For a community that prides itself on diversity, gay men have had a longstanding issue with placing those who are considered masculine by conventional standards, or “masc,” on a pedestal. Like many, I first encountered this during my early days of using the popular gay dating / hookup app Grindr: “Muscular, white, masc guy looking for the same” or “no fats or fems. Looking for masc only” were some of the first headlines that greeted me. But what does this mean? What is the masc gay man and why are we so obsessed with it?
“Masc” gay culture isn’t about attraction and preferences; two things that easily be mistaken as operating within the hypermasculine ideal. There’s nothing wrong with valuing exercise or finding someone who puts the time and energy into taking care of their body attractive, being drawn to deeper voices, or thinking brown eyes are sexier than blue. Hell, even combined there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding someone with all these qualities desirable. The problem stems from seeking out these qualities as the pinnacle of what gay men are.
The issue of “masc” is really a social issue regarding how men (gay, straight, trans, non-binary, cis-, and asexual alike) are idealized in society today. At a young age, gay men are separated from “real” men not by some inherent quality, but rather by defining what it means to be a man and then shaming all those who don’t conform to this standard. But what is the ideal gay man? According to many it’s someone who has abs like Ryan Gosling, the complexion of Channing Tatum, and the vocal range of The Rock. For many, the ideal man is someone who plays sports, drinks beer, and never bottoms. In essence the ideal gay man is the ideal straight man.
This revelation--that the ideal straight man is no different than the ideal gay man--struck me only recently. I’d never thought of myself as ideally gay or ideally straight; my voice is a higher baritone, I’m ethnically ambiguous, my eyelashes are long, and to this day I don’t fully understand the dynamics of football. But I’d never placed myself in the “stereotypical gay man” category either. The type many believe all gay men conform to: loud, sassy, effeminate, wearing clothes too bright, too tight, and too cropped to make a conservative father of two-point-five feel comfortable. Hell, I’d served in the Army and did those obstacle runs where you don’t really win unless you’re covered from head to toe in mud by the end. For these reasons I fully considered myself middle of the lane when it came to all things conventionally masculine. These concepts of conventional masculinity persisted until I went on a date with a guy named Jack.
We met through friends and briefly conversed before ultimately finding each other interesting enough to warrant an actual date. Schedules were reviewed and plans were made for a local coffee shop. I was excited purely because it was the first date I’d had in awhile that didn’t start on Grindr with the words “looking for?” Sadly, about five minutes after sitting down I was overcome with the strongest sense of awkwardness. He fidgeted, kept his face buried in his mug of black coffee, and only occasionally grunted in reply to the conversation I was desperately trying to bring to life.
After about twenty minutes--at least half of which was entirely comprised of silence--I finally asked if he was alright. To his credit Jack didn’t lie but apologized and informed me that he’d thought I was a little more “manly.” Immediately I started reviewing the topics I’d tried to discuss with him: novels, videogames, and comic books. Things I loved and had never considered as being particularly masculine or feminine. When I asked what had led him to this conclusion he replied that he was “looking for a masculine guy; you know like sports and stuff”. I remember his exact words vividly because I immediately thought of the many highly effeminate gay men and straight women alike that I knew enjoyed sports. This equivalent--of sports being the barometer for masculinity was lost on me, as it has been my entire life.
Jack and I parted ways and never spoke again, but the incident has embedded itself in my mind as deeply indicative of the darker side gay culture. How many times had my friends told me the same thing had happened to them? How many times had I mentally dismissed it as merely preference when in fact it had to do with our own hypermasculine culture?
And why did I, a gay man, feel that I was somehow exempted from a society that said men had to be lone wolves, never cry, and have a professional athlete's body type? This question, more than the others, lead me to realize the highly permeable nature of the microcosm that gay men live within. Because we are gay we claim to be accepting of all and yet are the guiltiest of labeling, dividing, and categorizing one another. And it’s due to these labels that we feel the need--I’d go as far as saying the right--to openly discriminate against one another. It’s simply the old adage wearing a new skin: “I’m [this] and so I can’t be [that]”.
I can’t offer any definite solutions however. How do you discern hypermasculinity from preference? It’s not as if we can run around condemning anyone who watches sports or has a deep voice. My personal solution has been reflection and awareness; how and why do I find something attractive or “manly” myself? Accountability has, and will continue to be, the biggest weapon the gay community has to combat discrimination. Accountability of self and accountability of others. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend why he thought his date was “too fem” to pursue. In this way we can redefine masculinity to represent all men and not just the select few blessed with good genes and sports interests. As gay brothers and sisters, lovers and allies, our mission should always be to question the conventional and redefine those things which segregate and devalue one another.