Canadian gay men of a certain age have a few nasty things tucked in the back of their drawers. Shiny, stretchy and most certainly a fire hazard, 1990s club wear from retailers like Body Body Wear and Priape held us together—tightly together—at a time when gay life was exploding.
The skin-tight sleeveless glitter tops in the drawer are mementos of a less hairy, less lumberjack-y era. Wearing them now? A much trickier proposition. When gay men first come out, they often embrace all sorts of trends and attitudes that are relatively harmless in the short term. But they get a little tired. Not just fashion crimes, either. We pick up other habits that are equally hard to get rid of.
“I think some men grow up and do leave their bad behaviour behind, but some men thrive on the drama and the nasty,” says Tyler Curry, a photographer and writer from Dallas, Texas. An article on his blog, tylercurryblog.com, maps out “the six gay men you never want to meet,” ranging from Dr. Sober/Mr. Sloppy (a drunken lech) and the Serial Dater (a love addict) to the Mombie (a model zombie). Though some readers saw the piece as unfairly demonizing gay guys, Curry confesses that he himself has been every single one of the six types at one time or another in his life. “Looking back, I cringe at everything and laugh at everything.”
The way society treats gay people—and how we treat each other—can leave us with some bad habits. But, like the stretched out T-shirts we now wouldn’t be caught dead in, they don’t have to define us.
A counsellor for more than 30 years, Nelson Parker says one of the most common complaints he hears about gay life is that the community is judgmental. That might emerge from our own feelings of being judged by the straight world. Often expected to account for why we are different, gay men can develop a sharp eye for spotting—and a sharp tongue for pointing out—differences in others.
“There’s humour that comes from oppression,” says Curry. “There’s a release to being a little nasty because you can just get so fed up.”
Bitchy humour is both an effective way of quickly making new connections—did you notice the run in that drag queen’s nylons, too?—and a defence mechanism to ward off other people’s judgments. “Gossip is illicit speculation, information, knowledge. It is an indispensable resource for those who are in any sense or measure disempowered,” wrote the American literary critic and historian Henry Abelove in his book Deep Gossip.
But when people complain that it’s pushing them apart rather than uniting them, you have to wonder whether it can go too far. “It’s very easy to take for granted what we do like,” says Trevor Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Ryerson University and chair in Applied HIV Research at the Ontario HIV Treatment Network. “We take more notice of threats than human pleasures.”
Birds of a feather flock together, but how much did you pay for your feathers? Gay men sometimes conform to certain wardrobe choices, exercise routines and musical tastes. Parker says some subcultures can push this to the extreme. “When people talk about the drug scene, it sounds like high school to me,” says Parker. “Everybody’s got to be the same, everybody’s got to be doing the same thing and if you’re not doing whatever everybody else is doing, you’re going to be ostracized.”
Fashion savvy can turn into fashion fascism. The cult of “straight acting” has most of its adherents dressed in the same brands. But the truth is: The straight guys they’re trying to look like don’t pay nearly as much attention to what their friends are wearing.
Who’s on top
One might assume that people who have struggled for their place in the world would be more sympathetic toward other people’s struggles. But often groups who have won acceptance are so relieved, they are less likely to be sympathetic. You can see it in the lack of interest many gay men show in transgender/transsexual issues, even though being vilified for being too masculine or too feminine is a shared experience for both groups. “There’s a phenomenon where people think, ‘I’ve made it and that means I’m better than someone else,’” says Parker. “There’s also an element of, ‘I don’t want to be painted with the same brush as you.’”
Often the perception of having “made it” is premature—which is part of the problem. “People still hear homophobic slurs when they’re walking down the street with their friends. It can still be very stressful to be gay,” says Hart. “Even though a lot of gay men report they don’t feel overt homophobia on a day-to-day basis, they do feel affected by it.”
The tendency to hold other oppressed groups at a distance betrays a lingering denial about our own vulnerability. Feeling less precarious might, in fact, make us nicer.
Anyone who’s ever perused a personal profile knows the code words: straight-acting, masculine, normal dude, not into the scene. The obsession with “straight-acting” guys emerges from insecurity about our own manliness. Hart says studies show that gay men are more likely to report not being as masculine as they’d like to be, which makes sense, considering that straight people establish the norms.
“Gay men don’t conform to gender as defined by straight people,” says Hart. “People can feel bad about themselves and want to demonstrate that they’re just as good as anybody by meeting the stereotype.”
Recognizing that we are playing by straight people’s rules is the first step in coming up with our own rules—which may be more fun, anyway.
players be playing
Apps and websites that allow gay men to easily hook up can create the impression that the dating pool is infinite. So efficient are these systems that some men take it to the extreme, melting down their evaluation process to 1) hot photo and 2) the right answer to a series of sexual questions asked and answered without charm, wit, manners or humanity. “If we went on a first date, we’d figure out the roles and the chemistry organically,” says Curry. “Now it’s become forced. I know I like X, Y and Z and if you’re not that, then you’re blocked.” We can be jaw-droppingly discourteous.
Parker says gay men who do get around to dating often have expectations that are too high. Rather than look for a connection, they arrive with a checklist. “If the date doesn’t give them what they want, they say, ‘That’s it.’”
Unlike our straight counterparts, gay men usually don’t get to date as teenagers. Lack of early practice in seduction and courtship may carry adolescent anxieties into our 20s and longer. As more people come out earlier in life, that could change. Gay men who make their awkward dating mistakes when they’re young may be better catches as adults.
But then again, as Hart points out, studies have shown that coming out earlier also means experiencing homophobia at a younger age, when a person has fewer resources to deflect it. We may have more legal rights and better corporate policies, but the world is still a pretty straight place. When a gay man told Parker that his parents said they still loved him after he came out, Parker thought to himself, ‘That’s not much.’” We still have many reasons to doubt who we are and what we’re worth.
Those doubts make us especially hard on ourselves. Hart doesn’t think there are any particularly “gay” bad habits. Straight men can be careless with straight women’s hearts (and vice versa). Straight women can be judgmental about straight guys (and vice versa). Straight people of both sexes can be materialistic and conformist. In gay life, though, courtship and competition are combined. When we meet each other, we are always trying to figure out if it will turn into a sexual relationship, a friendship, a rivalry or something else. As we determine each other’s compatibility, availability and desirability, Parker says gay men experience both sides of the equation at the same time.
We see the worst of each other, but we can also see the best. Hart points out that gay men have teamed up to fight against homophobic violence and the AIDS crisis. We have built a community together that has reshaped many Canadian cities. That’s not a bad track record for a minority group which can, from time to time, behave like a gaggle of bitter old queens wearing clothes that are too tight for them.