With a title like this I’m sure it seems that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Perhaps I have, but I believe that these three issues are intimately intertwined in gay male society, and not in a healthy way. Before reading this article, please keep in mind that my perspective is unique to that of a gay man; I cannot pretend to understand how this relates to other communities in the rainbow of sexual diversity that surrounds us.
I suppose that the best place to start is with a look into history. Before the wave of LGBT rights that began gaining speed in the West around the mid-2000’s, being gay was far more stigmatized than it is today. (Of course, in many places it still is, including in the West, but I’m writing this article as a US/Canadian dual national living in Montreal, so please read with that in mind.) Being out could cause one to lose their job, be ostracized from their family, or be perceived by society as a sexual predator. The closeted man’s best hope was to be perceived as straight. The term “straight-acting” or “masculine”/”masc” were later adopted to refer to this type of gay man. (Gore Vidal’s book The City and the Pillar paints a vivid picture of the role of masculinity among gay men in the 1940’s.) “Flamboyant” men were often pushed to the margins of gay society and viewed as somehow less valuable, or were less powerful than “straight-acting” queers.
Flash forward to 2013. Today, the gay community at large still largely believes this myth that straight-acting or masculine men are somehow more desirable. How masculinity is measured, however, seems very ambiguous and, from my perspective, appears to be determined by the onlooker (read: critic, judge, etc.). I have yet to identify any uniform patterns that determine whether or not one is “masculine” enough to be considered “straight-acting” or to use those four highly coveted (by some) letters “masc” on their online profiles. I have, however, identified some patterns that exclude people from that club. Any interests or hobbies that can be perceived as being of the female domain, such as cooking, sewing, drag, theatre, fashion, dance or art can contribute to an onlooker determining that someone is “fem”. Boisterous mannerisms or certain body postures also make the list. Sports and the gym, however, seem clearly in the realm of the “masculine” gay man. When this categorization of masculine versus feminine takes a very strange turn is once genetics becomes involved.
Yes, that’s right, perceived masculinity and femininity are also directly linked to what someone looks like. Slimmer men with more traditionally delicate features are perceived as more feminine than big, burly lumberjack types. Tall men are seen as stronger and more valuable than are shorter guys. In brief, bodies that seem to resemble those of traditional blue-collar workers, athletes, agricultural workers and the like warrant the label “masc” while others are viewed as more feminine even when judged based on a photo alone. Body hair seems to be the only thing that doesn’t follow this model. For years hairless chests were the only acceptable aesthetic in mainstream gay culture. Over the last few years, however, there has been a bit of a push back against this. Bears (large hairy men) and otters (skinny hairy men) have taken pride in what Mother Nature gave them and it seems to be rather independent of perceived gender roles. Aside from hair, I would argue that one’s body is probably the greatest factor in determining whether one is perceived as masculine or feminine.
So what’s my point? What are the results of this “masc” verses “fem” labelling system? Well, aside from the obvious problems with assigning value to people based on an outward perception and criticizing men who are perceived as feminine because “after all, I like dudes, not princesses” (a quote I recently saw on Grindr), there is another real problem with this system and it has to do with everyone’s favourite topic… SEX!
This bad habit of labeling people essentially amounts to assigning very traditional gender roles to people based in large part on their physical appearance. Gender Studies would encourage us to separate gender roles, gender identity, and the physical body. Still, many gay men are buying into it. I would argue that much of this is due to internalized homophobia. Many gay men, though “proud” on the outside, still believe that gay men are lower on the social totem pole than straight men. By emulating or being perceived by others to be straight they then climb the totem pole by default (for more on this topic see The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs). Also, traditional gender roles tell us that the feminine role in sex is to be a passive and receiving partner. The masculine role, on the other hand, is to initiate sex, to actively dominate the other, to “give”. Furthermore, tradition also tells us that men are somehow worth more in society, that women are second-rate. So often in the gay community “masc” men are viewed as better, while “fem” men, as women once were, are viewed as second-rate, ridiculous, or are not taken seriously.
So what happens when a snapshot judgement doesn’t reflect reality, as is more often than not the case? What about the skinny guy who prefers to dominate, or the burly man who is submissive? What about people who…wait for it…are VERSATILE!? What about the man who is neither “masc” nor “fem”? Well, if people are using these snap judgements to determine relationship potential, sexual compatibility, or other such issues, the result is inevitably disappointment for everyone. The burly man who is looking for a skinny, passive partner instead discovers that the small, skinny guy doesn’t like bottoming. Or perhaps a guy pursues someone who is larger, or more “masc”, only to find that this man likes being more submissive. There is also no shortage of drag queens who identify as tops. There are also “masc” guys who insist on only seeing other “masc” guys. Well, isn’t this a funny problem? If “masc” typically means that the men are tops, then it stands to reason that “masc” guys who are looking for other “masc” guys must have quite the frustrating sex life. After all, how can a “masc” guy be anything but a top?
“So, I can’t help it, I’m attracted to a certain type of man.” You might be thinking. Well, I have a few points for you to consider. The first is that so many gay men look for friends that they are attracted to. I don’t know how or why this happens, but I’m not the first to observe it. Generally, looking for friends based on the merits of what is inside rather than their outward appearance yields a much more satisfying return. Maybe if, instead of looking for friends based on your perception of their masculinity or femininity, we opened up our eyes and ears to what motivates them and the values they hold dear, we may realize that the “flamer” isn’t to be shunned after all. And maybe there’s a small chance that something more may develop where you least expected it… The second point to consider is: how do you know if you’re masculine enough for your manly ideal mate? What I mean to say is that when people buy into gender norms that stem predominately from physical appearances, animalistic competition can take over. If one allows these messages into their social sphere they risk being the victim of their own rules. If, at some point, one meets someone who is masculine and fits their ideal based on the previous hierarchy that I described, it’s possible that he doesn’t feel the same towards them.
So what is the solution? Well, I would exhort my fellow fairies to question society’s categories. Contrary to what we were taught growing up, being gay has its opportunities. We are lucky enough to be able to reconsider everything that we were told was holy writ about gender and our own value. We are far more empowered than are our straight brothers and sisters; we can build a society without the same rules and expectations as the one that we grew up in. In a heteronormative world, who is man and who is woman is immediately apparent based on one’s body alone, and since value was traditionally attributed to people based on their gender, value is determined at a glance. Many of us have translated this model to gay society. In a more open-minded world, we have the flexibility to recognize that masculinity does not intrinsically hold more value than does femininity. Instead we get to look past physical appearances and see who someone really is and how their values, interests, life goals, and experiences can enrich our own lives.