Being Male and Being Gay

Cultural expectations about what it means to be male, regardless of one’s sexual orientation, add social and personal pressures. These cultural expectations—basically gender role expectations—vary by culture and ethnicity and can present quite different issues, for example, for gay men of color than for Caucasian gay men.

In general, however, the stereotypical male in America can be described as powerful, masculine, independent, emotionally reserved, and career motivated, rather than relationship motivated. Boys and men who do not seem to fit this stereotype—or who do not wish to act like this stereotype—may have trouble fitting in or being comfortable with themselves.

Part of societal heterosexism is confusion about what homosexuality is and what gay men are. Since most heterosexuals cannot imagine what it is like to be attracted to someone of the same sex or to be gay, they often mistakenly assume that a gay man is in some way like a woman. If a man wants to be with another man emotionally or sexually, they think, then gay men see themselves as like women. Cultures, especially Latin-based cultures, stigmatize any man who is like a woman. Some have speculated that this may be one basis for antigay bias in America and a major factor in homophobia.

Gay men are not like women even though they are attracted to other men. Certainly men may be “effeminate”—that is, having some traits that are in general culturally attributed to women. Yet effeminacy has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Many effeminate men are heterosexual. Unless a gay man is also transgender, he does not think he is a woman or wish to be a woman.

Many gay men do, however, grow up differently from their heterosexual peers, and a good percentage of gay boys and men have traits and behaviors that are more commonly associated with girls or women. Examples of this include avoiding rough and tumble play and being less aggressive and less interested in sports than sterotypical heterosexual males. These traits do not cause homosexuality, but they may lead to a child being stigmatized. Many gay men report being made fun of in school, feeling isolated, and avoiding contact with the more “macho” types of boys—which, of course, adds to the stress of being different.

The alleged link between being gay and being effeminate or weak sometimes is believed even by gay men and makes them more ashamed of their gay feelings than they might be otherwise. Gay men who are more passive or who enjoy being the “passive” or receiving sex partner may feel deep shame and embarrassment about that behavior and desire, and that shame may contribute to their using alcohol and drugs to try to cope.

Some gay men may feel pressure—even or especially by other ay men—to be more “butch,” masculine behaving, or macho than they feel comfortable with. This conflict may lead to acting more reserved or aloof in general, making it hard for them to relax. This pressure to be “aggressive” may also lead to alcohol and drug use, especially to drugs that make one feel more sexual or enhance sexual performance, such as amphetamines or amyl nitrate. This desire to be ultramasculine also contributes to the focus on looks and body image for many gay men, including working out at the gym and the use and abuse of steroids.