Saturday, June 1, 2013

Butch Versus Femme

Maya Dusenbery at The Atlantic points out what a lot of us who are gay have always known, the intimate connection between homophobia and misogyny.  Homophobia always played a central role in enforcing gender norms and heteronormative conformity.

There's no doubt those are stereotypes that need unpacking. Sociologists have long noted that homophobia is a fundamental ingredient of masculinity in modern American culture. In his seminal 1994 article "Masculinity as Homophobia," sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, argued that "homophobia is a central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood." Since homosexuality is associated with femininity, feminizing and anti-gay comments are the primary mechanism for enforcing the boundaries of masculinity. If a guy steps ever so slightly outside of gender norms, his peers will bring him back into line by calling his heterosexuality into question (which implicitly challenges his gender). The pressure to prove and re-prove hetereosexuality is part of what it means to "be a man"—and it pushes men to embrace both homophobia and hypermasculinity. "Homophobia, the fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man, keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women," Kimmel wrote. "Homophobia and sexism go hand-in-hand." 
Homophobia, then, is not simply social disapproval and discrimination against gay people, but an entire cultural structure that disqualifying all but the "most virulent repudiators of femininity" from "real manhood"—in the process upholding gender inequality and maintaining a hierarchy of men based on sexuality, race, class, ability, and so on.
My only argument with this is that I don't think the connection between homophobia and misogyny is all that particularly American.  I look at anti-gay violence in Eastern Europe and the very large role that both misogyny and homophobia play in religious fundamentalist movements of all faiths around the world, and how these attitudes play a central role in anti-imperial resentments in Africa and the Middle East, and I conclude that this unholy alliance between fag-baiting and chick hating is universally male.  "Being a Man" around the world depends on how far a man can distance himself from women and from all things identified as feminine.  And what better way to distance himself than by despising those things extravagantly and hating them violently?

Dusenbery is very skeptical that the new spate of athletes coming out will change the masculine supreme over feminine norm that has always ruled the world (though not without challenge).  In fact, she argues, it might even make things worse for men who are not gender conforming, gay or straight.

In my experience, "masculine" and "feminine" are very maleable roles for gay men that change depending on desire and circumstance.  I don't think of myself as exclusively one or the other.  I've always been comfortable going back and forth between them (in younger days I wore steel toed boots and a leather jacket to go out cruising; and at parties or in the break-room, I happily dropped hairpins and dished with gay friends, and even a few straight ones, male and female).  I doubt my experiences are particularly unique.  I've known men who inhabit feminine or masculine roles exclusively, but most shift from one to the other depending on circumstances.

As for the conventional perception of "toughness," the femmy boys in my experience were always far and away the toughest and the bravest.  They may have been sweet as honeysuckle, but those vines had steel trellises supporting them.  Not only were they toughest about standing up for themselves, but also had the fewest illusions about their situation and about just who was responsible for making life so hard for them and why.  It was the guys who wanted to be seen as "straight-acting" who always had the most issues, and clung most tenaciously to illusions about being accepted if they could "pass."  I think it was Michael Musto (or maybe it was Richard Goldstein) who once asked rhetorically, would we really want a boyfriend to be "straight-acting" between the sheets?

Male and female may be matters of biology (though not the binary that we usually assume), but  masculine and feminine are cultural constructs, and as such are much more maleable than social convention allows us to believe.

Two self portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe:


rick allen said...

"the intimate connection between homophobia and misogyny"

That has always struck me as one of those commonplaces that may, in some instances, be true, but less generally than commonly believed.

When we look at the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, for example, it seems to me that homoeroticism not only co-exists quite easily with misogyny, but largely fuels it. The female is necessary for children, but not really worthy of the noble love that can exist between men.

Similarly, when Christianity begins its rise to prominence, I think we see, hand in hand, a real rise in female status, along with a growing disapproval of sexual relations between members of the same sex.

I don't think I'd propose that as a universal rule, and it would probably take a considerable volume to address the question adequately. But it strikes me as a defensible alternative reading of history.

I have known plenty of heterosexual men who were plainly, and inexcusably, misogynists. But I have also known a few gay men who expressed a contempt for women that most heterosexuals would be loath to admit.

So I'm sceptical about the connection, and certainly see it as far less than universal.

JCF said...

[Cross-posted to the Atlantic article discussion thread]

"stepping too far outside of acceptable gender norms is seen as a problem for everyone"
"Being "straight-acting" is valued—not only in the heteronormative culture at large but within gay communities, too."

These two quotes had resonance for me as masculine female/genderqueer. Even within the larger queer female/lesbian community, there's a lot of butch-disparaging. Just yesterday I read a piece at AfterEllen which was list of "Fifty Things Lesbians Should Stop Doing": most of them were a list of butch attributes (shorter version, "Stop Being Butch").

I fully accept, that for the overwhelming % of people, gay AND straight, attractiveness is defined as a masculine male, and a feminine female. I just wish that for that majority, they could accept that "not personally attractive to me" (the feminine male and/or masculine female) didn't equate to "object to be mocked, rejected-as-disgusting (or worse)".

JCF said...

@rick a:

a defensible alternative reading of history

I really don't think so. Christian misogyny may have been somewhat *different* from pagan misogyny, but hardly any less than. Women, on the *average*, did pretty terribly under both.


But I have also known a few gay men who expressed a contempt for women that most heterosexuals would be loath to admit.

Well, that's the thing: within the rules of camp, gay men are (IMO) strikingly more *honest* than straight men (conversely, straight men usually rein in expressions of misogyny, when trying to get women horizontal).

Counterlight said...

There certainly are gay male misogynists, and there are gay male racists (too many of them I'm afraid). Gay men are still men and subject to a lot of the flaws and weaknesses that come with our gender, like a kind of sovereign sense of entitlement.

That hyper-masculine phallocracy of ancient Greece countenanced not only misogyny, but pederasty as the norm for homosexual relations between men. The modern idea of two men living together as spouses and making a household would be as alien to the ancient Greeks as pederasty is monstrous to us.

The original message of Christianity was indeed liberating for ancient womankind, and many women played leadership roles within the earliest church, even as apostles (Mary Magdalene). Clearly that gender egalitarianism didn't last long. As early as the Pastoral Letters, subordination of women becomes written into law, and has been expanded upon ever since. So much modern Christianity looks less like that earliest spiritual movement to take rejected stones and make them into keystones and more like the old Roman religion of hearth and ancestors where the family was quite literally sacred.

I still think that misogyny, contempt for all things female, plays a central role in modern homophobia, the deepest darkest terror in the hearts of so many men (straight and gay) that they are not "man" enough.