On Satchels and Sexuality

I’m leaning against a bar, swirling Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks and reading Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” when a woman approaches with a scowl and purpose. “Empty that bag and prove to me that you need to carry everything in it” she demands, handbag slung defiantly over her shoulder, arms crossed. “You should not be carrying a bag; men don’t wear purses.”

One might expect such a confrontation would catch me off-guard, but this interrogation is common. For the past 15 years, I’ve carried what is derisively referred to as a man bag.

More frequently than it should, this accessory elicits stares, comments, scorn and on rare occasion, compliments. In the seeming view of many, my bag further erodes the lost beacon of masculinity, the fall of the Western World.

For me? It’s just a bag. I’ve come to see it as a Rorschach Test that reveals more about others than me.

With deliberate movement, I take another swallow of scotch, set the tumbler down slowly, and ceremoniously two-hand lift my black Ferragamo onto the counter, exhibit A in this darkened courtroom drama.

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” I state flatly sans eye contact.

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” I state flatly sans eye contact.

The innuendo is intended; the juxtaposition of satchel and sexuality amuses me. I’ve come to understand that most who question my bag are speculating about my sexual proclivity. Somehow, a smallish bag carried diagonally over my shoulder indicates that I am physically attracted to men.

This stricture, reinforced by otherwise open minded Seattle liberals, is intended to remind me that there are distinct identifiers to what is and is not permissible for straight men. My mere presence in this bar on this night is too much for my interlocutor. All that’s good and right in the world must be protected, and this culture cop is on the beat.

In fairness, this normativity doesn’t just come from the straights. I was once kissed unexpectedly by a gay man, who, when I pushed back, protested “but you dress so well!”

Full disclosure? I like tailored shirts, nice suits, polished shoes and trimmed nails. I recognize that each of these, in addition to the sack slung across my shoulder, qualify me as something completely other than “American straight man.” I get that I am breaking the cultural laws of the Marlboro nation.

If I do dress differently than expected, it’s because doing so feels natural to me. I was raised around clothing, and acquired a taste for it early. Among my family, which contains multiple non-conforming individuals, there’s a standing joke that I’m the straight one, teasing out the irony of the straight brother who dresses more fastidiously than his gay sibling.

My departure from the American macho ideal began innocently when I bought an Apple Newton in the 90’s. Pockets were no longer practical. An added advantage was offloading my wallet, keys, phone, change and other small items from my pockets. That was a revelation; no longer did I sit slightly askew due to the bulk of my billfold; no longer did my keys bulge over my thigh.

That first bag was more like a clutch (there I go again!); it had a wrist strap and I carried it in my hand. The downside to this was apparent; I was always without the use of one of my hands. The answer was a shoulder strap. So, I found a small bag just large enough to carry my arsenal, and the rebellion was begun; I became “other.”

With the demise of the briefcase, many men now carry either a backpack or a messenger bag. Neither work well for me for two distinct reasons. First, they are huge; to fill them requires me to carry more than I need. Second, they don’t work well with a suit or more dressed-up attire.

Jokes about purses, murses, man-bags, discussions about Indiana Jones and The Hangover happen with such frequency that I simply go to canned laughter and feigned interest in the topic. I’d rather ask my inquisitors why they are so troubled by something as benign as a bag? What lies beneath their own insecurity?

To be fair, I too have my rules about the style of bag I carry. The leather must be of a certain sheen: not too shiny. The strap must be wide enough to convey sturdiness, and yes, a certain masculinity. But even here, if I care too much about the details, this is a strike against my inclusion in the man club.

I feel no need to advocate that others carry a bag. I am not called to be an activist for a world made better through practical accessorizing for men.

I feel no need to advocate that others carry a bag. I am not called to be an activist for a world made better through practical accessorizing for men. I don’t care that others prefer to carry all their shit in their pockets. I just like to carry mine in a bag. Were I an advocate, its sole purpose would be to increase the market for such bags, affording me a larger inventory of styles.

Having travelled a bit in Europe and Asia, I’ve learned that the derision I face is mostly localized to our culture. Bags on men is much more common elsewhere.

So, back to the woman in the bar. I obliged her request, and item by item, laid them out on the polished-wood bar, largest to smallest: Book. Phone. Wallet. Keys. Headphones. Gum. Lip balm. Quarters, dimes, nickles, and a few items I won’t detail here. As the stack mounted, her stance softened, her arms unfolded. It seems she could not find argument with any of them, so she resorted to the trump card.

“Are you gay?” she brazenly asks.

“No, I’m Italian,” I respond. She sighs, turns, and leaves.

A man in a Seahawks jersey pulls up next to me, filling the now vacant space.

“Dude, is that a murse?”

“Yeah,” I intone. “Just like Chewbacca carries.”