Nelly Power: When Coming Out Isn't a Choice
having or showing qualities that are considered more suited to women than to men: not manly
having feminine qualities untypical of a man: not manly in appearance or manner
marked by an unbecoming delicacy or overrefinement <effeminate art> <an effeminate civilization>
Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is becoming more culturally acceptable than ever before. Laws are changing. Our current president and his wife have both made bold moves in including us in the national discussion. There are "ideal" cisgender role models of gay men and women that meet accepted standards. (Think Barney Frank and Portia de Rossi, for example.)
Younger and younger children are telling their parents that they do not identify as their perceived gender, and more and more parents are making allowances for children to make their own gender identities.
But the nelly man is still troublesome and controversial. What about the sissy?
It's the perfect story when the all-American high school athlete announces at the student body meeting that he is gay. But what about the boy who was unable to adopt the accepted gender behaviors — even from a very early age — and has been perceived as gay all his life?
That boy doesn't have the heroic moment of coming out. He has already been cast by his schoolmates, his teachers, and perhaps his family. Some boys try to "butch it up" as soon as they begin being teased and tortured by their peers. Some boys shut down and become like little robots of carefully thought-out butchness. Other boys turn up the volume and wear their otherness as armor.
For some, there is no possibility of behavior modification to fit the templates of "normal." These boys may have no confusion about their gender identity and may be years away from being sexually actualized.
In some cultures it is more acceptable to be a feminine man who dons the clothing of the opposite sex than it is to be a feminine man who enjoys his manhood.
The concept of effeminacy is nuanced. By definition (at least in the male-centric Merriam-Webster's) there is a difference between being feminine and being effeminate. "Marked by an unbecoming delicacy or overrefinement." The subtle message is that being like a woman is not a good thing, especially for a man, because women are not as good as men. That reminds us women's issues are gay issues, and vice versa.
So the little boy who can't turn down the volume on his nelly ways learns to become either invisible or very tough. And it gets even worse for these boys as they and all their peers kick into puberty.
In the long argument about whether civil rights include gay rights, there are those on one side who say it's different for African-Americans because they can't hide their race. They posit that gay men have a choice of hiding their gayness. That simply isn't so. Certainly they can keep their sexual attractions to themselves, although that seems a draconian measure. But many boys cannot adhere to expected gender norms. So they are not only discriminated against by the world at large, but often their families reject them for their gender-nonconforming nature. For example, in 2005 a Florida man named Ronnie Paris Jr. killed his 3-year-old son for being too "soft." Do African-American families kill their children for being black?
Once again, it's important to note the relationship between gay and women's issues. Stories come from China and India of female fetuses being aborted simply because they're female. It's difficult to be a gay man in this society, but it is still more difficult to be a woman ... perhaps deadly.
While an effeminate boy may eventually wear women's clothing and create space for gender play, he doesn't necessarily want to be a woman. And it's possible at this point in our media coverage of gender issues that there may be more support for a young child with a gender identity issue than there is for a sweet little sissy boy.
Now that we are past the happy rainbow moment of National Coming Out Day, let's look at some of the guys — both real and fictional — who could never be "in."
“It's been agony but I couldn't have done it any other way.”
― Quentin Crisp
Crisp — the author of The Naked Civil Servant — is a controversial figure. Outrageous and audacious, he had both bravery and style to be an effeminate iconoclast. He wore makeup in broad daylight, which put him in physical and legal peril, as he was both attacked and arrested.
Crisp maintains that his openly feminine appearance made him very popular with the American GIs in London during World War II because they knew what he was at first glance. The soldiers were comfortable enough with who they were that there was no apparent conflict with their heterosexual identitly while having homosexual sex with Crisp.
Before Alfred Kinsey's book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), which included research revelaing that a large number of straight-identified men had been having homosexual experiences, a straight man having sex with a gay man who displayed sufficient feminine attributes did not worry about his identity as straight. George Chauncey also writes about this at length in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Feminine gay men were considered a third sex, and often a cheaper and more available sexual outlet than women and female prostitutes.
Below: Mr. Crisp being interviewed by Mr. Harty in New York.
The Little Bull: Truman Capote
After a brilliant debut with his semiautobiographical novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote went on to write the novel on which the film Breakfast at Tiffany's was based. His book In Cold Blood was considered the first nonfiction novel.
David Frost interviews Truman Capote about love and sex
Included in this video is an extract from the November 20, 1969, edition of The David Frost Show in which Frost asks Truman Capote about the nature of love, friendship, and sex.
Mart Crowley's 1968 play The Boys in the Band introduced Broadway to the inner sanctum of a set of gay male friends in the late '60s. As they celebrate the birthday of their friend Harold, the escalating amounts of tension, bitter humor, and alcohol lead to a brutal but revealing evening. The film of the play was released in 1970, and one of the characters set free from the Broadway stage and now in selected theaters across the nation was Emory, the queenliest of the group. Cliff Gorman's portrayal of Emory is heartbreaking, irritating, and very funny.
Emory is tremendously quotable ("Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty."and "Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?"), and his lines became tropes for the contemporary gay set. Emory is the classic example of nelliness as armor. His constant joking and self-deprecating humor are revealed for what they are as the film progresses. It's fitting that Emory is the character who so infuriates the one straight male in the group that he gets punched in the face. Violence is usually saved for the biggest sissy.
Emory appears in the opening title sequence (see below) as he closes his antique shop and scoops up his white poodle to stroll down Fifth Avenue collecting stares from onlookers.
Wit Master: Charles Nelson Reilly
Above: Drag performer Helen Morgan Jr. and Jean (Gene( Malin at the Club Abbey in an ilustration that originally appeared in Vanity Fair
Big Gay Swish: Gene Malin
Brooklyn-born Malin had a precocious start, and by the time he was a teen, he was already winning prizes for his costumes he made for the elaborate drag balls of the 1920s.
After landing several jobs in the chorus in Broadway shows, Malin eventually began working nightclubs, not as a drag act, but taking advantage of the "pansy craze"* at the time in New York and performing as a very swishy and effeminate man.
In the '30s Malin emceed at several clubs, and in 1930 he was reportedly the highest-paid nightclub entertainer of the year. He was a big man, and not afraid to throw his weight around. He decked a heckler at one of his performances, prompting Ed Sullivan to write, "Jean Malin belted a heckler last night at one of the local clubs. All that twitters isn't pansy."
*The pansy craze is currently being celebrated on Broadway in the hit play The Nance starring Nathan Lane.
Bugs Bunny: That Cross-Dwessing Wabbit
Closet Cases: Acting Gay Without Paying the Dues
The men listed previously were each notable in that they bravely faced public scorn for not only acting nelly or effeminat, but being open about their homosexuality. Some were a little later in being able to be openly comfortable with it than others. Charles Nelson Reilly never spoke about it till 2002, but he also never denied it. Reilly figured everyone knew.
Then there are the men listed below who swished publicly, being even aggressively flamboyant and nelly if it kept their purses full of cash, but have denied, demurred, and avoided talking about it.
Before RuPaul, before Lady Bunny, and even before Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon donned dresses in Some Like It Hot, Julian Eltinge was one of the top performers and best known “actresses” in the nation, earning huge salaries before the Depression and the eclipse of vaudeville.
Was Eltinge gay? Transgender? A transvestite? Eltinge worked hard all his life to craft a picture of impeccable masculinity. He first garnered critical attention performing in feminine garb for the Boston Cadets Review at the age of 10. By 1904 he was performing on Broadway.
There were other drag performers at the time — Bert Savoy and George Fortesque, for example. But they performed caricatures of women — they were drag queens. What set Eltinge apart was his ability to perform female roles in a natural way — much to the astonishment and delight of his audiences.
Hollywood beckoned Eltinge, and in 1917 he appeared in his first feature film, The Countess Charming. This would lead to other films, including 1918’s The Isle of Love starring Rudolph Valentino, with whom he was rumored to have had an affair.
Paul Lynde: Mean Queen
Lynde was best known for acerbic sexual double entendres on the game show Hollywood Squares. His career started on Broadway in shows like New Faces of 1952 and Bye Bye Birdie. He took the role in Birdie to the big screen with Ann-Margret. And he played Uncle Arthur on the long-running series Bewitched with Elizabeth Montgomery and the Dicks, York and Sargent.
Below, Paul Lynde in a Halloween special.