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Richard Lyon

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The Cult of Gay Masculinity

Posted: 06/28/2012 6:32 pm

The threat that gay men have long posed to the cultural dominance of straight males has always had a close connection to gender and gender-related behavior. Across most human societies there has historically been social tension arising from the struggle to maintain male dominance. In Western societies, particularly in the U.S. and the U.K., male homosexuality has been seen as a threat to that dominance. It is a failure to conform to expected notions of masculinity. Highly repressive laws and customs forced homosexual men to relate to each other in very secret and clandestine networks. As a result, the general society had very little opportunity to experience the personal diversity of this group of people. The ones who were visible were those who displayed gender-variant behavior, such as cross-dressing. Out of this set of circumstances, there emerged a broadly held stereotype that all homosexual men were effeminate in their taste and behavior.

Around the middle of the 20th century, a gay subculture began to emerge and become increasingly visible to the general public. One of the tasks for the developing gay movement, as for other oppressed minorities, was to combat stereotypes that presented a distorted picture of reality. The issue of gay masculinity has always been central to this debate. By now most members of the general public are aware that gay men are not uniformly effeminate. It's been pretty well established that we come in different shapes and sizes and behave in diverse ways.

Of course, the emerging gay subculture and movement was a sideshow to the massive upheavals in gender roles and behavior that were going on in mainstream culture. Feminism was posing a challenge to traditional male domination, and with it came an extensive debate about what it means to be male or female and to what extent people should be expected to conform to strict roles assigned to their gender. Historically, we have had binary notions of gender, with the belief that there should be a clear-cut distinction between males and females. Things have now changed to the point that even staunch conservatives would not really expect people to adhere to the gender roles that were prevalent in the 1950s.

It seems to me that there is now something of a countervailing trend afoot among many politically self-conscious gay men. From an effort to counter the notion that all gay men are effeminate, they have moved toward the position that all gay men should present an image of red-blooded American masculinity. The drive toward becoming respectable leaves no room for the presence of gay men who are less than fully and thoroughly butch. I just watched a documentary called The Butch Factor. It unrolls a long series of interviews with gay men pushing and shoving each other on the athletic field or subduing wild animals. In the interest of balance, they manage to squeeze in a couple of unfortunate men who are unable to measure up.

It seems fairly inevitable that a certain number of children will begin to display behavior and preferences that don't conform to traditional gender roles at a young age. The general term for this phenomenon that psychologists are presently using is "gender variance." This is an umbrella term that includes a broad range of situations and experiences. Being transgender is a more specific situation under that umbrella. There have been multiple studies that have found a correlation between gender-atypical behavior in childhood and eventually developing an identity as gay/lesbian/bisexual and/or transgender. However, not all children who grow into such identities display gender-atypical behavior.

The point of this is that not all boys are cut out to be the personification of masculinity. I was a kid who started life as an identified sissy and grew up to be a gay man who still hates sports and likes to cook. By and large, it is the kids who look and/or act different who are most likely to be targets of bullying. Recently, there has been a long-overdue effort to focus attention on the problems faced by school-aged children who are perceived as being sexually different. However, for all the "It Gets Better" videos, the problems faced by such people don't end once they get out of school. Within the adult gay subculture there is a pervasive emphasis on what strikes me as a cult of masculinity. It appears to be, among other things, an overreaction to historical stereotypes.

John Aravosis has opposed the inclusions of transgender interests in the LGBT movement and he and Dan Savage are involved in continuing controversions and conflicts with the transgender community

We see a good bit of political conflict about the inclusion of the transgender community under the LGBT/queer tent. Self-declared gay pundits like John Aravosis have, on repeated occasions, questioned the desirability of a close alliance between the two groups. To my mind it is not just a clear-cut issue of trans vs. gay. There seems to be a notion that the all-new and improved gay image will be devalued by association with anyone who doesn't conform to the masculinity specification. This includes gay men who fail to measure up on the butch index.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece asserted that, Dan Savage, like John Aravosis, has questioned the desirability of a close alliance between the the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community and the transgender community. Although he has clashed with some in the transgender community, he has made no such statement.

 

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