This piece is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
When trailers for Top Gun: Maverick started showing up in a big way this past month, I felt a sudden yet familiar throttle to my nether regions, as if hit by G-forces. Something about the naked fuck-yeah-ism of those screaming jets, the quivering whoops of those hotshot pilots, opened a portal in me to a lost teenage dreamscape. Or should I say jerk-scape? Ah yes, I remembered: Top Gun, my first sexual relationship.
You see, in the mid-1990s Christian suburbs of Chicago, where dial-up internet usage was closely monitored, Top Gun was my gay porn. And I’m not just talking about the infamous beach volleyball scene (which, trust me, we’ll circle back to—I always did). I mean even the glancing mention of it—just a snack-size quotable like “That’s classified”—cast a cockerel spell over me. Certainly, the Kenny Loggins song “Playing With the Boys” had special meaning. As if cued to the baseline and hair-metal guitar in the film’s opening credits, my sad teenage hard-on would awaken. Soaring, those sexy F-14 fighter jets would pivot their wingspan to combat posture, and as if signaling “I’m close” to the universe, I’d watch Maverick invert his jet to intimidate a hostile MiG—their cockpits facing like for like, shaft to shaft. The intensity only ascended from there.
I’m told Top Gun has a plot, that it’s about a fighter pilot striving to be the best aerial dogfighter at the elite Navy Fighter Weapons School in California. Despite watching it literally hundreds of times as a teen, I had no clue of this. For me, the movie was a series of homoerotic scenes building to climax. From the James Dean sunglasses popped on and off for peacocking effect to the tight white T’s, to the helmetless motorcycle riding, to the jet engines flexing their flame cones for takeoff, to the rivalry of Val Kilmer’s Iceman vs. Tom Cruise’s Maverick and their leading glances, to the term flyboy itself, to the rule of two dudes to a cockpit at all times, to the pee-pee shaped jets firing pee-pee shaped missiles—everything about that movie seemed a celebration of the American penis. All of the significant male characters went by nicknames, like hookup aliases. For fuck’s sake, Top was in the title, and the moral of the story was this: The cocksure American boyman’s enthusiasm can conquer any obstacle.
Top Gun wasn’t just about sex. To my gay, frustrated, 13-year-old psyche, it was sex. It was the only sex I wanted that I could get from a screen in my parents’ middle American basement. And actually, since the movie was about a flyboy competition to determine who was “No. 1,” worthy to lift a trophy, Top Gun was more than celebratory. It was testimony to the excellence of the American penis, which hurtled toward me, I hoped, somewhere in my future.
By some oversight, and I could never quite believe my luck, this one major piece of soft-core gay cinema had been venerated throughout Midwestern Christendom. How had everyone else missed it? How could grown-ups of my conservative hometown, which hated all extramarital sexuality, have left me a solitary gift? Despite its twilit sex sequences and the occasional curse word, Top Gun possessed that veneer of Reaganesque military patriotism and thus boasted a PG rating—safe for America’s children. I could check it out of any Blockbuster without triggering the “under 16” alarm on the family rental account, which required a landline call for parental permission. Seeing my enthusiasm for the film, my dad eventually bought me a VHS copy one Christmas, and I could innocently bring it over to any junior high school or high school sleepover. No adult, not even a minister, would bat an eyelash when I said knowingly to their sons—kids I hoped were closeted gay, too—“Top Gun is my favorite film.”
In my Chicagoland hometown, 12 miles away from the ivory tower of social conservatism called Wheaton College (where college students still take vows of abstinence until marriage), even my public high school principal was an avowed evangelical who viewed public education as a “mission field.” There was no space in this world for “homosexual” kids. This was pro-life-landia, the white utopia of Billy Graham. We were six steps away from getting back school prayer; frequent “moments of silence” during school announcements were laden with Christian meaning. Teachers and adults of this era hated male teenage sexuality, point blank, as it could ruin so-called female body purity. In a culture without ready contraception, it was automatically the fault of the offending boy if and when someone’s daughter had to “ruin her life” by carrying a pregnancy to term. The two-pronged penis path, as taught by public school health teachers, stated that you could either be a virgin until nuptials with your female spouse or part of a teenage pregnancy—a big-bellied warning.
If you were gay, you were simply off the ideological radar. You knew to hide it if you wanted to keep your friends. You represented a male sexuality gone rogue, unbound by the constraints of some poor young wife who someone like me would only marry as soon as humanly possible to lose the “Scarlet V” and taste the tip of a shadow of a 1990s Xerox of any kind of sex at all. Those who came out, or were found out, became moral lepers and got shipped off to conversion camps by the church officials who were friendly with teachers. My high school principal invited “motivational speakers”—white Christian ministers—to hold forth at student assemblies where they bragged about the guilt-free joys of pounding their wives into conceiving. Students were pressured to take virginity pledges so that our future marriages wouldn’t fail because they’d be unsanctified in God’s eyes. Because I was closeted gay, and the idea of faking my way through heterosexual intercourse with some soon-to-be-disappointed girl was terrifying to me, I gladly took the pledge. I was first in line. The vow bought me time and cloaked in morality my abstaining from a behavior that I seldom if ever desired during peak-testosterone years.
In a prior generation, a frightened boy like myself may have joined the priesthood for the same purpose, but I had my teenage virginity pledge. And I had Top Gun, which somehow contained enough Maverick/Kelly McGillis sex to make alpha-male coaches think I was all right, cool, legit when I quoted Maverick and Iceman or even when I pushed it and told them, “I’m watching Top Gun … all Saturday afternoon.” I’d seen what happened to my little brother when my parents caught him peeping straight porn through his AOL search history. We didn’t even know, in the first years of web access, that parents and administrators could retrieve that information. When we found out, it seemed a violation, their capacity to trace the tendrils of your curiosity, their surveilling what you privately divulged to a crash-prone browser. After my brother’s post-porn outing, I saw adults regard him as sexually suspect. I knew my outing, if it ever happened, would be catastrophic.
So I’d hunker alone and watch my VHS tape at high volume. I had the fast-forwards timed after the opening 10 minutes. My Top Gun was all about Iceman and Maverick and their blossoming tension. VHS fast forwards, for the generationally uninitiated, meant waiting and listening to the rhythmic hum of the VCR machine and starring at a blank screen as the film physically rolled from spot to spot within the cassette tape. Basically, an adept fast-forwarder like myself was cutting and editing his own film. And I had it down. Twenty seconds from the opening to the shirtless beach volleyball scene, all that male high-fiving and posturing and flexing. They spike the ball because they cannot kiss, I’d tell myself. Twenty more seconds to the bright white shower towel scene, all those flyboys and their bodylines molded from F-14 gunmetal and their clean-shaven faces misted up as if emerging from coital exertions, like ripe nectarines, like Jill Greenberg photographs. Twenty more seconds to the climactic dogfight somewhere above the Indian Ocean, culminating in Iceman and Maverick victoriously slapping backs on the aircraft carrier and speaking what I thought were the sexiest two lines in American film.
Iceman: “You can be my wingman, anytime.”
Maverick: “Bullshit, you can be mine.”
And that my friends, that jostling for the dominant position (I didn’t know about power-bottoming, as of yet), that did it for me. In the subtext of my fantasy, Iceman was propositioning, “I’ll be your top gun.” And that dirty twink Maverick was retorting, “No, I’ll be yours.” Later, I imagined the two of them flip-flopping right there on the carrier’s runway surface.
It wasn’t until I left for college, when I belatedly came out and started dating my first boyfriend, that I revisited the film and noticed how there were women in it. Actually, two female actors—Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan—give memorable performances. I slowly began to realize the difference between the homosociality of military friendships, as portrayed in the film, and the homosexuality I once yearned for. Maverick ends the story in a female lover’s embrace. Who knew? As an adult, I was forced to admit that this female ingénue was not a stand-in for Iceman, not a ruse, not some sort of human fuck-sock existing to constrain an unexpressed male desire that could not yet, to reference Wilde, speak itself. No, that had just been my private journey in a Midwestern basement with a literal sock.
To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum from another blockbuster film of my youth, schlong finds a way. Always bet on the American teenager who says, “I’m going to successfully jerk off using this thing.” Turns out, human sexuality cannot be defeated, even when your nation makes it the enemy. What is part of you but hidden will morph and shift and find beautiful proxy. That was Top Gun for me: cover fire, a wingman, a stand-in lover that sated me to the age of consent and kept me dare I say “battleworthy.” And to that worn-out, spent VHS cassette now languishing in a box in my parents’ basement, I say coyly but also sincerely: Thank you for your service.