Men, Femmephobia, & the Next Wave of Feminism.
I just got through one of the most difficult and dehumanizing weeks of my entire life. For around two years, eight dresses that I borrowed from my mother have hung idly in my closet. Beneath them lay two pairs of shoes, a pair of bright “flamingo” colored peep-toe heels and a pair of pale nude pumps (something a little more professional), both of which I purchased at the outlets in Mebane, North Carolina. To soothe the shock of the cashier, I assured her the purchases were for “my girlfriend.” The only time I’d wear these clothes were alone in my room doing homework, in the presence of a few friends during the occasional gossipy, drunken Saturday evening gathering, or the time I performed as “Carolina Del Gay” during Harvard Drag Night. The reason this week was so hard was that I decided to try and be honest with myself and with the world: I donned my feminine attire not as a joke or performance, but as part of my identity, and that’s when it became a problem.
As soon as I walked into CVS to buy my makeup before the week started, a masculine man (i.e. “bro”) walked by me in the makeup aisle, laughed, and visibly mocked me. That would be just a taste of the discrimination I would face from that point on. Packs of bros passed me as I strutted by them in heels and erupted in laughter. People on the street stopped in their tracks and glared at me with disgust. A stranger walked up to me and grabbed my ass from behind. A friendly acquaintance of mine even told me, “You look like a freak of nature. What’s wrong with you? You repulse me.” Mind you, this is “progressive” Cambridge, MA. After just a week, simply walking outside of my room became an exhausting and scary task, but in some ways, this was nothing new.
I figured out from a pretty early age that my femininity, as a “boy”, was not something to embrace, but to hide. Whether it was my parents immediately deleting the video of my dance performance to Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” scolding me “that’s not something boys do,” my friends making fun of me because my favorite board game was “Pretty, Pretty Princess,” or some of the folks in high school not wanting to eat the “faggot housewife” brownies I baked for advisory period (and all that’s just the tip of the iceberg), by high school graduation I thoroughly hated myself.
The thing that most people don’t recognize about this experience is that I was not being bullied or marginalized because of my sexual orientation–I wasn’t sexually active until college–I was being bullied because of my gender. And by “gender”, I don’t mean maleness; I mean my place on the spectrum of gender expressions that male-bodied people can perform. When people say to me, “Powell, how did everyone in your high school not know you were gay? You’ve been gay since you came out of the womb!” or “Powell, your voice is so gay!” or “Why do you walk in such a gay way?” they’re telling me that I am a feminine man, which they perceive to indicate something about my sexuality. In the same way, during the past year when 11-year-old Michael Morones attempted suicide and permanently disabled himself after being bullied for liking “My Little Pony” or when 12-year-old Ronan Shimizu took his life after being bullied for joining the cheerleading team, they were not killing themselves because of anti-gay bullying. They killed themselves because they could no longer bring themselves to live with the stigma and dehumanization that accompanies expressing a feminine gender in a male body.
The reason that these young, feminine boys are killing themselves and the reason that the FBI has determined that being a gay male (or being perceived to be a gay male) is the most common identity victimized by hate crimes in America (4x as high as gay women) is the same reason that a trans woman has a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered in her lifetime and why at least 6 trans women and male-assigned-at-birth-gender-non-conforming people have already been murdered in 2015 alone. Trans women, especially trans women who do not “pass” as cisgender women, are being killed because they are expressing femininity in a body that is perceived to be male. And the values of Western society have determined that expression to be a joke–something to be disposed of and laughed at instead of respected.
One of the roots of this cultural idea of feminine male identity as a joke is misogynist drag. I find it incredibly interesting that the events thrown by the Hasty Pudding Theatricals are massively attended by Harvard students, yet shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race have almost no place in popular Harvard culture, LGBTQ or otherwise. RuPaul’s Drag Race, while it absolutely has some problems with racism and transphobia, is mainly about feminine people who were assigned a male gender at birth embracing and celebrating their femininity–especially because there aren’t a lot of places where they can do so safely–and that’s a beautiful thing. A lot of people, especially gay men who have internalized femmephobia, are uncomfortable with this femininity because it’s a part of these drag queens’ identities that they take home with them after the show instead of just a performance.
The Pudding’s style of drag, on the other hand, (and a lot of stuff on BuzzFeed for that matter) focuses on laughing about how ridiculous men look wearing dresses: that a “man” would have the audacity to break the norm of masculinity and “degrade” themselves to something feminine. And that’s why the Hasty Pudding’s style of drag has been able to exist since the 18th century. But men wearing dresses as part of their identity were expelled in the Harvard Secret Court of 1920–once femininity becomes part of your identity instead of something to be laughed at, that’s when it becomes attacked. (As an aside, I also don’t doubt that many feminine men, regardless of sexuality, may use the Hasty Pudding as a place to explore feminine gender safely, and that the Hasty Pudding likely doesn’t have bad intentions–there’s tons of wonderful, caring people in the Pudding!–but that also doesn’t change the fact that their institution has historically promoted femmephobia and transphobia.)
Although there are certainly a few exceptions, by-and-large Harvard final clubs do not accept feminine gay men into their ranks. The only time I’ve ever been invited to a final club was when one club invited over all of the queens who had performed in Harvard Drag Night after the show. I’ve been rejected at the door trying to attend parties at final clubs countless times, but for some reason once I donned a dress for the misogynist entertainment of the men at this particular final club, I could be admitted. While I did not attend the after party, most of the drag queens, desperate for social acceptance, were incredibly excited to go and to be socially validated by the final club scene, even if in a demeaning way.
Not only are exclusive social spaces like final clubs generally dismissive of feminine men, but so are “progressive” campus organizations and social groups. The general rhetoric promoted by groups like First-Year Urban Program (FUP), Queer Students & Allies (QSA, of which I formerly served as co-chair), and quite frankly the Harvard College Office of BGLTQ Student Life is that gay men, especially in the context of a “progressive” university like Harvard, don’t face a lot of adversity because they have male privilege and same-sex attraction and relationships are becoming increasingly normalized. And homosexuality absolutely is becoming normalized–but at the expense of feminine gay men.
The origin of homosexual stigma, beyond religious persecution, is that homosexual attraction meant that you were feminine and thus not conforming to male expectations because of this attraction (and vice versa for women). Increasingly, the narrative surrounding coming out for gay men has shifted to coming out despite feminine gay stereotypes associated with homosexuality, and how masculine gays are breaking the barriers of this stereotype. Gradually, homosexuality is becoming something that is not limited to feminine men, but also something that masculine men can pursue. As more and more masculine men engage in homosexuality, the feminine stigma associated with the actual attraction itself is being removed, and homosexuality for masculine men is being normalized.
If you search on Google “gay men and loud femininity”, you’ll see what people think of feminine gay men. People say things like “They’re hurting the cause” and “I don’t understand why they feel the need to act in that embarrassing way.” We’re the ones everyone is distancing themselves from; we’re the bottom barrel of the gay community; we’re the wrong kind of gay.
Femmes like me have barely had the opportunity to come out in the first place – I’ve been getting called a faggot since I was in second grade because of my gender expression. And then femmes like me get told “you’re too obsessed with your sexuality”, that “there’s more to a person than who you’re attracted to”–and there absolutely is, but the problem is that feminine men never get to explore that part of themselves because they’re constantly reduced solely to their perceived sexual orientation by the world around them because of their gender expression.
And even within the gay community, feminine men are constantly attacked. Profiles on gay dating apps and sites are littered with “masc[uline] only”, “no femmes”, and my personal favorite, “if I wanted to sleep with a girl I’d f*ck a woman not a feminine faggot like you.” In my own experience, I started an LGBTQ business group at Harvard, and one of my board members reached out to a gay man he knew was interested in finance and asked him why he hadn’t attended any of our events. He responded, “I don’t want to be in an organization run by a feminine faggot like Powell. It’s unprofessional, and none of you are gonna get jobs because of it.” Constantly, at LGBTQ diversity professional events, masculine gay men, who realistically don’t face a lot of stigma in the workplace because their masculinity prevents them from being “visibly gay,” express implicitly or explicitly, as in the example above, that they are uncomfortable with my femininity and find it unprofessional. The people in my community that are supposed to be helping me find jobs are actually blocking the diversity recruiting pathways that should be helping femmes because we are the ones who are systematically disadvantaged in the workplace, not masculine gay men.
And that sort of stigma for feminine men translates over into not only the absurd hate crime and violence statistics I mentioned before, but also to the realm of discrimination that most folks think only women face. In my own experience, this includes everything from microaggressions about my gender presentation in job interviews, to being sexually assaulted (and more than once–it’s happened to varying degrees throughout my whole life), to anorexia, to not feeling safe when I walk home at night. And these aren’t only my own personal experiences: they’re clearly illustrated in various statistics. Gay and bisexual men, according to the Williams Institute, earn up to 32% less than straight men, controlling for race, education, occupation, and work experience. That’s even greater than the 23% gap between women and men. And given that a lot of that gap for women can be explained away by differences in household labor division, that a significantly higher number of gay men don’t have children for which to devote household labor, and that this statistic includes gay men of both masculine and feminine gender expressions, this statistic is deeply alarming. Matt Bomer might be able to get an investment banking job and do just fine, but this barrier to occupational success is still very much a reality for the Carson Kressley’s and Miss J’s of the world. The sort of male privilege that “progressive” Harvard says applies to all men only advantages certain men, and in fact the maleness that privileges masculine men works against feminine men.
Ultimately, the issue that feminine men are facing is that we are not only dealing with misogyny for our femininity, but also discrimination against our gender-non-conformity–it’s a double-edged sword (i.e. you’re feminine and unlike a woman you’re not even supposed to be feminine by social standards). This femininity, contrary to popular belief, is not something I can switch off. Even when I go to an interview wearing a navy suit and black shoes and putting on my best “masc bro” drag, my femininity still shines through, and the interviewer usually makes a comment. When I express femininity, it’s not respectable like when a woman expresses it. It’s that lack of respectability in feminine male expression that has caused gay men’s hate crime rates to be four times that of gay women, and for us to be so unemployable. After all, just like they say on gay dating apps, if employers wanted a woman, they’d hire one, not a feminine faggot like me.
Third wave feminism clearly isn’t working for feminine men and trans women. I want a feminism that defines the reason why femininity and gender-non-conformity are stigmatized across all genders, instead of forcing people to distance themselves from the expression that is causing them discrimination. Gay men should not be forced to act masculine to avoid workplace stigma and be considered normatively attractive, and women should not be forced to balance their femininity and masculinity in a certain way to make their identities consistent with “professional” standards. I want a feminism that encourages society to embrace those expressions so that those expressions lose their stigma. Once stigmas against feminine expression for men are broken down–which looks like me being able to wear a dress and pumps in a professional setting–trans women will be taken more seriously as women, just as many trans men find it easier (not easy) to be taken seriously as men because of reduced stigma about women wearing a suit or expressing in a masculine way. I want a feminism that stops lip servicing the idea of gender as a spectrum and actually starts treating it like one, instead of like a binary. This is the feminism that lies beyond achieving legal recognitions like marriage equality and employment non-discrimination–it pin points and breaks down the stigmas that caused people of marginalized gender backgrounds to face legal discrimination in the first place.
But more than anything else in the world, I want a feminism which allows that little boy who walks into his mom’s bathroom and puts on her makeup, that little boy who joins the cheerleading team, that little boy who wants to act like or be a woman to be celebrated instead of killed. As Gloria Steinem said at the conclusion of her famous essay that ushered in the second wave of feminism, “Because the idea is, in the long run, that women’s liberation will be men’s liberation, too.” It’s time to liberate all genders. This is the fourth wave of feminism.
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