A few weeks ago, I worked the door at a party in Downtown LA with my friend Chance. Chance was dressed in a dark dress, with blue lipstick and long, stunning hair, an outfit that felt deliberate in the best way possible: challenging, gorgeous, one that demanded your attention.
From the outside, we’re polar opposites. I’m a middle-aged white Jewish gay man with a beard. A “daddy” or a “muscle bear,” as people sometimes put it. Chance is a tall African-American agender person in their 20s, a student at Occidental College.
I was telling Chance about this guy I used to hook up with, Davit. Davit was a 19-year-old student at UCLA when I met him. He was way too young for me—I was 47—but he would sneak me into his dorm late at night nonetheless, where we’d lay in his bed and fuck and talk about politics and genderqueer dynamics.
Davit identified as bisexual. “It’s as if the most radical thing I can do is say that I like to fuck women just as much as I like to fuck men,” I remember him telling me. “Gay guys never believe me. They always think that I’ll grow up and be gay. But that’s not who I am. It’s not true to me.”
Davit was taller than me, but I weighed a good 55 pounds more than him—he was skinny and young, almost boyish. I remember showing a friend a picture of him, and seeing them react with near-shock.
“I don’t see it,” they said, “He’s so… I don’t know. He doesn’t even have a beard. He’s a boy.”
“Yeah, but he’s hot as fuck,” I replied.
“Sure, he’s sexy, but I guess I only fuck real men,” they said. “I don’t really go for that type.” I told them that if he knew how good Davit fucked me, they would understand.
“Wait! You let this little twink fuck you?” they said. “You’re kidding.“
I laughed. “This guy, he fucks the hell out of me. He gets all alpha in charge, holds me down, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s an amazing top.”
“No way. If you had told me you were his daddy top, maybe I’d get it,” they said. “Daddy and boy can be hot. But there’s no way I’d let that guy top me. He’s too skinny.”
At the party I worked with Chance, I told them all about how, just because I was a “bear” and Davit was a “boy,” it was impossible for some people to imagine him fucking me.
“It’s all these assumptions people make, based on how we look,” I said to Chance. “As if somehow my looks define my desires or who I am on the inside. That because I have this masculine bearded daddy vibe I can’t explore my sexuality, that I can only behave in certain ways or I’m no longer a man.”
The conversation moved on to Chance’s experiences with others’ perceptions around gender and race.
“I don’t think any conventional understanding of gender can bring justice to the complexity of my identity or the space I deserve to take up,” they said. “The term that allows me to communicate this most clearly is ‘agender’—it allows me to place myself as far outside the binary as possible.”
A couple approached the entrance to the party—a tall, butch, hairy man in his 40s dressed in a black dress and black high heels, and a young femme boy in pink pants studded with faux diamonds. The older guy had a collar around his neck, the boy held a leash attached to it.
“People usually perceive me—or at least react to me—as a cisgendered gay man,” Chance continued after they walked off. “Even when I visibly subvert my gender presentation, through makeup, wigs, feminine clothing. I feel that I’m still only received as a cis gay man performing femininity, instead of simply existing as femme.”
“I feel like the majority of my negative sexual experiences can be attributed to the fact that my partner felt like I lacked sexual prowess—that I wasn’t a hypermasculine, physically fit gay man,” Chance continued. “Like when I linked my Grindr profile to my Instagram, where I present my makeup artistry, voguing, and other interests that are culturally deemed feminine, I started seeing exponentially fewer messages.”
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In the queer community, it’s an easy crutch for us to define ourselves and others in these limited ways. Masculine and feminine. Tops and bottoms. Daddies and boys. But those definitions only serve to limit us—to force us to behave in ways that might not have anything to do with who we really are, or who we could be without them.
I’ve never felt comfortable identifying as a “bear,” let alone being seen strictly as a top or a bottom. People often laugh at me when I tell them I’m not a bear, tell me that I’m the textbook definition of one. But that’s based purely on how I look, and has nothing to do with who I am as a person or what I desire sexually.
A while back, at a party in New York City, I met a boy named Israel. He was Brazilian, tall and skinny, in his mid twenties. When I met him, he was in a red dress and black heels, with a white pearl necklace and arms that were covered in bright tattoos. He was gorgeous and funny, and we spent the night talking about science fiction and X-Men comics. Later, he took me home to his apartment in Brooklyn. We made out, and then he bent me over his bed, hiked up his red dress, and fucked me in those heels.
Did that make me less masculine? Or him? Does letting a man fuck me in a dress mean that I have a fetish for guys in drag? Does any of it really say anything about either of us, beyond the fact that I met a cute a boy, we had a good time talking, went back to his place and fucked all night, then got bagels the next morning?
When people talk to me about “real men,” or tell me they couldn’t fuck someone because they don’t hew to their preconceptions about masculinity or what makes someone desirable, it makes me wonder exactly what constitutes a “real man,” and where those preconceptions come from. What makes a man less than real?
I can’t help but feel that so many of our ideas of masculinity and sexuality are rooted in our own internalized homophobia and shame. But imagine if we could step outside those labels and definitions, and no longer feel shame over who we are or what we desire. If we stopped judging each other based on these limiting beliefs, we might find a lot more freedom to be and do whatever we want.
“I think that our community needs a lot of healing,” Chance told me on the night of the party. “We have a lot of unlearning to do. I could go on about this forever. But the racism, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism and more that permeates the queer community needs to be addressed. There are queer bodies that need to be liberated. We need to address all the people in our communities who are hurting, and we need to help them heal. That’s the only way we’ll be able to transcend the systems of oppression and institutions that shuttle our bodies into violence, and all the labels that work to our disservice within them.”
Davit and Chance are right. The most radical thing we can do is to be ourselves, no matter what that means or who tells us we’re wrong. We have to be who we are and be open to change and new experiences. We have to try to grow beyond the limitations we set for ourselves. In this day and age, that’s a truly radical thing to do.
And if anyone tells you you aren’t man enough, or you’re too femme, or thinks what you do or desire is weird, or refuses to acknowledge your gender identity, just remember: we decide who we are. We decide what’s right for ourselves. We decide what it means to be queer.
And no one gets to take that away from you.