This is how the gay community is turning against feminine guys

This is how the gay community is turning against feminine guys

When I was growing up, my first exposure to gay culture came through watching episodes of the sitcom Will & Grace with my mum. Although a lot of the jokes seem dated now, it was the best way for an eight-year-old to understand that homosexuality was a perfectly normal and, above all, diverse lifestyle. You had Will, an outwardly-straight, sober, reserved lawyer who acted as a foil to Jack, who was camp, flamboyant and effeminate. Both characters were flawed in some respects and expressed their identity in different ways. For Jack, being camp (and sometimes attention-seeking) was how he expressed pride in himself and deflected homophobia; for Will, his sexuality was merely an incidental part of himself which he didn't draw attention to and was sometimes embarrassed about.

What I took away from that show, even as a child, was that both portrayals were legitimate and that you didn't necessarily have to act "feminine" to be gay. What I didn't know then, is that this same dichotomy, between masculine and feminine, or "masc" and "femme" gay men, has driven a wedge between members of the gay community.

Gay-oriented dating apps, such as Grindr and Scruff, have made it even easier for homosexuals to hook up and, in this hyper-competitive universe, many men have openly made blunt statements expressing their particular sexual proclivities. One of the biggest trends is that more and more gay men are becoming dismissive and hostile towards "femme" gays, to the point of discounting them entirely as potential partners. Instead, many online communities have sprung up which endorse the merits of "masc" gays who shy away from camp mannerisms.

For a lot of gay men, especially those who feel that they've had to continually disguise how effeminate they are in public and repress themselves in order to find acceptance, this is a very sore point. It seems to be a case of imposing a pyramid hierarchy upon the LGBT community, with manly-men at the top, and "queens" at the bottom of the pile. I can only speak as a straight guy who has a tangential (at best) relationship to gay culture, but to me, this seems somewhat alarming. I would have thought that a movement that was defined in part by the persecution and bigotry society had inflicted on it would have been a little bit more inclusive. The reality is a lot more complex.

Perusing my friend's Grindr account, I did notice a few (though not many) profiles which mentioned things like "masc only" or "no fems". Looking up some of the masc forums, the men on it often expressed a preference for those who enjoyed stereotypically straight things, such as watching sports, working out and drinking beer. Knowing that my friend himself had a liking for straight-acting, straight-looking men, I asked him if he felt the same way about femme gays, and his answer surprised me. He told me: "I can guarantee you that most gay men aren't attracted to camp gays. I'd say that the majority of us prefer masculine guys, 100 per cent."

This answer threw me. My friend loves gay culture; loves the camp aesthetic, attending Pride and watching drag acts. Yet he seemed to be saying that, while those parts of gay culture are cool socially, it's a turn-off for him in the bedroom. It's a statement that, in certain circles, would be met with outrage; yet I wasn't too quick to condemn it either.

I'm sure that if we were all to state what our physical preferences in a potential sexual partner were, eventually almost all of us would sound bigoted or shallow through omission about something. That's what stating a preference means: excluding one trait to favour another, and the more narrow your wants are, the more prejudiced you appear to be. In the predominantly-liberal sphere of the LGBT community, where identity politics often demand ideological orthodoxy, this discernment could easily be mistaken for internalised homophobia. Is it right to police someone else's sexuality? Isn't the whole point of coming out so that we can enjoy liberty and personal autonomy as consenting adults?

A shirtless man flexing muscles. Credit: Pixabay/Deepkhicher

But on the other hand, maybe writing off a whole demographic is a little prejudiced. The issue of so-called "sexual racism" is a big debate at the moment. Some believe that finding certain races more attractive than others is a form of prejudice, while others think that distinguishing among partners on the basis of perceived race is justifiable. When I brought this up to my friend, he acknowledged his own misgivings and anxieties about what and who turned him on, and stated that his aversion to dating camp or flamboyant femmes might be an expression of a kind of self-loathing. "Personally, I think that the gay community has a fixation with straight men and 'straight acting' or masculine men, and that fixation has a relationship with the way in which we were raised to understand what it is to be men. We are not comfortable with ourselves, and it would be bizarre if we were because we grew up one way while everyone else that we knew grew up another," he told me. 

This cognitive dissonance, between personal liberty and equality, has provoked fierce debate among online commentators. Writing for MTV news, journalist Justin Clay claimed: "I certainly find 'Masc 4 Masc' problematic. The phrase excludes feminine and androgynous queer individuals — a type of exclusion that speaks to a long legacy of internalised homophobia and misogyny both in the gay community as well as in broader American society. Ingrained homophobia teaches us to accept and normalise relationships that fit into a heterosexist framework and oppress queerness, while ingrained misogyny simultaneously teaches us to privilege masculinity over femininity."

Two men kissing at a pride event. Credit: Getty

Clay thinks that by only legitimising masculinity (a very subjective trait at the best of times) the gay community is perpetuating a harmful patriarchal power structure and the sexist notion that femininity is something weak or embarrassing to be dismissed or not taken seriously. Reading his article, I have to admit that his argument seems quite convincing. On the other hand, journalist and blogger Jeremy Helligar also made an argument in opposition to this in The Huffington Post, stating: "Gay men can be obsessive when it comes to categorising themselves, especially when they hit the hook-up grid... Racial markers have practically become the bane of being gay. They limit our gay experience, pulling us apart rather than bringing us to together."

Helligar added: "We spend so much time and effort rallying against gay stereotypes, but aren’t we only reinforcing them when we suggest that to desire masculine men is to somehow be anti-gay? ... Equating gay with feminine or flamboyant or camp does as much of a disservice to gay people as rejecting those qualities ... There’s no one way to be gay. Some turn on the camp, while others overcompensate with hyper-masculinity. Most of us, however, probably fall somewhere between the two." Helligar suggests that, for most gay men, one's masculinity or femininity is contextual, based on the company they keep or the situation, and that disparaging gay men for their masculine preference is just as harmful and homophobic. I also found this argument convincing. But where did that lead me?

Activists at a gay pride march. Credit: Pixabay/Rihaij

The best thing to take from both these viewpoints is the same lesson that Will & Grace taught me all those years ago: there isn't just one way to be gay. Not only that, but prejudice, even when internalised, can come in many varied - and often subtle - forms. I'm sure that there are gay men out there who are a little (even very) homophobic themselves, and feel superior to femmes because they can blend into the background of patriarchal society. This kind of prejudice is damaging and can do lasting harm. But equally, I'm sure there are plenty of guys out there who just like what they like and can't help that, and it might be a bit hyperbolic to label them as bigots or police their private desires to conform to standards of political correctness.

I shared these feelings with my friend, and he seemed to concur, expressing a dualism that many gay men have to contend with. "I think the same impulse that I have to change the way I am is the same reason that I flinch if I'm on a first date and he has the 'gay voice.' I am not proud of either. In fact, I am ashamed of both. But I don’t feel comfortable saying it’s a preference and leaving it at that. I think some preferences, like sexuality or race, deserve to be interrogated and say more about [those making the judgements] than about those under scrutiny." He's right; whether it's a prejudice or a preference it's important that we examine it, even if we can't come to a definite decision, and that alone takes a hell of a lot of self-awareness and bravery.