The freaky penis 

Size requires visibility

In the '80s I spent a lot of time in Gibsonton, Fla., investigating the nation's last great freak show. Still living in that town at the time were some of the "human oddities" that Diane Arbus photographed. Even one of the freaks in Tod Browning's disturbing movie, Freaks, was still around then.

One aspect of carnival life that took me quite by surprise was its pansexuality. I became friends with one of the hoochie koochie dancers who happened to be male -- a female impersonator. A surprising percentage of these dancers, pornographically entertaining blue-collar men, turned out to be men in drag. The dancers never revealed their actual gender, though I'd be quite surprised if many men didn't realize they were watching female impersonators.

The most fascinating "oddity" I met was a woman, Alice, with the full body tattoo of a man on the front of her body, including a very large penis traveling down her right thigh. Alice's purpose was more explicitly to shock people by the transgression of gender, disrobing before crowds in tents.

She, like the other human oddities, brought the cotton-candy eating crowds to a silence deep enough for prayer. I don't think it was usually the particular nature of the oddity that inspired awe. I assume, instead, that it was something of the awe we feel in seeing someone openly display the taboo. Most of us, "normal" on the surface, carry some taboo impulse in our hearts. The freak's taboo is on the surface. And that is awe-inspiring. What, we wonder, would it be like to display our own oddity on the surface of our being?

Minorities have long played the freak's role in American life, especially as projections of disowned sexual impulses in a puritanical culture. African-American men, as I wrote last week, have long been the object of white men's phallic anxieties. Displayed like freaks in public lynchings, they were ritually castrated, their organs sometimes later exhibited. The black man's "otherness," his freakishness in the dominant culture, is on the surface in his skin color. One response to the ongoing fetishizing of the African-American male as hyperphallic is for him to actually assume that role, at least at the level of media. The movies demonstrating this -- blaxploitation films -- are countless.

Gay men have also been the objects of phallic anxiety and adopted the fetish of the huge dick as an expression of that. Gay men differ from black men, though, in that their difference is not on the surface. Gay men long inhabited the closet, keeping their sexual tastes out of view, if not fully repressed. Although the culture has become generally more accepting, it still largely demands that the expression of same-sex desire be kept private.

Of course, there is really no such thing as privacy in this respect. "To keep it private" in this case really means to forego sex. The examples of the way queer sexuality cannot even find a private space for expression are legion. The infamous Hardwick-Bowers case which resulted in the Supreme Court's upholding of Georgia's sodomy law, since overturned, involved the police actually invading a bedroom. The don't-ask-don't-tell policy of the Armed Forces, by which homosexuality is supposed to be tolerated as long as it's closeted, also demonstrates the fiction of privacy. The policy has resulted in a dramatic increase in investigations into men's sex lives and discharges for homosexuality.

My favorite example is Jerry Falwell's fundraising tool a few years ago. After demanding that gay people disappear themselves, the righteous reverend sent a crew to film events at the Folsom Street Fair, a "leather" event in San Francisco. He also sent crews undercover into gay bars. In exchange for a contribution to his ministry, the reverend would send you a copy of this disgusting video. In other words, good Christians could view in the privacy of their homes, thanks to snooping cameras, the freaky sex lives of those they complain are never private enough.

It isn't homosexual sex in particular that draws the hungry eyes of fundamentalists. Like those freak show audiences, they are witnessing the liberation of the taboo -- in this case, sex purely for pleasure. The culture's obsession with the huge penis is a symbolization of its own need to de-repress the taboo. It has long been explicit in gay culture as a symbol, by its size, of the need both for visibility -- private parts bursting out of impossible privacy -- and masculine empowerment.

To me, the turning point in recent history was the very gay but closeted Calvin Klein's billboards of white rapper Marky Mark, grabbing his dick in his underwear. As a white rapper, he was appropriating African-American culture, and in his delighted open dick-grabbing, he excited the imaginations of gay men. This in turn began a queering of American media and a coalescence of heterosexual and gay phallic anxiety. Where once gay men alone openly fetishized the huge penis, now heterosexual men, having beheld the freak, looked between their legs and came up short, or long, and began examining their own erotic limitations. Queer and straight became a little less different.


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