Finding a More Tender, Queer Masculinity in ‘The Outsiders’
The Outsiders’ world was the one in which I wanted to belong.
Teen BeatTiger BeatBop.
Sure, Ralph’s sexy, but he also possesses inner beauty.
Is there a hotter actor than gray/blue-eyed River Phoenix in show business today? There’s an excellent chance that the answer is . . . no!
The fact is, brown-eyed Matt Dillon is as down-to-earth as ever.
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Wouldn’t you just die if you ran into Rob Lowe or Emilio Estevez at your local movie theater? . . . Running into the dream team guys isn’t all that easy, but we thought we would give you a few tips . . . In New York, Dream Team hunting is very easy! They eat at all the trendy restaurants such as Hard Rock Café, The Century Café, and America. They party at the hottest clubs, but their favorites seem to be Area, the Palladium, and Limelight.
The Outsiders, Stand By Me, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Breakfast Club,Some Kind of WonderfulThe GooniesThe Karate Kid.
I still don’t know if my attraction for those teen matinee idols was more about a desire to be with them or to be them. I think both. During those dyke years, pre-T, pre-facial hair, pre-wrinkles, didn’t I, just a little bit, resemble the cute-but-not-stunning teenage Ralph Macchio, with his soft-butch, androgynous vibes? Or, maybe Wil Wheaton, another favorite from my childhood—dark hair and dark eyes, and innocent, smooth face? Much to my delight, a femme girlfriend told me, at twenty-six, I was a spitting image of the fourteen-year-old Wil. When she occasionally called me by his name as a lark, I felt a deep, satisfying and terrifying humming in my chest that I could not explain. She called me a boy’s name. She saw me as a boy. Wil, Wil, Wil.
Throughout my adolescence, my favorite book, which I first read around age eleven and reread many times after that, was The Outsiders. I believed, like its author S.E. Hinton (a young woman the public assumed was a man), I too would publish my first book by sixteen. The film adaptation, directed by Frances Ford Coppola, was released in 1983, a year before The Karate Kid. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t see it until it ran on HBO, probably not long after I encountered Ralph mastering his infamous crane kick.
I watched the movie even more times than I read the book, and still recall scenes as closely as I do many of my own personal memories. I cut out film stills from magazines for my photo album, arranging them in order and rebuilding the narrative I knew by heart. Ponyboy and Johnny swinging down from the monkey bars; cut to a traumatized Johnny eyeing the Soc’s rings; cut to Ponyboy shivering in his muscle shirt. These were my personal memories—these gentle and tough guys who loved each other and, despite the violence they couldn’t escape, wanted to live in a world of beauty and tenderness.
The cast is a dreamboat line-up. Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, and of course, Ralph Macchio, star as the sensitive greasers who rumble with the frat-boy, dude-bro Socs and take care of each other with a fierce, devoted love. It’s a film about brotherhood.
I adored Ralph, but he wasn’t my Outsiders crush: I fell for the wild and dangerous Dally, played by Matt Dillon, who loved and tried to protect Johnny Cade (Macchio), a shy, sweet greaser abused and abandoned by his parents, and best friends, possibly even boyfriends, with Ponyboy Curtis. I crushed on Dally, loved Johnny (because Ralph), and identified with Ponyboy, the sensitive writer played by C. Thomas Howell, who digs movies and books, reads Gone With The Wind aloud to Johnny, and gazes at sunsets.
Except for the rural, very white setting, the world of The Outsiders reflected nothing of my own life; I lived a comfortable, boring, privileged middle-class existence. But The Outsiders’ world was the one in which I wanted to belong. And I didn’t see myself as a girl in this world; I wanted to be a greaser. A boy. Denim jacket, collar popped, Chuck Taylors. These boys existed in a self-made world without parents or teachers. They took care of each other queer-family style. They didn’t think much about girls. Yes, there is the uptight but sunset-watching Soc, Cherry Valance, played by Diane Lane, but the real love story doesn’t involve her. These guys loved each other.
The classic scene in which Ponyboy recites Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” to Johnny in a field at sunrise is still one of the most romantic and gayest moments I’ve seen on film. Johnny confides that, before Ponyboy, he never noticed “the colors and clouds and stuff,” and Ponyboy admits he can’t talk about “stuff like that” to most people.
The Outsiders’ soft but edgy masculinity made sense to me back then, long before I had words for it, andgave me early exposure to the ways that boys and men, especially those growing up in rural places, could love each other.
Even after I started to hear about, and finally meet, trans men in the early 2000s, I thought I couldn’t transition because my story didn’t fit the only accepted narratives at the time: you grew up feeling like a stereotypical boy (played football and had a thing for cars), you were only attracted to women, and you embodied a tough, rigid masculinity. But, I’d finally become more open and honest about my attraction to men—specifically to gay men.
I knew I wasn’t a bisexual woman. I wanted gay men to see me as one of them, and I did not know how to express this. Not until around 2008, when I met a gay trans man for the first time, did I understand this could be a possibility. And then I met another, and then another and another: trans men who busted the molds, who showed me there were other ways to live.
When I started to take my first steps toward transitioning, I’d left New York and was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where there was a small but vibrant trans and queer community. For years, I’d felt so lost and confused, but now, in my mid-thirties, I renamed myself and asked my close friends to use masculine pronouns. I hadn’t yet started to medically transition, and still wasn’t sure of the path I’d take.
One day, in Chapel Hill, a friend invited me to be part of a photo shoot made up of trans and genderqueer folks in our twenties and thirties, all on the masc side. He had a vision: We would dress up as auto mechanics. I enthusiastically agreed.
I’m not alone in my love for The Outsiders as queer role models. The queer masc population of a certain age grew up on those images and embodied them—trans guys named Ponyboy, dykes sporting greaser attire, and plenty of “Stay Gold” tattoos.
On the day of the shoot, I wore dark blue coveralls I’d thrifted, a bandana around my forehead, and black Converse. I smeared grease on my face, emulating the men from my childhood and the characters that had so deeply impressed me: Soda Pop, Dally, Two-Bit. And, I wanted more, which I was scared to admit: sideburns, a mustache, a deeper voice.
In drag—as men, mechanics, trade—we posed with our wrenches and screwdrivers in campy, silly, sexy poses, like a spread for a cheesy gay calendar. Long ago, we had spied the queer heartbeat of The Outsiders and other ostensibly straight films and books about men. Now we were making that queerness visible and obvious. The shoot was playful, but I also felt seen, especially later when I looked at myself in the developed photos.
This hidden, deepest part of me, after so many years of imagining and hiding, had become visible, even if just for a glance: Here I was, a boy, with other boys. Play offers possibility and sparks the imagination: and who doesn’t want to live a life filled with both?
At many points in my life, I just wanted to fit in—as a girl, as a dyke, and as a gay man—and I longed for a clear path that made sense: Start at point A, end up at point B. Now, as a queer transgender man, I’m grateful for the contradictions and complexities. Heteronormative society demands a gender binary and wants singular and absolute “signs”—are you really trans, are you really queer?
But, often, the “signs” lead to a different kind of map, a queer map that heterosexual systems don’t know how to read. Maybe as a kid I didn’t “know” I wanted to be a boy, but on some deeper, elemental level, I grasped that there were other ways of existing beyond what the world expected me to be. As a kid, as a teenager, I was reading with a queer eye, long before I ever acquired the tools or language for interrogating masculinity or heterosexuality.
Unlike my gay cis guy friends, I was raised as a girl, and therefore allowed—and encouraged—to be boy crazy. My obsession with those teenage idols only last a couple years, but their influence on me runs deep. We all need models for ourselves. For queers, because we’re often denied representation or access to that representation, we learn to see what is hidden. The world tries to tell us we don’t exist, and, to survive, we read between the lines; we queer the image or narrative, so that we may catch glimpses of ourselves or possibilities for those selves.
Not only did my teen idols serve as mirrors, they also helped me grasp another kind of masculinity, one that included tenderness, intimacy, and love.
When I look back at my early life, I don’t see an obvious picture of my trans and queer self, but moments that, if strung together, along with the books and films and stories that opened me up to worlds and possibilities beyond my small town, create a starry web of intersecting points, a map of sorts to a different kind of life.
It took a long time to get here. I wish I could go back to that scared teenager and tell them not to be ashamed because that kind of shame, if you carry it around for too long, will kill you. I want to tell that confused, shy kid not to worry, you’ll be okay, and quote Johnny Cade, who in a letter to Ponyboy, said, “You still have a lot of time to make yourself be what you want. There’s still lots of good in the world.”
And, of course, Johnny’s last spoken words to his friend, his brother, his boyfriend, we should all carry with us, or tattoo on our bicep: “Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”
Carter Sickels is the author of the novel The Prettiest Star (Hub City Press, 2020). His debut novel The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012) was an Oregon Book Award finalist and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. His writing appears in various publications, including Guernica, The Oxford American, Poets & Writers, Literary Hub, and BuzzFeed. Carter is the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, and has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony.