Taste Y

[This is an edited version of postings to the newsgroup soc.motss in December 2005. The original context was a discussion of aspects of the Ang Lee film Brokeback Mountain and the Annie Proulx story it was based on, particularly on the question of whether the label gay could be applied to the central characters Jack and Ennis. That’s a question about categorization and a question about about labeling, but as so often in discussions of social categories, the two questions got confounded — and, worse, the discussion ranged over the many different uses of gay, slipping back and forth from one to another.

So I embarked on an attempt to clarify things more or less from the ground up, which involved using entirely fresh terminology for the concepts involved.

In the current version I’ve eliminated references to much of the 2005 discussion, but the focus on Brokeback Mountain surfaces later in this piece.]

I start with a characteristic of individual men, a kind of (powerful) taste, a significant desire for physical intimacy (of one or another kind — cuddling and kissing, body play, various sorts of genital sex acts, whatever) with other males, and in adult men, significant arousal by (some) other men (what my friend Steven Levine calls DHL — dick-hardening lust). Call this Taste Y (Y as in Y chromosome).

Men can have Taste Y in varying strengths, it can coexist with Taste X, it comes in various flavors, etc.  There’s lots of complexity here. Men can have Taste Y but not engage in man-man sex. Men can engage in man-man sex without having Taste Y; there are other reasons for doing so. Men can have Taste Y, even to a high degree, but not understand this consciously; people can be self-deceived. Men can have Taste Y, and recognize that they do, but believe that having Taste Y is not a particularly important fact about them. A man who has Taste Y, recognizes it, and believes that having this taste is an important fact about him is someone I’ll call a Y Man.

You can be a Y Man without having a name for your taste. You can be a Y Man without anybody’s having a name for your taste. Presumably there have been some Y Men around as long as there have been men around. You can be a Y Man in a culture that has names for your taste but reject these labels because they have additional denotations or connotations that you believe do not apply to you. You can be a Y Man and believe that no one you know is one, or even that no other man in the world is one; this is actually fairly common in Y Boys. Being a Y Man is not a social fact or state, but an individual, psychological one.

On the other hand, there is a related social category, a recognized kind of person in our culture, a kind of social identity (well, probably, several kinds, but let’s keep it simple). We view some set of men with Taste Y as constituting a class for social purposes. Call this Category G, and call a member of Category G a G Man. (Yes, I recognize that these are desperate, unlovely labels. But we need to get away from the usual labels, because they’re used in diverse, even contradictory, ways by different people on different occasions, and the concepts in question are frequently confused.)

People suppose that G Men will tend to share properties beyond having Taste Y and that they will fit into society in certain ways. G Men will tend to believe that are in some significant ways like (many) other G Men. (These are the ways social categories work in general.)

The existence of a Category G is a historically contingent fact. It’s reasonable to claim that in Western culture in general Category G is a fairly recent development, that before some period there were no G Men.

Ordinary language is generally very poor in distinguishing properties of individuals from social categories. Cowboy, for example, names a characteristic of some individual men, who do certain kinds of ranch work, and it also names a social identity. (To complicate things still further, there’s another cowboy social identity: a gay persona, or presentation of self, which might have precious little to do with ranching.) Jack and Ennis in Brokeback Mountain are cowboys in both (non-gay) senses; Ennis can’t imagine anything but the cowboy life, and Jack’s dream is not to get away from the cowboy milieu, but to ranch with Ennis. (It happens that in the story and the film, Jack and Ennis become attached to one another while they are herding sheep together, but for them that’s just another kind of farm work.)

So it is with gay. I’ve been accustomed to using this word, as applied to men, either for men with Taste Y in general, or more specifically for Y Men (putting some men in a marginal gray area of sexual taste). I myself had Taste Y from roughly the age of 7, but didn’t become fully conscious of it — I seem to have thought that it was “normal”, that other boys had this taste, this desire to embrace and kiss other boys and men, but just didn’t talk about it, though I saw absolutely no evidence of this in the behavior of the boys around me) and didn’t view it as a significant fact about me (presenting the problem: how am I going to live my life?) until my mid-20s. For G Men, I say that they have a “gay identity” or “identify as gay” (I didn’t identify as gay until my late 20s, several years after my first sexual encounters with men). But it’s hard not to slip into using the simple, single word gay to refer to the identity. Often there’s no problem; the context makes it clear.

But there can be problems. People can slip easily from the question of whether someone is “gay” to the question of whether they have a “gay identity”.

Jack and Ennis deny a gay identity, and there’s no reason I can see not to take them at their word. But it seems to me that they are unquestionably men with Taste Y, at least for each other (and in Jack’s case, rather more generally), and there’s some evidence that they are both Y Men. At several points we see really urgent desire on both men’s parts (possibly stronger in Ennis than in Jack), with kisses both passionate and affectionate. Both men articulate their aching need for one another — and what they mean by this is not just best-buddy time together, but physical intimacy everywhere on the scale from stroking and nuzzling up to fucking. Ennis notes that if they were out in the real world together, they’d sooner or later give themselves away (meaning, something like they wouldn’t be able to keep their hands (and lips) off one another), and in the final confrontation scene, Ennis asks Jack if he doesn’t think sometimes that when he goes out on the street other people can see (meaning, can recognize that he’s a man who desires other men); Jack doesn’t seem to think so, but Ennis is tortured by the thought. This seems to me like an explicit recognition that same-sex desire is an important (though unwelcome) part of his image of himself. Ennis is also mad for the smell of Jack (as well as the taste of his mouth).

[The smell thing is very poignant for me. I recently abandoned the last piece of my man Jacques’s clothing that once had his smell on it, because it didn’t any more (over seven years after he died). Now I have only the photographs, some of his belongings (some silly things that I nevertheless can’t bear to part with), some clothes of his that fit me, and all my writing about our years together.]

[Ennis is a complex character. He is, first of all, absolutely starved for affection, and gets it from Jack. Jack opens Ennis up emotionally, truly changes his life (I think that the affection he shows for his daughter, especially in the movie’s final scene, would never have been within his emotional range if Jack hadn’t brought him to life emotionally), and also triggers his desire. Ennis is depicted as desiring his wife mostly instrumentally — to get his rocks off (though he doesn’t articulate that) and to make babies (that he articulates) — and as increasingly less affectionate with her over the years, while becoming more and more affectionate with Jack.]

Ok, another complexity. So many people want to say that Brokeback Mountain is just a love story between men. (Many critics seem to have wanted to stay all the way out of the icky icky fag zone.) It is certainly that. But it seems clear to me that it is also a story of man-man desire.

This is not a matter of choosing one and only one thing. In fact, the movie is full of touches that communicate two things at once. Several times Ennis talks about “Jack fuckin’ Twist”, expressing both affection and complaint. And when Ennis explains that they can’t meet because he has to go on roundup, he needs the job, we see that this is both true on its face (Ennis is a solid, responsible guy) and also an excuse, covering a desire to escape from this painful relationship (their “thing”).

Some people say that it was entirely “natural” for Jack and Ennis to express their love for one another through sex. This is profoundly silly. If by love we mean a relationship to someone else characterized by intense pleasure in their company (probably accompanied by elevated levels of certain hormones), desire to spend time with them, admiration and respect for them, a feeling of being a better person when you’re with them, feelings of trust and support, feelings of simultaneous likeness and complementarity (Jack and Ennis are wonderfully paired on these two dimensions), etc., then there are plenty of straight guys who love one another. They call each other “best buddies”, or have no name for their relationship at all. But they’re very important to one another. Almost never do these relationships involve physical intimacy, even at the cuddling and kissing level. And that’s because these guys don’t have Taste Y. For them, there’s no natural progression from love to sex. Jack and Ennis do have (heretofore unrecognized) Taste Y, so they’re soon going down that slide into fucking.

(Of course, if your idea of what counts as love includes a component of desire, then there is such a progression. But then we’re playing with words, and I’ll go back and reformulate what I just said about “love” in terms of “being in Relation L” or something like that.)

Addendum on some Brokeback Mountain literature:

Proulx, Annie; Larry McMurtry; & Diana Ossana. 2005. Brokeback Mountain: Story to screenplay.  NY: Scribner. [the story, the screenplay, and essays from each of the three writers]

Ultimate Brokeback Forum. 2007. Beyond Brokeback: The impact of a film. Livermore CA: WingSpan Press. [selections from an astonishing outpouring of viewer responses to the movie, from an on-line forum]

Stacy, Jim (ed.). 2007. Reading Brokeback Mountain: Essays on the story and the film. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co. [essays mostly from the academy]

Patterson, Eric. 2008. On Brokeback Mountain: Meditations about masculinity, fear, and love in the story and the film. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.

5 Responses to “Taste Y”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Ellen Evans on Facebook:

    With the comment, which I may have made in the original discussion, that there are many cultures where the Taste Y is sub-divided, with only the Taste Y that includes being penetrated belonging to the Other side, and most other Taste Y’s being seen as part of the Normal continuum without having anything salient about it. That is, categorization based on the gender of the partner and not the type of act performed is already a cultural construct.

    This touches on the colloquy between the psychological and the social categorizations, something I didn’t explore in this piece, but something that’s very important. At some point, you get a back-and-forth between the two; they’re still analytically separable, but they influence one another.

    My instinct is to say that the insertive/receptive distinction is primarily sociocultural, but of course Taste Y comes in a variety of flavors, which fix themselves from a diffused boyhood sense of male desire into more focused preferences (again, even if you have no labels for this stuff). And then you learn sociocultural categories, and find other men, and so on.

  2. A note on gay for pay « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] so as not to have to manage an erection in anal sex.) That is, these men don’t have what I’ve called “taste […]

  3. Gay cowboys « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Jake Gyllenhaal (his website here, the Wikipedia page here) comes into this through the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, in which his character, Jack Twist, works as a rodeo rider for part of the film, and in which Jack and Heath Ledger’s character, Ennis Del Mar, have a love affair stretching over many years. (See my posting on “Taste Y”, here.) […]

  4. sexuality « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] enduring, though someone might fail to appreciate its strength or significance for some time; see my posting on “Taste […]

  5. Kim Darnell Says:

    “…(T)here are plenty of straight guys who love one another. They call each other “best buddies”, or have no name for their relationship at all. But they’re very important to one another…”

    Six years on, it seems that there is certainly a name for this kind of relationship now: “bromance.” What I find especially interesting about this term in the context of this posting is the very strong connotation that the relationship between two men is so close that it seems that if they *did* have Taste Y, they would be “in love.”

    It makes me think of the common notion that men and women cannot “just be friends,” because sex will always be part of the relationship, whether they ever actually have sex or not — mostly because the guy will *always* want it, because that’s what guys want from women, and the friendship is just one of the socially acceptable ways for men to work their way into women’s pants.

    Has the increasing acceptance of gay people resulted in a shift such that two men cannot be very close (i.e., Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen close) without the suggestion of sex or romantic love being part of the equation?

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