The much-hated 'Male/Female' statue at Penn Station is in fact Baltimore's kinkiest artwork
By By Michael Farley
Feb 05, 2015 at 4:35 PM
The sexiest things always feel "wrong" on some level—like fooling around in a church, rough sex, weird porn, or using various orifices or bodily fluids for something other than their intended function. There's something undeniably hot about feeling like you're breaking the rules. In this spirit, I nominate Jonathan Borofsky's reviled 'Male/Female' as the kinkiest artwork in Baltimore.
'Male/Female' looms over Penn Station's beaux-arts facade like a dominatrix humiliating a straight-laced businessman groveling at her feet. The public is outraged by its indecency. It is the 'Tilted Arc' of Baltimore and Janet Jackson's wardrobe-malfunction-exposed glistening tribal nipple ring rolled into one. Could anything be more scandalously perverse than letting yourself love something universally considered a nadir of taste?
Context is everything. Train-station bathrooms have an unspoken, notorious reputation as cruising zones. Very little public art is brave enough to acknowledge this fact when addressing transit stations as public space. Here, however, Borofsky boldly depicts the iconic figures from restroom signage penetrating each other in an anatomically impossible intersection of limbs and torsos.
Future perverted art historians will note that the sculpture was installed in the unique social context of 2004. At that time, the nascent gentrification of newly christened "Station North" had not yet displaced the neighborhood's booming underground economy of queer sex workers. When 'Male/Female' was installed, the blocks immediately northeast of the train station were indeed an "entertainment district" where sexual services were offered by a large transgender and gender-binary-rejecting community. From the perspective of 2004, the piece reads like a passage from a Robert Venturi book about oversized signage advertising an urban space's economic activities. Today, it could be considered a memorial to those towering, glittery sentries who once stood watch over the streets of Greenmount West and Charles North.
Could this be the repressed reason why the average person loathes 'Male/Female'? Do they hate being reminded of the recent past's seedy underbelly? Or are they ashamed to have been complicit members of a society that pushed already-marginalized individuals to an even more distant periphery? Like all things that turn me on, 'Male/Female' makes most people avert their disapproving gaze. But 'Male/Female' is impossible to ignore. It is big and hard. It sparkles like glitter that a suburban commuter frantically tries to wipe out of his pubic hair with napkins in the parking lot of the McDonald's before getting back on I-83 and going home to his boring, cis-gendered wife who doesn't wear sparkly lip gloss or give him blow jobs in alleys.
'Male/Female' is the accidental monument to a consideration (or lack thereof) of gender identity and sex that's distinctly Baltimorean. In recent years, an awareness of identity politics has made small but impressive inroads into mainstream American media and popular discourse. But long before there was serious screen time devoted to trans characters on television and a cornucopia of gender options of Facebook, it wasn't uncommon to encounter a laissez-faire attitude to identity in Baltimore. The city has its own vernacular genderqueer that's rarely discussed, largely because a specific vocabulary never developed to label it.
This isn't to say that violence and discrimination against queer individuals aren't a major problem here, particularly against trans people of color. But in many instances in Baltimore, I've encountered a native acceptance that aspects of "male" and "female" identities can be recombined into something that someone will think is sexy, and tell you all about it. In Midtown in the mid-2000s in particular, androgyny seemed to be a point of curiosity or arousal rather than the subject of policing and rage.
This perspective is all pretty anecdotal. But in the years immediately after 'Male/Female' was installed, I had quite a few presumably straight-identified dealers and trans sex workers on Greenmount West corners tell me that lipstick and hairy legs were a good look on me. I had a stoop full of lesbians on Barclay catcall me, explain that they thought I was female, and then offer to rim my ass anyway. From the privileged perspective of someone experiencing all this from the relative safety of a white male body, I never really felt threatened by encounters like this, despite knowing how incredibly inappropriate they were. If anything, it was oddly reassuring to know that my little corner of Greenmount was so interested in gender deviation. For every time a teenage boy has angrily asked me if I was "trying to be a boy or girl" on the bus, a chorus of bystanders have shouted: "Shut the fuck up! Either way he looks cute as hell!"
'Male/Female' is a gaudy monument to Baltimore's total disregard for good taste or common decency. It's as rude and out of place as a sexual proposition on the MTA. It's a kind of perfect punctuation mark for the beginning of the end of Station North's sleazy, androgynous sexual Wild West vibe. Like an SUV with tinted windows slowly cruising up Calvert Street, it seems to ask 'Male/Female'? and then shrug, "who cares?"