What’s with gay men seeking “masculine only” partners?

When you’re a closeted gay boy, masculinity performance is one of the tools you use to survive. For those who are unwilling or unable to maintain a facade, straight boys seize upon your feminine mannerisms and call your gender into question, teasing you until the way you act without thinking becomes something to be ashamed of.

Illustration by Kurt McRobert

But what they don’t tell you is that once you’re out of the closet, you’re out of the frying pan and into the fire, honey—because many gay men have the same hang-ups about masculinity as those spiteful boys from middle school. The performance of masculinity dictates how some gay men communicate on gay hookup and dating apps: those who identify as “masc,” those who specifically seek out “MASC ONLY (no femme!!)” guys, and those who both identify as masculine as well as prefer it in their partners — the masc4masc.

“I was chatting with some guy on Grindr, late night (as these things go). He didn’t live that far from me so I agreed to meet up with him near his place. As I was getting ready (basically changing out of sweats), I got a random call. It was this guy. He was like, ‘Hey, how’s it going? I just usually like to call guys on the phone before meeting up to make sure they’re not too femme-y. Just like to see what they sound like.’ I was like, really???? WTF. I asked him if I passed the test, and he seemed to begrudgingly say sure, you sound fine, and was like, ‘We can still meet if you want…’ I ended up meeting him, but we were not on the same page for a lot of reasons. I was like, bye!” — Alex, 32

To get to the—ahem—bottom of this, I browsed gay hookup apps looking for guys who identify as or are looking for “masculine” men and asked what masculinity means to them. Guys on Grindr and Scruff with “masc4masc ONLY” emblazoned on their profiles use “no femmes” as a way to weed out the unworthy. It seems like a shallow and almost egregious way to find a mate — Darwin (to say nothing of Freud!) would certainly find the concept interesting. When I come across men on these apps who seem so dead-set on finding someone who’s “masc,” I wonder — what is it, exactly, they’re looking for? And what does it say about them? If we take traditional masculinity, heavily reliant on the social conventions of straight dudes, then they’re looking for someone “straight acting” — and yet despite some adult films I’ve seen, I’m not sure that fucking other guys is something that hypermasculine straight guys do very much.

Many of the definitions of masculinity center on what straight guys “should” be like, and therefore how the ideal gay guy “should” act: “speaking in a deep voice,” “playing and watching sports like football and basketball,” and “beer drinking” were all mentioned. “It means you act and represent yourself in the way society expects a man should behave,” said one guy who probably Googled the definition for me. “Straight acting and well built” implies that there are distinct masc and femme body types, most notably muscles — a definition many female athletes would scoff at.

“Guys expect me to be more rough or manly because of my ‘masculine’ signifiers such as facial and body hair. They also expect me to be dominant, which isn’t to say that I can’t be, but I do get a lot of messages from guys who assume I’m a total top, and that is so not the case. I’ve also met with guys who have been alarmed to find out my voice isn’t deeper.” — Ryan, 29

“Masculine in talking, body gestures, clothes,” explained a 24-year-old dude before he retracted: “I actually don’t mind feminine clothes, but talking feminine bothers me the most.” Not just a high pitch, he clarified, but “the pronunciation of words, saying stuff in a more feminine way.” How primal, that attraction in 2015 is so heavily influenced by the pitch of a sound emitted from a potential mate!

One guy, 32, told me that he had a “masculine upbringing” where you “had to be a man,” and that influenced his attraction to other masculine men. Being raised in an environment where masculinity meant survival can certainly condition a man to value it more than others who were raised in a way that encouraged all types of behaviors from childhood.

From a young age, gay men who are more effeminate are conditioned to conform to masculinity as a means of survival. As a flamboyant sixth grader constantly harassed by the other boys, I got an early lesson that the quieter, less emotive, and more steely my disposition, the better off I would be. This behavior carries over into adulthood with a subconscious, performative masculinity. The other day, I was told by a co-worker that when I’m in meetings or giving presentations, my voice deepens. It wasn’t something that I had registered (ha!), but I’m sure on some level, I’ve been programmed to think that I’ll be taken more seriously if I sound more masculine. Meaning: more like I’m a heterosexual man. There can be a similar phenomenon in dating:

“When I show up for a hookup and a guy is masc, I sort of assume a masc posture—especially since I’m usually going to be topping, and the expectation of a top is normally that he is masculine. I’ll modify my behavior, like consciously lowering my voice, because I assume that’s what’s sexy.” — Colin, 27

The guy who told me about his “hypermasculine upbringing” described himself as a “man’s man.” He also asserted that he “loves a real man!,” but stopped responding to me when I asked him what a fake man looks like. The intersectionality of race and masculinity can not be ignored, either. There’s an inherent masculinity or aggression that is assumed in men of color.

“I’ve encountered an expectation that black men must be hypermasculine to be attractive on these apps. One guy went from wanting to fuck me to wanting to train me at the gym and bulk me up, saying how I look like I’ve never seen the gym and need to gain more. He started talking about how he wants to train me and started recommending protein I can take to get bigger. I could tell he was getting off on it!” — David, 26

Some guys didn’t quite know how to define “masculine” outside of what isn’t feminine. Masculinity as the absence of feminine traits points at an avoidance, rather than a preference. Do men act masculine because they feel more comfortable that way, or are they just trying to do whatever it takes to not be feminine? Their revulsion to effeminate partners may make them cringe because it holds up a mirror to their own perceived sense of manhood.

These guys may not be seeking masculinity, but instead avoiding femininity, which—as one 27-year-old man pointed out—reveals an insecurity with the femme. This insecurity stems from the masculine being the ideal, and anything outside of that ideal positioned as “less than.” Men may look for masculine partners because they’re uncomfortable with a guy who “acts like a girl”—which is telling of the way our society treats those who act feminine (including all women). Someone who calls masc guys “real men” assumes gay men should be in mutually masculine partnerships—attracted to the masculine. To love and have sex with men means to love and have sex with the masculine. To be attracted to the feminine is a straight man’s preference. It’s absurd, really, that masc4masc dudes often refer to themselves as “straight acting,” considering that to act straight would be to pursue the feminine.

Do we subconsciously dress, act, date, and fuck in the way that we do because of how it may be perceived by others? Of course. But how much of it is for ourselves? In getting dressed in the morning, who do we do that for? Hell—the automatic reaction to, “I didn’t even realize you’re gay!” is, “Thank you!!” As if it’s a contest we’ve won — yes, I passed! Masculinity can be a kind of disguise; it is perhaps brilliant that Grindr’s logo is a mask in silhouette.

It seems, though, that “masc4masc” has recently been considered more tongue-in-cheek by some of the userbase. Some gay men are fighting back. Scruff has taken steps to create a more inclusive environment for all types of gay men to find partners with whom they click.

“Since Scruff added more femme-forward profile options [such as transgender, queer, and drag], I’ve had much fewer ‘masc only’ dudes contacting me. I see equal amounts of guys saying ‘masc only’ and guys making fun of the ‘masc only’ trend.” — Jesse, 25

Being able to identify with femme-inclusive identities in these spaces is certainly a step in the right direction. Gay men are showing their disdain for “masc only” rhetoric through humor, putting lines like, “YES fats, YES femmes!” and, “thuper mathc guy looking for other thuper mathc guyth” in their profiles. I’ve seen Scruff guys explain the lack of preference on their profile with an, “I’m open to everything!” and guys proclaiming, “LOOKING FOR FEMME ONLY!”

Most gay men are hyper self-aware of their gendered behavior, and have a pretty good idea of how masculine or feminine they consider themselves to be. As for me? It was difficult enough coming to terms with the fact that I’m gay to begin with, and I just got over the fact that I’ve aged out of my prime twink years—no longer fitting neatly into any of the checkable categories on Grindr or Scruff. But, fine. I can exist outside the lines. What I can’t do is allow myself to stress over any additional labels that hinge on heteronormative stereotypes. I’m not “straight acting” — I’m not straight!

Masculinity isn’t in the eye of the beer-holder. The only requirement for being a man is believing that you are one. And if that’s not man enough for the guy you’re talking to on Grindr — block ’em.