The Monday after the Orlando shooting, Old Compton Street was full of pride. "We're here, we're queer, we have no fear," we chanted, as 49 balloons were released to remember the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. London's LGBTQ community had come together to mourn the lives lost, and show solidarity in the face of hate.
In some ways, Orlando was a wake-up call. Living in liberal London you can forget how many enemies you have across the world. Every time we click "Hide post" on an article about homophobic mobs in Uganda, or about gay boys hanged in Iran, it's a way of easing the daily reminder that so many people in the world still hate us so viciously.
But in forgetting about the enemy outside, many gay men have become enemies to themselves, and the battleground on which they're fighting is masculinity. In writing a play about the gay scene, Superficial, I noticed how the use of the phrases "masc4masc" and "no fems" have risen on hook-up apps. Some men describe themselves as "straight-acting." A "masc drag" of caps and sweatpants is more popular than ever.
In forgetting about the enemy outside, gay men have become the enemies to themselves.
In a world where sex is the prevailing currency, this makes feminine gay men worthless. A flamboyant friend told me recently how he was at a club when a guy approached his group and invited his two friends to a chems party. "Not you, though," he told my friend. It's an isolated example, but raises bigger questions about how a certain trope of gay men have allowed a savage hierarchy of attraction to dominate over others.
The argument is that it's simply sexual attraction. When in search of cock, no one likes a time waster—so putting "no fems" on your Grindr profile just saves the bother. But attraction bleeds into cultural demarcation. The performer Jonathan Richardson runs a queer clown troupe named The Fems. "Buffoon is a type of satirical clowning performed by lower social orders to mock the elite," he says. "And there's nothing lower on the gay scene than fems."
In my play, I've chosen to concentrate on a particular side effect of this phenomenon: previously camp men suddenly adopting a persona of "masc." There's a unique tragedy about somebody repressing who they are because of what other people think; it's the very opposite of pride.
"People who have been oppressed take on the characteristics of their oppressors," says RuPaul. Perhaps here lies the psychological key to this idolization of masculinity. If you've grown up constantly policing yourself for any inadvertent expression associated with your sexuality—a gesticulation too extravagant, a voice too sing-song—then maybe you also teach yourself to hate it in others.
"Many gay men start their adult lives from a place of trauma relating to a difficult childhood filled with rejection and shame," says Dr. Stephen Turner, a psychiatrist working in central London. "Sigmund Freud once described the phenomenon of 'repetition compulsion', which is a tendency of the subconscious mind to relive the trauma of the past by recreating it in the present."
"By recreating the trauma," says Stephen, "One can make an attempt to deal with it better the second time around and, in so doing so, exorcise the sense of disempowerment to which the original trauma gave rise. The hatred expressed on Grindr creates an atmosphere of hatred online—which, surprisingly, may in fact be the unhealthy comfort zone of some gay men. It may feel wrong, but subconsciously it also feels safe and predictable. It's what they know."
Putting "no fems" on a profile is about bullying—it's about publicly shaming others for being who they are. It's not simply saying "I don't want to fuck you"; it's passing on a message that femininity is not to be accepted, that femininity is wrong. The irony being that it was femme gay men, visible and refusing to be cowed, who began gay liberation with the first punches in the Stonewall Inn in 1969.
The demonization of femininity ties into misogyny—that anything associated with the "female" is somehow lesser. Gay ideas of masculinity will always be associated with the image of the strong, heterosexual "alpha male" we absorb from media and culture, and the idea of gay masculine perfection is just a reenactment of this.
I haven't written this article to out masculine gay men as frauds, nor to dictate that all gay men should be rocking Priscilla frocks and heels. Gender is a construct and we all have to perform somewhere along the spectrum. Yet, Orlando horrifically reminded the LGBTQ community of the hatred against us, and to perpetuate hate among ourselves about something as fabulous as femininity seems self-defeating.
The LGBTQ Pride march is this Sunday in New York, and it's rightly going to be bigger than ever. If ever there was a time to be proud, it's now. But we need to remember that Pride began as a protest march to celebrate our difference, and it's our differences that should make us most proud.
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