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.
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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