Monday, November 19, 2007

"No fats, no fems," or, Love in the Time of Internalized Homophobia

We live in the age of str8. It is all around us. The phrase “str8-acting” appears almost ubiquitously in personals ads. Listen to enough gay men talk and you will hear it innumerable times. What strength, what mystical power, lies in this short, three-letter, one-number word that is capable of dominating the minds of countless posters on craigslist’s m4m section?

If you are confused at this point, let me explain: str8 is a term within the gay male community which translates roughly to the word “straight” as it is used to connote heterosexuality. To be st8-acting, that is, to act str8ly, is to never express effeminacy, as we as to do any number of the following things:

1. Have an athletic physique, but not too athletic, as that would make you self-obsessed, which is not a very str8 attribute. (For reference, see the archaic pejorative, ‘Gym Bunny’)
2. Wear polo shirts as often as possible, and if that is not str8 enough, baseball hats as well.
3. Post on craigslist
4. Dislike not only fats, but also fems. (These terms refer to overweight—term applied loosely—and effeminate men, respectively. The two, put together, constitute the traditional str8 valediction on craigslist.)
5. Constantly clench all muscles in one’s wrist, so as to prevent limpness.
6. Disdain all things not str8.
Obviously, the term str8 itself dates back no farther than advent of internet slang, but the underlying concept has existed for as long as high schools have had locker rooms.

I have written before about the necessity to critically analyze desire, as it relates to the “Lesbian Sex Wars” of the 1980s. Certainly, the same applies to the str8 phenomenon—although, with a major difference. Unlike the 80s lesbian sex radicals, who embraced sexual role-playing through such things as butch-femme presentation or BDSM, there is no play here. Most personals from str8-acting men do not seek effeminate men, as butches and femmes might, but exclude them. It is like butch-femme in that str8-acting is a presentation of identity that extends beyond the bedroom, in one’s day-to-day life (as opposed to, say, leather fetishists, who, excepting pride parades, rarely venture out in the day in straps, a thong, and commando boots). However, the conscious exclusion of all things gay is what is often extended by the str8-acting man.

In the same post, I discuss sexuality as a form of personal expression. Accepting this, the question that begs to be asked is, what is being said? Is this just a facet of what John Weir calls “…a collective case of Stockholm syndrome…” (“Going In”, 28)? It certainly looks that way, simply an extension of the same problem to the hyperanonymity provided by the internet. However, there are also significant distinctions because of this.

Str8-acting is a complete disconnect from the gay community—many of these men are still in the closet, while others are out, but, as far as I can tell, tend not to associate with any other gay men, or, if they do, do so with other str8-acting men. It is an attempt to retain as much of the power and privileges of masculinity as possible, and as a necessity of doing so, recreates the heterosexual masculine response to gayness—revulsion, disgust, or disdain. If sexuality is an expression, str8-acting seems to be saying, “I’m no faggot.”

There is nothing new to a bunch of gay men lusting after straight men. Obviously, Wier believes so, citing the popularity of Marky Mark as a gay icon as being because, “…he looks like the guy from high school gym class who spent half his time exciting your ashamed desire, and the other half shutting your head in his locker…” (28) But it goes back well beyond Wier—in the classic 1968 (which is to say, pre-Stonewall) play Boys in the Band, pictured above, we see “six tired, screaming, fairy queens and one anxious queer” getting together for a birthday party and verbally assaulting each other until the host decides that he wants them to play a “game” where they must call the one man they have always loved. The result is that one by one, we see them admit that they are still haunted by their rejection from the heterosexual men of their childhood—Bernard, the sole black character, delivers the most troubling lines, where he reveals that the object of his desires was the son of the white family his mother worked as a maid for, mimicking the same fetishization of power through the lens of race. What has changed since then?

It is not our desires, it would seem, but instead, the change seems to be one of self-presentation. Much of this, certainly, is structural: the internet affords a level of privacy and anonymity that allows men to have sex with other men without having to recognize their sexuality publicly in the way that going to a club, or a bar, or even subscribing to a magazine would. However, I do believe that much of it has to do with where the gay rights movement has placed us at this very time—in other words, that the str8-acting phenomenon is representative of a sort of sexual zeitgeist.

Just as gay male culture has changed over time, so has gay male sexuality. If you seek evidence for this, look no further than the AIDS epidemic. AIDS fundamentally restructured the way that gay men had sex, functionally ending the regime of sexual hedonism, creating all the rules of safe sex, most notably. It has a profound impact on the ways in which gay men dealt with their sexuality—from Larry Kramer’s admission that at the time he wrote “Reports from the Holocaust,” he had not had sex for 5 years, to Andrew Sullivan’s description of the farcical recreation of the circuit in “When Plagues End,” to Paul Rudnick’s 1993 play, Jeffrey, concerning the title character’s attempts to navigate sex and love at the tail end of the most intense period of the AIDS crisis. Of course, AIDS was unique in gay history precisely because it was so sudden and so disruptive of the sexual culture of gay men, and as such, the ways it affects sexuality are clear and apparent. However, I strongly believe that these changes are constant throughout gay history—and I wonder, when we live in a time when gay neighborhoods in major cities across the country are seeing their residents leave for the suburbs, or get priced out by gentrification, at the same time that the image of gayness presented by organizations like the HRC, as well as by popular media, is a suburban ideal couched in sameness, whether it’s any wonder that the same rhetoric has entered our desires.

This post isn’t really all about str8-acting men. Str8-acting men are simply an embodiment of the age-old gay desire, one that goes all the way back to Mattachine when they said that “gay people are just the same as heterosexuals except for what they do in bed,” (Adam, “The Homophiles Start Over,” 69) that is, to be a straight man who has sex with other straight men. We suffer from a sort of sexual slave mentality whenever we find ourselves attracted to a straight man. We fetishize heterosexual power and by doing so internalize its hold over us. This is largely what I was attempting to get at with my post on Riggs—that Riggs’ main question—what keeps black men from loving each other and, thus, loving themselves—still needs to be asked more often by gay men of all races in regard to all other gay men. We still need to learn how to love each other, and to love ourselves.

God, what a saccharine ending—I suppose I’ll have to throw in something nuts to go out on. I know…

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