The Masculinity Olympics: We’re Playing a Game We’re Never Going to Win

If one were to look for a picture to sit alongside the word “ironic” in the proverbial dictionary, here it is: A now-ubiquitous image of a man wearing a white shirt, duct tape covering his mouth, and “NO H8” written on his cheek – with the also-all-too-common words, “No fats or femmes” scrawled right underneath.

While this example’s demonstration of its subject’s profound lack of self-awareness makes it noteworthy, it’s also indicative of a much larger trend: Peruse, even briefly, the average gay dating site and you’ll see the term “masculine” thrown around enough to make even a Gender Studies grad student’s head spin. While one or two instances may be written off as a the-lady-doth-protest-too-much scenario, the seemingly widespread obsession of gay men, at least in the city in which I live, with not only shouting from the rooftops about their lack of femininity, but also positioning it as superior to the alternative, may be one of the more surprising aspects of modern queer culture.

And I’ll admit that I’ve not always been immune to this phenomenon. When I first came out in college, I was very vocal about the fact that I wasn’t “that kind” of homosexual – that I was gay because I’m attracted to men, not “lady boys.” However, I quickly (with the help of some aforementioned Women’s Studies graduate classes and a bit of maturity) realized how positively obnoxious that made me sound on one hand, and how truly damaging it could be to the rest of the queer community on the other.

Looking on it now, however, the thing I’m struck by the most is how vehemently this trait is still owned by my fellow gays. Here’s the thing: I’m not positive where I fall on the gender identity spectrum relative to my peers – I do some mixed martial arts, but also collect all manner of unicorn paraphernalia – but even if I did, “masculine” or “feminine” would not be among the very few words I choose to describe myself. In fact, if presented with the challenge of writing out 100 adjectives that best characterize me, neither of those would even make the list. And yet, the widespread declarations of “Masc seeking same” seems to suggest I’m somewhat in the minority in this.

Ultimately, in my opinion, this emphasis on masculinity in gay culture is just plain sad. It’s like pounding on the doors of a clubhouse that we’ll never be let into – or, to put it in more “masculine” terms – competing in a sporting event that we’re, by definition, unable to win because we’ve already been disqualified.

Obviously, this emphasis on masculinity is a response to a culture that too often portrays gay men as one-note, sparkly, and lisping-ly “fabulous.” But, no matter how hard we try, masculinity as it’s narrowly and hegemonically defined is the domain of the heterosexual male. There’s no better proof of that that than the fact that you will never seeing a dating profile wherein a straight man describes himself first as masculine – it’s simply taken as a given. That’s why the nausea-inducing term “straight-acting gay” is used interchangeably with “masculine.”

Just as Ben Gibbard once said, “Liking interesting things doesn’t make you interesting,” when you’re a gay man, simply liking masculine things doesn’t make you masculine. According to traditional notions of masculinity, by having sex with men and not being attracted to women, we’re automatically disqualified. You can watch hours and hours of sports every weekend, but leaving Nellie’s at the end of the night with another man, to presumably have sexual relations during which one of you will become the other’s “bitch,” means you’ll never be a “real” masculine man in society’s eyes.

Which is fine. In fact, it’s more than fine! Lindy West recently wrote a piece for Jezebel.com about being a single woman in which she states, “I try to remember (and it is hard sometimes—real talk) that I’m an actual human being, not some math equation that can be solved by triangulating all of the nearest boners.”  Similarly, we need to remind ourselves that we’re actual people – unique individuals who don’t need to fit into a category. If you’re a man who loves sports, hates musicals, and also enjoys making out with dudes, that’s great! Why do you also need to reduce yourself to the lowest common denominator that is commonly referred to as masculinity? Not being held to this strict standard means we’re free to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and then go out and fix a car, or build something, or go for a hike – we should be embracing this freedom rather than constructing a gender-based prison for ourselves.

The very worst thing we can do to each other, as gay men, however, is hold our perceived masculinity up as superior to other forms of gender expression. Rather than turn your frustrations upon the more flamboyant among us for being “stereotypes” and “giving us a bad name” you should direct it at those who do the stereotyping in the first place and make you feel as if you need to wear your misplaced sense of masculinity as a suit of armor. At the very least, you’ll free up nine letters in your online dating profile.

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 30, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    This was really interesting, I had no knowledge of this phenomenon.

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