What About the Guys Who Do Fit the 'Gay Stereotype'?

Research on LGBT students' experiences in K-12 schools also suggests that anti-gay harassment may be driven as much by gender anxiety as by homophobia. For starters, the growing acceptance of homosexuality has been slow to translate into a change for LGBT youth, according to GLSEN's national school climate survey, which has been conducted every two years since 1999. There has been some improvement: The frequency of anti-gay comments has slowly but steadily decreased over the last decade. The most recent report from 2011 found the percentage of students who reported hearing slurs like "faggot" or "dyke" was about 70 percent, a drop from over 80 percent in 2001. Even the pervasive use of the expression "that's so gay" seems to have slightly declined in recent years (though "no homo" may have risen to take its place). Yet LGBT students' reports of being harassed or assaulted held steady from 2001 to 2009, before finally dropping somewhat in 2011. And there has been no change at all in incidence of negative comments about gender expression.

Furthermore, gender non-conforming LGBT students are more likely to be bullied than their fellow gender-conforming LGBT peers. Of course, some of that may be because bending gender norms is conflated with being gay in a culture that still hasn't let go of the idea that gender and sexuality are linked. But the high rates of harassment and violence faced by transgender people—who most radically reject the gender binary—suggest that gender policing is playing a role over and above the role of homophobia. A whopping 80 percent of transgender students reported that they felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression. And it doesn't get much better for adults: Ninety percent of the trans and gender non-conforming people surveyed by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job, or hid their identities to avoid it. A 2012 report on anti-LGBT violence from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that trans people were 28 percent more likely to be physically assaulted, and trans women specifically made up 40 percent of hate murder victims.

It's not just boys who are punished for breaking gender norms, of course. Take Griner for example. In an op-ed in the New York Times, she recalled that in seventh grade "the teasing about my height, appearance and sexuality went on nonstop, every day." Notably, it seemed to have more to do with her gender than her sexual orientation: "People called me a dude and said there was no way I could be a woman. Some even wanted me to prove it to them."

Still, at this moment in history, it is easier to be a gender non-conforming girl. "Girls are allowed a lot more leeway to be outside of traditional femininity than boys are allowed to be outside of traditional masculinity," says Barbara Risman, head of the department of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families. So while girls also hold each other to rigid standards, and are vicious when someone doesn't conform (one word: slut-shaming), they're far less likely to be homophobic. The GLSEN report, for example, found that over half of students reported hearing remarks about students not acting "masculine enough," but just over a third heard comments about students' "femininity" as often. Up to a certain age, girls can usually get away with being tomboys, while "sissy" boys are discouraged from very early on—and not just by their peers. Studies have shown that parents—especially fathers—are more uncomfortable with their young sons playing with dolls or dresses than with their daughters doing stereotypically "boy" activities. And though stepping too far outside of acceptable gender norms is seen as a problem for everyone, to a degree, women may even be rewarded for distancing themselves from femininity at times.

This is not to say that declining homophobia doesn't have the potential to lead to a serious reimagining of masculinity more broadly. And obviously this isn't the kind of change that happens overnight. After all, the millennial generation that's driving the momentum towards marriage equality is just beginning to create families of their own; I have no doubt that we will raise kids who are more accepting of different sexualities than any before them. And I'm also optimistic that millennials are well-poised to finally retire rigid, outdated versions of masculinity for good. After all, we've come of age in an era of unprecedented gender equality, and as traditional gender differences continue to converge, a masculine ideal that still defensively defines itself primarily against what it is not no longer makes any sense. The crisis of masculinity—predicted by a zillion trend pieces on the so-called "end of men"—offers a real moment of opportunity for my generation. As Thomas Page McBee wrote in the Atlantic last year, "Feminism allowed women to unlock the parts of themselves society kept from them, and now men are doing the same."

But there are dangers to seeing these two trends as inevitable—and inevitably linked. After all, Bridges warns, "the most important and most dangerous forms of inequality are really capable of shifting."Indeed, Pascoe points out that our ideas about what it is to "be a real man" are constantly changing—gender roles are always in flux—and "the important thing is not really what is included or excluded in the definition, but that that definition maintains gender inequality." So while "sexuality might not be as big of a deal anymore," what remains "a big deal is differentiating yourself from femininity." In other words, we may well be moving toward a culture in which being gay is no longer on the list of things that are considered automatically "unmasculine." However, unless we throw out the list altogether, the gender-enforcing function that homophobia currently serves—and the sexist culture it supports—will continue relatively unchanged. In such a world—to take another (extreme) example from sports—perhaps the Mike Rices of the future won't call their players "faggots" and "fairies." But if they still shout "cunt" and "pussy" as they physically abuse their athletes, that will be superficial progress indeed.

In fact, if the association between gayness and femininity is broken without more fundamentally expanding masculinity, it may even make things worse. Kimmel emphasizes that we don't really know yet how this will all play out, but it could end up creating two tiers of gay men: "the really gay guys and the macho gay guys." To some extent, that distinction already exists. Being "straight-acting" is valued—not only in the heteronormative culture at large but within gay communities, too. Gawker's Rich Juzwiak explained last year, "As a gay, you understand that while you'll always find peers who allow you to be exactly as queeny as you are, there is still a social hierarchy that puts a premium on masculinity." Kimmel notes that, if that's the direction we're headed, gender non-conforming gay guys, who used to provide a critique of the dominant masculinity, "are gonna be seen as a real problem. If even gay men can be real men, what's wrong with you? So in a funny way this could be another reassertion of the power of traditional ideas of masculinity."

But, hopefully, instead it will be the first step in an important cultural change. "It's a very good and powerful conceptual shift to decouple sexuality and gender," Risman explains. "That is, to show there are very masculine gay men and effeminate gay men, but there are very masculine straight men and effeminate straight men, too."

The brave decision by Collins and Rogers to come out should not be so narrowly taken as proof that even "real men" can be gay. Instead it should remind us that human beings^mdash;yes, even men—"come in all different types and shapes and forms."

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Maya Dusenbery is a freelance writer and an editor at Feministing.com.

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