“Dancing On My Own”: On Bodies, Belonging, and Gay Male Culture

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan via Flickr.

Social media, especially gay social media, is not an easy space for me to inhabit. When I scroll past gay men posting shirtless selfies, so-called “thirst traps,” gay guys talking about going to the gym, hooking up, or Ariana Grande, I am often hit with a familiar hot, prickly wave of shame. It starts in the center of my face and then spreads down through my body. If I looked in the mirror, I would probably be flushed and red. Shame, one of the most common human emotions, is the feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging because something about us is wrong. Mainstream gay culture does not glorify, or even represent, nerdy academic types with typical bodies who would be happy to spend their weekends alone reading about LGBTQ history.

As LGBTQ people, we struggle to come out in a world not built for our existence, hoping that when we do, we will find community and acceptance among our peers. This has rarely been my experience. I have, more specifically, never felt like I fit into gay male culture. This lack of fitting in has caused me to question my worth, my authenticity, and my right to be present within the LGBTQ community. I can deal with the homophobia of straight people; it is the rejection of gay men that has always unnerved me.

I often feel like the protagonist of Swedish popstar Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” a song she said was aptly inspired by her “love of inherently sad, gay disco anthems.” The premise of the song is simple, yet evokes a profound sense of loneliness: a woman is in a club watching the object of her affection dance with someone else. She doesn’t fit in, remaining unacknowledged and unnoticed in a corner no matter what she does. “I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home / I keep dancing on my own,” she says. She also explains that she is “So far away, but still so near.” Though she inhabits the same space as the other clubgoers, she isn’t seen.

This is exactly how I feel within gay male culture. I’m present, but unacknowledged or rejected because I don’t fit the ideal: too fat, too fem, too nerdy, too weird, too queer in every way. I don’t identify strongly with much of the terminology within mainstream gay male culture. The only identity I strongly connect with is “queer.” Though I see myself as adjacent to the identity of “gay man,” this label feels like a garment that is ill fitting.

Toxic Gay Masculinity and the “Normate Gay”

The status quo of gay male culture is, simply put, toxic. Much of the harmful and exclusionary aspects of gay male culture are unacknowledged and underexplored in the mainstream because, due to heteronormativity, discussions of masculinity tend to focus on straight men. “Toxic masculinity,” a phrase coined by the psychiatrist Terry A. Kupers, refers to certain aspects of masculinity that have socially harmful effects, for example, domination, misogyny, homophobia, and violence.

Toxic gay masculinity, as a subset of this broader concept, refers to norms of masculinity within gay male culture that are similarly detrimental. I define toxic gay masculinity as the stigmatization and subjugation of fems, queer men of color, trans men, and queer men with disabilities via the body norms, ableism, racism, and transphobia present within gay male culture. Though I see toxic gay masculinity as a package of linked regressive practices, I will address the aspects most closely related to my personal experience — namely body norms and fem shaming — recognizing that gay/queer men who are disabled, of color, and/or trans struggle to fit in in ways different from my own.

The ideal type within gay male culture is what we might refer to as the “normate gay.” The term “normate,” first used by disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thompson, refers to “the corporeal incarnation of culture’s collective, unmarked, normative characteristics.” In other words, an individual who embodies the ideal. Garland Thompson argues that physical disability, far from a solely medical category, is culturally produced via notions of bodies that possess attributes regarded as “deviant.” She labels the “normate” as such to call attention to the way the bodies of physically disabled persons are produced against the bodies of those who align with the cultural ideal (i.e., “normates”). In doing so, she advocates for a model of human existence in which variation, not sameness, is the standard.

The “normate gay” is, by extension, “the corporeal incarnation of [gay male] culture’s collective, unmarked, normative characteristics.” More specifically, the “normate gay” refers to gay men who are slim, toned, white, cisgender, able-bodied, and express their gender in conventionally masculine ways, or who are seen as “straight acting.” Gay male culture has a plethora of labels to define bodies, or types, that deviate from the ideal, while the most coveted and desirable form of gay male identity is unnamed and unmarked, thus perpetuating its superior status to the exclusion of anyone who falls short.

I’ve tried to fit in, to belong among gay men, by toning down my femininity and changing my body to fit the ideal. Instagram personality and body positivity activist Megan Jayne Crabbe, in her book Body Positive Power, explains that “men are increasingly being told their value lies in their muscles, and that looking like anything less than the cover of a fitness magazine isn’t good enough. Thanks to toxic expectations of masculinity, they’re also being told not to talk about the body image issues they’re struggling with.” Well, fuck that. I’m going to talk about them.

Much of my dating experience has been defined by me attempting to change my behavior or appearance so that I would have a better chance, or so I thought, of being liked. In one instance, I started chatting with a guy who was smart, literary, stylish, had model good looks — or so I thought at the time — and seemed to be interested in me. I told myself that there was no way he would like me how I was, and I lost weight in order to be more attractive, acceptable, and closer to the ideal. I told myself that this is simply what I needed to do in order to fit in, to be loved. Despite my best efforts, that relationship, yet again, painfully fizzled. I ironically did not realize that if he was, in fact, such a great guy, I wouldn’t have to change myself in any way in order to be accepted. When I expressed my frustration to a friend, his response to me was, “Well, what did you expect, Jeff? He’s a glamour guy, and you’re just average.” I was dually devastated. Here I was, trying so hard to fit in, yet I came up lacking. Changing my appearance never resulted in me “getting the guy,” or being accepted, yet, I thought that’s what was required.

I now realize there have been other times when I would “diet” in order to fit in, even though I didn’t consciously label my eating or exercise habits as such. Instead, I told myself I was “getting healthy,” “eating clean,” or simply doing what was necessary in order to belong. Crabbe defines a “diet” as any restriction of food or change in eating with the intention of losing weight or altering one’s appearance. I think it is often hard for gay men to see their behaviors as a part of “diet culture” because cultural stereotypes of dieting are based on the experiences of (white, cis, heterosexual) women.

Diet culture tells women to restrict themselves (their intake of food, their bodies) — because society restricts women in general — while telling men to expand, to gain muscle, to “bulk.” Though men’s diets and exercise routines are, in reality, restrictive, they are not described as such. (White) men are typically told they can do or be anything; therefore, a vocabulary of lack is antithetical to contemporary definitions of masculinity. Women may discuss their weight and dieting openly with one another. Men, particularly gay men, engage in similar bonding over “diet culture” by sharing gym selfies, posting on social media about their fitness routines, how much weight they just lifted, or what protein shake they consumed post workout. It’s all connected to “diet culture” and the belief that our worth as human beings directly correlates to our physical appearance.

Cultural ideals are never simply arbitrary or random — they are strategic. The development of the slim, toned, white, cis, able-bodied, conventionally masculine, hyper-perfect “normate gay” parallels the rise of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. As gay culture began to enter mainstream consciousness and gay people increasingly gained rights and representation, the ideal gay male body became more perfect, unattainable, and restrictive. This cultural shift was also exacerbated by the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, whereby gay men were positioned as inherently diseased and unhealthy due to the media’s depiction of the epidemic as a specifically gay phenomenon. It should come as no surprise that the rise of unattainable body ideals in Western culture coincides with the rise of the civil rights movement, contemporary feminist movements, movements for disability justice, and the entrenchment of neoliberal forms of capitalism that emphasize the attainment of status and power via personal liberty.

The more power minority groups gain, the more restrictive and unattainable the ideal becomes, particularly for those who are culturally feminized, such as women and gay men. In this instance, the concept of the “normate gay” is used to keep gay/queer men specifically divided from one another through the creation of a hierarchy within gay male culture. There is little discussion of the concepts of body positivity or “health at every size” among gay men. The emphasis is, instead, on appearance, on aesthetics as a means of fitting in and being seen as desirable or worthy. Who needs homophobia when we are policing and subjugating ourselves? When our attention is focused on achieving an ideal, on fitting in, on who is better than who, we have inadequate energy to band together to work for not just LGBTQ rights, but for broad social, political, and economic change.

Fitting In vs. Belonging

I didn’t understand why my attempts to fit into gay culture felt so disconcerting until I read social scientist Brené Brown’s work on belonging. Brown began her research believing that belonging was about having a “squad,” or fitting into a group. What she found, however, was that true belonging is the opposite of fitting in. Fitting in is an external negotiation where we change aspects of ourselves in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, is being a part of something bigger than yourself but having the courage to stand alone and to belong to oneself above all else. “Those with the strongest sense of belonging,” Brown says, “have the courage to stand alone when called to do so, to risk disconnection to maintain their integrity, and in order to stand up for what they believe in.” She further argues that “true belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”

A sentiment I often hear from gay men is: “X about gay culture is awful, but there’s no alternative, so we have to participate in it.” I’m no longer willing to do that, especially where appearance is concerned, nor will I participate in the racism, transphobia, and ableism that are often a part of fitting into mainstream gay culture. I can’t be something I’m not for a few fleeting moments of acceptance, and doing so has never brought me a sense of wholeness either. Brown notes that “when we negotiate who we are with others, we may fit in with them, but we no longer belong to ourselves. We betray ourselves if we do.”

I think we need more belonging and less fitting in — everywhere, but in gay male culture specifically. We are currently faced by many complex problems — both relating to the LGBTQ community and beyond — that require equally complex, collaborative solutions. A recent article by The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson argues that the global rise of populism poses a threat to LGBTQ rights and people in the West and around the world. As for Trump’s America specifically, Ibbitson cites a 2018 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which found an 86% increase in the homicides of LGBTQ persons in 2017 over 2016. The report further indicated that, on average, one LGBTQ person was killed in the United States per week.

Solving these, and other, problems, such as the treatment of immigrant populations, climate change, or the creation of an economy that works for the majority instead of an elite few, require us to work together, to show up as our most authentic selves, to have compassion for one another despite our differences. We cannot do this if we are divided and disconnected, if we cling to ideals designed to accomplish just that because us they require us to routinely sacrifice who we are in favor of the status quo.

Belonging to ourselves, and therefore having the courage to stand alone if our values and integrity require us to do so, is easier said than done. I’m going to be who I am — a queer introverted nerdy historian who is not particularly masc or fem — even if I am far from the ideal. In standing alone and owning our stories, as I’m trying to own mine here, we have the potential to shift the larger narrative. It is by living our deepest truths, by not losing ourselves in order to fit in, that we can change the culture — both within the LGBTQ community and as a whole.

The protagonist of Robyn’s song remains invisible and alone while the club, the world, spins around her. Yet, she doesn’t entirely leave or give up. She doesn’t fit in, but keeps dancing on her own. And maybe her loneliness is manageable, is okay, because in that moment, swaying to the music, she belongs to herself.