The relationship between homophobia and sexism is enduring—if not among today’s youth, at least among gender scholars. As powerful as the linkage between sexism and homophobia seems however, to assume that the two are necessarily always entangled also detracts from the very real ways that men are marginalized for being gay apart from sexism. We do not need sexism to have homophobia, and we do not need homophobia to have sexism.
I have spent 15 years studying the impact of declining homophobia on heterosexual and gay male youth, and it is for this reason that I welcome my friend and mentor, Michael Kimmel’s, comment that declining homophobia among millennial men is ‘incontestable.’ For if there is one defining feature of today’s male youth, it is that they have—with remarkable speed—undone the profound homophobia of Generation X.
While declining homophobia remains an uneven social process, the men of Generation X, as a collective, were expected to loathe homosexuals; millennial men are expected to loathe homophobia instead.
So this brings us to the question Dusenbery asks:
“Is being a feminine man bad because it’s considered evidence that you’re gay? Or is being gay bad because it’s seen as feminine? Or are both bad? And if the association between femininity and gayness is severed, what happens next?”
Fundamentally, this is the wrong question to ask. This is because it cements as permanent the identity that femininity is and will always be stigmatized among adolescent men. The notion that the enactment of being a ‘real man’ has not changed much is profoundly and empirically wrong.
Research on both sides of the Atlantic shows that today’s male youth, athletes and non-athletes alike, embrace codes of femininity that men of Generation X did not. They tell each other they love each other, posting it for other to read on Facebook; they wear pink; they seek to avoid confrontation and value social fluidity, not just jock culture. Today’s youth have decoupled masturbation from homosexuality, freed themselves to care about how they dress; and have been heavily targeted by the cosmetics industry. Above all, there is an increasing amount of physical tactility between straight males. In research (under review) colleagues and I show that of the over 500 heterosexual American undergraduate men surveyed, and 75 interviewed, 40%—across race and class—from 11 disparate American universities—have kissed another male friend (not dad) on the cheek as a sign of homosocial affection; 10% have done so on the lips. This represents a profound change of acceptable masculine behaviors from Generation X. Accordingly, the meanings of what it means to be masculine today are profoundly different than two and three decades ago—and that is irrefutable.
Still, acts that fall too far into the zone of femininity remain stigmatized. This is why transgendered students face a much harsher attitude than gay male students; this is why gender-atypical gay men are targeted for femphobia, whereas gender typical gay men are not targeted for homophobia. This is why gay male athletes are having inclusive, and oftentimes celebrated, experiences among their teammates.
Today’s male youth may not take as aggressive measures against gender-non-conforming men, but they do stigmatize them. But to argue that this means masculinity is not more inclusive, to write off the expansion of gendered behaviors for men because it has not expanded to the ideal degree, is to ignore significant and profound social changes that have positively impacted bot straight and gay male youth.
Masculinity today is larger than it has been in recent decades, freeing more gay and straight men from gender tyranny. So telling your bud that you love him, while embracing him for longer than a two-pat hug after successfully shopping together for skinny jeans and facial moisturizer are not stigmatized feminine activities anymore, they are acceptable parts of inclusive masculinity.
In 1987, Francesca Cancian alerted us to the impact of industrialization on the breadth and separation of gendered spheres. She showed us that one cannot count on gender terrain remaining still. I have spent my academic career showing that since the millennium, masculinity is expanding, incorporating and embracing once highly feminized/stigmatized activities. I cannot say how far this expansion will continue. But the expansion of masculinity, and the loss of a hegemonic ‘jock’ version of it, is directly related to decreasing homophobia.
Men are able to prove that they are masculine, but they are not able to prove that they are straight. One misstep render’s one socially homosexualized, whether one is or is not gay.
It is thus in a culture high in homophobia, where heterosexual men cannot prove that they are straight, but nonetheless despise homosexuality, that men scramble to prove and reprove the impossible—their heterosexuality. It is in this culture that the walls of masculinity narrow. It is in this culture that men fear what Pascoe calls, the specter of the fag. This is a culture of homohysteria, and it is one that any male over the age of 28 will readily recall.
But one needs to be careful in how they measure homohysteria. Pascoe and Kimmel rightfully articulate that, throughout the first decade of the new millennium, words of homophobia, like: ‘that’s so gay,’ ‘no-homo’ and ‘fag,’ increasingly became policing mechanisms of gender, not sexuality. In his book on the changing masculinities of British youth, Mark McCormack shows us that this evolution continues; highlighting that the phrase ‘that’s so gay’ has evolved into a description of dislike without implicating sexuality or gender. Words have multiple meanings. So we, as researchers, must never assume that how words were used by adolescents a decade ago continue to mean the same to adolescents today.
There is also a disturbing theme of situating gender inequality as more important than sexuality inequality in this article—that improved gay rights are less significant because of the continuation of patriarchy. To this, I say that we should celebrate the marked improvement of this generation’s perspectives toward gay men, while continuing to push for improvements in sexism.
Another inaccuracy of the article concerns future fears of a two-tier system for gay men, valuing more masculine gay men compared to feminine gay men. Unfortunately this system already exists, and it has since the Homophile and Mattachine Society identity politics movements of the 1950s. Masculine men have always been more valued than feminine men, even among gay men. Ostensibly, this seems discouraging; until one remembers that what counts as being masculine today is far more feminine than it has been since then. I celebrate this, as I do the fact that declining homophobia has loosened the gender binary for straight male youth as well. Homophobia hurts us all—accordingly its demise helps us all.
By Professor Eric Anderson, PhD, AcSS, University of Winchester, commenting on The Atlantic article, What About the Guys Who Do Fit the ‘Gay Stereotype‘?