I introduced my mom to my new relationship over a bowl of rigatoni and an old-fashioned. Each time the waiter would ask my then-partner if he wanted more water, his voice dropped three to five octaves. He was afraid of sounding effeminate to a stranger, even as we were playing footsie under the table. For him, it was an ongoing game of straight until proven guilty.
I’m a 23-year-old gay male who is no stranger — perhaps even a friend — to hookup apps and LGBT bars. At this point, it feels like I’ve been around the block enough times to memorize the street signs when it comes to recognizing blatant increases of “masculinity” for the sake of honing one’s perceived attractiveness.
In fact, for a lot of modern gay men, a big part of being gay is still seeming straight. It’s likely that we entertain this demeanor in the hopes of attracting it, as if we’re part-time actors waiting for our big break: meeting a masculine dude who will accept our effeminate properties. Indeed, many men in the Grindr-sphere harp on masculine gay men as being the contemporary queer pinup girl. No “fems” need apply.
Personally, I have always grappled with identifying as a “fem” or a “masc.” I had a close friend in sixth grade who stopped speaking to me in seventh. When he approached me again in eighth, I asked him what had come between us. He responded casually, “Oh, you just sounded gay last year,” and graciously offered me a sip of his parent’s vodka, masked in a water bottle. The worst part about this interaction was that it fed my ego; I felt congratulated.
Today, some people absolutely know I’m gay. Other people, usually gay men I’m dating, tell me that they weren’t immediately sure of my sexuality. I still wonder if these comments are meant as compliments. I know I continue to struggle with rejecting them as such. Regardless, it wasn’t until I entered a steady relationship with a “masc” guy that I realized that a partner’s stern self-perception shouldn’t automatically place me in the submissive or “feminine” camp in order to appease him.
During the honeymoon phase of this relationship, I felt I’d hit the jackpot. My boyfriend was a suave, Topman-draped journalist with a Kennedy-inspired cowlick. He had a commanding presence, preferring to order for the two of us when we went out to eat. And when he professed his feelings, he gave me his best Clark Gable under the dull lamplight and said, “I really love you, honey.” Needless to say, I quickly adapted to the role of little spoon.
But things got weird. After a month of foregoing penetrative intercourse, my partner and I were enjoying a fall walk when he interrupted our buzzing and frankly told me he “felt emotionally connected to me, but wanted to feel physically connected to me, too.”
He revealed that I was going to have to bottom (and only bottom), or he would end things.
Now, my problem is not with bottoming itself. I think many men — and women — can agree that it’s not necessarily ideal, but I am willing to make concessions for the person I love in order to heighten the intimacy. The problem with my ex was that there was no equilibrium. He decided that he was older and felt more masculine, and I would have to accept this fixed position.
We didn’t have sex for five months into the relationship, and when we finally did — on Valentine’s Day — I felt a certain guilt that what I was doing was in actuality, a sacrifice to keep my boyfriend around.
Huddled in the crevice of a wooden booth at one of our favorite bars one Friday evening sometime later, my ex popped the question. He asked me if he could move in with me. He prefaced this by telling me that he “wants to come home to me” and that he “can’t imagine where (he’d) be without me.” However, he said he was only able to contribute groceries and the Internet, and that he envisioned his Ikea shelves replacing my record player.
The phrasing of my ex’s request was perhaps the most troubling, thematic demonstration of our overall relationship. I couldn’t shake mental images of me in an apron, placing a hot pot roast on the table while he demanded a refill of his gin and tonic.
A few nights later, he pried an answer out of me; I said no. Immediately, he retracted his arm from around my shoulder and a day later, came over unannounced to tell me that things weren’t working out.
I admit that refusing to let my ex move in with me was a fruitful conversation to have with myself. The takeaway from our break-up was that I am comfortable inhabiting my own space and I didn’t need company inviting itself in and attempting to rearrange my furniture. I deserve a voice, regardless of how it sounds.
I can’t promise that I won’t compromise myself for a relationship again. In fact, I hope I do. Love should mean middle ground; but moreover, love itself is not gendered. In case we’ve forgotten: that’s why some of us are gay to begin with.