Is it possible to have a meaningful conversation about being a man without descending into broad stereotype? In the main, men are brought up to consider themselves (or aspire to be) strong and resilient – physically, emotionally, financially. The patriarchy has deemed us the norm, which women must either emulate or sit outside.
And yet even within these basic parameters we find complexity and omissions. To whom does the male “us” actually refer? Specifically, how much does the conversation about the male experience limit itself to heterosexual, cisgender men?
Certainly, much of the discourse is relevant to the gay experience. In some ways gay boys enter a society that was made for us – as the boys it wanted us to be. We grow up with male privilege and also shame and self-loathing. One of feminism’s key lessons is that the patriarchy ultimately hurts both men and women, but in quite specific ways gay people prove to be both beneficiaries and victims.
As such, sometimes the social or developmental discourse misses the mark. Teenage boys, for example, often have problems adjusting to their sexuality and overuse pornography, which may breed or consolidate an unhealthy perspective of women in their adult lives. Gay boys may also be using porn but in different ways and with different (or differently harmful) effects – few of which are considered either at school or in mainstream discussion.
The patriarchy often means the worst of all worlds for gay men. Gay men are readily seen as a threat – the Phillip Schofield story gained particular traction because of the homophobic stereotypes of an older, gay predator – but less so as victims. Sometimes gay people are left out of discussions altogether; the conditions and treatment of gay sex workers, for example, is almost completely ignored within the mainstream discourse on porn and prostitution.
The phenomenon perhaps finds its acme in the subject of bodies. Walk into an ordinary gay club or Pride march and you will find a high proportion of sculpted torsos. Gay men grow up with the societal need for male physical prowess and also the message, frequently reinforced by heteronormative culture or outright bullying, that we are not quite men at all – which for some of us leads to a lifelong need to prove that judgement wrong. At the same time, gay culture has absorbed much of the introspection and self-hatred that patriarchy forced on women. We, too, are being encouraged to buy enhanced faces, bodies and styles – but less so by powerful magazine and make-up executives than by each other. According to one study gay teenagers are five times likelier to use steroids than their straight counterparts.
A related issue is sex. Gay men are socialised like straight men but, by definition, live our sex lives differently. We often have more partners than straight men, perhaps accompanied by issues such as addictions, drugs and sexual and mental health, that can get marginalised in mainstream discussions.
Gay teenagers are five times likelier to use steroids than their straight counterparts
Much of the discourse around men focuses on “male pursuits” and “male problems” that alienate gay men. Too often this is limited to how straight men socialise, raise children and form relationships with women. Of course, many gay men like football and the pub, and might have kids or struggle forming friendships and communicating. Yet the conversation is highly reductive.
One key factor is homophobia. Discrimination has not been consigned to the past. Outside of the main gay districts of London men may still fear displaying affection in public, and homophobic attacks have sharply risen.
Then there are society’s expectations of gay men. In some ways we have to be perfect men and also perfect women: chameleons who can float from our ultra-successful jobs and show-homes to either the rugby club or hen do. We call our straight male friends “mate” and our gay and female ones “babe”. We may deftly navigate the world and form our own niche within it, but some of us feel we never fully fit into any space that is not expressly ours.
And yet there are also similarities with straight men, sometimes painful ones – particularly with the power dynamics of gender. Lesbians have long complained that the “gay” label – and spaces – unconsciously (or indeed actively) exclude women. When people talk about gay districts or gay bars they frequently refer to men only. In a mirroring of heterosexual society, lesbians are often seen as an adjunct to gay men, perhaps begrudgingly included in certain discussions but largely subordinate to the more visible male outriders.
Then, of course, comes toxic masculinity. Gay people are not immune to either misogyny or homophobia. The phrases “straight-acting” and “bottom-shaming” speak for themselves. Some gay men wish to be seen as (or be) ultra-masculine straight men who happen to penetrate men. Any other way to be gay, in some quarters – particularly if that involves outward manifestations of femininity – invites a form of disgust.
Which brings us to one form of man frequently ignored by both women and gay men: trans men. In a toxic debate about trans and women’s rights that focuses on trans women’s position in single-sex spaces and sports, the experience of trans men is largely overlooked – particularly within broader conversations about men’s lives. That, too, must change.
There is no one way to be a man, or indeed a gay man. But we cannot have major conversations about men’s upbringing and lives if we only restrict them to straight people.
Jonathan Lis is a political journalist, commentator and broadcaster