Gay Masculinities

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Gay Masculinities

Organized by: Travis D. Speice, University of Cincinnati

A classroom discussion of gay masculinities requires that students understand concepts of gender, sex, and sexuality both as separate concepts, but also how they fit together. As students begin to grasp the (many) ways sexuality and gender are intertwined, they will begin to understand just how complex this is, especially when other “variables” are introduced, such as race/ethnicity, age, religion, family, etc.

From the archives of Gender & Society, I have pulled ten articles that I feel will provide instructors a solid foundation to offer their students. There are articles covering a wide range of topics within gay masculinities to offer an understanding of theory and “practice.” Some articles focus specifically on the intersection of sexuality and gender, while other articles may touch on gay masculinities, but within a specific context (e.g. family).

Beneath each citation, you will find a brief description of the article, as well as suggestions for classroom use. Depending on your class size, composition, and student’s willingness to participate, I encourage you to use these suggestions, or put your own spin on them!

Anderson, Eric. 2002. Openly gay athletes: Contesting hegemonic masculinity in a homophobic environment. Gender & Society 16(6): 860-877.

Anderson’s 2002 article is the first of its kind. He argues that gay athletes challenge the ability of sports as an institution to continue recreating hegemonic forms of masculinity, even if homophobia is still easily recognized. Using a collection of interviews, Anderson presents many findings. None of the athletes Anderson interviewed experienced physical violence themselves, as a result of their coming out. This is surprising, given the amount of homophobia in American society that he refers to. While covert homophobia may still be present, Anderson suggests that the gay athletes’ success in sport (i.e. winning) earned them protection from overt homophobic verbal or physical abuse. It seems as though for the successful gay athlete, their identity as an athlete is accepted, while their identity as homosexual is ignored or silenced in some way. Anderson concludes that hegemony in sports is not fixed, and that gay athletes challenge this structure. This article is written in a tone and style that is accessible to all, balancing theory and practice in a way that undergraduates are sure to connect with. This article would be a great piece to start conversations in class about sexualities, masculinity, and hegemony.

Hennen, Peter. 2005. Bear bodies, bear masculinity: Recuperation, resistance, or retreat? Gender & Society 19(1): 25-43.

Hennen presents findings from his ethnographic study of gay bear culture. He describes bears as organized within gay culture, existing as a subculture of gay men most notably distinguished by their larger, hirsute bodies. Hennen engages with bears and “bear admirers”, discussing what it means to be a bear. He reports that while looks are important, language, mannerisms, and attitude are equally important in participating in the bear subculture. There is a large pressure for bears to reject feminine characteristics from their own performances, and to highlight their own masculinity. Thus, bears are describes as being similar to heterosexual men in most regards (except obviously their sexuality). Although of course there is much variation in how heterosexual men perform masculinity, this is not widely discussed in this article. In this sense, bears attempt to “pass” as straight men based on their performance of traditional masculine characteristics. This article provides a brief, yet detailed look at a gay subculture, demonstrating how some gay men engage in performances of masculinity. 

Valocchi, Stephen. 2005. Not yet queer enough: The lessons of queer theory for the sociology of gender and sexuality. Gender & Society 19(6): 750:770.

In this critical argument piece, Valocchi asks, “What progress has been made in understanding gender and sexuality using a queer framework?” Ultimately, Valocchi argues that sociologists should continue queering the ways we think about sex, gender and sexuality, reminding us that these are socially constructed categories linked to power. This article summarizes and highlights some of the key points associated with queer theory. For instance, while sociologists commonly refer to sex, gender, and sexuality as dichotomous categories (male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual), these are NOT the only expressions of these categories if one is male, they are not necessarily masculine and heterosexual. Queer theory focuses on the marginalized identities, or the “deviant cases” (e.g. the feminine male or the masculine female). Valocchi examines four monographs to identify specific ways sociologists can use a queer approach to better understand these intersections. An excellent article for demonstrating to students how to create critical academic arguments, as well as introducing alternative ways of thinking about gender and sexuality using a queer approach. Challenge students to find ways of “queering” their own performances of gender and sexuality in role-playing exercises where they are given chances to write or act out alternative identities in various situations.

Yeung, King-To, Mindy Stombler, Reneé Wharton. 2006. Making men in gay fraternities: Resisting and reproducing multiple dimensions of hegemonic masculinity. Gender & Society 20(1): 5-31.

Yeung and colleagues explore the concept of hegemonic masculinity within a gay fraternal environment (Delta Lambda Phi) in this 2006 article. Fraternities are argued to be a site traditionally associated with hegemonic masculinity where heterosexuality is assumed by stigmatizing homosexuality in pledging and hazing rituals. This article investigates the ways that gay fraternities incorporate their brothers’ marginalized sexual identity into the fraternal institution, as well as how they relate to women as a result of this all male social environment. The article provides a look into a culture that may be very salient to undergraduates. The authors discuss private identity within gay fraternities, as well as public identities of both the collective fraternity and individual members. Another main purpose of the article is to challenge the gay fraternity’s inclusion and exclusion criteria for membership. It may be useful to hold a debate during class time arguing for the either the inclusion or exclusion of other groups in fraternities like Delta Lambda Phi, such as straight men, bisexual men, women, and lesbians.

Robinson, Christine M., Sue E. Spivey. 2007. The politics of masculinity and the ex-gay movement. Gender & Society 21(5): 650-675.

Robinson & Spivey read between the lines of Christian Rights’s men’s movement to explain that not only is this an antigay movement attempting to “correct” homosexuals, but also a movement that is antifeminist. Relying on Risman’s gender-as-structure theory, Robinson & Spivey discuss gender performance on multiple societal levels. This article explains the ex-gay movement not only as a plan to “fix” homosexuals, but also as a movement that has turned to preventing children from becoming gay. The movement relies on emphasizing traditional gender characteristics, including power asserted by men over women. The core of the ex-gay movement is to rid homosexuals of effeminate behavior and teach gay men how to be masculine. In class, it may be helpful to have students list ways that gender norms are present at individual, interactional, and institutional levels. Ask students to create their own “How-to” guide to being masculine, and then compare these guides among their classmates’. Have students discuss why a guide like this might be problematic (e.g. don’t women play sports?). Additionally, you can ask students to identify contradictions between traditional definitions of masculinity and Christian teachings (aggression is not necessarily valued by Christians, but is encouraged for the masculine man).

Wolkomir, Michelle. 2009. Making heteronormative reconciliations: The story of romantic love, sexuality, and gender in mixed-orientation marriages. Gender & Society 23(4): 494-519.

This article, while not focusing specifically on gay masculinities, provides yet another look at how complicated interpersonal relationships can be. Michelle Wolkomir studies love, gender, and sexuality in mixed-orientation marriages, or MOMs (i.e. marriages who are composed of one straight person and one gay/lesbian person). Wolkomir identifies three types of relationships: gay and straight spouses now divorced, asexual MOMs, and sexual MOMs. The article challenges common conceptions of sexuality that place heterosexuality and homosexuality and strictly dichotomous. Wolkomir also describes other taken-for-granted conceptions about sex and gender, such as husband’s belief that women “naturally” are disinterested in sex, which accounts for why sex had become absent in some marriages (instead of a shift of sexual desire on the part of wives). This article may be a good supplement to other readings of gay masculinities in families.

Rosenfeld, Dana. 2009. Heteronormativity and homonormativity as practical and moral resources: The case of lesbian and gay elders. Gender & Society 23(5): 617-638.

In this article, Rosenfeld extends our understanding of heteronormativity and homonormativity. Particularly useful is Rosenfeld’s section on “passing,” and relies heavily on Goffman’s presentation of self. Throughout this article, the reader is presented with the challenges of understanding personal identity management, as we read how understanding heteronormative practices allows gays and lesbians to pass in straight spaces, but also reaffirms heteronormativity while perhaps further stigmatizing homonormative performances. Rosenfeld relies on 28 interviews with lesbians and gay men, all aged 65 or above. While the article relies on gay and lesbian elder informants, the findings concerning strategies of passing may very well extend to a younger population as well. In the classroom, I would encourage students to generate their own theories as to how passing strategies may be utilized among other groups of individuals.

Anderson, Eric. 2011. Updating the outcome: Gay athletes, straight teams, and coming out in educationally based sports teams. Gender & Society 25(2): 250-268.

In this article, Anderson revisits his 2002 study and compares athletes to a new 2010 cohort. Anderson interviews 26 openly gay athletes and describes differences between the two cohorts. Anderson highlights that athletes in the 2010 cohort report better experiences in coming out to teammates, less heterosexism, and more support from teammates. He describes use of words like “gay” and “fag” were less frequent than the earlier cohort, and that gay athletes had many positive discussions with their teammates about their sexuality. Anderson uses these findings to support his theory of inclusive masculinity, which posits that as homophobia in a culture decreases, multiple masculinities can be respected equally. This is a marked difference from earlier theories of hegemonic masculinity, which argue that only one form of masculinity “sits at the top” of masculine hierarchies. This article is a great tool for classroom discussions of hegemony and masculinity, and especially for demonstrating how concepts of masculinity change over time. A useful classroom discussion might also include asking students to reflect on ways that they have seen shifts in the perception of sexuality and gender in their own lives.

Solebello, Nicholas, Sinikka Elliott. 2011. “We want them to be as heterosexual as possible”: Fathers talk about their teen children’s sexuality. Gender & Society 25(3): 293-315.

This work investigates the thoughts of fathers regarding their teen children’s sexuality. Authors Solebello and Elliott ask 23 fathers during interviews to make sense of their children’s gender and sexuality. They find that while most fathers do not have lengthy conversations about sex or sexuality (instead they describe “spot check” moments where sex is discussed), fathers often describe ways that they coach their children and reinforce – particularly for their sons – heteronormative gender and sexual hierarchies. Solebello and Elliott describe many fathers looking for evidence of their son’s heterosexuality, while simultaneously advising that they not date girls. This is an interesting article that examines the intricately intertwined dimensions of gender and sexuality in a family context. Students will likely recall vividly their own conversations of sex and sexuality with parents and may offer an interesting opportunity to capture their perspectives on these conversations. You might offer students an opportunity to write about how they felt about these conversations with parents. Did their parents talk about sexual orientation with them? Did they participate in activities like girl-watching or boy-watching? How does the family socially construct gender and sexuality in ways that are similar or different from peers and school sex curriculum?

Asencio, Marysol. 2011. “Locas,” respect, and masculinity: Gender conformity in migrant Puerto Rican gay masculinities. Gender & Society 25(3): 335-354.

Asencio’s 2011 article describes how migrant Puerto Rican gay men who have moved to the United States view gender nonconformity. Asencio explores concepts of masculinity and sexuality, asking his participants what it means to be a man, a gay man, and a heterosexual man who has sex with men. Asencio describes how hegemony structures masculinity from a different cultural perspective, and shows that there are some similarities and some differences in the ways that masculinity and sexuality are viewed in Puerto Rico and the United States. For migrant gay men, they must be aware of both as they manage multiple marginalized statuses. In the classroom, concepts of heteronomitivity, homonormativity, and cultural definitions of sexuality and gender will be good starting points for dialogue among students. You might ask students to work in groups to discuss how race/ethnicity specifically becomes important for these migrant gay men, and what other examples they are aware of within the United States (e.g. Black men on the down low, gay-for-pay straight men, or white “dude-sex”).

Oselin, Sharon S. and Kristen Barber. 2019. “Borrowing Privilege: Status Maneuvering among Marginalized Men.” Gender & Society 33(2): 201-223.

Research shows people confront social marginalization through work, yet this scholarship largely ignores people working in illicit markets. We address this gap by investigating how and to what end men in street prostitution “borrow” privilege from their more structurally advantaged clients. Drawing from interviews with men of color in street sex work, we show how they “status maneuver” to offset stigmatized identities tied to prostitution and to construct a masculinity that offers a greater sense of social worth within constrained circumstances. These men ironically rely on status differences between themselves and their white, wealthy men clients to undermine their own oppression and to create possibilities for momentary associations with hegemonic masculine privilege. This research shows how barriers between the powerful and powerless are permeable, and how social hierarchies serve as resources to cope with the inequitable conditions and stigma under which some people live and work.

Pollitt,  Amanda M., Brandon A. Robinson, and Debra Umberson. 2018. “Gender Conformity, Perceptions of Shared Power, and Marital Quality in Same- and Different-Sex Marriages.” Gender & Society 32(1): 109-131.

Research on gender inequality within different-sex marriages shows that women do more unpaid labor than men, and that the perception of inequality influences perceptions of marital quality. Yet research on same-sex couples suggests the importance of considering how gender is relational. Past studies show that same-sex partners share unpaid labor more equally and perceive greater equity than do different-sex partners, and that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are less gender conforming than heterosexuals. However, studies have not considered how gender conformity might shape inequalities and marital quality within same- and different-sex unions. In this study, we analyze dyadic data from both spouses in same- and different-sex marriages to explore how sex of spouse and gender conformity influence perceptions of shared power within the relationship, which, in turn, influences marital quality. Results show that greater gender conformity is related to stronger perceptions of shared power in different-sex and male same-sex couples but not in female same-sex couples. Perceptions of shared power are positively associated with marital quality in all union types. Our findings suggest that maintaining hegemonic masculinity and power inequalities may be salient to marriages with men. In female same-sex couples, gender and its relation to power inequalities may carry less meaning.