Just as the emerging gay rights movement started gathering momentum in the United States in the 1960s, a Finnish illustrator captured the community's newfound self-confidence in his works: Touko Laaksonen's pornographic drawings of hyper-masculine bikers, cowboys and sailors did away with the age-old stereotypical depiction of the homosexual man as an effeminate dandy.
His illustrations featured extremely masculine types flaunting their hardened bodies in tight leather outfits, celebrating sex with other men.
Laaksonen, who went by the pseudonym Tom of Finland after his European homeland, launched an aesthetic revolution within the gay scene: "When he started drawing, there were no real role models for gay men," Richard Villani, creative director of the Tom of Finland Foundation, told DW. "More than anything, Tom wanted to give queer men a positive idea of their sexuality."
After the Stonewall riots of 1969, his sketches of muscled men hit a nerve, providing long-needed icons that embodied the idea that love between men was completely acceptable.
Hero of the leather scene
Even more than 30 years after his death, Tom's rebellious spirit still fascinates.
The Tom of Finland Art & Culture Festival 2023 is held in Berlin on the site of a former women's prison in the locality of Lichterfelde from May 12-14. The festival, which takes place for the 29th time this year, will bring together artists, galleries and patrons from all over the world, as well as many fans of the gay pioneer.
Villani, who organizes the three-day celebration, knows that there is something magical about the illustrator's sex-positive messages: "It's about joy, fun and laughter. All the characters in his pictures are having a good time together."
By his 50s, Tom was already making a living from his erotic images, traveling back and forth between Europe and the US, living in Los Angeles for six months until his death in 1991.
He left his mark on both continents and inspired entire subcultures.
"He was the father of leather," says Villani about the artist, who initially developed his fascination for uniforms as a young officer in World War II. "Then he noticed how beautiful leather looked in his sketches. And suddenly he was painting these leather uniforms and boots. He was painting, he was living and he was enjoying the leather."
It should be mentioned that one controversial aspect of some of his works is that they included references to Nazi uniforms; but the artist, who obviously didn't fear taboos, explained during his lifetime that even though he loathed the Nazis' ideology, he nevertheless felt the garments were "the sexiest." Later in his career, he completely disavowed these works.
To this day, "leather lovers" and "muscular hunks" are an integral part of the gay scene. They keep the Tom of Finland's fantasies alive in bars, fetish circles or at Pride marches.
Revolution or toxic obsession with beauty?
Tom's drawings bear witness to the struggle for equality. The muscular body cult emerges from the fact that gay men always had to compensate for the prejudice of their supposed femininity, says Christopher Conner, a sociologist at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who researches beauty ideals within the American LGBTQ community. Some gays respond to this prejudice by wanting to be the manliest guy out there, adds Conner.
However, it is often completely impossible to live up to such ideals. According to Conner, many factors, starting with your own social background, are decisive: "You have to be able to afford the appropriate training in the gym and also the right diet. You also have to know which exercises you need to build the right muscles, because endurance training alone is not enough for that particular build."
Many gay men suffer from a pathological dissatisfaction with their own bodies. This poor self-image is "the result of a society that treats us as inferior," says Conner.
While Tom of Finland undoubtedly provided great, liberating role models for his own community, do his drawings perhaps reflect a toxic pursuit of beauty ideals?
The context of the creation of the artworks needs to be understood when discussing this issue: "It's important to interpret Tom in complex ways and to be aware of the limitations within his art," says Joao Laia, chief curator of the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki, Finland, who is currently overseeing the largest retrospective of Tom's art to date.
"One must also recognize the revolutionary potential behind this art at the time of its creation," he adds.
Tom's goal was to create an antithesis to the classic prejudice of the feminine gay man. "His images encouraged gays who realized that there was another way to represent them," points out Laia.
Above all, his late works are rich in positive messages about the body: "In the 1980s and 1990s, the HIV pandemic made many people so thin and weak that depictions of healthy and muscular men had an empowering effect." Tom artistically defied the stigma of being a homosexual with AIDS, argues Laia.
Tom of Finland: Still a role model
Laia is convinced that queer communities are still drawing strength from the iconic works to this day: "With a resurgence of conservative attitudes and narratives, it's important to highlight how Tom has supported the pursuit of freedom, fun and vivacity from outside normalized identities."
Sociologist Conner, who has a critical stance on the hype surrounding representations of hard-bodied gay men, also recognizes the value of Tom's works. Especially in the current context, he says, with US states increasingly passing laws limiting the rights of LGBTQ people, "I feel very differently about it. Tom of Finland's pictures are very sexy and promiscuous. They show that it's okay to express your desires, your feelings."
Villani, Conner and Laia agree that Tom's works, which evolved throughout his career of nearly 60 years, were powerful creations in reaction to a very specific social zeitgeist, from the gay liberation movement to the AIDS pandemic, to resisting renewed anti-LGBTQ movements, Tom was a figurehead whose legacy continues to be reinterpreted.
This is also in the spirit of Villani and the Tom of Finland Foundation: "My goal with the Art and Culture Festival is to pave the way for a new generation of queer and erotic artists, and in doing so, creating networks in new cities and communities around the world."