JESSE PEARSON | DATE 6/25/2016
Of what utility is a review by me—a mostly straight man, as the Kinsey scale goes—of a book that outlines, from the inside and with anthropological precision, the intimate codes of apparel and persona that were employed by the gay men of 1970s America? That question is so unanswerable, at least in terms of finding a response that would satisfy each potential questioner, that it’s essentially hypothetical. So I’ll forego any further stress regarding whether I have the right to tell you what I think of this book and instead I’ll just tell you what I think of this book (as long as you keep in mind that the subject of Gay Semiotics is a secret language that was created with the express purpose of communication beyond the ken of the un-gay).
Originally published in 1978, this is a laconic field guide to the flora and fauna of then-contemporary gay life in San Francisco. Photographer and critic Hal Fischer—operating in a world in which semiotics was still a thing that people talked about not just when they were high on cocaine and yearning to flex a bit of what they had learned in a mostly forgotten college course—applied the social science of sign-reading to the milieu, full to the brim with frisson and jouissance, in which he found himself living. The book’s poker-faced photos and texts, when applied to such juicy accoutrements as ball gags and amyl nitrate poppers and such complex species as urbanis cowboyicus and leatherus daddyus give the whole venture a feeling of warm familiarity, of a joke shared.
Under the heading of “Signifiers for a Male Response,” Fischer breaks down the applicable meanings of earrings, handkerchiefs and keys—as well as the additional nuances of placement on the right or left side of the body. I like how these elements of gay culture, during a time when it was still forced to remain underground, found expression in codes so rigid that they approach militaristic precision. The utility of this language is clean and fast. Cut the shit; show me what you want. Wear your keys on a chain on your right side if you’re sexually passive; stick a red handkerchief in the left pocket of your jeans to indicate that you prefer to take charge in matters of penetration, and so on. Fischer, quietly adept, throws in deadpan asides here and there, such as a gentle reminder that red handkerchiefs might also be “employed in the treatment of nasal discharge,” in which case, it is assumed, their sex mojo would be nullified.
Elsewhere in the book, Fischer breaks down several of what he calls "Archetypal Media Images." Riffing on the tradition of August Sander, we see representative examples of various types, such as the natural (which lies in the American folk tradition of Whitman and Eakins), the classical (which owes its vibe to the marbled Adonis of antiquity), western (the cowboy stud), the urbane (of which Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in Polyester Suit is the gold standard) and the leather (of which the Village People’s Glenn Hughes was best known in mainstream 1970s America).
As a time capsule of both gay subculture and the urge to commit semiotics, this book is necessary. It is also valuable as a chunk of sheer entertainment. But most interesting, perhaps, is the way that Gay Semiotics offers a chance to reflect upon the necessities of communication engendered by repression—as well as the opportunity to evaluate in which ways, and how much, gay men are freer now than they were then.
JESSE PEARSON is the founder and editor of Apology. He was previously an editor at index and the editor-in-chief of Vice. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is Creative Director of Super Deluxe.
CHERRY AND MARTIN
Pbk, 8 x 10 in. / 56 pgs / 24 b&w.