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Peter M. Nardi




Published in cooperation with the Men's Studies Association,

A Task Group of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism

Copyright © 2000 by Sage Publications, Inc.

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To all the men who were told they "weren't gay enough",

and those who were considered "too gay".


1. Anything for a Sis, Mary 1

Part One: Masculinities in Gay Relationships

2. Seeking Sexual Lives 12

Gay Youth and Masculinity Tensions

3. One of the Guys 44

Instrumentality and Intimacy in
Gay Men's Frienship With Straight Men

4. Gay Male Domestic Violence and 66

the Pursuit of Masculinity 66

Part Two: Masculinities in Everyday Gay Life

5. Risk and Masculinity in the 83

Everyday Lives of Gay Men

6. Religion and Masculinity 101
in Latino Gay Lives

7. Masculinity in the Age of AIDS: 130

HIV-Seropositive Gay Men and
the "Buff Agenda" 130

8. Queer Sexism 152

Rethinking Gay Men and Masculinity

An Introduction to Gay Masculinities

For some time, the media images of gay men as effeminate and lesbians

as masculine have persisted. They illustrate the conflation of gender

and sexual orientation and raise salient questions about the social

construction and relational nature of femininity and masculinity. Even

though the blending of gender and sexuality can be traced to the mid-

19th century, it persists to this day in a variety of ways. The chapters

collected in this volume represent one attempt to understand, in

paticular, how contemporary gay men in the United States engage in,

contest, reproduce, and modify hegemonic masculinity.

Gay men exhibit a multiplicity of ways of “doing” masculinity that

can best be described by the plural form “masculinities.” Some enact

the strongest of masculine stereotypes through body building and

sexual prowess, whereas others express a less dominant form through

spirituality or female impersonation. Many simply blend the “traditional”

instrumental masculinity with the more “emotional” masculinity that

comes merely by living their everyday lives when they are hanging out

with their friends and lovers, working out at the gym, or dealing with

the oppressions related to their class and ethnic identities. The chapters

in this book vividly capture these variations in masculinities among gay


2 Some Historical Masculinities

The conflation of gender and sexual orientation that exists in conteporary

popular culture and many scientific studies reinforces the sexual

inversion theories of homosexuality that emerged in late 19th-century

medical discourse. In Victorian times, little distinction was made between

biological sex and culturally constructed gender concepts of womanhood

and manhood (Katz, 1983). At a time when the activities of men and

women were strictly separated and an association began to develop of

Anything for a Sis, Mary
For the longest time, the term
"masculinity" holds a very narrow
definition. However, this is slowly
changing and becoming more fluid.

Throughout the course of history,
sailors have always been a strong icon
for the gay community as it represents
a men of great strength and physique.

Anything for a Sis, Mary
male = active and female = passive, late-19th-century medical literature

invoked "sexual perversion" as a way to describe those who desired to

be of the opposite sex and "who were said to have done one or more of

the following: wore the clothes and hairstyle, undertook the work, played

the games, gestured, walked, talked, drank the drinks, acted the political

role, performed the sexual acts, and felt the emotions of the 'other' sex"

(Katz, 1983, pp. 145-146). It was a time when, as Kimmel (1996) argues,

masculinity increasingly became an act and the need to publicly display it

became more intense: "To be considered a real man, one had better make

sure to always be walking around and acting 'real masculine'" (p. 100).

As emerging concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality became

linked to notions of, respectively, the normal and the abnormal, the

medicalization of people known as "congenital inverts" developed.

Perhaps, as Katz (1983) hypothesizes, this demonstrates one of the

earliest examples of the creation of a self-identity and category

connected to sexual practice. But the outward manifestation of this

inverted identity was assumed to be effeminate behavior in men and

mannish styles in women, both of which were viewed as threatening

to "traditional" masculinity and femininity. As Katz (1983) shows,

American postcards and cartoons in the first decades of the 20th century

depicted negative images of manly women wearing collars, ties, and coats

and negative drawings of "fairies," effeminate men with limp wrists, 5

concerned about their appearance and doing women's work as store


Yet, these effeminate men were often interested in masculine men who

were depicted in paintings, cartoons, jokes, and erotic stories as sailors

or blue-collar manual labor workers on construction sites or at the docks

(Chauncey, 1994). That these more manly men also engaged in sex with

men showed that it was not only the effeminate men who might be the

inverts. The categorizations used in the 1920s and 1930s to describe

men who have sex with men were not, however, so easily collated into a

single label such as we typically use today, in which "gay" can cover both

effeminate and masculine men who share a choice of male partners.

Prior to World War II, gender status contributed to the terms used to

distinguish various types of homosexual men: "fairies" (or "queen,"

"faggot," "nance," "pansy") were effeminate men, "queers" were

those interested in same-sex sex but not because of their similarity

to women(in fact, many rejected effeminate men), and "trade" were

heterosexual men who accepted sexual relationships with the fairies or

queers (Chauncey, 1994). For many fairies and queers, a masculine man

was the ideal type, the "normal" man embodied in the soldier, WW, or

construction worker. Chauncey (1994) makes it clear that gender status

was a key organizing concept of homosexual sexuality:

The centrality of effeminacy to the definition of the fairy in

the dominant culture enabled trade to have sex with both

the queers and fairies without risking being labeled queer

themselves, so long as they maintained a masculine demeanor

and sexual role. (p. 16)

The categorization of the subcultures

in the gay community has made many
gay men feel disbelonging to his own
For many men who identified themselves based on their interest in other

men, rather than on their effeminacy, "gay" emerged in the 1930s and

1940s as the dominant label. But it was applied to any man who had

sexual experiences with other men, resulting in the gradual elimination

of the category "trade" by the 1960s and the creation of a strict definition

of "straight" as someone without same-sex sexual contacts in any form:

It had become more difficult for men to consider themselves

"straight" if they had any sexual contact with other men, no
matter how carefully they restricted their behavior to the
"masculine" role, or sought to configure that contact as a
relationship between cultural opposites, between masculine

It had become more difficult for men to consider themselves

"straight" if they had any sexual contact with other men, no

matter how carefully they restricted their behavior to the

"masculine" role, or sought to configure that contact as a

relationship between cultural opposites, between masculine

men and effeminate fairies. (Chauncey, 1994, p. 22)

Although these shifts in sexual categorization can be used to illustrate

a change from a more gender-based culture (where "queers," "fairies,"

and "real" men are distinguished) to one based on sexual orientation and

object choice (heterosexual and homosexual), the conflation of gender

with sexual orientation by the dominant culture continues. Indeed,

it is often evident in the research assumptions of biologists looking

for similarities between gay men's and women's brains (see Murphy,

1997), in the gender-nonconforming psychological studies of "sissy

boys" growing up (see Green, 1987), and within gay communities where

the "newly hegemonic hard and tough gay masculinity was serving to

marginalize and subordinate effeminate gay men" (Messner, 1997, p. 83).

Consider these examples from the early 1960s. John Rechy (1963), in his

classic novel of pre-Stonewall gay life, City of Night, describes a bar off

Hollywood Boulevard:

Among its patrons are the Young, the good-looking, the

masculine—the sought after—and, too, the effeminate
flutterers posing like languid young ladies, usually imitating
the current flatchested heroines of the Screen but not resorting
to the hints of drag employed by the much more courageous
downtown Los Angeles queens, (p. 186)

And in the June 26,1964, issue of Life magazine, one of the first major

articles on "homosexuality in America" depicted a San Francisco bar

where men "wear leather jackets, make a show of masculinity and scorn

effeminate members of their worlds," in contrast with the "bottom-of-

the-barrel bars" where one finds "the stereotypes of effeminate males—

the 'queens,' with orange coiffures, plucked eyebrows, silver nail polish

and lipstick" (Welch, 1964, pp. 66, 68). The "fluffy-sweatered" young

men who "burst into tears" when arrested are contrasted throughout

the article to the hostile patrons in the "far out fringe" S&M bars, whose

attempts to appear manly are described as "obsessive" (Welch, 1964, p.

70). A part owner of one leather bar hangs a sign that says, "Down with

sneakers!"—described as the "favorite footwear of many homosexuals

with feminine traits"— and is quoted proudly as saying, "This is the

8 antifeminine side of homosexuality. ... We throw out anybody who is too

swishy. If one is going to be homosexual, why have anything to do with

women of either sex?" (Welch, 1964, p. 68).

Stereotypes of gay men as feminine were pervasive enough that even a

Los Angeles Police Department training manual from 1965 had to

remind the vice squad—in an ironically more progressive way—that

among homosexual "physical characteristics of the opposite sex [are]

rare. . . . Homosexuals are generally indistinguishable from the general

Anything for a Sis, Mary

population. Extreme types, however, can look like Charles Atlas or

Marilyn Monroe" (p. 2). Almost 100 years after the invention of sexual

inversion and the effeminate homosexual male, the perpetuation of

a gender-based system of categorization for same-sex sexuality is

displayed both inside and outside the gay subculture.

Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco is the world's
biggest leather event. Located on the historic
Folsom Street, leather and fetish players from all
over the world converge with over 200 exhibitor
boothsshowcasing fetish gear and toys.
Some Contemporary Masculinitiest

Even in the years after the rise of the modern gay movement, the rhetoric

about gender in many gay organizations and communities has often

been oppositional in its tone and it questions the role of effeminate men,

drag queens, and "fairies" in the political strategies and media images.

Complaints about gay men acting like women ruining the struggle for

equal rights for gays are heard among many conservative gay leaders.

Along with the transformation in gay masculinity from the "failed male,"

or sissy, into the hypermasculine clone came a strong division between

the feminized and masculinized. Harris (1997) argues that gay liberation

created a whole new set of problems in gay men's self-images, resulting

in a divide between the effeminate and the masculine:

In the act of remaking themselves in the images of such

mythical icons of American masculinity as gunslinging
cowpokes and close-cropped leather-necks, homosexuals failed
spectacularly to alleviate their nagging sense of inadequacy
to straight men, whose unaffected sexual self-confidence
continues to serve as the subcultural touchstone of manly
authenticity. . . . When we attempted to heal the pathology
of the gay body by embarking on the costume dramas of the
new machismo, we did not succeed in freeing ourselves from
our belief in the heterosexual male's evolutionary superiority.
... In fact, we . . . became our own worst enemies, harsh,

10 homophobic critics of the campy demeanor of the typical

queen, (p. 99)

When did this transformation occur from the effeminate men and drag

queens who often were at the forefront of resistance (see Duberman's,

1993, account of the drag queens at Stonewall) to the men whose

hyper masculinity became the privileged image? Some of the visible

shifts occurred during the 1970s. Of course, there were images before

Stonewall of hypermasculinity in the gay bars, leather subcultures,

and gay physique magazines. Indeed, some of these gay body-builder

Anything for a Sis, Mary

magazines can be traced back to the 1940s (Harris, 1997). But in 1971, the

first discussions of shifting gender roles can be found. Laud Humphreys

(1971) wrote about the "virilization" of the homosexual and the social

movement away from the old Boys in the Band image of "limp wrists

and falsetto voices." He reminds us, however, that the new styles in

homosexual manliness are "not the hypermasculinity of Muscle Beach

and the motorcycle set, for these are part of the old gay world's parody

on heterosexuality, but the youthful masculinity of bare chests and beads,

long hair, mustaches and hip-hugging pants" (p. 41). Humphreys's

comments, though, may have been premature.


Along with the transformation

in gay masculinity from the
“failed male,” or sissy, into the
hypermasculine clone came a
strong division between the
feminized and masculinized.
The stereotype of gay men came from the
existing gender order. This gives gay men who
do not fit in to this expectaction a hard time to
identify themselves.

Connell (1992) says that gay men often seek other men who embody

masculinity: "Gay men are not free to invent new objects of desire any

more than heterosexual men are—their choice of object is structured by

Anything for a Sis, Mary

the existing gender order" (p. 747). In fact, Connell interprets his gay

subjects' eroticism of stereotypically masculine men, their masculine

personal style, their emphasis on privatized couple relationships, and

their lack of engagement with feminism as indicators of a perpetuation of

the gender order. For him a "very straight gay" is a contradictory position

in the gender order, but it is here that the complexities of masculinities

can effect social change in that gendered social system.

Within a few years, the appearance of the quintessential masculine gay

role image—the clone—demonstrated the emphasis on hypermasculinity

among many urban gay men. Martin Levine's (1998) ethnography of

the gay macho clones from the late-1970s Greenwich Village describes

them as the "manliest of men" with gym-defined bodies, blue-collar

clothing, short hair, mustaches, and sometimes close-cropped beards:

"They butched it up and acted like macho men.... Much to the activists'

chagrin, liberation turned the 'Boys in the Band' into doped-up, sexed-

out, Marlboro men" (p. 7). And with the appearance of the Village People

disco group and their songs of macho men, gay masculine clone images

became embedded in popular culture. Did Michael's plea to Emory to

avoid camping finally come to fruition?

But rather than contrasting the masculine and feminine styles of gay

men in some mutually exclusive fashion, some have attempted to

reconcile the range of masculinities that exist in both individuals and

collectivities. Although rejecting hypermasculinity and effeminacy, many

gay men embrace a "very straight gay" style by enacting both hegemonic

masculinity and gay masculinity in their daily lives, as R. W. Connell

(1992) argues. In the very act of engaging in sex with other men, gay men

challenge dominant definitions of patriarchal masculinity. The hegemony

of heterosexual masculinity is subverted, yet at the same time, gay men

enact other forms and styles of masculinity, ones that often involve 13
reciprocity rather than hierarchy. How some gay men engage in the

pursuit of sex while simultaneously exhibiting an emotional commitment

to sharing feelings with their friends is one example of the complex ways

hegemonic and gay masculinities intersect (Nardi, 1999).

"Masculinity", in the gay community, is
no longer a concrete term. Its defintion
has widen, allowing more men to find their

Anything for a Sis, Mary
Gay Masculinities

In recent years, it has, thus, become theoretically important to speak

in terms of "masculinities" rather than use the more limiting phrase

of "masculinity." Thanks in part to postmodern ideas, diversity and

difference are acknowledged and privileged over a unifying, shared,

homogeneous concept. No longer can we justify describing gender in

terms of "femininity" or "masculinity," as if there were only one set of

feminine or masculine roles. What becomes relevant is understanding

people in terms of the various ways they enact masculinity or femininity

and the multiple forms these take.

It is in this context that a book focusing on how gay men "do"

masculinity emerged. Working under the assumption that gay men

display a type of masculinity different from heterosexual men already

points to a plurality of masculinities. Yet, to automatically assume that all

gay men contest, modify, or challenge heterosexual masculinity—or for

that matter, that they all enact the same masculinity roles—does not take

us beyond monolithic concepts of gender. It does not adequately reflect

the reality that gay men are as diverse as all other groups of humans and

do not act, think, believe, and feel alike. Class and racial differences alone

challenge any possibility of a unifying masculinity among gay men.

Just as it is with anyone in our culture, gay men carry out gender

in multiple ways depending on differences related to social and

psychological characteristics, contexts, and eras, as the brief history

above demonstrates. The chapters in this volume develop these ideas

further, reflect this diversity, and raise salient questions about the

way masculinities are enacted in various contexts. Part One focuses on

masculinities in gay men's interpersonal relationships. Matt Mutchler,

in "Seeking Sexual Lives: Gay Youth and Masculinity Tensions,"

discusses the sexual relationships of some white and Latino youth (18 to

24 years old) and how their erotic lives are shaped by gendered sexual

scripts and by conflicts related to definitions of masculinity. Mutchler

argues that many gay male youth experience conflicts, contradictions,

and ambiguities related to the breakdown of gender-based sexual

scripts. While dealing with the cultural expectation of masculinity and

spontaneous sex drives and adventures, gay men also must deal with

homophobia about having sex with other men along with a desire for

romantic love. Engaging in sex while confronting masculinity tensions

has implications for how these young gay men deal with HIV and safer

Besides sexual relationships, gay men seek out friendships as central for

maintaining and developing their identity in an otherwise heterosexual

world. But how do gay men engage in friendship relationships with

heterosexuals? Dwight Fee investigates friendship between straight

men and gay men and the questions these relationships raise about

masculinity. In " 'One of the Guys': Instrumentality and Intimacy in

Gay Men's Friendships With Straight Men," Fee explores how sexual

difference challenges the gendered constructs in our culture that have

managed to keep gay and straight men in separate categories. The

struggles between intimacy and instrumentality in friendships are

a recurring theme in these relationships, given the emphasis in our

society toward a more instrumental notion of masculinity. Gay-straight

friendships show that gay men embody masculinity in a much more

multifaceted way and suggest a need to get away from the essentialism

researchers often use when talking about men's friendships.

Romantic relationships are another site in which gay men must deal with

issues of masculinity. When two men become involved in a domestic

situation, issues of power, dominance, and control become relevant.

And when these issues take the form of domestic violence, social

constructions of masculinity come to the forefront, as J. Michael Cruz

argues in "Gay Male Domestic Violence and the Pursuit of Masculinity."

16 Some gay men "do" gender just as many heterosexual men do, namely,

by using force, by exhibiting the need for domination, and by the

perpetuation of homophobic attitudes.

Anything for a Sis, Mary

One's confusion on his masculinity

when it's a narrow term can lead to
trouble forming other relation ships.
Beyond interpersonal relationships of sex, friendship, and romance, gay

men must manage issues of masculinity in a variety of other everyday

situations. Part TwoT focuses on gay men's masculinities in the gym, at

church, in the grocery store, at political rallies, and in attempting solidar

ity with women's oppression. Thomas Linneman' s "Risk and Masculinity

in the Everyday Lives of Gay Men" asks what role masculinity plays in the

lives of gay men as they confront oppression in everyday situations. For

many gay men, standing up for their rights is a form of risky behavior—

not in the way we sometimes talk about unsafe sex, but rather in the

way some gay men encounter the heterosexual world and risk being

embarrassed, harassed, or beaten up. Sites of resistance occur regularly,

and some gay men take the chance of engaging in behavior that may

have consequences for their well-being. How this risk taking is related to

culture definitions of masculinity is addressed in Linneman's chapter.

For Eric Rodriguez and Suzanne Ouellette, issues of masculinity are

highlighted through studying the often-discordant identities of being

gay, male, Latino, and Christian. Their chapter, "Religion and Masculinity

in Latino Gay Lives," presents in-depth case studies of four gay men who

struggle with being gay and religious. In their Latino culture, religion is

often viewed as a female experience, and certainly something that might

raise questions about a man's machismo. When a gay sexual orientation

is also present and threatens definitions of Latino masculinity, religious

gay men must resolve a complex set of contradictions.

"Masculinity in the Age of AIDS: HIV-Seropositive Gay Men and the

'Buff Agenda'" by Perry Halkitis explores the emphasis on body building

among some gay urban men who work out to counteract both the

stereoype of the weak gay man and the image of thinness and wasting

associated with having AIDS. Physicality, strength, virility, and sexual

prowess become part of the identity of these men as they appropriate

the images of heterosexual masculinity. How AIDS has played a role in

accelerating a long-standing dimension of gay subculture is explored

by Halkitis. Definitions of culturally approved masculinity are embodied

through the process of becoming "buff" and resisting effeminate labels.

For some gay men, their everyday lives have become entwined with

political activism. For others, being victims of oppression has provided 19

them with insights into other people's marginalization. Or so the story

goes, often without criticism, as Jane Ward argues in "Queer Sexism:

Rethinking Gay Men and Masculinity." Ward challenges us to reconsider

the assumption that just because gay men are marginalized in our

society, they therefore have specialized knowledge about women's

oppression and feminism. She assesses the masculinities discourse on

gay men in the work of some scholars of masculinity and of popular gay

writers. Ward exhorts us to go beyond the rhetoric and to explore the

actual gendered relationships between gay men and women in everyday

life, the perceptions of gay men toward feminist issues, and women's

perceptions of gay men's supposed Wsolidarity with feminism.

Part Three considers the multiple ways masculinities are carried out in

diverse American subcultures. Donald Barrett, in "Masculinity Among

Working-Class Gay Males," considers a group of gay men who often

are overlooked in research. Most studies on gay men tend toward

middle-class samples; here, Barrett discusses some of the stereotypes

of working-class masculinity and the relationship to being gay. How do

some gay men balance the class expectations of masculinity with the

gender and sexual roles expected by the more visible gay subculture?

Barrett describes several presentations of masculinity—assertive,

easygoing, and withdrawn— expressed in interviews with working-

class men and uses these to understand their engagement with issues of

homophobia, social relationships, sexual prowess, and emotional styles.

Issues of masculinity become quite complex when considering sexual

orientation among some Asian American groups. In "Asian American

Gay Men's (Dis)claim on Masculinity," Shinhee Han looks at the cultural

constraints and conflicts of identity faced by some groups with East Asian

heritage (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean). For many Asian American gay

men, questions are raised about the role of the close extended family;

values related to the religious traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, and

Confucianism; and cultural images of the Asian body and its relationship

to masculinity. Han discusses the powerful mythical fantasies of white

20 men's interests in Asians and how this is played out in same-sex

sexuality. She concludes by providing a set of research questions about

Asian American gay men that need to be explored in this little-studied


"Entre Hombres/Between Men: Latino Masculinities and

Homosexualities," by Lionel Cantu, describes the impact that cultural

conceptualizations of masculinity and sexuality have on Latino gay men

and the implications for HIV prevention. Experiences of sexism, racism,

Anything for a Sis, Mary

and homophobia are understood in the context of Latino definitions of

masculinity, migration patterns, and access to resources. Using standard

notions of culture obscures a more complex intersection of the multiple

sites of power in these gay Latino men's lives. Cantu provides reasons for

going beyond cultural pathologizing and for emphasizing a more political

economy framework when trying to understand the way some gay Latino

men engage in same-sex sexuality and masculinity.

Finally, the book concludes with a chapter that raises many of the

cultural questions about gender, not only about how it is constructed in

our society, but how it is carried out by some gay men. Steven Schacht's

"Gay Female Impersonators and the Masculine Construction of 'Other'"

introduces us to the world of drag queens and drag kings in a particular

gay subculture. Here, the masculine embodiment of the feminine

reinforces in some ironic way the conventional notions of gender while

simultaneously it argues for a situational understanding of power and

gender. Drag queens are not subversive challenges to the masculine

hierarchies of our culture, Schacht says, yet they deconstruct for us the

strong social nature of gender.

It becomes evident throughout these various chapters that pinpointing

a common masculinity is impossible. It is fairly clear that the only way

to describe gay men in gender terms is to use the plural, masculinities.

Various cultural forces, institutional constraints, ethnic and class

dimensions, and generational differences impinge on the manner gay

men enact their masculinity. Understanding gender requires us to look

beyond the standard categories and to poke around in the divergent

subcultures and diversities that characterize contemporary American

society. By exploring the multiple forms gay men's masculinities take

(and have taken historically), we come to a greater knowledge about all

people's relationship with the complexities of sexuality, gender, identity,

and social structure.


Instrumentality and Intimacy in Gay

Men's Frienship With Straight Men
1. I would like to acknowledge the help of Harvey This chapter discusses men's problems of gender and sexual difference as

Molotch, Beth E. Schneider, and Avery Gordon on found in friendships between straight and gay men.1 Although problems
the dissertation project from which this chapter of straight men's relative homophobia and heterosexism are central
in this intersection—to the extent that masculinity itself is most often

defined in theterosexual terms and contexts—I would like to more

address the often neglected area of gay men's stake in gender.

Surely, what it means to be "a man" is an equally if not more complicated

issue for gay men than it is for straight men. Moreover, although the

very notion of equating of "proper" masculinity with heterosexuality

obviously sets up substantial dilemmas for gay men, the two groups may

share more experiences than is commonly thought (Connell, 1995; Nardi,

1992a; also see Price, 1999). Focusing on crossover friendships between

the two groups, furthermore, provides a way to assess and challenge the

dominant ways we conceptualize, and possibly experience, the gendered

dimensions of male friendship itself. I am interested in ways that sexual

difference between men can, perhaps ironically, provide an opportunity

to challenge the gendered constructs that have informed the separation

between male "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" ever since their

invocation in the 19th century.

My approach to this problem emerged somewhat by accident. My research

26 has explored the relationship between straight and gay men in an

effort to understand recent changes in the relationship between

masculinity and heterosexuality. I interviewed both straight and gay

men about their crossover friendships, specifically to make sense of

straight men who are somewhat "gay identified"—that is, especially gay

affirming in the Wsense of often preferring gay men's company to that of

straights. During the initial interviews, I focused mostly on the straight

men's experience: how gay friendship was important to them, how gay

men came out to them, how gay culture had become a means through

which to construct gender, and so on. The interviews with gay men were

geared toward shedding light on the straight friends' experiences in gay

One of the Guys

In searching for how gay men provided a way out of gendered dilemmas

for straight men, I unexpectedly found a somewhat similar story on the

other side of the relationship, namely, that gay men's concerns about

gender often get addressed in being close friends with straight men.

Apparently, not many men, straight or gay (or occasionally bisexual

or "don't categorize me"), are completely happy with their situation.

Some of this dissatisfaction, I believe, can be indirectly traced to another

bifurcation— "instrumentality" versus "intimacy"—that implicitly

"genders" and thus reproduces the dominant meanings of the sexual

difference between straight and gay men.


Despite the difference in sexual

oritentation, gay men do take part in
positive frienships with straight men.
Gay Men in Straight Worlds

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer-defined persons are obligated to live

in straight worlds, whereas straights are obviously not forced into gay

social realms, although gay life and culture are increasingly difficult to

completely ignore. The discourses of a male-dominated and

heteronormative social structure provides the overarching context

for the construction of gay communities and identities. Even if one

attempts to live a "gay life" on an everyday basis, "moving from one

gay institutional locale to the next," the experience of these locales is

colored by the dominant, heterosexist institutions and practices.

The mistake, of course, is to presume that "gayness" assumes a

posture of complete contrast and contrariety. If gay men must confront

and regularly permeate straight culture, the degree to which they do,

and the extent to which they experience it as a struggle, certainly

vary. In addition, gay cultural spaces themselves are hardly immune

from gay critiques. Consider an electronic communication on an online

bulletin board for gay men, called "One of the Guys":

The problem is pretty clear. I kind of feel like we're the

minority of the minority. . . I feel like we don't fit in anywhere.

28 I embrace the gay community because it's all I've got. But I
really feel like an outsider. I don't like the "scene" (i.e., gay
bars, Palm Springs, Fire Island, show tunes, bla bla bla) and
most of the friends I spend time with are straight. (LA Adventr)

Anytime we become something someone else wants us to be

and stray from who we actually are, we become pod people. I
refuse to do that. (Mfilip)

Although the confines of gay worlds are limiting to some "out" gay

men, there is at the same time a commonly expressed danger of falling

unproblematically into a hetero-defined existence—perhaps

understood here as becoming a self-abdicating "pod person." It

could be argued, however, that despite the problems in always

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clearly defining what is "gay" and what is "straight," there are a

disproportionate number of ways of being legitimately straight; the

"norm" allows maneuverability and flexibility in one's gendered and

sexual existence.
This makes sense in a structural way, but it does not necessarily match

up with many gay men's perceptions of the costs of normative straight

masculinity. Personal accounts of gay men have shown that they enjoy a

specific kind of freedom and versatility that straight men do not have or

utilize. In a collection of life-histories, Growing Up Before Stonewall

(Nardi, Sanders, & Marmor, 1994), Louis, 50, draws an explicit contrast

between straight and gay life:

Because I am gay I've had a much fuller life than most of my

straight contemporaries that I know well I don't know many
straight men who have such close friends as I have . . . and I
think this has been particularly enriching. The freedom, the
range of experience, the range of intellect, moving in different
circles—all of these have been pluses, in spades, as far as I'm
concerned. (p. 172)

Andrew Holleran (1995), in Preston's Friends and Lovers, writes,

It always seemed to me that homosexuals were gifted with

friends in a way that straight men were not. In the town my
family lived in, men seemed to live like lions in a pride—
surrounded, as Aristotle said they wanted to be, by their wives,
children and dogs. It's not they weren't friendly—they played
poker, golf, went fishing together—but once a man married,
his primary emotional commitment belonged to his wife and
children. Married men spent most of their time alone doing the
same things (mowing the lawn, reading the paper, fixing the
car) in separate yards and households. The wives had friends.
The men ruled separate turfs. Often I would see my father in
his chair alone reading the paper and think: Why are straight
men so isolated from one another? (p. 33)

There is reason to think, though, that for many gay men, straight

social worlds and performances can be extremely meaningful sites of

attachment, self-definition, and, going deeper, perhaps of mourning and

desire. Exploring gay men's relationships with straight men provides

a location to understand what is precisely at stake and how gay men's

struggles around gender conjure up questions about how identity and

masculinity, as cultural forces, systematize and delimit the possibilities

for relating and belonging.

Gay Accounts of Straight Men and Their Friendships

Predictably, my interviews with gay men demonstrate that they have

more acumen about their straight friends' lives than the straight men

exhibit toward their everyday realities. Heterosexuals simply know

proportionally less about the complexity of their gay friends' lives: what

contradictions they encounter, how they manage marginalization, what

struggles around identity they might undergo, and so on. By contrast,

gay men, because of being to some extent in both "worlds," are more

discerning about straight life and, particularly, straight sexuality.

"Gay men's collective knowledge, thus, includes gender ambiguity,

tension between bodies and identities, and contradictions in and around

masculinity" (Connell, 1995, p. 41).

To Be Real: Comparing Gay and Straight Friendships

In both a practical and a conceptual sense, the gay men I interviewed

easily drew distinctions between their friendship experiences and those

of the straight men around them. Pointing to the lack of deep connection

between straight men, they knew that they themselves posed a threat to

many straight men when initiating a friendship in the first place. Building

friendships with straight men was a sometimes precarious and sometimes

exhausting enterprise. And sometimes it was not worth the bother.

30 After all, gay men have obviously enjoyed close and innovative kinds of

friendship with each other, sometimes romantic and sometimes not, but

usually "intimate" in a broad sense (Nardi, 1999). That is, although their

relationships are not to be simply equated with women's friendships,

gay men do often have a similar, disproportionate amount of disclosure,

sharing, and emotional connection when indirectly compared to research

on "men" at large (e.g., Davidson & Duberman, 1982; Miller, 1983; Reid &

Fine, 1992; Rubin, 1985). This body of work has demonstrated how men's

friendships are based disproportionately on instrumental, distant, or

activity-centered elements, relative to women's. Although some accounts

have discussed the difficulties of defining and evaluating intimacy out

of context (e.g., Sherrod, 1987), there is obvious reason to think that

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gay men's friendships more easily bypass the remoteness and relatively

anxious quality that accompanies men's friendships more broadly.


Gay men constitute a standpoint from which

to understand widespread predicaments of
gender that are more generally implicated in
men's mutual relationships.
Of course, gay men still find reason to complain about their friendships

with each other. Holleran (1995), for instance, saw his network of gay

friends splinter in later life, as happens for many straight men, at least

marWried ones. Furthermore, the mixing of sex and friendship in many

gay friendships led him to suggest that "our emotional commitment

was not so much to other particular friends, as to other homosexuals,

in general: The sea of men that could toss up, any moment, for

whatever length of time, a sexual antidote to loneliness" (p. 33).

This is not, however, a description of a superficial "moving"

friendship; Stan's relationships with his group of six or so straight

friends are ones of genuine support and communication, as he

explained, but not overly "affective" as he put it, and this is exactly

what he likes. Stan described how he is not any more of a source of

intimacy to his friends than they are to him. He and his friends used to

smoke marijuana together regularly and talk, and now the remaining

straight men who are still in Stan's life get together weekly to watch

Star Trek, have a meal and drink beer, and generally catch up with

each other. When crises arise, in romantic relationships, for example,

Stan explained how they were able to shift out of the "doing" model

and into a genuinely supportive and communicative mode.

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