By: Michael Beasley
As a 22 year old male, 5 years of my two and something decades on this planet have been dominated by my open bisexuality. I came out at the tender age of 17. I vividly remember feeling hopeful. The coming out process was almost promised to be a life changing experience, and I expected the results over night. To its credit, it has been a life changing experience, albeit on a far slower scale than an impatient 17 year old could comprehend. And yet, as I look back in hindsight, I’m still not sure if I ever properly acknowledged the effect that homosexuality would have in my life. In that sense, I’m so monumentally lucky to be from a generation for whom the consequences of homosexuality are not dire. I’m under no direct threat to my safety, legally I’m allowed to love who ever I choose and professionally I am not hindered. Yet socially, I feel like my life is edging towards a narrative that seems inevitable.
Firstly, to understand what this inevitable narrative seems to entail, I’d like to discuss certain issues that I, a humble 22 year old of reasonable cognitive ability, have observed within my community.
Chapter 1: THE ARBITRARY LADDER OF MASCULINITY
I’m going to recall a story about an older gay friend. When I was still fresh out the closet, he told me that I would be fine and desired because I classified as a ‘grade B homo’. I was initially shocked by this assessment (because let’s face it, I was used to nothing less than A standard throughout education). Upon clarification, he revealed that the male queer community could essentially be broken down into categories based entirely around the concept of masculinity.
Grade A queers were the straight passing queers. They tend to have an athletic physique, ‘masculine’ interests and basically give nothing away that might indicate that they swing the other way. They also usually occupy the ‘top’ for fucking. Grade B queers follow this. ‘We’ occupy the maybes, the unsure, the ‘is he or isn’t he?’ We’re feminine enough to indicate that we might be/probably are queer, but remain elusively masculine enough to give cause for doubt. Running at the bottom of this imaginary rankings are the C-ers, and in the words of my pal which I can still hear clear as day, ‘Darling, we’re the flamers and the queens’. These are the men who defy the expectations of masculinity outright.
At the time, my inexperience lead me to focus on the wrong message. I focused on the pursuit of becoming more masculine, more desirable, more fuckable. I didn’t think to challenge this arbitrary system, rather I passively endorsed it. I ousted ‘feminine’ music from my Spotify, I developed a sense of shame and embarrassment over my ‘feminine’ traits (I even attended voice elocution lessons. I used the feign disguise that I wanted to get rid of my lisp, but really, the main focus was how to lower my voice an octave or two and make it sound more monotone. For the most part, it worked and people like me are the reason the NHS is in trouble). I did everything I could do to climb the arbitrary ladder of masculinity. But my position as a grade B homo remained the same – I was still more feminine than the average man; my closest connections remained female; I still looked ‘a little queer’ and my sexuality remained an elephant in the room, a talking point of whispered mumbles – ‘Is he gay? He seems like he might be’.
Now my tale leading to this fabled ‘inevitable narrative’ takes a darker twist, embellished with entirely too much brooding. But the point of this article is not to lament over the loss of my masculinity. The point of this article is to address the shocking realisation that our community, a community that we’ve fought so hard for, is apparently obsessed with appearing ‘straight’.
The point is only exasperated by my own experience on gay apps such as Grindr or general dating apps such as Tinder. After every reload of Grindr, I’m greeted by a vast majority of bios reading: ‘masc looking for masc’, ‘no sissys’, ‘not into camp’. If we flip to the more family friendly and conservative Tinder, then we have blatant displays of this pursuit of masculinity. Swiping reveals a host of men that are passively endorsing this masculine ladder. Pictures vary from including body shots (demonstrating they have achieved the ‘masculine body’), to pictures of candid gym shots or staged productions of sport shots. Yet my all-time favourite, and one I have admittedly indulged in as well, is when gay guys deliberately include a ‘lad’ shot – one photograph of an all-male friendship group, to let potential suitors know that they can get up to ‘lad level’ and have ‘lad banter’ and have ‘lad bonds’ (the reason this remains entirely hilarious to me is that the vast majority of their other pictures will be with their female friends, demonstrating their own affinity for female companionship. It’s another subtle yet revealing indication of our affinity towards appearing as masculine as possible).
This is further reinforced by our porn selection. The leading producers of gay porn (Sean Cody being the biggest culprit) hire predominantly ‘gay for pay’ male actors. These actors exhibit all the traits that our culture obsesses over. They are athletic, they are masculine in both appearance and interest and they oust any and all feminine behaviours. Many of these porn films start with an introduction, often asking about their heterosexual sex life, sports and other masculine interests, etc. Some even go further to include snippets of these men engaging in ‘masculine’ sports. Some sites (such as Czech Hunter) make it abundantly clear that these men are having homosexual sex unwillingly, and only agree for the fiscal rewards. I can’t begin to express how damaging this is to the psyche of a queer man. Our own sexual pleasure through masturbation comes (pun intended) hand in hand with the arbitrary ladder of masculinity. Queer representation is reduced – the ‘alpha masculine male’ is depicted as the apex of homosexual desire. While we simple homos are just trying to beat the meat for a quick release, what’s actually being hammered home is that femininity is not attractive in our culture.
The ambition to achieve a more masculine status leads us to a rather depressing destination. As a culture, we’re superficially fixated on achieving the dream ‘beach bod’:
‘A survey of more than 5,000 readers conducted in January 2017 revealed that more than half of respondents are unhappy with their body, with an overwhelming majority (84 per cent) reporting feeling intense pressure to have a good body.
Responding to the question How happy would you say you are with your body?, 49 per cent reported feeling “Unhappy”, while another 10 per cent said they were “Very unhappy”.
Is it not a crying shame that 49% of us are unhappy with our bodies? Why are 84% of us feeling intense pressure to be a body double of Zac Efron? Are we not considering the detrimental effects of the pursuit of masculinity on our culture? I don’t think the expectation that I (a typical skinny white boy by nature and personality) need to be built like a gym fanatic to be considered attractive and ‘grade A’ is reasonable. I would also then argue that it’s important to discover the source of this intense pressure – why do we want to be so physically fit?
Ultimately, this pursuit can be summarised by the accredited gender theorist Judith Butler. Butler stipulates (in a brief summary) that gender is not something you are born as, it is something you become. You become a man by acting like how society perceives a man to act, or face the consequences for deviation (e.g social isolation and exclusion). Our addiction to masculinity likely stems from our repression from the closet. Homosexual men spend years tackling internalised homophobia because there is an established association of gay men with femininity. To avoid this ‘effeminate’ stereotype, gay men overcompensate by trying to be the ideal masculine figure. Thus the pursuit of masculinity, in my opinion, is born from our own fear of social rejection that the closet cultivated.
As a culture we’ve come to hail masculinity as the defining feature of attractiveness due to our own internalised shame. Therefore, while events like Pride tell us to shy away from the hetero ‘norm’ and be ourselves, many of us secretly continue to strive towards heteronormative definitions of masculinity. Sadly, we continue to demonstrate both outwardly (by achieving the perfect, masculine ‘beach bod’) and internally (by ranking activities and interests against a gendered scale) that we’re still adhering to masculine expectations.
So the first chapter of this inevitable narrative of a queer man is that we never truly escape the trauma of the closet. We remain the ironic victims of heteronormative gender performance. While LBGT+ culture advocates the reduction of gender roles, we also passively endorse them. Breaking the arbitrary ladder of masculinity remains, at this stage, an unthinkable mirage.