Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Straight is the New Gay

I recently watched the 2009 documentary Butch Factor. It is predominately a study of gay men who pursue vocations and hobbies that would seem to be the exclusive purview of heterosexuals. One interview subject plays rugby, another participates in rodeos, and a third wields authority as a Sherriff’s Department Officer within a prison. Audiences might find their assumptions challenged, even those who are not straight.

As a means of comparison, the stories of two men who never had the fortuitous ability to fly under the radar are introduced. One of them has since tattooed the often pejorative word “sissy” on his upper bicep. Another was mercilessly bullied in school for years. Experiencing enough torment, he deliberately dressed and acted the queerest he possibly could. His unexpected transformation stunned into silence those who had earlier pelted him with thrown objects and left death threats in his locker.

Even in a community with an understood and generally accepted sense of gender fluidity, masculinity is valued most. I’m different that way. The men I find most appealing are very effeminate. Some of them embrace their effeminacy as a defense mechanism, and others recognize the futility of playing a role they could never plausibly pull off. One such boy in my past was the subject of exceedingly cruel and vicious gossip. A perceived momma’s boy, he was said to have no penis, which was a way of saying that he wasn’t really a man.

I played sports for a time, but I did not consider myself a jock. My queer identity was consigned to my own mind, my own studies. In the days before the Internet, I frequented the local library. There, I would find books on LGBT topics, but I never had the courage to check any of them out. I read them on a table far away from prying eyes, and left them there when I was done. Only a few years later, I had access to resources and information no lending library could ever touch.

In private, we all do our research and reconcile who we are with who we’d like to be. I am bisexual, which adds an additional layer of confusion and complexity. In particular, I have been caught for most of my life in a quandary of how I ought to present myself to the outside world. One medium is my writing. The other is discourse among trusted friends and others who identify as LGBT. This self-selected sample has become my cheering section, but even conversing with them can be an unintentionally mortifying experience. Though I have made lots of progress, I’m petrified of admitting to myself who I really am.

One principal player in the film I related to quite extensively. He noted that, as an African-American, men are supposed to be hyper-masculine in black culture. They’re supposed to be jocks and rappers, but neither soft-spoken, nor gay. Though no one would ever be able to guess who and what he is, he is similarly confused and conflicted. Adding to the confusion is the fact that he was raised in a very religious setting, which meant he could not be honest with his parents and his church community. Nowadays, he is selectively out, though I imagine considerably less so now that the film has been released.  

Though I found the film compelling, my central concern is that the film focused primarily on the city of San Francisco, which is perhaps the most LGBT friendly section of the country. The city who produced Harvey Milk could expect nothing less. Even a legal mandate is in place to hire gays, lesbians, and others, even those who do not fit the stereotypical profile. Most of the movie challenges assumptions of queer behavior and presentation. Most of the men to which we are introduced pass easily as straight.

Though the filmmakers may not have had the budget to expand their focus, I think it only fair to see attitudes towards LGBTs in the rest of the country. I grew up in the Deep South, where it was only acceptable to be quietly out, and only then to people one was perfectly sure were tolerant. I came out when I was 19, a bundle of nerves and fears. Older out members of the community helped me through a painful process. As the film shows us, there were no gay flag football players, gay rugby leagues, or gay baseball teams nearby. Had there been, I might have had a network to guide me and encourage me.

I didn’t fit with the preening queens who fantasized about drag and Madonna. Though I went to several shows at the local gay bar, I knew that I had no desire to replicate what I saw on stage. I was not into leather and had no interest in bad disco or dance music. I often wondered if the mass conformity I saw was a result of finally fitting in when most of life had been spent isolated and alone.

I became the fetish of a few men now and again. Though I have never seen myself as a tough guy, some saw me that way. I have an athletic build and am physically prominent. I became a fantasy fulfilled, sex with what to all intents and purposes was an unattainable straight guy. This was not really what I wanted, but I suppose any bar has the same sort of sketchy clientele. Even though I felt totally out of place, I enjoyed sitting in a dark corner, chain smoking, and observing the going’s on.

As we grow ever more tolerant, will LGBT culture become less and less a subversive act? We’ve already sought same-sex marriage, defining it in terms of the status quo. As we move to the middle, will we emulate heterosexuals to accomplish our goals? I think that for the queer men who cannot deny their sexual orientation, it would be foolish to think this is any easy option. But for men who have the ability to not be easily pigeonholed or who do not present as inescapably queer, it is entirely possible that straight is the new gay.

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