It ain’t easy being a gay white man, whatever you might have heard to the contrary
Please don’t stop reading, because I’m not even TRYING to dismiss other experiences. If you’re trans, bisexual, a person of color, or just a cool cis/straight white person who empathizes with fellow humans, I’ve got your back.
I care about your struggles, and you matter to me.
Nobody cares about gay anymore. It’s so not a big deal.
But over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of queer equality, something I’ve fought hard for all my life as a street activist and advocate. I marched with Queer Nation as a young man, got gay bashed in Greenwich Village, and stood up for radical queer equality, including the smashing of gender norms.
I’ve witnessed a LOT of progress since I became an activist in 1990. I’m optimistic about the state of the struggle, but I’m also a realist. A lot of queer folks in the US are suffering, and that includes gay men, who often face stigmatization, isolation, and unjust discrimination.
I think that’s obvious, but then I walk in my own shoes.
Last week I came face to face with tremendous pushback to the reality of the gay male experience. Dozens of straight/cis people insisted to me that being gay is no big deal, that gay white men don’t face oppression. A respected transgender columnist recently seemed to imply as much casually in an article on Medium while rightfully criticizing a conservative gay writer who has never been part of the struggle for queer equality.
(Katelyn Burns has asked me to clarify, and I quote her here: “You’ve very badly mischaracterized my article. Nowhere did I imply that gay white men don’t experience oppression or that it’s not a big deal. What I did say is that white cis gay men and lesbians have an easier time existing in cis straight spaces than trans people, and that white cis gay men can still oppress women and trans people through patriarchy.”)
Liberal, progressive Twitter denies homophobia while weaponizing gay slurs
I’ve written that homophobic toxins foul American air in about the same percentage as free oxygen. If you’re gay, you breathe it in every day. If you visit Twitter regularly, you probably breathe in giant lungsful there.
Liberal and progressive people, as I wrote recently, take to Twitter every day to criticize straight politicians and closeted gay politicians like Lindsey Graham in aggressively homophobic terms. The Twittersphere is bursting with “resisters” reviling Graham not for his loathsome politics, but for being effeminate, enjoying anal sex, and any number of other things that are perfectly appropriate and ordinary — if you’re a gay man.
I got a lot of positive reaction to that article, but I got a tremendous amount of pushback, which came in two basic flavors —
- Graham is repulsive, so he really deserves homophobic slurs. “He doesn’t deserve to be spared,” people literally told me, not seeming to realize they’re saying that the more repulsive somebody is, the more they “deserve” to be tarred with gay slurs. Talk about facepalm moments!
- Nobody cares about gay anymore. It’s so not a big deal. Dozens of people defended homophobic slurs by suggesting something extra specially terrible must be keeping Graham in the closet. They insist he can’t possibly have a reason to hide being gay, so he must be a Russian agent or a pedophile or something equally far fetched. This despite the fact that Graham’s Republican constituents NEVER vote for gay candidates and would drop him like a hot potato if he came out. Remember the Virginia Republican Party ousting a straight Republican congressperson merely for presiding over the same-sex wedding of two of his staffers?
Plenty of queer people deny homophobia
I spend much of my time either immersed in LGBTQ news or searching for and understanding data about LGBTQ people. The data reveal a lot of obstacles for queer people including gay people. It all lines up with the content of my inboxes, which are full of cries of despair from gay white men and boys.
Nonetheless, everywhere I go in queer circles, I hear denials of gay reality, denials of gay oppression, and even suggestions that gay white men don’t properly deserve to be part of queer activism anymore since the struggle for gay equality is essentially over.
The reality of the gay male experience is very different
So many gay white men write to tell me about family rejection, social alienation, and despair that I keep suicide hotline numbers handy, sometimes passing them out like hotcakes. I wish more people could hear these stories, even though it’s not fashionable to tell them anymore.
Writers are “supposed” to tell positive stories about the gay experience, modeling and normalizing acceptance and equal treatment while avoiding tragic tales. I see the value in this, but I also see some queer people and allies missing an important part of the bigger picture.
Here are some stories that matter —
From a gay white 21 year old who moved to a liberal city when he turned 18:
- I just want to go home. I want to go snowmobiling in the winter with my best friends, go mudding in the summer, fish for suckers in the creek, fall in love with a beautiful boy and spend my life getting to know him. But I can’t. I’m not safe with the people who used to be my friends even though I miss them.
From a gay white 16-year-old boy:
- I told my parents I was gay, and I wish I hadn’t. Mom got real stiff and almost cried, and she barely talks to me anymore. Dad won’t even look at me unless he’s screaming. He hasn’t hit me yet, but I’m afraid he’s going to.
From a gay white middle schooler:
- I can’t play on the soccer team anymore because my own teammates fuck me up for being gay. They foul me on purpose in scrimmages, and they trip me and kick me in practices and games. The coaches know what’s going on, and they don’t do shit. When I quit the team, people called me a coward.
From a gay white high school senior:
- My teachers [at a rural Catholic school in Wisconsin] hate me, and my principal threatened to expel me. Some of the kids are OK, but a lot of them stopped talking to me. I need my diploma to get into a good college, but going to school here is like going to hell every day. Sometimes at night in bed, I think about killing myself.
From a gay white high school student in Louisiana:
- I can’t help how I talk. I don’t mean to sound like a girl, but no matter what I do, people laugh at me, especially the guys. I don’t have any friends, and I hate my life. I can’t stand being gay or being me.
Privileged gay white men deny homophobia
Some gay white men are jerks who work to uphold the patriarchy. Acknowledging this fact matters, but generalizing is unhelpful at best. Andrew Sullivan is the conservative gay writer I mentioned earlier, and while his views are odious, his privilege blinds him. He does not represent gay men at large, and as is evident from his writing, he is incapable of understanding gay men at large.
In a June New York Magazine article, he explicitly claims that the fight for queer equality is over and that it’s time to declare victory. He’s wrong, employing dubious logic and impossible standards of evidence to deny lived truths.
Everybody is cool with queer people now, especially gay men, he writes (in essence) as he sips a cocktail in the impossibly pricey gay white mecca of Provincetown, contemplates wintering in the impossibly pricey gay white mecca of Key West, and socializes with people who would never dare bully a wealthy, powerful, elite white man like him.
Sullivan has the wealth and social power to insulate himself from homophobia, and he always has.
When you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth and attend elite schools (while opposing reform that would afford similar opportunities to hoi polloi), it’s probably hard to take your designer sunglasses off and get a good look at what’s going on outside your resort walls.
Ordinary gay white men don’t live in Provincetown and Washington DC like Sullivan does
Like the teens and young adults who write me so often, gay white men in the United States live a variety of experiences. Some, like Sullivan, live fairly privileged lives. When I lived in Manhattan and Montreal, I rarely saw homophobia either.
Moving back to the heartland shocked me. Where I live, as in much of the United States, disdain of gay men is par for the course. So is systemic oppression.
- Want a better-than-average high school education? You’d better not try for that academically excellent Catholic school. Administrators are likely to threaten to expel you if you’re too out and proud — just like they did with Dominic Conover in Indianapolis.
- Or maybe they’ll blackmail you into toxic anti-gay counseling by threatening to out you to your parents, like this prestigious California high school did to a student just last year.
- Or maybe your student body will bully you so severely for being gay, you’ll kill yourself like Channing Smith in Tennessee last year.
Want to just live peaceably as an ordinary gay adult?
Better watch out for cops. They’ve never stopped sting operations that criminalize gay men for consensual sex — in circumstances they never bother straight people over.
Cops have even taken their aggressive homophobic tactics online. Just last spring, right before the pandemic shut socializing down, cops in Georgia executed a sting on Grindr to snare gay men with absurdly false accusations of prostitution. Legal scholars called the cops’ actions illegal, but that didn’t un-destroy any gay lives. And of course none of the homophobic cops went to jail or lost their jobs.
None of this even speaks to the vast numbers of conservative Christians in the US who revile gay men and work their asses off to win religious exemptions to laws that ban anti-gay discrimination — or who prevent such laws from being enacted in the first place.
No, it’s not OK to be gay
Gay men in the United States experience oppression just like any other queer people. Data consistently show that gay male teens report bullying and violence in larger total numbers than transgender people or lesbians. Trans people suffer disproportionate violence, but because far fewer trans youth are out, total numbers are small in comparison.
Gay men and boys suffer oppression for the same reason other queer people do. We are disproportionately likely to violate gender norms, and when we do, people despise us for it. Homophobia is misogyny, after all.
Many people in our society despise effeminate men and gay men, despite whatever you see in popular media. The Fab Five of Queer Eye aren’t real, people. Reality TV is entertainment, not life.
I’m a gay man, and I’m here to tell you people DO care about gay, and that it IS a big deal.
Whether you’re cis/straight, transgender, bisexual, a lesbian, or a wealthy gay man, denying the reality of gay oppression harms queer people. And yes, gay white men are queer too.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.