If only they could stop embracing it…
“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots. ’Cause it’s OK to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading. ’Cause you think that being a girl is degrading…” – Charlotte Gainsburg, The Cement Garden
I am a white gay man in my late 30s who was born and raised in a major metropolitan city and surrounded by a community that was as left-leaning as it’s possible to be. I was granted the freedom, and privilege, to explore what being gay meant to be me—to dance around (unknowingly, for a while) the notions of masculine and feminine. I learned early on that ‘male’ and ‘female’ were social constructs; the notion that girls only played with dolls and boys only played with trucks was a notion created by adults. I saw many children around me playing with both. Or at least wanting to…that is, until those social constructs came crashing down around us, solidifying what it meant to be a boy. And what it meant to be a girl. The reinforcement of those social constructs mostly made us sad (why are you taking that doll away from me?), but it made the grownups feel better about the world. And themselves.
No matter, how lucky I was to be born a white gay man. I say lucky for many reasons, but also to acknowledge that as a gay man I enjoy the privilege of being male in a patriarchal society that values my genitals above a woman’s. But I’ve also spent much of my life being made to feel like I am not a man because I am gay. I cannot recall a single day where I was not reminded that I was not “man enough.” Man enough to deserve respect or friendship or love. Almost every single day at my elementary school, I would have to be reminded by one of my male peers that I was too “limp wristed,” that my manners were too effeminate, that I was too nice. I was more interested in reading a book or being in a play than in playing street ball with the other boys my age. And that was a problem for others. It quickly became clear to me that being too ‘girly’ was not desirable or allowable, and that being a girl meant you were less than…. Even at the age of eight, I was painfully aware that I was too gay to befriended but also too feminine to be left alone.
By high school, most effeminate boys learn to hide their mannerisms; to lower their voices and to play the part. Society teaches them (a.k.a. beats it into them) how to perform as straight heterosexual males. Apparently, I missed that class—was it part of social studies class? Was I sick that day? I continued flirting with the notions of gender appropriateness and had learned to not give a fuck about being too feminine. And I have to admit that I was lucky. I wore my identity as a badge of honour, and somehow that scared people. Sure, I was still verbally abused on a regular basis, but no one dared to physically attack me. But what strikes me most about those high school days is that even back then I had a razor-sharp understanding of which boys were only ‘performing’ their masculinity in order to hide their gayness and the resulting ridicule or abuse, while other boys were simply performing the game so their identity would not be questioned.
Now all this long-winded rambling isn’t to tell you that my life wasn’t easy.… Or that if you just build up your internal self-esteem, you can somehow escape and ignore all the pressures of conforming to masculinity.… In fact, ‘growing up’ for me just led to more battles around the notions of male and female. As I discovered the gay community, I was once again shown that masculinity and femininity matter. Or, rather, that only one side matters—the male. The gay community had erected the exact same ‘straw man’ as the epitome of what one should be that had gotten them excluded from the mainstream. Within the community, there was a hierarchy—macho or butch men were preferable to fem gays. And this is reinforced on a daily basis, in micro-aggressions like “No Fats. No Fems” and “Masc Only” on online hook-up and dating sites. Or when one is asked, “Are you straight acting?” Which basically means, “Are you worthy?” Worth my time? Worth my love? Or are you a girl?
“But wait a minute,” I hear you say. “It’s only a preference. We shouldn’t be judged on what we find attractive; it’s only natural, right? It’s not my fault I am attracted to white muscular gay men… No judgment…” Really, guys? Because I’m here to tell you that this preference for white muscular gay men is not a natural preference—it’s learned behaviour. It’s how you were raised to maintain the status quo, to keep masculinity from toppling. And, quite frankly, it’s discriminatory and it’s harmful to all of ‘us.’ And we all know why you are doing it; there is always a strong desire to distance oneself from the Other. By asserting your masculinity, you are trying to separate yourself from the femme. You’re gay, but not that kind of gay. Try as you might to other yourself from the Other, you still sleep with men. Therefore, according to the mainstream discourse you are not a man. Moreover, I would argue that you just added ammunition to the movement that “femme-acting” gay men shouldn’t exist.
But wait a minute; the gay community is changing. Right? I see a lot more gay men playing with the concepts of gender. Swipe through Instagram and you can see many gay men exploring their feminine side through their dress and makeup and wigs. It seems we are no longer as afraid of the feminine as we used to be…. But let’s stop and look at how those men flirting with ‘drag’ are perceived within our community. There still seems to be two camps (pun intended). There seems to be a community of very muscular stereotypically attractive gay men who are putting on dresses to explore or play with gender performativity (and perhaps gender stereotypes). But they do so grounded firmly in the masculine—scruffy facial hair and bulging biceps showing all the time. It’s almost like they are giving us a wink. Even as they play with gender, their overt masculinity means we can see it as only play and we can reaffirm their desirability—and their masculinity. On the other side remain gay men who have always existed on the borderline of male and female; they understand gender as performance. They like to play around with notions of gender and dress, but do it so convincingly that they are placed directly into the ‘femme’ camp.
When we in the gay communities separate ourselves into subgroups of masculine and feminine, or butch and femme, we are decrying anyone who doesn’t fit the hetero-normative definition of a ‘man’—we are reinforcing masculinity. We are unknowingly helping to maintain the very discourse that made us into the ‘Other.’ We are supporting those same stereotypes that got us beaten up as kids. Moreover, we are building barriers to help obscure the real issues we, and society as a whole, face.
There is something very troubling about gay men and our relationship with masculinity. We are often left out of the discussion about what it means to be a man because we are seen as not male or female but Other. But it strikes me that our relationship with masculinity is much more complicated, intense and potentially troubling. And don’t get me started on our fucked-up relationship with race—there’s not enough space in this article to talk about that. But if we begin to call into question how we define masculinity, maybe we can shift the focus—change the narrative just a little. Maybe make masculinity a little less toxic for those who come after us. As it stands, we are killing ourselves. And our brothers. And our sisters.
CHRISTIAN DARE is a freelance writer who spends his time between Toronto and New Orleans. He writes for numerous publications and is known for his writings on pop culture, lifestyle and design. He occasionally appears on daytime TV when not hunting for a great pair of shoes or design piece.
If only they could stop embracing it…