This Doesn’t Make Me Gay, Bro
Growing up with an older brother who is only two years older than me, I had a front row seat to his maturation — I got to see him “become a man.” The ways in which a white male becomes a man in the U.S. are really rather strange to me. I myself never had to prove my femininity to my peers — it was simply given to me at birth, and there are few things that could ever threaten it. My brother and his bro (because of course, they can’t be called besties, or even best friends for that matter) were fond of spanking each other’s butts and dry humping each other in public. However, when they were hanging out at our house, they would hug each other. This behavior seemed to be at odds with typical public and private interactions. I didn’t see very many girls spanking each other at school growing up, and still today I don’t see that kind of behavior among women in the same capacity as I see it among men. This left me wondering: what happens when the butt spanking and the dry humping turns into more than that? I mean, I’d heard rumors about the kinds of things that go on in frat houses and prisons, but were they really true? If the rumors are true, are those men gay? When asked during our teen years, my brother was very quick to say, “I am so not gay, Kelsey!” This essay sets out to answer these questions as well as to attempt to further understand the workings of masculinity, homosexuality, and whiteness in the lives of men, specifically, and women too.
In trying to understand why men who have sex with other men consider themselves straight, a conceptualization of masculinity is necessary. In Michael Kimmel’s article, “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity,” Kimmel conceives of masculinity in several ways — the most prominent being that masculinity is a flight from the feminine, masculinity as homosocial enactment and that masculinity requires homophobia to function in American society. Kimmel’s analysis of masculinity as homosocial enactment appears fruitful in that it helps explain the butt spanking and the dry humping that my brother was engaging in as a teen. The ways in which men act around other men often differs from the way men act around women. After all, it is men who declare other men to be “real men” (63). Kimmel utilizes Freudian theory to explain how boys become men — that is they undergo an Oedipal crisis and begin the process of negatively viewing their mothers. Kimmel states, “Masculinity, in this model, is irrevocably tied to sexuality. The boy’s sexuality will now come to resemble the sexuality of his father (or at least the way he imagines his father)-menacing, predatory, possessive, and possibly punitive (62). Kimmel’s argument for why masculinity must include homophobia involves a redefining of what homophobia is. Kimmel states, “Homophobia is the fear that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that we do not measure up, that we are not real men (65). This fear is so powerful and so consuming that there exists language to describe it. To emasculate someone is to, “make (a man) feel less masculine: to deprive (a man) of his male strength, role, etc.” (Merriam Webster). What would appear to be the antonym of emasculate, effeminate, is still used to describe men — talk about male hegemonic language. Its definitions are as follows: “having feminine qualities untypical of a man: not manly in appearance or manner” or “marked by an unbecoming delicacy or overrefinement” (Merriam Webster). The notion that goes unstated in this definition is that homosexuality is conceived of as being un-masculine. However, it is noted that men use women and gay men as examples of what not to be like. Kimmel states, “Women and gay men become the “other” against which heterosexual men project their identities, against whom they stack the decks so as to compete in a situation in which they will always win, so that by suppressing them, men can stake a claim for their own manhood” (66). Kimmel truly understates, the impact this conception of white masculinity has on people of color and gay men since this brand of masculinity is only available to the straight white man. Masculinity flourishes in a society where gender inequality exists.
Patrick Hopkins’ article, “Gender Treachery: Homophobia, Masculinity and Threatened Identities,” examines the ways in which one’s personal identity is tied up with one’s gender, especially for men. The article also examines the ways in which heterosexism and homophobia are connected — even claiming that heterosexism is responsible in the production of homophobia (173). Hopkins conceives of homophobia is three main ways: repressed homosexuality, irrational/ignorant, or it is a political response to the perceived threat of loss of privilege. Hopkins states, “Behind all homophobia, regardless of its development, expression, or motivation, is the background of heterosexism. Behind all heterosexism is the background of gendered identities” (179). Notions of what it means to be a man are complicated and vary across space and time, but in American society, one thing is certain: masculinity is seen as natural and innate, but is in need of constant maintenance and upkeep (179). If one’s masculinity is not maintained, then one becomes a woman in the eyes of other men. As stated previously, that is one of the worst things a man could do to himself in the United States.
In a culture that values the masculine and the heterosexual, it is somewhat easy to see why straight men would want to hold on to their sexual orientation even if it does not align with their behavior. Catherine MacKinnon argues that male dominance permeates all facets of life, including sexuality. She defines male sexuality as one of “dominance and submission” (128). Furthermore, she states, “The male sexual role…centers on aggressive intrusion on those with less power. Such acts of dominance are experienced as sexually arousing, as sex itself” (127). This notion, coupled with Kimmel’s conceptions on masculinity allow one to understand men’s need to dominate women in both public and private. One’s masculinity is then tied up with their sexuality especially when one considers that this male has grown up believing that acts of humiliation and dominance are equally regarded as acts of affection and bonding. Schilt and Westbrook (2009) also argue that male sexuality is rooted in perceptions of masculinity, “As desire for opposite gender transgender bodies is culturally understood as homosexual desire, following the belief that genitalia determine gender in sexual interactions, perpetrators may claim they were deceived to try to cleanse themselves of the stigma from the one-act rule of Homosexuality” (462). The need to be masculine includes the need to be dominant over others in all aspects of life including in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and class.
Now that basic understandings of masculinity and sexuality have been established, there can begin an analysis of straight white men who have sex with each other. Jane Ward’s book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men examines the topic extensively. Ward’s argues that white men seek out opportunities to engage in homosexual sex with other white men. She states, “When young white men grope one another, they believe they are getting work done” (4). The kind of work that is getting done is male bonding. These men believe they are creating and sustaining male friendships.
When I recently asked my brother about all of the groping him and his friend did, he replied with laughter, “I would consider it to be like a hug, a “man hug. There wasn’t anything sexual about it. It was how we expressed our affection towards each other. Now t-bagging (the act of placing one’s scrotum on another man’s face) is a different story! That you do when you want to embarrass him.” Of course, one anecdote does not prove this phenomenon to be true, but it is striking how easily my brother was able to relate to the topic.
Ward states, “This set of uniquely white hetero-masculine logics — namely, that sex with men is often necessary, patriotic, character-building, masculinity-enhancing, and paradoxically, a means of inoculating oneself against authentic gayness” (25). This is in stark contrast to cultural conceptions of heterosexuality which imply a complete absence of homosexuality. These men get believed by society because of their whiteness and their maleness, and all of the privileges that accompany it. Privileges like being able to be an individual and not representative of your entire race, being able to “not see color,” and to be able to not have their sexuality tied to their self-worth. In fact, they are so privileged that they do not even truly have to wonder if their sexual behavior is out of line with their sexual orientation.
However, men of color are not afforded the same level of understanding in terms of sexual fluidity. Ward states, “… the sexual fluidity of men of color quickly falls subject to heightened surveillance and misrepresentation” (21). This scrutiny can explain why black men who have sex with other men (MSM) but do not identify as gay are said to be “on the down low.” These men do not have the same racial privileges and are not as likely to be believed as heterosexual. Many would say that they are closeted gays. Patricia Hill Collins illuminates this idea further in her book Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism. Collins dissects the historical roots behind the systematic oppression of people of color, and argues that it has been tied up with their sexuality. Collins states, “This belief in Black promiscuity also continues to take gender-specific forms. African American men live with the ideological legacy that constructs Black male heterosexuality through images of wild beasts, criminals, and rapists” (102). When one’s sexuality has been constructed by the dominant group in such a limited and damaging way, combined with racist efforts to silence people of color, it is easier to understand why men of color are not afforded any leniency when it comes to sexual fluidity.
So how are these men finding each other? Some find themselves in situations where homosexual behavior takes place to promote male bonding, such as in a fraternity house, the military, or prisons. Explanations, or excuses rather, can be made to dispel anyone’s doubts (including their own) about their sexuality. One might say that he was coerced, or the pressure to be “one of the guys” was enough to get him to engage in homosexual behaviors. Men in prison may just be lonely and searching for some measure of comfort and closeness with another person. It would be irresponsible to underestimate the things one would do because of peer pressure. These instances can be seen as circumstantial and infrequent and not contradictory to one’s sexual identity.
Ward spends much of her book explaining the situations that foster this kind of behavior among straight white men. In her chapter, “Haze Him!: White Masculinity, Anal Resilience, and the Erotic Spectacle of Repulsion,” Ward provides detailed accounts of the situations in which men find themselves performing homosexual sex with other straight men. Typically, in these situations, there is also an audience — other men who observe as a way of making sure things are done right, and also to serve as witnesses (because if no one saw it then how could they really verify the humiliation and dominance that took place?). Ward states, “ … the homosexual encounters that occur in these contexts are not primarily sexual in their motivation, but are instead acts of dominance and violence that make strategic use of homosexual activity in order to heighten straight men’s experience of humiliation and repulsion” (153). This humiliation is typically ordered by older or more dominant men onto younger and therefore less dominant men. If they can survive being humiliated in front of the men that they respect, then they will have passed one of the many tests of manhood. Hazing also serves to reinforce white males’ need for dominance, and apparently that includes having sex with other men. This emphasis on becoming a part of the group serves to alleviate any sort of discrepancy in sexual orientation. These men do not conceive of their activities as arousing, and therefore it does not suggest that they are gay. But what about straight men who seek out other straight men for sex? Surely these men cannot conceive of their sexual behavior as being a result of peer pressure, or wanting to be part of a group. So they have to be gay, right? Well…
Ward offers an analysis of the online forum Craiglist to explore this concept further. Ward states, “The ads depict a world in which body parts and sex acts (male mouths touching male penises, for instances) are not meaningful indicators of whether sexual participants are straight or gay. Instead, it is the willingness to identify with and consume gay culture that makes others queer, and conversely, it is str8 dudes’ mastery of hetero-masculine culture and their capacity to infuse homosexual sex with heterosexual normalcy that makes them straight” (130). It seems almost magical the ways in which these men are allowed to perform any kind of sexual behaviors they want as long as they are manly about it. The moment they begin to fall away from their masculine and heterosexual scripts is the moment that they slide into the world of true, authentic gayness and that is not acceptable to most of them.
Similar results are found by Chelsea Reynolds in her article, “I am Super Straight and I Prefer You be Too”: Constructions of Heterosexual Masculinity in Online Personal Ads for “Straight” Men Seeking Sex with Men.” Reynolds states,
Sex sought by “straight” MSM indeed resembles sex that occurs between gay men. It may include genital petting, oral sex, and insertive anal intercourse, for instance. But the culture surrounding “straight” MSM sex distinguishes itself explicitly from a culture of homosexuality. Ads posted by “straight” MSM on Craiglist emphasized elements of traditional male bonding. Ads discussed women’s genitals, pornography, substance abuse, and sports to ensure heterosexual masculinity are validated (222–3).
Reynolds also notes that these men distinguished themselves from homosexual men by asserting their sexual desires for women. This also serves to dissuade the authentically gay from responding to their ads.
It is clear that most of these men do not consider themselves to be gay, and that they do not consider their sexual behavior to be at odds with their sexual identity. Reback and Larkins further elaborate on how these men are constructing their heterosexuality amidst homosexual encounters. They argue that these men consider themselves straight even despite their sexual activity with other men because they labeled the activity as “infrequent, recreational, accidental, or an economic necessity,” and it was the result of some external force such as a fight with a female partner or drug use (766). They further maintained their straight identities by limiting the intimacy that took place (kissing, hugging, eye contact, conversation) and by avoiding places that are known to attract gay men (766). The authors state, “Expressing feelings can be interpreted as vulnerable and weak and counter to ideals of masculinity. Withholding emotional expressions allowed the participants to maintain a sense of strength and control over their same-sex sexual encounters, helping to reaffirm both their masculinity and their heterosexuality” (771). In contrast with the other literature examined above, some of the men in this study felt shame and guilt about their same-sex activities which the authors contribute to their overall inability to discuss their sexual behaviors with others. Perhaps there is an element of homophobia at play in this scenario.
So maybe these men are gay, maybe they are not. Their own personal sexuality is not what is at stake here — it is the power structure that has been created around it while the rest of us have had our sexualities constructed to oppress us (the black male rapist, the virginal white female, the wild black female, the submissive Asian female).These men are believed to be straight because of the privilege they have in American society — because they hold so much power, they get to explore the boundaries of their sexuality freely and openly while not being labeled as “other”. It is almost as if they realize that being any other sexual orientation would not be good for them. What would be the consequences of them giving up that privilege? Living in almost constant fear of being emasculated sounds exhausting. If these men could come to terms with how confining and limiting that kind of masculinity is, then perhaps they can begin to understand the struggles of other groups and then they can make moves towards dismantling this ridiculously oppressive heteronormative system that is in place. What would happen to these men if they were to trade in their white masculinity for sexual freedom? Real freedom lies in having choice. Since gayness is considered the ultimate betrayal of masculinity and entrance into the feminine, the odds of these men ever identifying as anything other than straight seems to be a fantasy. However, if those with the most power in American society were to proverbially surrender some of that power, or to redefine that power so that it includes sexual fluidity, American society would look very differently. Perhaps equality for women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community would be in reach. If not equality, then at least there would be more room for people to be their true selves.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2005. “Prisons for Our Bodies, Closets for Our Minds: Racism, Heterosexism, and Black Sexuality,” Chapter 3 (pp. 87–116) in her Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge.
Hopkins, Patrick. 1998. “Gender Treachery: Homophobia, Masculinity,
and Threatened Identities.” Pp. 168–187 in Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality:
The Big Questions, edited by N. Zack, L. Shrage, and C. Sartwell. Malden:
Kimmel, Michael. 2009. “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity” Sex, Gender & Sexuality Reader: 58–70
MacKinnon, Catherine. 1991. “Sexuality.” Chapter 7 in her
Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, Harvard University Press.
Reback, Cathy J. and Sherry Larkins. 2007. “Maintaining a Heterosexual Identity: Sexual Meanings Among a Sample of Heterosexually Identiﬁed Men Who Have Sex with Men.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 39: 766–773.
Reynolds, Chelsea. 2015. “I am Super Straight and I Prefer You Be Too”: Constructions of Heterosexual Masculinity in Online Personal Ads for “Straight” Men Seeking Sex with Men.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 39(3): 213–231.
Schilt, Kristen and Laurel Westbrook. 2009. “Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: ‘Gender Normals,’ Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality.” Gender & Society 23 (4): 440–464.
Ward, Jane. 2015. Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. New York and London: New York University Press.