Behind the macho mask

Gay therapist speaks out against homonegativity

Most men experience pressure to be “all man.” Except no one’s really sure of what it means to be a man. Being a man in Europe is different than being a man in America. Even here in the U.S., being a man in L.A. is different than being a man in New York. Heck, even in New York being a man in Harlem isn’t the same as being a man on Wall Street.

Despite these differences, however, there’s one thing we all do know: Being a man means not being like a woman.

Because we’re stereotyped as effeminate, many gay men embrace a hyper-masculine persona more than straight men do. In fact, right now in the gay community, there is an overcompensation of machismo as evidenced by an epidemic of gay men seeking men who are “straight acting, straight appearing only.”

Masculinity, power, and strength are echoed in our testosterone driven, pumped up, rock hard, youth oriented, sex ready subculture. The need to reject flamboyancy is the ugly and tragic face of internalized homophobia and heterosexism.

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This homonegativity is so strong and pervasive that even though we may not be aware of it — even though we may not even consciously subscribe to it — it can still run our lives. It works like the white noise machine I have in my office. I’m aware that it’s on when I first turn it on. But after awhile, I don’t even hear it. I’m not aware of it again until I go to shut it off when I leave.

Similarly, we’re constantly bombarded with powerfully influential messages of how to be a “real man” in America. They are so prevalent that they just become part of us — ingrained. And we can collude, even the subtlest of ways, to tone down our gayness and pump up our manhood to escape feminizing gay stereotypes.

Dealing with anti-gay sentiment from the time we’re very young, we learn to mute our gayness to conform in order to be more “acceptable.” This “discreet,” straight guise that most of us do to some degree to protect ourselves, and win more love, is gay male drag.

It’s buzz cuts; ink; goatees; military garb, athletic uniforms, or other manly attire; perfect gym bodies; and more. It’s gay men’s camouflage. It’s a gay decoy that says “I’m gay, but I’m not a faggot. I have value because I’m masculine.”

The most harmful effect that homonegativity creates among gay people is that it can traumatize them into feeling ashamed of who they are, leading to corroded self-esteem and significant stress.
The anti-gay sentiment we ingest from our polluted environment creates shame and low esteem, which in turn drives self-destructive coping behavior like unsafe sex; alcohol and drug abuse; excessive dieting and exercise; as well as anxiety, depression and addiction; attitude; “straight acting” facades; and disconnection.

The superman image, fueled by internalized homophobia and heterosexism, blocks us from connecting to our true selves and one another.

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Having said this, understand that I’m not anti-masculine. If you’re masculine, that’s fine. If you’re not, that’s fine too. A mix? Also fine. The problem is when we take on society’s idea that the only way to be a man means being masculine.

Using masculinity as a “cover” is the problem, not being “too flamboyant.” When we seek to stamp out the inner sissy we’ve learned to dislike (from having to protect ourselves from emotional and physical harm) we harm ourselves. You don’t have to be effeminate if you’re not. You just have to be the gay man you are without any facade.

The way out is through self-acceptance and self-love. When you stand firmly on your own two feet, deeply rooted in the authenticity and appreciation of being who you are, internalized homonegativity
will begin to dissolve.

Gay people are strong and resilient from all the challenges we face. We can use our strength to stand tall and walk with pride, being our full selves without fear. I encourage you to take your attention off of fear and outdated controlling images like the “real man.” Instead, focus on being your true self. You can’t get acceptance from someone else. You have to bring that to the table yourself. Acceptance isn’t about getting something you don’t have from someone else. It’s about showing up authentically as you are from the get go, commanding respect.

If you already accept yourself, someone else’s disapproving opinion can’t stop you from being fully yourself. Hold onto your power. Don’t let someone else’s ideas define you.

Angelo Pezzote is the author of “Straight Acting” (Kensington Books), available at White Rabbit and bookstores everywhere.

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