Transcript

46:

Sissies
Transcript

Originally aired 12.13.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/46

Act One. Anti-oedipus.

Different Voices

From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. Public Radio. Public Radio International.

Ira Glass

What could be more horrible than the moment when you realize that everybody in the world can see some aspect of you, something about you, that you never even knew that you were revealing, that you didn't want to reveal? So Mubarak was at a track meet-- this is back in high school-- he was at this track meet, and he was setting up those runners' blocks you use in track.

Mubarak

And I was sort of pampering my blocks, moving the blocks back and forth ever so slightly, hair lengths, testing out how they felt and standing up and putting my hands on my hip and putting my finger on my cheek and looking at it as if I was in deep thought. And bending down and probably even dusting off the blocks.

What I didn't know at the time was there was the whole group of track members from the opposing team who were standing, watching me, and laughing. They were like, this big sissy is what they're putting up for us to beat?

Ira Glass

Remember, please, high school. High school, where, in the hierarchy of put downs, the worst thing you could call a boy was "sissy." Mubarak won his match.

Mubarak

And the coach came up after I won, and he actually gave me this big hug. And he was like, "That was great." And I was like, "Thanks." But my time wasn't anything particularly better than before. So I kind of had this puzzled look in his face. And he's like, "That was great the way you psyched those guys out by acting like a big sissy in front of your blocks and then showing them." And as soon as he said that, it hit me, what had happened. And I was like-- I played along. "Yeah, hey, good thing I thought of that."

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Sissies. Weak ones, defiant ones, brave ones, and the ones who do not even know they are a sissy. Act One, Anti-Oedipus.

Act Two, Instructions for Sissies.

Act Three, The Pansy Kings Sing Songs of Love.

Act Four, syndicated columnist Dan Savage answers the question, who loves a sissy? He does. Stay with us.

Act Two. Instructions For Sissies.

Ira Glass

Act One. Well, the tragedy of the story of Oedipus, if you remember this from school, is that a son kills his father and marries his mother and then, of course, rips out his eyes when he realizes what it is that he's done. And the thing about this story is that he does all these things unwittingly. He doesn't know that that's what he's doing with his mother and father when he does it.

Well, the first story on today's program is also about a family that ends up getting ripped apart. It's also about a family where the son ends up with the mother, the father gone. And it's also a story where the tragedy of it is that it all happens without any of them really wanting it to happen this way. It's the ending they all wanted to avoid. Nancy Updike prepared this story of an American family and of what it means to be a man.

Nancy Updike

This story is like one those Russian dolls where there's always a smaller one inside. The smallest doll, the core of the drama, is the fact that Mubarak, a childhood sissy, grew up to be a different kind of sissy than his father. His father is nerdy and bookish. Mubarak's gay.

Everything around that core gets bigger and bigger until finally you can't believe the biggest and the smallest have anything to do with each other, the one is so bloated and the other so tiny.

At the beginning of this story, Mubarak's parents are married and in love, and both prepared to live far from everything they know to be with each other. At the end of the story, they may still be in love, but they're divorced and an ocean apart and not speaking. And Mubarak is caring for his mother the way a husband might.

Mubarak

OK, Margie Ruth.

Margie

Now, don't get it too hot.

Mubarak

I'm not going to get it too hot.

Nancy Updike

Mubarak starts Margie's shower, and he's holding on to her so she won't fall. And she's holding on to him too. She's about five feet tall, naked, and fragile looking, and very pale. He's dressed in jeans and a shirt that he knows are about to get really wet.

Mubarak

All right, lift your breasts. Lift one at a time so I can wash under it.

Nancy Updike

Hey, Margie, was it hard the first time Mubarak gave you a shower?

Margie

I got embarrassed.

Nancy Updike

How did you get over being embarrassed?

Margie

I don't know. Just because it happens over and and over again. Mubarak is my son, you know?

Nancy Updike

He gets a washcloth in under her breasts, and she stands serenely, blinking in the water. It's a moment so intimate it's hard to watch. But then, as he gets her out of the shower and is drying her off, there's another moment that makes the intimacy of everything before it seem completely beside the point and prettied up in comparison. He takes a baby wipe and wipes her butt for her.

Margie

Nobody's going to give me a shot today, are they?

Mubarak

No, we have to take some blood, though. We have to go to the lab, and they're going to take some blood.

Margie

Well, that's a shot.

Mubarak

It's not a shot. They're drawing blood.

Margie

They put--

Mubarak

They stick you, but they're not giving you a shot. They're taking blood. There's a difference.

Margie

You ever tried it?

Nancy Updike

Margie's only 66, but in the last couple of years, she's had a heart attack and two small strokes, which paralyzed her right arm and affected her memory. It cuts in and out like faulty wiring. Sometimes she's talkative and remembers a lot. Sometimes she's not and she doesn't.

Mubarak

Hey, you know what? Lift your breast for me again so that we can make sure. You don't have a rash under there anymore, do you?

Margie

I don't think so.

Mubarak

Because we've got to make sure it stays dry so it doesn't get a rash under there.

Nancy Updike

Mubarak, is this closer than you ever thought you'd get to an adult woman's body?

Mubarak

[LAUGHS] You could say that.

Nancy Updike

But this is the end of the story. This is today. Let's go back to the beginning. Mubarak's family didn't really notice that he was, as he tells it, a big sissy, because they were all oddballs. No matter where they were living, at least one of them was always not quite fitting in.

Margie's from Georgia and lived most of her married life either up north or in the Middle East. Mubarak's father, Sabir, is Palestinian, born in Jordan. But for most of the marriage, they all lived in a small town in Pennsylvania where he was a professor of civil engineering. Now if Mubarak was a sissy in white, working-class, Catholic Hershey, PA, Sabir was too.

Mubarak

We got a week off of school every year because so many people, so many boys, went deer hunting. And of course, I didn't go hunting, and I didn't play football. And I didn't do all of those things that the boys in the neighborhood were supposed to do, especially hunting. Hunting was like a yardstick of when you reached manhood.

Nancy Updike

Sabir, meanwhile, to Mubarak's shame and horror, had to call on neighborhood dads to do simple mechanical tasks like unclogging a drain. And Margie was the one who hung their wedding pictures because Sabir claimed he didn't know how to hammer a nail.

Mubarak

No, Sabir didn't do any of that stuff. Sabir was always very formal. He always had a sport jacket. I remember cutting grass was a big deal out there, like lawn care, how green and how even and how perfect was your yard. And I remember Sabir was in the yard cutting the grass. And he was cutting the grass, and he had a sport coat and a tie on, which is funny if you think about it.

Nancy Updike

Why would he do it?

Mubarak

I think that came from the Middle East idea that if you are educated, that there's a certain position that you have in society and that you should always look and act a certain way.

Nancy Updike

You can see why, in this atmosphere, Sabir at one point panicked and made Margie sign Mubarak up for Little League. To toughen him up, he told her. But mostly, Margie says, Sabir worshipped Mubarak. He adored him.

Margie

Mubarak this and Mubarak that and Mubarak the other. Everything he talked about was Mubarak. After he found out Mubarak was gay, he hardly ever said-- wouldn't hardly even mention his name.

Nancy Updike

Margie was the one who made the phone call to Mubarak after finding a bunch of gay adult cards in his room. He was 20 years old and staying with friends in Germany at the time, on his way to a semester in England.

Mubarak

And it was the middle of the night. I don't remember if we were exactly in bed. And the mother came down and said in German to my friend, there's a phone call from America, and it's an emergency for your American friend. So I was all nervous, and I went upstairs. And it was Margie, and she was crying. She was hysterical. I said, "Margie, what's wrong?" And she said, "You have to come home now."

And I said, "Why? What's wrong?" And she just kept repeating, "You have to come home now." And I kept trying to get out of her what was wrong. So she finally said, "We found a good hospital in Tennessee that can cure you." And then I knew what was wrong. And of course I told her that I wasn't coming home until the end of the semester, and I would see her in January. And I think I hung up right away.

Nancy Updike

This was the beginning of their world starting to shift and become something else. Sabir blamed Margie for Mubarak being gay. Sabir, who never raised his voice before, would pound the table and say Mubarak was gay because he's a mama's boy.

Margie

I didn't think I'd married the same person at those times. He used to be jolly and gay and cheerful and tell jokes. I didn't know him anymore. I guess he didn't know me either.

Mubarak

He was in such bad shape that he had taken off time from the university. I think he took a whole semester off from teaching at the university. He was so bad at one point, he would sit and stare into space and not respond to conversations and questions. And they had home health care-- an IV for him at home because he wouldn't eat.

Nancy Updike

When Mubarak came home around Christmas, they all sat down at the kitchen table for a family meeting.

Mubarak

Margie didn't say hardly anything the whole time. And neither did I, actually. Sabir did most of the talking. Basically, he started with, you're our son and we love you, but this is wrong, and this is an illness. I've looked into it, and there are doctors who say that if you just try, if you get help, that you can change.

Nancy Updike

Did he say the word "homosexual"?

Mubarak

Oh, god, no. He would never say that. He would say, "your condition" or "your problem" or "your situation." He would never say the word "gay" or "homosexual" ever, ever, ever. Even in the years after that, he never, ever said that word.

Nancy Updike

The biggest problem with Mubarak being gay was that he would never have children. He would never have a son to carry on the family name as Sabir had done and as Sabir's father had done. This was Mubarak's obligation. After a long argument, the last thing Sabir said to Mubarak was this.

Mubarak

I remember he looked at me and he said, "I will sell all the land in Palestine to raise the money to send you to a doctor if you ever decide that you would go." Being Palestinian and understanding how important land is, I mean, land is identity, it's a future, it's the past, it's everything. And for Sabir to say that he would sell all of his land showed that this was really the top priority in his whole life.

Nancy Updike

For two years, nothing changed. Mubarak stayed in school and kept being gay. Sabir stayed depressed and wrote Mubarak long letters saying he loved Mubarak but Mubarak was sick and he owed it to Sabir to get help. Margie quietly began flooding Mubarak's college mailbox with condoms.

Then Margie and Sabir moved back to the Middle East as they'd always planned to do when Sabir retired. He was 65. She was 59. Six months later, everything shifted again. The family mutated again, becoming more like what it would soon be and less like it had been before. It started with another phone call to Mubarak.

Mubarak

Well, the way I first found out about it was I got a telephone call one afternoon from Margie. She said, "Honey, do you think I could come live with you?" And I didn't know what she was talking about. I said, "Margie, what are you talking about?" She said, "Do you think I could come live with you?" And then she told me that she and Sabir were getting divorced because he was going to marry another woman and have another son.

Nancy Updike

In fact, divorce wasn't even what Sabir wanted. At first, he asked Margie if she would be his partner in what he called--

Margie

Joint venture. I want you to help me find a young lady you think you can get along with. I said, "What?"

Mubarak

And he said, "I want to marry another woman and have a baby."

Margie

I said, "OK, Sabir, you better find one you think you can get along with because I'm not going to be here."

Mubarak

And that was plan A, and the plan B was having another wife at a different apartment. And then plan C was him getting married in the West Bank, just going down there a couple weeks a year, and then basically living with Margie in Jordan. And her response to that was always my favorite. That's when she asked him-- she said, "OK, that's fine as long as I can have a--

Margie

Boyfriend. He said, "Why?" And I said, "So when you ask me what I've been doing, I'll tell you the same thing you've been doing while you were over there." He didn't appreciate that either.

Mubarak

And I remember Sabir wrote me a very, very long letter explaining what he was doing and why he was doing it and how he had been forced into doing this because for years he had been asking me to go get help, and I was just ignoring him. And he felt that since I was not going to have a son to carry on the family name, that the responsibility of making sure that the family name survived suddenly became his again. And this was the only way he could see to do it. And he was very heavy on the, "This is your fault. You're doing this to Margie, not me."

The other thing that was really strange was he spent pages saying, "Your mother is being very close-minded about all of this. Try to help me convince her to stay here. She doesn't have to leave. I don't want her to leave."

Nancy Updike

So Sabir divorced Margie, telling her every day until she left that he loved her and didn't want her to leave. And she got on the plane and began the life she's pretty much living now. From that point on, instead of a husband, she would have a son. And from the moment the plane touched down, he treated her the way you'd want your husband to treat you.

Margie

I'll never forget when I came back, getting off plane. We got through customs and all that stuff. I saw this great big bunch of flowers somebody was holding way up in the air. Beautiful, beautiful bunch of flowers. And I said, somebody is certainly going to get themselves a beautiful bouquet of flowers. And guess who that was.

Nancy Updike

Well, any guesses? Margie moved into Mubarak's graduate school apartment, which, by the way, was at the same university where Sabir had taught. In her old life, she'd been supported by one man, her husband, the professor. In her new life, she was surrounded by a whole sissy entourage. Mubarak's friends were always coming in and whisking her away to the orchestra, to plays. They adored her.

She still cried every day, many times a day, for the first few months. And every day, she got at least one letter from Sabir, sometimes two. Finally one day, the letter that came from Sabir said he'd gotten married. Mubarak, not knowing what was in the letter, gave it to Margie and went to his room.

Mubarak

We came back out. It was five or 10 minutes later. And she was still sitting there, but she had a funny look on her face. So I said, "Are you OK?" And she started saying things like, "Please don't hurt me, please don't hurt me" and crying. I'm like, "Margie, what are you talking about?"

"Don't come any closer. Don't come any closer. Don't hurt me." And she didn't know who I was. She didn't know who she was.

Margie

I was just out of it.

Nancy Updike

Her amnesia-- Mubarak calls it a vacation from the bad news-- lasted several days.

Mubarak

One, two, three.

Cardiologist

There you go.

Nancy Updike

We're in Margie's cardiologist's office, and she's about to surprise me. On the last day I spend with Margie and Mubarak, she suddenly murmurs that she wishes Mubarak had gotten married.

Margie

I wish you would've married.

Nancy Updike

You wish that Mubarak would've married?

Margie

Mm-hmm.

Nancy Updike

Who?

Margie

Mark Stoner.

Nancy Updike

Now most mothers who say, oh, I wish my gay son had gotten married, and you ask them who, they don't say a man.

Margie

Mark Stoner.

Nancy Updike

So you don't wish Mubarak had married any girl that you know?

Margie

I wish he'd married Mark Stoner, because he was a nice guy and he loved Mubarak a lot.

Nancy Updike

Even after all the time I'd spent with her, I had completely expected her to say a woman's name. Because even though it's common when men come out as gay for their mothers to be more accepting than their fathers, there are usually at least some pretty clear limits for the mothers too, certain ways that they're used to seeing the world and just can't give up.

But Margie's world and Mubarak's are not really separate as they are for most gay people and their parents. Mubarak is really glad she's here. He says it all the time. And he spends a lot of time with Margie, willingly, happily. He's the only person I know who seems as unambivalent in his love for his mother as she is in her love for him. Every once in a while, he talks about something I know he thinks about a lot, which is that this is the end of Margie's life, and he's grateful that she's spending it here where he can be with her.

Mubarak

OK. Margie? Are you OK?

Margie

Mm-hmm.

Mubarak

You're wobbling back and forth. Margie? Margie? Margie, talk to me.

Margie

What is it, Barkie?

Mubarak

What's happening?

Nancy Updike

While I was taping, Margie had what seemed to be a small stroke.

Mubarak

Margie? Margie? Margie?

Nancy Updike

Do you want me to call 911, Mubarak?

It all happened in about two minutes. And when it was over, Margie seemed fine, although disoriented and tired. She couldn't really remember what had happened. We were more shaken than she was. Mubarak and I talked in the kitchen afterward while he made Margie some tea.

Nancy Updike

That was really scary.

Mubarak

That was so frightening. Because it's so scary when you go to the hospital-- I remember the first time I went. And she had congestive heart failure, and you don't know what that means. You hear "heart failure," and you panic. And then I remember the other two times, going into the hospital and thinking, it should be easier this time. But every time it happens, it gets scarier because you think you're one step closer to something really awful happening. I'm going to be a mess whenever anything really serious happens.

We just did that because we knew you were going to be tape recording today. I'm like, "Margie, do think think you can have a little heart failure this afternoon?" [LAUGHS]

Nancy Updike

Just do what you can.

Mubarak

I'm so scared all the time.

Nancy Updike

P.S., it might not be clear from this story, but I think Margie really loved Sabir. I think he really loved her. We saw it clear as day in the pages of her wedding scrapbook. She turns to a picture from her wedding day. Sabir's embracing Margie, and both their eyes are closed. They're smiling. They look completely happy, probably not even aware the picture's being taken.

Nancy Updike

What were you thinking right at that moment when that was happening?

Margie

I got that man. He's mine now. [LAUGHS] My mother had told me, when you find the right one, you know it. And I did. Well, I thought he was the right one. Turned out he wasn't. I never did find the right one.

[MUSIC - "I'M IN SUCH PAIN FROM LOVING YOU" BY LINDA RONSTADT, DOLLY PARTON, AND EMMYLOU HARRIS]

Act Three. The Pansy Kings Sing Songs Of Love.

John Connors

Act Two, Instructions For Sissies.

Ira Glass

I'm joined here in the studio right now by John Connors, who often provides music for our program and also performs around Chicago. And you've brought in a book with you. The name of the book is?

John Connors

How to Improve Your Personality.

Ira Glass

It's written in huge block letters on the cover.

John Connors

Well, it's a black cover with white and sort of this-- would you call it a daisy yellow?

Ira Glass

Yes.

John Connors

A daisy yellow.

Ira Glass

I would.

John Connors

And it was funny because walking down Lincoln Avenue, it's really funny how people sort of look at you in this odd way when you're carrying a book on how to improve your personality. Immediately, you're suspect, and they wonder what's wrong. And then I, of course, turn the book so no one can read it. So I'm thinking, I'm so insecure with my personality that I don't want people to think that there's something wrong.

Ira Glass

And this book has an important lesson for us-- for our program today, on our theme today. And why don't you just open it up and read?

John Connors

This is from the chapter "Good Appearance: Grooming" from the section "Other Appearance Factors in Men."

Ira Glass

Copyright?

John Connors

Copyright 1942. Reprint, 1954.

"If your physique, complexion, voice, speech, habits, carriage, or general behavior in the slightest degree suggest a femininity, do everything in your power to create an impression of masculinity. Pitch your voice lower. Develop your arm muscles and your chest expansion. Avoid pet expressions and exclamations commonly used by women.

See that your posture and walk are masculine. Hold up your shoulders. Throw out your chest. Take longer steps. Think masculine and act masculine. Here's a list of gestures commonly associated with women and another list commonly associated with men. If you use any of the feminine gestures, stop at once and substitute the corresponding masculine gesture. You'll have to watch yourself pretty closely on this one.

Feminine gesture, hand on hip. Masculine gesture, hands folded over chest or clasped in back. Feminine gesture, tapping front teeth with fingernail. Masculine gesture, clenched fist under chin or jaw. Feminine gesture, looking at people from the corner of eyes. Masculine gesture, direct look. Entire head turned toward person. Feminine gesture, putting one hand up to the back to touch hair. Masculine gesture, clenching fingers of both hands together firmly at the back of head.

How do you laugh? Are your laughs pitched high like a woman's? [HIGH-PITCHED LAUGH] Lower the pitch. Develop a masculine laugh. Chuckle. Laugh from the depths of your chest and stomach. [DEEPER LAUGH] Roar. Bellow. Do anything but giggle. Don't be guilty of a high, hysterical laugh. Listen to Edward Arnold and Clark Gable in the movies. Imitate their laughter. You can't do it, but you can at least try."

Ira Glass

Hey, John?

John Connors

Hmm?

Ira Glass

Can you imagine a gay man in 1942 actually reading this and trying to follow these instructions?

John Connors

Yeah, of course.

Ira Glass

You can?

John Connors

I mean, I could see people taking notes. Self-help books are still the same.

Ira Glass

OK, but when you picture this guy in 1942 reading this book, this effeminate guy reading the book and thinking, "OK, OK, I've got to do that," where is he, and who is he?

John Connors

Well, he's probably still living at home. Probably the unmarried 30-year-old who his last ditch effort is to prove to everyone that he's not the sissy that everyone thinks he is and that there must be a formula for it.

Ira Glass

I picture this guy-- let's call him Benton-- and he's in his bedroom at his parents' house, and he has remodeled since he was a kid. And it's 1942. Is he 4-F? Is he going to go to the war? Has he been to the war?

John Connors

If you're putting the war factor into this, maybe you have somebody who's in their early 20s who can't get into the war because he is so effeminate. I've seen documentaries of gay men in World War II, and I think there probably came a point when, actually, they had to take pretty much everybody.

Ira Glass

And there were the famous gay battalions--

John Connors

Exactly.

Ira Glass

--that went into France first because they were the only ones that could speak French.

[LAUGHTER]

"Send in the gay battalion!"

John Connors

And raided the lingerie shops and redesigned all the clothes. Just redecorated the whole place so the Germans didn't want it anymore because it was just too foofy for them. "We won't be staying here. It's far too foofy." Oh, god.

Ira Glass

Well, John Connors. Coming up, more sissies in the house. Dan Savage, many people without clenched fists under their jaw. That's all in a minute when our program continues.

Act Four. The Other Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you documentaries, monologues, overheard conversations, found tape, found text, anything we can think of on that theme. Today's program, Sissies. We've arrived at Act Three of our program, The Pansy Kings Sing Songs of Love. And we've arrived at this question. Why do sissies freak people out so much? What is the big deal, anyway?

I would argue that there are two things going on with sissies. First of all, there's the idea that they're weak, right? And since everybody has, at one point or another in their life, feared being seen as weak, it can be painful to see somebody else who seems weak. Second, there's the fact that they cross gender lines, sissies do. These are boys who act like girls, or that's the stereotype, anyway.

This next story is about a sissy who got rid of half of that formula. He got rid of the appearing weak part of it. And by doing that, he was able to get away with crossing gender lines and acting more androgynous. This is the story of Dave Awl, a man who these days embraces his sissiness.

"Embraces" isn't even big enough for his relationship to his sissiness. He's a guy who founded something called The Pansy Kings, gay and sissy performers who do a show they call the Pansy King Cotillion here in Chicago. But back in Peoria where he grew up, he was not so happy being a sissy.

Dave Awl

I got my leg broken in PE class for wrestling. Instead of matching people with people who were of their same strength, they would match you with a guy who was of your same weight. Well, of course, I was this really fat kid-- really, really heavy, overweight kid. And the other guy, who weighed the same of me, was a sheet of beef. He was this big, simian, hulk of a guy.

And the PE teacher, perhaps out of cluelessness but also, I think, there was some malice toward the pansy kid and wanting to see the pansy kid get messed over, he has me wrestle the brute. So it's me and the brute out there on the mat.

And of course, within 30 seconds, I'm lying on the mat, and my leg is in two pieces. And I just remember that I was sort of moaning and crying, "Oh dear, oh dear. Oh my, oh my." Which had to be probably the most Blanche DuBois-like moment of my young life as I was carried out on the stretcher crying, "Oh dear, oh my. Oh my, oh dear."

I got a lot of abuse, especially in PE class because I was bad at sports. And obviously that was important to the other kids, and they didn't want to have me on their team. I got a lot of insults in the hallway or people knocking my books out of my hands or whatever. And what happened is I started to develop a persona.

And my best friend at that time was a girl who went to another high school, named Lydia. And she was very punk. She was the punk rock girl. And what I did is, naturally, I started changing my look. And I got the very first spiky punk haircut ever seen in East Peoria. And the effect that this had was really strange, because I went from being overtly and aggressively mocked to being really given a wide berth. I went from being mocked to almost being feared, because suddenly, I was turning up at school with this weird spiky haircut, wearing these baggy yellow trousers a la Madness and vintage green suit jackets.

And you've got to understand that at my high school, to walk down the hallways, it looked like a Loverboy video. There was this very specific uniform that consisted of a really ugly flannel shirt, a black t-shirt under it that could say one of five things, and only these five things-- Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, REO Speedwagon, Jack Daniels, or Harley-Davidson. And you could not deviate from that palette.

So I turn up dressed like a refugee from a Madness video or a David Bowie album cover. And to them, to come to school looking like that, I must be capable of anything. I had a friend tell me he had overheard these two senior burnout girls talking, and one of them said something like, "That Dave Awl, he's crazy. He'd jump in front of a bus if you told him to. He looks like he could kill somebody."

There was nothing further from the truth. I was probably the only kid in that school who would never have taken a pill my mother didn't give me. And frankly, I was awfully cowed by authority. But suddenly, I had this look.

Ira Glass

You were still a sissy.

Dave Awl

Uh huh. I was still a sissy, but I was a different kind of sissy, because what the punk new wave aesthetic allowed you to do was be androgynous in a way that was also kind of tough. You had this dyed, funny hair, but you also had a safety pin through your ear. And you were maybe wearing eyeliner, but you were also wearing ripped jeans and a black biker jacket. So what it did is it confused them because it was sending all of these mixed signals.

Ira Glass

A signal of violence at the same time as a signal of something else.

Dave Awl

Well, at least a signal of, don't mess with me. I can take care of myself, and I'm not afraid of you. I call it the "squid strategy." You muddy the waters as an act of defense. You shoot out a lot of ink into the water and confuse them, and suddenly they don't know where to strike. Because suddenly, they didn't think I looked like what they meant by a faggot anymore, which is someone who's really pathetic and weak, because I also looked kind of tough and strange. And yet, there were these androgynous elements. And the result is that they just started leaving me alone. I didn't get called a faggot anymore in the hallway. I didn't really get called anything. And what I discovered was that while I would never have chosen to be feared on my own, once there, I realized that it was a lot better than being mocked.

The problem is I was still not dealing with the internalized sissy phobia, because I was allowed to be androgynous. I was allowed to wear makeup or wear earrings or wear big flowery paisley shirts, only to the extent that I had this cover of also having the safety pin in the ear or the ripped jeans or the spiky hair or whatever looked tough. And it wasn't until college or a little after that I realized the real challenge was to be able to simply go out there like a drag queen does, without any of those balancing affectations of masculinity or toughness. To really be a sissy and go out there only using the persona elements that are considered to be feminine was something I was still very afraid to do.

Ira Glass

It's interesting that you were able to accept the fact that you were gay long before you were able to accept the fact that you were a sissy.

Dave Awl

I think that's really telling about which prejudice is more deeply rooted. I think a lot of homophobia comes from its association with sissiness, because the sissiness-- the breaking of those sacred gender categories-- is the deeper phobia in our culture.

It would be much easier for me to walk down the street carrying a copy of The Joy of Gay Sex openly than it would be to walk down the street in a pair of sparkly, ruby red high heels in this city, in this urban environment. I think I'm capable of doing both. But which one would I feel a little bit more inner self-consciousness or anxiety about doing? It would be breaking the sissy barrier.

Ira Glass

Dave Awl is the founder of the Pansy Kings performance collective and the host of The Partly Dave Show, a cabaret variety show here in Chicago.

[MUSIC - "GIRL'S BIKE" BY THE ALUMINUM GROUP]

Act 4.

Ira Glass

Act Four, The Other Love that Dare Not Speak its Name. The love that we're talking about in this act is the love of sissies. Dan Savage is a writer and editor at The Stranger, a weekly paper in Seattle, and author of the syndicated sex advice column, "Savage Love." Dan Savage says that he's met hundreds of gay men. Thousands. Enough that he can state definitively that most of them do not act like sissies, which he says is a shame for him because he loves sissies.

Dan Savage

My boyfriend is kind of a sissy. He hates it when I mention it, and when he finds out that I said it on National Public Radio, he's going to kill me. But he is kind of a sissy. He cooks. He likes to do laundry. He's into fashion and Brit pop and Barbra Streisand. And all that's OK with me. I hate to cook. And if he wants to listen to Funny Girl while he folds my shirts, well, I can deal.

And besides, it's really no sacrifice on my part. I think sissies are sexy. Though sissy isn't the right word, really. Little boys who play with dolls are sissies. Grown men who went to see The Mirror Has Two Faces on the morning it opened and loved it are known in gay slang, at least, as femmes.

My attraction to femmy guys is rooted, I have no doubt, in a high school experience. At St. Gregory the Great where I spent my sophomore year, there was this senior-- totally femmy and gay and out of the closet-- and this was in 1979. He dressed in Kmart disco fashions and wore his hair long and used eyeliner.

St. Greg's was a dumping ground. All the kids kicked out of other Catholic high schools for being bad students or hoodlums wound up at Greg's. These were not kids who instinctively honored diversity. These were kids who beat up sissies.

But no pounding could stop St. Greg's only femme. Like Gandhi he'd be back the day after a beating, defiant in his satin pants with his hair feathered back like Farrah Fawcett's. No punch, no putdown could stop him from talking loudly in the cafeteria about the bars he went to, the men he dated, the trouble he'd seen. He was very femmy, but he didn't want to be a woman. He liked being a guy, and he liked being gay. And he liked everyone to know about it.

As a miserably-closeted 14-year-old sophomore, I desperately wanted to go to gay bars in satin pants. I wanted to date men. I wanted to see some trouble. But I wasn't brave enough or strong enough or courageous enough. This femmy senior, he was all those butch things. He displayed more courage when he walked into St. Greg's every morning than I've ever displayed in my life, which is why I had such a crush on him, I think. Of all the tough kids at St. Greg's, he was absolutely the toughest.

Which brings me, in a rather roundabout fashion, to the personal ads. Being attracted to femmes and willing to admit it makes me something of a rarity among gay men, judging from gay personal ads. No one seems to like femme guys much. In the personals in the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader, and the SF Weekly, almost every other boy seeking a boy winds up his ad with "no fats, no femmes," or the truly appalling "straight-acting, straight-appearing."

What is up with that? I don't have a problem with no fats, no femmes. That's just blunt. But straight-acting and appearing? What does that mean, exactly?

Straight-acting and appearing guys don't read gay personal ads, do they? Reading gay personals is a very gay-acting to do, and responding to gay personals is a very, very, very gay-acting thing to do, practically the gayest action a man can take short of having gay sex or owning the soundtrack to Yentil.

When a person, a gay person, puts straight-acting, a straight-appearing in his ad-- and mind you, it's only about 1 out of 10 ads-- he's saying that gayness, in and of itself, is unattractive, undesirable. A few years ago, The Stranger, the paper I work for in Seattle, launched a personals section. Being the sex guy at the paper, the personals became my responsibility. I ran the section and got to decide what was and was not kosher. And the first thing I absolutely forbid was "straight-acting, straight-appearing."

Some of my straight-acting and appearing coworkers, who were also actually straight, objected. Nothing else was banned in our freewheeling personals section. Deleting "straight-acting" reeked of PC censorship. After pitching a hissy fit at a staff meeting, a very gay-acting thing to do, by the way, I got my way.

We wouldn't run ads from a black woman seeking white-acting black men, I remember shouting, or a Jewish guy seeking Christian-appearing Jewish women, would we? Most of my straight-appearing coworkers saw my point, and the rest were willing to let the lone sissy on staff make the call about what was, I told them, a gay thing.

As a result, The Stranger is, so far as I know, the only paper in the country, gay or straight that will not allow gay men to advertise themselves as straight-acting, straight-appearing. Not that something hasn't taken its place. Something has, a monster of my own creation.

You see, at first, if someone sent in a straight-acting ad, we'd run the ad just without the phrase. But sometimes, dropping the phrase left a hole in the ad. So we would very occasionally substitute the word "masculine" for the phrase "straight-acting straight-appearing." The word caught on, and now it's in almost every ad in the boys-seeking-boys section of the Stranger personals.

What you don't see much of in the personals are men looking for femmy guys. And ads placed by guys who admit to being femmy are the rarest of the rare, since admitting to being femme has all the allure of admitting to being a fat slob. Here's an interesting one. "Black male, secure, straight-acting, in the closet, femme, seeking boyfriend." Wow. Coming across this ad made me feel like a bird watcher who just spotted some rare tropical parrot up in the Arctic Circle. A straight-acting femme. How do you pull that off?

And here's another ad from a guy who risked describing himself as femmy. "Gay, white male, 5'9", 150 pounds, HIV negative, attractive, mildly feminine, seeks relationship with gay male around six foot." I decided to give him a call. His name is Mark.

Dan Savage

When you say "feminine," what are you trying to tell people who read your personal about you?

Mark

I'm not masculine. I'm not straight-acting. And I wanted to clarify that because it sickens me when I read a personal ad and it says, I'm straight-acting.

Dan Savage

Why does that bother you?

Mark

Because it seems really self-hating, and I'd rather not define myself in terms of the straight culture.

Dan Savage

Have you encountered guys who didn't like the fact that you were mildly feminine or guys who wouldn't date you or had negative experiences with guys who freaked out because you listen to Barbra Streisand or something?

Mark

I don't know if I would say I've had negative experiences, but I definitely think that-- well, I'll say that a friend of mine recently said that he thought that I would get more dates if I had a deeper voice.

Dan Savage

What does he want you to do? [DEEP VOICE] He wants you to talk like this into the phone?

Mark

[DEEP VOICE] He wants me to talk like this all the time.

Dan Savage

And that doesn't sound like it would be you. It doesn't sound like you would be comfortable doing that.

Mark

No.

Dan Savage

But he thinks that you'll get more dates if you do that. Do you think you'll get more dates if you pretend to be butcher than you actually are?

Mark

Well, I think that in the gay community, it's something, especially right now, that is desired, unfortunately.

Dan Savage

Finally, I decided to call a couple of guys who took out personal ads describing themselves as straight-acting and appearing. I really wanted to know what they thought they were doing when they wrote that down, what they thought it meant to be a straight-acting gay man.

Here's one. "Bodybuilders, let me check you out, tease you, and please you. You be daring closet type. I'm straight-acting closet bi. 30-something, attractive." I'd never spoken to a straight-acting closet bisexual before. I gave him a call.

Dan Savage

What's straight-acting mean?

Man

Well, definitely not in the gay scene at all. Straight-acting, I go out with women. I have girlfriends occasionally. And I don't think any of my friends would suspect that I have gay sex on the side.

Dan Savage

What if a really sexy-looking guy who looked really butch and really masculine answered your ad, but he had a lisp and was a little effeminate? At what point do you draw the line and say, "You're too effeminate for me"?

Man

It would be a hard to tell you exactly where I would draw the line because it's all such a personal thing. First impressions, when you talk to somebody, and then when you meet them.

Dan Savage

So if a gay guy who was feminine but could act butch were to respond to your ad, you might think of going out with him so long as the whole time you were together, he could keep it up, he could keep acting sort of straight and appearing straight, even if he went home and put on ladies underwear and listened to Vikki Carr and cried?

Man

That would be perfect.

Dan Savage

You would be OK with that?

Man

Yeah.

Dan Savage

Is fear of the consequences of coming out maybe part of what keeps you from being out with everybody?

Man

Definitely.

Dan Savage

What are you afraid might happen?

Man

Well, I don't want to freak out all my friends, for one thing. Because some of my friends are really pretty conservative.

Dan Savage

Bigoted?

Man

Yeah, exactly.

Dan Savage

So how does it feel-- I mean, aren't you kind of lying to them? Aren't you like a black person whose best friend is a blind white person who hates black people?

Man

I never thought of it that way. I'm not sure I'd agree. It's not like I'm a silent person when things are said and criticisms are made.

Dan Savage

I saved this next interview for last because, of all the guys who place straight-acting personal ads, the saddest to my mind are the out gay guys who, in every other way, sound pretty together, except that they describe themselves as straight. Robert's ad reads, "Seeking companion of about my age. I am professional, medium build, 37 years old, 6'2", 220 pounds, straight-acting. Looking for a guy for discreet excitement, friendship, and fun."

Dan Savage

When you say you're straight-acting, what do you mean?

Robert

I just mean that it doesn't fit the traditional stereotype.

Dan Savage

That you don't?

Robert

Yeah.

Dan Savage

What is the traditional stereotype? You describe yourself as a gay man, yeah?

Robert

Right.

Dan Savage

But what's the traditional stereotype, that you think you don't fit, of gay men?

Robert

Kind of effeminate.

Dan Savage

Uh huh. What kind of guy are you looking for?

Robert

Just kind of a regular person like I think that I am. I work every day and play hard and just kind of lead a pretty quiet life, and I'm not looking for someone who is doing the--

Dan Savage

The bar thing every night.

Robert

The bar thing, yeah, kind of being burnt out and being promiscuous and things like that.

Dan Savage

What do you think when you see a really effeminate gay man, like, out in public being really effeminate?

Robert

I just think, what does he do for a living? If I see him at night, I think it's really fun, and if I see the person during the day, I'm wondering, well, does he have a job? And what do people at work think? Being a member of a minority group, a racial minority, I think that it's really-- I'm just one who are a lot more conservative, and I think that when you label yourself, you make it a lot more difficult.

Dan Savage

When you were a little boy, were you a sissy?

Robert

Yeah, my voice didn't mature fast enough for me.

Dan Savage

Were you picked on?

Robert

Yeah.

Dan Savage

Do you think that that being picked on had any impact on your adult choices around being very, very private?

Robert

Yes, I do. I do. You want to stay inside of the box. And being inside of the male box, then people are not going to pick on you. People are not going to do mean things and say horrible things about you as long as you stay within a realm of acceptable behavior.

Dan Savage

So part of what keeps you inside that realm of acceptable behavior, then, is fear of being picked on or being--

Robert

Labeled.

Dan Savage

Labeled or a victim of anti-gay violence. But it's fear, then, at least partially.

Robert

Yeah.

Dan Savage

So in a way, when you see someone really swishy on the street, isn't that brave of them?

Robert

Not always. It depends on where the person's coming from. I don't think that if you're swishy and you happen to be in a ghetto of other gay men, then you're free to do that. But I don't think that you're exceptionally brave. I just think that you live in a very violent world, and things happen. And you try not to put yourself into a situation that bad things can happen to you.

Dan Savage

I don't agree with Robert. The way I see it, the bravest of all the guys I talked to was Mark, the guy who described himself as feminine in his personal ad. Mark and that brave swishy senior I had a crush on at St. Greg's, they both have the courage to present their real selves to the world in all their glorious sissiness, which, in a world that despises feminine men and boys, is a risky thing to do, a brave thing to do.

Now, contrast their behavior with that of men who are straight-acting, 100% discreet, and in the closet, or men who are constantly policing their own behavior. These are men ruled by fear-- fear of discovery, fear of femininity, fear of what it means to be who they are. They are the sissies.

I'm not saying that the closet case who asks gay men not to respond to his ad needs to be a big, swishy queen in order to be true to himself. He just needs to be a man, secure about who he is, a man who isn't ruled by fear, a man willing to show himself to the world. He needs to not be such a sissy.

Ira Glass

Dan Savage. He's the editor at The Stranger, and he has a book coming out in September called The Commitment.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Today's program was produced by Nancy Updike and myself with Peter Clowney, Alix Spiegel, and special guest producer Danny Miller, contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

And a very special thanks to Mubarak and Margie for letting us, our program, and Nancy Updike into their lives. In the years since we first broadcast their story, Margie passed away in 1998 with Mubarak at her side, holding her hand and talking to her in the hospital when she had her final stroke. Mubarak is currently the editor of the Express Gay News, the gay and lesbian newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Nancy Updike

Margie, I do a pretty good imitation of you. This is what I was telling Mubarak. OK, now I'm imitating myself asking a question. "So, Margie, you said that? And what did Sabir say?" "Nothing. He just looked at me." Isn't that pretty good?

Margie

That's real good. It's good.

Ira Glass

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free. Or you can download episodes of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife. WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who explains, no, no, no, he does not laugh like this.

John Connors

[HIGH-PITCHED LAUGH]

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

John Connors

We won't be staying here. It's far too foofy.

Announcer

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