I read this articleat HuffPo in which the author, Jacob Tobia, issued this call:
Gay men of the world, I think it's time that we stop trying to make the world love us through our bodies and start loving ourselves for the beautiful people we are. I think it's time that we stop hurting each other and our community by enforcing impossible standards of beauty and start creating a community that loves people of all shapes, colors, heights, and sizes. I think it's time to start our own body revolution.Years ago I read that many gay men, more so than straight men, suffer from body shame:
When an individual begins experiencing body shame, it stems from outside influences and eventually is integrated on a deeper level within a person. There are various influences on the development of body shame such as a history of trauma (physical or sexual) where an individual may feel as though his or her body betrayed him or her into letting these things happen. [snip]Certainly, to my mind, that describes the relationship many gay men seem to have with our bodies. For myself, the dawning awareness of my sexual orientation brought with it deep shame, shame which unconsciously I associated with puberty. As I developed sexually, I deeply imbibed shame and guilt over my sexuality. It sometimes felt as if my body were betraying me. As time passed, I realized that was mistaken but it worked its way into my psyche. Ironically, the sports and athletics I eschewed as a gay teen have helped as a gay men overcome my sense of shame about my body. I can run and jump and throw a ball every bit as well as any straight man - my body is a source of pride, not shame.
If someone feels ashamed of his or her body, it can lead to isolation, self-harm, a negative self-esteem, a decreased ability to cope and mood disorders.
Someone who is dealing with body shame often does not want to be around other people, go out in public or be seen in general. Body shame can also lead to self-harm through alcohol abuse, disordered eating behaviors or other means of attempting to numb the pain. It goes without saying that an individual dealing with body shame will have negative self-esteem due to his or her negative body image.
Finally, someone experiencing body shame will have a difficult time coping with life’s happenings, identifying his or her personal goals and values, and making life decisions that align with those goals and values. This body shame may also maintain mood disorders.
Yet, like many gay men I know, I still have an emotionally fraught relationship with my body and my self.
When Dale Levitski was a contestant on Top Chef, he very nearly won but he also lived out his identity as a gay man in wonderful and witty ways. In his video audition, he joked about having Fred Flintstone hands, at another point he said, "I'm a big gay chef and I will outcook your ass." At another stage of he competition, he joked about not knowing how to cook for cowboys, although he'd slept with a few. Dale's unapologetic embrace of his sexuality, of himself as a gay man, wasn't without controversy. Some readers apparently complained, prompting Ted Allen to respond:
Fast-forward to Cowboy-Land, where the secret ingredient is elk, which makes Hung a little whiny and Dale almost giddy. (An aside: Dale, does your mother need the Brokeback Mountain visual of you sleeping with "a few" cowboys? And how many is "a few?" Bad gay chef!)I'd expand on that point. I know so many gay men who are fantastic at sports who along the way swallowed the notion that as gay men they couldn't be good at sports or love watching football on TV. As if being gay and loving sports are somehow imcompatible parts of life. As adults, they've made peace with themselves - they compete in the gay games, they play in community leagues. They don't workout to get hot, they workout because it feels good and they're good at it. They play sports because they enjoy them. Nevertheless, I hear these men apologize and explain away their skills and interests. One acquaintance, who play college football, feels the need to apologize to other gay men for his interest in sports.
Another, related aside: Despite my jokiness, above, it should come as no surprise that I disagree with the posters last week who think Dale should shut up about being gay. (I mean, just look at the outfit I'm wearing in that picture, above.) First of all, if you think about it for even a millisecond, straight folks throw their sexuality in *our * faces constantly, in every medium, far more often than we gays do when we get the occasional spotlight. Second, being "out" accomplishes an important goal for The Gays: it communicates that we're proud of who we are, it refutes the phony poison from those ignorant fools on the Right, and it empowers other gays to believe in themselves. It matters. Dale is unapologetically being himself, serving as a role model for gays everywhere who might not have otherwise dreamed they could become a chef, or get onto television. Or canoodle with ranch hands. I'm proud of him.
These notions that gay men shouldn't be or aren't interested in certain things and can't be good at them are simple bigotry. I personally prefer the term heterosexism to homophobia for a reason - much of the bias against gay people seems grounded in the notion that heterosexuality is the default position and also in sexist notions about gender roles and gender identity. These ideas about how men should behave and look and what it means to be a man seem to start with the idea that men lust after and sleep with women. Gay men feel pressured to spend lots of time proving we're really men.
Gay men don't follow the rules that say men are supposed to lust after women so then the bigots assume that means we don't do the things that other "real" men do. Opposition to repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell sprang from the daft notion that gay men couldn't be good soldiers because we're not real men. The notion of what is and isn't a real man is rooted in sexist notions of what it means to be male or female. Gay men work so hard to prove we're men because we live in this society and we've internalized messages about what it means to be a man.
The physical ideal that Tobia talked about in his article is part and parcel of our society's notion of what a man looks and acts like:
. I had to get big, I had to be manly, I had to have that classic gay physique: rippled abs, bulging pecs, tanned, trimmed, and waxed. I needed to spend hours at the gym, drink protein shakes, and wear tight, revealing clothing to show off what I had accomplished with a hard day's work.The physique he describes here is a way of claiming one's identity as a man. It's a defense. You can't accuse me of being a sissy if I'm muscle bound.
The usual response to discussions of the idealized gay male body is to say "Well what about bears?" The bear subculture is every bit as obsessed as the gymrats, despite the best PR efforts to portray them otherwise.
Superficially, a bear is a chubby, hairy, masculine, gay male who likes beer and flannel shirts. However, according to many bears and their admirers, the bear culture is not so much about physical appearance, rather it is about living a particular philosophy of acceptance, respect, and the celebration of diversity. Furthermore, a bear is a gay man who rejoices in his masculinity (masculinity of a relaxed and undemonstrative nature) rather than suppressing his true gender identity to assimilate into the pretty-boy standards of much of the gay "community." A bear is, well, a big teddy-bear of a man--gruff and bristly on the outside but mellow and squishy-sweet on the inside. Bears are considered almost universally friendly and likeable.Except of course they're really not. Bears may be rejecting the narrow obsessed gymrat vision of masculinity but they're embracing with equal ferocity a different version of masculinity that is equally as narrow and exclusive. Maybe I'm a cynic but impression has long been that many bears are grasping at the bear identity as a way of maintaining their lost 20s and the sexual antics that went with it. "Sure I'm 46 and hairy all over and fat but that's sexy now and it means I can get laid." It's a way of fetishizing something that's natural for some men and attempting to claim it is better or more desirable than what is natural for other men. It's setting up boundaries around what is and is not acceptable masculinity. Beards and hairy bodies are physically masculine traits. It often seems as if the bear community is as unwelcoming of men who don't fit in physically (hirsute, bearded) as the bar scene is of those who aren't young and fit.
Years ago, the Pet Shop Boys (and let's be honest, as a gay man in my 40s, I can't write about being gay without a reference to the PSB) wrote a song called Young Offender. One lyric has stuck with me since I first heard it - "I've been a teenager since before you were born."
Watching the web series Where the Bears Are, I've had a few good chuckles and enjoyed the devil may care, lets just do it attitude of the series. There are some shrewd in-jokes and the writing is better than I expected. I was struck by the fact that it portrayed a group of gay men in their 40s as essentially teenagers - they live together, they're obsessed with parties and socializing and getting laid. Those traits are played for laughs with a knowing wink and a nod but they work because they reveal a gentle truth about what it means to be a gay man. Perhaps our networks of friends are more crucial and central than our lovers.
In Max Blumenthal's book Republican Gomorrah, he commented on Ted Haggard and other closeted gay conservatives, observing that for these closeted gay conservatives:
Haggard’s rhetoric was classically anti-gay, but to have described his histrionics as hateful would be off the mark. His resentment of homosexuals was rooted more in envy than in loathing. Jeff Sharlet, a chronicler of the Christian right, noted that Haggard and many other leaders of the evangelical men’s movement viewed what they call the “homosexual lifestyle” not as a dark dungeon of sin but as “an endless succession of orgasms, interrupted only by jocular episodes of male bonhomie.”Ironically, it is my network of gay friends whose presence in my life is stabilizing and rewarding that creates the image Blumenthal and Sharlet noted. Certainly, my experience of my network of gay friends is incredibly rewarding, deep, emotionally fulfillling and authentic. Bound together not just by shared identity but shared experiences as gay men we have a jocular male bohomie that enables us to laugh together and cry together to support one another through a series of life changes many of which have been wrenching and difficult. We have shared many a meal characterized by hours of laughter and joy. Those same relationships create powerful envy and dislike among closeted gay men who don't have access to similar relationships.
Guy Kettelhack, in his book Dancing Around the Volcano, wrote:
Hating the Jekyll or the Hyde or the Warrior or the Shaman or the Tom of Finland or the RuPaul singing and fucking and fighting and cowering inside you is cruelly pointless. Each of these selves yearns to tell you something important: they each deserve the most curious and compassionate attention you can give them.The horizontal homophobia that makes gay men disdain the drag queen or the effeminate queen at the bar are as much about our own insecurities as men as they are about society's messages about what is and is not acceptable for men. I have yet to meet a gay man who, no matter how absurdly butch he is, who doesn't have inside himself a screaming nelly queen. How can we love anyone else unless we love all of ourselves?
In dicussing his journey toward self-acceptance, Kettelhack offered this observation:
It made me wonder: is this what straight boys felt, growing up in a culture that loved them, straight boys who could throw footballs and catch baseballs, straight boys whose sexuality was applauded by every ad for breath mints and beer (not to mention their parents and teachers and friends and coaches)—was this sudden physical acceptance of myself as a man what a heterosexual man felt continually, as a matter of course, growing up, applauded for growing up, straight?Perhaps, whether its the toned Adonis gym rat or the rotund, hairy bear, all these are ways of claiming our right to be known as men.
This morning as I swam laps, I paused for a moment and looked around. The lap swimmers were mostly men, ranging in age from early thirties to somewhere past sixty. In one pool, I saw men of almost every body type - tall and thin, short and broad, I saw men with nary a hair below the neck to men with very generous pelage, there were bald men and men with full heads of hair, clean shaven and full beards, goattees and mustaches. There were several men I know are triathletes with every muscle is defined, others who are heavy set and a couple who are genuinely fat. It occurred to me that each of these men - almost all of them heterosexual - have had to make a journey toward self-acceptance. But they've also constructed their own ways of being men.
Some of these swimmers are husbands, fathers, grandfathers. Other swimmers are single. Some are in long term relationships but not married. It's not just the roles they inhabit - father, husband, grandfather, spouse, boyfriend, partner - that makes them men. It's not just their physical selves that make them men.
I don't have any answers this morning, but I have ideas and questions. Being physically male is not the same thing as being a man. A man is an adult male. But it's not just physical - it's about how we relate to the world. Are we teenagers forever? What does it mean to be emotionally mature? Does marriage make adults? If we don't marry are we never adults? I believe it's a mistake to propose a single model of acceptable masculinity for gay men just as its a mistake to propose there is a single right and healthy body type to be a man. We should be able to celebrate the male body in all its variety and we should be able to celebrate gay men in all our variety.