No fats, no fems, no Asians
Maybe if you’re not a gay man, that line doesn’t mean much to you. If you are a gay man, unless you’re just coming out and have never used a dating or hookup app, you’ve see it hundreds of times. Back in the Neolithic, when my dating app was the personals page of the Des Moines Register, I saw it constantly.
My teenage queer self absorbed the message with a quickness. If I ever wanted to be accepted by other gay men, I’d better be in good physical shape, I’d better be white, and I’d better not have a limp wrist or a lisp.
The message wasn’t novel. My younger sister, gorgeous and slim, dieted all the time for fear of not being thin ENOUGH. Our high school was filled with casual racists, a fact of which we were aware in a vague, unwoke sense; and the one boy in school who dared flame and camp was tortured and humiliated.
I’ve written about him before, in a story that reflects quite badly on me, but which is true, and which sheds some light on fem shaming.
None of us is born thinking “feminine acting” men are shameful
We’re taught it. Just as we’re taught to be racists and just as we’re taught to value only certain kinds of bodies. We think our behaviors are natural, but they are learned.
Am I a masculine acting man? How would I behave if I’d never internalized the idea that the feminine is weak and shameful? I don’t know. Other gay men generally think I’m fairly “butch.” Among straight men, I can pass if I’m careful. If I work at it. I spent a lot of years of my life working at it.
When I let my hair down with my friends, whether they’re straight or gay, people tell me I’m a little effeminate. A little campy. They can tell I’m “obviously not straight,” though not violating the border of the forbidden “fem” either.
I suspect that if it had not been for the curious incident of the red flowers, I’d have grown up a bit differently. I might have dared to be more myself. Perhaps not. Perhaps some other curious incident would have come along, and nothing much would have changed.
Children are taught to be homophobic little misogynists. This was my first lesson:
I asked my parents for red flowers for my tenth birthday.
Their flustered reaction changed how I saw myself.
“Flowers! Wouldn’t you rather have a G.I. Joe? Or a baseball mitt? How about that chemistry set you’ve been badgering us about? Flowers are presents for girls!”
I wouldn’t call my mother’s facial expression snide. Not exactly. I wouldn’t say my dad looked stricken. Not quite. But I knew I’d said something very wrong, the way kids feel in their gut when they’ve screwed up.
I wouldn’t say I felt shame, but I felt something akin to shame. Mostly I felt confused. I had to process the information and understand what I’d done wrong. So I could never do it again.
I wanted to be like my dad, a passionate gardener. He grew vegetables and flowers during the summer and that delighted him. My birthday falls in the dead of winter, so I wanted a pot of something growing that I could tend to — just like Dad.
I didn’t get the flowers.
I got a speech about how flowers aren’t for boys, and a lesson in how boys behaving like girls had better change their ways.
Seven years later.
I’m scrabbling in the dust, scraping underneath rolls of concertina wire. My head is pounding, throat dry and raw. An explosion socks my jaw and slams me up into the sharp coils.
I breathe in saltpeter as bullets the size of my thumbs whistle past my ears.
That’s right. I became a soldier. A Marine.
I tell people I did it to pay for school. That’s true. But not the whole truth.
Having known since shortly after the curious incident of the red flowers that I was not like other boys, I began to doubt my manhood. I bought into the harmful trope that gay men must be sissies, less than genuine men because they behave like women, the weaker sex.
It didn’t help that neither my parents nor my teachers realized that I was nearsighted. I certainly had no idea. I just thought I was naturally uncoordinated and girly.
Even the years I spent in the military didn’t fully erase society’s programming.
It took my brothers and sisters in Act Up! to do that. We put ourselves on the line, and fiercely. Fighting with them at my side finally banished the shame of the red flowers.
But that’s a story for another day
It’s complicated and difficult to explain. I fought alongside men and women who paid no heed to gender roles. Some of my fiercest friends were flaming fems. I marched with drag queens and learned to vogue and snap. I dressed as Mae West one unforgettable Halloween in Greenwich Village.
Unlike in classic Western art, my story has no arc. No beginning, middle, and end. It starts with a 9-year-old who wanted flowers for his birthday, and moves along as a teenager learns that fems and fats are excommunicated from the gay male world. It’s still moving as a middle-aged man wishes to be neither macho nor effeminate, wondering how he’d behave left to his own devices.
The only thing I know for sure is that we queer folk (and plenty of straight folk) need to transcend our fear. We can’t erase the shaming lessons from our childhoods, but we can search for them in our memories, track them down, confront them, and work to move past them.
The popular gay hookup app Grindr had to ban the phrase, “No fats, no fems, no Asians” from user profiles. It was omnipresent. You still find tons of gay men who work the message in anyway. And that has to change.
I’m not writing about body shaming and racism today, but I will soon. One topic at a time. Fem shaming is misogyny. It is homophobia. It is pathological and toxic.
That most of us learned it by being wounded like I was as a child does not exonerate us or release us from the responsibility to transcend our wounds. It’s time to break the cycle. Time to embrace ourselves and our friends for whoever we really are. It’s time for a new slogan.
No fat shamers, no fem shamers, no racists!
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.