Gay Men and Toxic Masculinity: A Call for Resistance to Gender Conformity Enforcement
As the founder and director of GayTherapyLA, a psychotherapy and coaching practice specializing in therapy for gay men and counseling for gay male couples (26 years), a theme that I see among clients from time to time includes the gay male client’s anxiety and misgivings about gender expression and whether he’s “doing it right” when it comes to what it means to be man. This is not in the non-binary or trans sense, but these are cisgender gay men who sometimes question their own adequacy based on society’s expectations of men.
Gender’s Conformity Roots
“Toxic Masculinity” is relatively newly-popular term that confronts the damage and harm that come to men, women, and others when we propagate and espouse “traditional” gender role stereotypes, and the pressures on men (and even young boys) to be a certain kind of male.
These pressures impose strict expectations about gender expressions and behaviors. The pressures on men to be a certain way can come from both other men and women, because a certain percentage of the population is (for reasons that are probably religious-based) heavily invested in seeing that gender role stereotypes are strictly enforced, and they will react with rage and a compulsion to punish anyone that they see as not conforming to their demands, appointing themselves as judge and jury (and occasionally executioner) of what is acceptable gender behavior.
While members of both/all sexes can be guilty of acting out their rage and insistence on gender conformity, this really has its roots in misogyny. Usually, when someone (male or female) becomes enraged at a man’s behavior and perceived violations of gender law, it is because the man in question is somehow acting “too feminine” and is therefore guilty of betraying his own male privilege where he is expected to dominate over women (or even fellow men), and somehow fails to do his societal gender duty. While young girls who are particularly masculine are “tomboys” and seen as clever, adventurous, spirited, confident, spunky little things who earn societal admiration, boys who are particularly feminine are seen as “sissies” and are denigrated, as if lowering their own station of being male by “imitating” the Inferior Woman.
Fortunately, with some increasing momentum, we are making some progress in (American) society in this generation, where heterosexual male fathers can be proud of their ballet-dancing son, or proud of a son who makes a name as a fierce drag queen, but this is relatively new thing. The number of cisgender, heterosexual fathers that either abuse or “merely” reject and denigrate their sons for being “too feminine” used to be the norm, and even in the current generation, most fathers are guilty of being card-carrying officers of Gender Conformity Enforcement of their sons and daughters (with, of course, no consideration of anyone in-between). The classic double-standard (that was somewhat addressed in the recent film comedy, “[Cock] Blockers”, is when fathers pressure their teenage sons into having (heterosexual) sex as an adolescent rite-of-passage, while “protecting” their teenage daughters from doing the same. While boys “must”, girls “must not” (which is illogical, because who else but “someone else’s daughter” do these fathers want to see their sons have sex with?).
One of my favorite colleagues, Joe Kort, MSW, Ph.D., has described how lesbian and gay children and teens who are barraged with a torrent of unrelenting media and social messages, and demands, that they must have heterosexual sex (and no other) is a form of covert sexual abuse of children, inappropriately emphasizing opposite-sex, pre-pubescent, quasi-sexual interaction (such as dancing in elementary school), but never once considering same-sex pairing of the same behaviors, and I agree. How often does a condescending teacher ask a little boy who is hanging around a little girl say, “Billy, do we have a girlfriend today?” and yet would never be seen asking a boy who is hanging around another boy, “Billy, do we have a boyfriend today?” Too many people see opposite-sex interactions among children that are sexualized as “normal” and “age-appropriate”, but wouldn’t accept the same behavior of same-sex pairings. A little boy who dances with his mother at a family wedding is seen as “cute” and perfectly normal, and not all sexualized. That is, until we consider the little boy dancing at that same wedding with his father – suddenly that’s “oooooh, gross” and creepily sexualized. Same behavior. That’s heterosexism as a gender behavior expectation. And it happens as an enforced norm without anyone ever even questioning it.
Gender Conformity Enforcement Includes Heinous Crimes
We see the seething, ragefully disgusted, rejecting father in America of a son who won’t conform to gender expectations, but also we certainly see it worldwide: The Fundamentalist “Christian” father in any country; the Middle Eastern father, the Chinese father, the Armenian father, the Hungarian father, etc., etc. And mothers are guilty of this as well, when they whine of being “caught in the middle” between the son they love and the rageful, rejecting fathers of their children that she also loves. Fathers tend to more readily show their disgust of gender-non-conforming sons, mothers just meekly “worry” that their son’s behavior is “inviting” bullying. In most families, this is just heterosexist dysfunction, but it can get much worse, in some cases:
You have to wonder what kind serious defect occurs when you have stories like that of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old boy in California who had been tortured and murdered by his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her mother’s boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, who perceived the boy as gay and then began their indulgence in heinous torture and murder. Local social workers had reported they failed to detect “any signs of abuse” and yet the social workers were eventually charged for crimes themselves (I am an MSW social worker, by the way, and I am the first one to indict these people in this case for gross incompetence). What kind of murderous rage takes hold of people like Fernandez and Aguirre? It’s hard to think of worse crimes than the slow torture and murder of children, and from what phenomena are these crimes motivated? Homphobia and gender conformity enforcement. How do these perpetrators learn to be this way? My first suspicions point toward the Catholic Church and a violent street gang.
This was not an isolated case. A similar case, also in California, is that of Anthony Avalos, also 8 years old, who was tortured and murdered by his mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, who also forced 8 siblings to join in the abuse of Anthony. As in the Fernandez case, county “social workers” had received dozens of reports of abuse, including removing Anthony from the home after abuse reports were substantiated, only to be returned to the home after “family members” received “in-home counseling) (see also: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=12083738). The difference between the Fernandez and Avalos murders and the mere “sneering” of the disapproving father when his son wants to take ballet class is a matter of degree, not principle. In both cases, the rage is motivated by Gender Conformity Enforcement.
Other Forms of Enraged Gender Conformity Enforcement
Author and scholar Gregory Herek, Ph.D., has written about how heterosexism (the notion that everyone either is, or should be, heterosexual) can be the psychological basis for anti-gay hate crimes, where the perpetrators are punishing gay men for being a “betrayal to the tribe” of behavioral expectations for men (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/06/16/us/hate-crimes-against-lgbt.html).
Even some women can fail to respect a gay male authority figure (such as a boss), believing that gay men “aren’t really men” and therefore not worthy of their respect. I’ve had this experience in several employment settings, and even being from one or more oppressed groups (women, people of color) doesn’t always prevent indulgence in gender conformity enforcement and discrimination. In one instance, at a non-profit, I had counseled a female supervisee who had violated an agency policy and it was causing widespread morale problems. When I asked her not to do this anymore, she said, “Why not?”. I said, “Because that’s a violation of our rules and policies that everyone must follow, and it’s my job and authority to see those group rules are followed by everyone.” She replied, “Well, I don’t care boo about your authority” and walked out. Ever since, I wondered if she would have said that to a heterosexual boss.
In the popular TV show, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu), based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, taking place in the not-too-distant future, a Fundamentalist Christian cult has taken over the United States government in a violent revolution and renamed the country “Gilead”, where gay men are systematically executed by government officials as “gender traitors” because they don’t fulfill their duty to impregnate women. Meanwhile, women in their society are forbidden to read, write, or do much else other than make babies or they will have an eye put out or a finger chopped off by government officials for veering too far off their God-given gender role expectations. While dismissed by Republicans, conservatives, and religious leaders as a paranoid fantasy, Atwood has said all events in the novel and the subsequent TV series have already happened, somewhere, in the world.
The phenomenon of female castration/genital mutilation (http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation), or the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim-government countries, are ways that these areas of the world enforce gender conformity that is deeply embedded as legal and social policy, in governments founded on the religious notion of inherent cisgender heterosexual male superiority and the publicly brutal oppression of anyone who challenges this (such as the public torture and permanent disfigurement/maiming of gay men by lashing under Muslim Sharia law in Aceh, Indonesia (https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/14/asia/indonesia-banda-aceh-public-flogging-intl/index.html).
Why Are Gender Conformity Enforcers So Passionate?
It boggles the mind about why Gender Conformity Enforcement has its underpinnings in such violent, passionate rage. One theory I’ve had is that this really a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and a need for predictable, reliable, and enduring structure or else the panicked anxiety of chaos would result. Without everyone knowing his or her place, staying firmly in their gender box and expected roles and behavior, society would be chaotic and run like the building of the Tower of Babel. Think of how some people with OCD can become very anxious if something is out of place, or how upset the character “Ray” (Dustin Hoffman) was in “Rain Man” (about an autism-spectrum disorder adult) who would panic if his comforting daily routine was disturbed.
Similarly, the theory of “Conservatives” is this way, that these are people who demand strict orderliness to their world, “conserving” change at either a slow or non-existent pace, versus “Progressives” who want to see social attitudes and practices change and evolve relatively quickly for the betterment of most. Is the rage we see from Gender Conformity Enforcers acting out in fervent panic in everything from sneers to hate crimes to murders merely a desire in them for their world to reliable and predictable, spared from the anxiety of change? They want “girls to be girls, and boys to be boys?”, with no social evolution to this, ever, over time? Something very primal and very fundamental must be triggered for them to act in sometimes heinous ways. We know they get upset, but why?
Another explanation is that they’re just plain stupid. They lack the mental aptitude to tolerate challenges to their beliefs and world view because they can’t conceptualize nuanced or combination things, such as the masculine gay man or the feminine lesbian, or the masculinized girl or the feminine boy. Because they can’t conceive of two complementary concepts, it’s like they can’t walk and chew gum, intellectually, at same time. The lack of understanding nuance and lack of critical thinking among Trump supporters and other Republicans (especially religious ones) would explain the point of view that unless something is cut-and-dried, predictable, and clear with no exceptions or mitigations, then it must be bad, flawed, rejected, and worthy of our collective consternation – up to and including the torture and murder of people.
Effect on Gay and Straight Men
Gender Conformity Enforcement is an oppressive force against all in society, ultimately. But if we just look at men, gay men can feel pressure where especially masculine is the “good gay”, and effeminate is the “bad gay”. Similarly, for lesbians, the “lipstick lesbian” is the “good lesbian”, and the “bull dyke” is the “bad lesbian”. Or the “passing” trans person is the “good trans”, and the people who can’t pass as easily are the “bad trans”. It is in this way that the LGBT community can eat its own, but it’s particularly true among gay men with the “Masc4Masc” social media term, or the pressure to “butch it up”. Masculinized gay celebrities like Matt Bomer are sexy and popular, whereas more feminized personalities like Richard Simmons are seen as comic stereotype buffoons. The relentless pressure on gay men to conform in order to “get by” and sometimes just to “survive” is detrimental to gay men’s mental health.
Defiance of Gender Conformity Enforcement
Fortunately, in recent years, as we’ve seen other minority groups gain empowerment (such as women and others who are confronting the heretofore unconfronted sexual assault phenomenon in the #MeToo movement), we’re seeing more young gay men give a “This Is Me” spirit in open defiance of the Gender Conformity Enforcers, challenging teachers, society in general, law enforcement, politicians, and peers that their assumption toward the power to enforce gender conformity is not limitless – or even substantiated. It is an empowering, open defiance that says a very appropriate “F— YOU” to those who would attack, denigrate, oppress, or even fail to respect gender non-conforming people. It’s what I call in my clients both “self-empowerment” and a “healthy haughtiness”. London’s new musical, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is a great example of young, gay self-empowerment, with support from parents and peers.
Today’s young gay men sometimes wear and do things that young gay men even a generation ago wouldn’t do. And more power to them.
Defiance is wearing what you want to wear, saying what you want to say, believing what you want to believe, and behaving how you want to behave, even if the Gender Conformity Enforcers want to kick and scream and fuss. They are met, finally, with the notion of “just because Gender Conformity Enforcers used to have power, they don’t anymore. Be gone, before somebody drops a house on you.”
We embrace defiance when we argue with parents, teachers, school officials, law enforcement officers, judges, people in public, peers, neighbors, and colleagues. The Pagan term, “If it harm none, do what thou wilt” comes to mind. It is time to fight back against the Gender Conformity Enforcers and declare their actions as being both not-helpful and outright oppressive in a way that has run its course. We all have a right to be the person we want to be, and our own, individual manifestation of “gender” is contained within that right.
President Trump’s recent “wedge” manipulation of his “base” just before the midterm 2018 elections in his attempt to want to legally eliminate transgender status has been met with widespread, vocal, passionate protest. Trump and his deplorable followers like to relish in their self-appointed roles as Gender Conformity Enforcers, but we ain’t having out. Sell oppression somewhere else, Bigot Buffoon, this is the Land of the Free we’re talking about.
There are more than just two genders, and some cultures even have multiple words in their languages to describe people as other than male or female. Gender is a cultural and historical social construct that goes way beyond genitalia.
We have the right to be who we are, and live fully, without noise from others. In these times, we are starting to embrace that more as a society, and Vive La Difference!
If you need support for being the person you want to be, consider therapy or coaching for support. Call or text my cell at 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, for more information on services available in office in Los Angeles, or by phone or webcam anywhere in the world. Speaking engagements, expert witness testimony, and organizational consulting questions are also welcome.