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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Slugs, Snails, Puppy Dog Tails Masculinity and Maleness

Being gay is typically seen as a ‘backwards step’ in terms of masculinity or ‘male-ness’. It is usually associated with people such as Chris Kolfer (Kurt from Glee) or Elton John, and anyone who identifies as gay is immediately expected by the ignorant to appear and behave ‘camp’.

Does being gay mean relinquishing masculinity? I believe not. (Google image search ‘Bo Dixon soccer ball’—if that isn’t the ‘manliest’ guy you’ve ever seen, you’re weird). But unfortunately society does, and the consequences of that are dire.

While there certainly are plenty of gay people who shun society’s arbitrary notions of masculinity and proudly embody a camp lifestyle, my experience as a gay man tells me they are the minority amongst gay men. Most gay guys are everyday guys who happen to like a bit of dick. Think about it. 10 per cent of any country (and hence the entire world) is gay. Do 10 per cent of all guys you meet remind you of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? No. In fact, the vast majority of the guys you meet are just everyday guys, but oh shock horror 10 per cent of them are actually gay. So why do some guys embody feminine ideals? Are they trying to be feminine, or are they redefining masculinity? Is it a reaction to the burdens of masculinity placed on men, or is it just a genuine desire to look fabulous?

We don’t even need to answer these questions to establish the obvious flaw of assigning ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ ideals to men and women—everyone is different. The simple fact that all people have different personalities and upbringings immediately tells us that forcing them to embody a particular set of ideals to be considered worthy of owning their current sexy parts is a very destructive way of trying to order society. Only a very small amount of people ever actually fit into that box of total manliness yet we hold them up as ‘the ideal’, thus telling the majority of men who don’t meet that standard that they are somehow of lesser quality.

Why is it that to be considered ‘an ideal man’, you have to have a toned, sculpted physique and be a man whore? Many more intelligent definitions of masculinity involve courage, respect, discipline and the ability to be humble. Yet, young boys increasingly find themselves told through media that to be real men, they must spend half their life at the gym, be proficient in rugby and be able to ‘score pussy in town’. This is especially troubling for young gay men, who can sometimes be intimidated by sports and gyms for fear of being found out and ridiculed, and (obviously) prefer the disco stick to the beef curtains.

Then we have ‘everyday man’ ideals. This is the stuff such as hardware store advertisements, that man ice cream stuff that came out recently and any ad to do with watching rugby instead of playing it. Through these portrayals, we can assume that all New Zealand men obsessively buy hand drills (to build manly things), only eat manly ice cream flavours (like steak or pie) and go absolutely mental over 30 muscular men running around a field in tight shorts piling on top of each other (I dare you to tell me that isn’t incredibly homoerotic). That’s not what all guys are like. In fact, no media portayal of men ever seems to capture the fact that most guys are just plain people with their own personalities.

Camille Paglia has this to say about masculinity: “A woman simply is, but a man must become. Masculinity is risky and elusive. It is achieved by a revolt from woman, and it is confirmed only by other men.” The bar for total masculinity has been set very high for men, and even everyday masculinity is still out of reach for a large majority of men.
But what is most troubling for gay youth is not just achieving masculinity, something all young men face somehow, but the constant pressure for them to relate their masculinity back to sexual prowess amongst females. Masculinity is almost seen as irrelevant if it doesn’t equate to plenty of nekkid time with the ladies. Consider this—you’re a 17 year old boy in your last year of high school. You play rugby, you like pies, build shit with your dad, etc. You’re seen as a fairly masculine kid and as such are rewarded with increased respect from your teachers and family friends (spend 5 years in NPBHS like I did and then deny that this is exactly what happens). But, you’re also gay. What do you do? Being masculine affords you so many benefits. You’re popular, teachers like you, family friends like you, third formers run away from you. If you came out to anyone, your entire reputation would be shattered. What if word somehow got out? Every time people looked at you, you would be wondering if they knew that behind your masculinity you were actually a ‘faggot’. No one would play rugby with you anymore. Random people at school would shout ‘homo’ and ‘cock sucker’ at you between classes. Your dad would stop doing so much stuff with you and your mum would try to set you up with girls. All these thoughts and negative words run through your head and you think ‘no way, I can’t do that’. So, you lie. You pretend to like girls and do whatever you can to prove it to your mates and family. You score as many chicks as possible and start fights every time you get drunk. You mock other people for being gay so no one suspects that you are. You deny a part of yourself to fit into society’s views of masculinity.

That’s pretty much the story of Gareth Thomas, a Welsh rugby player who first became famous for being one of the world’s best players, then for being a beacon of hope for the LGBT community by being the first person to come out whilst still playing professional, international rugby. While he was married to his wife, he would usually go down to a local cliff-face at least once a week and stand right at the edge, willing himself to jump off so he could escape the burden of hypermasculinity placed on him by society. Thankfully, he never did. But eventually, the stress got too much and he came out to his coach. From there, he told his team mates, then his friends and his wife. He soon found that none of them cared and they just wanted what was best for him. But in the decade and a bit leading up to then, everything around him was placing this subtle yet incredibly strong burden on him to be a masculine man who couldn’t dare be attracted to men.

It’s fantastic to finally have a gay role model who embodies those masculine ideals and therefore rips apart the notion that all gay men are just girls in men’s bodies. But when will this translate into media practice? Think of the gay men you see on tv. They’re all camp. Family Guy, Modern Family, Glee, etc. Gay men are never portrayed in popular media as normal men with a different sexual attraction, they’re always camp. So even when people like Gareth do come out and show young gay men that they can be gay and successful without being camp, the majority of media they see doesn’t reflect that. Not all of them will even be aware of Gareth, but they will have all seen camp gay men on television.
I mentioned at the start that all of this has dire consequences. LGBT youth are up to four times more likely to attempt to commit suicide than their straight peers. I can say from experience that although I’ve never tried, it has certainly crossed my mind more than once in my life and being gay was the reason behind it. It’s important to note that the number is probably higher since we can safely assume that many youths successfully conceal their sexual identity but still commit suicide anyway. It is absolutely foul that in our liberal, supposedly “socialist” (quote: John Key) country, we aren’t concerned as a nation that the way we are bringing up our children means 10 per cent of them are at a severely increased risk of suicide just because their love isn’t as common. We desperately need to not only stop this culture of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity, but to redefine ‘masculinity’ for ourselves so that any male can achieve it by being himself and respecting those around him. Otherwise, we will just see more and more broken hearts and broken families.

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  1. Joseph says:

    You may be interested to read a free online book I’ve written called The Masculinity Conspiracy:
    http://masculinityconspiracy.com

    From a VUW alumnus :)

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