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Of Sissies & Stereotypes
In a word, no. I was quite different at one time; just a boy. A studious, polite, introverted boy, but a boy nonetheless. Sensitive? Definitely – even emotional. Girly? No way.
The change manifested from several experiences, but the primary of these was meeting a man about ten years my senior. He was more feminine than most women I knew, and the first fully “out” gay man I had met. We never had a romantic relationship, but did maintain a friendship for about a year. He told me all about the nightclubs and gay bars in Jacksonville, FL where he had been a drag queen. He related all of the gay lingo current at the time. I was being initiated into the subculture in which I knew I would one day fully participate. It was exciting.
This excitement was coupled with a newly found comfort and (OK, Linz!) freedom in my sexuality. I was out. I knew it had taken courage to be true to myself, and that knowledge brought with it an earned pride. The adrenaline from that courage carried with it a giddiness that is hard to communicate to those who’ve not experienced anything similar. Think of the first time you had sex, if it was a good experience. But it goes beyond sex. Couple that memory with that of any moment when you reclaimed your identity from the clutches of someone who wanted to smother it — whether it was a lover who wanted you to change to suit her, a parent who wanted you to pursue a career you had no interest in, or a business partner who wanted you to be dishonest in order to make a deal. Imagine nervousness, excitement, and a sense of integrity combined to form an ecstatic rush that pervades your entire life. That comes close to the feeling one feels on truly coming out. And that is the feeling that made me want to scream from the roof tops who I was, and to truly be seen.
This was my psychological state when I met my friend. Without his explicit direction, I adopted many of his mannerisms and affectations. I thought those were required — that they were what it meant to be “gay.” Instead of maintaining the integrity it had taken to come out, and forging my own identity based on the person I knew myself to be, I accepted a tired, second-hand stereotype of a persona. At the time it was fun, like theater. I could be melodramatic. I could pretend not to want to get dirty or sweaty. I could pretend not to know anything about tools and cars and that I knew something about fashion and decorating.
With time, however, I came to realize my error. I listened to that part of my soul that said, “This isn’t you.” Much as acquiring the mannerisms didn’t happen overnight, discarding them wasn’t immediate. But I did it. I listened to myself and reclaimed my integrity.
I should state explicitly at this point that I see nothing wrong with effeminate men; the problem wasn’t my mannerisms per se – it was that they were affected; they weren’t mine.
This experience gave me armor when I later moved to a large city and encountered the gay community there. I was immediately surrounded by queers of every imaginable variety — the trendy, the chic, the sporty, the grungy, the twinks. Then I came into contact with the fetish subcultures — the leather daddies, the bears, the gym bunnies. There were the thirty-something, BMW-driving city snobs, and the Ford F150-driving, boot-wearing country guys. So much variety — and so much conformity.
Had I been young and just coming out, I might have clung to one of these stereotypes as “what it means to be gay” or even bounced from subculture to subculture. As it happened, I simply felt a little wistful for “normal” guys, but decided to have fun with it. I could put on boots and go two-steppin’, dress to the nines and go trendy, or go dancing in the leather and jean bar with the swaggering, butch men. I could get sweaty and dirty in the park or lounge on a restaurant patio drinking cocktails. In short, I could drift from stereotype to stereotype as it pleased me. Instead of a source of identity crisis, it was a chance to play dress up and — perhaps more enticingly — sample from the sexual buffet that is the modern gay community.
But it got me to thinking: What are we doing to the generation that’s coming out now? If they look at the multitude of “types” and decide they must choose one in order to “be gay,” that’s certainly an error of false generalization. But what are the other generations doing to help them avoid that error? Many subcultures criticize those who don’t fit. Most criticize those they can’t pigeonhole (like me). Hell, even those who are open with their sexuality — confident in being attracted to the same sex but curious about the other — are derided. How is this conducive to being true to oneself?
The answer is not “tolerance,” which means nothing as a broad abstraction; there are some things, like sexuality, of which we should be tolerant and other things, like rape and violence, of which no one should be tolerant.
The answer is virtue. Not virtue in the sense of finger-wagging rules of “Don’t have casual sex” or “Don’t drink” or any of the other concrete-bound commandments we’ve been smuggled under the guise of “morality.” The answer is virtue that can be tied to human flourishing — virtues like integrity, honesty, independence, and pride. They are necessary to forge and maintain a true identity and to build a happy, successful life. Only by demonstrating their practicality (by practicing them ourselves) and teaching them to the next generation will we achieve a true community — one that goes beyond stereotype, and lets people simply be who they are.
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