Thursday, July 11th, 2013
15

What Comes After The Twink?

The first time someone called me a twink, it was 2003 and I was standing at the urinal in the basement of a laser-and-smoke-filled club in Toronto. I was 19, rail-thin and still in my excitable stage of post-coming out euphoria, which, in my case, meant wearing cut-off jeans and raising my hands above my head when I danced. That night, I had gone to the club with two new friends of mine, one of whom, an aspiring actor, kept telling me about this amazing drug, "poppers," he had just tried. Like most of our Friday evenings, we spent the night flailing our gangly limbs on the dance floor to Girls Aloud or Jamelia, or whatever awful pop music gays listened to in 2003.

But towards the end of the night, a middle-aged man sidled up to me as I was peeing downstairs. "Hey," he said, breathing on my neck. This being my first experience with the drunken-gay-bar-urinal come-on, I stood there awkwardly without moving. "Hey," he repeated. Finally I nervously—and silently—turned around to leave. "You think you’re so great, but you’re just a fucking twink!" he screamed. I rushed out the door, with no idea what the man was talking about.

I rejoined my friends on the dance floor, and they told me it only meant I was young, thin and pretty. "He’s just jealous," they said, dancing around, before pointing out something in the distance. "Oh look, it’s Sarah Polley’s bachelorette party!"

Now I hear "twink" everywhere. That last season of "Girls" had a character bragged about "partying with twinks." In an episode of "Happy Endings," the gay character Max is told not to go to "twink night" at a gay bar because he’s "not a twink." JWoww, on her reality show spin-off, made a joke about going out with "an otter, a bear and a twink." When Bravo TV exec-cum-personality Andy Cohen recently called One Direction "twinks," fans were so pissed off that he had to apologetically tweet that he "misused a word." ("Often considered a derogatory gay reference," explained a gossip blog.) One Direction’s spokesperson responded that she wasn’t offended, because the word twink "just means attractive!"

I've also noticed it popping up more often in conversations, even with straight people. Whenever my New York friends and I would see young waifish men running for the subway while clutching oversize designer handbags, we would mention how hard life is for a twink. The other day, I was chatting with a friend about someone with an unfortunate but resilient penchant for masturbating at public urinals. "He’s a disaster twink," I said. My friend protested: "He’s 30! He’s too old to be a twink." Then we thought about it. "I don’t even know what that term means anymore," he said.

Like "bear," "twink" actually refers to a specific category of gay men: one some level mildly effeminate, and definitely skinny and hairless—and roughly between the ages of 18 and 25. In the UK—and this is a phrase that fell out of favor in the U.S. years ago, because it's kind of gross—the more common word for twink is "chicken," and a man who preys on them is a "chicken-hawk." But while other (and newer) gay categories, like "otter" or "wolf," are merely descriptive, and self-assigned, "twink" is almost always meant as an insult. It's never a self-descriptor, unless used self-effacingly. A twink is, by implication, naive or clueless and easily overwhelmed by life, luggage and responsible outerwear. "We like to think that what makes the Twink so attractive is that, along with youth, he retains a certain sense of wonder, enthusiasm and enjoyment in his new found gayness," explains Dan Anderson's really not very good Sex Tips For Gay Guys, before dismissing twinks as jobless, broke, wide-eyed bar-hounds.

Somewhere along the way "twink" has stopped being just a cutesy, mildly negative stereotype and become something more malignant: An easy shorthand for a lot of vicious stereotypes about gay people, a way to covertly make fun not just of someone's mild gender variance but really their "gayness" as well.

The origins of the word are a little bit nebulous, but it seems to have first emerged some time in the late 1950s. Its first official use, in a 1963 American Speech article, defined it as meaning "pansy-ass, petunia, punk, swish, weenie." ("Note that twink(ie) picks up aspects of the 'dumb blonde' stereotype," says Language Log.) Urban Dictionary suggests the word comes from "Teenage, White, Into No Kink," but that's surely a false acronym. I emailed Charles Kaiser, author of The Gay Metropolis, and he wrote: "I don't think there's much doubt about the provenance being the Hostess Twinkie, the too-sweet treat with the yummy inside—addictive, but ultimately unsatisfactory."

"Twink" is just the most recent name for a category that has existed for thousands of years: the young, nubile, effeminate, naive man. In plenty of societies, relationships between adult men and much younger, usually hairless male pupils were fairly unremarkable. In the 50s BC, the Roman poet Catullus wrote about his desire for a young man whom he called "luventius" (or "Youth") and Lucretius wrote about the sexual appeal of "pueri" (or "boys"). In 18th-century Britain, effeminate homosexual men of unspecified age were referred to as "mollies" and hung out in "molly bars." As George Chauncey explained in Gay New York, 19th-century New Yorkers who had sex with men were separated into "fairies," "wolves" and "trade"—a division of labor in which fairies were vaguely similar to twinks, if age-indeterminate and more prone to cross-dressing. (Bryant Park, by the way, was once a popular "fairy" hangout). In all cases, these effeminate and usually submissive young men were the target of far more ridicule (and worse) than their older or butcher contemporaries.

In his Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, Daniel Harris describes how gay liberation "divided a community that was once more uniform in its appearance into two warring factions"—the macho muscle man and his opposite. As the gay porn industry grew larger and more sophisticated, it built on and spread these distinctions. While companies like Colt and Falcon focused on hairy men or muscle men or both, other studios specialized in "twink porn," featuring blonde 19-year-old surfers and lithe Czechs with unfortunately feathered hair.

In the last two decades, gay categories, both in porn and real-life, have become increasingly numerous and specific. Even as the line between straight and gay has become blurrier, the urge to classify oneself seems to have become more pressing. Maybe it’s a reflection of the popularity of Internet porn. Maybe we’ve all just seen too many photos of "bear soup" and felt left out. Maybe it’s a function of the new ambiguities of gay culture, and gay men’s need to find some sense of belonging within it.

For a moment, not long ago, twinks briefly rose from the bottom for victory: They became the "hegemonic body type," according to Shaun M. Filiault and Murray J.N. Drummond of the University of South Australia, in a piece published in the Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review in 2007:

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, a new body type was idealised by Western gay men. In qualitative interviews with young gay men Drummond (2005) and Bergling (2007) found that a thin, yet slightly muscled body type was revered; those findings are supported by quantitative research (Yelland & Tiggemann, 2004). Further, a smooth body, with little to no body hair, is thought to be most attractive (Bergling, 2007; Drummond, 2005) and the importance of penis size is less explicit for younger gay men (Drummond & Filiault, 2007). The importance of clothing has shifted, from the working class sensibility of the Clones, to a high fashion sensibility of the Twinks, who tend to be ‘label conscious’. Furthermore, youth is emphasised in this context, as aging is seen to not only be related to the deterioration of the body, but perhaps also with the HIV epidemic itself (Berling, 2007; Drummond, 2006; Levine, 1997).


Since their shining moment, the hierarchy has become more muddled. The twinks won, but by assimilation, and changed along the way. These days, if you go to a gay bar in the East Village or a similar mixing ground, it often seems like hipsters and bears and Chelsea boys (which are now Hell's Kitchen boys), young and old and in the middle, are all converging into a new be-plaided be-sneakered bearded identical look. Which community owns the signifier that is the white belt? Everyone: the retro bear, the aging hipster, the preppie youngster. Increasingly, gay style seems to have become a mishmash of straight and gay and whatever increasingly homogenized style is floating around. (And this year, somehow, everyone has the same short haircut.) As a result, these classifications—"he's a bear and I'm an otter" —allow us a greater sense of uniqueness; it’s the narcissism of minor differences.

There is a now-infamous phylum of bear-related categories: conventional bears (big ol' hairy men), cubs (young bears), black bears (African-American bears), brown bears (Latin and South-Asian bears), panda bears (Asian bears), polar bears (older, white-haired bears), muscle bears (bears with gym memberships) and pocket bears (bears under 5’8"). To beardom and beyond, there are wolves (muscular, hairy, sexually aggressive men), otters (skinny, hairy men), circuit queens (men who go to circuit parties), muscle queens (muscular men), homo-thugs (hip-hop-styled black gay men), art fags (gays who like art), DILFs (older gay men), actual boring Gay Dads In Mom Jeans (those are Ds you wouldn't L to F), and, bless them, theater queens.

Through it all remains the twink, which remains the most embarrassing, the most stigmatized and also the most vague of gay categories. I’ve heard people describe a 40-year-old as a twink ("he’s wearing Abercrombie"), along with a paunchy 22-year-old ("he’s got highlights") and a bearded muscular 25-year-old ("he works in fashion"). There is a New York nightlife promotion company called "antiTwinkfi" whose parties seem almost exclusively attended by young, twinkish men. A Thought Catalog list of "31 Things Twinks Like" includes "foam parties," "being the center of attention," "going to brunch and having mimoosaaaaas," "working at mall stores like Wet Seal," "underwear with the ass cut out" and "bottoming." A similar if less brutal listicle on The Homo Life about "Signs You’re a Twink" addresses the latest crop of young men, and includes "You have a One Direction poster" and "You want to go to a taping of the Anderson Cooper talk show."

Like hipster before it, twink has become a non-specific word that serves to define something distasteful but whose meaning changes depending on who says it and to whom. A lot of the time, a twink seems to be anybody—no matter their body type or their age—who is girly or makes poor consumer choices and/or seems to be in a state of perpetual disrepair. And while nobody will admit to being a twink, everybody is happy to flag one for everybody else to ridicule. Calling someone a "twink" has become an easy way for a gay man (and now, straight people) to prove that he is manlier, smarter, more tasteful or successful than the person he is talking about.

The twink now serves the role played by sissies in most 20th-century film, and Jack in "Will & Grace": they are catastrophe against which we measure ourselves, that allow us to feel "normal."

One person who perfectly encapsulates the strange politics of twinkness is Chris Crocker—the guy in the 2008 "Leave Britney Alone!" viral video. He was 18 then, peroxide-blonde, effeminate and skinny. It was like watching an adult man pretending to be a small child throwing a fit, and it was a great opportunity for comedians to make fun of Crocker’s effeminacy. A few days later, Jimmy Kimmel showed the clip on his TV show, and a Kimmel cast member pretended to be Crocker’s father: "Why? Where did I go wrong? I bought him a BB gun. I took him camping. I played catch with him and now my baby boy looks like a crazy old woman? He’s not a human being! He’s not a human being!"

Oh No They Didn’t called him an "insufferable twat (twink)." Commenters on a story in The Stranger complained that "the paper wasted money to fly [a reporter] to meet a pet twink." A transgender message board filled with members’ debating his identity; some assessments included "obnoxious twink."

Crocker was already well-known for YouTube videos in which he danced around in women’s clothes and said the word "bitch, please!" over and over and over again. The videos were breathtakingly irritating and compulsively watchable. You got the sense that Crocker was a self-absorbed, clueless young boy who didn’t know who he was or who he was supposed to be, but pretended that he did by imitating characters he’d seen on reality TV.

But many gay men, particularly from small towns, went through a phase when they thought they were terribly special, and were so starved for attention that they created drama, if only because they were insecure? We wore horrible clothes, and got bad haircuts, and bought awful sunglasses. When we see twinks—not only extreme examples like Crocker, but drunk young guys at the bar, or overwhelmed fashion assistants, or any other young, vaguely disastrous gay guy—we cringe at their effeminacy and their lack of control because it represents their failure to repress a part of themselves that we find shameful. It's easy to despise them because they represent a gay man in the most awkward, embarrassing stage of becoming an adult.

If you watch the documentary Me at the Zoo, you learn that Crocker’s story is, in many ways, the archetypal tough-luck gay story. He grew up without a father in a small, conservative town in Tennessee. His single mother became an addict. He was bullied for his effeminacy until he dropped out of school. Living in a place where, in his words, the only gay pride parade was in his bedroom, he turned to to YouTube and began expressing himself to the world.

In a recent issue of Out, Bret Easton Ellis tore apart the push by organizations like GLAAD to promote gay men as politically-correct "Magical Elves" who are squeaky clean and brimming with confidence. "What this notion leaves out is that … we are not all well-adjusted Good Gays," he wrote. What about the gay men who are disasters, who don’t have it all figured out, who are loud and obnoxious and make mistakes? As Ellis points out, these rough edges are precisely what makes gay people interesting in the first place.

Maybe it's time for twinks to reclaim some of their icons. (Let's start with: Yves St. Laurent, Alan Turing, Edward II, James Baldwin, John Waters, Noel Coward, Alvin Ailey, Lord Byron, Truman Capote, Lord Alfred Douglas, Xavier Dolan, Rudy Galindo, Bradley Manning, Sal Mineo.) At least, they're getting decent media representation now: After the timely disappearance of Jack and friends on "Will and Grace," TV and film has started including more nuanced twink characters: Maxxie on "Skins," Kurt Hummel on "Glee," Patrick in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," Elijah on "Girls"—even Ser Loras on "Game of Thrones."

Perhaps, at some point in the future, twink will stop being a dirty word and just start being a category, like "teenager" or "pregnant"—a natural phase of some people's gay life cycle instead of a full-fledged identity, one that ends when we tentatively figure out who we are and where we belong. In 2011, Crocker reached the predictable and ultimate if also somewhat worrying apex of his own twink phase: He cut off his hair, began working out and started posting shirtless photos of himself on Twitter. The online world marvelled at Crocker’s emergence from feminine, disastrous adolescence. "Chris Crocker is hot now," announced one blog.

And then. According to Gay Porn Blog, Crocker’s first porn film, which he recorded in 2012, was extraordinarily popular. But he began to regret having done it almost immediately, and now his X-rated Twitter account hasn't posted since early May, and his porn site, ChrisCrockerXXX.com, is just a parked GoDaddy page. They grow up so fast.

One of the strange aspects of twinkness is that nobody knows what happens after you age out of your identity. Cubs turn into bears; otters remain otters; muscle queens remain muscle queens until they gain weight and turn into bears and then polar bears. But there is no word, as of yet, for post-twink. ("Hairless otter?" a friend of mine offered: "Party ferret?")

I’m not sure when I stopped being a twink, but it probably happened around the time I turned 22. Before that, I had been living a low-pressure existence, working easy jobs in video stores and trying very hard to seem cool to other people who worked in video stores. Then I got into grad school, moved to New York, grew out my beard and started reading more lesbian fiction. In New York, I jokingly described myself as a twink to a fellow student, and he laughed: "Oh, please. You’re the least twinkish gay man I know."

A bearish friend of mine from New York recently visited me in Germany, and I took him to a very Berlin party. I warned him would be "heavily populated by party twinks." By the time we got there, on a Saturday afternoon, the party had already been going on for almost twenty-four hours, and the trees and giant backyard dance tents were filled up with hundreds of skinny gay boys in their early twenties, mostly rolling out of their minds and covered with a thin layer of sparkles.

We watched as one waifish, clean-shaven young man with glazed-over eyes ripped apart his tank top while dancing until it hung limply off one shoulder. Two hours later we saw him walking around wearing nothing but some sort of crudely-made diaper. By 2 a.m., there were piles of twinks falling off platforms and gathering in the corners next to the bathroom, making out with each other and their female friends.

We stood on the patio and joked about how grateful we felt that we were older and mostly sober and hadn’t ripped apart our clothes, but we also admitted that we were a little bit jealous. We no longer had the naïveté or the self-regard of these young, excitable gays, but we also lacked their exuberant energy, their willingness to screw up and figure it out later, to tear apart tops and refashion them as undergarments. When we left the party, around 3:30 am, there was a line of teens and twenty-somethings around the block. I walked past them, tired and sweaty, filled with nostalgia, irritation and doubt.





Thomas Rogers is a freelance writer, editor and translator who has written for New York, Slate, Salon and The Globe and Mail, among others. Twink photographed at gay pride by "JoeinQueens." Twinks dressed as bears photographed at a "bear dance party" by "Ed and Eddie."

15 Comments / Post A Comment

Brian (#115)

Happy Birthday to You
Happy Birthday to You
Happy Birthday dear Thomas
Happy Birthday to You

And thirty more..

ekates (#91,193)

Was it buddies at bad times? or lub (umlaut of course)? Woodys? or shoot what was that one sort of still on the U of T Campus near st. mikes that was (at the time, subjectively) "great" on Thursdays?
anyways, saw you there for sure.

@ekates I was thinking/hoping it was 56 Kensington (RIP Will Munro, so much).

ejcsanfran (#489)

Semi-related: Notes on Trick by Fran Lebowitz.

David Davila (#245,596)

The best article about what happens to twinks after they mature is titled 'EVERYBODY TWANKS' and explains that twinks go through the process discussed above (they call it twanking) and turn into beautiful Twonks, lol. Here is the link:

http://www.crazytownblog.com/crazytown/2012/06/wikipedia-describes-a-twink-as-a-young-or-young-looking-gay-man-1823-age-category-with-a-slender-ectomorph-bui.html

joeclark (#651)

@David Davila Stupidest fucking slug ever. Worse even than the Awl’s.

joeclark (#651)

This thing was 600 words too long.

icarus1 (#238,064)

I love you, Thomas Rogers. (There, I said it.) So great to see a more free-wheeling, intimate style with the two essays you've published here after your time at Salon.

Me28 (#245,645)

"But there is no word, as of yet, for post-twink." —- Actually, the word that's used is "twunk." It's a pretty common word.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=twunk

@Me28 never heard that one. it can't be that common. i usually hear "overgrown kid" or "twink past his prime," never "twunk."

charlaliu (#245,281)

ewwwww

for such an insightful article, most of these comments are dreadful.

Tim Clark@facebook (#254,429)

As a closeted bi man who is attracted to post-twink, this is a question I've often asked. I don't want to go after young guys. I don't go after after young girls either. Immaturity isn't sexy and I think people who fethishize youth are creepy. But I don't like older people either (40+). People like NPH are the type of guys I find attractive. Not into hairy guys and don't find overly muscled guys attractive. I prefer toned to scrawny though. Why must life be so damn difficult?

Ray Hill@facebook (#262,204)

The object of most of the leadership our movement seems to be so completely assimilated into the general society that we disappear as a separate sub-culture. If we as a people have no future why bother to remember our past?

Post a Comment