Joseph Burgo Ph.D.

Shame

The Ways Gay Men Are More Masculine Than They Realize

Despite different orientations, gay and straight men have a lot in common.

Posted Feb 24, 2019

Many gay men grew up feeling ashamed of not conforming to cultural expectations about “real boys” or “real men.” Especially during middle and high school, they may have been bullied or publicly humiliated because of their difference—made to feel like outsiders and not “one of the boys.” They may have found it easier relating to women than men, though they didn’t fully belong to the girl group, either.

Every gay man I’ve seen in my practice over the years has had a conflicted, troubled relationship with his own masculinity, often shaping his behavior in destructive ways. Writing for Vice, Jeff Leavell captures the dynamic nicely: “Queer people, especially gay men, are known for dealing with a slew of self-doubts and anxieties in noxious ways. Gay men are liable to feel incredibly insecure over their masculinity, a kind of internalized homophobia that leads them to idolize 'masc 4 masc', 'gaybros' and [to] shame and oppress femme men.”

Here we see one of the most common defenses against shame: getting rid of it by offloading or projecting it onto somebody else; in this case, one of those “femme men.” In effect, “masc” men who humiliate “femmes” repeat the shame trauma of their own youth, when they felt oppressed by narrowly defined cultural views of masculinity that made them feel damaged or defective. They free themselves from self-doubt and escape from shame by humiliating someone else.

A healthier way to deal with such shame is to take a closer look at positive (not toxic) masculine traits and to recognize the ways we actually do embody them. As I prepare to lead a course on this topic—“How to be a Man When You Don’t Like Football"—I’ve been reading widely in the area of gender identity, testosterone, and evolutionary psychology. Here’s the surprising truth I’ve discovered: Gay men are often more masculine than they recognize, and not only the ones with big muscles. When you look at the traits and behaviors historically identified with masculinity, subtracting its most noxious and ultimately dysfunctional forms, gay men embody them in ways that have gone unrecognized. In short, gay men are much more like straight men than we usually think.

Sexuality. At one time or another, many gays have had a straight man confide his envy for our “ease in getting laid,” as one Reddit commenter phrased it. Men tend to have a stronger sex drive, to want more sexual partners, and to find casual sex more acceptable than women do. (I speak in generalities here; not all men or all women fit these descriptions.) Having a strong sex drive is a component of masculinity; gay and straight men feel drawn to different genders, but the drive is identical. In large part, this is due to:

Testosterone. Whether straight or gay, the male body produces 10-20 times more testosterone than the female body; it builds our muscles, grows hair on our faces and chests, deepens our voices, and affects our behavior. It tends to make us assertive, more narrowly focused, and more on the prowl for sex. It can also make us prickly, overly self-confident, and even angry, but at its best, testosterone supplies us with an energetic will, whether we’re straight or gay. It can also instill:

Courage. Physical bravery has historically been associated with manliness. As Exhibit ‘A’ in the case for gay masculinity, I submit the brave men who rioted at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, and in the days thereafter. And as every gay man knows, coming out of the closet takes courage. You also need courage to be “outrageous” in public, to dress or behave in ways that defy societal norms. You need courage to speak out for your rights in the face of hatred and intolerance. Gay and straight men have this courage in common. In a similar vein, they also tend toward:

Assertiveness and Self-Display. In his book, Manliness, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield writes that “manly men are not modest.” Manliness “seeks and welcomes drama.” I invite you to think once again about “outrageous” behavior, especially at Gay Pride parades. In a way that may at first seem counterintuitive, the gay man who draws attention to himself by flagrantly dressing in drag is behaving in an extremely manly way by seeking drama. By and large, women don’t seek to draw attention to themselves in such blatant and public ways.

Mansfield also explains that as a manly man you will “bring to general attention some unnoticed injustice done to you. The injustice harms you, but in making an issue of it you claim that it affects others too.” Sound like any gay activists you know? They speak out about how they’ve suffered in the face of injustice and stand up for the rights of others who continue to suffer. It's masculine protectiveness at its best.

Manly men also speak out and want you to know they have something important to say. From Mansfield again: “Pay attention, says the manly man, which means pay attention to me. Manliness is not mere generalized pushiness but rather a claim on your attention.” Perhaps another way of putting it is that gay and straight men alike have a tendency to mansplain, and we do it to other men as well as to women. We men are such an opinionated bunch.

Competition. Since the beginning of human history, men have been driven to compete, either in war, on the athletic field, or in the business world, where they continuously compete with other men (and women) for promotions, money, and proof of their success. Competitiveness might be considered one of the defining features of masculinity. According to recent research in this area, gay men supposedly have a lower “taste for competition” than straight men do. I suspect the difference in gay and straight competitiveness can be attributed to how the study operationalized that term: Anyone who thinks that gay men aren’t highly competitive has spent little time within our community.

Gay men care just as much as straight men do about their social status and visible signs of their success. In The Velvet Rage, Alan Downs describes life in San Francisco and regular visits to the Napa Valley homes of wealthy gay men he knew, each house more beautiful than the last, the elegant dinner parties that took days to prepare, their fabulous vacations, collections of artwork, clothes, infinity pools, and so on. I’ve known this type of man and there’s a subtle one-ups-man-ship about it. Many gay men are driven to build such an exquisite veneer to their lives because they need to prove that they’re winners.

I believe that this style of competition stems from the legacy of unresolved shame that lies deep within many gay men. Alan Downs agrees. After coming out of the closet, he says, many gay men “feel compelled to become the best, most successful, beautiful, and creative man you can be.” Demonstrating your success involves proving it to other people, of course, which often means proving that you are better than they are.

Gay competitiveness and the way we sometimes build our own self-esteem at the expense of others leads to cliques and sub-groups based on body type or social status; it can inflict feelings of shame for those who are left out – for “femmes” who aren’t “masc” enough, for those who fall short of the “A Gay” list, for those made to feel that they are losers. I believe we need to reform our brand of competitiveness so we can all leave the playing field feeling good about ourselves.

Fortunately, we’re masculine like straight men in one final way that mitigates this kind of competition.:

Groupishness. In recent years, much has been written about the tendency of men to cluster in packs, most of it negative (see e.g., Michael Kimmel, Guyland). But evolutionary psychologists tell us that man’s nature evolved during the long millennia when we hunted in packs, and the ability to subsume individual identity within a group goal promoted survival. Groupishness is in our genes and, as a result, men need to feel they share common ground with other men.

Since moving to Palm Springs, a city with America’s first entirely LGBT city council, I’ve discovered such groupishness all around me. Every gay man I know is involved in some public service organization, sits on a board, or congregates with other men for group activities – social, athletic, or cultural. It’s commonplace to see 8-10 men out together on the town. Gay men, like straight men, like hanging out together. We enjoy belonging to a group of men who are like us and no doubt we need it. Feeling part of a “team,” however we define that word, helps us to feel better about ourselves as men.

None of this is to say that women don’t share these traits – of course, they do – or that men have a monopoly on courage and assertiveness. Again, I speak only in generalities. But I do believe in a biological basis for what we call masculinity. I believe that testosterone shapes men’s bodies and behavior, regardless of their sexual orientation. And I fervently believe that gay men are much more masculine than they usually recognize.