Gay Until Penetration

Hetero men grapple with being taken for fags

You've met him before, probably many times—a guy you're sure is gay, right down to the upturned pinky, penchant for pastels, Chelsea abode, and effeminate mannerisms. Or maybe you can't quite pin it down, but you're simply positive there's no way he's not a homo. He embodies every stereotype you can think of and then some, and yet you later find out your new gay friend is, in fact, straight.

There's a certain breed of modern straight man who, to the average eye, sets off gaydar. Take the guy I met at a party: tall, well-dressed, wearing a beret. He's into musical theater, works as a waiter. "You write for The Village Voice?" he exclaimed. "There's a guy who sometimes comes into my restaurant. His name is . . . Michael Musto." These factoids didn't individually scream queer, but taken as a whole, they caused me to make assumptions, to the point that I couldn't believe he actually wanted to go out with me when our mutual friend told me he was interested. Despite my friend's insistence that the guy was straight, I had trouble shaking my initial impression.

I don't feel good about my snap judgment, yet it's perfectly natural. We size people up based on dress, speech, mannerisms, and interests all the time. Plenty of other guys have the same issue, which I hesitate to call a problem. It's a case of mistaken cultural identity that touches on many aspects of personality and sexuality. It's the opposite of the closet, but can be just as troubling to wiggle out of without seeming homophobic ("I'm not gay, really I'm not!").

Jason Anthony wants to queer up your hetero boyfriend.
image: Frank Montagna
Jason Anthony wants to queer up your hetero boyfriend.

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A handsome, cultured friend of a friend is taken for gay all the time. "I was on Fire Island with some friends, and they were teasing me about it. I'm culturally gay, but sexually straight." He has plenty in common with his gay friends, politically and socially; it's a sensibility rather than a sexual orientation. He's right with them—up to the bedroom door. His friend coined the term "gay until penetration." Is he bothered by this notion? Not really. "It's kind of brilliant, but totally insulting," he says with a smirk and a note of pride.

Appearing gay is an interesting dilemma for today's straight man in circles where gay men are held in very high esteem—by both men and women. With the advent of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the dreaded but oft invoked word metrosexual, the outward lines and codes have become blurred. Any guy who's at all nerdy, well dressed, or verging on effeminate—or simply not a jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing sports and beer lover—may be taken for gay. Potential female dates may dismiss him as a prospect because they think he bats for the other team; gay men may assume he's one of their own.

When I tell a friend that most of the guys I've talked to are both distinctly Jewish and distinctly geeky, she nods enthusiastically: "It's the Jewish-nerdy-queer axis." A male acquaintance reports that everyone from his parents to his high school classmates suspects he's gay. "I used to get off on making people think I was gay. I never lied, but I liked confounding people's expectations. I'd mention, for no genuine reason, that I lived in Chelsea, liked theater, hated homophobes, etc. I wanted to be thought of as different, and being gay certainly qualified." Now in his thirties, he's firmly attracted to women but isn't offended when gay guys hit on him.

The authors of Is Your Straight Man Gay Enough?, Nan Shipley and Jason Anthony, encourage women to spruce up the average hetero male with their tongue-in-chic guide to making him just a touch more fabulous. Anthony found that when he lived in London, "everybody looked gay. The straight guys have cute English hair, their scarves tied with a little too much attention, they're all wearing really good shoes, and you can't pick them apart. If a straight guy's mistaken for gay because he's well-groomed, he should be flattered, but it's not a compliment if a guy's got a steroid body and has waxed every inch of body hair off him."

The new film Coffee Date (coffeedatethemovie.com) twists this issue. As a practical joke, Todd's brother sets Todd up with an online profile. Todd arranges to meet "Kelly," who turns out to be a guy. Even though Todd's straight, he's willing to give friendship with Kelly a chance. When Todd's gay friends see them together, they instantly assume he's a confirmed fag. He figures out, by trial and error, just how far to take his newfound interest in Kelly.

Out actor Jason Stuart, who plays Todd's co-worker, says that these days, with unisex fashions, it's hard to tell who's gay or straight (and male or female). You may have the best gaydar in the world, but you may still be wrong. "The only thing one can really say about somebody who's gay is that we like to have sex with a person of the same sex. Being gay is not something that can be spotted," says Stuart.

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