What does it mean to be a man, gay or straight, biological or psychological, in today’s world? These are my thoughts on the subject, that mostly arise out of being called “Champ”.
There are a myriad of factors that have collided to produce this post. They aren’t all directly related, but they’re connected, I feel on a deeper more fundamental level.
Firstly, I went skiing for the first time this past weekend (last weekend in February 2015 if you are reading this from THE FUTURE). I was terrible at it, and despite having two private instructors it took me two hours to complete a 10 minute run, I fell 32 times, and dislocated my knees three times. The only lasting injury was to my pride.
Secondly, the Twitterverse is AFLAME with angry gays outraged (or defensive) about the “Looking” star Russel Tovey’s twitter snafu wherein he appears to trash effeminate gay men. You can read about that over at Huffpost!
Lastly, on March 2nd during the broadcast of the ABC Family show “The Foster’s” there was a kiss between two boys on the show (Jude and Connor or #Jonner as fans call them), which is quite groundbreaking for it’s portrayal of homosexual romance at such a young age, and targeted to the demographics that ABC Family tends to skew towards.
These ingredients mingled together in me to bring up some strong feelings about gender, homosexuality, and my own sense of self. It felt somehow important then, to get them out of myself.
Let’s put to rest what this post will not be. This post will neither defend NOR condemn Russel Tovey’s twitter flub. The original post, it seems to me, was made in innocent brevity, without thinking about it as some cultural touchstone moment, and was simply one actor reflecting on what seems to have been his x-factor for success. Do I think that there is an underlying set of preconceived quasi-prejudices that underlie those comments for Mr. Tovey? I really don’t know. But do I think he is a sissy-hating masc-gay? No. Not at all. I think he just said something and it got taken way too far by a community that kind of likes to be offended (of which I’m a member).
However, what it does touch in me is my own experience on the mountain this weekend. Growing up I would never be what was considered a “typical boy”. I wasn’t exactly sashaying around in a dress, but I was sensitive, soft-spoken, interested in Disney more than Monster Trucks, and I was never EVER good at sports. This weekend, some friends of mine convinced me to go skiing with them for the first time in my life because a bunch of powder came down (which is good?) and I got a two hour private lesson with an instructor AND a junior instructor. It didn’t go well. It was hard, and exhausting, and as I have been with physical activity all my life, I was pretty bad at it. What made it even more upsetting was the fact that the mountain was COVERED with small children whizzing by on skis as if it were nothing. My own friend’s toddler was going down bigger hills than me.
I got flustered. I got upset, and I wanted to cry. I kind of panicked actually. And my instructors NOTICED.
To their credit, despite being on the easiest part of the mountain with a near hysterical 31 year old man who outweighs both of them, my instructors remained kind and patient. They were encouraging, and helped me physically. I’m sure both of them are feeling it this week having hefted my 200 lb butt out of the snow so many times. But each time I fell, and the more kind they were, the more gently they treated me, the more humiliated I felt.
Then one of them began to call me “Champ”. Like one of his kids. I doubt he even realized he was doing it, or that it was patronizing. And it wasn’t even really all that offensive. Except it touched in me all those sore memories of P.E. teachers in Elementary and Middle School, all those Little League coaches I only ever went to two practices with, all those martial arts teachers who took it easy on me after a fall, and fathers of friends who learned not to roughhouse when I slept over, and youth pastors who used that exact tone of voice with me. It’s tender and sweet and even a little frightened, because on some level men know when they’re dealing with a sensitive one, a mama’s boy.
Guys can spot a sissy. And contrary to popular belief, in all but a few of my experiences, men (at least older men) have not become hostile when they perceive me for what I am. They become almost comically careful, as if they are very very scared to break this fragile thing they didn’t realize they were caring for.
For me, being up on that mountain with those two very kind gentlemen was like being trapped in every humiliating gym class I have ever attended. And it wasn’t just the struggling that was hard. Being bad at sports is one thing, and I don’t think it has a lot to do with gender. It was the reactions I couldn’t CONTROL to the failing that really are the source of the shame. It was the hot tears in my eyes, the way my voice caught in my throat. It was the blushing, and the stomach knotting, and the way I fell, pretty on my side like a lady in the snow. It was being twelve years old and feeling ashamed that you cried when a baseball hit your glove too hard at practice and never going to another one, or being nine and having the way you run made fun of a a school-wide joke, or being five and realizing the gymnastics class you begged to be in is only attended by girls and knowing on some level that is “wrong” and throwing yourself down in a hysterical fit on your parent’s waterbed till they withdraw you.
So I discovered on that mountain, quite by accident, that even though I lead a life now as an out, proud, gay man, and that I am surrounded by people who love and support me and wouldn’t care if I shit glitter, when I am confronted with those situations from my childhood that I thought I was “over”, all of that self-judgment, and shame, and even fear is right there like it never left. I realized that I’m still a little ashamed that I’m a sissy. I still wish I were tougher, or butcher, or more “masculine”.
Then Russel Tovey opened up his mouth (an act I’m sure he regrets now after the nonsensical backlash), and my facebook became awash with Sissy Pride. A rash of gay men proudly proclaiming our effeminate excellence. But somehow, I still felt the sting of this weekend, that bitter heart feeling when the junior instructor called me “Champ”, and I wished inside that I really was a champ, that I had been a kid that dusted myself off, grinned, and got back in the game.
And I got to thinking about it, about this weird phenomenon in the homosexual male community that is going on right now about “girly” gays. Go on any gay dating site, from the seediest Grindr torso pic, to the most pretentious OKCupid profile, and you’ll inevitably find gay guys who say things like “No fems” or “Masc only” or “Masc4Masc”. Yet at the same time, you see things like RuPaul’s Drag Race becoming so popular, and the idea of the girly gay guy is simultaneously experiencing it’s own renaissance.
But there is still that mountain! There is still the place inside of me I go to, unbidden by anyone in my life at all, that feels less than, unworthy, and ashamed of being thought of as girly (or actually BEING girly). And Tovey’s comments dig a finger into that wound. They make me at first defensive of my sissy side. I’m a sassy, classy homo and I love it. And then they make me a little sad. They make me feel dated, like I’m not up to speed with “The Looking” generation of gays, like I’m the last vestige of fractured faggots from the bad old days of being gay in America, and these new homosexuals are more well rounded fully expressed individuals, and my effeminacy is a function of the culture in which I was raised. If I had parents that wanted to toughen me up would I be more masculine? If I had parents that bought me a sensible pair of heels for my tenth birthday and encouraged me to take ballet, would I be less ashamed that I’m effeminate?
Do Tovey and those Grindr gays have it right? Are gay guys no more or less naturally feminine/masculine than anyone else and the stereotype of a girly gay guy is a cultural mold we have to break out of?
And then there was the last piece, which as last pieces most often do, completed the puzzle for me.
There was the kiss on ABC Family’s “The Fosters” between two 13 year old boys.
That made my heart happy. That made me smile and cry at the same time. Because regardless of the struggles that conflicted old queens like myself might go through trying to reconcile our conflicted sense of self, we are living in a world where programming meant to be watched by families together is featuring normal healthy same-sex attraction. There are little boys, fem or butch, who got to sit down with their parents and see a quick peck of a kiss between two boys, and that was that. It was normal for them. And growing up, they will feel more normal in their own skins as a result of seeing it (and the inevitable plotline it will spawn).
Yes, I’m a sissy. And I’m not sure if I’ll ever be entirely comfortable with that. Yea, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be upset by making gender-queer fashion choices again, but I’ll probably always feel upset that being bad at sports make me cry. And yes, Russel Tovey probably needs to understand his position in our community better before he opens his mouth about that community again, but that lesson seems to have taught itself. But in the end, Mr. Tovey was really just saying he feels grateful to have his job and to be who he is.
And the real hope I have is that my own voice can be one of candor and hope for the generation that comes after, be they gay, straight, bi, trans, or any other way that is a little bit different than the baseline. These past few days have strengthened my own resolve to continue producing content both for young gay readers, and for the communities that they live in. Chiefly my Sebastian Smith, who is also just a bit of a sissy, and faces down dragons anyway.
Because that is the really important thing about the post-closet world we live in. It isn’t about being right or wrong. It is about being honest and vulnerable. There is nothing wrong with Tovey saying he is proud he is masculine, and grateful he wasn’t allowed to be feminine. There are boys that will feel like him, and they need to not feel alone. And it is ok that I cried on the mountain while toddlers out skied me, and that I feel uncomfortable with a baseball glove, but totally excited by a scarf sale at Target. There are boys that will feel like me, and they need to not feel alone. Sure, it’s messy, as it always is when we clean out our closets, but here is the wonderful truth behind all this furor: None of us have to hide anymore. We can be out there, saying the wrong things, the offensive things, snapping at each other like a big gay bitch fest, and everyone can see it. Nobody has to feel alone anymore! Or at least, we are much much closer to that world that we were in the 1980s when I grew up, and we are still heading in that direction of no more fear. We’re on the downslope, whether we pizza or french fry, our destination down at that lodge of self-acceptance is clear (wow, I went a LONG way for that metaphor).
This is the point: Be what you like to be. And don’t be afraid to explore new ways of being. We may have tendencies, but we also have control. Straight guys can go a little metro. Gay guys can get a little rugged. And none of it has to stick if it doesn’t fit.
As always, the most important message is: Be yourself and love yourself.
The rest will work itself out.