To Straight Guys Who Don’t Get ‘Gay’

Contrary to stereotypes, we all have just one thing in common.

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Photo: flickr/Tim Evanson

“But you don’t act gay.”

If I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it too many times, usually from hyper-masculine straight men who probably equate black and muscular with heterosexual masculinity, even though I’ve always considered myself to be a 5 to 7 on a feminine-to-masculine 1-to-10 scale.

Sometimes they substitute “seem” for “act.” Sometimes they don’t have to say either. It’s been implied every time door bouncers from Buenos Aires to Berlin have looked me up and down and asked, “Do you know this is a gay bar?”

I know gay men are supposed to wear “straight-acting” like a badge of honor, but I regard it with the same side-eye I’ve given “But you don’t act black” since childhood. That badge hasn’t gone with anything in my closet since I came out of the one I was trapped in for 22 years.

There’s no blueprint for being gay, no matter what the stereotypes insist. It’s not a lifestyle or even a specific culture. Variety is as much the spice of gay life as straight life. That’s being human, all too human. Everyone belongs to the same club, many clubs, and no club at all.

Gays and grooming

The last time a straight guy implied that I don’t act/seem gay (Alexandru, a friend of my Airbnb host in Iași, Romania, who offered to show me where I can meet the hottest local girls), I thought about something Russell Brand said years ago.

“It would have been convenient to be gay. Just because of the grooming, the narcissism, stuff like that, where it’s generally more accepted. But I have this kind of roaring heterosexuality. Traditional, uncomplicated, almost clichéd heterosexuality. I just really like women a lot.”

A straight friend and colleague posted that Brand quote from a 2006 profile in The Guardian on Facebook a little more than a year ago, thinking it was evidence that Brand is the sort of open-minded straight man that he is. Once I was done groaning, I set my mate, er… straight.

Grooming and narcissism are not gay things. Anyone who has stepped foot into a room full of gay men knows that we can work scruff and body odor just as proudly as straight men. Meanwhile, two of the world’s biggest narcissists (hello, President Donald Trump and Kanye West) are heterosexual men.

I hope the past 12 years — and the influence of his ex-wife Katy Perry, whom he was three years away from meeting when he made the comments above — have taught Brand to drop his crusty preconceptions about gay men. Too bad a lot of straight men still subscribe to them.

Defining “gay”

Just when my stomach was starting to settle over Brand’s brand of clichéd homosexuality, along came Andrew Garfield. In July of last year, during a Q&A discussion about his role as a gay man with AIDS in the Broadway reboot of Angels in America, he talked about being “a gay man… just without the physical act.”

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James Franco and Seth Rogen played with “gay” while spoofing Kanye’s “Bound 2.”

Two years earlier, James Franco made a similar declaration in FourTwoNine magazine: "I like to think that I’m gay in my art and straight in my life. Although, I’m also gay in my life up to the point of intercourse, and then you could say I’m straight. So I guess it depends on how you define gay.”

That’s the problem right there. Why does “gay” need to be defined — and why do both actors think being gay in life is contingent upon “the physical act” or “intercourse”? Not all gay men engage in the latter, and virginal gays and celibate gays are still gay, even without the “physical act.”

Franco didn’t offer any specifics on what defines “gay,” but Garfield did. The Oscar-nominated actor doesn’t seem to have learned much about gay men from pretending to be one.

Apparently, to Garfield, the gayest thing a straight man can do is binge watch episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Newsflash: I’m a gay man with the physical act, but I’ve never seen an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I sometimes prefer the company of straight people. I sort of love female strip shows, but I’ve never felt like a straight man, just without the physical act, while enjoying a pole dance.

Aw, Andy. Couldn’t we just Netflix and chill?

I’m not so into musicals and Broadway show tunes. I’ve never really gotten Judy Garland. I don’t worship at the altar of Beyoncé, and I’ve got a rock & roll heart. On the other hand, I loathe sports and love The Golden Girls, daytime soaps, and Cher singing ABBA. None of that makes me “straight-acting” or “so gay.” It makes me a man who likes what he likes.

Being gay isn’t tantamount to belonging to a club where everyone has the same interests, likes and dislikes. The only thing all gay men have in common is their sexual orientation.

I identify as “gay” because of that, not because of my sexual behavior or my behavior in general. I am able to bond with men physically and emotionally in a way that I don’t with women. That’s why I’m proudly gay. It has nothing to do with my taste in TV or music, or the way I walk, talk, and groom myself.

It may seem pretty obvious, but someone reminded me that it’s not so clear to everyone the day after Beyoncé surprise-released her Lemonade album. When I arrived at work the next morning, one of my favorite colleagues, a 23-year-old straight guy, looked at me expectantly.

“How excited are you?” he asked.

“About what?”

“Seriously? About what? About Beyoncé, of course. I know you’re loving it,” he said in a tone that betrayed the rhetorical question that was clearly running through his mind: How could anything else possibly matter to you today?

“Well… actually… I’m not a fan, so I kind of don’t care.”

“What? You don’t like Beyoncé?” He looked crushed. Which me had disappointed him: the entertainment editor me, the black me, or the gay me? Whoever it was, he was clearly not expecting me not to fit inside the box he’d prepared for me based on traits that don’t dictate my taste. I’m convinced he wouldn’t have been quite so shocked by a straight white entertainment editor’s lack of gaga for the gay icon.

We’d go on to bond months later over our shared love of the dance music I used to live for every Friday night at Sound Factory Bar in New York City in the ’90s. That ended up being our “gay” connection that Beyoncé never could be.

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Beyonce’s Lemonade: As bitter citrus goes, I prefer grapefruit juice (Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia Records).

Monogamy vs. Non-monogamy

Straight men aren’t the only ones who stuff us into boxes. I recently revisited a Gawker article my brother sent me in 2012 titled “The Secrets Gay Men Don’t Want Straight People to Know,” which was presumably written by a gay man who’d presumably spent way too much time ticking “gay” boxes.

I couldn’t figure out whether the title was supposed to be ironic. Take this “secret”: “Not All Gay Couples Are Monogamous.” Um, duh! Don’t the holy rollers always trot out our alleged slutty ways when sharing their dirty-laundry list against gay marriage?

If anything, straight people are more likely to assume all gay couples are non-monogamous, which is just as wrong. It’s probably related to the other straight assumption that gay men are all obsessed with sex and would do it or pursue it with pretty much anyone (especially straight men — which the Gawker author co-signed).

As #MeToo and Time’s Up have proven, sex obsession is hardly gay-specific, which Russell Brand, to his credit, acknowledged in 2006. Not all of us are into sex clubs, dark rooms, and “NSA,” but even when our homosexuality is “roaring” it doesn’t automatically translate to “Let’s have an open relationship.”

Meanwhile, non-monogamy isn’t the gay inclination many people, both gay and straight, think it is. It’s a human one. Whether we choose it or not (and I do believe it’s up to individual couples to decide if it’s right for them), human beings are not intrinsically monogamous. Gay men in open relationships are just more honest about it.

Non-monogamy isn’t a gay inclination. It’s a human one. Whether we choose it or not, human beings are not intrinsically monogamous. Gay men in open relationships are just more honest about it.

I won’t delve too deeply (pun intended) into what the article claimed about “bottoming” and amyl nitrate, or the link between the two, except to say that you really can’t believe everything you read on Gawker. Overall, though, the list was a bit too focused on sex, as if that’s the crux of being gay.

But the Gawker piece did save the best for last. The one revelation that made me sit up and cheer on the inside was the final one: “We Don’t Love Drag Queens As Much As You Do.” It was framed as a sweeping “gay” generalization, but I appreciated the acknowledgment that something perceived as a gay ritual kind of isn’t. (Surprised, Andrew Garfield?)

Drag has never been my thing, and it wasn’t until 2011 when I saw several first-rate drag shows in Phuket, Thailand, that I started to warm up to it.

Alas, it was a short-lived thaw. After a couple of weeks back in Bangkok, I was once again avoiding drag shows like the plague, showing up at DJ Station no earlier than midnight, just to be sure that the drag queens were safely tucked away offstage.

Sexlessness and the “other” box

In general, I find drag humor to be tiresome and lip-syncing boring, and many of my gay friends agree. (Andrew Garfield and I must run in different gay crowds.) But I suspect some straight people feel more comfortable with that over-the-top sexless gay persona because it’s safe.

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Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde) and Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched (ABC)

Like the stereotypically feminine gay man or the acerbic wise-cracking one (from Uncle Arthur on Bewitched to Jack on Will and Grace), drag queens represent a homosexuality they might feel comfortable embracing because there’s no sexuality involved. They don’t have to think about what we do when we’re naked.

Maybe that’s why some straight men see us so narrowly, in terms of grooming, narcissism, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, rather than in 3D. Simplifying us down to specific stereotypes puts us firmly in the “other” box, where they can ignore all of the non-”gay” things we may have in common with them as well as the emotional and physical oppression that’s a daily reality for many men whose gayness includes the physical act.

It’s a twisted kind of embrace, but I suppose it’s better than a punch, which, by the way, some gay men are able to throw masterfully.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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