Written by Austin VanKirk—
My best friend once told me a story about this time when he was in his middle school gym class. It was a basketball day, and my best friend remembers not knowing his way around the court too well. The ball was passed to him, and he tried to dribble. The other guys in his class shouted at him, “You’re not doing it right!” I’m not the biggest sports fan, but I know that there is a particular way to dribble the basketball. My best friend wasn’t dribbling in the way convention says you must. It was embarrassing for him, to be called out like that in front of the whole gym class. Being good at sports was never an imperative for him, but even so, it still bruised his feelings in an enduring way. Otherwise, why would he have told me the story a decade after it had passed?
Recently I attended an academic conference to present a paper and do some networking, and while there, I sat in on a presentation that reminded me of my best friend’s story. Two professors from two different Michigan universities were giving a presentation on the troubles of “straight-acting” men in gay culture, especially within the context of apps and websites such as Grindr and Adam4Adam. Now, before I go any further, I want to stress that these professors are respectable contributors to their various fields and come from two universities that I hold in high regard. Also, I’m referencing their presentation only to critique society, and not the professors’ findings, which I’m not intimately acquainted with. Still, based upon their presentation, I was disturbed by some of the fundamental principles of their argument. Even more disturbing is that I find their argument reflective of an attitude emerging in mainstream gay culture, that there is a “correct” way to do gay.
Let’s return to their presentation for a moment to maybe help elucidate my concerns. I believe the point of their project and presentation was to share how the gay community idealizes fetishizes, perhaps even romanticizes, the idea that a straight-acting man is more desirable and the problems that such creates. To me, this is old news. Of course any time we set up a divisive boundary within a culture designed to distinguish between “us” and “them” there are going to be problems. It’s similar to this idea that my own mother has adopted: “Oh, Austin, I’m so glad that you’re not like those other guys, you know, the really gay acting ones.” (My mother has never seen me at Necto during one of their summer parties drunk off my ass on Long Islands; she might have a different opinion of me otherwise.) From an academic standpoint, I sat there thinking, “Why does this even need to be talked about? Don’t we all already know this?” The presentation was interesting insofar that it reflected my real-life experiences, but the argument fell short of novelty and adding to discourse in a significant way. (I’m trying to be very delicate and gracious here in case either of those two professors sees this column. Even though I have a readership of, like, three-ish people, you never know.)
Additionally, the presentation seemed to assert that all men who sleep with men, otherwise considered to be gay, have an innate non-straight-acting nature to them. In other words, gay men are inherently feminine. This is a troubling notion, to claim that there are rules to follow to be considered “gay,” that one cannot or must say and do certain things to maintain that identity category. To be welcomed into the flock, any man who wishes to sleep with another man must behave in a certain way. Am I the only one that finds this troubling?
Any time we attempt to patrol the behavior of another person for the sake of granting that other admittance into a group, we’re performing the worst kind of hazing. We’re saying, “If you want to do like us, you have to be exactly like us.” If ever I’ve written something contradictory to my current sentiments, I take them all back. My current belief is that we should all be able to love and screw and behave in any way we desire as long as it does not harm another person.
But what do I know?