so, too, is his location within the image.63 His elevated position emphasizes his vaunted status as the men lecherously gaze on, their bodies turned towards his. As the object which orientates the onlookers, the naked figure embodies the normative imprint. His sculpted white body is “the imaginary ideal that orders and maintains gay male culture” as represented by the thirteen male spectators communing around him.64 It his white physique that structures their desire and gay sociality. If, as previously suggested, it is the clothes that offer some semblance of identity to these replicated bodies, then the figure without clothes is the most prototypic as he lacks the accessories that offer individuation. In this light, he is not only “the most desired body” because he “perfectly escapes individuality and achieves anonymous and mass-produced status of the normalized body”—thereby dually fulfilling the manufactured and mechanical qualities of the Prototype as identified by Mercer—but also because his whiteness is the most visible as it is not concealed by garments.65 With his nakedness and placement on the page, the homoeroticism of his white masculinity is on full display. It is here at the intersection of race, gender, and sex that the normative ideal exists, organizing gay sociality both toward itself and around white masculinity in order to reflexively construct itself as the gay cultural ideal. Predicated on a tyranny of what feminist scholar Sara Ahmed calls “a phenomenology of whiteness,” it is through their united social and bodily orientations that the white gay male normative imprint secures its desiring power as inveterate if not ascendent.66

What is so powerful about this organizing structure is its intended ability to repeat itself. One sees this already within the picture plane as the men are, essentially, mass-produced replicants of the blueprinted body they encircle. The normative ideal is the original yet unobtainable goal to which the thirteen other men orientate themselves. As replicants, even if they’ve briefly turned away to flirt with each other—as the bookended couples flanking the trees do—they still structure themselves around sameness, or in Bersanian terms, “homo-ness,” as each figure is already an iteration of the ideal from which they both copy and are copied.67 They are, after all, clones. And yet, this organizing structure is not confined to the paper on which the drawing is made. Just as the illustration showcases a throng of homogenous bodies gathered around a body as art, so too will gay white male bodies gather around this work of art, recreating the same image which they admire. A never-ending circle of life imitating art and art imitating life is thus created. Tom’s utopia is realized. And its nucleus, of course, is the horse-hung nude on the rock. The Prototype. The normative ideal. The white male. It is he who structures Tom’s world—the homonormative world.

Conclusion

Tom’s world is utopic and politically motivated. He “want[ed] to show that gays can feel happy together—that they have a right to be happy together.”68 Therefore, our response to Tom should reflect his vision; it should be utopic and politically motivated. We, too, should insist on our rights to joy and solidarity. Of course, this is not to say that we should unquestioningly submit to his vision nor the dominant discourse around it. We should not. Rather, we should insist on what Muñoz describes as “a queer politics of the incommensurable,” or a unity through a shared sense of inequivalence.69 Like the Prototype that Tom’s work helped to codify, we must embrace ambivalence. On one hand, we can appreciate the radical subversions and liberatory impacts that Tom’s work continues to foster. And on the other hand, we can—we should, we must—mark the ways in which Tom’s work colludes with fascism to support and uphold oppressive discourses of gender and racial superiority rooted in misogynistic ideology. The erasure of these discourses—often by white gay men—either by way of parody or eros or depoliticization or silence, demonstrates an unwillingness to confront homonormativity and its adjacent structures of normativity. These systems, however, cannot go unmarked.

To mark the whiteness of Tom’s men is to refuse the normalizing rhetoric of gay male communities that seek to elide the role of race as a regulatory power; it is to reveal and dismantle the invisible tools of White supremacy. An intersectional analysis of Tom of Finland’s work shows that a homonormative defense of the drawings is insufficient as it fails to engage with the art’s fascist origins, thereby eliding its relationship to and reinscription of oppressive discourses of gender and race. A queer radical political reading of the work, on the other hand, interrogates the multiple systems of power that inform the illustrations, revealing how discourses of race, gender, class, nation, ability, and sexuality interdependently construct the ideality of Tom’s men. A queer radical political reconsideration of Tom of Finland reveals the inadequacy of a single perspective of consciousness to critique adjacent power structures and explodes the normalizing and invisiblizing power-securing strategies of White supremacy. In doing so, however, we do not obliterate utopia. Rather, we expand it.

To reconsider Tom’s work is to reconsider utopia. It is to reconsider who is allowed to inhabit utopia. If, as Pursell notes, “homosexuals, then as now, are constantly confronted with a heterosexual culture that they must reshape or reinterpret in order to inhabit,” then queers have a more difficult task.70 We must reshape and reinterpret a culture both hetero- and homonormative in order to inhabit it. Like Tom, we too are on a world-making mission. Like Tom, we too want the right to be happy together. However, our version of “together” is more expansive and inclusive from the vantage of radical queer politics. For queers, solidarity cannot be limited to the homogenized identity of Tom’s normative imprint. We cannot be fixed on, around, nor towards an Adonis on a rock because, simply, we cannot be fixed: we embrace fluidity. As queers, we must reject static and outdated scripts, defenses, and identities and instead embrace queerness as a shifting relation to power in order to foster coalitions—utopias, perhaps—on the basis of our shared marginalized positions to power. Cohen states that “if there is any truly radical potential to be found in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics, it would seem to be located in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms, a space where transformational political work can begin.”71 Having marked white masculinity as the dominant norm of Tom’s utopia, we begin the slow work of creating a new one.

Postscript

Opposing dominant norms is invariably meet with resistance. Indeed, requests I made to the Tom of Finland Foundation to secure permission to reproduce the images discussed in this essay were swiftly declined once they read its abstract. “Promot[ing] Tom’s work. . . so that it receives the academic attention it deserves,” as their mission states, apparently has its limits.72 While I understand the Foundation’s decision, I am, of course, disappointed. As I explained to them via email, my work, like Tom’s, comes from a place of liberationist and inclusive desires; I appreciate the artist’s radical legacy, and I hope to push it forward through an interdependent understanding of sexuality and other identity categories. The Foundation’s rejection, then, highlights the import of this essay’s invention: a resistance to engaging with the more problematic aspects of Tom’s work and its role in structuring whiteness as the normative ideal within gay male sociality both sanitizes the artist’s legacy and secures racial dominance. As the primary institution that permits how and in what context Tom’s work is to be seen, the foundation bears the responsibility of visibility. To decline visibility to a critical eye is yet another way to render whiteness invisible, inconsequential, or irrelevant. Therefore, to continue to mark the whiteness of the three drawings that I have analyzed here, I point readers to pages 211, 55, and 106-107, respectively, in Hooven’s Tom of Finland: The Official Life and Work of a Gay Hero in order to help reveal and dismantle the tools of White supremacy.


Hunter Scott (he/him) is a recent MA student in Cultural Studies at Kansas State University, where he currently teaches composition, literature, film, and gender, women, and sexuality studies. His work cruises the intersections of racialized erotics, queer aesthetics, and queer politics.

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