I recently found myself watching the new Netflix series “Dating Around”. The premise is simple: a camera follows one individual as they go on multiple dates in a night. There’s no reality-TV bidding-wars for love or any high stakes, over-the-top acting. It’s a unique spin on an age-old television tradition.
Overall, I think the series is interesting and honest. Yet, I also find myself coming back to episode three—“Lex”—over and over again. It’s the one episode featuring gay men and, at one point in the evening, Lex—a trendy man with a direct, yet quirky nature—makes an offhand comment to one of his dates, Brad: “You realize you’re every homosexual’s wet dream, right?”. This comes on the heels of Brad telling Lex that he’d played football in college and even almost became a pro-athlete in the sport.
Brad stands out from the rest of Lex’s date in both appearance and demeanor; he’s tall, built broad, has a full beard and hair tied in a knot, and no trace of the lilting tones that have, over time, come to be associated with gay men’s voices. Earlier in the date, Lex acknowledges these differences and even goes as far as probing Brad’s sexual preferences by indirectly asking if he’s a more dominant top.
Something about this interaction stuck with me throughout the entire episode, bugging me like a splinter or in-grown nail. Why was Brad the pinnacle of what “homosexuals” want?
I mulled it over for a while before deciding the next day to go back through and make lists of each of the men; transcribing their occupations, interests, history, and whether or not any depictions of awkwardness made it into the final cuts of the episode. On average the men on paper weren’t so drastically different from one another; great jobs, each seemed confident, they identified at least one interest with Lex, and only one date had any truly awkward moments.
What was odd though, was how Lex treated the traditionally more masculine dates versus the more externally non-traditionally masculine ones. On the two ends of that spectrum, Lex seemed to dote on Brad—the former footballer—while growing annoyed with the more creative—if incredibly awkward and somewhat more grating—Jonathan. He also didn’t seem to give Peter, the musical-theater actor, nearly as much attention despite his overall amiability.
Could this have something to do with how well each man conforms to Lex’s personal views of masculinity? Is it simply preference or is there something larger at play?
Here, I believe, is a fairly clear-cut example of toxic masculinity at work amongst gay men. That even on dates, with men who themselves do not necessarily conform to societally traditional masculinity, we find men categorizing desirability based on heteronormative staples of what it means to be masculine. In less convoluted language: this is an example of how gay men enforce and reproduce toxic masculinity.
Perhaps to this, we might argue, “Yes, but you can’t help what you like” or even “I’m gay; I’m attracted to manly-men”. And, I must concede, that there is nothing inherently wrong with being attracted to a particular aspect of masculinity. However, I believe gay men need to pause when it becomes unilaterally agreed upon that one type of man exemplifies masculine desirability, and ask themselves “why”? Is it an attraction? A status symbol? Perhaps, a projection of our own desire to inhabit a more traditionally masculine role?
Gay men have often held the male form to unrealistic standards of beauty and placed the few that exemplify these traits on pedestals which the majority of us simply cannot aspire to climb. And it’s not just body-type and physical attractiveness at play but the tone of voice, facial hair, gruffness/projections of dominance, traditionally masculine occupations or hobbies, and other arbitrary factors, which gay men allow as standards of gay male beauty.
But these standards are reductive and—strangely—often upheld by men who don’t exhibit a majority of these traits themselves. There are a thousand and one reasons for why toxic masculinity exists, and therefore just as many excuses for why gay men fetishize these standards of masculinity. Regardless, the theory or excuse, the issue still remains.
I, therefore, believe that gay men need to challenge themselves daily to combat toxic masculinity wherever it may occur. Not simply the straight frat boys, but the nelly queens as well. Not only the misogynistic catcalls, but shady whispers and tongue pops.
It is perhaps because I hold my gay brothers to a higher standard of masculinity than my straight ones that I find myself so bothered by the idea of toxic masculinity in our community. The LGBTQ+ community has historically been a force to be reckoned with when it comes to breaking down gender norms. It is my sincerest hope that we continue to be by first getting our house in order.