I'm a straight man. Let me tell you what I hear, as a straight man, when I'm told, "Don't worry! Homosexuality is no threat to masculinity..."
I hear that masculinity is something normal, natural, unproblematic. There's no important history to inquire into, nothing interesting to learn, nothing to account for. I hear that, and I feel comforted. As masculine, as a Man, my humanity is affirmed without hesitation. In fact, when told that not only do gay men not threaten my masculinity but that some are masculine themselves, I feel even better about myself. I feel special. Not only is my humanity merely assumed, it turns out that masculinity is a type of status that other people recognize, respect, and aspire to. As masculine, I'm a norm, a standard of humanity.
What's not to like?
Quite a bit, if you're a woman. As far back as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), feminists have observed that gender roles and categories (Man, Woman) produce and naturalize patriarchal dominance. So if masculinity is bound up with sexism, shouldn't it be questioned and subject to criticism rather than valorized?
Biological sex (female, male) and social gender (Woman, Man) are often conflated, but they are not identical. Many non-human animals can be differentiated by sex: this dog's a male, that one's a female. But, in ordinary speech, no one distinguishes between man dogs and woman dogs, or between masculine and feminine dogs. The categories Man and Woman, 'masculine' and 'feminine,' are specific to human beings; and they are social and historical, not gleaned directly from from nature or biology.
Sometimes we say that gender is a construct, a social or an artificial construct. That's true but incomplete. We have to ask: constructed by whom, and in order to serve what purposes and interests? Posing those questions reveals the political character of gender. Men are rewarded for displays of anger, aggression, and willfulness. In part, that's how men prove their masculinity. (Are women rewarded for those traits?) Ask yourself: whose interests are served, women's or men's, when rape is "explained" in terms of "men's natural aggression" or the platitude "boys will be boys"? Now push the question: whose interests are served, women's or men's, by portraying men as "naturally" prone to violence? (These questions answer themselves, don't they?)
Masculinity has little discernible meaning except in connection with its presumed opposite, femininity. And the meaning of masculinity has been shaped by a long history of patriarchy, which has always aimed to control, confine, and constrain women. And so, it is not clear why masculinity, that traditional way of thinking and acting and identifying oneself, should be accepted as normal and unproblematic, much less normative.
My last diary showed how marriage equality promises to change traditional marriage from a hierarchical into an egalitarian institution. At root, that is the "threat" perceived by the Right. I suggested that progressives neither play into conservatives' hands by trying to reconcile marriage equality with traditional marriage, nor deny that there is a threat to the inequality inherent in traditional marriage. Instead of placating them, progressives should flip the script and demand that conservatives explain and justify themselves.
That same applies here. As a straight man, I have never had to deal with the stigma that gay men face, never had my identity doubted in that way, never been pressured to account for myself to complete strangers. And that's revealing. It shows that masculinity is a status, a perch in a social hierarchy. Far from something to preserve, masculinity constitutes a type of weapon, a subtle threat to women, to gay men, and (more obliquely) to straight men too.
Rather than try to reconcile homosexuality and masculinity or to reassure conservatives that homosexuality doesn't threaten gender roles, progressives should flip the script and demand that the Right account for its weird attachment to masculinity. Make that an object of inquiry, an object of debate, an object of curiosity. There is good reason to believe that traditional masculinity is growing moribund, becoming a social vestigial organ. Why not facilitate its demise? Just as marriage equality can renew our understanding of familial commitment and love, so might homosexuality renew our understanding of companionship and social solidarity.
Visibility. Voice. Power with.