By Jamie Booth
Whilst the amount of social progress that our society has made in recent decades is nothing short of phenomenal, it is an undeniable fact that years of oppression and prejudice taint the world we live in. Today, we gay men can be open about our sexuality; we can get married and can adopt children. In short, we largely enjoy the same legal rights and protections as our straight counterparts. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the march for equality is pretty much over.
But in reality, many aspects of the progress we have made simply resemble an attempt to amalgamate being gay into our traditional ideals of family and marriage. Yes, this is a welcome and necessary step; but it ignores so many aspects of gay identity.
Whilst some of cultures most famous gay men – think of Alan Carr, Paul O’Grady, Boy George – are upfront about espousing their femininity, the prominence of feminine gay men in our culture can serve to perpetuate the myth of the stereotypical, effeminate gay man. Yes, there are lots of gay men eager to embrace their femininity. But study after study has shown that gay men prize the notion of stereotypical masculinity; speaking to the underlying treasured ideal of masculinity that is embedded in our society. This leads many gay men to recoil from aspects of their identity in an effort to avoid appearing too ‘feminine’, and thus, ‘too gay’.
For many gay men, the hardest part about coming out is the reconciliation of the living up to the image society portrays of what it means to be a man, and the embracing of one’s true identity. Alan Downs articulates this idea of an innate shame felt by gay men, and it is in the prospect of embracing one’s femininity that this shame is rooted.
And it’s not just gay men that this hinders. ‘Feminine’ actions by straight men are quickly labelled – and not in a complementary way – as gay. Suicide is a massive epidemic among young men, and it often tragically afflicts men not wanting to be associated with the femininity of emotion.
What this tells us is this. Our society is characterised by a plethora of stereotypes that shape us and the way we live our lives, and breaking free of these stereotypes is an immensely daunting and challenging proposition. Society has, so far, not succeeded at breaking the dichotomy between the masculine male and the feminine female.
So long as our society continues to sustain these stereotypes, men of all sexualities will be totally unable to develop their true selves. But it is among gay men, where young people already have to face the idea of being different to most of their peers, that the effects of the toxic relationship between manhood and masculinity are most harmful.
Recall this in particular: it was the effeminate gays, the drag queens – those that had perhaps the hardest time hiding their identity and fitting into the notion of what it meant to be a man – that spearheaded the gay rights movement. We will forever be indebted to these people. We owe it to them to take up the mantle and fight to break down societal gender stereotypes. In doing so, we must create a community where men – both gay and straight – can flourish as their own individuals, without any duty to live up to the stereotypes of an archetypal man, and where femininity in men is as celebrated as masculinity is.
Image: Will Sawney via Flickr