By Sarah Thomas
Leanne Shapton and Buzz Bissinger joined in a conversation that broke all preconceived notions for a panel at a literary seminar. In “Longing and Belonging: Teams, Clothes, and Desire,” Shapton questioned Bissinger about sexuality, intimacy, desire, gender identity, and sports uniforms.
“I love Buzz’s writing when he talks about sport,” said Shapton, “but also when he talks about sexuality, clothing, compulsion, and questioning one’s self and identity.”
Since publishing his celebrated Friday Night Lights, Bissinger’s personal and professional life has turned more toward exploration of those very topics. He candidly shared his exploration of sadomasochism, a leather fetish, a shopping addiction, and cross dressing.
Bissinger cited two seminal moments in his writing career that crystalized these avenues in his life: a confessional-style essay “My Gucci Addiction” in GQ in 2013, and his cover story for Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner, “Call Me Caitlyn,” in 2015. Bissinger credited his interview with Jenner for some of the questions he’s continued to explore regarding gender and sexual identity.
“What is gender? What does it mean to be female?” he asked and went on to discuss Bruce Jenner being “the perfect athletic specimen” during his career. “Look at how much he was concealing and repressing,” said Bissinger, “and he had to conform to the image projected on him.”
Shapton and Bissinger discussed the performative aspect of sports, and how people—especially white heterosexual males—repress nonconforming interests and desires, which prove to surface later. “I think we’re all repressing something and have some secret or another,” said Bissinger.
They discussed the convivial nature of the locker room and field as places where men can be unselfconscious. “Sports and war are the only two places where men are allowed to openly love,” Bissinger said.
While the competitive arena has proven to be an outlet for men, Bissinger and Shapton also explored the ways in which competition, physicality, and sexuality can uncomfortably intersect—especially for young women. Shapton talked about her adolescent self-consciousness when required to wear a thin, brief swimsuit for meets. She discussed disliking her father videotaping swim meets picturing her in uniform, and the universal feeling held by women when they know they are being looked at.
The key to unlocking a more adventuresome notion of gender identity? Tennis great Serena Williams.
Bissinger applauded Williams’s moments skewering the “Wimbledon white” dress code and her upending of conventions. “She’s magnificent,” he said.
As Shapton and Bissinger delighted in oft-uncomfortable subjects, truths about the writing life surfaced. Bissinger said that part of being a writer “is being a chameleon and changing shape,” all in a quest to get the truth. He even admitted to toning down his leather-clad, spiked heel look for his current book project: “I’m interviewing lots of veterans in their ‘90s and if I show up in leather boots, they’re going to have a heart attack,” he laughed.
Sarah Thomas is a writer, editor, and educator. She has written for HuffPost, Al Jazeera America, xojane, Catapult, Apogee Journal, and Key West Weekly.