“As a gay, you understand that while you’ll always find peers who allow you to be exactly as queeny as you are, there is still a social hierarchy that puts a premium on masculinity. Tops are valued. “Straight-acting” is a badge of pride, despite the term’s corrosiveness…”
What comes up for you when you digest that?
Darren: It resonates with a lot of messages I got as a young boy. As a teenager the boys (myself included) talked about girls and sex in a very aggressive way. It was all about ‘fucking girls’ in a very competitive and dominating manner – harsher and more forceful, the better it looked. It was a very inhuman way of discussing and exploring our evolving sexual needs and intimacy. Funnily enough I did not really apply the same approach when I thought about having sex with men, it just was attached to the idea of sex with girls. I had no idea how sex would look or feel like with boys.
Ade: Yes, it resonates for me too. One of the stories my foster mum often tells from my childhood is that I loved playing with dolls, but my birth parents were not happy about this and started buying me what they considered ‘toys for boys’. Looking back it was certainly a case of ‘boys do not do that’. We see much of that around in popular gay culture. So in some personal ads, we see things like ‘must be straight acting’! I guess it’s all about the stereotypes around manhood and masculinity and being a gay man.
So when you think of the term ‘gay man’, what images come up for you?
Darren: When I first went to a gay bar the stereotyping was very strong. As I looked around there were guys who were very much portraying the ‘female’ and those portraying the ‘male’ and both were artificial. The female persona was as exaggerated as the male. For instance there were big moustaches and even construction hats and there were flouncy blouses and crotch hugging trousers! Neither really had any relevance to me and I consciously chose to avoid fitting into either role
When I think of ‘gay man’ now, my first thoughts are of the ‘clues’ that tell me a guy is gay. It can be obvious like something they are wearing (clothes that are too tight for instance!) or it can be more subtle like the way they look at me or other men. But this is just the outward signs. The question of ‘what is a gay man’ goes a lot deeper than this and it is something I don’t think I have a real handle on yet.
Ade: One of my biggest fears when I was not openly out as gay was about me not wanting to be like ‘the other gays’. I had no idea what that really meant, but there was something around – I wanted to be a gay that would be accepted by my parents. In my mind I guess this meant I wanted to be a straight man, who just happened to be gay. So I stayed clear of everything gay. Did not have gay friends or go to gay venues. In fact, I sadly remember being repulsed by gayness – I once saw two men holding hands in Soho and I remember feeling sick. For many years, I struggled with what being a gay man meant and carried deep shame about who I was.
For me, a gay man I guess is someone who is emotionally and physically attracted to other men… and him being that way does not diminish his identity as a man in any shape or form.
Darren: Strangely, when I think about it I see that in many ways gay men are further along the spectrum of masculinity because they are attracted to other men. As straight men are attracted to women it seems they are more interested / curious about the feminine!
Ade: There is something in popular culture that still sees being gay as ‘less than a man’. And I think for many parents and gay men that’s where shame starts to creep in – because it sadly develops into a narrative of ‘there is something wrong with you/me’.
Darren: Yes I agree. And all that stuff is ‘out there’
When people have close or immediate contact with the reality (i.e. real gay people) then I think these ideas start to dissolve and people are just seen as people. Sometimes however these fears are held onto by people even though there is real evidence right in front of them to the contrary
Ade: But don’t you think that some people still have those views when they meet some ‘real gay people’ and they therefore take the stereotype to be truth, because it has been confirmed. So in our workshops for gay men, we often hear some say ‘I don’t like being with gay men’, ‘I don’t have any gay friends’, or ‘gay men just want sex and not intimacy’.
Darren: I think they can impose those fears onto their experience of gay men. I also think that gay men can perpetuate those beliefs and fears by behaving in ways that confirm them. So it happens on 2 fronts. But I think that when we simply allow ourselves to be ourselves (easier said than done) then we either meet people (both gay and straight) who are either prepared to let go of pre conceived prejudices or want to hold onto them.
For parents this presents the challenge of letting go of a whole set of expectations and hopes for their child, which can be very distressing.
Ade: I think for many gay men we simply don’t know otherwise. Its gradually starting to change as we are now seeing images and narratives that show us that gay men come in different shapes, sizes and with individual stories and that there is no one type of gay man. But there is still a long road to travel in terms of navigating being a man and being gay – deconstructing manhood and how that intersects with being gay.
So statements like, ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘you are so gay’ are often not said as a compliment, but as a put down. I feel that for many gay men who are not doing the inner work, there is a sense of ‘I don’t know anything other than what is around’ – i.e, I don’t know another way of being. Some become attached to it and some end up fleeing from it.
Darren: Yes. It’s about re connecting with that part of ourselves at a very deep level and nourishing, honouring and cherishing it. What that part looks like- I suppose we are still trying to find out. We have spent so long defending, hiding, masking and avoiding that we have stopped looking at the thing we are trying to protect
And I think the language we use to explore this is restrictive. Masculine/ feminine is a very heterosexual measurement.
Maybe we need to create another language to fully explore without everything being seen through the lens of heterosexuality. ‘Top’ and ‘bottom’ are terms that use a power based idea of heterosexuality as the template – with the woman being bottom and the man being top.
Ade: I think it’s down to our interpretation of the language. So rather than interpreting human sexuality as fluid, we often see it as fixed.
For me it feels like there is a range along the grid of masculine and feminine, and we all – straight, gay and bi – move along and across it – in different ways – emotionally, physically (sexually), spiritually and intellectually. I think this is what is means to be human; after all we were all created when a sperm and an egg met, so we all have the masculine and feminine, so it makes sense that we have access to both. And this is where the whole issue of gay identity starts coming in – being gay is not simply about what I do with my genitals, its much more than that!
Darren: Yes. I suppose it has been about asserting a hierarchy within that grid with women and gay people coming off badly.
Ade: Indeed. Traditionally straight (white) men held power and anyone other than that had to fight for a place at the table.
So when you think of our campaign ‘Are you (gay) man enough’, what comes up for you?
Darren: Well we are playing with the idea of ‘Being a man’ and turning it on its head. I think we want to engage in a conversation about what ‘being a Gay man’ means at a deeper level. It’s what we do in our workshops and the campaign is intended to capture the curiosity of those who would like to join that conversation. What do you think?
Ade: Yes, I agree. For me it’s also about reimagining what being a gay man means – which ultimately is decided by individual exploration and interpretation.
When I think of the campaign, I also think of us as gay men asking each other – ‘Are you courageous enough to be curious about what it means to be a gay man?’, ‘Are you courageous enough to go on this exploration?’, ‘Are you courageous enough to go deeper to find out?’, ‘Are you courageous enough to dare to live an authentic life as a gay man, based on your own interpretation of what that means?’
Darren: So the word ‘courage’ features largely and I think rightly so.
Ade: Yes, that is certainly the main thing I have learnt since us embarking on The Quest. The guys who join us for the weekend workshop all take that leap into courage when they sign up and arrive on the Friday. And when they leave on the Sunday, they leap even further into courage, and that leaping, as we both know is ongoing.
Darren: Absolutely. I look forward to discovering how people respond to our ‘Are you (gay) man enough?’ stickers!