What Does It Mean to Be a Gay Man?
Coming out means valuing your "difference" more than others' approval.
Posted March 1, 2018
So many gay men grow up believing there is something “wrong” with us because we are different from other supposedly “normal” males. We expend considerable energy hiding our genuine selves from everyone around us—including those who care about us and, too often and most insidiously, from ourselves.
We project an image we believe will let us fit in with those whose approval we seek. It’s not surprising that a term like “straight-acting” shows up so often in gay men’s online personal ads. It presumably means the advertiser considers himself a “real” man—real, that is, according to a standard of masculinity he doesn’t attribute to other gay men.
American males of all sexual orientations are raised in a culture that insists the only way to be a man is to be “manly,” which typically requires denying our fear, loneliness, tenderness, and need for love, and projecting an attitude of invincibility. Harvard psychologist William Pollack calls it the “Boy Code,” the messages instilled in a million ways from our youngest age telling us that “real” boys must keep a stiff upper lip, not show their feelings, act tough, and be cool.
Pollack writes in his book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, that “perhaps the most traumatizing and dangerous injunction thrust on boys and men is the literal gender straitjacket that prohibits boys from expressing feelings or urges seen (mistakenly) as ‘feminine’—dependence, warmth, empathy.”
So many gay men learn we are different from other boys by having the fact pointed out and ridiculed by bullies during our young, most impressionable, years. Our young peers become pint-size enforcers of the Boy Code—using shame and even violence to enforce conformity to the absurd notion that every male is heterosexual and expresses his maleness only within a limited, permitted range of emotions and behaviors.
As every gay man knows who has been insulted or assaulted for his actual or perceived sexual orientation, there are steep penalties for violating the Boy Code as there are for anyone who is “different” from the presumed (typically white, heterosexual, middle-class) standard.
How does a gay kid survive the trauma he suffers for being different in a culture that still condemns his difference as something bad or “less-than” and wants to mold him into the same shape it tries to mold every boy?
Robert Pollack says the most important thing a family can do to support their gay son is to keep loving him, “to convey to him, as soon as he shares his feelings, that he is still loved through and through, that his sexual orientation will not in any way diminish how much he is admired and respected. These are the things a boy needs most to hear.”
What a man most needs to hear—from others, but most importantly from himself, in his own mind—is that he is okay just as he is. He needs to know that it’s okay not only to be gay if that's what he is, but to be a man who chooses what being a man means for himself.
Fortunately there is a long history of gay men who bucked the accepted definitions of masculinity and created lives that expressed their understanding of themselves and how they choose to express their identity as men who don’t necessarily fit traditional molds.
The late Harry Hay often called "the father of the modern gay movement," founded the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in the fall of 1950 for gay men to gather and ponder the questions Hay had long been asking: Who are gay people? Where do gay people come from? Where have gays been throughout history?
Hay didn’t intend the Mattachines to be a political organization per se, but a group that would come together to enhance their self-understanding and explore the contributions gay people had made to the human race through the ages. The group was named after the secret male societies in France that in the Middle Ages dressed as jesters and used dance and comedy—a kind of camp humor—to mock the king and ridicule society’s false pretenses.
In a 1987 essay titled “A Separate People Whose Time Has Come,” Hay described homosexuals as “spirit people,” who, throughout the ages, had served society in their roles as “messengers and interceders, shamans of both genders, priestesses and priests, imagemakers and prophets, mimes and rhapsodes, poets and playwrights, healers and nurturers, teachers and preachers, tinkers and tinkerers, searchers and researchers.”
Hay believed that gay people had something special to teach nongay people about human life, and for that reason should be nurtured, rather than reviled, by society. He postulated that “gay people represent a genetic mutation of consciousness whose active fostering is now required for human survival.”
Hay believed that gay men are different from heterosexuals and that those differences go much deeper than mere sexual attraction to other men. He said gay men look at the world differently, are uniquely nonaggressive, noncompetitive, oriented toward sharing and inclined to develop what Hay called “subject-subject” love relationships of equals.
In a 1990 interview for the Washington Blade, Harry Hay told me our calling as gay men “is not only to accept our uniqueness, but to affirm it, make it joyous.”
For gay men, learning to accept our “different” sexual orientation as a positive aspect of ourselves is only part of our “coming out.” For all men, regardless of sexual orientation, the bigger challenge is to embrace the things about ourselves that make us unique—even when they don’t comport with the prevailing notions of what it means to be a man.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, poet, champion of individualism and opponent of conformity, put it so well, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”