The other day I was involved in a conversation about what men can do to stop rape. One of the participants was a young university student who is articulate, energetic, funny, and charismatic. He is also gay, and he doesn’t care who knows it. And that’s a real strength when it comes to doing men’s anti-violence work. Because when we men do this work, other people – mostly men – often either make the assumption that we are gay, or they try to level “gay” at us as an accusation.
I speak out against rape. I speak out against all forms of violence against women. And I often encounter “You must be gay.” It is almost never said in a positive way.
When I was in university these attacks were quite visible. I lived in a student residence. One morning I awoke to find the words BILL PATRICK SUCKS COCK! spray-painted on the wall outside my room. (This was in retaliation for my pro-feminist activism on campus.) Two close male friends of mine came over to support me. These friends, who happened to be gay themselves, humorously declared: “Well, if they really wanted it to be an insult, they needed to write: ‘Bill Patrick sucks cock... badly!’”
I am certainly not the first pro-feminist man to be called “gay” as a form of attack, and I unfortunately won’t be the last. But I would like to take a moment to address the phenomenon of why those of us who speak out against men’s violence are so often called “gay” – and to talk a little bit about how we can respond to this supposed slur.
The two most damning insults that we level at men in North American society are that they are either woman-like or that they are gay. (Actually, this is only true for white men. There are plenty of other vicious names that we sometimes call men who don’t happen to be white.) But the most hurtful way to attack a white guy is to go after his masculinity. We call him a woman, a girl, effeminate. And – with the profound ignorance that always accompanies bigotry – we confuse the issue of sexual orientation with the issue of gender identity, and, in a further attempt to bring this man’s masculinity into question, we call him “gay.”
(The presumption gay men are never masculine is of course absurd, and it quickly vaporizes when one learns even the most basic truths about our gay communities.)
But why do we try to attack the masculinity of a man who speaks out against violence against women? Because he is calling into question some of the basic tenets of what comprises traditional masculinity – the very notion of what it means to be a man. He is taking on the antiquated ideas that “boys will be boys” regardless of the consequences, that men are innately violent, that men are naturally sexually aggressive, and that men should be able to dominate women. To speak about respect, about mutuality, about collaboration, and about consent is to speak about a new way of being for men that honours the humanity of women. To many unenlightened men, this is a huge threat, and they will lash out however they can. And the most common way that they do so is to call the speaker “gay.” This can be a very effective way of silencing some men who would like to speak out against men’s violence – but who feel hindered from doing so for fear of being thought of as gay.
So just how can we respond to “You must be gay!” and ensure that it does not silence the voices of those men and boys who would like to speak up for gender justice? Here are a few possibilities:
Don’t deny it. Unless you think that to do so would put you in immediate physical danger, do not deny the suggestion that you are gay. When you respond to the allegation that you are gay with a denial, you collude with the accuser in his implication that there is something wrong with being gay. You abandon your gay brothers, and you endorse the notion that gay men should not be listened to on these issues. The reality is that what you have been saying has made this person nervous. Consider letting him continue to sit in the ambiguity of not knowing whether you are gay or not.
Ask him why it matters. Whether a man who is speaking about new roles for men is gay or not is irrelevant. If the questioner/attacker’s supposition is that gay men have nothing useful to say about relations between men and women, refute this. And add that just as with heterosexual situations, people in same-sex contexts must also negotiate issues of power, mutuality, respect, and consent.
Examine and heal your own pain. If the attacker's implication that you are not “manly” enough hurts you, this is a wound that needs to be healed. The truth is that anyone who identifies as a man is de facto manly enough, and anyone who has brought you shame around these issues was wrong to do so. Whether we are masculine, feminine, neither, or somewhere in between, we who identify as men are all manly enough!
Cleanse yourself of homophobia. If being called “gay” causes uncomfortable feelings to emerge within you, this is another wound that needs to be healed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay. And there is nothing wrong with other people thinking that you might be gay. If being called “gay” makes you feel bad, then you probably have more work to do on this issue.
Address what is going unsaid. When a man who speaks out against rape gets called “gay,” something really, really horrible has just been implied about straight men – that all straight men endorse rape. When you get called “gay” for criticizing men who get women drunk in order to assault them, the person who called you “gay” just called all straight guys rapists. And that’s not o.k. Point out this implication.
Resist being bullied. Understand that someone calling you “gay” for speaking out is quite possibly an attempt to bully you into conforming to regressive gender norms about men and women. Resist the bully! Don’t let him control you!
And, finally, one possible response is simply to be gracious:
Just say: “Thank you.”
I have been working on a lesson about friendship for 10th grade boys that incorporates how homophobia often dictates their behavior with one another. The thoughts you've shared here will be making their way into their lesson this Saturday. Great post!