The world of fairy tales is filled with heroes and heroines but it is often the things in these tales we remember best. One Prince Charming is more or less like any other, and without their props and entourage, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are nearly indistinguishable versions of the same character (a young Cameron Diaz comes to mind). But there’s no mistaking ruby for glass slippers, a glockenspiel for a pipe, or the lamp with a genie for the one the widow has. Indeed, in some tales, it’s almost as if the roles were switched: the Princess becomes a prop for the pea and a young prince the set-piece for a sword in stone.
These are wondrous objects, golden apples and golden fleece, cloaks of invisibility and rings of power, flying carpets and magic wands. And they do extraordinary things: an amulet will charm the object of your desire, a flute will escort you unscathed through rings of fire.
But perhaps the objects we remember the most are those that do something not for the one who possesses it but rather to him, things that empower—or undo—the protagonist, the crucibles of integrity and folly. The one trait that runs through all these very different touchstones of worth and failing is that our heroes and heroines, once they come into possession of these things can never be the same again. The very use of the object sets off a fundamental change in the way these characters see themselves and the world around them.
Magic masks of self-transformation and the like are only to be found in sagas and tales. But most of us have something we own or wear that makes us feel a bit different. A car or a flattering dress or a favorite pair of running shoes. Our bike or scuba gear or leather jacket.
Mine was a pair of red boots which, for a time, were magical in their own way. I also had the same kind in black, but the red ones tell the story. They were like the ruby slippers in reverse. They didn’t bring me home; they led me away. They let me change myself. Not in any profound way, certainly, and only for a while, but it was a transformation of sorts. Perhaps it wasn’t even a change. Maybe it was only an interlude of experimentation. Now the boots have lost the magic. I’ve grown older and can’t coax it out of the leather any longer. They’re just a pair of boots right now, albeit with a store of memories.
They’re oxblood red, to be precise, not cherry red, though the classic Doc Marten boots do come in both colors. Mine are the 14-eyelet model. You can get them with 20 eyelets but I didn’t think I had the stature to pull off wearing them. As it was, it took forever to lace them up. Once I timed it. It took me 7 minutes.
The boots are standard gay skinhead gear, and like much of the rest of the gear, subject to a strict code. And like many of the magical objects in fairy tales it comes with rules about how and when they were to be used. I think it’s precisely because the gear is part of a fetish scene that the rules are so strict (it’s weird, actually, when you consider how many of us grew up not fitting in with the conventions of the straight world, only to become so exacting when it comes to standards we later set ourselves) . Lacing is part of this code, both the colors of the laces and the method: straight bar lacing, a variation of the classic European boot lacing method that eliminates the underlying diagonals but looks messy if not done to precision.
The code is not exhausted in the laces. Hair is shaved or cropped with #2 clip guard max. Braces—the kind that you clipped on—are usually not wider than ¾ inch, crossed in the back, though guys often let them just hang from the hips. Lace colors send messages, not about politics or football teams but sexual practices. Polo shirts can be Fred Perry or Lonsdale or Ben Sherman, but not all the colors. MA1 and Schott bomber jackets are standard issue.
Home-bleached jeans are worn. Before gear shops started selling pre-bleached jeans, you’d do it yourself. And there were definitely ways a skin would bleach jeans and ways that looked as if his mother did it for him. Of course, these are jeans you could only wear with the boots, because they’re cut at mid-calf to allow for one fold of a cuff that then sits at the line at the top of your boot.
I acquired the gear, which I’d wear to gay skinhead gatherings and bars in Berlin and Amsterdam and London. The gear didn’t make me stronger or wiser or more loved. But like a magic carpet it took me on a journey to places I otherwise wouldn’t have gone and never will again. In this gear I explored aspects of my sexuality that I didn’t know existed, though of course it was just the kind of guy I was meeting and not the boots. And my readiness. “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas,” Glinda says to Dorothy.
Friends sometimes asked how I could “identify” with a sub-culture that’s been associated with homophobia and violence. I told them that by appropriating and re-using the elements of traditional skinhead gear as part of a fetish scene, gay men were subverting its homophobic roots; it’s an entirely different scene with gay skins, I would say. I pointed to the button on my MA1 with the SHARP emblem (Skinheads against Racial Prejudice).
I told them I was intrigued by the unpretentious character of the scene. I told them I liked the core emphasis it placed on comradeship. I told them about the friends I had made. But I think they were unconvinced. I didn’t comment on their army camo pants or their cop fantasies or their biker leather jackets.Or the whole top-and-bottom discourse.
I still wonder, though, if they were right in the end. Maybe the homophobic legacy of the traditional skinhead scene was such that no amount of subversive bricolage could ever remove the traces of this pollution and Doc Martens boots don’t belong on gay man’s feet. It honestly didn’t feel that way at the time; it was just play to me and to most of the guys I met. But perhaps there is no such thing as innocent play once we grow up.
My friend Dieter tells me I was borrowing ready-mades of a sub-culture that was not my own to appropriate their paradigm of masculinity. He actually talks like this, though admittedly it doesn’t sound so weird in German. He was right, I suppose.I wonder, though, if it’s not all that different from what happens with other expressions of appropriated—and thus, interpreted—masculinity in gay culture: bears or daddies or gaybros or gay bikers. Or the guys who spend countless hours pumping iron in the gym to sculpt a body of proportions that even Michelangelo would be at loss to sculpt.
Aren’t these all in some way hypertrophied (if also ironic?) expressions of traditional images of masculinity: aggression, strength, providence, technological mastery? Aren’t these just ways of experimenting with possible expressions of masculinity and gay sexuality? And the comradeship? Isn’t that, too, very much a part of the sub-culture of bears and the agenda of gaybros?
I got into the scene as my relationship with Matthew was ending and stayed in it until I felt I was too old to be going around in bleached jeans and oxblood stompers. You can find guys my age at a skinhead night at a Berlin fetish bar but they’re the exception. I still find these boots sexy on other guys, but I know I won’t wear them again. And knowing this brings an odd sense of loss: the recognition of a closure that also recalls memories of a special time of exploration and play.
The boots just sit in my closet now. There’s no one I can give them to, not even the Syrian guy who painted my house and whose newly arrived cousins have only one pair of shoes each. No one tells you this in the beginning but these boots are a pain to walk in.