We Need To Talk About Toxic Gay Masculinity

There has been little discussion of the ways white gay male culture, in particular, is rife with its own brand of toxic masculinity.

W hen I was in graduate school, I worked part-time in retail. One of my co-workers — let’s call him Jake — was a white gay man who liked to tell stories about his various dating exploits each time we had a shift together. These conversations quickly went from amusing to problematic. Jake’s tales frequently centered on his conservative rural upbringing, his “love” of black men, in part because of how “masculine” he thought they were, and how he didn’t like guys who were too “femme.” “How would your family react if you were dating someone who wasn’t white?” I asked, trying to make small talk during a lull between customers. “That would never happen,” Jake said. “Black men are for fucking; white men are for bringing home to your family.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the frankness of his words stunned me into silence for the remainder of my shift. I later tried to make Jake aware of his racism, but he said that had nothing to do with him. He couldn’t possibly be racist because he was attracted to black men. Not long after, I quit in order to have more time to focus on my dissertation. Jake tried to reach out to me via social media. When I saw that his Instagram feed was comprised primarily of images of muscular black men, I declined to follow him back.

Jake’s attitudes are a microcosm of many of the toxic behaviors enacted by white gay cisgender men: the adulation of conventional masculinity and muscularity, the rejection of femininity as undesirable, and the sexual objectification of black and Latino men due to their supposed exoticism and hypermasculinity.

In light of the #MeToo movement and the exposure of sexual violence and misconduct in Hollywood, the federal government, and society at large, much attention has been directed towards the toxic behaviors exhibited by heterosexual men that contribute to a culture in which sexual violence and misconduct thrive. There has been little mainstream discussion of the ways white gay male culture, in particular, is rife with its own brand of toxic masculinity.

Still, the conversation is beginning to move in positive ways. Jacob Tobia, in a recent New York Times op-ed, critiqued the film Love, Simon for portraying its lead character as “the right kind of gay” (typically masculine, not flamboyant) in contrast to the character of Ethan, a queer black gender nonconforming teen. Ethan’s story is underexplored and, as Tobia argues, his racial and gender nonconformity are presented as a foil to Simon’s average white masculinity, telling gay teens it’s okay to be gay as long as you are gay in a “respectable” way.

But I disagree with Tobia that Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye follows this same formula. In my opinion, Jonathan Van Ness, Queer Eye’s “grooming expert” and an unabashedly femme gay man, carries the show. In contrast to Van Ness’ dynamic personality, his more masculine counterparts, such as Antoni Porowski and Karamo Brown, recede into the background. Van Ness’ expression of gayness is depicted as equally valid, not as a trope to highlight normative masculinity. Queer Eye has its problems, but foregrounding a gay man like Van Ness is a welcome change to the mainstream media’s typical representations of respectably masculine gay men. However, Van Ness’ popularity is the exception that proves the rule.

Gay male toxicity contributes both to the oppression of queer men and to the pervasive culture of violence against women (particularly any who are feminine, people of color, and/or trans) and anyone outside of the gender binary. If we are serious about eradicating sexual violence in all its forms, then we must move beyond discussions of toxic masculinity that center heterosexuality and work to name and uproot the toxic behaviors of both dominant and marginalized men alike.

The phrase “toxic masculinity,” oft-cited in social justice circles, originates from the work of psychiatrist Terry A. Kupers. Though Kupers focuses on how so-called “toxic” expressions of masculinity impact men’s mental health outcomes in prison settings, scholars and activists have found his concept more broadly applicable, particularly as a way to describe how masculinity fosters a culture rife with sexual violence.

All expressions of masculinity are not inherently toxic. Kupers differentiates between what we might refer to as “typical” masculinity — the dominant or “normal” notion of masculinity within a particular context that stipulates what it means to be a “real man” — and certain aspects of masculinity that have socially harmful, or toxic, effects. “Toxic masculinity,” he explains, “is the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.” In other words, “toxic masculinity” embodies a constellation of the worst aspects of masculinity as a whole.

Because toxic masculinity is defined, in part, by expressions of homophobia, we may falsely assume that regressive male traits are the property of straight men alone. Gay, bi, or queer masculinity, because they differ from the ideal, are often positioned as inherently transgressive. Sexual minority men, however, are still exposed to the same expectations of masculinity as all men, and can also exhibit socially regressive traits, though they may not look exactly like those expressed by their heterosexual counterparts. If toxic masculinity as a whole is based primarily on the domination of women, then gay toxic masculinity is based on stigmatizing and subjugating femmes, queer men of color, and trans men via body norms, racism, and transphobia.

Sexual minority men, however, are still exposed to the same expectations of masculinity as all men.

Gay culture, like the dominant culture, creates a hierarchy based on norms of masculinity. At the top are those who occupy the position of what we might call the “normate gay”: those who are thin, toned, muscular, white, cis, able-bodied, and express their gender in conventionally masculine ways. Despite pervasive stereotypes that gay men are improperly feminine in comparison to straight men, gay male culture often dictates that conventional masculinity is the most desirable. This hierarchy of gay masculinity also contributes to our inescapable culture of sexual violence. Part of masculinity is domination over those deemed feminine (not solely those who possess “female” bodies), so sexual violence functions as one way to reinforce what it means to be “masculine.”

A conventionally masculine appearance is prized within mainstream gay male culture. Indeed, it is not uncommon for gay men to post images of their toned bodies and exercise routines on social media, or to express their preference for men who are “straight acting” on dating apps. Preferences for masculinity indirectly shame those whose bodies are “soft,” “curvaceous,” or “fat” — qualities associated with femininity — and position femininity as shameful and undesirable. Body shaming and policing, therefore, support the invalidation of femininity as a legitimate way of occupying the world. As someone who often inhabits gay male spaces — though I identify as queer — I witness such behaviors on a near-daily basis.

Gay men who care about physical fitness or their appearance are not automatically toxic. It is understandable, to a certain extent, that gay men would seek to challenge the stereotype that they are feminine or “sissies” by masculinizing their bodies through diet and exercise. This challenge, however, ultimately has toxic effects by reinforcing gender norms as opposed to subverting them. Gay men can choose to care about their appearance, or express preferences for hypothetical partners, while also working to undo the systems that oppress those who do not conform to normative standards of masculinity. Too often, gay men seek to alleviate body shame and feelings of unworthiness by disciplining their bodies and policing the bodies of others who do not conform to masculine standards of appearance. While adhering to masculine norms may temporarily mitigate the effects of oppression, conformity does little to dismantle the systems which cause it.

Gay toxic masculinity also manifests in the form of racism and transphobia. Jake, for example, fetishized black men both for their racial difference and due to the fact he saw them as hypermasculine and therefore more desirable. Racial stereotypes intersect with those of gender and sexuality to exacerbate toxic masculinity in gay male culture, primarily through sexual objectification. Mainstream white gay male culture objectifies queer men of color who, because of racial stereotypes, are seen as desirably masculine (such as black and Latino men) and shames queer men of color who are seen as undesirably feminine (such as Asian men). Furthermore, gay toxic masculinity is often transphobic, as it invalidates the identities of transgender men who may be seen as unable to fulfill the criteria of what it means to be a “real man” because their sex assigned at birth is emphasized over their gender identity and expression.

The #MeToo movement, particularly through the case of Aziz Ansari, has brought to light the difference between behaviors that are illegal versus those that are socially detrimental. While some expressions of toxic masculinity may not be criminal, they are, nevertheless, harmful and speak to the necessity of a broad shift to address our current culture of pervasive sexual violence. To this end, we cannot leave white gay men’s toxic behaviors and the general toxicity of mainstream gay male culture untouched. Some of this can be done by calling on others to change their behavior, whether by pointing out instances of gay toxic masculinity when you see them, asking both mainstream and LGBTQ media to present diverse representations of masculinity, or amplifying the voices of those who don’t conform to masculine stereotypes.

But the hardest work is internal, especially when it comes to expressing “preferences.” We often mistakenly feel that our attractions are just what they are, rather than influenced by social context. As social justice educator Beverly Daniel Tatum explains, “racism is like smog in the air.” In other words, even though we may not see ourselves as racist, if we live and are socialized in a racist society, we invariably absorb its prejudices. Jake didn’t get the idea that all black men were “hypermasculine” out of nowhere. We cannot help but breathe in whatever toxic particles are in the air. Just as we cannot simply choose to stop breathing, we cannot exempt ourselves from exposure to racist, sexist, and queerphobic images and messaging. You can’t force yourself to be attracted to anyone, but you can interrogate the societal influences on your preferences.

We often mistakenly feel that our attractions are just what they are, rather than influenced by social context.

Privilege and oppression do not cancel each other out. Because they are on the receiving end of homophobia, white cisgender gay men, in particular, may perceive themselves as incapable of oppressing more marginal members of the LGBTQ community. Intersectionality forces us to consider the ways we are simultaneously privileged and oppressed and to broaden the lens through which we view the world beyond our subjective experiences.

White gay men can no longer profit from the toil and labor of their queer ancestors — many of whom were trans, femmes, and people of color — without also holding themselves accountable and working to dismantle the systems that oppress those who fall outside masculine, white, cis, and able-bodied ideals. The implications of gay toxic masculinity extend beyond gay male culture and contribute to our general culture of misogyny in which women, femmes, genderqueer people, and others who don’t or can’t perform mainstream masculinity are consistently devalued and undermined, often in violent and dehumanizing ways.

If white gay men are committed to the work of our collective liberation, then they must take a hard look at their own behaviors, because their time, too, is up.