That’s so gay.” “He acts like such a fag.” “He’s clearly gay, look how he’s dressed.”
In light of the recent despicable approval by 11 states of what basically amounts to Jim Crow legislation for gays, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about homophobia. We often hear about how homophobia affects those in the LGBT community, but less often do we think about how homophobia also negatively affects “straight” individuals, especially heterosexual men. Many think that simply tolerating gays, in a sense granting them permission to be comfortable in your presence by letting them know gay is “fine by you,” is enough. But, as the familiar expressions above reveal, many of the daily actions and language we condone are penetrated by a deep-seated, sometimes even unconscious, sense of homophobia and essentialism.
On this season’s first episode of MTV’s Real World, MJ, a male character on the show who says he has never been around homosexuals proclaims that he “just knows” when someone is gay. When Karamo, another house member, who MJ considers to be a fellow “manly man” announces that he is a homosexual, MJ is visibly flabbergasted, shocked at the news that not all gays act, look, walk and talk a certain way.
This type of mentality is present in the high schools, universities, workplace settings, churches and media that characterize our daily lives. We classify gay in our minds as though it has one face, always identifiable by certain visible characteristics, and we do the same for straight. Much the same way as race is often essentialized, we confine the daily performance of sexuality to the same rules.
Our perception of what it is to be a straight male is often marked by a hyper display of contrived masculinity, forcing many men to conform to acting out prescribed notions of heterosexuality, lest they be marked as being “gay” or questionable at best. Those that are perceived as “girly men,” regardless of what their sexuality may be, will be marked as “fruity,” somehow not living up to an imposed standard of manliness.
Much of this stems from the lumping together of the definitions of gender, sex, sexuality, masculinity and femininity in popular culture and the failure to distinguish between these important concepts. While sex refers to biological categories, gender refers to social or cultural categories, and sexuality refers to your sexual or erotic desires and practices. Masculine and feminine refer to culturally specific ideas that are specific to our society and time. Because you prefer to have sex with men, does not mean you also must have a “feminine” identity and because you prefer to have sex with women does not mean you must have a “masculine” one.
Our society falsely constructs male homosexuality as the antithesis of masculinity. In doing so, we restrict both homosexual and heterosexual men at the same time and simultaneously reinforce notions of gender hierarchy, where femininity is placed at the bottom, weaker end of the pole.
We are all familiar with the fact that there are many homosexuals out there “passing for straight,” remaining “in the closet” or on “the downlow” rather than be greeted with the unfortunate disgust and ridicule reserved for them in the public eye. But what does it really mean to “pass for straight”? What does straight look like? Can it only be performed in a certain way? When I think about the strict heteronormative categories of what it means to be a true man or woman, I wonder if it is only homosexuals who are “passing for straight,” or do we all force ourselves to take on this constructed hyper-masculinized representation of what straight men do or say, how they dress, and how they live their lives?
I’ve seen many men choose football or basketball over dance; choose blue over pink or purple, for fear of being conceived as “gay.” In this society where identity is often something placed upon an individual, rather than freely and personally constructed, is this just another instance in which everyone must simply conform? Or will men, and everyone, ever be able to define and express themselves freely, unrestricted by notions of what it means to be manly or girly, no longer preoccupied by just “passing for straight”?
Amelia Herbert is a Trinity senior.
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