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The Myth of "Gay Male Privilege"

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In a recent, too-long, and rambling post on Jezebel, called "The Myth of the Fag hag and Dirty Secrets of the Gay Male Subculture," Rohin Guha purports to expose "gay culture" as sexist. On the whole, Guha actually makes a couple of good points -- for example, the inappropriate entitlement some gay men feel to touch straight female bodies. Unfortunately, he undermines the good points he makes through his complete misunderstanding of privilege -- this is perhaps best exemplified by throwing around eyeroll-inducing terms like "gay male privilege," and repeatedly harping on how difficult is for women to get into gay clubs.

It may be true that straight women are unwelcome in gay bars or clubs (although, this has not been the case in my experience.) However, I remain unconvinced that the exclusion of straight people from gay spaces would rightly be called an example of "gay male sexism," or "gay male privilege." In fact, unsaid in critiquing gay male spaces for their failure to include straight women is that gay clubs shouldn't actually exist -- there should just be "clubs." Gay male spaces don't exist for the purpose of excluding straight women, or to make them feel "left out." The point of gay clubs is for gay people to come together and be around other gay people; because there is limited space, each straight woman there means one less gay person there. Moreover, he fails to elucidate why, exactly, so many straight women want to go to gay clubs -- this ties in to the author's general mischaracterization of the gay male-straight female relationship.

The author's portrayal of the relationship between gay men and women seems to narrow it into one of exploitation of women by gay men. Unfortunately for him, reality is not so simple: He very painfully and obviously overlooks how straight women treat gay men. For example, let's talk about the fact that so many straight women have taken to throwing their bachelorette parties in gay clubs that some gay clubs have had to ban them entirely. Why is this so popular? The author himself unwittingly admits that the reason that straight women like gay clubs is that they objectify gay men: "Taking your female friends to a gay bar is like taking a vegetarian to a butcher shop. There is a lot of meat, a lot of prime cuts, and even a little tripe, but nothing they can eat." Except this isn't even a good analogy! They might not be "allowed" to eat, but they certainly help themselves: Just as the author rightly complains about the inappropriate entitlement some gay men feel to touch straight women by virtue of being gay, many straight women feel the same entitlement toward gay male bodies. Many of the gay men I know have had the experience of being non-consensually touched by straight women -- even complete strangers, even in spaces that are supposed to be for gay men.

Queerty not long ago ran tongue-in-cheek advice piece for women on how to act in gay clubs. It included the point, "Keep your mitts to yourself: 'OK, ladies, we will make a deal with you. We won't touch your boobs if you don't touch our cocks. Is that fair?'" This is not an isolated problem. (And, if there were any doubt about straight female entitlement to gay male sexuality, take a guess at who writes and consumes most gay erotic fanfiction.)

Just as straight women feel an entitlement to gay male bodies, they also feel entitled to our companionship. As the author briefly mentions before proceeding to completely misunderstand the implications, young gay men are routinely expected by straight women to serve as their dates to various functions, from prom to weddings. Requests to do so are actually rarely requests -- they're demands, perceived as part and parcel of the friendship. (Side note: Contrary to what the author contends, the friendship in The Outs between a gay character and a straight woman doesn't end because she's "outspoken" -- it ends because she's self-centered and uses the gay character as a prop.)

Examples abound of the straight female sense of entitlement to gay companionship. There are two very popular songs on YouTube, both titled "Gay Boyfriend." In each, straight women sing about how great it is to date gay men -- we go shopping with them, watch "chick-flicks," don't look at other women, and cuddle with them. In one, the singers praise the Gay Boyfriend for giving oral sex without asking for anything in return. Oh, and I forgot to mention -- the (straight female) musicians freely refer to their "gay boyfriends" as "fags"!

The author's complaint about (some) gay men feeling an entitlement to pass judgment on the bodies and style of straight women is valid -- but, yet again, is made without full exploration of the background. Ask any gay man about the reactions of his straight female friends to his coming-out, and you'll hear at least one story in which he was asked to go shopping with them ("Oh my GOD! YAY! I ALWAYS WANTED A GAY BEST FRIEND. NOW WE CAN GO SHOPPING!").

Just as straight women reduce gay men to safe sex objects incapable of hurting or rejecting them, they also reduce us to accessories to help them dress themselves. Is it any wonder that so many gay men go into fashion? Guha cites to the "Sassy Gay Best Friend" meme as evidence of the gay male entitlement to tell straight women how to dress and look, too call women "bitches," and so on; I am happy to go meme-for-meme with him to demonstrate the female objectification of gay men: "Disappointing Gay Best Friend" is a series of videos in which a typical "fag hag" attempts to impose the qualities of her ideal "gay best friend" upon a gay man who fails to live up to that standard; hilarity ensues. Objectification and exploitation is not a one-way street.

The entire piece has a subtle flavor of the sort of homophobia once preached by some, supposedly radical, feminists: That gay men are gay because we hate women. This growing suspicion of mine was borne out when he actually (approvingly) quoted an article titled, "Are All Gay Men Secret Misogynists?" in the context of returning, yet again, to his complaint about how poor, straight omen are marginalized in gay spaces.

A more constructive piece would have recognized the role that male privilege plays in the way that gay men approach the world, while simultaneously recognize the fact that straight women also have privilege of their own -- straight privilege. "Privilege" is not something that exists "out there" in the ether, or a quality that adheres to someone by virtue of having any sort of privilege; rather, privilege is relational. Recognizing that, rather than indicting all of gay culture, rather than basing a critique of gay culture on a single person's handful bad experiences or off-base qualms about being unable to get his friends into a club, is the first step toward an enlightening conversation about the relationship between gay men and straight women. Perhaps Guha -- but, more importantly, all of the straight women who liked his article -- needs to have a long, hard think about how they relate to gay men and the gay community.