A very “gay” straight?

The phrase “No Homo” entered the cultural lexicon approximately 20 years ago.  Initially associated primarily with hip-hop culture, “no homo” is a linguistic method that allowed certain hip-hop artists to co-opt elements of gay culture while selectively “de-gaying” them at the same time (like Cam’ron’s penchant for pink or when DMX discusses other men fellating him to illustrate his status among peers).  It’s a phrase that enables heterosexual men to, perhaps, expand the recognizable boundaries of heterosexual masculinities by symbolically reinforcing the heterosexuality of those performances. Cultural critics couldn’t agree as to whether the phrase was helping to expand the available performative terrain of contemporary masculinity or if it was merely a new form of homophobia and sexual prejudice. Some of the men in my own research used the phrase.  But beyond that, my research suggests that “no homo” is part of a larger transformation in masculine identities among young heterosexual men today whereby some young men endeavor to expand the culturally intelligible boundaries of heterosexual masculinities.

In my article, “A Very ‘Gay’ Straight?: Hybrid Masculinities, Sexual Aesthetics, and the Changing Relationship between Masculinity and Homophobia,” I examine an odd practice. Heterosexual-identified men in each of the three groups I ethnographically studied over two years described aspects of themselves as “gay.”  Beyond this, however, they did this in such a way that it was clear that they hoped to garner status as heterosexual from the practice.  These men attempted to capitalize on what I call the “aesthetic” elements of gay culture in ways that accessorized—but did not fundamentally challenge—their heterosexual identities or systems of gendered and sexualized power and inequality.

My study compares the gender performances and politics of three very different groups of men: a profeminist men’s group, an anti-feminist fathers’ rights activist group, and a group of male bar regulars.  I was interested in varying both commitments to gender political positions as well as levels of reflexivity about gender inequality.  So, both profeminists and fathers’ rights advocates are extremely reflexive about gender inequality (while my bar regulars were much less so), but they had dramatically different understandings of what “gender inequality” actually meant.  Not all of the men in my study engaged in this practice, but men in each of these groups selectively “queered” elements of their heterosexual identities in similar ways, and—I argue—with similar consequences.

I argue that this practice is part of a larger process of hybridization through which contemporary young, white, straight men are incorporating elements of marginalized Others (non-white masculinities, gay masculinities, lower-class masculinities, and sometimes, femininities too) in ways that have shifted the look and feel of some contemporary performances of masculinity.  Yet, whether straight men’s willingness to “borrow” elements of marginalized Others is symptomatic of a move toward greater levels of gender and sexual equality is a very different question.

My findings indicate that heterosexual men’s classification of aspects of themselves as “gay” is better understood as perpetuating or obscuring systems of power and inequality in new ways than as challenging them.  The practice ends up shoring up heterosexual masculinities, privilege, and inequality in a few different ways.  First, reifying these elements of gay culture as “gay” plays a critical role in perpetuating beliefs in the pre-social nature of sexuality, symbolically solidifying boundaries between gay and straight men.  Second, the practice enabled these men to discursively distance themselves from specific configurations of culturally dominant masculinities, but not necessarily the privileges associated with them.  Third, the practice implicitly softens more authentic claims to sexual inequality.  By claiming that “gay guys… are just more fun,” these men co-opt elements of gay masculinities and culture in ways that obfuscate their position in the gender and sexual hierarchy, but do little to challenge the existence of such hierarchies.

By Tristan Bridges on his article, “A very ‘gay’ straight?: Hybrid masculinities, sexual aesthetics, and the changing relationship between masculinity and homophobia,” available through Gender & Society‘s OnlineFirst.


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