Ryan, a 23-year-old San Franciscan who’s using his first name only, created a ruckus on gay social media earlier this week when he launched his “I’d Bottom for Hillary” campaign, a T-shirt and hashtag initiative that aims to support Hillary Clinton’s recently confirmed bid for the presidency. (Bottoming, on the off-chance that you’re unfamiliar, is the general term in gay culture for being the receptive partner in penetrative sex.) In interviews, Ryan has characterized his #BottomForHillary movement as “just a fun way for people to show support for a presidential candidate”—which, fair enough—but many gays aren’t laughing. A Huffington Post commenter decried the phrase, writing, “we do not need this type of exposure, as it does not help our LGBT community at all,” and Zach Stafford has penned a screed against the thing in the Guardian, declaring that it relies on a logic of “bottom-shaming,” the essentially misogynistic notion that bottoming is more effeminate—and therefore a lesser act—than topping.
Stafford’s point is well-taken (I definitely share his dislike for the way bottom-shaming often creeps into gay men’s discourse), but I wonder if it’s totally fair. After all, the actual phrase “I’d Bottom for Hillary,” once you think about it, is kind of ambiguous in meaning. There are a number of ways you could read it, and if we’re going to debate whether Ryan’s anal-focused political activism is “good for the gays,” we ought to give it a fair hearing. To that end, I’ve attempted a very intimate reading of his four-word sentence, a patient exercise in which we’ll carefully expand it to unpack all the hidden implications.
Reading No. 1: I would bottom for Hillary … if she were a top and wanted to top me and the situation arose.
In this reading, Ryan’s use of the conditional mood suggests a rather noncommittal, even passive approach to candidate Clinton. He doesn’t seem willing to do the research to determine if she is, in fact, a top, nor does he seem driven to put in the active grassroots work to make such an encounter happen (i.e., “I am campaigning to get Hillary to top me”). Additionally, there’s a lack of confidence on the part of Ryan as a constituent here, in that he expresses uncertainty about the desirability of his support on the part of Clinton. A more agentive approach to politics might render the statement: “I am bottoming for Hillary, won’t you join me?”
Verdict: Not great for the gays.
Reading No. 2: I would bottom for Hillary … because she is a boss top and that would be the only option.
Here, the personal uncertainty of the first reading joins uncomfortably with the sexist notion that Clinton is somehow butch or unfeminine—a characteristic simultaneously demanded of and criticized in American female politicians. Because Ryan chose this phrase and not something like “I’d flip-flop with Hillary,” we can only assume that he views Clinton as a total top—but why? Is there something about her that makes it obvious that she would never bottom or otherwise adjust her sexual repertoire for him? Total tops are usually considered aggressive, insecure, and unyielding. Are those the qualities one wants in one’s president? I should hope not.
Verdict: Bad look for the gays.
Reading No. 3: I see myself as a bottom in relation to Hillary. I’m not normally a bottom, but I’d be one for Hillary, which involves a certain element of sacrifice.
This reading continues to cast Clinton as a super-masc total top, so much so that Ryan cannot help but see himself as a bottom in her presence, regardless of whether that’s his normal preference. To be fair, many gay men (often self-identified as verse) enjoy adjusting their role to their partner’s energy. But I’m afraid that empowering approach is not in play here. Instead, Ryan seems to be suppressing his own desires to accommodate his candidate’s. Moreover, there’s an element of bottom-shaming in the implication that bottoming in this case would be a kind of virtuous sacrifice. We should probably not mute our dreams for this country just because a candidate makes us weak in the knees.
Verdict: Concerning for the gays.
Reading No. 4: I trust Hillary enough to bottom for her. Bottoming is a big deal, and Hillary has earned it.
This is Ryan’s own justification for his campaign. In an interview with HuffPo, he explains that, for him, “bottoming demands trust, admiration, confidence, loyalty, respect, enthusiasm and hope. Those feelings we have toward Hillary.” Far be it from me to tell another gay how he should judge the significance of bottoming (much less the “hope” it demands), but I tend to shy away from hierarchies of sexual engagement. That said, throwing one’s weight behind—or in front of?—a candidate is definitely a big deal for our democracy; so if hypothetically bottoming for Clinton is Ryan’s way of exercising his free speech, I cannot but applaud.
Verdict: Probably OK for the gays.
Reading No. 5: I’m a gay man and the most powerful or meaningful act I can perform is to bottom, which I would do for Hillary.
Again, this reading is a little too West Coast spiritualicitious and reductive for my blood, but it’s relatively harmless and fine as far as it goes. (I reckon Clinton herself might judge a bit of humdrum campaigning and a quick thrust at the ballot box to be more powerful at the end of the day, but what do I know?)
Verdict: Questionable for the gays.
Final verdict: Gays can imagine bottoming for Hillary if they want to, I guess. The notion has some troubling aspects, but then, it is a free country, and Clinton undoubtedly wants to keep it that way. So hypothetically bottom away, boys—just remember to get off your backs or knees or whatever when the time comes to actually go out and elect someone in 2016.