THE BLOG
05/26/2016 01:51 pm ET Updated May 27, 2017

Our Homonormativity Problem

JGI/Tom Grill via Getty Images

"Did we spend our whole lives crawling out of one box, just to crawl into another?" Sol says, turning to his soon-to-be husband, Robert, on the critically-acclaimed Netflix show, Grace and Frankie.

Sol asks this of Robert, after a recent feud where Sol's very interpretation of what it means to be gay is questioned. While the two were doing a tasting for their upcoming wedding, Sol finds out that Robert slept with one of the men catering the tasting some twelve years before. Sol is momentarily devastated, thinking he had been Robert's one-and-only for the better part of the past two decades.

"What's the point of being gay," one of the men asks on his way out. "If you can't shed the conventions of a heterosexual life?"

This conflict, in many ways, has represented the inner conflict of my mid- to late-twenties, and perhaps a sexual, emotional, and social conflict that plagues many young, gay men of my generation: just because I've been labeled and placed in a different box, does it mean I need to act like it?

I, too, would have responded like Sol, upset by the threat to the sanctity of my partnership, anxious at the thought of having to assimilate new information into the mental model I had already built with my partner. But not every gay man feels that way. In fact, many that fall into the homonormative definition of gay would feel otherwise. I'm reminded of one such occasion just months ago, when I realized just how palpable these differences of opinion were when I found myself surrounded by a group of men at a party, most of whom were gay.

One of the young men, tall and handsome with dirty blonde hair and dark brown eyes, smiled at a group of his friends, bragged about his latest sexual conquests on his most recent trip to the Caribbean. He proclaimed, in detail, about the number of partners he'd been with, the amount of drugs he'd consumed, and his overall stamina over the course of his stay. His fellow gays looked upon him with jealousy, trying to share their own stories. I laughed along, too, feeling disingenuous, uncomfortable, but all the while, wondering why I felt so. Was it because I was jealous, as well? Did I need to be sexually liberated?

Was there was something wrong with the way I was being gay?

I've found myself in these situations before, and each time, I find myself reacting differently. Generally, each of my reactions come from the same root causes: feelings of inferiority and shame that reside deep underneath my visage. I've found myself rarely able to fit in amongst a group of gay men for these very reasons: I'm not promiscuous enough, I don't do a lot of drugs, or because I prefer to talk about topics other than my sexual exploits. It is within these moments that I find myself in the aforementioned inner conflict, that I feel I am faced with a decision: What kind of gay do I want to be? Am I doing this whole thing wrong?

It's ironic, really, that some years and years later, in an era where marriage equality is now a national mandate and where gay couples are more out and proud than ever, that to be a gay man is being still distilled down to one limited definition, that gay culture is falling into the same trap that heteronormative America has fallen into.

Only this time, it's a homonormative trap.

From what I understand, the idea of homonormativity is a relatively new concept. In some cases, it is defined as the adoption of heterosexual values into homosexual relationships. But in others, it's an elite microcultural definition of the ideal and supreme gay man, the one who stays fit and beautiful. And it's disconcerting to witness a group of people -- a group of people that I once understood (and still understand) to be so marginalized -- to be just as elitist as their discriminators some twenty years or more prior.

It was these questions I've shared and the story I told that all converged while watching Grace and Frankie, that caused a rush of emotions to converge over Sol's poignant question: Are we just crawling from one box into another?

Perhaps we are, but maybe that's not entirely a bad thing. To a certain extent, crawling into a "box" is necessary. By labeling ourselves, it gives us an identity. I am proud to call myself "gay," even if that means something a bit different than what many of my other gay counterparts define it as. But that still leaves the question, if we're crawling into a box, then what's the point?

To me, there is no "point." Identity does not exist simply for its own sake. Instead, this understanding of oneself -- of defining who we are -- only helps us to understand one another better. Such is the case with being gay. There is no "point" to it, per se. It simply is a part of our identity -- albeit a very important part -- one that helps to define our way of being, thinking, and interacting with the world around us.

And if we take this perspective on homosexuality, and perhaps even on sexuality and identity in general, then we'll see that all of our individual identities, these little boxes in and out of which we crawl, interlock with everyone else's -- much like the honeycombs of a beehive -- working together towards the common goal of being seen, valued, heard, and loved simply for having the courage to be human and do so in our own "box."

As a result, who am I to judge another man's sexual exploits? Who am I to sit here and say that one box is right and the other is wrong? I'm in no place to make those judgments.

But likewise, I'd like to be able to sit in my box, without being judged either.