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13 May 2011, 12:00 pm 22 Comments

Action: Why Gay Men Need To Be Feminists

Submission by Gella Solomon, TNG contributor. Gella Solomon was from Brooklyn, New York before it was cool. She frequently reminds people of this fact, as Brooklynites often do. Gella’s identities include queer, feminist, middle child, and student of Judaism. She is currently learning at The Drisha Institute, a pluralistic women’s Yeshiva in Manhattan.

One of the symbols of German Women's movement (from the 1970s)

Recently on a queer discussion group’s listserv to which I subscribe, one which is vocally dominated by gay men, a friend of mine brought up the topic of feminism, and remarked that he wished there was more support for feminist issues among gay men in general, and specifically more comfort with feminist discourse within the group. A few responses were positive, but much of the response was defensive and dismissive, quite indicative of a general ignorance about feminism and especially of its link to gay rights.

It occurs to me that, while this topic has been explored in great depth elsewhere by scholars much more qualified than I, it could not hurt to lay out a few basic points of common interest between the feminist and homosexual “agendas.”

The place to start, I believe, is to identify the fear which is associated both with women’s empowerment and with gay rights. What do strong independent women have in common with men who love men and women who love women? The obvious answer is that both represent a subversion of traditional western (i.e. Euro-American) gender roles. The roots of the dominant gender paradigm are deep and varied, and manifest very presently in our everyday lives. The cultural assumptions which underlie our deeply rooted sense of what is male and what is female, what is masculine and what is feminine, are so ingrained as to seem so essential that to question them is like a fish questioning water. I think, however, that we can tease some of these out for examination.

Consider the commonly held notion that female homosexuality is less threatening than male homosexuality. How many times have we heard or thought “It’s easier for girls?” The most obvious and visible element of patriarchal society is the empowerment of the male over the female, masculine over feminine. The assumed sexual roles of men and women in relation to each other are of dominance and submission. When viewing a same-sex relationship in this light, the patriarchal heterosexual mind will see a female dominating a female, and a male dominating a male, respectively. A female dominating another female may be somewhat problematic, a usurpation of power that she should not have, but ultimately manageable since one might assume that were a man to come along he could put either in their place (insert reference to male heterosexual lesbian porn fantasies). When a male is dominated by another male, however, you have a man placing himself in the role of a woman, choosing to give up the power that is rightfully his. That, I would argue, is the “perversion” which is so feared: that God forbid, a man should make himself like a woman.

Why should a man feel threatened by another man choosing to “lower” himself to the perceived role of a female, that is, to be coupled with (read: dominated by) another man? One might think that for the alpha-male mentality, other men lowering themselves would be seen as beneficial. Enter here the phenomenon of heterosexual male rape. When a man rapes another man, it is not necessarily an indication that the rapist is gay. Rather, it is an expression of domination, of subjugating the other, of punishing the victim by making him a woman. It is one thing for a man to initiate dominance over another man. However, a man choosing to be dominated, to willingly “become a woman,” is so inconceivable as to be labeled “sick.” This state of affairs is intolerable to the patriarchal heterosexual narrative because it goes beyond the individual and becomes a threat to the entire concept of manhood. If the societal hierarchical order can be subverted in such a way, the very fabric of male-dominated society is potentially at risk. Hence, the common violent reactions of straight men (or closeted non-straight men, especially) toward even the idea of male homosexuality.

Here is where feminism comes in. Men, on the whole, are terrified of being likened to women. [The term “Men” here refers to a socially constructed category. I am not asserting that this is necessarily true for any particular individual. I know quite a few men who do quite a good job of resisting this paradigm.] It is therefore not uncommon for gay men in reaction, especially when they are first threatened with being outed, to make a concerted effort to demonstrate how “manly” they are, that they are not sissies, or pussies, that they’re not limp-wristed or “femme.”  (Others, especially ones who cannot so easily “pass,” may react by turning to vocal denigration of women, asserting how “gross” they are.) This, I would argue, is precisely the wrong reaction, at least in the long term. Given that the underlying connection between sexuality and masculinity may be fundamentally about the power dynamics of the sex act, any show of what we understand to be masculine performance in society (i.e. machismo) will only go so far in defusing the immediate symptom, but does not go to the root of the problem, which is ultimately the very structure of the patriarchal assumption that male = dominant and female = subjected.

We need to invest in undermining this status quo which envisions that which is female or feminine as inferior, as beneath the dignity of someone who wishes to be recognized as a full human being in society. When gay men engage in misogynistic discourse or denigrate the female experience, or express disgust of men who are effeminate, they are feeding into the machine of their own oppression. It is not merely a matter of liking or appreciating women… it is a matter of reconceptualizing the feminine as valid, as not the same as, but equal to masculinity. We need to invest in building a society in which a woman needn’t become essentially man-like in order to succeed on par with men, in which women can engage equally in the same activities as men without being pigeonholed as mannish or unfeminine. In other words, we need to break down coercive gender role assignment. We need to push for the recognition that these categories are cultural and not essential, and that they are ultimately harmful not only to women, but to men as well. Harmful not only to queer and/or effeminate men, but to a male population that is socialized to fear expression of emotion, that is taught that to be a man is to be violent, that is raised to believe that their natural state as men is to want to dominate women, that masculinity means that they cannot control it, that they must be animals to truly be men.

This is by no means a comprehensive analysis, and I could go much deeper into theories about the combination of Greco-Roman and Biblical notions of masculinity and its implications that are largely the basis for this construction. I could also recap some of the evidence brought by Daniel Boyarin in his excellent book Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man that the Greco-Roman construction of masculinity was opposed by contemporary cultures’ own, very different conceptions of masculinity, which were seen by the dominant society as decidedly effeminate. However, as I said, this has been done, extensively, by scholars of feminist and queer theory with much more skill than I possess. My aim here is to lay out some of the basics, to plant a seed for your consideration. It is my wish and my hope that one day, even those who do not specialize in gender studies will catch enough of a glimpse of the rotting foundation upon which the patriarchy is built, that word will spread, and we may have a chance of true equality.

May it come, speedily, and in our day.

 


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22 Comments »

  • James said:

    Love this! Thanks for sharing!

  • Joseph T said:

    Thank you for brining this discussion to The New Gay.

  • Pterodactyl said:

    Gella it is a pleasure to read this commentary and I agree that gay men need a good dose of feminism. But I think you are far too kind and gentle about it :D

    The term ‘gay man’ itself makes obvious the complicit alliance with gender in the project of understanding sexuality. When I talk about Queer theory with gay men, it is their white knuckle hold on an obvious, self evident, unproblematic approach to gender that is so naturalised I have never managed to cross it.

    From my perspective, women will never escape male dominance if the system we rely on is one of a coherent gender binary. I encourage you to keep speaking about this.

  • thomas said:

    Fantastic article! I’ve never understood why so many gay men shirk feminism. You both elucidate why this happens, and why it ought to stop!

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  • Mike said:

    interesting article!

    I’m somewhat confused about the intended outcome of the efforts we should be taking. On the one hand, it seems as though the author is saying we should break down gender and avoid the binary, which I can understand. On the other hand, she talks about respecting the feminine as distinct from (albeit equal) to the masculine. Perhaps there is a way these two concepts can co-habitate? I can certainly see the value in breaking down the domination aspect that gets associated with being a masculine quality… but I don’t see how we can destroy the binary and still somehow have it?

    As for me (identifying as a gay man), I feel that my perspective is more consistent with the idea that there is something different about femininity which is distinct from masculinity.. while holding that both are perfectly equal and valid realms for anyone to inhabit. I generally try to approach people from the perspective that I love them for who they are, and will respect them for however they present themselves.

    I know a lot of people want to tell us all the reasons why gay men feel and act the way we do.. but for me, a fairly solid masculinity is just a part of who I am. I have no problem whatsoever hanging out with more feminine acting guys, but for me personally, I feel like I would basically be faking it if that’s how you saw me acting (essentially, the opposite of “straight-acting”). So I tend to get a little irritated when someone suggests that the way I present myself can only be a reaction to some fear of being called feminine, or looking like I’m being a woman, etc. When the truth is, I’m just being me, and I’d like people to simply respect me for me, and I’ll do the same to you, you know?

    As far as what I try to do to change things… I focus more on talking about what masculinity means to me. What I think a healthy, positive masculinity should be about. So I talk about things like self-confidence, concern for others, being honest, avoid dominating conversations/decision making processes, etc, and all other sorts of good stuff. Do people think that type of approach is worthwhile? Can my form of masculinism be pro-feminist too?

    feel like I’m reacting to something, or self-

  • mim said:

    Mike: The thing is, sexism works on two levels: one is the binary, putting things into pigeon holes and declaring that “this is the norm, so this is unusual”. The second is the hierarchy, which says that the unusual part is somehow less than the norm. To achieve equality, this means that you have to attack both of these things. We could attempt to break down the binary, redefining what is masculine and what is feminine and so on. But as long as we don’t do anything about the hierarchy, there is always going to be associations to it. While expanding the masculine role by saying that “you can do this and still be a man”, there’s still going to be behaviours that put men outside of the accepted masculinity and they aren’t going to be treated any better for it. This isn’t just theory either. Just this morning I was watching some author on a morning show who was talking about the importance of expanding the masculine role to be less confining – by showing young boys that he wasn’t a “sissy”.

  • Mike said:

    @mim: So, how would you respond to the author, when she promotes “reconceptualizing the feminine as valid, as not the same as, but equal to masculinity”

    As I understand your argument, you’re saying that in order to achieve equality for women, we have to destroy the idea that there is something distinct about femininity which is different from masculinity. However, the author seems to be saying that we can work to achieve equality for women in part by redefining the feminine (most specifically by rejecting the associated characterization of feminine=subordinate).

    I’m also not sure whether I understand your response to my personal choice of strategy as a gay man.. which is, to focus my efforts on redefining “masculine” in a positive, non-dominating way. (The details we can debate, but whether the general strategy is appropriately feminist is my question)

    You also might ask why I would focus my efforts in such a way? To be very frank, I feel that I just don’t understand women and femininity very well. This is not at all meant to be a denigration of women, but rather just some honesty on my part — almost all of my friends are guys (gay and str8), for example. It’s a similar reason, for example, why I don’t get very involved in womens’ reproductive issues — even though I’ll privately vote pro-choice, I don’t go out of my way to get involved simply because I don’t feel like I have the right perspective, and that other voices should take the lead. That, if I were to speak out, for example, I feel like I’d say the wrong thing or be perceived as speaking for (instead of with) women.

  • Pterodactyl said:

    Hi Mike – I hear you and it does kinda look like a ‘have your cake and eat it’ argument from that perspective.

    Validating the feminine is a mark of first and second wave feminism, but there is also what is called third-wave feminism or post-feminist discourse: Some of the differences between the two are large, some are small.

    A first-wave feminist wants to conquer legal barriers to inequality – to education, to the vote – practical things like that, which are mostly in the past (ending female genital mutilation is a contemporary issue here).

    A second-wave feminist wants to target sexism. She/He seeks to interrogate the world to understand how gendered meaning is represented. Many of its arguments will be that power itself is gendered. An effect of this will be that power might be threatened by the feminine because it is not part of how we do business. It produces pay disparity between genders and the so called glass ceiling of promotion.

    So this kind of feminism attacks binaries of power, rather than binaries of gender. It says we want our feminism but not on your terms of doing/being, seen/unseen, power/lack, public/private, natural/constructed, vocal/silence, owner/owned, seducer/seduced. Feminists begin to occupy the power spaces of the masculine by pushing back masculine control of both practical things like professions but ideological things like what is allowable or normal for each gender.

    A gay man can understand both first and second wave feminism as it mirrors most closely the homophile and gay liberation movements. First we have those seeking legal reform on decriminalisation and second we have non-discrimination and the public acceptance that breaks straight/gay power binaries such as righteous/sinner, boudoir/back-alley, clean/dirty, safe/unsafe, sex/sodomy, healthy/AIDS, monogamy/promiscuity and every other prejudice we might face. Just as we hear language that shows heterosexual privilege vs. gay invisibility or distain, we might hear what ‘she’ hears when people speak with male privilege vs. female insignificance.

    Now on to the heavy stuff. I don’t expect what I say below to be believed or understood – and I tend to upset everyone wherever I mention this, so I apologise in advance.

    Third wave feminism says to take everything that is masculine and feminism and put them into two jars, also take male and female too. Now look in the jars and all you will see are signs: words, ideas, identities, costumes, haircuts, gestures and ways of indicating gender that are all culturally constructed. All gender is performed, not just the man who puts on a dress, but the man who puts on a business suit. Repitition creates what we all think of as natural.

    Representing a ‘feminine’ or a ‘woman’ identity category creates and is complicit with an imbalance of power. It is by clutching onto the idea of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as cohesive, whole, Real and natural that produces a system of sexism. So the third wave feminist who tries to smash the binary of gender may step on the gay-man’s toes in as much as he is committed to the naturalness of his maleness.

    This does not mean that genitals aren’t real – but the identities of people with genitals are a production of language. We have transgender, genderqueer, intersex and two dozen more examples of identities that exist in contradiction to a gender binary system. The task for all people within a post-feminist discourse is not to hate who they are or how they feel but to understand that identity creates imbalances in two directions (with two errors):
    1) centring identity for cohesion (inaccuracy)
    2) marginalising other identities for privilege (inequality)

    Our job becomes to see difference as an effect of participating in language rather than the categories of objective difference. It is therefore more productive to focus on ‘how difference is represented’ rather than trying to equalise and acknowledge every identity itself.

  • Mike said:

    Thank you for taking the time to write all that out, that’s really helpful to me. Especially considering the idea that there are waves of movement — I wonder if we’ll ever get to a post-queerism? Or is that what TNG seeks to be?

    And yeah, I think we are on the same page considering the notion that I’m in effect seeking to contribute to the construction of a new masculinity (as opposed to trying to reveal some inherent reality, which is as you describe problematic.)

    That being said (and this may sound very primitive of me) but I still feel that at some level, there are different biological processes occurring, at least as far as I understand cisgendered male and female bodies. Different hormonal processes, for example, which may lend a certain physical basis in the background of these otherwise ethereal identities. Aren’t those sorts of things, which exist independently of the realm of human constructs, also relevant to masculinity / femininity? Or are we saying that identities are completely de-coupled from bodies, and all gender is 100% performance?

  • Pterodactyl said:

    I understand that it can be easy to imagine sweeping sex differences on the brain. Yes hormones are in effect – but they’re also present in hunger and sex: is a hungry man a different identity from a full man, or a horny man from a one who is sated?

    I think that the simple answer is that the differences within the population of men and the population of women are far greater than the average differences between men and women on any particular aptitude, interest, rationality or capability. For more on this issue I would Google “neuro-sexism” which is an inquiry into this very issue.

    As to your other question, gay pride and the homosexual agenda do appear to be much more like 2nd wave feminism in as much as it promotes a cohesive, natural identity that seeks to end discrimination by appealing to the legal model of an ethnic identity or protected class. Queer theory, however, is the post-structuralist critique of gay identity and sexuality that is the little sibling of post-feminist (gender) and post-colonial (race) theories.

    There are many Queer voices on this topic and they don’t all agree. The best I can do to sum this up is to say that if conventional gay identity is sometimes confused, suspicious or unsure about bisexuality: then Queer helps to recontextualise both gay and bi as two systems of regulating identity that both must contend with the more dominant, the more naturalised regime of heterosexuality. Heterosexuality narrates how sex, sexuality, gender and desire are supposed to behave. Can gay men and women really be liberated through politics that affirm the naturalness of heterosexuality?

    Perhaps a new masculinity holds an answer – I would like to know more about what people are doing about this.

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  • Insulted said:

    I’m a gay man. If you call me any less of a man because I’m gay, you’re no better than the bigot who calls me faggot. Who appointed you to tell gay men what they “need” to be?

  • Benice Tothegays said:

    To say gay men should stand up as protectors of the women’s movement goes back to the ancient paradigm of men as the protectors of weak women. How’s that feminist?

    Another thing– the women’s movement has already achieved, in far less time, the rights the gay movement seeks. To be a woman is not a crime. Never has been. Until 2003, gay sex was still illegal in a number of states. In Texas, there are still [unenforceable] laws on the books that make gay sex illegal. Several weeks ago one house of the state legislature of Tennessee voted to forbid teaching about our existence in schools. You can mention women, but ours is the love that dare not speak its name. The institutions of the world’s major religions almost with one voice condemn gay people. They don’t condemn women (at least never with remotely equal fervor). Women gained the right to serve in the armed forces before us. Women are the ones who created the damned institution of marriage that has repressed gay people to this day. Gays make up less that 10% of the population; women about half. You can discriminate in hiring and firing of gay legally; women are protected by law.

    My point is, why are feminists asking the comparatively small and weak gay movement to sacrifice the pursuit of their own goals to help feminists instead? Is that fair? Don’t get me wrong: As a private citizen, I’m all for women’s rights and equality. But why would the gay movement auto-emasculate and stand up as a representative of a women’s movement it can’t really even comprehend?

  • Hex said:

    @Benice Tothegays
    I’m pretty sure that women didn’t created the institution of marriage. Rather, it was created by men who were concerned with the transfer of private property. It [the institution of marriage on the microlevel, private property on the macrolevel] has repressed us all ever since. Just sayin’.

  • Pterodactyl said:

    Hi Insulted – it seems apparent to me that a few of the finer points of social constructionism are not clear to you. No one here is suggesting that gay sex or gay identity makes you less of a man – Solomon is simply teasing out the insecurities of conventional masculinity. It is masculinity that has called you a faggot, not feminists – but feminists can help you to understand why.

    Existing in the present, it can be easy to see things only as you experience them in the now. But social constructionist readings of history suggest that it would be impossible to jump back 100, 500, 1,000, 10,000 years and interview anyone who called themselves a gay man or who traded in identities characterised by what we call toaday: sexual orientation. What you experience as a gay identity (not what you experience as arousal) has been built for you piece by piece by scientists, philosophers, activists and *gasp* feminists.

    Hi Benice – By suggesting that gay men invest in, learn about or appreciate feminism is not to suggest that feminists are weak and need men to protect them. Queer theory could not exist without feminist theory. We have a shared history. We were all born from women were we not?

    What timeline are you using for the success of the women’s movement – haven’t there been women around for a couple of hundred thousand years? It can be very personal and painful to compete for who has suffered the most injustice. It is not really a pursuit that helps anyone.

    Feminists are not asking you to sacrifice any energy, time or money that would otherwise give to gay liberation efforts. Solomon is trying to indicate that feminists possess knowledge that is of value to gay men. She suggests that as much as gay men are complicit with activities and speech that devalue women they are actually working against the aims of the homosexual agenda(s).

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