The Troubling Contours of the Gay Aesthetic

This article was originally published on Medium.

Minority status does not insulate communities from self-evaluation and criticism, nor does it relieve minority group members from treating each other with, if not love or respect, then basic human decency. The gay community is no exception. As gay men, we need to look at our collective reflection and ask if we are comfortable with what we see.

This past autumn, I joined a gay social sport team. At the end of the season, I wrote a humorous and satirical essay about my experience on the team. The blowback I received for that essay from gay men threatened to drown out the support I received from others for portraying the league in a satirical manner.

I was called a joke, told I “had a mark on my head” and was mockingly and repeatedly referred to in the feminine. Perhaps most tellingly was a Facebook comment that said I had gravely erred by messing with the “wrong people.”

The problem wasn’t that I had not messed with the wrong people — it was that I had. Gay culture touts the values of inclusion, togetherness and tolerance, but is punishingly unforgiving to dissenters and misfits.

Like many gay men, I was savagely bullied in high school. I was both effeminate and overweight, which made me an easy target for physical and verbal abuse. My experience is not unique and many have had, and unfortunately will have, experiences similar or worse than mine.

When we think of bullying, we often think of the severe effects it has among youth, but the impact on adults can be devastating too. As Professor Ellen Walser deLara of Syracuse University discusses in her book , adult post-bullying syndrome is characterized by a struggle with self-esteem and trust problems, struggles that are particularly pronounced in the gay community.

The gay aesthetic is not an easy one. Body beautiful and narcissism lies at the heart of it. Attending the best and most expensive gym is emblematic of success and desirability. Dating profiles are laden with photos of men practically naked and biographies stressing the importance of the gym and workout classes. Some gay dating applications are mainly photos of muscular arms and torsos, instead of faces.

Rejection is swift, often cruelly expressed and fittingly anonymous. At least you could see the bullies before. Now, gay men hide behind statuesque physiques and anonymous online profiles. Gay culture replicates the world’s obsession with women’s bodies within its own community. It plucks our past experiences of shame and bullying and projects them inwards. As the saying goes, history bears repeating.

“Masculinity” also forms a key part of the aesthetic. Possessing perceived feminine qualities is diminished, even loathed. Gay males often express a preference for masculine men, expressed as “masc for masc” or “no femmes.” This preference most certainly disqualifies me. I am what they call a Theatre or Broadway Queen and am hugely into pop culture. My voice is more high pitched and my “s” sounds strongly pronounced. I don’t like sports, nor am I good at them.

Before, you were rejected because you were gay. Now, you are rejected for being the wrong type of gay, but by one of your own. This cuts deeply. This preference is surely bound up with self-rejection and shame, which permeates the gay community on many levels.

Gay men often refer to each other in the feminine, just as I was recently. In response to my recent essay, one Facebook comment about me read: “Sheneeds to reevaluate…” One might hope to frame this as gay men proudly owning an identity that may be perceived by others to be more feminine. But when this language is deployed and weaponized to cut down and belittle one another, it looks more like some twisted gay iteration of misogyny.

Gay men were and are hugely supportive of Hillary Clinton, as they are of females more generally, but they carry their own prejudices against them. They lift women up, only to use them to tear each other down, an unfortunate and pronounced double-standard indeed.

The drive for perfection in the gay community is fueled by the risk of appearing imperfect and therefore vulnerable to attack. If we are perfect, we are impenetrable. We expect ourselves to be perfect. We expect our peers to be perfect. We are highly critical of those who fail to meet these standards because they too threaten to expose us as vulnerable. The thing about achieving perfection is that it is impossible, the path unsustainable and the quest itself damaging.

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