In recent months, much has been written about how heterosexual males treat women. Gay men, such as myself, should not be precluded from this important conversation. During her acceptance speech at the recently held Golden Globes, Elizabeth Moss stated that women were finally the story and that women could now control the narrative themselves. What stories do we, as gay men, tell about women? How do we regard them and femininity?
The gay community has several icons, many of them women: Madonna, Cher, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, and, of course, the darling of the yellow brick road herself, Judy Garland. They were our champions and in return us theirs. Gay men rallied behind Hillary Clinton because she rallied, albeit not always, around us. According to exit polling, 78% of voters who identify as LGBT voted for Clinton. Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show in which men dress as women like a twisted and more nuanced version of America’s Next Top Model, have soared in popularity. From the outside, it looks like we revere women.
However, the reality is that many gay men exhibit behavior consistent with misogynistic heterosexual, cisgender males.
Gay men who exhibit perceived feminine qualities are often pilloried. These are the non-athletic, musical or fashion-loving men who also exhibit traits typically associated with women and, more precisely, femininity: soft or passive or with effeminate voices. These qualities or preferences are openly crucified on dating applications and clear in gay dating parlance: “masculine seeking the same,” “masc for masc” or “no femmes.” In doing so, gay men deride feminine traits and women by extension. They also reinforce heteronormative and patriarchal views of women as the lesser sex.
It is also becoming increasingly prevalent in younger circles of the gay community to use terminology that refers to gay men in terms of the feminine gender. “Look what she is wearing,” or “Who does she think she is” or “Girl, don’t you come for me.” At best, this gendered language is used by gay men to mock one another and, at its worst, to tear strips off one another. Regardless of whether this language is intentionally benign or downright damaging, the message is the same. Women are bitches; they are petty and weak. They earn less, they must break glass ceilings to succeed and, as we are learning with each day that passes, they are endlessly harassed in everyday life. Given these realities, why would any man (gay or straight) want to be associated with women or womanhood?
Our questionable regard for women extends to the views we hold about lesbians. A classic joke: Why do gay men have lesbian friends? Someone has to mow the lawn. Masculinity is prized in the gay community, but not when possessed by lesbian women. Here, “butch” lesbian women who are not perceived as “lipstick lesbians” i.e. lesbians who perform stereotypically feminine roles, are similarly ridiculed for not conforming to traditional gender roles. Oddly, many gay men subscribe to traditional and outdated views of gender roles. Men should be men – tough and aggressive – and women should be women, subordinate to men. Men should never behave like women, and women should never behave like men. Men are permitted to act like women, like on RuPaul’s Drag Race, so long as it is purely a performance and non-threatening. In other words, men can behave like women, but only on our terms. Otherwise, our defenses are triggered and our vulnerability laden vitriol unleashed.
Association or equivalence with women is immensely threatening to gay men. Why would gay men want to subject themselves to the prejudices to which women are subjected and the stereotypes that accompany them? Already a marginalized community, they – perhaps unsurprisingly – are unwilling to tolerate behaviors and stigma that leave them vulnerable to increased scrutiny and make them even more unpalatable to society at large. Further, why would men want to exhibit feminine traits and preferences that “outed” them to their peers as the youth and left them open to rejection, bullying, and attack? Fear of rejection is a key driver behind the gay community’s intolerance of femininity. It is also rooted in gay shame and self-loathing.
Our rigid and heteronormative ideas of gender roles and support of traditional constructs are hard to reconcile with our views on other topics. Take marriage for example. Marriage was an inherently traditional institution, a union between a man and a woman. The LGBTQ community, including gay men, fought tirelessly to shatter and reimagine the institution to accommodate their love and ensure access to an institution (and all of the related social, legal and economic benefits) that had previously been shut to them. To do so, they had to obliterate a fundamentally traditional and gendered construct. Yet, at the same time, many gay men say things and exhibit behavior that clearly reflects traditional and submissive beliefs about women. An unfortunate and pronounced double standard indeed. We cherry pick the parts of heteronormativity we want to do away with but hold other parts close to our chests. On the one hand, we congratulate ourselves for bending a heterosexual institution to put us on equal footing. On the other, we don’t truly believe in equal footing. Winning the right to gay marriage, while holding these views does not make us heroes, it makes us Trojan horses.
It is a sad state of affairs when one marginalized community diminishes another. When we use women to tear each other down, we not only damage our own community, we damage theirs as well. By diminishing effeminate gay men, we reinforce heteronormative, cisgender and patriarchal views of women as the lesser sex. If we must unnecessarily wage war with one another, whether because of our rejection and shame schemas, our angry and bruised inner-children or otherwise, let us not use women to do our dirty work.
We may not have touched women inappropriately, but that does not mean we don’t have blood on our hands.