In researching yesterday’s post, I came upon a Focus on the Family article from 2007 that contained a paragraph that bowled me over. The article is titled My Spouse Struggles with Homosexuality, and there is just so much to unpack in a few short sentences:
[F]or Pam, Paula and others there could have been red flags all along. In his book When Homosexuality Hits Home, Joe Dallas says that many women are attracted to the sensitivity, astute communication skills, vulnerability and easily expressed emotions that often embody temperament commonly found in homosexual men. And that the lack of sexual aggression first seen as a desirable trait may just be a lack of normal sexual interest.
I looked up Dallas’ book, which was published in 2004, and I found a whole section written to women whose husbands suddenly, out of the blue, come out as gay, leaving them blindsided. Dallas is no fringe character by the way; he spent time as president of Exodus International, and was a regular speaker at Focus on the Family‘s annual Love Won Out conference. He also identifies as ex-gay, and says he was part of the gay comment in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In his book, Dallas begins follows:
You may be wondering why you didn’t see it coming. No one can precisely know how many heterosexual women have unsuspectingly married homosexual men, but the number is large—and for every deceived woman, the effect can be devastating.
Let me pause here for a quick moment. Dallas writes as though women whose husbands come out as gay are lonely victims of horrific deceit—conned into marriage by straight men—-when in fact we’re looking at multiple victims of a culture laced with homophobia and enforced heteronormativity. Homophobia and heteronormativity that Dallas supports, I might add.
Dallas does not spare a thought spared for the effect all of this might have on those closeted gay men who find themselves trapped in marriages they are unhappy in, faced with what can look like only one bad option after another. Nope. All concern is for the poor deceived women. He also does not seem to realize that if he wants this to stop happening, his energy would be best spent working to eradicate homophobia. Nope. Dallas is still massively anti-gay, even today.
Dallas continues as follows:
Clearly, a spouse’s homosexuality is not easily predicted. And in your case, as with many others, the warning signs may have looked like virtues, not red flags. His sensitivity, for example, may have seemed to be one of his best qualities. When you began dating, he displayed good listening skills and a high level of empathy—rare features in men! Being on a date with him may have felt like being in the company of a caring, concerned girlfriend who had unusual insight into you and your feelings.
And he was a gentleman. You observed early on that, while he was affectionate and warm, he seemed anything but sexually threatening. His expressions of affection didn’t go too far; you never felt you had to stop him from physically “crossing the line,” and you assumed that was a sign of respect and godliness. So maybe, when comparing him to other men you’d known, you decided this made him a refreshing exception to the rule: attractive, sensitive, considerate, gentlemanly, and thus a very good catch.
Only now, in hindsight, does another picture emerge: The sensitivity that was so attractive may actually be a temperament commonly found in gay men—good communication skills, vulnerability, easily expressed emotions—making you wonder now if they are assets or liabilities. And the lack of sexual aggression, first seen as a desirable trait, is now just a lack of normal sexual interest, which is anything but flattering. You wanted a lover for a husband, after all, not a considerate male roommate.
Holy crap, where to even start.
First of all, I actually do want a considerate male roommate. Sure, I also want my husband to be my lover, but when did this become some sort of either/or? Dallas writes as though gay men the only considerate men out there, while all other men are inconsiderate, selfish assholes. Dallas isn’t making a great case for seeing straight men as good marriage prospects.
I mean for god’s sake, just look at his words:
When you began dating, he displayed good listening skills and a high level of empathy—rare features in men!
This entire section boils down to “you liked the gay man you unsuspectingly married because he wasn’t an asshole, but that should have been a big flashing gay warning sign, because you should have remembered that straight men are assholes.”
Look, if straight women are falling for gay men left and right because they’re nice, maybe there’s a different message to take away than you should’ve known better than to marry a man who was nice, because real men are assholes. I mean, Dallas’ basic message is if a man treats you well, be careful, because he’s probably gay. Holy heck is that a bad message. Maybe instead we could work on fostering good listening skills and empathy in men regardless of sexual orientation? Is that really too much to ask?
And then there’s this bit:
You observed early on that, while he was affectionate and warm, he seemed anything but sexually threatening. His expressions of affection didn’t go too far; you never felt you had to stop him from physically “crossing the line,” and you assumed that was a sign of respect and godliness.
Dallas’ message? Real men are rapey.
If the guy you’re dating doesn’t seem sexually threatening, watch out! He’s probably actually gay! After all, if he were straight, he’d be doing everything possible to get in your pants whether you want him to or not; if you’re dating a guy and he’s not violating your boundaries and pushing your physical relationship farther than you want it to go, dump his ass, because he’s probably gay.
That really is is the message here.
For every woman who finds herself accidentally married to a gay guy, there are 10,000 women who stay with a straight guy who is rapey and abusive because they think men are supposed to try to push past their physical boundaries, because they’re men.
This is what toxic masculinity looks like.
Oh and guess what else? In this environment, a straight guy who is sensitive and respects women’s boundaries risks getting accused of being gay, which, cue bullying. And that means that guys who don’t want to be shat on by all the other guys have to go out of their way to make sure they’re not sensitive, and to prove their brawny masculine bona fides by talking smack about women and boasting about their sexual prowess, which often includes swapping stories about violating women’s physical boundaries.
The whole thing is a horrific cycle. God forbid you talk about feelings, if you’re a guy, because if you do your peers will accuse you of being a fag. And then we wonder why “good listening skills and a high level of empathy” are rare features in men? Or why some straight women might feel safer hanging out with gay guys than with straight guys?
Dallas’ book is startling only in how openly he states all this.
[W]hen comparing him to other men you’d known, you decided this made him a refreshing exception to the rule: attractive, sensitive, considerate, gentlemanly, and thus a very good catch.
Is it any surprise that a woman would like a guy who is kind to her, who listens to her, and who respects her and her physical boundaries? What kind of world do we live in where a woman can only have those things if the guy she’s dating is secretly gay?
As though the only two options in men are rapey or gay.
And the lack of sexual aggression, first seen as a desirable trait, is now just a lack of normal sexual interest, which is anything but flattering. You wanted a lover for a husband, after all, not a considerate male roommate.
I know quite a few straight guys who are empathetic, who are good listeners, who respect women’s physical boundaries. Dallas is not only writing in 2004—I would like to think that things have improved at least slightly in the 16 years since then—he is also writing for a very particular audience: evangelical Christians. You know those fraternities that get shut down or suspended because they’re amplifying male pledge’s worst impulses? Evangelical Christianity is like that.
As a child, I was told to be careful around boys because “they’re only after one thing.” I was told this before I knew what that one thing was. I had to have been all of ten. I didn’t know what sex was, and I spent several years trying to figure out what the “one thing” boys were after was. I knew enough to know that it was bad and scary. If girls are taught from before they know what sex is that boys are predators and it’s the girl’s job to protect her virtue, what message does that send boys? Even if boys are told they’re to wait for marriage to have sex, they’re still being told that this is just how they’re wired.
Boys are to be protectors and providers; girls are to be homemakers and nurturers. Boys are to be tough and strong; girls are to be sweet and caring. Oh, and the idea that guys who are sweet and caring might be gay, and you have to watch for that? Yeah, that idea is all over the place. Is it any surprise that boys in this culture grow up thinking they shouldn’t be expected to be good listeners or to do emotional labor, that empathy is for girls and sissies, or that sex is just another area where they’re supposed to be the aggressor? (After all, if she didn’t want him to come onto her, she wouldn’t have worn that shirt.)
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I assure you I am not. Have a look at this list, once again from the website of Focus on the Family:
A male’s orientation toward life tends to be outward.
- Explorative. Every boy and every man is on a quest. He discovers his identity “out there” in the world where he senses his larger purpose and destiny lie.
- Determined to “deliver the goods.” A man places great stock in knowing that he has what it takes to complete the quest and accomplish the task at hand.
- Needs to know what’s next. Unlike a woman, he isn’t inclined to “cuddle,” to “savor” meaningful experiences, or to “linger” in the moment. Generally speaking, he’s anxious to move on to the next thing.
- Opportunistic. To put it another way, the male is a doer; and in the final analysis, his feelings about what he’s doing or his reasons for doing it are less important to him than the urge and the opportunity to get it done.
- Takes chances. To seize and make the most of his opportunities, a boy or a man must be willing to take chances. Accordingly, a propensity to run a certain degree of risk is fundamental to the male character.
- Initiator. All of this presumes a certain willingness and ability to “take the bull by the horns” and make things happen. It also suggests that leadership, while not necessarily an exclusively male prerogative, is nevertheless more deeply rooted in the nature of men and boys.
- Active and aggressive. There’s an obvious connection between initiation and active aggression. In light of this, it’s interesting to note that the male brain is two-and-a-half times larger and more vital in the center devoted to aggression and action than the female brain.
- Competitive and dominant. Men want the best and will expend incredible energy toward getting it.
A woman’s perspective tends to be more inwardly directed.
- “Confidently enticing.” Unlike the male, who must go out into the world to find his destiny, the woman possesses her future within herself. She has a hidden but deep confidence in this.
- Values intimacy above action. A woman cares more about being than doing, and she finds the reason for her being in relationship.
- Wisely (selectively) receptive. Though she values relationships above all else, a woman does not enter into them indiscriminately. She chooses slowly and receives wisely.
- Seeks security. Because her orientation is inward, toward relationships, nurturing, and “nesting,” the female of the species puts a premium on safety and security. To a far greater extent than the male, she values qualities like “dependability” and “trustworthiness” in a potential mate.
- Prefers modesty. A confident woman knows that she possesses something very precious and valuable – the power of her femininity – and she is driven by an innate desire to protect it. Modesty is fundamental to her nature.
- Caring. The female is more naturally inclined to respond to the distressed, the needy, or the hurting with immediate compassion and care.
- Uses words. Men talk to communicate information or ideas. Women talk to communicate feelings and thoughts. As a result, women tend to use more words than men.
- Desires equity and submission. A woman wants to be a man’s equal, but an equal of a very special kind. At a deep and fundamental level she has a strong desire to be led, protected, and cared for.
- Wields “soft power” which shapes humanity. Women have the ability to wield great and subtle influence in marriage and domestic relationships.
- Connecting. The female is wired to connect with others on many different levels.
And remember, this isn’t some sort of fringe website I’m drawing from. It’s Focus on the Family, which is pretty much the center of conservative evangelical Christianity in this country.
If this is what boys and girls are taught, if this is what parents are taught, and pastors and teachers and everyone else in evangelical Christian communities, is Dallas’ description of straight men at all surprising? He’s decided men don’t have empathy because empathy is for women. Further, when boys in his community grow up never being encouraged to be empathetic—because that’s a female thing—is it any surprise that Dallas would find empathy a “rare” trait among men?
If straight women are indeed marrying gay men because they’re nice while straight men are assholes—the problem Dallas is presumably addressing in his book—that might be a good reason to reassess evangelical teachings on men and gender and start socializing straight men to be nice. But Dallas doesn’t think straight men are assholes because they’re socialized to be assholes. No, like so many other evangelical leaders, he thinks men are assholes because they’re men, and that’s how men are wired. Men have low levels of empathy because they’re men. Men are sexually aggressive because they’re men. End of story.
I am so glad I left this subculture. And, for the record, the “male” and “female” lists above are a bunch of bull. My husband embodies quite a few of the things on the “female” list, and I embody quite a few on the male list—better than he does, in fact. And that’s just the two of us. When I hold the lists up to various friends and acquaintances, it becomes quite clear that each and every person out there is a grab bag of characteristics from both lists. Why are evangelicals so determined to put everyone in boxes? Why is it so important to make everyone a category, rather than an individual?
In some sense, Dallas’ comments are frustrating because they’re so close, and yet so far. Instead of looking at why women might be drawn to gay men and concluding that straight men have some work to do, his takeaway is that if a man is nice and respectful that should be viewed as a warning sign that he might be gay. For all the insight he thinks he has, Dallas is part of the problem.
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