“No offense, but ….”
It’s a phrase that is basically a weird way to announce to an audience you’re about to say something offensive, but it’s the audience’s fault if they get upset because you explicitly told them otherwise. “No offense, but …” is the new “just calm down” – words that provoke the very thing they’re meant to avoid.
The last time someone told me “no offense, but …” was during a night out with friends, and the booze was flowing. A close friend of mine, a straight male, was confiding in me that he was upset about being excluded by another straight male friend. He was understandably upset, and as we delved deeper into the conversation, he revealed his frustration with some of his friendships.
“No offence, but why is it that I’ve only ever had straight friends that are girls or friends that are gay guys?”
To many, the question may seem innocuous. My friend was venting his frustrations about his difficulty connecting with straight men and feeling like an outcast. Feeling like an outcast is brutally isolating and has always made me question my worth.
An Old Wound Re-opened
As a gay man, that comment re-opened a wound I’ve learned is always present. Throughout my childhood and adult life, I’ve felt the need to prove my masculinity. It’s been a constant struggle to fit into the narrow set of ideas on what it means to be a man in Western society, especially a gay man. These ideals are why I have a beard, why I work out five days a week and dress the way I do. It’s the innate drive to fit in and feel like I fit in.
However, my friend sharing his frustration that he doesn’t have many straight male friends was a reminder that my gayness was a disqualifying factor when he tallied up his male friendships.
Whether I like it or not, because I’m gay, it’s a knock against my masculinity. I’m categorized separately and ranked lower than his straight male friends. Because if they were truly equal, he wouldn’t think twice about having only female or gay male friends. But the straight masculine male reigns on, forever at the top of the food chain. Women and gay men need not apply.
While the users on my Twitter feed may be declaring “men are trash” like it’s their day job, “men are trash” doesn’t address the underlying issue with masculinity and why so many men, especially gay men, have trouble meeting the western masculine ideal. The expectations of what a man should be needs an overhaul, removing the harmful restrictions of the 21st-century man.
The expectations of what it takes to be a man have changed before and can change again.
Masculinity — A Revolving Door of Expectations
History has shown how masculinity is an everchanging social construct and has demonstrated how men across different cultures and periods have subscribed to varying expectations of what society considers a man.
Ancient Romans were free to have same-sex relations without others viewing them as having lost a sense of masculinity or social status. This may be best exemplified by the Roman emperor Hadrian’s relationship with his gay partner Antinoüs, as he was said to have had no interest in women. Hadrian was so upset after Antinoüs’ premature death, Hadrian elevated him to be a god and began a cult to worship Antinoüs. Hadrian eventually founded an entire city in Antinoüs’ memory and named it Antinoöpolis.
There were even armies comprised of gay couples. The Sacred Band of Thebes, credited as ending Spartan dominance in the forth-century BCE, consisted of 150 male pairs. Many ancient Greek sources credited acts of courage during battles due to the bond between the couples and their love for one another.
There is no shortage of modern examples of how straight men in different cultures are bound by different norms and ideas. In various Middle Eastern and African countries, it’s commonplace for straight men to hold hands, as demonstrated by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia holding hands with President George W. Bush during a meeting in 2005. Southern Italian men are also widely known to kiss each other on the cheek as a greeting.
The Code of Being a Man
But being a man in western society isn’t what the Greeks or Romans understood it to be, as the most prevalent version of masculinity is much different. While western culture has started to widen what it means to be a man as shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race reach worldwide success, there continues to be a strict set of codes focused on rewarding actions. Men are taught and valued primarily as producers rather than what they think and feel or their ability to express vulnerability, according to Dr. Reece Malone, a sex therapist and sexologist with a master’s in public health and a doctorate in human sexuality based in Winnipeg.
“As human beings (men), we are capable of all kinds of emotions and feelings, but from early on you become shut off because it’s not about the value of what you feel and think, it’s the value of how you can perform through competition,” said Dr. Malone.
“When we look at boys, by the time they are age eight, they are touched less. They are given less affection and asked less often about how they feel,” said Dr. Malone.
“They get the handshakes and pats on the back and positive affirmation when they have something to show.”
These rigid expectations that men be performers is perhaps best highlighted by a study on how society treated trans men once they transitioned. In “Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: ‘Gender Normals,’ Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality,” men who had transitioned described how their experiences and interactions with co-workers changed post-transition.
“Before [transitioning] no one asked me to do anything really and then [after], this one teacher, she’s like, ‘Can you hang this up? Can you move this for me?’. . . Like if anything needed to be done in this room, it was me. Like she was just, ‘Male? Okay, you do it.’ That took some adjusting. I thought she was picking on me,” said a participant from the study.
As demonstrated by this study, once the co-worker had recognized the participant as a man, she started to ask the participant to perform and do tasks men are expected to do.
This system of rewarding men for their ability to produce and their actions links directly to how western culture values gay men. In a study titled “We want them to be as heterosexual as possible,” the authors interviewed fathers to determine their perceptions of their teens’ sexual identities. In the study, many fathers believed they had to teach their sons to be straight, and if their sons did not display signs of liking women, fathers believed they had failed their sons.
One father named Brett described this sentiment on how he would feel if his child was gay: “I don’t think it would make any difference if it was my daughter but with a son . . . I think I would feel like I had failed in coaching in some way . . . that I didn’t coach, advise, [or] lead in a way to help clarify some of those thoughts.”
The study found fathers and society condition young men into feeling like they have to continuously prove their masculinity, especially by demonstrating that they’re straight.
“Men must perform and prove their masculinity, and men accomplish and “do” masculine identities in large part by establishing themselves as heterosexual,” noted the study.
By rejecting feminity and being gay, men establish an identity of masculinity and straightness. Yet its a status that is always questioned, and needs to be reasserted constantly. As a result, being straight and proving one’s straightness is a key quality of being masculine.
As the study describes, society expects young teenage men to prove their straightness, and by sleeping with many women, they become a ‘player’ and more respected by their peers. By not proving your straightness, these fathers fear you’ll be labelled as gay and therefore feminine.
This might explain why a classmate of mine took it upon himself to register me for the school talent show in Grade 11 to perform “Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and put “dildo” under the column for props, presumably as a microphone. By putting my sexuality into question and making fun of my gayness, he was enforcing the code that men must be straight and repudiating the message of accepting gay men.
Honestly, I can’t help but laugh when I look back at this story. It’s bizarre having someone sign you up to use a dildo to sing a gay rights song in front of 600 all-male students at a Catholic high school. But at the time, it was deeply traumatic and caused intense feelings of shame and anger — feelings that can have toxic consequences for gay youth and highlight just how important it is for masculinity to evolve to accept gay men. And while I had close friends to turn to for support, not all gay youth are as fortunate.
According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Centre, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are five times more likely to consider suicide and seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old college student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, died by suicide after his roommate recorded Tyler making out with another man in his dorm room and posted it onto the internet. Gay youth are more likely to be predisposed to mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Evidence from the Canadian Mental Health Association estimates gay youth use substances two to four times more than their straight peers, leading to deadly consequences as drug overdoses rise across Canada and the western world.
While projects like It Gets Better by Dan Savage and Terry Miller encourage gay youth that life will get better as they grow older, there shouldn’t have to be a campaign acknowledging that while life may be hell now, it will get better in the future. While It Gets Better is addressing a present issue, we need to have a broader conversation about why we even live in a world where the campaign is needed, and how we can change our society so future gay youths aren’t jumping off bridges or overdosing from drugs at higher rates than other segments of the population.
Gay Culture: “No Fats, Fems, or Asians”
The gay community and culture are not immune from this criticism. Many gay spaces reward gay men who can pass as straight and appear masculine.
In an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, contestant Kim Chi performs “Fat, Fem & Asian,” a song highlighting qualities that are often looked down upon in the gay community — being overweight, feminine, and Asian. Despite gay men not being able to meet the expectation of liking women to perform masculinity, gay culture is still defined by other masculine characteristics they can potentially meet.
“Masculinity is based on not just what we can produce, but how we carry ourselves, how we keep. It’s how we communicate our gender identity. So, inherently it is performative,” said Dr. Malone.
“The more masculine you are the more valued. The more hair, the more valued. . . these are all coded expressions of masculinity.”
These values and expectations create stereotypes based on racism, as Asian men are stereotyped as being more feminine, and therefore less desirable than a white man.
“And there also intersects race and sexual orientation,” said Dr. Malone.
“When we look South Asian men first and, in comparison to white men, white men are much more desired, and we see the value of whiteness.”
Other stereotypes also extend to all gay men, as gay men are often represented as being muscular. This stereotype may be based on the idea of many gay men feeling insecure about their desire for men, so they try and make up their perceived masculinity deficiency by working out regularly and growing beards. It’s a pressure I’ve felt and subscribed to. I’ve had a beard for years now, and it makes me feel more masculine and less likely to be coded as feminine — something which is told repeatedly to men is not a valuable quality.
“There’s hierarchy and when there’s hierarchy there’s a value. We know that more masculine, whether it’s right or wrong ethically, is more valued than feminine.” said Dr. Malone.
These values create an odd dilemma where television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race are a cultural phenomenon for the gay community, but many gay men balk at the idea of dating a drag queen. Some gay men see drag queens as too feminine, despite celebrating the art and often having drag queens perform at their clubs and in their spaces.
“The narratives of ‘I can’t ever date a drag queen,’ because while it’s fabulous as part of the community — it represents femininity. And femininity is a thing that was a weapon against my identity as a gay man,” said Dr. Malone.
So, while some gay men may understandably reject masculinity outright, masculine values and expectations are heavily present among the gay community. It’s not unusual to be on Grindr, a popular gay dating app, and see “no fats, fems or Asians” in men’s biographies. It’s toxic racist scenarios like these that highlight why we need to create a new masculinity— one where everyone is accepted and celebrated.
The New Masculine: A Proposal
When proposing a new version of masculinity, I think it’s important not to reject the current version of masculinity altogether. For some men who can fit into the current construct of what it means to be masculine – such as being straight, muscular, hairy, athletic and so on, then I’m glad it works for you. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those qualities.
But what I do think is essential is expanding those qualities and expectations. Imagine how much healthier men and boys could be if they felt like they could cry and express emotions that aren’t just joy or rage; if men could freely hug or touch each other without feeling the need to add “no homo” to the end of the sentence. Where being gay doesn’t automatically exclude you from feeling like a man. Where because of your race, society doesn’t code you as being less than a white man.
Instead, let’s expand masculinity to include being your authentic self. In a society that values taking control of your life and your actions, it seems fitting that being who you are could be considered a trait of masculinity. It would allow every person who chooses to identify as a man the freedom to explore their interests without fear of being ostracized by their peers.
The work is already happening all around us. Organizations like Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre have been working for years to create inclusive spaces for all staff at workplaces and students at schools. By hosting workshops that help expand participants’ understanding of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression, organizations like the Rainbow Resource Centre challenge our preconceived notions about how the world should work and function.
And as COVID-19 continues to force us to reimagine our world and values, now seems like an excellent opportunity to reimagine masculinity without the stringent roles and expectations, one that is inclusive of every man. We can make it happen — but we have to start today.
I’m seeing my “no offense but —” friend for the first time this week since he made that remark. Lockdown has prevented us from seeing each other, but as the weather warms and bonfires become legal again, it seemed like the perfect time to reconnect. I’ve been trying to decide if I should tell him about this piece, whether it’s worth the awkward conversation. How does one explain that your conversation with them inspired a 3000-word article about a reopened wound? While I consider him a very close friend, it would be easier to stick my head in the sand and avoid this uncomfortable conversation.
I’ve decided I have two paths I can choose from. I can select the path of not mentioning to him how his words were hurtful. But it would be hypocritical to subscribe to the form of masculinity I just advocated we change — where men ignore their feelings and reject vulnerability. Or I can choose the path whereas men, we have these difficult conversations about our feelings and relationships in the hope things get better. We need to call out how the standards we hold each other to are harmful and restrictive to our physical and mental health.
As challenging as it may be, nothing will change unless we take action and create spaces for people to be their authentic selves.
Let’s strap on our work boots, or high heels, or whatever the fuck makes you feel good and like your true authentic self, and let’s walk down the second path.