I knew that flouncing about on stage would get me into trouble. It was a pretty strong feeling: as a boy, if I joined the theatre club I would be different. And yes, I got teased. Other boys were playing football or learning martial arts but I went to act and dance.
I made a distinction between those two. As I was learning to be a wife beater (Bill Sykes in Oliver) or a gruff boss (Mr Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors), I was keen to tell family members and other kids that I was less interested in the dancing than the acting. This is factually true, and I was less good at the dancing too. But I look back at myself then and think, What was it about that 10-year-old me who knew that dancing wasn’t really the right thing for a boy to be doing?
I probably would have been one of the boys who didn’t get invited to the birthday party of Respondent 992 to Dave Pickering’s survey about masculinity. “When I was a kid, I invited all the boys in my class to my birthday party, except the two boys rumoured to be gay,” he says.
The survey collected over 1,000 responses from men and the results are compelling. One of the things that struck me most is the amount of ‘gay panic’. This is the anxiety men feel about being seen to be gay, and it often leads to mockery and violence. When I was a boy into am-dram, it was my own gay panic that made me insist, “Oh, but I only go for the acting, not the dancing and the singing.”
Respondent 992 looks back on the invitation list for his birthday parties and says: “I still cringe with shame every time I think of it.” Good on him. He knows what he did is awful, just as I know now that it was silly to defend my membership of the theatre group in the way I did.
Respondent 787 (who I like to think of as a Boeing airliner) says he feels like he has been blocked from “emotional intimacy with male friends” because he isn’t conventionally masculine. He says he’s not gay but has been the victim of homophobia and the enforcement of “normative masculinity” (this is a bit like how I felt when my mum gave me a watch because it “looks nice on a man”).
Respondent 787, who is not gay, shows that you don’t actually have to have sex with men to be the victim of homophobia. Homophobia isn’t really a rejection of a certain kind of sex; it is a way for men to prove that they are men in the conventional sense. As the thinker and campaigner Michael Kaufman says, boys internalise our definition of a ‘normal’ or ‘real’ man, which includes having a penis, being strong and hard, and not being soft or weak, or yielding, sentimental, effeminate or passive.
One of the reasons why suicide is the most common cause of death among men under 35 is because they have depression when they cannot live up to this standard. Men get depression when they can’t find work (they are no longer an active part of the economy) or when their health takes a turn for the worse (when they must passively receive help from others).
We usually avoid this kind of passivity by becoming homophobic. Boys and girls are socialised to become homophobic as a way of reinforcing the non-passive version of masculinity. “As a child I went to an all-boys grammar school, which…couldn’t help but be a hothouse of chauvinism and homophobia,” says Respondent 596. “Growing up and trying to fit in meant acting like an arsehole.” Respondent 536 adds that he is a “reformed shitlord” who used to promulgate harmful stereotypes by making homophobic jokes.
It is not hard to see how these views lead to the violence we see between men. When a man doesn’t behave the way you want him to, and or in a way that you think could restrict his chances of being a man, you can try and persuade him, you can taunt him, or you can whack him. “I’ve taken a fair few beatings,” reports Respondent 1002, a bisexual and effeminate man.
This guy says that before he admitted his sexuality he used words like faggot a lot—I presume this means that he tried to distance himself from his own homosexual desires by taunting other men who behaved in weak or effeminate or passive ways. It’s a classic approach: remember Randy Boehning, who kept voting against gay rights while looking for men to sleep with? “I think I was just being defensive,” says Respondent 1002. Too right.
Kaufman says that the majority of men have had sexual or quasi-sexual relationships with other men (brothers wanking together is apparently very common). He explains that it requires a lot of energy to repress these memories or the good feelings we have about them, so men have instead created institutions that enable men to be with and admire other men: boardrooms, fishing trips, war, football…
All of these rituals allow men to be active. Even fishing, which is really just about sitting and waiting, has an elaborate method of learning techniques, developing technologies such as rods and, of course, going out into the wild and beating nature.
Respondent 887 knows that these rituals are ways of reinforcing masculinity. “Apparently if you don’t wanna watch 22 guys chase a ball round a muddy field, then [you’re] obviously ‘gay’ which for some reason is seen as being less of a man,” he says.
It is homophobic to dismiss a man who doesn’t like football, or doesn’t tend to like many of these institutions that are about reinforcing masculinity. Kaufman says homophobia is a means with which men can try to cope with their repressed attraction to other men or any passive sexual aims they might have, since these are not seen as masculine. Homophobia isn’t so much an individual thing; it’s a way for our whole society to maintain the idea of a man.
It doesn’t matter how many countries follow Ireland’s wonderful lead in voting for equal marriage, as long as our version of masculinity is not allowed to be passive, homophobia will exist. The first step to breaking this down is for everyone to see masculinity for what it is: as a way of showing the world that we’re not passive, masculinity is nothing but a performance. It’s a lot like when I pulled on Bill Sykes’ heavy Victorian overcoat and stepped out onto the stage as a boy, anxious in the spotlight.