The six men addressing my undergraduate sexuality class have two things in common. First, they all look fabulous: fit, muscular men, with square jaws, short neat hair, and stylish masculine clothes. They look like models from J. Crew or Banana Republic catalogues, which may be one reason why many more female than male students are asking them questions. I see the looks on the women's faces as they listen to the panel, and they convey wistful attraction. This is due to the hopeless nature of the attraction-hopeless not because the men are 10 years older than my students, but because of the second thing the men have in common: they are all gay.
Because the class' subject is sexuality, I have asked my students not to hold back from asking questions of interest even if the questions are personal or explicit. (The men on the panel have assured me that such questions are okay.) The students eagerly oblige.
"How and when did you come out to your family?" Answers ranged from Rick's "I haven't yet" to Ben's humorous account of telling his mother: "She was visiting me at college and I took her out to dinner. I told her 'I have something to tell you,' and she looked very worried. At that point the waiter leaned over and said to me 'Just tell her honey!' When I told her, she was relieved and said that she had been afraid I was angry at her."
I have omitted several pages not directly relevant to this issue.
The main characters of the movie, The Birdcage (originally a French Film, La Cage aux Folles) are a gay couple. One of them is a very masculine man, and the other is a flamboyant drag queen. In the movie, they clearly take separate roles as husband and wife, and this is a common stereotype about gay relationships. In this chapter I have been arguing for the accuracy of some stereotypes about gay men. What about this one?
In 1995 I became interested in using personal advertisements to study gay men's mating psychology. One can learn a lot about what people want in mates by studying these ads. They cost money, for one thing, and when people have to pay for each word, they try to make every word count. When describing whom they're looking for, people often have a mixture of idiosyncratic desires ("likes opera" or "enjoys camping"), but when the same preferences recur in ad after ad ("tall, dark, handsome, and rich;" or "attractive, sexy, and fit"), you know these are commodities that most people want. For example, psychologists have analyzed personal ads to show that straight men are much more concerned than straight women about a potential mate's looks; straight women are more concerned about resources and the ability to acquire them: income, wealth, ambition, a good job, and intelligence. You can also tell a lot about the mating market by they way advertisers describe themselves. Advertisers want to entice readers to answer their ads, and are sometimes quite creative in their self-description. So the self-descriptive adjectives also tend to be those that are highly valued.
When my lab first started looking at gay personal advertisements, we were struck by a couple of differences from straight ones. First, gay men's ads were much more explicitly sexual than straight men's were-I will explain why I think this is so in the next chapter. The other difference was that gay men's ads used many more words related to gender conformity and nonconformity, such as masculine, feminine, butch, femme, straight-acting, straight appearing, and flaming. This suggested that these traits were important to many gay men, but how so? If gay men tended to pair off as in The Birdcage, we would expect to see both advertisements in which the advertiser described himself as "masculine" (or "butch" or "straight-acting" or something similar) and requested a "feminine" (or "femme" or "flaming") partner; and advertisements with the reverse pattern ("Flamer looking for butch guyä."). We would expect to see similar numbers of both types. In order to check our expectation, we looked at more than 2,700 personal ads placed by gay men. For each ad, we looked for gender-related words and we kept count of how often the advertiser: (a) requested a masculine partner, (b) requested a feminine partner, (c) described himself as masculine, and (d) described himself as feminine. Forty one percent of all the ads had some gender-related word.
What we learned suggested that The Birdcage is indeed fiction. When advertisers requested either masculine or feminine characteristics in a partner, they requested masculine traits 96 percent of the time. Furthermore, when they described themselves as masculine or feminine, it was masculine 98 percent of the time. Both what gay men seek and how they represent themselves suggest that they are massively biased in favor of masculinity. Or is it a bias against femininity? In all 72 ads in which an advertiser was explicit about what kind of gender-related trait he did not want, it was a feminine trait; "no femmes" was the most common request.
These results raise at least a couple of questions. First, if gay men are almost all so masculine (as their self descriptions imply), why do they bother requesting masculinity in partners? After all, most personal advertisers don't waste money asking for someone with four limbs, because even if they have this preference, they can reasonably assume that it applies to almost everyone. The answer is-and this will not surprise most people who have answered a personal ad-that people sometimes misrepresent themselves in a favorable way. How often do advertisers describe themselves as having "below average looks," even though half the world should? This consideration, as well as everything I've discussed in this chapter, should make one skeptical about accepting the masculine self-descriptions of gay male personal advertisers.
A second question is less easily dismissed. Perhaps gay men who place personal ads are not representative. Perhaps their unusual characteristics or preferences are what necessitate placing such ads in the first place. Maybe most gay men love feminine men, and because feminine gay men are plentiful, they don't need to advertise for them.
To answer this question this we did a second study. We made up mock "gay dating brochures," each of which profiled two competitors. Each profile had both a picture and a self-description of an ostensibly gay man. Some of the pictures were of very attractive men, others of average-looking men, and the rest were of men we considered very unattractive. One of the descriptions was:
"Good-looking masculine gay man in early twenties seeks partner for relationship. I am in shape and enjoy rollerblading, jogging, and tennis. I live in the city and would like someone with whom I can share everything from an exciting evening in town at the clubs to a relaxing day at the museum. My hobbies include traveling, being outdoors, and listening to music."
The other descriptions were similar. The key word in the description above is "masculine." A third of the time, that word was included in the description; a third of the time, "feminine" was substituted for it; and a third of the time neither "masculine" nor "feminine" was included. Each brochure contained one description with either "masculine" or "feminine" and one description with neither term.
We went to a gay-oriented bookstore, a gay gym, and a gay pride rally, and we asked gay men to look at the brochures and choose which person they would prefer to date. Most of those polled chose the physically attractive men in the brochures-no surprise, gay men like good-looking guys. But the raters also strongly preferred the brochures with the "masculine" self-description. Substituting "feminine" for "masculine" had about the same effect as substituting an average-looking man's picture for a very attractive one.
The idea that gay men want masculine partners may be surprising to straight people, but it is less so to gay men. Jaye Davidson, the actor who played the homosexual transsexual in the movie The Crying Game explained: " To be homosexual is to like the ideal of sex. Homosexual men love very masculine men. And I'm not a very masculine person." The gay (and flaming) humorist Quentin Crisp speculated about gay men:
"To understand what kind of man they most admire it is only necessary to guess what they wish they themselves were-young, frail, beautiful, and refined. Hence their predilection is for huge, violent, coarse brutes."
Whether or not Crisp's explanation-gay men want masculine men to feel more feminine- is correct, he recognized the preference.
When gay men say "No femmes," what is it, exactly, that they are eschewing? Gay men tend to be feminine in several ways, including their interests, their voices, and their movements. (Although it is unclear that the gay accent is a feminine accent, even gay men discuss it as if it is.) Do gay men dislike hairdressers, men who speak with a gay accent, men with limp wrists, or all three?
One relevant but surprising finding from our study of gay interests, speech, and movement patterns is that a gay man who acts feminine in one respect doesn't necessarily display other feminine traits. For example, gay men who sound the gayest do not tend to be the ones with the most feminine movements or the most feminine occupations. If our results are correct, then knowing that a gay man is a hairdresser tells you nothing about how he sounds or moves.
When I ask my gay friends about what feminine traits they dislike, they usually begin by talking about the voice. An older acquaintance related how once in a gay bathhouse, he was on the verge of having sex with a very attractive and muscular stranger, when the stranger spoke. "When he opened his mouth, a purse fell out. I got limp." But when I went to a Halsted bar with my gay graduate student, he was able to determine which men he would likely reject merely by watching them move. We don't yet really know what gay men mean when they say they dislike femmes.
This leaves the question of why. When I talk about this with other psychologists, the most common suggestion is internalized femiphobia-femininity has been punished so often by the straight world that gay men, too, come to hate it. This makes sense to me, but it is not the only plausible hypothesis. Another is that behavioral masculinity characterizes the prototypic man. If one is attracted to men, then one will be attracted those with masculine behavior. The second hypothesis is less malevolent but more pessimistic than the first. The second hypothesis implies that femiphobia is not due to societal intolerance but is intrinsic to male homosexuality and is not remediable even by reforming straight society to make it less homophobic. It suggests that across time and place, gay men will desire masculine men, and thus, acknowledging their own femininity makes them feel undesirable. We don't know yet how universal the gay male preference for masculinity is, although most of my foreign gay friends say that it is true in their locales as well.
Earlier in this chapter I suggested that having been mistreated as feminine boys is not the only reason gay men tend to react uncomfortably to the implication that they are, or used to be, feminine. The other reason, which I hope is now obvious, is that gay men themselves dislike femininity, or at least they find it sexually unattractive. To call a gay man "feminine" is not only to say that he is a target of many straight men's ill will, but also that he is less attractive than he would be otherwise. It is certainly an unfortunate state of affairs that gay men tend to be feminine, tend to be less attracted to femininity, but tend to be stuck with each other. There are similar ironies in straight relationships. The designer of the universe has a perverse sense of humor.
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