You may have noticed the extraordinary rise in discussion lately referring to gender-fluidity, bisexuality, pansexuality and queerness of various stripes. This discussion rightly celebrates the diversity of sexual expression out there in the world, giving ever-greater voice to people who are not straight, and generally troubling the gay-straight binary that underpins most people’s understanding of sexuality. But in celebrating this multiplicity of sexual orientations, these discussions fall into a trap that undermines a greater goal of evolving our perceptions around gender: namely, the faulty assumption that gender-fluidity is only about non-heterosexual orientations.
Queer is Not Necessarily Gay
While queerness was undoubtedly born out of the experiences of gay and lesbian people, being queer is not necessarily the same thing as being gay. In a theoretical sense, queerness is about challenging categorization. We can use queer as a verb: if something is queered, the parameters that define it are subverted or made strange.
When we unhook “queer” from “gay,” certain things start to make sense that might otherwise appear confusing. If you’re in the UK you might have seen the TV show about masculinity presented by Grayson Perry: a man who likes wearing women’s clothes who has a wife. If you’re in the US you might have seen the images of Young Thug, another man who likes to wear women’s clothing but by most other markers is straight. These men are queer, but they are not gay.
To demonstrate this disconnect further, in the other direction, being gay does not necessarily make you queer. Numerous gay people adhere to standard gender roles, replicating stereotypical heterosexuality in various ways down to having children, living behind a white picket fence and adhering to traditional conservative political values: this is called “homonormativity.”
But this distinction between “queer” and “gay” is rarely acknowledged, and this has two problematic effects. First, there is the assumption that anything to do with gender-bending is only about people who do not identify as straight. Second, people who “feel straight” sexually but “think queer” are nudged towards identifying with some form of non-straight sexual identity that may not be representative of their truth. Certainly, the gay-straight binary is forced upon us and there are probably many more people than we imagine who are neither one nor the other. But equally, in the spirit of freedom we must allow for people to be predominantly and unapologetically straight in terms of sexual orientation whilst being completely queer in how they perceive gender. Indeed, not only should this be allowed, it should be encouraged. If we have a goal of queering gender (in other words, subverting it, and breaking down harmful parameters), and this is only perceived as a “gay issue,” the number of people we can reach is relatively small (even if we go with the high end of estimates for the number of people who do not identify as straight). In other words, reaching the tipping point of queering gender must involve straight people.
Queer Liberation for Straight Men
Once “queer” and “gay” are unhooked, queerness becomes a much easier sell to straight men. People need to realize that it is entirely possible for a straight-identifying man with a traditionally red-blooded attraction to women to be completely bent when it comes to how he perceives masculinity. There is no contradiction between finding women attractive and wanting to dismantle everything about traditional masculinity and replace it with something entirely different.
Indeed, the widespread realization of this fact could prove to be an extraordinary catalyst for getting men to challenge masculinity who are currently oppressed by our common understanding of what straightness means but who are nevertheless unable in good faith to embrace non-straightness as a way of connecting with their inner queer. It could well be that the word “queer” will never fully be unhooked from gayness and a different vocabulary is necessary to explain the same thing, such as Stage 4 on The Five Stages of Masculinity.
Further still, it may be that queerness is even more powerful coming from straight men than gay men. When a gay man critiques masculinity it is easily dismissed by straight men as they tend to think it is some kind of gay propaganda that has little to do with them. However, when a straight man critiques masculinity, other straight men cannot dismiss it so easily. Of course, it is important here not to erase gay men and their specific experiences and contributions to the discussion. Straight men owe a significant debt to gay men who have spent many years questioning masculinity and laying the groundwork for freedoms that all men now have the ability to enjoy.
Thinking Queer is More Important than Looking Queer
Much of the media reporting of queerness not only makes the mistake of assuming queerness is about sexual orientation, but that queerness requires people to look queer. Endless articles can be found that show gender-fluid types wearing clothing that is not obviously masculine or feminine, or who even parade some kind of gay carnival aesthetic. Even within the gay community, this has always resulted in gay people who look “normal” feeling somehow exiled and lacking. And in the current context, this results in queerness being reduced not just to gayness, but to a fashion statement. This season’s fashions that are “changing masculinity” really have nothing to do with masculinity, rather the cut of cloth. Ultimately, it is far more important to think queer than to look queer. The widespread realization of this fact will also contribute to straight men having an easier time of embracing their inner queer.
In the end, the increasing acceptance of gender-fluidity is a positive and important step forward in our understanding of masculinity and our ability to rethink it in a way that results in a more sustainable future for all. But let’s not pigeonhole gender-fluidity in such a way that it becomes inaccessible to the majority of people: we need queer masculinity for everyone, not just the few.
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