I got my first job working at a clothing store in Broadway between finishing school and turning 18. It was one that catered primarily to men in their thirties and forties — think cotton blazers, and crisp shirts, and unfortunate-looking brogues — channelling ‘classic with a hint of quirk’ to the modestly earning professional. Servicing this clientele were a team of jaded twenty and thirty-somethings, most of whom were gay men. As they shared their stories of petty workplace politics, nightmarish customers and wild weekend escapades, I began to understand the minutiae of life in Sydney for the average gay man. I had just finished eight years of single-sex Catholic education and only been openly acknowledging my own sexuality for about a year, so some of the conversations I had were particularly eye-opening — none more so than graphic descriptions of regular three day benders and the prevalent use of crystal meth.
Young and perceptibly naïve, my co-workers were eager to impress upon me the ins and outs of gay life. But whilst they were deeply invested in this lifestyle and culture, I wasn’t so swept up in it. There was nothing about these men’s conversations, their fashion or the music they danced to that persuaded me to involve myself in their community.
My resistance didn’t go unnoticed. One day a colleague said to me, “You’re such a bad gay.” Initially, I was puzzled by this. He said it facetiously, but there was a trace of judgement and disdain behind this accusation. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to – was he saying I’m bad at being attracted to other men? I can assure you there’s nothing ‘faulty’ in that department.
But after a little more consideration it became obvious that he was referring not to how gay I was, but to the kind of gay I was. It was a judgement of my performance of gay identity, as he understood and practiced it.
To judge how good or bad I was at performing ‘gayness’ is a curious and problematic scenario. These men subscribe to the idea that there are clear parameters around what constitutes gay identity and its performance. Having drawn up the parameters, they have mapped my attributes, behaviours and mannerisms, assessed if they fit, and offered their judgement. It’s the enactment of an essentialist gay identity, implemented to classify and hierarchise other gay men.
Such essentialism has produced a set of concrete categories describing bodies, behaviours, sex and relationships. A gay man is classified by as a twink, jock, bear, otter — the list goes on — according to their body type, age, facial hair, and various other arbitrary criteria. They are also distinguished by their mannerisms and preferences: top/bottom, masc/femme, dom/sub. The proliferation of these essentialist categories both limit what may constitute gay identity and enact regulatory regimes on bodies.
The binary construction of these categories also creates a set of power structures between men. Within sexual relationships, for example, a man who is a top and ‘masculine’ exerts power over one who is a bottom and ‘feminine’. This erroneous gendering of sexual roles between two men (I can’t help but think of all those occasions I’ve been asked by earnest straight people, “Who’s the dude and who’s the chick?”) establishes the same power dynamic that exists between men and women, a patriarchal dynamic that feminism has been trying to dismantle for decades.
For all of queer people’s success in subverting oppressive heteronormative strictures and ‘traditional’ masculinity to create a space of their own, a long and violent history of resistance, it seems gay men have reverted to an essentialist formation of identity, one that is rigid and exclusive. By characterising men, relationships, sex as definitive types and roles, gay men have regulated their own bodies, and perpetuated a patriarchal power imbalance amongst themselves. It’s a gross contradiction that on the one hand we celebrate gay men’s resistance of a narrow conception of masculinity, and then, between gay men, exert the same kind of limiting and exclusive essentialism.
Besides the question of how bad I am at being gay (apparently very), the longer I reflect on this the more the question has become not “Why am I bad?” but more “Why do they care?” How does it affect them and their own performance of their identity?
Perhaps this attachment to prescribed identity is a result of gay men being unsure of who they were prior to their ‘coming out’, that ultimate episode of self-actualisation. Maybe it was that very feeling of difference, the feeling of never fitting in, never being truly recognised or accepted as a man, battling to justify the legitimacy of one’s self. Maybe it was the lived experience of subjugation, being on the receiving end of violent words and actions from straight men that reminded gay men of their masculine failures and their lack of power. Perhaps the rigours of gay identity, in response to these insecurities and traumas, offers the stability, structure and opportunity to inhabit a position of power that these men always longed for.
But then again, what would I know? I’m just a bad gay.