What Straight men Could Learn From Gay Men - A Queer Kind of Masculinity?
Gay men show that being a man doesn't have to involve machismo.
The vast majority of violent criminals are men. Our courts and prisons are crammed with male offenders who have mugged, vandalised, raped and burgled. The cost to the taxpayer is staggering, and the suffering caused is immense.
Blaming men is, alas, a little too simplistic. When it comes to crimes of violence, it is not men in general who are the culprits but a very specific type of man. As well as being mostly young, poor, uneducated and unemployed, violent criminals are overwhelmingly heterosexual. Although not all straight men are thugs, nearly all thugs are straight. It is disproportionately young male heterosexuals who revel in the machismo of violence and vandalism. They are the ones who go on the rampage terrorising women, smashing up council estates, robbing the elderly and getting into drunken fist-fights.
Gay men, in contrast, rarely participate in such belligerent behaviour. Usually more gentle and refined, most of us queers prefer to love men rather than fight them.
So why are straight males different? Macho attitudes begin in childhood, with boys toys and games that encourage competitive, domineering behaviour. Not surprisingly, many young men end up viewing rivalry and aggression as normal male conduct.
This normalisation of the macho mind-set is reinforced and legitimated by cultural icons of masculinity, such as tough-nut football stars like Vinny Jones and action-movie heroes like Bruce Willis. These symbols of modern maleness link being a'real man' with machismo and womanising. Their public personas promote the idea that a hard, uncompromising masculinity is not only sexy and desirable, but also part and parcel of the socially-prized state of male heterosexuality.
Gay men deviate from this masculine norm. We are generally (though not always) less fully masculinised than our straight counterparts. This queer'unmanliness' is, in fact, a great virtue. It is precisely our incomplete embrace of masculinity and our unwillingness to'act like a man' that - thankfully - makes so many gay men disinclined to violence. Looking at gay celebrities like Marc Almond and Boy George, it is difficult to imagine them terrorising anyone - except perhaps with their make up.
The contrast between hetero and homo behaviour is not, of course, absolute. There are exceptions. While lots of young heterosexual males have armour-plated masculine personalities, some are less rugged. Indeed, under the impact of feminism, straight men have increasingly embraced the New Man ethos, rejecting traditional machismo in favour of a caring, sharing (and more queer?) notion of masculinity. Even the New Lad counter-revolution, despite its momentary robustness, seems unlikely to succeed in turning the clock back to pre-feminist patterns of maleness.
Gay men, too, don't always conform to type. Although large numbers rebel against machismo, a small proportion (often straight-identified and insecure about their homosexuality) behave just as belligerently as their heterosexual mates. Rape and violence are not unheard of in gay relationships. And who can forget homosexual mass murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen?
Nevertheless, despite the existence of macho queers and non-macho straights, the general rule still holds true: hetero men tend to be the most aggressive and gay men the least.
Contrary to the well-intentioned claim that gays are'just the same' as straights, there is a difference. What is more, the distinctive style of gay masculinity is of great social benefit. Wouldn't life be dull without the flair and imagination of queer fashion designers and interior decorators? How could the NHS cope with no gay nurses, or the education system with no gay teachers? Society should thank its lucky stars that not all men turn out straight, macho and insensitive.
The different hetero and homo modes of maleness are not, of course, biologically fixed. As social values and expectations of men change, we could witness a greater convergence and blurring of straight and gay masculinity. The kinder, gentler New Man may, eventually, predominate among male heterosexuals. Conversely, as gay men grow in self-esteem and confidence - ceasing to see themselves as passive victims of homophobia and as having failed the test of manliness - some may embrace a more assertive form of male behaviour. This evolution in masculinity might, one day, lead to a greater degree of male communality, where queers are just as combative as straights, and heteros are equally as tender as gays.
Such developments, if they ever happen, are still a long way off. The here and now reality is a clear correlation between young heterosexual men and violence. This link has its roots in the formation of straight male identity. The fear of being labelled'queer' can be part of the reason some heterosexual men adopt an extreme form of machismo. They deliberately choose to be unruly and loud as a way of asserting their heterosexuality and distancing themselves from any taint or suspicion of queerness. Their hyper-masculinity is projected as'proof' of hetero identity. It ostentatiously disassociates them from the perceived effeminacy of the homosexual'other'. These insecure straights reassure themselves of their heterosexuality with the simple-minded syllogism:'Straight men are tough. Queers are weak. I'm tough therefore I can't be queer'.
The exaltation of an exaggerated, bellicose masculinity by many young hetero men has inevitably destructive consequences. Because they see aggression as normal and legitimate, it weakens the restraints against violent outbursts. Mugging, rape and vandalism no longer seem so taboo. When this mind-shift occurs and straight masculinity is allowed to run riot, the whole of society suffers.
Contrary to what homophobes claim, heterosexuality - not homosexuality - is the problem. Given the violence and heartache caused by super-butch hetero males, any downside to queerness is insignificant by comparison. Some gay men may be sissies but, unlike straight machismo, a bit of camp limpwristedness harms no one. It can even be fun and enjoyable, as the comedian Julian Clary has proven to the delight of millions.
The social menace of male heterosexuality is all too familiar. While most people (especially women) walking alone at night in a dark secluded street would feel threatened by the approach of a loud, boisterous group of young straight males, no one ever feels endangered by the sight of several obviously gay men coming towards them in similar circumstances.
Likewise, police invariably report that the big difference between gay bars and straight bars is that there are rarely any fights in queer venues but often punch-ups in hetero ones. It is also entirely exceptional for gay men to slash bus seats, riot on football terraces, burn down community centres and graffiti subway trains. Such yobbish behaviour doesn't appeal to us.
This is why the'liberal' argument in favour of gay assimilation into straight society is so short-sighted and stupid. Assimilation involves the social acceptance of queers on the condition that we conform to the dominant heterosexual values. It is, however, crazy to want gay men to act like straight men. That would result in more violence and loutishness. Instead, it is in society's interest for male heterosexuals to behave more like queers, the vast majority of whom dislike machismo and thuggery.
When it comes to positive role models for young boys, gay men set the best example. Compared to the mindless he-man violence promoted by straight super-stars such as Arnold Schwarznegger and Sylvester Stallone, the thoughtful artistic achievements of queers like Rupert Everett, David Hockney, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Elton John seem infinitely preferable.
On the rare occasions when homosexual males get involved in gang violence, it is often because they are closeted and ashamed. Unable to accept their homosexuality and fearful of exposure, their participation in hooliganism can be a desperate attempt to fit in with their straight peers, prove their'manhood', and project a'tough guy' image in order to deflect speculation about their sexuality.
While gay men are generally less aggressive than hets, it is not impossible for us to be violent. If threatened or provoked, we gays can lash out too. But it is rarely instinctive queer behaviour. Most of us have to make a conscious effort to overcome our reluctance to resort to violence. Unlike many straight youths who are quick to pick a fight, the vast majority of gay men would rather avoid a punch up - even when it is justifiable self-defence. Confronted by a queer-basher, for example, most homosexuals run instead of bashing-back.
This is no accident. Compared to hetero youths, gay men usually have a gentler, more emotionally-open temperament. That is why straight women love our company. The gay sensibility is a pleasant relief from the dominating, bellicose behaviour of many (not all) husbands and boyfriends. The majority of women don't like that macho nonsense, and neither do most gay men. Hence the enduring love affair between hetero girls and gay boys. Women feel safe with us, knowing that our friendship is genuine and not simply a ploy to get them into bed.
Gay men do, indeed, have a lot in common with heterosexual women. Apart from our mutual interest in men - and our shared obsession with shopping, dressing up, cooking and interior decoration - we both get shafted by straight male machismo. It is hetero men who victimise women and queers. Their misogyny and homophobia causes us suffering. That gives women and gay men a mutual interest in sticking together and challenging straight male attitudes.
Surveying late twentieth century masculinity, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that heterosexual men are frequently a social liability, whereas most gays are a social asset. Compared to straights, we're not so desperate to conform to masculine stereotypes. Less afraid to express our feelings, we tend to be more in touch with our emotions. This gives many of us a sensitivity that has enabled homosexual men to play a disproportionate role in the creative arts and caring professions. Whether consciously or not, gay men redefine what it means to be a man. We show that maleness need not involve machismo.
But not all homosexuals are hairdressers and the like. Some work in masculine jobs like oil-rigging, lorry-driving and coal mining. However, even in these manly occupations, gay men tend to lack the hard-edged masculinity of their straight colleagues. They may do jobs that are dirty and physically demanding, but plenty still know how to bake a quiche and sew a pair of curtains.
This subversion of male orthodoxy is also at work when fashion-conscious gay men don the macho attire of motor-bikers, soldiers and construction workers. They undermine and transform these symbols of straight masculinity by discarding their aggressive connotations. No one really feels threatened by a tough-looking gay SM leatherman (whose hobbies off the gay scene probably include bonsai and opera). We all know his butchness is a pose. The masculine image of contemporary queer fashion thus embodies the eroticism of maleness without the violent menace of heterosexual machismo. It is the triumph of style over pathology.
Who can doubt that life would be vastly more pleasant if straight men had the pacific inclinations of their gay counterparts? There'd be much less gang warfare, wife-beating and late-night brawling. Were hetero males to embrace the less macho ambience of queers, society would end up calmer and more peaceful, not to mention caring and creative. The homosexualisation of male culture is, quite obviously, in the public interest. Where are the politicians with the guts to say so?
* Peter Tatchell is a member of the gay rights group OutRage!, and the author of "Safer Sexy: The Guide To Gay Sex Safely" (Freedom Editions/Cassell, 1994).
Woman's Journal, January 1999
Alternate short versions published as "Inverted Yobbery", Guardian, 7 February 1995) and "Yobs for the boys", (Tribune, 16/23 August, 1996)
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