Many people are praising this new project as awesome and fun, but Eva Gantz feels that something is not quite right.
“Gay Men Draw Vaginas,” a project that—you guessed it—has gay men draw vaginas, has taken the internet by storm. Co-creators Shannon O’Malley and Keith Wilson have curated a collection of incredibly diverse portrayals of the ways that gay men conceive of a vagina, ranging from the realistic to the abstract. The Advocate proclaimed it, “the feel-good book project of the year, and nearly every popular sex and culture website has presented the project as fun, illuminating, and amusing. But beneath the surface of light humor, the underlying message of the project is troubling.
Let’s start with perhaps the most obvious problem: these drawings do not actually depict vaginas. Every one of the sketches portrays the outer genitals, most commonly the clitoris and vulva. This could easily simply be a sex education fail. A recent episode of “Orange is the New Black” highlighted that this is a source of confusion for many women, too. There is absolutely no shame in not knowing the proper term for genitalia, especially since so many of us have been actively discouraged from curiosity about sex. However, a project that seeks to start a conversation about sexuality should make an effort to spread accurate information.
The humor of the project also leans heavily on the assumption that most gay men will find vaginas baffling or mysterious at best, and perhaps even disgusting or frightening. So many men portrayed vaginas as “monsters” that the project has an entire section of the book for those drawings alone. This notion of the vagina as monstrous is backed by countless comments and articles from gay men on how “gross” and/or “smelly” vaginas are. If nothing else, the joke is rather tired, and perpetuates the shame that many people already feel around their vaginas.
But the real source of discomfort in this project comes from the implicit assumption that gay men will find vulvas/vaginas ludicrous or mystifying because, of course, they couldn’t possibly have seen one. Sexuality is more fluid than we often imagine. I personally know more than a few gay men who have slept with women on at least one occasion. Sometimes, it’s simply as an experiment, and they discovered that hetero sex was simply not for them. But some gay men will have the occasional dalliance with women, if only just for the heck of it. And yes, I do mean “gay,” not “bisexual.” Labels are often complicated, and just as many “straight” women have had a same-sex encounter, the commonality of hetero hookups for gay men is likely higher than we may think.
The more glaring omission—and the more dangerous one—is gay men who happen to have, or used to have, vaginas. The underlying assumption that a gay man will have rarely or never seen a vagina/vulva assumes that all men have penises, as do their partners. This project silently erases trans* and genderqueer gay men, along with gay men who have slept with a gay man who isn’t cis. Was this exclusion and erasure intentional? It’s very likely that it was entirely accidental, and not a thought was given to trans* men, in a negative sense or otherwise. But that is precisely the problem. This omission is yet another slap in the face, and a reminder that the “T” in “LGBTQ” is all too often an afterthought. It’s especially disheartening to see how wholeheartedly the LGBTQ media (The Advocate, HuffPost Gay, Salon) has embraced the phenomenon. Again, I’m quite certain that no LGBTQ editor thought the project was harmful or reductive when they shared it, but the trouble is precisely that none of us thought to question it.
If we want to have a conversation about sexuality, sex, and gender, we as allies need to be more thoughtful in our language, even if it’s just in relation to a humorous project. We must be actively inclusive of trans* bodies, because where there is silence, there is the potential for complete erasure. For trans* folk, erasure means the very real possibility of imprisonment as with Cece McDonald, and the equally real statistical likelihood of emotional and physical violence. It is more important than ever that all of us—even comedic and light-hearted projects—do our best to be actively aware of the many LGBTQ folks who are not cisgender.
Want to study up on your language? Great! There are countless resources out there for you, including Cleis Press, Janet Mock, Mitch Kellaway, and Kate Bourtnstein. Brush up on the basics with Tranarchism’s comprehensive guide to terminology and trans* culture.
When we start to change the ways in which we think and speak about bodies, sexuality, and gender, we will be one step closer to creating a more inclusive culture that is supportive of everybody—and every body.