WHEN I was five years old, my dad took my twin brother and I into a toy shop and told us to pick something we wanted.
I watched as my brother bolted off into the boys’ section—toy guns, trucks, swords, and GI Joes perched on the shelves.
I stood there in the middle of the toy shop, paralysed with anxiety because I knew I wanted to pick a Barbie, but for some reason, as a boy at the young age of five, I knew I wasn’t supposed to. Only now at the age of 30 can I see how the pressures of gender stereotypes and traditional masculinity have impacted me as a gay man.
Why though, at the age of six was I having panic attacks, running to my cupboard, grabbing my dolls and hiding them under mum and dad’s bed when my friends would come over? My parents always let me get the toys I wanted, so where was this fear and feeling of doing something ‘wrong’ coming from?
It was coming from gender-traditional kids, society and every aesthetic around me. Traditional gender stereotypes permeated nearly every advertisement, TV show and lesson I was exposed to growing up. Right from birth, we are dressed in the colours that society dictates for each sex—blue for boys, pink for girls—while every Barbie ad on TV featured girls, only boys played with toy trucks.
I soon started to get teased for my ‘female’ interests, and in an effort to end the teasing and feel accepted by my peers, I started to change myself. I forced myself to play with toys that the other boys liked, threw out my Barbies, stopped wearing jewellery and made sure I never let on about my true interests. I was seven.
Having a twin brother who was the quintessential traditional boy—sporty, played with cars and loved rock music—only accentuated how I did not fit the societal construct of a boy. By the time I started high school, my interest in toys had shifted to interest in music, TV shows and also to other people.
As I became more aware of the fact that I was gay, going to an all-boys school, which was founded on a sport and rugby culture, only reinforced the gender stereotypes I was battling. Being teased as a six-year-old for playing with a Barbie is one thing, but being accused of being gay at a non-progressive, all-boys high school was a death wish.
I had seen how other boys whose mannerisms and interests were considered effeminate had been treated, and the bullying, bigotry and trauma they faced was relentless.
Consequently, I became a master at muting anything about myself that might be considered ‘gay’—from my taste in music, to the TV shows I watched. No one at school knew that I was obsessed with the show Charmed or that I had both Britney Spears’ and Christina Aguilera’s debut albums.
I made sure I participated in sport—not just because I genuinely enjoyed it and excelled (boys can be interested in Britney and be good at sport, too!), but because I knew it helped me project an acceptable image of masculinity.
When I was 13, I remember listening to Britney and ashamedly racing to turn it off at the sound of my brother coming down the hall. For me, high school was five years of trying to portray this idealised image of masculinity—an endless, exhausting charade and constant suppression of my true self.
A few months after graduating from grade 12, I came out to my family. Once the initial shock had worn off for everyone, I felt freedom. The years of pretending to be someone I wasn’t faded away. It no longer mattered if people called me gay, because I was out and I had nothing to lose. For the first time in my life, I was able to start embracing who I truly was. I had never felt so secure and comfortable in my own skin.
Fast forward 16 years to 2016 when I was now 29 and living with my brother overseas. I was listening to a Fifth Harmony song when I heard my brother coming down the stairs. My hand automatically shot up to turn down the sound. But this time, instead of turning it down, I cranked it up.
My loved ones are supportive so I don’t need to hide myself anymore, but it has become clear to me that the years of suppression and fear as a child, when my brain was forming pathways and patterns of behaviour, has created a subconscious, automatic reaction in me, which tells me not to be myself. I liken it to wearing a watch for years, taking it off and then checking for the time on your naked wrist out of habit.
I’m now 30 and it’s been 12 years since I came out. After reflecting on the last decade of dating, I have found myself asking why very often I find it hard to be myself, be open and relax when I date people. Why do I get uncomfortable and rigid when I’m getting to know someone? Why am I omitting my love of fashion, jewellery, singing and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills to another gay person who should understand the most?
These patterns of suppression disappear when I’m with my friends and family but not when I’m dating. I have also seen this behaviour in so many other men I’ve dated. There have even been guys whose voices have progressively gone higher and more effeminate as our date progressed. As they became more comfortable and the let their guard down, they started speaking like their authentic self. I can only imagine that this is the type of façade these guys had to put on growing up to project the image of masculinity they too had to ascribe to.
What I have come to see over time is that many gay people facilitate homophobia within our own community and place so much value and attractiveness on traditional masculinity. This is not to blanket the entire community, but as a gay man who has lived and experienced mainstream gay culture in four major Western cities, there is definitely a value placed on traditional masculinity. It only takes 30 seconds of scrolling through Grindr to see profiles with criteria such as ‘masc4masc’, ‘no feminine guys’ or ‘masculine, you be too’.
This behaviour is only reinforced by ‘tribe’ culture within the gay community, where men can assign themselves to a certain category (bear, twink, jock, etc.) based on their physical features and mannerisms—some of which are considered more masculine than others. In some ways, it’s almost creating a hierarchy of masculinity.
I have heard multiple gay people react negatively to being called a twink because generally, that tribe is associated with more traditionally effeminate characteristics—a little more manicured, no body hair and a skinnier build.
Is this homophobic behaviour within our own community a deeply rooted, systemic reaction by gay men, transferring their own feelings of inadequate masculinity from childhood over to their fellow gay man in order to feel more secure in their own skin? Is this behaviour an offshoot of the classic bully psychology—criticise another person to make yourself feel better?
According to the dictionary, masculinity means “pertaining to, or characteristic of, a man or men; having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness”. Sigh.
Haven’t we experienced at this point in time (with the feminist movement, civil rights movement, abolishment of slavery and the pride movement, to name a few) to be looking at things only through a traditional lens? “Strength and boldness” should not appear in the dictionary as the defining characteristics of a man because the reality is that many men out there aren’t strong or bold.
Nor should they have to be. While the rise of the metrosexual and the reshaping of traditional gender stereotypes over the last few decades has certainly helped break down some of these walls, it is evident, through the very prevalent homophobia and adherence to traditional masculinity in our own community, that there is still a long way to go.
In our own community it seems, with its internalised judgement of femininity and its preoccupation with being traditionally masculine in order to be considered attractive or valid, we ourselves are perpetuating the feelings of inadequacy and behaviours of suppression many of us were slaves to growing up.
The LGBTI community can be an incredible space to feel safe and to thrive. I certainly have in many ways. But it appears that the gay community—which typically represents freedom, happiness and authentic self-expression—in some pretty major ways is at odds with itself via a rather ironic dichotomy. We need to do better.
To anyone who is feeling the pressure to be ‘the man’, as clichéd as it sounds—just be yourself. The moment you feel the urge to hide something about yourself, take a deep breath and share it instead.
The bigger tragedy would be falling into a relationship where you have to try and maintain some fake version of yourself. It will be a process and sometimes you may feel the overbearing pressure to not be who you are, and that’s ok. But if we can start with ourselves and begin countering these pressures from holding us back—one pop song crank at a time—then we will be in a better position to help others be themselves, too.
We need to keep discussing and redefining what it means to be a man, with open, realistic minds, because no child should feel shame or fear for not fitting into such a narrow box.
Tys van der Drift is a freelance writer.