Straight-Acting, Self-Loathing Gay Men…
Sánchez, F., Westefeld, J., Liu, W., & Vilain, E. (2010). Masculine gender role conflict and negative feelings about being gay. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41 (2), 104-111 DOI: 10.1037/a0015805
It is surprising for me to read here that there has been little research conducted into the impact of masculinity upon gay men (2010, p.105). Sanchez et al. (2010) attribute this gap, in part, to the fact that gay men only make up three per cent or so of the male population (p.105). Further, since gay men are stereotypically perceived to be ‘effeminate’, we are presumably immune from the pursuit of masculine ideals and therefore are not considered to be a research priority (2010, p.105). Wrong. The authors argue that gay men are just as likely as straight men to want to appear all things manly (2010, pp.105-106). This sets up any number of problems, from psychological conflict through to intense hatred for other gay men who are ‘less masculine’ than they should be.
Of all the problems that the ideology and practice of masculinity cause for gay men, I think that self-loathing is by far the most harmful. Gay ‘community’ can be a tough ask, where to get through the front door typically means being white, young, middle-class, professional, buffed, toned, and yes, ‘straight-acting’. That exclusion rules are rigidly enforced within the gay community makes those masculine ideals enforced in the wider community that much more harsh. After all, one of the presumed benefits from membership of an outsider group is the strength that flows from internal solidarity. No such solidarity occurs in the gay community, well at least not here in Sydney. Tensions thus, are not merely linear, point-to-point, but within individuals, within groups and between groups, amongst other variations.
Learning to hate in others what you are yourself is self-evidently, likely to adversely impinge upon your psychological well-being (2010, p.106). I know of so many gay men who absolutely loathe any gay man who they believe to be too showy, too girly, or too gay. That is, men who through their behaviours and attitudes define us in the public eye as contrary to masculine ideals. Gay men who appear feminine, weak, or emotional shame those gay men who invest so much time and energy in ‘covering’, that is, pretending to be straight (2010, p.105). Conflating masculine ideals with strict adherence to heteronormativity poses the impossible challenge for gay men, since none of us can ever achieve the mantle of ‘straight, normal’. It is the cruellest trick, and the reactive side of homophobia that gets so little scrutiny.
By surveying 622 ‘self-identified gay men’ (2010, p.104), Sanchez et al. came up with four main findings:
- That masculinity ‘is an important construct for many gay men’;
- That ‘many gay men desire romantic partners who appear masculine’;
- That ‘on average the gay men [surveyed] wished to be more masculine than they perceived themselves to be’; and
- That ‘gay men who place an importance on masculinity, who have trouble being affectionate with other men, and who are immersed in school/work activities may feel negatively about being gay’ (2010, pp.108-109).
Focusing on therapeutic work with gay men, the authors suggest that psychologists might help a gay client ‘see the connection between society’s rigid masculine ideals and his internalized conception of masculinity, and how that that ideal is affecting his well-being’ (2010, p.109). For many gay men, in therapy or not, one of our ongoing tasks is to spot and chuck out all the junk in our lives, starting with that big fat lie that we are something less than manly. That much resistance for better understanding the role of masculinity in the lives of gay men will come from the gay community itself, provides an additional layer of complexity. However, I would agree with Sanchez et al. (2010, pp.109-110), that further research on this subject is important, and necessary…