the problem with straight acting gay men
Are queer spaces moving towards homogeneity and inward prejudice?
"Please be straight-acting." This phrase was not pilfered from some dictatorial constitutional campaign, but, sadly, on digital dating community for gay men, Grindr. In fact, I've come across this confusing and offensive phrase pretty much every time I've gone searching online for "the one" (i.e. someone to have sex with). The confidence one gains when peeking from behind a digital avatar often reveals a person's crude beliefs, and this is certainly the case on Grindr; it seems many gay men refuse to date or be associated with those who are not "straight acting." In fact, not only is "straight" masculinity celebrated on such platforms, but any ostensibly queer identity is subject to homophobic cyber-bullying. I've even come across, "Silly Little Fags, Fuck Off," and "No Camp Puffs, I'm begging you." Charming. In a space designed for gay men.
Seeming "heterosexual" in the eyes of the world is the preference of many gay men, and this is coupled with a trend towards aesthetic masculinity in physical gay environments. Many gay club nights revere a hyper-masculine aesthetic, and not in a way that suggests parody or self-reference. Take, for instance the party Room Service, which at times feels like a playground for men competing for most Olympian physique. Although its doors are also open to drag queens, this in no way suggests diversity or a celebratory spectrum of identity. The atmosphere it produces is of a binary: the drag queens representing ideal femininity; the topless men Grecian masculinity. I found it pretty constricting.
The recent popularity of gay circuit parties is further indicative of this gay idealisation of masculinity; examples of which include the touring WE party, a night advertised for jocks and masculine gays, with muscled crowds amounting to the thousands at their now global events. One WE party poster boasts the phrase: "Think you Look Like a Greek God? We Are Looking for You!" Many Greek Gods were drunk, plump or gender ambiguous, so whatever, WE.
Now, although every muscle worshipping gay man doesn't necessarily want to be "straight-acting" behaviour-wise, the acceleration of both phenomena simultaneously suggests an overall trend towards archaic ideals of masculinity in gay male spaces. Why is this happening?
Let's firstly think about the "straight-acting" gay man. If we Turn Back Time (I don't want to affirm any gay stereotypes here, but a shout out to Cher, my eternal queen), and think about gay male behaviour in the past, what we see is a greater sense of community in previous decades. The 70s and 80s, in particular, saw the gay community sticking together, championing diversity among each other as they fought against governmental oppression. The public attitude to LGBT citizens forced gay people to form sites of their own definition, occupying spaces that they declared as queer, as "alternative"; the Castro in San Francisco, Soho in London - spaces, which are, in fact, now dying.
Although we should be ecstatic about the opportunities now available for gay men - our ability to get married, raise children, have influential careers - my worry is that ideals of hetero-normative success are becoming the preoccupation of many gay men. Whilst in the past the gay community proudly bore its queer status in fighting for diversity and equality, this externally queer behaviour is viewed as "dated" by many gay men in today's "it's now OK to be gay" world. In other words, "now that it's 'normal' to be gay, why can't everyone be 'straight-acting'?"
Psychologist Alan Downs, the author of The Velvet Rage, has researched how the initial rejection gay men experience growing up (on the playground, on the streets, at home), creates an instinctual need for success to compensate for this early sense of failure, often to damaging compulsion. The opportunity for gay men to now "fit in" as a part of heterosexual law has no doubt magnified this compulsion for many, by providing tangible benchmarks.
No doubt amplifying this, the depiction of gay men is often distorted through a heteronormative lens, which feedbacks to gay audiences. Take, for instance, the glorification of Olympic Poster boy Tom Daley and Academy Award winner Dustin Lance's relationship. Whilst it is a sign of progress that a gay relationship is celebrated nation wide, it is done in a manner that is "digestible" for a PG audience -- a straight-acting Disney-fied gay couple (both attractive, white, masculine), giving gay men a pretty unobtainable ideal of success. An indication of how the non-conformist behaviours of queer communities are denied mainstream representation is surely Roland Emmerich's atrocious Stonewall movie, who said that the film needed a "straight-acting" leading man to make what was a movement of minorities relatable.
As a proud drag performer and as someone who relishes being queer, I think that everyone should be free to revel in their own sense of self; it would be ridiculous to suggest that every gay man should want to identify as "queer", if that's not what they wanted to do. What I do find devastating is that homophobia is now prevalent inside gay spaces. It reveals an amnesia amongst gay men about their past, doing a horrific disservice to the people who fought so hard to get us were we are now. And this need to be "straight-acting," or "ideal", is not just constricting for non-masculine gay men, but to all of us who don't conform. For many people, being "straight-acting" isn't an option - and that shouldn't be an issue (why would we want to be!). We're fabulous the way we are.
Text Amrou Al-Kadhi