When I was still in high school, I remember being a little bit afraid of gay men.
This is a bit ironic, considering I split most of my time in those days between rolling around in Internet gayrotica and having trembly, awkward third-base encounters with some of my girlfriends in my parents’ basement. But I went to an all-girls high school in a largely conservative town. My only guy friends were the tiny handful of dudes I still knew from elementary school and a couple annoying guys from the Jesuit school down the road, none of whom were particularly inclined to come out of the closet.
Meanwhile, I was awkward and soft-bellied and not very stylish or pretty, and all the media I had ever seen had convinced me that all gay dudes would be mean to me for all of the above.
I know. But I was young, dumb and insecure, and was fairly convinced that anyone who saw an excuse to hate me would take it.
By the time I graduated college, of course, I’d made friends with all kinds of people, including gay guys. Most were lovely, wonderful people who would no sooner grope me without my consent or tell me I looked frumpy than they would vote for a ticket that included Paul Ryan.
Recently, Yolo Akili at The Good Men Project sparked controversy when he posted an article about the misogyny of gay men. Even as gay men are hailed as the arbiters of women’s fashion and by proxy women’s bodies, he argues, they’re also given a “pass” of sorts when it comes to blatant sexual harassment.
Akili tells a story about giving a lecture at a college and asking how many men in the audience had touched women without their consent. “100% raised their hands,” he recounts.
In his argument, Akili is addressing two very disparate (albeit, he argues, tangentially related) points: that gay men feel comfortable critiquing women’s fashion and bodies, and that they also feel comfortable physically assaulting them. Akili’s thesis seems to be that one leads to the other -– that giving men control over fashion gives them both verbal and physical access to women’s bodies, the consequences of which gay men don’t face because they’re “exempt.”
First of all, I'm skeptical of Akili’s position on gay men assaulting women without fear of consequence. In my circle of friends, anyway, sexual assault doesn’t get brushed off no matter whom you want to fuck.
I'll try not to rely on too much anecdotal evidence, here, though Akili is clearly doing the same. But thinking back to my college years, in which I ran with a big old touchy-feely, sex-positive group of tortilla chip-eating jerkwads, the only tit-touching that occurred was usually between me and other girls, whether in a platonic or a non-platonic way. If any of my friends -- straight girl, gay guy, somewhere in between -- had tried to grope me without establishing some sort of consent first, I would have side-eyed that mother right out of the state. As would have the majority of my friends.
I could certainly envision a scenario like Akili describes, where a drunken gay man gropes a woman and then uses his sexuality as a justification, but the role of the antagonist is certainly not limited to gay men. It’s limited to assholes.
If a straight girl came up to me on BART, palmed my crotch, and then said, “Oh, no worries, I’m only into guys,” I would straight up kick her in the nuts out of sheer reflex. Akili’s right when he says that this casual bathing-suit-touching is a way that people control women’s bodies; he’s wrong to suggest it’s a behavior only limited to gay men.
In addition to assault, Akili also argues that gay men feel comfortable doling out fashion and body advice without much in the way of tact. On this, I’m a little more inclined to agree -- to a point.
There’s a prevailing stereotype, particularly among younger people, that gay men are either histrionic and bitchy or wide-eyed unlucky-in-love sweethearts who exist to carry their straight girlfriends’ shopping bags around. Sometimes, they end up being both. We’ve all seen examples of the “Sassy Gay Friend”: the good-natured, not-afraid-to-be-in-your-face GBFF who’s just like a ladyfriend, but better! For some reason!
This is the kind of gay man that, until very recently, has been one of the only kinds of non-straight person to regularly appear in mainstream media. And it’s not a negative portrayal, necessarily -– just a one-dimensional one. These guys are people to admire and to have on your side. Unlike women, who are apparently too tied up in their own interpersonal drama to really let loose, Sassy Gay Friends are unafraid to speak their minds. They’re the bro you want to invite over before your first Big Date so they can tell you you’re pretty and give you the tightest leggings for optimal Sausage Effect. (In this universe, gay men always carry around leggings. It’s a superpower.)
Best of all, they don’t want to get into your pants, which everyone knows automatically discounts man-friends from ever being anything more than a sad Seth Myers-type trotting along in your wake. In fact, it’s probably best if they don’t want to get in anyone’s pants –- we don’t want to ruin the illusion! Wink!
Though this stereotype on its own is kind of boring and usually offensive, I did have several guy friends in college who flirted with exemplifying certain aspects of it for a while. When I asked one about it recently, he claimed that it just felt most comfortable for him at that stage in his life. He’d just come out of the closet, he was making new friends in the queer community and elsewhere -- it was easier, he said, to fall back on a relatively tried-and-true narrative until he felt more comfortable with his situation.
Which makes sense, particularly in terms of college-aged guys. If a young queer man sees a certain behavior that allows him to fit in with peers, it’s not surprising that he’d want to emulate it. I remember doing the same thing when I first moved to San Francisco, only instead of glowering in a Forever 21 dressing room I shaved the side of my head and started tormenting bros all the time.
There is an aspect of misogyny to it -- one only needs to listen for the “Stupid bitch” at the end of every Sassy Gay Friend to remember that -- but it’s a complicated one, at best. If straight women are asserting their power over gay men by reducing them to entertainment value, is it reasonable for gay men to try to reassert that power by policing women’s fashion and bodies?
On a general level, no. Though I can’t imagine any of my friends doing it, the thought of a gay man -- or anyone, really -- offering unsolicited body commentary or clothes advice on a street corner somewhere is mildly appalling. But on an individual level, when the straight woman in question has already established that relationship with her friend -- I don’t know. On that level, it feels like that sort of policing would be more acceptable.
The problem is, the line between the two existences often gets blurred. I’ve noticed myself taking on this hardened, downright mean persona toward a lot of straight men recently, just because my individual relationships with some straight guys have been less-than-great. It’s hard to approach every interaction in a vacuum; sometimes, when you condition yourself to enact a persona as a wall between yourself and everyone else, it’s damn hard to remember who you were beforehand.
I’m not saying that gay guys who think it’s acceptable to comment on women’s bodies without invitation should be absolved of being rude or judgey. But I think to label their individual actions as misogynist without recognizing those actions’ merits as a defensive maneuver is to disregard a massive chunk of their experiences.
At times like these, it’s useful to remember that behavior and decency isn’t determined by sexual orientation. It’s not cute to be rude and it’s certainly not acceptable to be an assaulter, no matter whom you want to put your mouth all over.
Kate’s GBFF lives across the country and she misses him. She’s taking applications for a replacement at @katchatters. Caveat: must allow Kate to be YOUR GBFF in return.