Dirty Secrets of the Gay Male Subculture: A Brief Bolster

I’ve read something brilliant, and I want to tell you about it.

It was a long read (the phenomenon of which turned out to be a pleasant exertion. (Pleasant, that is, amidst our thriving inability to process any piece of prose not malformed into a list of 10 and crowned with a desperate, panting headline. (Internet Writing, dear friends, subsists on viewage, on the “like” and the “share.” That’s how bloggers make money. We need to promise an unbelievable, all-previous-experience-defying ending to our essays (Reason Number 1o Will BLOW YOUR MIND) to cuddle the public into finishing the damn thing, if only so they’ll get to those little “Share on Facebook” buttons. (Oh! and with moving pictures to direct how we ought to react to the information therein, less we react personally, and find that we don’t give a damn about 10 Reactions to the End Of (Name of Show). (Yikes, did all that slip out? No matter, it’s relevant.))))

The article was “The Myth of the Fag Hag and Dirty Secrets of the Gay Male Subculture,” by Rohin Guha, re-published on the ever-wonderful and longsuffering Jezebel. The article has the fortunate misfortune of being a critique of — for a serious lack of a better term — mainstream gay culture, written by a gentleman living in its midst. Misfortune, because it has that marvelous quality of all nuanced thought, namely, that it will piss off everyone — your average champion and defender of all things LGBTQA (or was it GLBTQ2IA?) and Christians with any inkling of what their faith demands (because it takes for granted the premises of our current ethic regarding our fantastically fun genitalia).

The basic claim is that, as generally degrading as our society is to women, “gay culture” is just as bad, though uniquely so, and with the caveat that, unlike the at-least-theoretically frown-deserving nature of heterosexual objectification and degradation of women, “mainstream culture has sanctioned gay misogyny against women as winky, as part of the package of characteristics that “gay people just have.” In a section of the article entitled “Culture Proxies as Role Models,” Guha speaks about the manufactured object known as The Gay Man as a primary reason for this “pass” on misogyny. Small, embedded quotes are for wussies, so have a whole bucket of Guha (The Last Paragraph Will KILL You):

This persona was defined by attention to detail, upscale tastes, sartorial sensibilities, casual promiscuity, a penchant for dance pop, and being bitchy. Popular culture was teaching its consumers that to be gay was to be like Will or Jack from Will & Grace. Popular culture was teaching newly-out gay men that they could be welcomed into the heteronormative fold so long as they shoehorned themselves into these pre-approved molds of gay male identity. Unsurprisingly, this persona–vetted by mainstream media–allowed a gay men a liberal margin of misogyny, allowing them to write such behavior off as part of their identity. Gay men were allowed to say things like, “I find vaginas so alien” or more reductively, “Ew!” at the mention of female anatomy because such responses were viewed as hilarious, because the negative implications of such humor wasn’t ever really dissected…

Over at The Good Men Project, Yolo Akili writes:

At a recent presentation, I asked all of the gay male students in the room to raise their hand if in the past week they touched a woman’s body without her consent. After a moment of hesitation, all of the hands of the gay men in the room went up. I then asked the same gay men to raise their hand if in the past week they offered a woman unsolicited advice about how to “improve” her body or her fashion. Once again, after a moment of hesitation, all of the hands in the room went up.

So you have young gay men witnessing Mizrahi’s behavior; “I’m gay” gets handed down as an acceptable excuse for gay men to probe and disrespect women’s bodies. It’s endemic of a gay male culture that would sooner trot out a history of being victimized as an excuse for acting like assholes rather than taking ownership for said behavior, or better yet, correcting that kind of behavior.

Mizrahi is one example. On Will & Grace, you could create an entire drinking game around the number of times Jack recoils at the mention of female sexuality or says something about Grace’s body; it’s meant to be winky and fun, but ends up sounding like a broken misogynistic record. There are memes–like Sassy Gay Friend–which, for all their humor, reinforce the idea that it’s okay for gay men to call women “silly bitches” if it serves a comic context.

Guha confirmed my — admittedly high-school — experience of high-school, namely, that I first recognized the “out” kids as “out” by their remarkable ability to touch girls’ breasts without apparent consequence. But the reason I think Guha’s work is marvelous is not simply his critique of mainstream gay culture — a mindless leveling which could use all sort of bitter, existentialist correctives, sure — but rather his implicit connection between self-objectification and the objectification of other people.

I want to bolster his claim…

When you have such wholesale socializing of gay men in a universe where women exist only as grand pop icons in flashy music videos on large television screens hanging above the bar, you have a culture that has become complicit in the social retardation of a sizable chunk of humanity. In these [gay bars], women are abstractions, symbols, but otherwise not encouraged to be actual three-dimensional beings.

…by pointing out the underlying existential problem which makes our entire culture just as guilty of objectification as gay culture — we are refusing to be persons.

The person is known outside-in. Her unknowable subjectivity — her unique, unrepeatable first-person experience of existence — is expressed through her objectivity — what she does, what she says, her outward splay of characteristics, gestures and expressions. Her smile is a two-fold reality, that is, the objective expression of a subjective disposition — the partial and uncertain outward revelation of an interior hiddenness. A person’s objectivity, properly speaking, is always an invitation to an encounter with her subjectivity.

Now objectification is the idiocy of our age. It may be roughly described as the over-accentuation of objectivity at the expense of subjectivity, but let’s get specific: Objectification is a willfully entertained illusion by which one or more of our neighbor’s objective/observable/outward/exterior traits ceases to serve as an invitation to encounter the unique, unrepeatable subjectivity of our neighbor, and instead strives to replace our neighbor’s subjectivity. In the shallow gaze of objectification, an objective expression attempts to replace the unobservable, infinitely ungraspable subjectivity that is the source of all objective expressions and characteristics.

Maybe our particular brand of suckage means reducing a woman to her sexual characteristics, a poor person to his observable poverty, a man to his outwards political behaviors, a child to the color of his skin, a fast-food worker to his occupation, or a celebrity to their “image,” but the end result is the same, and best expressed by an inadequate spacial metaphor, that instead of moving outside-in, we entertain the illusion that the outside is the in.

The observable-objective-outwards world is characterized by its ability to be grouped into ideas. The unobservable-subjective-interior world is characterized by its inability to be grouped, for my subjectivity is precisely my own and none others. Objectification, then, insofar as it strives to replace what cannot be grouped with what can, gives birth to the type.

By being objectified, who-a-person-is becomes repeatable. If a man is reduced to “a conservative,” than who-he-is has becomes this objective trait, one that could be held in common with the man next to him — another “conservative.” If I have a reduced a man to the fact that he is “fat” or “evangelical” than I have reduced him to a trait just as easily held by another person. I have reduced him to a type of person — one amongst many. If I label myself, that is, if I over-accentuate an objective trait as a replacement or as a rival to my subjectivity, I flirt with life as a type of person.

If I have decided to live as a type, or rather — and more realistically — if I in my weakness often tend towards life as a type (my objectivity over-accentuated at the expense of my subjectivity) instead of life as the particular person I am (a life referred to in the Western religious tradition as a life of holiness) then I tend to interact with my neighbors as “types” of people.

This is, first of all, just straight empirically observable. It is precisely when we are most sold-out to a particular observable trait that we begin relating to our neighbors in reference to that trait — as when everyone is either a liberal or a conservative to the diehard, self-proclaimed “liberal.”

And it makes sense. The only empirical experience of subjectivity I will ever have is of myself. If I cloud this unrepeatable reality for something repeatable, if I engage in self-objectification and thereby tend towards the over-accentuation of my objectivity — my looks, status, occupation, race, sexual preferences, whatever — over and above the primal fact of being the precise person I am, alone unto myself (which, in religious tradition, is to be alone before God), how much more difficult will I make it to encounter the subjectivity of my neighbor? If I cannot believe in the subjectivity I experience, how will I believe in the subjectivity of the woman I can not?

This is especially true within sexual self-objectification. If who-I-am is attracted to women, that is, if I am a “heterosexual,” “straight,” etc., and this objective trait is over-accentuated to the point that I tend towards a life  – or a particular moment in life — as that type of thing, than women become for me that type of thing I am attracted to.

Types of people do not relate to particular people. There may be a type of person who is attracted to women, but there is no type of person who is attracted to Donna, who lives on 3rd Street. Self-objectification quite naturally leads to the objectification of others. Types relate to types.

How often these are the words of male-douchiness, an appeal to being a type of thing that excuses us for treating a particular, unrepeatable woman as being another type of thing: “I’m a man, men have needs,” “I can’t help it, I’m a guy,” “It’s not wrong, I’m just being a dude,” “Every guy watches porn,” etc. In each instance, we defend grab-assing, insulting, abusing and otherwise using women by appealing to our objective type. We defend objectification by appealing to our own self-objectification. The woman so mistreated would have every right to say, “I don’t care if every guy watches porn, you should not,” or “I don’t care if men have needs, you need to get off me.” By her assertion of the “you” over and above the “guy,” she appeals to our subjectivity, that unique interior that undergirds all observable traits, all our “just being a guy,” as much as our “being a conservative” or “being gay.”

What Guha said is true, and sadly, that “”I’m gay” gets handed down as an acceptable excuse for gay men to probe and disrespect women’s bodies,” but I wonder whether this is not first and foremost a consequence of self-objectification itself, our capacity to tend towards the illusion that we are this “type” of thing, and thereby render our neighbors their own appropriate types. “I’m just a guy,” for whom women are the type of thing I am attracted to, “I’m gay,” for whom women are the type of thing I may insult/diva-ize/mistreat.

For surely every encounter with the particular subject a woman is, an encounter with her as her — a particular Amy or Donna or Martha or Rose — surely such an encounter requires me to offer myself as the particular subject I am. We do not encounter subjectivity by disinterested observation. If we are to encounter the actual person, we have to meet them. We have to throw ourselves in the mix. In short, we have to communicate. But what is communication?

When I communicate I express my subjectivity — my hidden, interior thought — through my objectivity — through my words and my body language — and thus I lead my listener to encounter my entire person, which is a synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity.  Communication is the revelation of subjectivity through objectivity, and thus requires a subject.

The thing can be understood etymologically. To communicate comes from the Latin communicare, meaning “to share.” If my friend shares a toy with me, I only “have” that toy insofar as I have a relation to my friend. Sharing presupposes a communion of persons between which a thing is shared. Thus communication, insofar as it is a sharing of what is within me to another, creates and depends upon personal communion, upon a mutual encounter of persons — of subjects encountered through their objectivity. It puts the words of St. Francis’ Prayer in a wonderful context: It is “in giving of ourselves that we receive.”

How then, can we communicate, we who are happily estranged from our subjectivity, taking refuge from its loneliness in over-accentuated objective traits — or from our infinite responsibility before God, depending on what rubs your metaphysics the right way. How can we share express our interior if we are entertaining the illusion that our exterior life is our interior? It takes a person to encounter a person, and if we are going to encounter women as people, if we are going to love our neighbors at all, we must first begin the terrible task of holiness, of living as precisely the person we are, shirking the delight and ease and irresponsibility of living as a type.

That’s the power behind Guha’s wonderful work, and I hope I did not diminish his critique of “gay culture” by expanding it to a cultural of objectification in general, which takes on types and thereby makes types of everyone else. It would seem to create a hassle with his proposed solution, to replace the “gay” lifestyle with a “queer” lifestyle. It’s a good proposal…

“A makeover of the word “gay”, of this particular identity, and its unfortunate brand of privilege that trivializes women, would entail adopting a mindset that is less bent on defining identity through biology, but through shared interests. So that men are bonding not because they both have an inclination to date other men, but because they share the same world views. This takes the stress off focusing on expressions of gender, off sexuality, and emphasizes on actually connecting with humans through shared life experiences.”

…because it is reshuffling of personal encounter into its right order — the subjective as offered through the objective, the relationship of persons understood as a mutual encounter of the interior life, the subject as the goal of relation, expressed through an objectivity that does not pose as subjectivity. If I find Guha’s solution ultimately inadequate, it is only because I am suspicious of the effectiveness of label-replacement, worried in a grumpy way that, as long as an attempt at personalization is couched in the language of becoming a “queer” type of person instead of a “gay” type of person, all “gay culture” will end up with is a new, if nuanced, over-accentuation of an objective trait, a new type to be, a type which will inevitably perform its appropriately lame acts of objectification — just as the “guy” type of person performs his own.

But who knows? Maybe things are looking up for everyone. Here, have a gif.

  • enness

    Maybe I tend to have a high-quality pool of friends, I don’t know, but fortunately I can’t imagine most of the gay friends doing that. I can, however, think of somebody who fits the description: a former friend of mine had a really obnoxious college roommate who couldn’t keep his hands to himself around buxom women, although he supposedly lacked interest.

    “Sassy Gay Friend” was funny to me because I got the feeling they knew they were exploiting a stereotype. If that is actually not the case then isn’t so funny after all.

  • enness

    The obnoxious roommate I mentioned above tried to excuse his behavior by pointing out that he wasn’t attracted to women (as if that gave him license to grab their boobs). You’d think that wouldn’t be convincing, but some straight people will also write it off as no big deal and blame the harrassee for getting upset about it.

    I can see “I’m a woman” being used to excuse misogyny. I can’t see “I’m old” or “I’m [race]” being used the same way. I think the question is, is there something specific that makes people think they can get away with it? Is there a pattern?

  • enness

    Because they have what they think is an airtight cover?

    I’m not saying I’ve seen it done a lot, but I have seen it done.

  • enness

    I know women who have gay guys who do play the role of a girl friend or wingwoman. It might be exaggerated, but it’s not a complete fiction. From what I’ve observed it’s not uncommon for a woman to prefer gay male friends because she won’t have to worry about getting hit on — or she is indulging some serious wishful thinking. I am also not saying those are the only or even the main reasons (why do any two or more people become friends? I think it’s a given that you have to like something about their personality).

  • enness

    Uh, I’m not THAT physically comfortable with my female friends.

    I don’t agree about Paula Deen. First of all, she got fired. Second, I never heard anyone justify her by claiming age — what they argued was that the incident happened a long time ago and was not representative of her as a person. If you can show me where they claimed age, I’ll believe that.

    I do think you have a point about pregnancy, but that doesn’t mean the articles above don’t have a point.

  • enness

    Like I said, it may be exaggerated, even greatly exaggerated, but I know it came from somewhere because I’ve seen it happen.

  • enness

    Interesting theory.

  • enness

    I like that you’re fair.

  • enness

    You hit the nail on the head…although Jeremy Brett is (was?) more my style. :)

  • julianmalcolm

    This post is clearly not about making gay people “the other.” The post is simply about proposing the radical idea that we should not be content with behavior that objectifies anyone, (men, women, ourselves, etc). Yours, mine or anyone’s particular experiences aside, shows like “Will & Grace” and celebrities like Perez Hilton and Isaac Mizahi display a certain level of misogynous behavior to a fairly broad audience and that behavior does seem to get a pass. Why is that? This is a discussion worth having.


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