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I am late to the party. It took twenty-one years of Hollyoaks scenarios to feel like a man, learning by improvisation how to be masculine without falling into the usual patriarchal whoopsie-daisy aspects of manliness. I spent my childhood bored of boyishness, jealous of the perceived freedoms of girlishness, and about this time last year I felt I’d reached a pinnacle on which I could affirm in unison my gayness and my maleness. But then queer theory came along and smashed the whole thing apart.
Queer is a word I didn’t understand unless it meant something hurtful. There’s a loftiness to the word that belies its relative simplicity. There’s a sense of luxury in using a term so happily antithetical to the normal straight world. I understood coastal erosion and night-bus routes and jet-lag, but queerness continued to dodge any simple definition.
Yet the term “gay man” didn’t feel quite right either. The gay man starts life as a chameleon, swapping intonations and behaviour to fit the gay-friendliness of his surroundings. I didn’t like that. All besides the luckiest gay men are adept at denial. We are familiar with subterfuge; accustomed to camouflaging ourselves into the social fabric. It is as if we’re caught in quicksand, juggling gayness and maleness in a world that declares the two mutually exclusive.
I grew to loathe the amicable comments friends would make about their boyfriends: “It’s hilarious, he’s so hot and so straight, you wouldn’t believe he’s gay.” This is why I dislike the surreptitious crowning of straight-acting gay men; the men who, by nature or by nurture, appear infallibly straight in their day-to-day lives. It’s the ultimate ruse. The undetected gay boy, whose behaviour isn’t camp and whose interests aren’t batty, is as idolized as the way we idolize the drag queen who looks just like a real girl. “Can you believe that’s really a boy?”
I think this habit of exalting gay guys who act like straight guys comes from the self-hatred and identity crises that happen in the closet. The teenage panic of potential emasculation is a conundrum, a big sweaty paradox humming through all of us. We like men. We are men. This feels like a big deal at the time. We’re determined to reclaim our maleness as if it were ever taken away from us, so we are terrified by the mincing faggot. But he offers far more of an emancipatory allure than the pursuit of appeasing our parents.
The very sameness of our instinctive attraction to the same sex makes every gay man we meet a mirror image; a three-page spread of our flaws and lusts and fears. Maybe we are grasping at some ad hoc sense of maleness as we part our legs to be penetrated – reaching for something that isn’t quite there in the same way we reach for an unverifiable level of gay emancipation. If we have a bill of rights drawn up, will family relatives talk to me like a normal person? If we can get married, will our shy displays of public affection stop feeling like loaded, political gestures? When will the worries at the back of our minds finally fizzle down?
And it’s important to remember that gay male culture can be hyper-masculine, hyper-sexed and hyper-isolating. While the atrophy of AIDS is a compelling, sad and by all means fitting argument for the aspirational machoism tantamount in such a culture, the morality of a gay world that ranks and files us by the size and strength of our pectorals is questionable. We were offered the utopia of exciting gay lifestyles the way TV commercials advocate new pairs of shoes, yet the libidinal hierarchies and collapsable self-esteems of machismo gay culture feel far from heaven.
This is why queerness seems so vital to me. Queerness is a refusal of a normalised body image; a rejection of the twink-and-bear, top-and-bottom sexual and interpersonal roleplay we undergo as gay men. Are we all just re-enacting the gendered frameworks that choked our self-development in the closet? Is traditional masculinity a concept worth reclaiming for our own use?
And are we castrating ourselves once over? Am I choked or am I free? Nowadays, I’d rather throw myself into the blithe and luxurious freedoms of queerness than haggle with society about whether they’ll let us marry each other.