I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) college students for a project in one of my graduate classes. Most of the research has been related to campus climate, identity development and LGBT student experiences. While all of this has been fascinating, I thought it might be interesting to research and talk about another topic that most gay men have experience with–masculinity. There are lots of things to talk about just in this topic, but I’m going to try and stay relatively focused. My goal is to give a brief background for people who don’t have experience with this topic area, discuss some issues facing college-aged men and maybe share some personal experiences.
I think most of us can wrap our heads around the idea that when we’re children and in the developmental years of our life, our parents and other societal factors try to get us to fit into certain gender roles. obviously, everyone’s experiences are different, but I’m willing to bet that in some form, a societal norm has been ingrained into your perception of the world around you. We’ve all seen the stereotypes that men are supposed to live up to, the Marlboro man, Rambo, G.I. Joe and countless other examples of what a man is supposed to be. A stereotypical man has power and control over his life and his emotions. This man does not express feeling nor is he at all feminine. Now if you look at the stereotypes of gay men, we see that they are fairies who cry a lot and are way too in-touch with their emotions. Gay men must have flailing hands and drink brightly-colored drinks. I think for most people reading this, we all know that very few, if any men actually live up to these narrow descriptions of men. However, for a young gay man struggling to find his identity, images and portrayals of men in the world around them (especially gay ones) have an impact on how they deal with their own identity.
We’ll explore a few different ways this struggle manifests itself in gay men’s lives, but I think the most important developmental impact these images have is on the identity development and coming out process. I recently read a research article about non-heterosexual male collegiate identities which simply studied how a group of college graduates of varying ages defined their sexuality in college. The most interesting part of this research was the “parallel” identity description that came out of this researcher’s interviews. Men who identified as parallel basically lead two completely separate lives. One where they were straight members of society, had all straight friends and engaged in “normal” activities. Their other life was their secret, behind the scenes life where they went and engaged in homosexual acts with strangers. One person admitted that he had sex with men in their thirties because having sex with men his age would be too close to his other life. I’ve witnessed these behaviors in the lives of a few men I know. These men lead parallel lives where they create fake email addresses and Facebook profiles to meet other men on personals sites like Craigslist and Manhunt, where they know other gay men socialize. Some of these men are in social settings and professions that are completely accepting of LGBT people, yet they still do not want to identify with homosexuality or disclose their sexual identity.
I’m certainly not implying that coming out would be best for these people, but it often perplexes me how people who are in supportive environments don’t see that they have an open and accepting community of people to confide in. I think the root of this issue is the fact that they do not want to identify with non-heterosexual people because of the perceived social stigma they would have to encounter. For these men, coming out would mean having to identify as that fairy or drag queen. It would mean becoming part of a community that embraces actions and ideas that they themselves may not see as “normal.” For them, and for many gay men struggling with their male identity, to be gay means you cannot be a man. This brings me back to the original idea that were presented with images of what a man is supposed to be and we are constantly struggling to make meaning of our own identities as a reflection of those presented to us.
As a rebuttal to this, people might say that now with the rise of the “metrosexual” men who have dose of femininity in their identity are accepted these days. They might say that we’ve come a long way and that now, men with wide ranges of masculinity are accepted in society. Well, this is true. In some social circles and some situations, these men are accepted, but we still live in a society that predominantly perpetuates a strong, dominant male stereotype. In the gay community, hyper-masculinity or “straight-acting” men seem to be a hot commodity. The gay community as a general group almost do more to perpetuate this dominant male idea than their straight counterparts. Young gay men today are growing up in a community that provides polarizing definitions of what it means to be a gay man. Where these ideas tend to bubble to the surface is in the gay dating world.
Gay men are obviously looking for other men and it seems that in the gay community, the men that young gays are looking for are the hyper masculine examples from society and not necessarily actual gay men. If you’re effeminate or girly, you are not desirable. I’ve noticed this before on my previous college campus in Milwaukee, WI, but not nearly to the extent that the community is at in Mankato, MN where I’m currently studying. This campus offers an amazing environment for LGBT students to thrive in and many students take advantage of what this campus has to offer. After getting my feet wet in the community, I’ve noticed that there is a culture divide in this slightly-suburban Minnesotan town. To explain it simply, the culture seems to be the closets versus the drag queens, those are your only options as a gay man in Mankato. For the students who are out and active on campus, there is an intense amount of pride, but for the students who aren’t, there is an intense amount of animosity towards the out students. In my few conversations with closeted men in Mankato, they have distinctly described their dislike of and disassociation with “the gays in kato.” These men clearly do not want to identify with the out population in Mankato, so the do not come out; a few of these men have even asked something to the effect of “do you know the other gays around here,” as if it was a litmus test of my own masculinity. I often wonder where these men get their ideas about what is attractive and who they see themselves spending their life with.
If you look at the gay pornography world, some of the most successful business are ones that claim to have “gay for pay” actors who are masculine, straight men performing gay acts. Doesn’t that seem a little self-defeating? Think about it, we’re idolizing men who are completely and utterly unattainable straight men. Now, most men watching these videos probably know that these men aren’t really straight, but it is their fantasy nonetheless and this is the message the gay community is sending to young gay men. I recently read another research article that investigated the dating site, Straight-Acting.com and how men using the site discuss their segment of the gay community. Basically, the researcher found that commenters on the site were attempting to reinforce their masculinity through overtly homophobic, sexist and anti-feminist statements. Again, this “straight-acting” idea that is so prevalent in the gay community is an unrealistic standard to live up to or idolize. Even though there are men who exhibit traits that are more commonly attributed to straight men, they aren’t straight acting, they are simply acting like themselves.
More recently, a few researchers have started making connections between gay male’s hyper-masculine behavior/desire and negative feelings about their own masculinity. According to these researchers, their study “showed that the degree to which [research subjects] valued masculinity and were concerned with violating masculine ideals was positively related with negative feelings about being gay. These findings highlight the importance of exploring the role that masculine ideals play in gay [men's] lives given that negative feelings about oneself can adversely affect psychological well-being.” Yet again, this all come back to the fact that the gender roles and ideas of masculinity we’re pressured to conform to are having a negative impact on our psychological well-being.
For myself and many of my friends, this has been a right of passage into become a positive gay role model and well-adjusted member of the LGBT community; I personally don’t believe that I’m completely there yet. I think that for many young men who are still struggling with their identity and may have negative attitudes toward more stereotypical gay men, this is a hurdle they must overcome. I know that for myself and other people I was around in my early years of college, we were chasing this ideal gay man who acted like straight men; maybe he was in the military, was on the swimming team or acted like a bro at basement parties. Eventually, when becoming more comfortable with ourselves, we realized that these men were closeted gay men struggling with their identities and the ideal straight-acting mad did not exist. I think we understood after time and experience that it was important to find men on our same level who are comfortable in their own skin, regardless of what stereotype they do or do not fit.
I know this may seem like an afterthought in a seemingly critical diatribe, but it is important to realize that none of us are perfect. I still find myself buying into stereotypes and degrading peers who align more with stereotypical gay men even though I myself appreciate a nice unicorn or a fresh baked brie once in a while. It is important to recognize that everyone is at their own place in their life and each person has their own journey and it’s not anyone’s place to force young men into a world they aren’t ready for. Even though we aren’t perfect, we can still be cognizant of these issues and be advocates for those who need support.