When I’m at home with my two older, straight brothers, I’m the effeminate one. I talk faster and with a higher pitch. I scurry upstairs to watch Big Little Lies while they watch Sunday Night Football. I chat with my mom about skincare and mascara while they discuss whoever Khalil Mack is.
For much of my life, male spaces were where I felt most feminine and out of place. So it’s become quite perplexing to me that in many queer spaces, I find I’m the straight-passing man. My voice sounds lower, muffled by my mustache. I don’t have an opinion on Judy Garland or Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald, but I am the one who somehow knows who won the game last night (blame the family group chat).
In short, I feel like the type of person I’ve spent my life running away from.
For much of the queer community, masculinity is a source of profound contradiction. At once, toxic masculinity can keep us closeted, ashamed of being queer and at risk for our lives. Frustratingly, many gay men also want to fuck dominant, masculine men. In 2018, “Straight Guys” was the most-viewed among Pornhub’s gay categories. One porn company even started marketing straight sex catering to gay men. How is it then that we can both fear and fetishize masculinity?
Earlier this week, comedian Jaboukie Young-White told GQ how outwardly presenting as masculine was a shield he used for survival in heteronormative spaces. He intentionally assumed masc tendencies while growing up in a barbershop full of casual homophobia. It’s why he doesn’t understand the fetishization of masculinity. “Because for so many people, those are actually scars, you know?” he said. “They’re battle scars on your personality. Which is tragic in a certain way.”
One theory regarding masculinity as a sexual desire is the age-old belief that opposites attract. “The basic idea is that the people you feel most different from in childhood become the target of your later sexual attractions,” sex researcher and psychologist Justin Lehmiller wrote for VICE in February.
As a result, there’s been a push to course-correct, to decolonize sexual desire that positions white masculinity as the epitome of attractiveness. We ridicule the white muscle gays who post on Instagram with five other identical shirtless men. Because we know all too well that being “masc 4 masc” — a masculine gay who exclusively dates or fucks fellow masc guys — feeds into white heteronormativity.
However, there’s a notable difference between masculinity as outward presentation and masc as a sexual preference. It’s only recently that I’ve realized my masculine demeanor was in part the result of my own experience in homophobic spaces.
In 2015, I entered college as a newly out 18-year-old on a campus with a single gay bar (which would close down within two years) and a largely unsocial LGBT resource center. I saw myself embarking on another four years of loneliness, so I flung myself toward Greek life — the home of toxic masculinity on campus. In the kind, sports-obsessed frat bros I bonded with, I saw my two older brothers.
I wouldn’t object if you told me I acted in cowardice, but I saw it as survival. I’d pretended to be a straight bro for 18 years. How bad could it be for another four?
Even now, after leaving college and surrounding myself with queer people, I haven’t shed much of my masculinity. And I’m starting to realize I don’t really want to. I value the assertiveness and pseudo-confidence it gives me, but I do feel guilty that my mascness has limited my emotional availability and given me unearned societal privilege.
I take advantage of my ability to pass as a straight man. Working as a reporter, I use my “straight voice” so I don’t lose out on an interview with someone homophobic or traditional. I do the same with Uber drivers, barbers, bartenders or anyone with whom my gayness could possibly put me at a disadvantage. I catch myself sounding more masc in arguments with my mother. I actually try to sound unfeeling.
Who am I?
That’s not to say masculinity is monolithic or even inherently toxic. Young-White points out that forms of traditional male chivalry — like how the guys at his barbershop treated people with disabilities with respect — have informed his own masculinity. “There is a code of ethics that I think is noble and good and doesn’t need to only be practiced by men,” he told GQ.
Australian socialist Raewyn Connell, a trans woman, argues that some ways of presenting as masculine have nothing to do with being male. She calls it “hegemonic masculinities.” “Masculinities are not equivalent to men; they concern the position of men in a gender order. They can be defined as the patterns of practice by which people (both men and women, though predominantly men) engage that position,” Connell writes on her website.
For a long time, gay sexual positions were gendered. It’s why we often hear people ask, “Who’s the woman in the relationship?” There’s an erroneous belief that the one who penetrates is inherently more male and more in control. Rightfully, this is changing. For proof, look at the recent push to destigmatize bottoming as inherently feminine.
What I’ve grown to realize is I need to separate my masculinity from the tangible markers of being a man. In September, transmasculine writer C.J. Atkinson wrote for HuffPost about how they grew to appreciate their masculinity in safe spaces. They saw butch lesbians rocking suits and boots while still passionately proud to be women; meanwhile, drag queens guided them into their first gay scene. “The spaces aren’t angry,” Atkinson writes of how this nontoxic masculinity thrived. “It’s just that being a man isn’t privileged within our spaces in the same way that it is everywhere else, intentionally.”
Perhaps I’m not actually the person I’ve tried to run away from. If I’m more honest with myself, it’s clear to me who I’m becoming: the gay version of my dad. He doesn’t yell. He doesn’t demean others for laughs. In fact, he goes out of his way to show up. I’ve started to do that too when I leave Brooklyn for a hookup. If that’s the easygoing, considerate masculinity I come to embody, well, that’s all right with me.