Queer men like me (I’m a late middle-age white gay dude) often find ourselves in a tough spot with feminism and the patriarchy. We’re men, so we enjoy a certain male privilege, but we’re queer, which makes us other to the cis/straight men at the top of the patriarchy’s dominance hierarchy. Women often see us as enjoying the same privilege as men in general, but ‘real’ men know we don’t belong in the bro club. The experience can be disorienting and alienating. Let me explain with a story.
I walked through the open door just in time to hear my business partner Pete say, “Oh, yeah? You tell that little faggot to get his candy ass in here NOW and sign the damn contract so we can get moving. Got it?”
I coughed. Hard. Pete swung his heels off his polished desk and spun his plush chair around to face me. “Hi, Jim!” he said, laughing through a huge grin.
I stared at him. “OK, I’m here. What contract?”
His face went blank as he realized I’d heard him. “Dude, no! You thought I meant you? Shit, you know I’m not like that. Rich is stuck in traffic and I’m fucking with him. Just guy talk, sorry!”
He held up his phone so I could see he was Facetiming with Tim, our other partner, who shrugged and yelled, “Sorry, gay best friend! No offense.”
Girls have cooties, gay guys are gross because they’re like girls, and boys rule.
My three business partners were straight white guys in a traditionally masculine industry. Pete and Tim often teased Rich about his fussy fashion sense, careful haircut, and precise manners. He was straight and they knew it, but his affect said something feminine, and they ribbed him over it. Ceaselessly.
Just guy talk, of course.
If you’re a guy, you’ve heard it. It’s pervasive. If you work in corporate America, HR might make sure it stays on the downlow, but it still happens a lot. Casual jokes about gay men, at heart both misogynistic and sexist, fill American air in about the same proportion as free oxygen.
Tim wasn’t kidding about us being friends. We had become very close after working together for years then going out on a limb to start our own business. I wasn’t close with our new partners yet, and I never became close. Hell, it took me years to warm to Tim.
I am very wary around men, and I always have been
When I say men, I mean straight men, of course. I’m using men in the general sense to recognize that most men I encounter are straight. Straight is the default. The assumption. The ideal, as it were — at least among cis/straight men.
Around cis/straight men, my guard is usually up, and I let it down only very slowly. A lifetime of “candy ass” jokes and much worse has taught me to see men as potential threats. I’m not talking about homophobic slurs directed at me. Those have been rare.
Not nonexistent, but not ordinary.
I’m talking about the kind of casual homophobia I overheard when I walked into Pete’s office. I’ve been overhearing shit like that since I was in elementary school. Girls have cooties, gay guys are gross because they’re like girls, and boys rule.
Queer men, including gay men like me, bisexual men and transgender men, often feel excluded from genuine masculinity — from bro culture, from authentic male bonding with straight guys. We’re other whether we want to be or not.
Men seldom outright diss us, unless we work or socialize with serious jerks. This is the 21st century, after all, and overt homophobia isn’t quite polite. At least not when it’s super obvious.
Tim and Pete never understood why I was upset about them calling Rich a candy-ass faggot. “He’s not even gay!” Tim said. “Chill, man. You know we got your back.”
Rich laughed it off too. “Why should I let it bother me?” he asked when he finally made it to the office. “Let em talk. I don’t give a fuck if they call me gay. I’ll give em shit right back.”
Homophobia is misogyny. It is sexism.
Giving Rich shit about looking gay was really about dissing him for looking or acting like a woman. The jokes would have had no sting if femininity were not something less than in a man. A man who truly respects and loves women could not insult another man for having feminine characteristics. The insult wouldn’t make sense.
If women were equal to men, the jokes would stop.
Queer men are stuck in a tough PRIVILEGE spot
As a gay white man, I think about privilege a lot. My whiteness privileges me, but does my male-ness? Sometimes! While I’m quite a small man at the lower limits of normal male height, I suppose I’m still physically stronger than most (though certainly not all) women.
Physical strength in terms of personal safety is a privilege.
I have a masculine sounding voice when I want to. When I make a phone call or video call, I can make sure strangers presume I’m a straight white man. I have a masculine name, so in correspondence strangers presume I’m a straight man unless I write something suspect.
The presumption of straight masculinity is a privilege.
Queer men are excluded from the hierarchy of masculine privilege
The patriarchy is a hierarchy where people scramble for status, with white men at the top of the pyramid. In the last several decades, women have been shattering stereotypes and either subverting or co-opting the patriarchy, but it still dominates society, a smoking volcano filling up an arid plain.
Gay men climbing to the top are rare. As rare as women? Well, fewer openly gay men reach the top than women, though that’s partly explained by the fact that gay men exist in smaller numbers than women.
Joe Biden just tapped openly gay Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary, and it’s big news, because he’s the first openly gay man nominated to a permanent cabinet post.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is gay, one of the few in the corporate world, but that was a big secret for decades. He’s reportedly flexing corporate muscle right now to take revenge on Gawker for outing him years ago. Why is still pissed off so many years later? Because the outing hurt him professionally despite the fact that he managed to scramble to the top. Being a queer man is a problem, and he knows it.
Tim Cook reportedly nixed an Apple TV+ show about Gawker as revenge for outing him
Gawker Media always found itself in trouble. Whether it was the company's namesake site or one of their other…
Queer male responses to homophobia
How do queer men respond to the free-oxygen prevalence of homophobia in the air we breathe? It varies of course, but I take two approaches at the same time, neither of them deliberate or necessarily conscious.
- Performative masculinity. Get really good at imitating aggressive male behavior. Dish it back as hard as it gets dished out. Rich’s “I’ll give em shit right back” is the perfect example, and he’s not even queer. He automatically turns to aggression because he thinks that’s how real men should behave, even though aggression is stressful and exhausting.
- Withdrawal. I have had only a handful of straight male close friends during my almost 60 years on the planet. All but two of them have been Black or Hispanic. I’m not sure why I make friends more easily with straight men of color than with straight white men, but it might be that I resonate with their similar struggle for acceptance. When I say withdrawal, I mean I don’t trust straight white men. I don’t want to not trust them, but I don’t.
Being a man and not a man at the same time means watching behavior carefully
I work hard not to let my mistrust flavor my behavior. Acting on a reactive aversion to straight men would be hurtful and counterproductive, especially considering all the really lovely straight men I KNOW are out there who aren’t homophobic and mean me no harm. We can’t help what we feel, but we can be careful of what we do. So I try to treat all men equally and fairly. I’m sure I don’t always succeed.
Behavior with women? That’s something else to be very careful of. I don’t think of myself as a man in the same sense a straight man is a man. Oh, I’m cisgender, but I’m queer, and even though my sense of male gender is firm, I don’t feel like a cis/straight man. I feel like I’m something else, a man, but a very different kind of man.
I’m the kind of man comfortable around women and uncomfortable around men unless they’re queer. Women are my pals and confidants. My allies in the struggle against patriarchy.
Only sometimes I forget that to women, I look and usually sound exactly like any other man. I can look and sound threatening and dangerous, even though I think of those attributes as applying to straight men and not to whatever kind of man I am.
So, I have to police my behavior around women so as not to seem or actually be sexist. Just because I don’t feel my male privilege doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes exercise it without meaning to.
I’m a queer man who doesn’t trust straight white men. That’s a tough spot to be in, but it’s pretty ordinary. Welcome to my world if you’ve never had a glimpse before.
Want a example of the homophobia that fouls our air? Check this out →
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.