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Gay Culture and Erotic Art

Celebrating Tom of Finland

May. 2, 2017
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Tom of Finland, the new film biography of gay culture’s leading homoerotic artist, Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), aka Tom of Finland, is making its way through the festival circuit. It’s already received critical acclaim and an award. For those unfamiliar, the artist created an iconic body of work featuring tall, square-jawed, broad shouldered and hard-muscled caricatures of the very epitome of male fantasy. 

Gays always had their heartthrobs—Tarzan, movie gladiators, Brando in The Wild Ones or the big jock on campus. But, although they all oozed that certain male mystique, they were ultimately straight and unattainable. Tarzan had Jane; gladiators preferred killing each other to kissing each other and the big jock inevitably went off with the prom queen. But Tom of Finland’s devilishly grinning macho men—soldiers, sailors, motorcycle bad-boys in squeaky black leather—asserted homoerotism and took it to an unencumbered mutual climax. Suddenly, rather than the McCarthy era’s mincing queer stereotypes or Tennessee Williams’ emotionally frail and suicidal archetypes, gay men could identify with strapping, thick-necked toughs in excessively tight navy crackerjacks or classic police uniforms, replete with knee high jack-boots and excessively flaring jodhpurs—and always with even more excessively flaring bulges.

With such imagery dancing in my head, I entered my first Euro leather bar, Boots, in Frankfurt, Germany, with a certain sense of abandon. A Tom of Finland guy adorned the bar logo so I naturally expected a lion’s den of doe-eyed, leather-clad lads seductively slung across bar stools. Instead, the place was practically empty save for a couple of much older, stouter guys, albeit arrayed from head to foot in silver-studded leather. I overheard one of them gushing, in high gay German Tuntendeutsch, about his collection of bootlegged Maria Callas recordings. 

Still, although it may have belied reality, Tom of Finland’s iconography of the leather fetish subculture inspired exactly that embrace of queer nonconformity. According to Milwaukee activist Si Smits, co-founder of several local leather clubs and the owner of the former Boot Camp Saloon, that hyper-masculinized fantasy propelled LGBT culture, encouraging people to shed their inhibitions and come out. It contributed to LGBT liberation in general and to the leather world’s self-awareness in particular.

And, although the artist died in 1991, beyond the leather scene, his once underground brand is now an established and enduring cultural phenomenon. A Tom of Finland exhibit recently hung at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In 2014 the Finnish Post Office even issued commemorative postage stamps. And, if you’re looking for a Tom shower curtain, duvet cover or fashion wear, online sales outlets supply it all.

Meanwhile, Tom’s original message still inspires the competitive leather contest scene that culminates each year with International Mr. Leather (IML) held in Chicago at the end of May. Smits, who attended the first IML in 1979, recalls at most a couple of hundred attendees. Today, decades later, the annual event draws exponentially larger crowds of leathermen and leatherwomen for a wild weekend of parties and the naming of a new International Mr. Leather. This year, Milwaukee’s Mr. Harbor Room, Chad Barr, will vie for the title.


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