I get this a lot from straight men when they first notice for whatever reason that I'm gay. It's a statement that invokes a lot of conflict for me. When I was younger it was a relief; affirmation of my ability to minimise social and physical threats due to my sexuality. There are two ways in which I view it now:
- Why should anyone 'suspect' that I'm gay. We don't go around trying to notice if the men around us are straight. "I wouldn't have guessed you were a straight man" is a statement that I guarantee will cause offence, possibly even violence. It's nobody else's business and if we're not initiating or hoping to initiate some kind of intimacy then I guarantee it's not in the least bit relevant. It's very important to us though, gay and straight alike, that we are able to identify the gay ones. The gay men in particular — I haven't witnessed exactly this kind of behaviour towards women, but gay women certainly experience comparable judgement and definitely experience some manifestations of homophobia that are quite unique to them. I can't adequately represent the experiences of gay women so let's keep this focused.
- I shouldn't require assessment. There should be no responsibility for me to be either gay enough or straight enough but there is one and it's honestly offensive. Again, it's not relevant to anything but we make it relevant to everything. I don't want it to matter to my colleagues or some acquaintance that I'm gay but it is inevitably and immediately a point of interest. It does matter.
I'm not an awfully gay gay. I absolutely do embody some gay stereotypes but I embody the gay stereotypes that tend to fly under the radar of the majority of straight men. I'm a pretty straight gay man in fact. I have a 'manly job', I have hair on my chest, I have more beard than most men can hope for, I can be stoic and stubborn, I wear jeans and a t-shirt and I have an appropriate distaste for excessive personal attention. I don't really care for sports at all though; which might be my biggest tell. When Panti Bliss talks about "what did I do to give myself away?" in the video below that's something I don't really experience. I don't worry about casually aggressive homophobia. I walk the right way. I am straight-camouflaged.
You might think that this is almost a blessing. An easier life, right?
Why am I the person that I am? The answer, as we all know, is that I am a product of my own experiences. I am the result of hearing my father's distaste for "gays shoving it down people's throats" and ubiquitous school yard slurs. In a world that is designed to privilege maleness, and whiteness, and straightness we are taught to be as male, and white, and straight as possible. It's both a defence tactic and a strategy for success. It is an inescapable fact that this person that I've become, that I don't regret and have grown to be very comfortable and happy with, is a product of straight culture and the insecurities of straight men.
So you might wonder about gayer gays, right? They are no less a part of this system. You see, whether we as gay men are permissible to the world as gay men still hinges on the acceptance of our straight peers. Whether we are gay enough to be identified or straight enough to go generally unnoticed both service the comfort of straight men. That doesn't mean that straight men are individually judging us for our compliance to this set of unwritten social rules. It means that the economic and social systems that we all participate in are designed such that conformity to the expectations of the majority beneficiaries (straight, white, men) is the most effective strategy. We are not only complicit, but unwitting masters of the practice within our first decade of life. Long before we realise that there's something going on; let alone understand what it means.
The revelation of my gayness, the surprise it evokes, is a manifestation of the need to identify me. To be able to see me coming. To monitor the threat I somehow represent. It may be a latent, vestigial fear but it's part of the fabric of how we interact socially and how we achieve economically. I can't say absolutely that my openness about my sexuality has harmed my career or my wage but I can state with certainty that being straight would have helped. When we discuss gay rights it's not just about marriage. Gay rights isn't just about our physical safety — which is still a very real issue. It's also about the intersection of oppressive systems that might on the surface sometimes seem minor or even trivial (though many absolutely are not), we are often barely aware of them, but the truth is that the lives of the next generation of gay people and the people they will mature into is shaped by these systemic and ingrained behaviours. Behaviours we begin to teach them from the moment we identify their genitalia for roles we have audaciously predetermined are appropriate for them to aspire to. Society is homophobic even where individuals are not. Gay people are as much part of that society; we are and will continue to be complicit. The ideal is to identify and erode those systems, remove the power that those systems hold. No individual can be held accountable or shamed because they participate simply for the purpose of survival.
We're not free to be who we want to be, we're free to be whom it's acceptable and safer to be. It's an unconscious process and while it is progress, it is far from the end of the journey.
I've come to believe that my understanding of gay rights is immature. I'm still learning what it means, and I'm still learning what it means to advocate for them and contribute to their advancement. I'm still learning exactly what I want to advocate for and how I can best advocate for it. I'm starting to feel that equality isn't a meaningful objective because it's not really a meaningful concept. It's a wooly, feel-good word that to some means not having to fear for their lives anymore and to others means "the same but different" because they're quietly repulsed by the notion of likeness.
There's a problem with the notion of equality as we tend to talk about it today. If I were truly equal to a straight man then I would be forced to participate in the dominance of straight male culture in exactly the same way that straight men do today. Gay culture would have to find an identity to which straight culture would still ultimately wield the power to judge worthy of existence. It's not really equal if it's subservient — the whole notion seems paradoxical to me. Equality with straight men still means the oppression of gayness. Equality within the existing system is also problematic because the existing system can be pretty shitty to straight men even as it privileges them. There is still this requirement to conform to the system's ideal of masculinity; to make manly life choices (often exemplified by misogyny). A straight guy's success is still advantaged by his being straight enough. The existing system under-privileges and endangers people of colour, disabled people, people enduring poverty. Why should I ask for equality with an unjust status quo? I don't want equality within this system, even if personally I might, minimally, benefit from acceptance within it — in that being white and not disabled I do benefit from it.
Honestly, equality defined as equivalence to my straight peers and my straight colleagues is simply not good enough. Its not good enough for anyone. There is a possible future where we all, straight and gay alike, have far greater liberty than either straight or gay people can currently achieve. There's an equality that is qualitatively better than the one we currently imagine because it considers more than just one narrow understanding of an isolated, well defined and packaged oppressed group. There's the adage "gay rights are human rights" and this is true not only because some humans are gay but also because the greater liberation of gay people can only eventually lead to the greater liberation of straight people. The difference is that gay people are hospitalised for not being straight enough where as straight people are rewarded for their straightness.