This article was originally published in the The Stranger's 1999 Queer Issue.
Looking around the gay world, there really isn’t any serious competition for the deadliest sin. We’re not particularly proud, despite the screeching propaganda we’re subjected to at this time of year. Some activists are angry, but any comparison of the number of fights in gay bars to those in straight bars would testify to our general bonhomie. Lust implies longing; but this is far more common among straight men, who are unlikely to secure the objects of their desire, than among gay men, who too often do. Greed is indeed rifle among our upper middle classes but it isn’t gay people, on the whole who are responsible for the multiplication of SUVs. Few groups of people are harder working than most gay men I know—something about overcompensating for adolescent insecurity—so sloth isn’t a good candidate. And envy, unless it be for the simple privilege of having basic civil rights, is not quintessentially a gay vice.
No, gluttony is clearly the gayest deadly sin. Most people associate gluttony with one simple thing—grotesque overeating—but this is a function of our culture’s woefully insufficient knowledge of the intricacies and permutations of sin. So set aside for the moment the upcoming “Lesbians of Size” Convention, to be held later this summer in New York state, at which many “heavy” women and their companions will presumably eat until that last wafer-thin mint. And don’t let your mind wander to various “bear-fests” at which lardaceous, hairy-backed fellows will jam the doorways of leather bars. Having benefited from an elaborately Catholic upbringing, I know that gluttony is far more than bulging waistlines. It’s much more interesting than that. It is the desire to take a simple pleasure and show no restraint in its enjoyment, to take things too far, to obsess about something to the point at which it defeats the purpose it was designed for. It is the sin of excess of immoderation, of overdoing it.
To wit: I just returned from the International Mr. Leather Weekend, where I interviewed last year’s IML champion for Poz magazine. I should preface my remarks by averring that I’m a leather bar kind of homo myself. I like older, hairier, calmer types. I don’t do drugs; and I don’t drink cocktails. I’m a Jäger shot and Diet Coke kind of barfly. And the erotic charge of leather is by no means lost on me. But the sight of hundreds—thousands—of men in every conceivable variation of leather and rubber fetish-wear parading in a hotel lobby under chandeliers IN THE MORNING would be enough to make Tom of Finland put on a pair of chinos. Does anyone in the gay world know the meaning of the words “Enough Already”?
Is it not enough to have leather bars where a certain soupçon of fantasy can be engaged, where a dose of mystery can be added to a modicum of sexual attraction? Do we have to take everything to its logical conclusion and saturate an entire hotel, indeed an entire city, with nothing but various permutations of leatherized, rubberized sexuality? A writing professor once remarked that there is nothing more boring than a fully extended metaphor. Is there nothing more numbing than an accessorized lifestyle?
The same goes for masculinity. I’m all for the cult of masculinity. In have no time for the post-gendered ideologues who want gay men to be pioneers of a feminized maleness. I like men with a slight gut, with chest hair, with swagger, with insensitivity, with every other beguiling aspect of the Y-chromosome. Last time I checked, that was a major reason I thought of myself as a homosexual. But when you actually have a beauty pageant for masculinity, when hyper-masculinized men, in harnesses and uniforms and hard-hats, tart themselves about like homecoming queens, the entire concept of masculinity is negated by its gluttonous expression. They’re not leathermen. They’re big girls in nipple clamps.
Or look at the gym. Here’s an aspect of gay male culture that is perfectly healthy, even admirable. In general, gay men in their 30s upward are in much better shape than straight men, and that’s all to our credit. Gyms are also great social outlets, flirt parlors, and gossip-shops. So what do we do with them? We turn them into manic muscle factories. The bodies get bigger and bigger; the obsession gets deeper and deeper. Not content with a healthily buff physique, the gym boys go roidal, until an arms race has become a pecs race and an everything race, and the parading gym bodies of summer assume a cartoonish, buffoonish similarity. And for the final coup de grace, they shave every inch of themselves. Blech.
So many aspects of gay life are saturated by gluttony. Too much sex. Too much work. Too loud music. Too short hair. Too perfect abs. Too p.c. politics. Too angry activism. Too much gel. Sometimes it seems as if many gay men are incapable of the most elementary forms of moderation, as if gay life is binary and knows no middle register. And in case I am misunderstood: This is not a screed against pleasure. The point about excess is that ultimately it negates pleasure. Too much sex numbs you to true sexual ecstasy. Too much muscle strains your heart. Too extreme politics turns people off. Less is often—no, almost always—more.
Of course, we’re not the only part of the culture to be gluttonized. One has only to travel though a medium-sized airport in the Midwest to see the true ravages of Americans’ passion for carbohydrates. The NASDAQ is as much a function of gluttony these days as of greed. Or take a look at popular culture. FOUR Lethal Weapons? SIX Star Wars? Still, if our culture is more generally super-sized, gay men seem to overdo it more than most. Perhaps the early experience of self-doubt and self-denial in many gays lives is understandably overcompensated in later years by an excess of self-indulgence or perfectionism. Perhaps the absence of children for many of us gives us the disposable income and disposable time to be more thoroughly gluttonous than others.
But at some point, surely, the excuses wear thin.
I say: Get over it. If St. Ignatius of Loyola were to come up with a few spiritual exercises for today’s gay men, he would, I think, focus on restraining gluttony. Take a week off the gym, he’d advise. Put a shirt on. Leave your cell-phone at home. Take a week off sex. Don’t look at any Nutrition Facts boxes for a month. Stick to network TV. Wait a few more days before you get that next haircut. Miss every third Oscars night. Forget you’re sponsored for the AIDS Ride. Listen to jazz. Throw away the chest-hair trimmer with the caller ID. Every now and again, wear your sneakers without socks. Two, repeat, two, screen-names only. See that harness hanging on the back of your closet door? Try it on a horse.
Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at The New Republic, a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, and the author of Love Undetectable (Knopf).