The history and the culture that has built the present lifestyle of gay men is both deep and beautiful and very deserving of our digging through it. Gayphemera hopes to educate and explore the cultural players, performers, and projects that defined us then and now. In this installment, we explore the work of Tom Of Finland.
In constructing the image of a gay male, a few types come to mind. The weightless twink and the sometimes over weighed bear; the glamorous, plasticine urban boy and the scruffy country boy; the pretty and the not pretty. Like all tribes and families, there is a vague caste system.
A man named Touko Laaksonen (but you may know him by his penname, Tom Of Finland) helped to both confirm and condemn these stratified universes. Laaksonen was a Finnish artist who created hypermasculine, hyperbolic bodied men whose muscles were as big as their cocks. Actually, their cocks were their muscles. As his biography shows, these men were a reaction to his being a very indoor child and having grown up in an area of strapping men (loggers, builders, farmhands, etc.). His eventual service in the military went on to influence the subject(s) featured in his work.
The men he created were men, guys so manly that they only fucked other men. He evolved the image of the gay man, in secret, as being a gay man in the mid-twentieth century was very much taboo. His work eventually caught on with the incredible relic of gay history and art, Physique Pictorial. (Yes, that will gets in own Gayphemera post one day.) His images were crazy and sexy and, while ridiculous, have gone on to actually become a type of man.
By the 1970s, his work had become a cult sensation earning him some major attention. Tom went on to show his work around the world and became a gay celebrity. He eventually moved to Echo Park Los Angeles where the Tom Of Finland Foundation now exists and sadly died of a stroke at 71 in 1991.
“So he just drew a lot of gay men: and?” you may be wondering. Well, his work was coming out in a time when drawings of naked men were considered “obscene” and potentially punishable. It wasn’t until the court case MANual Enterprises VS. Day lifted potential penalties for doing such. It was a big win for both freedom of expression and gay rights—and Tom Of Finland’s work truly benefitted.
The work has been lauded for it’s being so over-the-top and for confronting homophobia by being so brazen in its depiction of gay men and the gay lifestyle. Tom’s work was cartoonish and literal butt fuckery—but it was showing a world and a culture that was without anything. As he stated, “I work very hard to make sure that the men I draw having sex are proud men having happy sex!” While comical, that is a very important statement.
If you are unfamiliar with his work, you owe it to your gay forefathers to peruse the archives of his drawings. You can also read a quick—but more thorough—biography on him here. If you’re in Los Angeles, you can even visit the house he lived in which currently houses the TOF Foundation.