In a world where anyone can be anything, what does it mean to be gay?
In answer to that first question: yes, I am.
I’m part of the 1.5% of men in Britain who identify as being gay, and I’m proud of it. Having been bullied about it for the best part of a decade, I’ve moved to London and become a proud gay man.
But what does it mean to be a ‘gay man’ in 2014?
A stupid question? After all, being ‘gay’ is technically just being sexually attracted to the same sex. Hey, look in the dictionary and it tells you it means either that or being happy.
But it’s not just that, there’s the whole history of gay culture to boot. There has always been something or someone that unites gay men. Take the Stonewall riots, when people fought for gay rights. Or a Madonna gig; you’ll be hard pressed to find a heterosexual man there who hasn’t been dragged by his partner.
Switch on the television and there are a whole host of gay men on there. In fact, in the next month, four shows about gay men will start: HBO’s ‘Looking’ and Channel 4’s ‘Cucumber’, ‘Banana’ and ‘Tofu’ (named, rather ingeniously, after the three stages of the male erection).
Despite all being different – ‘Looking’ is about the San Francisco gay scene, ‘Cucumber’ about a middle-aged gay couple, ‘Banana’ about young gay people and ‘Tofu’ about gay sex – all four aim to represent the ‘21st Century’ gay person. Who is that person though?
Perhaps the best place to start on my search is the dating app ‘Grindr’. Launched in 2009, the app was designed as a way for gay men to meet other gay men in their local area. Joel Simkhai, founder and CEO of Grindr, says that the app is a “useful and fun way for gay guys to connect with other guys and to orient themselves in a world where most people are straight.”
And it has worked. Five years on from the launch and the app boasts six million users across 192 countries. The average user will spend an estimated 1.5 hours on the app every day. What was once described by Vanity Fair as the “world’s biggest, scariest gay bar” changed the dating landscape forever (and paved the way for apps such as Tinder and Scruff),
Open the app and you are bombarded with stereotypes. ‘Twinks’ (hairless teenagers/twenty-somethings), ‘otters’ (hairy teenagers/twenty-somethings), ‘bears’ (hairy muscular/fat men) and ‘daddys’ (older men) hit you straight away.
Perhaps the most worrying stereotype though is ‘straight-acting’, which is a gay man who wears khaki and comfortable shoes. Well, sort of anyway. In 2009, scholar Shinsuke Eguchi said that gay men label themselves as ‘straight-acting’ “because [they] want to achieve hegemonic masculinity to overcome gay effeminate images.”
The term itself connotes that being homosexual is in some way inferior to being heterosexual. It’s bizarre that now we have some equality, some gay men are disregarding gay culture as not as desirable as the mainstream. Is gay culture nothing more than the ‘Calvin Klien’ boxers we wore until we could get the real thing?
One man who can definitely afford the real thing is Sam Smith, whose debut album ‘In the Lonely Hour’ made him the only artist in 2014 to sell a million records on both sides of the Atlantic. Most of that album is about Smith’s loneliness and unrequited love for a straight man.
But he shied away from being a ‘gay icon’. In an interview earlier this year with Digital Spy, Smith admitted to not wanting to be a spokesperson for the gay community.
Obviously, that’s his prerogative. But is this his way of calling himself ‘straight-acting’? Is it his way of ‘straightening’ up his image?
I wonder whether it’s his way of disregarding gay culture. He is a gay man designed for straight people; the kind of gay man who wants to settle down, get married and have children.
It’s a thoroughly modern take on homosexuality. Heck, we were only allowed to get married properly in March.
But it’s a trend that is very much in the forefront. I’ve lost count of the number of guys I’ve seen on Tinder who describe themselves as ‘straight-acting’ and are looking for a ‘serious relationship’. They will also include in their bio one of the following: a love of gin, tea or both.
Perhaps this trend is just an example of internalised homophobia. Internalised homophobia is when LGBT people are homophobic towards other gay people because of other influences in their lives (for example, someone may feel a hatred of flamboyant people because a parent made a comment about a drag queen).
In an interview with Mashable, clinical psychologist Matthew Weissman Ph.D. talks about how locality can make fuel internal homophobia. He says that “when you’re a social minority, it’s so important to make contact with communities to avoid being isolated.”
Could it be that internalised homophobia is shaping the modern gay man? You no longer need to live in a ‘gay area’ to come out and be accepted. But does being gay in a small town or village make it harder to be gay because there aren’t many other gay people to look up to?
One particular place where homophobia is rife is football. A recent study by Football v Homophobia revealed that 70% of football fans have heard some form of homophobia in the last five years. Heck, the first (and last) time I worked at Wembley Stadium someone questioned why a “poof” would be working here. It certainly wasn’t for the outfit (an oversized fleece, fyi).
The internalised homophobia in football could shape the way gay men are today. There are no openly gay men in British football. Imagine going to a match, seeing lots of ‘straight-acting’ men and hearing homophobic language. Even if you did manage to come out, it may never feel right.
One man who did manage to come out in football is Robbie Rogers (albeit once he thought he was going to retire). In his coming out blog post, Rogers wrote about how he wanted to leave football to explore this new part of his life. He signed to LA Galaxy shortly after.
Maybe that’s what being gay today is all about: being gay, but not having it as the central focus of a career. This is different to being ‘straight-acting’, who in their pursuit of hiding their ‘gayness’, make it the forefront of their being. Rogers campaigns against homophobia, covers gay magazines (the Attitude cover remains one of their best), but he’s doing exactly what he wants.
‘Doing whatever you want’ is something that Jake Arnott wrote about in his book ‘The Long Firm’. The book is about the East End gangster, Harry Starks, who is gay. In the book, the characters are part of the gay scene, but still are involved in the crime. Set in the 60s, this representation shows that being gay could be just a tiny part of someone.
In an interview with The Guardian, Arnott describes the book as “an unexpected gay read – it turns the conventions of gay fiction on their heads”. Although it changes the conventions, does it just offer the most real representation of what it’s like to be gay? Admittedly, not every gay man is a criminal, but sexuality isn’t someone’s one defining trait.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a new wave of gay culture, which harks back to the eighties. Voguing is back. The first time I saw voguing was, much like many young gay men, in Madonna’s video for ‘Vogue’. There’s something magical about the speed and precision of the hand movements. I’m just about getting it, fifteen-or-so years later.
The roots of the dance lie on the pages Vogue magazine: sharp, model-like poses. It was first danced by the gay black and latino men of the 1960s. In a piece for The Guardian, Kenya Hunt argues that Voguing is back in fashion because of increasing gender non-conformity in fashion.
One of the first times I saw voguing in the flesh was in a gay bar in Dalston. The bar was filled with bearded men posing like Naomi Campbell. These were not the ‘flaming queens’ that the ‘straight-acting’ gays love to hate, more just men who work nine-to-five jobs and like to dance on the weekend.
The drag queen is as much a part of gay culture as plaid is a part of lumberjack. One drag act who is particularly vocal about gay culture is Adore Delano. Having come joint second on the last series of RuPaul’s Drag Race, she has since launched a pop career (her single ‘DTF’ is excellent).
RuPaul’s Drag Race is often criticised for using the catchphrase ‘She-Mail’ (it’s a play on ‘Tyra Mail’ from America’s Next Top Model). In an interview with Attitude, Adore responded to this critique, saying that “we all grew up being called a “faggot”. We all have these negative words thrown at us. You are what you respond to.”
Is this the thing that I’ve been looking for? In today’s society, has ‘gay culture’ diversified because we don’t care quite so much about being called these names. Could this have stopped a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby people who get called ‘queer’ act in a stereotypically ‘queer’ manner?
Also pushing the envelope is Perfume Genius. Unlike Sam Smith, who sings pretty much about universal love, he tackles what it’s like to be gay.
In particular, 2014’s ‘Queen’ is a rousing rock song about being confident, despite the age-old gay stereotypes that some people still hold true to their hearts. Perfume Genius (real name: Mark Hadreas) calls it the ‘gay panic’. He does this, all whilst wearing a suit, leather bondage straps and plum lipstick.
So, is this what a gay man in 2015 should be? The kind who says “fuck you” to the world, and does whatever he wants. In a recent interview with Attitude, Hadreas talked about being a flamboyant gay man in pop. He said that “it’s very valuable that people are saying it’s not that big a deal. I feel more of a duty to continue to push it.” Perhaps that’s what it means to be gay today: having an appreciation of every kind of man.
After all, the gay community has always been accepting of its own. If sexuality wasn’t important, there would be no queue outside Heaven on Saturday night. There would be no gay magazines. There would be no Old Compton Street. I guess that’s the thing: no matter what you do, the gays look after each other.
So, what is a 21st century gay man?
He’s a football loving, Madonna worshipping, beard growing, head-to-toe shaven, married, down to fuck, feminine, masculine, beer-drinking, flower loving man. Anything he wants to be, in other words.
Just as long as he’s proud.