​The Butch Factor: Masculinity from a Gay Male Perspective

So I see there's a thread about being a butch from a lesbian perspective, and this is a relevant documentary, which looks at it from the male perspective:


Full Documentary on Hulu

The documentary interviews a number of gay men (one trans and the rest cis) - some more butch and some more femme, and they talk about what being masculine means to them. The consensus is that showing more traditionally masculine traits is more of an advantage, both in and out of the closet. The more masculine you are, the more privileges you get, and this is even true in the gay community.


For the more 'butch' gay men, on one hand having traditionally masculine characteristics meant they were not immediately recognized or rather, labeled as gay by others before coming out. Their stereotypical masculine qualities such as playing sports, not only made others question whether they were really gay but made them wonder about their own sexuality as well. In other words, they associated homosexuality with feminine qualities and since they did not see themselves as being feminine resisted against the idea that they were homosexual. One man mentions how he would be sitting in a gay bar and women would hit on him and say "you know this is gay bar, right?" assuming he was straight because he did not have the stereotypical look associated with the gay male.

In contrast the men who had a more feminine appearance and feminine characteristics were the earliest to come out since they were labeled as gay by their peers. Not only did they had to endure bullying in school, but sometimes endure harassment even as an adult. This can happen even in the middle of a city like San Francisco which is usually considered a liberal enclave.

The more butch gay men did not feel associated with gay male culture which they found to be associated with 'girl talk and dancing' as one of them put it. They found their peer groups in other places such as gay sports leagues. For the trans male, experiencing male privilege meant people looked at him in the eye in conversations, and believing that his ideas were worthwhile. But it also meant negotiating how much of the traditional masculine mannerisms and behaviors he wanted to consciously adopt. The range of behaviors seen in gay male spaces was one factor that helped him in this decision.


Most participants seem to be middle aged or close to it, but from the three younger participants, one of them is a bull rider. He feels that people are more surprised about his bull riding rather than his homosexuality: "People were like, oh you're gay? Oh okay. And then they're like, you ride BULLS? No way!".


One person who makes a brief appearance is Jack Malebranche, author of the controversial book Androphilia. While it claims to reject the traditional gay identity and reclaim masculinity many reviews claim that the book is simply a rant against effeminate gay men. Despite being the gay equivalent of the MRA, Jack does make an interesting observation: straight guys even if they're 'nerdy little IT guys' as he puts it - are still recognized as men - but according to Jack gay men, if they want to be considered men, have to work for it. There is truth to this observation, though hopefully considering we're in a time where we recognize openly gay men in the military and gay athletes are starting to come out in the midst of their careers, may be gay men can now be a bit more relaxed about the issue - but still only if they're not too femme. And this is indeed what seems to be taking place.


The documentary provides a brief narrative on the history of the gay male image, from the sexual but relatively down-to-earth 'Castro Clone' to the hyper-sexual all-waxed muscular and youthful appearance of the circuit parties - the latter an attempt by gay men to distance themselves from the mature generation which they associated with the AIDS crisis. The image of the gay male in media has changed significantly in the last decade as the stereotypical femme gay male, or the 'flaming queer' of the 1990s era gave away for a blend of more traditional masculine characteristics. The stereotypical gay male on television and film in the 2000s still dressed fashionably, but not too flamboyantly, and the limp wrist and the lisp was mostly gone.


But even this is disappearing in the new decade: for example take the characters on the HBO series 'Looking' which shows gay men for the most part virtually indistinguishable from their straight counterparts - apart for their sexuality. This seems to be largely an accurate description since the younger generation including a significant number of their straight peers, are adopting a more relaxed and carefree - or hipster - attitude towards masculinity. It seems as if the image of the gay male has gone full circle and come back to the Castro Clone as younger gay men are no longer trying to distance themselves from an older generation. But is this simply a relaxation of the masculine identity or is there a drive behind it? As one person observes, "the irony of the Castro Clone is of course that you're supposed to be displaying this natural masculinity but it takes a great deal of effort to get it precisely right".


This leads to the last section of the documentary which is focused on bear culture. Much of the older generation of gay men being lost to AIDS, the gay community for the first time has a significant older generation and a good portion of them belong to the bear scene. The bear scene is not only comprised of older men however as there are significant numbers of younger men as well, forming the continuously growing ranks of otters, cubs and chasers. The image of the bear scene is the complete opposite of the stereotypical well groomed gay man out for shopping and cocktails with his female best friend, and any female presence is all but completely absent in bear culture.


Andrew Sullivan describes the bear attitude as a more relaxed and casual one:

Bears like to enjoy the outdoors and organize joint camping trips and festivals in the forests. They tend not to have kids; and they avoid politics. To the outside world, they are largely invisible, because they don't fit the obvious stereotype of gay men, the kind that is featured prominently, and somewhat offensively, on "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy" and "Boy Meets Boy." These bears look more like the straight guys than the queer eyes.

But their masculinity is of a casual, unstrained type. One of the least reported but significant cultural shifts among gay men in recent years has been a greater ease with the notion of being men and a refusal to acquiesce in the notion that gayness is somehow in conflict with masculinity.


So what does all of it mean? For the time being at least gay men are beginning to look more and more like their counterparts. Whether this a forceful effort or a natural progression is up for debate, though it is probably a bit of both. This is reflected in other areas as well: gayborhoods are disappearing and even gay bars, whose clientele have been increasingly straight are losing business as more and more gay men simply prefer to spend time in the neighborhood dive bar. Perhaps this is just another trend, another phase, of an evolving identity. But as we push towards same-sex marriage, recognition of LGBT people in the military and in athletics, the normalizing of the gay male culture along with it cannot be separated from it, and to that extent this would be the natural outcome of homosexuality gradually turning into a non-issue.

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