I recently met a cute boy at the bar where I work in Los Angeles. He had just moved here from San Francisco, and it wasn't long before we were making out while I played with his butt. At the end of the night, I asked for his number.
"Just so you know, if we're gonna hang out, I do drag," he said while typing into my phone. His tone was almost apologetic, as if admitting something shameful.
"Does that mean I can't play with your butt?" I asked, trying to be playful.
He laughed. "I just know how you guys are."
"You know, muscle bears," he responded. "I know bears are usually only into masculine guys, and I'm not always masculine in that way."
I've never identified as a "bear" (gay slang for a bigger, typically hairier guy), let alone a muscle bear. I don't even identify as "masculine," really. Those are things others define me as.
"All I care about is that we get to hang out, and I get to make out with you and play with your butt," I said. "If you're in a dress while I do it, I don't really care." It surprised me that he felt he had to say that, to apologize for who he was.
His feelings echoed something that happened to a friend of mine recently, Fifi LaFille. I've known and worked with Fifi over the past four years; she's a well-known drag queen in the LA club scene. In November, Fifi won the Mr. Precinct Leather 2017 title, a leather pageant at a downtown LA gay bar, which qualified her to run for the larger Mr. LA Leather competition this March.
The leather scene is dominated by masculine stereotypes and steeped in tradition. While many within it have embraced Fifi and stepped up to show their support, it wasn't long before there were whispers of disapproval and controversy that a drag queen—someone who didn't fit the standards of those ultra-masculine tropes—would be running for a Mr. Leather competition. She said people were worried at first that by competing, she was mocking leather culture and didn't think she was "leather" or "masculine" enough to run. And eventually, some openly told her she should run as a boy in Mr. LA Leather, rather than in drag, and community leaders held discussions about whether she should be allowed to participate at all. Others spoke up for her right to participate, and it was quickly decided she should be allowed. FiFi isn't even the first drag queen to win a leather title, which shows just how "controversial" this all is.
"It's important to remember that masculinity doesn't need to be defined by the heteronormative archetypes we grew up with," FiFi told me. "I'm hoping that by competing the community will see that leather and kink aren't exclusive to their idea of what a leatherman is. It's fluid. The ideal of hyper-masculinity enshrined in the leather, bear, and kink community is based on internalized homophobia, I think, stemming from the fact that most of us were that little boy crying in the school bathroom for being called a faggot, a queer, a cocksucker." She noted that the younger LGBTQ generation is beginning to grasp masculinity differently—she sees "skinny guys in harnesses and chaps and mascara, muscle queens in dresses, straight girls in full leather looks" at parties all the time.
People like FiFi are heroes to me, those with the courage to step outside the norms of masculinity and sexuality and force us to question what those ideas mean.
You see it a lot in the gay community, the premium we put on "masculinity," to the point where we use dangerous amounts of steroids to get buffer, restrict the way we dress and act to meet masculine ideals, and disavow anything or anyone feminine in our culture. And I can't help but think that maybe FiFi is right, that it all stems back to when some of us were called "faggots" as kids.
When I was in elementary school, I was tormented by a bully who called me Tinker Bell. I had no idea how he knew, how he could see the thing inside me that I was terrified of. But instead of allowing myself to be defined by some other man's ideas of who I am and how I should behave, and instead of letting society define my worthiness based on my "masculinity," I can just be comfortable with who I am—a faggot who really likes to suck other dudes' dicks. That's exactly what that bully used to call me: "Tinker Bell" and "cocksucker." So fine—I'm a cocksucking fairy.
There are a thousand ways the LGBTQ community divides, defines, limits, and separates ourselves. Masculine and feminine, bears and otters, bottoms and tops, muscle and chubs and cubs and twinks, femme and butch. But these are things that also make us unique and amazing, all the ways that we are strong and queer.
This week, the Trump administration rescinded federal guidance issued under President Obama advising schools to allow trans and gender nonconforming students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify as. There are about 150,000 transgender teens nationwide between the ages of 13 and 17 that Trump proclaimed aren't worthy of our society's respect in one fell swoop this week.
Gender and sexuality, when it comes to acts of cruelty like that, become political. And the way we act toward one another as a queer community is more important now than ever. "Being visible is important right now," as FiFi put it. And she's right.
Being visible and unified as a community is all that matters over the next four years. Be as masculine or effeminate as you want. Be queer as fuck. Be the boy top and the big daddy bottom. Be whatever the fuck you want. But make sure you're better than they say we are.
And don't believe them when they say the fight is over, that Trump and his administration aren't going after the LGBTQ community. Because that's a lie. This week, they came for us, and what happened has everything to do with who I am as a gay man as much as it has to do with anyone else who's L, G, B, T, or Q.
It takes courage to stand up in drag on those leather contest stages. It takes courage to reach inside yourself and discover who you really are. Can you imagine the strength it must take to be a 15-year-old trans boy? It takes courage to be a faggot or a dyke. It takes courage to be a cocksucking fairy.
Nobody gets to define who I am as a man. It can't be defined by who or how I fuck, how I act or what clothes I wear; who I am is defined by my actions, my courage, and my strength.
Queens like FiFi who get up on those stages to entertain us, those students fighting for the right to use the bathroom they need to, those who fought for our right to marry and be whoever we want? They're heroes. And we, too, are heroes. Maybe it's time we started treating one another as such.