When I began to consider the possibility of coming out as a gay male, I imagined the announcement would trigger a series of predictable phases. First, there would be a bit of a shock. A handful of friends would be surprised. Some would say they knew all along. Some would simply congratulate me. Then, there would be the embrace. I would be welcomed into the gay community, a world full of rainbows and hugs and all that jazz.
This all happened, to an extent. But really, the first thing I vividly remember about joining the gay community was a series of messages on Grindr.
“Sorry, not into chest hair.”
“You look real masc.”
Some of you are probably just as confused as I was at the time. What the hell is an otter? Why in the world are you abbreviating the term “masculine?” Is this a thing? This was my virtual introduction to the categorical homogenization of Pittsburgh’s homosexual community. It wasn’t rainbows. There were no hugs. Just a group of guys jumping to label me as a certain type of gay male.
Granted, Grindr was not best place to start. For those of you unfamiliar with this whole ordeal, Grindr is a location based smartphone application that displays the closest gay/bi/closeted/married men based on their proximity. Press the orange box, and thumbnail images of torsos, height/weight statistics, and petty ramblings on personal preferences appear on your screen. As empty and dense as it was, this was initially the most convenient way for me to interact with other gay men.
After performing as a straight male for upwards of 20 years, I suddenly had higher standards for my body image, speech and fashion than I had ever experienced in the heterosexual community. Was I in good enough shape? What is it, exactly, that makes someone masculine? I had this urge to mold my identity into this projected ideal image of a gay man. Why? So that so that someone’s thumbnail image of a torso would talk to me. I was getting a glimpse into the societal pressures that heterosexual women feel every day, forced to live up to the body image standards of men.
And I had it easy. I wasn’t being labeled a bear or cub, or being blocked because of my skin color, or being called names like queen, fairy or fem. There are plenty of people who suffer from body image issues far worse than mine; who wake up every day thinking they’re inadequate or undesirable because some anonymous profile deemed them as such; and who are driven into the same suicidal thoughts that they attempted to extinguish by coming out in the first place.
As much as we can’t let Grindr represent the entire gay community, in some ways it acts as a fairly candid microcosm for the scope of homosexual categories, social behaviors and desires, perhaps presenting an even more brutal honesty than the porn industry. (Many feminist scholars, most notably Catharine MacKinnon, delve heavily into how pornography tells us a lot about pure, or at least blunt sexual desire). There are plenty of gay men don’t associate with Grindr, but many who do contribute to a terrifying introduction to the world of gay social interaction.
Grindr is a virtual world of avatars, most of which strive to project that they possess the qualities of the ideal, desirable gay man.
A place where black men white-out their picture in attempts to pass as white men.
Where people claim to be straight, or “straight-acting” to attract other gay men.
Where femininity is masked and degraded, and masculinity is cherished and sought after.
Where overweight men either embrace obesity to align with a “bear” or “cub” identity, or are told to lose weight.
Where young homosexual men are told to identify as top or bottom, white or black, jock or bear, twink or otter, masc or fem.
Men who spent the entirety of their childhood being bullied by straight guys, are being told that if they act straight, they’ll be more sought after in the gay community.
Black men who spent their whole lives terrified in behind the closeted doors of the African-American community, and hindered by white privilege, are being asked to pass as the very race that degrades them.
Tops are idealized. Bottoms are degraded. Gym regimens are requested. Height-weight proportions are mandatory. And here I am wondering: is this what Dan Savage meant by “It gets better?”
Surely, coming out of the closet can be relieving, life-changing, or even life-saving. And in reality, the gay community can be remarkably accepting. But as the movement for gay rights has reached what many consider to be the height of its progression, we still have a long way to go. Perhaps, if more men are encouraged to be open about their sexuality, we can take more steps to break down the homogenization that hinders a community that should be united in establishing a welcoming, anti-discriminatory environment for its own members.
Moreover, we can view this desire to homogenize the gay community as a product of childhood bullying. Growing up surrounded by straight boys who degrade femininity — whether it be women or gay men — has imprinted the masculine, muscular white man as an ideal image to the homosexual male. And now, gay men can’t help but pass on the detestation.
Part of me wants to blame it all on the heterosexual community caught up in the traditional masculine/feminine gender roles. But as much as they can be held responsible, and should realize that their bullying destroys thousands of lives, the gay community should also step forward to put a stop to its own alienating habits. Why should we ask straight men to stop degrading femininity if we can’t follow our own demands?
If you’re reading this and debating whether to come out of the closet, don’t let this scare you. Coming out is as relieving as it is terrifying. Just be prepared to take a stand against discrimination, and embrace your own identity.
If you’re a straight male, hopefully you’ve learned a little about how you might have unknowingly contributed to discrimination in a community other than your own. Stop bullying, and start allying.
If you’re an out and proud gay male, do your part to fight the norm. You can advertise your sexual preference without making others feel alienated or unwanted.
It gets better, but there’s surely room for much more improvement.
Michael Bennett is a 2012 graduate of Dickinson College, where he studied English and dabbled in sports writing. He currently tends bar at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the heart of Pittsburgh, PA. When he isn't stirring martinis, he edits and writs for Poetic Justice, his blog on hip-hop, race, and culture at PoeticJustice.me.