Author’s note: It is important to acknowledge the cisnormative nature of this essay and to draw attention to the issues of trans men and gender nonconforming people in the context of masculine identity development. Also, we cannot ignore that this essay doesn’t explicitly focus on bi, pan, or queer identified men, though some of the research would suggest similarities to gay masculinity development. These identities and their relationships with masculinity are also vitally important in this discussion. Masculinity is a complex issue that warrants hundreds of pages of exploration as its impact is far reaching. In this essay, masculinity development of gay men is addressed; other identities are not forgotten.
Toxic masculinity has become a topic of discussion in many circles in recent years, and for good reason. Our patriarchal society expects a certain portrayal of masculinity, and that portrayal does not include anything even remotely perceived as feminine, and for men who challenge the “norm” of heteronormativity, such as gay men, the fight against toxic masculinity can be arduous. So, gay men in college, who are already forced to reconcile a gay identity, may also be required to undermine their authentic selves in order to achieve the hegemonic masculine ideal, and thus have more intense struggles than their heterosexual counterparts when it comes to masculine identity development.
The effects of masculinity culture on the development of gay men are apparent. Just as heterosexual men, gay men are still expected to embody the masculine ideals set forth by society. These ideals, though, leave little room for individual expression. Men of all orientations must develop their own authentic masculinity. However, for gay men, the disconnect between development of a gay identity and what is said to be masculine can create a chasm that may lead to a multitude of mental health issues. The precursor to many of these mental health issues, and in turn, a significantly higher rate of suicide, is an identity crisis described as internalized homophobia (Szymanski, Kashubeck-West, and Meyer, 2008; Williamson. 2000). This internalized homophobia is problematic as it creates a dichotomous relationship between sexual orientation and gender performance, creating competing ideas of what it means to be authentically one’s self.
Homophobia is a tactic used by many adolescents and maturing men as a form of hegemonic masculinity performance (Richardson, 2010); however, Kimmel (2010) further explains the idea of homophobia as less a fear of the homosexual and instead describes it as a fear of the feminine. Further, Kimmel argues that homophobia is a fear of being emasculated by peers and being seen as less than masculine. It is the fear of the non-conformity to hegemonic masculinity that drives homophobia in men (Swain, 2010). Gay men are no different than their heterosexual counterparts when it comes to homophobia; though, for gay men homophobia is both an internal and external battle (Williamson, 2000). Gay men must appear to be both gay and straight simultaneously if they are to be successful in society. Gay men are expected to be equally as masculine as their heterosexual counterparts or more so in order to be an accepted part of the hetero/homonormative culture (Anderson-Martinez & Vianden, 2014).
Taking in to account that gay men must be conscious of this traditional masculinity alongside their differing sexual orientation there is an identity crisis. D’Augelli’s model of lesbian, gay, and bisexual development as cited in Evans et. al (2010) provides the introduction to this idea of conflict in his first process of identity development. D’Augelli’s process states that a person must first recognize their feelings for a person of the same sex and begin telling others of this attraction. For gay men this is problematic due to the culture of hegemonic masculinity men are expected to follow. Men are expected to perform their gender as anti-effeminate, dominant, and aggressive (Kimmel, 2008) and thus being in a same-sex relationship is contradictory to societal gender roles (Edwards, 2005).
Society says there is a masculine and a feminine party in each relationship, but in the context of gay relationships both men are expected to be masculine and thus each man must reconcile what his masculinity means within each relationship and how he will perform that masculinity. The subordination of the feminine in masculinity culture and the notion that to be a truly masculine you must be heterosexual (Swain, 2010) then causes a dichotomous relationship that can and, in many men, does create an idea of internalized homophobia as Anderson-Martinez and Vianden (2014) suggest. It is here that many gay men struggle. There is a quest for homonormativity that cannot be met in many cases, as the very goal of homonormativity is to not contest the idea of heteronormativity (Duggan, 2002). However, same-sex relationships are inherently challenging to heteronormativity due to their non-heterosexual nature. The forced reconciliation of masculinity with sexual orientation is difficult at best, and many gay men struggle with this, often to the point of mental health issues (Szymanski, Kashubeck-West, and Meyer, 2008).
Suicide, suicide ideation, and depression are no laughing matter. In the LGBT community there have been a number of highly publicized suicides in recent memory. There has been much work done to show the links between homosexuality and mental health disorders, and the findings are staggering. Hershberger, Pilkington, & D’Augelli (1997) found in their sample that over 40% of LGBT youth attempted suicide at least once in their lifetime which was congruent with similar studies conducted by D’Augelli and Hershberger in 1993, as they self-cited within this study. More recently, Marshal et. al (2011) found that nearly 28% of their participants who identified as other than heterosexual had a history of suicidal events as opposed to 12% of those who identified as heterosexual. Additionally, Mustanski, Garofalo, and Emerson (2010) found in a study of diverse students aged 16-20 years, the prime ages of college men, that students who identified as non-heterosexual had a higher probability of attempting suicide at some point at a rate of 31% of respondents. Also, the study found “One third of participants met criteria for any mental disorder” (p. 2426).
King et al. (2008) found a higher risk of suicide attempts over the course of a lifetime in gay men when compared to their heterosexual peers. Similarly, Bostwick (2010) found a higher than normal rate of depression and anxiety among the same group compared to their heterosexual counterparts. The struggle with masculinity culture and identity development is easily observed when looking at these statistics, especially considering the ideas of the fear of femininity discussed by Kimmel (2008, 2010), Swain (2010), and Anderson-Martinez and Vianden (2014) and the subsequent propensity for internalized homophobia.
All of this is to say that toxic masculinity culture has profound effects on men of any identity, and for gay men the toxic masculinity game could have intense health affects. As university administrators it is imperative for us to provide programming and resources for all of our students centered on diverse, positive masculinity representations. For men in college, especially gay men, having positive representations of masculinity modeled and taught could make profound differences for gay men in college. Utilizing our Greek students, our student leaders, and our already in effect programming to combat toxic masculinity is a must on our campuses. We have to find ways for men to have discussions in diverse spaces to process and build their own authentic, positive masculinity representations, our world needs it.
Danny Foster (He/Him/His) is a Residence Director and Orientation Coordinator at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Danny has a passion for LGBTQ+ issues and hopes to further explore the impact of masculinity throughout the LGBTQ+ community as he further pursues his academic interests. You can reach Danny on Twitter at @FosterDJ2 or by email at email@example.com
Stephen Britt (He/Him/His) is an Undergraduate Academic Advisor in the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. He enjoys exploring the intersection of academic advising and career development.
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