“So, uh, do you go the gym?”
When asked this by queer men, I find it peculiar that they don’t ask, do you exercise? Or do you work out? But instead, we’re asked where. For us, the gym culturally represents where all the “hot gay men” supposedly congregate. It has a certain status as the paragon of queer sociability. Rather than taking interest in health, interested partners focus on physique–and all the beauty we ascribe to it. More insidious, however, and thus more damaging, is the conflation of muscular physique, that is, the product of the gym, with masculinity.
Being a queer male means that we often have to redefine for ourselves, and oftentimes for others, what it means to be a man. Queer media, such as Grindr or Adam4Adam, often contain profiles that explicitly say such things as “masc4masc”, “masc u be 2” or “no femmes pls” because queer men’s cultures continuously affirm an unwritten yet nonetheless dominant axiom of queer masculinity: “real gay men like real men.”
We mistake “real men” for chiseled abs, protruding biceps, chests that make shirts tight–strongmen. This muscle mania can be attributed to the sparse queer media available historically, in particular 60s and 70s queer male porn which primarily featured brawny men, often situating sexual scenes in stereotypically homosocial spaces like the locker room or gym. These ideals of male beauty, of course, date back to the Greeks and Romans, the images of sculptured manhood best embodied by Michelangelo’s David. It’s sometimes as if we thought men were nothing more than brawn and sinews.
Why is that?
The word for this, which has somehow yet to receive mainstream attention, is masculinormativity. Norms of masculinity impact a tremendous amount of men (and, directly and indirectly, women) who then, through comparing themselves to these norms, try to understand their own masculinity. Within literature, film, art, gaming and other media, masculinity is often represented by the physical, muscularity, and the phallus. It is linked with dominance, control, authority, and power — often with the underlying assumption that those who can assert physical control, by extension, are the ones capable of enforcing dominance through the potential of violence (and often do.) Physical strength yields power. While coded norms of masculinity obviously differ between places and races, throughout varying media and amongst different people, these notions of masculinity recursively resurface as part of what makes a man–might and vigor.
There have been many times when I was read as a little bit too femme for someone else’s fancy. My indiscrete choice in attire, my willingness to experiment with hairstyles and cosmetics, my penchant for drag, and my interests in subjects like feminism and literature somehow instantly penned me as feminine. I found myself identifying more with women growing up, had more female friends than male ones, and often found myself relating more with women on-screen and in media than men: especially men whose lives revolved around normative masculinity and physicality — and treading the fine line to reassert it.
Ironically, I find that queer men are often quicker than our straight peers to police our genders and bodies; too many of us expect even more rigid gender norms from our prospective lovers.
A guy telling me my shorts are too tight or that my hair is too long are symptoms of masculinormativity. A family member telling me I’m too skinny and need to gain muscle, because gay men apparently solely like beefy men, is yet another example of this. And the times when I would do a set of a thousand push-ups or sit-ups back-to-back trying to look like the guys we’re apparently supposed to be most attracted to is maybe the most malign manifestation of masculinity: I had fooled myself into believing that I needed muscles to be beautiful. All of these demonstrate a form of body/gender policing, how some individuals view themselves to be capable purveyors of how people should express and identify their genders.
Queer men aren’t the only ones who participate in this masculinormativity. The libel of words like ‘faggot,’ ‘sissy,’ ‘fairy,’ and ‘queen’ all have their derogatory potency in their power to diminish the masculinity of a man (so long as we fall for it; or they beat us into believing it.) These words are especially pertinent to men who bottom, who face not only charges of being fags, but being more like women since we view phallocentric penetration as part and parcel to male sexuality, the cultural norm of penetration being the only legible determinant of masculinity for men in sex.
Thankfully, norms of gender and ideal types of beauty change, because people change. Femininity in men and masculinity in women, as well as androgyny within both, has and continues to maintain a certain esthetic. I can say, at least for myself, that what we find beautiful is not biologically hardwired; and beauty is not simply reducible to the body. Systems of lookism constantly change, privileging one form of beauty one century while disparaging it the next. While masculinormativity will likely persist for quite some time as a dominant equation of muscularity with masculinity, this does not mean that we as queer men need to shudder at the thought of feminine expressions in the people we find physically attractive; these aspects are not incongruous. Already, our generations have moved beyond older generations brought up on sparse queer media and the even stricter bar/club cultures that served, for many, as the sole portals into queerdom. Today, there is more self-acceptance and thus acceptance of others for being multifaceted beings, instead of cardboard cutout caricatures of masculinity.
Now, instead of participating in that nonsense, I seek men (when I pursue men, ’cause I’m pansexual) who are comfortable with themselves, their gender, their bodies and their sexualities. Most of all, I care about dating someone who doesn’t scrutinize whether or not my body–or my outfit or the pitch of my voice or my interests--changes my level of desirability.
Because that kind of behavior isn’t desirable to me.
All Images via Google Images