From the moment we leave the womb, we are indoctrinated with ideas about what gender means. Real men don’t cry. They don’t ask for help. They don’t back down from a fight. Our culture teaches masculinity in ways both subtle and overt, through schoolyard taunts and gendered bathrooms. It carries over to sports, the gym, fraternities, and other male-only spaces. The result of this relentless social conditioning is that every gay man inherits an identity crisis: we must reconcile our sense of masculinity with our inability to conform to the world’s inherent enforced heterosexuality. While some resolve the conflict by rejecting gender norms altogether, a surprising number embrace the very customs they fall short of, striving to embody cultural notions of masculinity in how they speak, act, and dress. This is particularly true when it comes to dating.
In the gay community, a sexual premium is placed on masculinity, which puts pressure on gay men to be masculine. Dating (hook-up) apps often feature ads saying they are looking for “Masc4Masc” or describe themselves as “straight-acting.” More feminine-acting men are seen as less desirable sexual partners for these men. In one 2012 study about gay men’s attitudes toward masculinity, a majority of those surveyed said it was important not only for themselves to present as masculine but for their partners to look and act masculine as well. Other studies have found that gay men are more attracted to masculine-looking faces and muscular builds. The more masculine one rates oneself, the greater importance one places on masculinity in his partner.
I remember as a child being made fun of because I liked to play with the girls or that I walked with a swish or used my hands to talk. These were seen as feminine, but there was the unspoken belief that if others derided me for that behavior, I’d conform to the masculine ideal. I remember my father even made me play flag football during recess because that’s what all the other boys did, even though I hated it and felt uncomfortable playing football. He did not care. When I reached puberty, and my voice changed, it did not become very deep, and I was often made fun of for the way I talked. Other boys used to mock me with an over-effected gay voice. I spent most of my life in school trying to avoid being seen as feminine or gay. While some may dismiss the reverence of masculinity among gay men as “just a preference” or the ridicule of less than masculine men, both have been documented to have adverse mental health effects. Gay men who are more gender-nonconforming struggle more frequently with self-esteem and experience higher levels of depression and anxiety. Those who prize masculinity are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies, gestures, and voices.
A primary reason people in the LGBT community have more mental health issues is not only because they experience higher levels of marginalization from society at large but also because of the intense pressure to be, look, and act in a masculine way. However, there is also the larger issue of this social exclusion happening within the queer community itself. We’re judging and excluding one another because of perceived gender roles. Gay culture’s obsession with masculinity hurts both masculine and feminine men alike. Even gay men who endorse their own masculinity feel a degree of uncertainty about whether they are manly enough in the way others see them. There is a certain feeling that they will never be masculine enough.
While such feelings are most common earlier in the coming-out stages, masculine norms continue to affect gay men’s sense of self long after they’ve come out. Many gay men want to fit in and be seen as “normal,” not different. If you pay attention to gay social media personalities, you may notice that the strict division between masculine and feminine appears to be blurring. A majority of Millennials believe gender falls on a spectrum, and a survey from queer-rights organization GLAAD showed 12 percent of this generation identifies as gender non-conforming. Take, for example, the social media personality Tate Hoskins, who has grown in popularity by blurring the gender norms for young men by switching from an ultra-masculine country boy to a femme boy in a French maid outfit and cat ears. He’s taken a lot of flak for embracing a non-gender conforming attitude. Still, he continues to stay positive and have his message heard by his nearly 754K followers on TikTok and his close to 30K followers on Instagram. The following video has more than 2 million likes and has been viewed by many more:
Gay men know instinctually that that masculinity is fluid. Even the most “straight-acting” gay man can’t call everyone “bro” all the time. All gay men engage in code-switching, butching it up in a job interview but letting themselves “queen out” at the weekly Drag Race gathering. Much of this variation in behavior stems from a desire to avoid negative social repercussions from society at large, but gay men also tend to put on their straight faces to be more appealing to other gay men. As young people push the boundaries of gender, an increasing number of gay men feel comfortable questioning gay culture’s idolization of traditional masculinity—and the notion that desire is bound by it. It would take a whole new series of posts to discuss the gay obsession with straight men. In gay romance, you sometimes see the trope of the straight man who falls for a gay man either only to realize he was always gay or that he is gay for just one man. Then there is the genre of gay porn that uses gay for pay actors to get viewers or the gaybaiting of the bromosexual culture. Straight men can be a nice fantasy, but a diversity of gender norms (or lack thereof) can all be found within the gay community.
We should respect the diversity of the gay community more and quit looking outside our community for what is considered normal. Too many gay men only want a masculine, fit top with a large penis. Other gay men have an obsession with the myth of a six-pack gay (a straight man who will go gay after a six-pack of beer). It’s all unhealthy. And while some men exist out there who are very masculine, have a perfect body, and possess a huge dick, they are few and far between, and it’s an expectation that is found more often in porn than in real life. We need to look more for what is in a man’s heart than his outer appearance, whether that is his body, fashion sense, or mannerisms.
Tomorrow, I will discuss how bottom shaming has hurt gay men throughout world history.