Today’s media portrays the gay man as the ultimate best friend to women. By virtue of being gay, he can step inside a circle of familiarity from which heterosexual men are kept apart—the woman does not have to harbor a fear that he secretly seeks to have a sexual relationship with her. Because that tension is lifted, many women feel that they can share intimate secrets with gay men.
A widely known example of this scenario can be seen in Will Truman and Grace Adler, from the television show Will and Grace. The pair shares an innocuous relationship that is safe of sexual tension, while the two have shared a home, intimate secrets, kisses and hugs, without stepping into the zone of sexual intercourse. They are able to talk about their dreams and support each other in their long term goals of love and happiness. They can complain together about the actions of men, as they each try to find a man for themselves.
With Will as an example, the gay man has become “one of the girls.”
However, this belief and stereotype may be very inaccurate. If gay men truly are the great friends and allies of women, our actions must be investigated and it must be understood how we fit in a feminist movement and how our actions impact the lives of women as a whole. In this analysis, we might find that gay men actually support the patriarchal construct that oppresses women in our society. My own preconception is that gay men, with our position on the margin, have a tremendous opportunity to break down patriarchy and collaborate with our feminist sisters to end their oppression.
If that is true, and gay men don’t take that opportunity, then what else can we be called but the ultimate misogynist?
Before jumping into such an analysis, some key terms will need to be defined and groundwork will need to be laid. If we will ultimately call gay men misogynists, we need to agree upon what a misogynist is. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, misogyny is simply “a hatred of women.” Thus, a misogynist would be a person who harbors a hatred of women. Hatred is still a rather abstract term, so we can unpack the term further and agree that misogyny as contempt for all that which is feminine. Femininity, culturally, is that which is not masculine; what is not wanted by man is attributed to woman, set aside, devalued and dominated. Patriarchy itself is a system defined by this contempt and is constructed to maintain those definitions.
In defining masculinity and femininity, we are also identifying who is considered a man and who is considered a woman. Looking at masculinity above, we can see that patriarchal masculinity has an inherent misogyny which then means that a man is defined by his domination of women. Women are thus defined by being dominated by men. Using these gendered definitions of man and woman (as opposed to male and female), gay men seem to be an exception as we do not form the same intimate relationships with women as heterosexual men. If we accept that the family unit is a small-scale model of patriarchy (with a husband who leads the household while the wife stays at home and does the work), gay men don’t seem to automatically fit the model.
This factor can be clarified in an important way. Setting aside the assumption that both women and gay men harbor a sexual attraction to men, there is another element which both groups have in common. Both are members of marginalized groups in our society. Women are marginalized by the construct of patriarchy. Our society holds sexist values that elevate men in positions of power at the expense of women. Gay men are marginalized by our society’s rampant heterosexism, which considers only heterosexuality the norm and alienates other sexualities—perhaps because homosexuality leads into a redefinition of the family unit, enabling us to alter it from its present state as a microcosm of patriarchy.
Thus, the component that women and gay men have in common is that both groups can be identified as one step removed from the dominant figure in every society around the world: the heterosexual man.
However, there is also a major difference between the plight of gay men and that of women. While both groups face this discrimination from birth, individual gay men are not directly exposed to the same abuse that women face. Most if not all gay men have the opportunity to hide their sexual orientation, concealing themselves from being directly attacked for being part of that marginalized group. A woman, on the other hand, will be exposed to her oppression from the moment of birth, as she is instantly “outed” as possessing a vagina and set into a gendering process.
Gendering—the process by which one’s gender identity is established—is a process that familiarizes males and females with their roles as men and women. Gendering thus serves to train women for a role that society at large wants them to fill; their purpose is defined as nothing more than to be submissive to men. As men are trained to dominate their households with the wife as the primary servant, gay men run quickly into the problem that they do not seek to have women as wives. As an intrinsic component of identity, homosexuality sets gay men outside of traditional gender roles, putting them at the margin of patriarchy, regardless of whether any particular gay man chooses to make his sexual orientation known.
While being marginalized by society does not typically serve any positive purpose, gay men are suddenly provided a profound opportunity to subvert patriarchy. Homosexuality—sex and love between two members of the same sex—is automatically subversive to the dominant paradigm, because that lifestyle does not match up with what we are taught to expect and foster within our society. Gay men do not seek to marry a woman and make her subservient within the home. Taking this into account, one can assume that gay men garner less privilege from patriarchy than their heterosexual counterparts.
In fact, many patriarchal constructs, designed to maintain men’s privilege over women and perpetuate the roles of those genders, also serve to alienate gay men. Marriage is an institutionalized way to construct the traditional family unit, the building block of patriarchy. Institutionalized privilege is created for a heterosexual couple, making it beneficial financially for a man and woman to pair up in this construct, while receiving an official endorsement from society at large. However, gay men (and lesbians, as well) are not allowed to marry and thus are eligible for neither the financial privilege nor approval of their relationships.
By virtue of being on the margin, it is logical to expect that gay men can empathize with the marginalization of women. Women have demonstrated a similar empathy within modern feminism. Feminists have begun to understand that there is no hierarchy of oppression; that we all need to bind together to end all forms of oppression (Lorde 113). Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, and ableism—these are all different manifestations of the same basic oppression: one group maintains privilege at the expense of another. Thus, the modern women’s movement thus seeks to end all the –isms, rather than just focusing on one particular flavor of oppression.
Because homosexuality automatically excludes gay men from many components of masculine privilege, gay men would seem to have an easier opportunity to help break down patriarchy itself. In theory, gay men have less to lose than heterosexual men, while also possessing the opportunity to look in and see the effects of oppression from the margin.
We must look, then, at the behaviors of gay men to see whether the actions of gay men tend toward the liberation of women, or serve to perpetuate women’s oppression.
The first area to investigate, then, should be the interactions between women and gay men. As a primer piece, we can look at just the name used by gay men for the women in their lives. Women who hang around gay men are called “fag hags,” an amicable-yet-contemptuous term that infers that while she is surrounded by men, she is so undesirable that she will never find one of her own. Another slang term used is “fruit fly,” as these women are thus irresistibly drawn to the “fruits” but are also just another bug.
While I am certain that gay men do value their relationships with women, the terminology itself shows contempt for the fact she is a woman. In other words, perhaps the language used serves to demonstrate that her womanhood is a stumbling block in the relationship, which must be overcome or set aside in order to make the friendship work. The terms shown above seem to support this theory, as they do not sound as if they would demonstrate any real form of solidarity with or respect for women; in fact, they seem to promote the opposite outlook.
Perhaps, then, it is more important to identify our relationships with men, and evaluate what impact that has on women, feminism, and patriarchy.
As brought up earlier, gay men fit into a marginalized group that has the rare opportunity to conceal the component of identity that leads to their marginalization. This fact means that, for a significant portion of our lives, assuming that we can “pass” for heterosexual, gay men will actually be included within groups of heterosexuals and be privy to conversations that women are excluded from.
As we discussed in class, we know that in groups of men, there is a tendency for the conversation to focus upon women and discuss them. From this action is born a male bond, the confines of which allow men to discuss women and other topics without fear of disclosure; the women who are spoken of will never be informed of the conversation. There is an assumption of complete confidentiality amongst members of the group.
These all-male groups will often use that time to discuss women in a degrading fashion, without fear of being betrayed by their male cohorts. At that point, women can be and are treated like an object to be appraised, evaluated, and used. In the conversation, a woman is nothing more than the size of her breasts and her waist. If a woman refuses to have sex with a man, she is frigid. If she gives in too easily, she is a slut. (This demonstrates another component of masculinity, in that a woman must concede to sex, rather than participate enthusiastically.)
These conversations are demeaning to women (and, in a different way, to the men who having the discussion), yet none of the men involved seem to ever attempt to put an end to the conversation. In fact, the only time that the dialogue might be stopped is when the woman being spoken of is related to or dating one of the men in the circle. Her relationship with one of the men thus exempts her temporarily from being objectified, for so long as that man is present. However, if he were not present, the conversation would continue, and it also bears consideration that the group of men does not apply that same respect to all women in general.
Gay men become accomplices in these crimes against women. In order to keep his place within the circle, the gay man cannot disrupt the ritual.
In fact, if the gay man is not “out” to the group—if they do not know his sexual orientation—he may actually be concealing his identity to maintain his place. One typical reason for not disclosing his sexuality is that we do not want to be treated differently by other men. If any man were to speak up for women in one of these conversations, he would likely be labeled as queer. Therefore, a gay man who is “in the closet” is not likely to protest the conversation, while an out gay man, if he is being included in the conversation, has likely made himself a participant in the conversation in order to retain the acceptance of the group.
A metaphor for this behavior can be seen in the locker room. Just as men in the locker room are exposed via their nakedness, the conversations of men about women and their bodies exposes the veiled hostility and contempt for women that men seem to possess. Gay men do not fit into the paradigm of the locker room, as the men do not want to be exposed to the gaze of the gays just as much as they do not want women to walk in and see their naked bodies. Gay men play a similar role with regard to those conversation, because we do not fixate upon women as sex objects in the same fashion heterosexual men do. However, we can participate in both places if we behave as the dominant group does; in the locker room, we avert our eyes and do not look at other men, and in the conversation we ante up in the same fashion as the others do: by demeaning women ourselves or by never standing up for them as they are degraded.
Thus, this example depicts gay men as selling out our sisters in order to maintain a relationship with the privileged group. However, it is important to note that conversations about women’s bodies do not only occur with amongst groups of heterosexual men; gay men seem to continue the dialogue while on our own turf.
Rather than being abstracted or unconcerned with women and their bodies, gay men will often speak of women with outright contempt. Women may even be present for diatribes where gay men will make jokes about awful sexual experiences with women. We may say such things as “Sex with women is so disgusting that I turned gay” or “I just can’t stand the fishy smell of the vagina.” “I don’t trust anything that bleeds for three days and doesn’t die.” It’s particularly sad how quick and easy it is to recall hearing these statements—this demeaning form of speech clearly does not honor women as mothers, sisters, and allies, but only seems to cut them down in a bitter approximation of horizontal hostility.
Furthermore, while gay male communities would seem to be a safe place to step outside of gender norms, these places are not as friendly as one would expect. Effeminate gay men, cross-dressers, drag queens, and trans folk are all ascribed lower status than gay men who more closely resemble the ideal for men in heterosexual society. Femininity is condemned, denied, and shunned by gay men. “If I wanted to have sex with a woman, I wouldn’t be gay.” The gay man cannot even acknowledge being attracted to femininity in a male. Even beauty standards amongst gay men idolize the same men that heterosexual men are supposed to strive to become and resemble (actually, this goes both ways: many of the models that heterosexual men look at are gay men who are groomed for the role).
Regardless, this contempt for femininity articulates a division between the dominant and the submissive in gay male culture. Gay culture will call a man a “top” if he is the penetrator, the inserter, or the dominator during sex. The dominated, penetrated man is called a “bottom.” Men will proudly declare themselves as tops, but most bottoms will say they are “versatile” (implying they will alternate or fluctuate between bottom and top) because society considers it demeaning to be penetrated by a man. These terms may as well identify one’s location on a social ladder. In a similar fashion, while the wealthy will identify themselves as rich on a scale of economic class, the poor do not typically like to place themselves at the lower end of that scale (and thus, everyone identifies with the “versatile” middle class).
In a more blunt turn of phrase, in a gay relationship, the bottom may be referred to as the top’s “bitch.”
This may be indicative that, just as Catherine MacKinnon describes about heterosexual sex, there is a strong component of domination and submission in gay sex (MacKinnon 324). Therefore, the act of gay sex itself may represent a new articulation of misogyny. A bottom who submits to gay sex becomes a “male woman,” dominated and held in contempt. The shame involved in identifying one’s self as a bottom indicates that there is a demeaning construct involved in that sexual role. A question that gay men are often faced with in our coming out processes is “do you want to be a woman?” The answer that is always put forth: No. Even in our sexual activities, gay men feel shamed if they do not deny charges of femininity.
These concerns with regard to femininity and womanhood amongst gay men can also be discussed with regard to cross-dressing and drag culture. How does all that I have stated above fit along with a group that puts male in women’s clothing and parades them around for all to see? Based on the drag shows, one would expect that these drag “queens” rule the gay world. However, such is not the case. In everyday life, drag queens must also pass as men, and their shows have an entirely different parallel to society at large.
Drag shows seem to actually mock feminine traits by exaggerating them to the extreme—this is not “miming the mime.” As gay men typically deny any desire to be women, we perform in roles that do nothing more than mock femininity. Even at Oregon State University, we hold at least one drag show each year where men make themselves into caricatures of women and parade around in front of the community as a whole. What, then, is the parallel of drag to society at large?
To society at large, a drag show more closely resembles a freak show than any pageant. Society sees, rather than a bearded woman, men in dresses—an alternative form of the same misgendered identity. Within our community, drag is not truly celebrated as an accepted and embraced identity. Simultaneously, we do not seek to promote it as such to the outside world.
This point even is demonstrated when a gay man describes drag to others, perhaps seeking to persuade them to come see the show. Most gay men will make a series of statements that serve no purpose but to distance ourselves from participation in drag. These statements may be as simple as “no, I don’t dress in drag” or may be take the tone of “it’s really fun to see, but no, of course I’m not into that.” If drag is a celebration of identity, why do we as gay men call others in to see the performances while denying our own participation in it?
Thus, we’ve seen a number of different ways that gay men relate to women, and overall it seems that we are not using the advantage of being at the margin to help liberate women from their oppression. When men talk about women in awful ways, gay men do not speak up, for fear of being alienated from the male bond. Then, we make misogynist comments of our own, devaluing the bodies of women without a second thought. Gay men even turn on each other, demeaning those who are submissive in sex, just as women are dominated in heterosexual sex. To top it all off, we have created a drag culture that takes feminine traits and mocks them while pretending to celebrate them.
The imbalance of this relationship makes it all the more poignant. In the 1980s, when we were dropping like flies as the HIV epidemic strengthened its grip within the gay male community, an ally stepped forward to support and care for us: women. Both lesbians and heterosexual women stepped in and fought to bring attention to the onslaught of the disease and help us reduce our risks. While gay men either hid from or died from the disease, women led a very public battle that led society to begin caring for gay men who were victims of HIV. For a time, society had dismissed the plight of gay men, despite the fact that HIV had begun to spread to heterosexual men and women as well (Morrow).
It was women who stuck their necks out and fought at the forefront of that battle.
Gay men apparently will not go so far as to interject in a conversation that demeans women—will not support our sisters who have been our greatest allies.
Again I must ask the question: If gay men do not use their opportunity to help women, are we not misogynists? It would seem so, if we compare gay men to heterosexual men: while heterosexual men are “paid” to oppress women, gay men seem be doing it for free (or at least, a discounted rate).
By the definitions we’ve used here, gay men are, in fact, the ultimate misogynists. Because we do not fit into snugly into the gender roles that society constructs for men and women, we do have more opportunity to both break out of those roles, and less to lose for doing so (we’ve already lost out!). However, it appears that the larger trend is to dismiss and ignore the oppression faced by women, if not participate in it, in order for buy our way back into the in-crowd. As gay men dismiss our ability to sympathize and empathize with women, as we show contempt for feminine traits, we actively participate in the masculine oppression of women. Whereas straight men may be participate in their gendered role in order to preserve privilege they have maintained historically, gay men are not afforded all those privileges automatically. Instead, we go a step further to sell out women for our own benefit, trying to buy a little more privilege for ourselves.
When writing this paper, I had originally set out to prove that gay men are tremendous allies to women—perhaps my own ego was at stake—and thus I’ve gone to great pains in order to point out our potential to do so. While the gay male community as a whole may not currently act to defeat patriarchy, I hope that gay men, in the future, will rally together and to use our unique position as men at the margin to level the playing field for women.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Trumansburg: The Crossing Press, 1984.
MacKinnon, Catherine A. Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: “Pleasure under Patriarchy.” Boston: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Morrow, Kate. “Say It! Women Get AIDS!: HIV Among Lesbians.” http://www.shpm.com/articles/glb/womenhiv.html. May, 1998. Accessed March 14, 2003.