A sociologist embeds within Louisiana bar culture to uncover whether bears treat twinks differently than men treat women in general.
In this day and age, it's almost old hat for gay characters on popular TV to trend more toward Homer Simpson than Waylon Smithers. From Happy Endings' Max Blum to Looking's Richie Ventura, the "masc" gay dude has gone from an easy punch line to the new norm, and it's far from a huge leap to claim that in 2016, certain ideas of gay masculinity have finally become firmly entrenched in mainstream Western pop culture.
Masculinity is, indeed, something that gay men obsess over and have obsessed over since the 1970s and the rise of clone culture. It's an obsession often manifested in derisive and self-loathing ways, because gay men often fetishize masculinity to the point that they look down upon and subordinate their feminine peers. The same pattern is evident among straight men—sexism and misogyny, after all, are alive and well—but this same type of anti-effeminacy often goes unnoticed among gay men themselves.
The parallels between how anti-effeminacy plays out between the two groups—straight and gay men—is too-little studied. So while completing my master's degree in sociology at Louisiana State University, I conducted an ethnographic study, using 20 in-depth interviews with New Orleans and Baton Rouge-area gay men from a variety of racial and economic backgrounds, to explore how sexual aggression plays out in straight and gay bars.
After two years spent in watering holes of all stripes (it was for science, I swear), I saw many stereotypes confirmed—for instance, that sexual violence runs rampant in straight bars, or that gay and straight men negotiate sexual consent in vastly different ways—but one surprising pattern slowly revealed itself: The way straight men discuss women and the way gay men discuss effeminate men are remarkably similar. And I found, most surprisingly, that gay men can be just as sexist against effeminate men as straight men are against women.
[It's] the infamous and supposed Madonna-Whore Complex (the idea some men "want to have sex with a 'slut' but not go out with one,") manifested as neatly and awfully between gay men as it is with straight.
Throughout the study, I encountered several gay men who had protected women from unwanted sexual contact, only to turn and blame those same women for their own victimization. Conversely, men I spoke with—whether bears (gay lingo for a stocky, hairy, stereotypically masculine guy) or twinks (lithe, boyish, and stereotypically feminine-presenting men), hypermasculine or feminine—frequently blamed men more effeminate than them for causing aggression in gay bars. Just as in straight bars, where women did not cause certain instances of aggression that they faced, gendered and sexist stereotypes were placed upon effeminate men.
Feminine men were repeatedly described as acting like they were on soap operas; one masculine guy I interviewed hilariously told me that a slapping fight between two young twinks in the French Quarter was like watching "Gays of Our Lives." Others made reference to "pissy queens" and a disdain for feminine men so strong that they would rule out going to certain bars to avoid them. One bear I interviewed recalled threatening violence against a twink at one point for simply talking to his boyfriend. In both straight and gay bars, twinks and women were blamed for instances of aggression such as these that they did not directly provoke. That said, the extent to which I witnessed or observed actual aggression involving effeminate gay men, aside from narratives of verbal arguments or slapping fights, was zero.
Several men told me about near-hookups in bars that began as exchanged glances but ended after a brief conversation because the guy's voice was said to be "too femme." I would later observe those same men head home together, speaking to a broader pattern of gay men who despise feminine guys in public but have sex with them in private, in much the same way some straight men will admonish women as "sluts" while later having sex with them. If said woman refuses, they go from a "slut" to a "bitch"—the infamous and supposed Madonna-Whore Complex (the idea some men "want to have sex with a 'slut' but not go out with one") manifested as neatly and awfully between gay men as it is with straight.
But gay men worship masculinity—that's nothing new. So what?
The sociological theory known as hegemonic masculinity, developed by R. W. Connell in their groundbreaking sociological text Masculinities holds that someone who performs masculinity always needs something to subordinate. In gay and straight bars alike, it's apparent that such subordination falls upon the shoulders of women, effeminate men, and gender non-conforming individuals.
To that end, the study ultimately revealed that masculinity and sexism are inextricably intertwined in queer culture, a phenomenon termed "queer sexism" by sociologist Jane Ward, author of the popular book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. And queer sexism allows gay men to perpetuate the same effects of sexism writ large—income inequality, victimization, and internalized sexism—against men based upon their masculinity or effeminacy.
Data shows that men—and those who perpetuate a certain version of masculinity—are often those who perpetuate violence. Masculinity is not inherently toxic, but masculinity does have its toxic effects within queer cultures. LGBTQ peoples can do better than condone the marginalization of the marginalized, yet that, ultimately, is what is produced by the fetishization of masculinity.
Swede White is a doctoral student in sociology at Louisiana State University examining identity construction and social networks. Follow him on Twitter.