It happens on the ball field or in the locker room, in some fearsome interaction with a coach or, worst of all, with a father who erupts at your failure to throw like a man. It’s the playground trauma, the most common experience gay men share. This is the moment when you realize that you’re not like the other boys, and it’s usually confirmed by the contempt of your peers. Lucky is the gay man who doesn’t remember being marked and manhandled as a faggot.
The playground is a boot camp for every boy, but for a gay boy the regimen of training in the art of masculinity can be especially charged. He arrives with an inner fear that something about him isn’t right, and that anxiety is bound to affect his performance, if it shows. The greater his need to bury his insecurity in belonging, the more likely that he will police his difference with the utmost severity. He will hide it if he can, and if he can’t he will begin the arduous task of creating a self-image without the buttresses of male solidarity. The bravest or most desperate boys flaunt their difference with a willfulness that ripens into pride. They are the ones who flame. But most of us cave under the relentless pressure to fit in. We man up because we must. This tension at the core of one’s being as a boy is where the myth of gay macho begins.
Healing the playground trauma has always been a major mission of gay liberation, right up there with sexual freedom and civil rights. The current push for laws protecting gay students from harassment is the latest attempt to prevent the spread of a social disease that might be called gender image deficiency syndrome. But what about those who were infected long ago? So many gay men are living with GIDS, so common is our sense of alienation from other men, that it’s fair to say we’ve never seen a natural gay identityóone that isn’t shaped by persecution. What we have seen are various strategies to defy or compensate for this primal wound.
Consider the disco-era clone, with his costume shrieking blue-collar butch. He was a creature of reaction to the playground trauma, wearing his masculinity on his sweat- shirted sleeve. But his attempt to claim the trappings of masculinity had an unintended (if predictable) consequence. Straight men fled from the attire gay men had borrowed from them in order to look manly. If gays liked their jeans tight, straights liked them baggy; if fags wore white briefs, real men switched to boxers. So the clone look perpetuated the problem it was meant to cure.
But before the clone, a very different treatment for the playground trauma had emerged in the wake of Stonewall. This tactic, known as “genderfuck,” was designed to shatter the very idea of masculinity by jamming the code that made it cohere. If manhood was defined as that which is not feminine, genderfuck blurred the binary beyond recognition. In the early ’70s, you might see a phalanx of bearded men in WAC uniforms marching down Fifth Avenue during the (then illegal) pride parade. This wasn’t drag as we know it today; it was dress-to-mess. That night, the same brigade might shed its khaki skirts for tie-dye and jeans. Androgyny wasn’t the point of this masquerade. The liberation generation had another, more authentically gay goal in mind: flexibility.
Flexibility is the heart of gayness and the basis of our difference from straights. It shows in the way we present ourselves as men: in that twinkle where a hard look is supposed to be, in the preference for a rising lilt rather than a girded growl, in the way we greet each other with a telltale kiss instead of a manly hug that’s more like a capoeira move. These identity signs are neither masculine nor feminine. They’re gay. And what’s true on the street goes double in the sheets.
Even in this bend-over-boyfriend era, most straight men are less likely than their gay friends to savor getting fucked. In many cultures, being penetrated is what defines a man as a fag. Yet, over the course of a lifetime, most gay men aren’t so consistent in their position. You might begin as a bottom and age into a top, or go the other way as the layers of repression are shed. But for many queers, both these roles are possible, or rather, relational. Whether you will fuck and suck or get fucked and sucked depends on who your partner is. In a long-term gay relationship, these roles can shift to suit a repertoire of fantasies. If that’s not the case for you yet, it may well be by the time you’re eligible for services from SAGE.
But in the world outside the bedroom and the backroom, flexibility is very hard to carry off. The magnetic pull of gender conformity draws most gay men to the masculine pole. We adhere because the penalty for doing otherwise is still severe, because we remember the playground trauma, and because acting like a man is balm on a troubled boyhood. And so, the most injured gay men are often the most macho, and the most ambivalent homos are often the most inveterate tops. It takes not just courage but permission to be a flexible flyer. Yet this hummingbird energy, this luminescent flitting from pistil to stamen and back again, is the essence of being gay.
Not to the virtually normal, though. Their battle cry is “Reclaim your gender!” This redemption involves a disavowal of any behavior that doesn’t jibe with the male code. “I’m all for the cult of masculinity. . . ” Andrew Sullivan has written. “Last time I checked, that was a major reason I thought of myself as homosexual. But when hyper-masculine men tart themselves about like homecoming queens, the entire concept of masculinity is negated.” Exactly.
Not every homo wants to recover his right to be a man. Plenty of us are glad to let that cup pass from our groins. But for Sullivan, these genderfuckers are “a very small minority” within an otherwise virile community. In fact, he claims, most gay men “embrace their gender.”
Homocons cite a certain survey of sex ads to bolster their contention that most gay men are basically butch. This study found that nearly all men who place personal ads in gay papers describe themselves as masculine. What’s more, most seek the same traits in a sex partner. If this were really the case, femmy guys would be sitting home alone, which they certainly aren’t. Soulful sissies, flaming creatures, ripe papis, and beamish boychicks all get their share. The stud muffin is a recognizable type in the gay community, but he isn’t the norm. There is no gay norm, virtual or otherwise. But some types are more acceptable than others. The real question isn’t whether gay men are naturally macho, but why we feel compelled to wear that face in public. The answer has everything to do with status.
RuPaul notwithstanding, macho men do better in the world than their effeminate brothers. The confidence that comes from social success is the major reason why they are sexy. If sissies were honored for their spirit and rewarded for their beauty, many more gay men would advertise themselves as femmes. Instead, we struggle to keep the evidence of our flexibility in check. The result is a widespread terror of intimacy, since that means letting your butch guard down.
The homocons’ solution to the playground trauma is not so different from the clones’. They want us to stop acting like faggots. Hang with straight men, join a rugby league, take testosterone if you have to, and fercrissake stop empathizing with the victim and start identifying with the aggressor. This self-help program points to a major difference between the gay left and right. Liberationists don’t want to reform gay behavior; they want to change the system that needs faggots in the first place.
The world that queer radicals would create is one where no man needs to butch up to fly right. Masculinity would be something every male possesses, not a test every boy must take. Gay men would be free to follow their hearts without sacrificing prestigeóand so would straights. After all, macho is a wound for everyone. It isn’t just about boys bonding and dads passing their cojones along to their sons. It’s also about boys brutalizing each other to establish a hierarchy based on fear of the feminine, and fathers injuring their sons for failing to make the grade. It’s about mothers repressing their daughters, and butch girls suffering through the female equivalent of the playground trauma: the prom from hell.
What would guys be like without the compulsion to man up? Some would meet the Sullivan standardóbecause they want toóbut others would fall gleefully by the wayside. Some women would feast on He-Men, but others would relish the chance to bed a studly sissy. Homo- and heterosexuality would not cease to exist, but these categories would become far more individualized. Gender would be a journey, not a destination. The flexibility that colors gay sexuality, gay culture, and even gay politics would no longer be a source of shame. The hummingbird would be free to fly.
Like freedom, flexibility is contagious. That’s why it’s mocked, menaced, and manacled. The unfinished business of gay liberation is to break these chains. Only then will we know what it really means to be gay.
Richard Goldstein’s new book, The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right (Verso), appears this month.