Now, today, Huffington Post announces that Finland is putting Tom of Finland on a postage stamp. And here. A postage stamp. The graphic on the stamp—from Tom of Finland’s own art—is, as Itella Posti says, “a confident and proud homoeroticism.” This, and the Harvey Milk stamp too. We move forward on all fronts at once.
I was a kid twelve or thirteen in the seventh grade, and I had fallen in love with another boy a year older than I. That is, I had developed an intense lust for him. I couldn’t see him but once a day, when he walked past me on his way to his classroom. We didn’t have classes together, and we didn’t share any of the same activities, and I didn’t know how to introduce myself to him. This was in 1951, in the conservative, religious, American South.
When I began to be attracted to men, one of the bad things was that you couldn’t see men except the live ones at school or on the bus or at the beach or somewhere. You couldn’t get more than a glimpse of them—they’d be walking past you, or you’d be walking past them. You couldn’t just stop and stare at this boy or man you thought was totally nice looking and who you might want to stare at for the next eight or ten hours or days.
What we needed was pictures. At least once a week, my father went to a news stand on Main Street in Columbia, South Carolina, and often I was with him. While he was on one side of the storefront looking for the magazines he was going to buy—he bought Time, and Newsweek, and US News & World Report every week—I was on the other side. I discovered magazines that had pictures of men. The first one I ever saw, I think, was called Physique Pictorial. It was small enough to hold in one hand and had forty or so pages, and mostly it was pictures or drawings of guys who were wearing nothing except brief tight bathing suits or loin cloths. Sometimes it was a group of young men around a swimming pool, or something Greek, or a Roman gladiator or wrestler, other times it was a drawing of an Aztec god, and other men were bowing down to him.
I went back alone to that news stand and bought one of these magazines. The man at the cash register recognized me from my being there with my father, and he noticed what I was buying. He let me know he recognized me, but he sold it to me anyway.
These little magazines solved one of the problems of growing up in a southern, conservative, religious town. Many of the subjects of the pictures looked like the boy in my junior high school—athletic, blond, hair slicked back in duck tails. Later, I discovered the artists I liked. George Quaintance was one. Right after I discovered him, I discovered Tom of Finland.
I was devoted to Tom of Finland and his underground, erotic art. His men were big, muscular, impossibly good looking, and they had big dicks. Humongous dicks. At first his men were lumber jacks, later they were big leathermen. They followed contemporary styles. Then, styles followed his men. When I first went to the Ramrod, in Boston, the dominant style of the other men had been lifted directly from Tom of Finland’s drawings—black leather chaps over jeans, construction boots, leather arm bands, and muscles. There are many styles in the gay community. Tom defined mine.
Then Tom of Finland began to come out into the daylight. Museums held exhibitions. Books between hardcovers—far too big and massive to hold in one hand—were published.