Lately, for whatever reason, I have been hearing some similar issues come up a lot, both in conversation and in media. Issues like masculinity, what it means, and what it looks like. Especially what it can mean in the lives of gay men, specifically in the context of gay male deportment and presentation.
Because, no matter how masculine or feminine, how normative, how cis gendered, or how “butch” or “fem” we individually are, society has done an exacting job of positioning traditional masculinity and homosexuality at conflicting odds, polarized into separate corners, the line divisions contingent upon an ability to exist closer to, or farther away from the prescribed norms of our rigid gender binary.
So, it is not a result of essential nature, then, but through a disturbingly specific cultural construction, that a gay man’s relationship to, and personal understanding of the deeper meanings of his own masculinity often becomes a confusingly bi polar experience. This situation is made even more problematic when you consider that traditionally iconic masculinity just happens to be the dominant archetype informing and infusing a majority of the gay male erotic base.
One might hope that the duality of that experience would offer fresh consideration and alternate views of the deeper truths that define what it means to be a masculine man. While that can and does happen in the lives of many gay men, culturally, it is something different. What we often end up with is simply an appropriation of a straight aesthetic, referenced primarily through the term “straight acting.”
So much for the gay = creative stereotype.
Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts (and a question) over how best not to describe attributes of traditional masculinity in gay men. Specifically, whether the term “straight acting” is a relevant and appropriate description, or a remaining vestige of the internalized homophobia most gay men carry on some level, all of their lives.
I find the premise underlying this debate somewhat fascinating; provided one is discussing social anthropology or critical gender theory. However, the not insignificant problem, strikes me to be one of usage. The majority of times “straight acting” is engaged, it references traits gay men view as positive in partner selection, or describes how they think they self deport. In either context, I cannot state emphatically enough, “straight acting”, becomes a patently useless and divisive term. Most concerning, it is saddled with a lengthy and richly homophobic undercurrent.
In the usage I describe above, “straight-acting”, as a descriptive term is not only imprecise, but would appear sloppily un-examined if we reference the vague meanings individuals have attempted to apply to it. Beyond a somewhat generous assumption of a gross English language misuse, what is the term saying? What, exactly, does “straight acting” imply, and in a cultural context, what does it suggest? I assume it is supposed to, beyond a small, pseudo-masculine rainbow flag approvingly bestowed on the best of butch, say one thing and one thing only:
“I’m not one of those fags”.
Insert eye roll and visible wince here.
“Straight acting” is both a poor choice and a dangerous choice, since there is a pernicious assumption being missed. That being, any potential to accurately depict traditional masculinity in gay men via a description of “straight acting”, is by nature both a pejorative and essentialist referencing. The fatal error hides in the word “acting”. Acting implies an intentional, fictitious performance, and therefore is the complete polarity of a naturally manifested personal affect. Gay men who appear traditionally masculine are thus “performing” masculinity. Hiding our essentially effeminate manner while swathed in stereotypical and reductionist Village People iconography. The widespread cultural interpretation likely becomes:
“Fags have to fake it”.
But where it gets even more concerning, is the suggestion that the trait one is seeking is not evident or attainable in gay men, therefore positioning all other manifestations of masculinity in conflict with a singular presentation of “natural”; anything else is, by mandate, an appropriated affectation.
In closing, what has struck me is the massive, glaring hole dead centre in the “straight acting” theory: A not so subtle irony hiding just under the surface; where traditional masculine attributes are obsessively and highly prized by men who, via their own words and cultural narratives, believe “gay” never to be analogous to real masculinity. Ultimately, for the champions of “straight acting”, it is an amusingly self revealing choice, isn’t it? I’m guessing one the cheerleaders of selective and exclusionary deportment did not see coming.