Men will be Men: Feminism and LGBT Rights
By Shawn Donnelly
Among myriad Tumblr blogs reporting on fashion trends, the latest movements of the hottest celebrities, and the most popular cat GIFs is a collection of arguments made by women against the validity and necessity of feminism. Anyone with a basic understanding of what feminism is can tell you that the Tumblr blog WomenAgainstFeminism is littered with subscriptions to outdated stereotypes ranging from portrayals of feminists as angry man-hating lesbians, to the claim that feminism is nothing more than a means of crying “victim!” Activist and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defined a feminist most clearly in a TEDx Talk in 2012 as, “the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”
I am a gay man, and I identify as a feminist. I believe being an ally to women and being aware of the struggles many women face is important. But as a man, regardless of my sexual orientation, I recognize that I have the potential to be a part of the problem rather than the solution. Beyond that, I recognize that feminism doesn’t only benefit women, but gay men as well.
It shouldn’t be news to any of us that gay male culture is often not very welcoming to women. From the gay nightlife scene making women feel less than welcomed, to gay men consistently claiming terms rooted in misogyny, gay male culture has seemingly forgotten the subtle yet crucial difference between straight-privilege and male-privilege.
How often have we witnessed our fellow gay man, or even remember ourselves, casually throwing around the term “bitch” to refer to a woman, unapologetically commenting on a woman’s physique; or even touching a woman’s body without her consent? When we, as gay men, engage in these behaviors there is an unspoken permission that we grant ourselves based on the fusion of our male and gay identities.
I believe that it is hypocrisy, at best, for gay men to engage in these behaviors when these acts exemplify the exercise of a male social privilege while simultaneously justifying fundamentally bad behavior through the commonalities of oppression.
Here is what we must remember: we still live in a society where men have power over women. This power is male privilege. Access to this privilege is available as long as we are perceived by others to be male. While gay men are a marginalized group, we still reap the benefits of being male in relation to women. Regardless of our gender expression, employers do not question whether or not we’ll be having children in the near future when considering us for a job, we don’t fear being labeled “bossy” when we assert ourselves, and many of us can walk down the street without receiving a whistle or animal noise from a stranger in a passing car. We face our own set of challenges as gay men and just as we are not the victims of sexism, women are not the victims of the homophobia specific to gay men. Here is what we must understand: sexism and homophobia stem from the same source.
The modern Feminist Movement and the Gay Rights Movement share a common enemy – hegemonic patriarchy. It is not men that feminism fights against, but rather the system that places men before and above women. The same system places straight men before gay men. It is this system that dictates the idea that women ought to be “feminine” and men ought to be “masculine.” It is this system that punishes us when we stray from these rules. The obvious flaw here is that femininity and masculinity are dynamic concepts.
To be a gay man is, in itself, a threat to this system. The hegemonic construction of masculine expression within patriarchal systems dictates that men ought to exert power over women. Engaging in same-sex relationships is to forfeit this power, threatening the very core of what fuels men’s position of power. On an individual level, the impact of hegemonic masculine expression on gay men is magnified when a gay man is more readily perceived as gay. Unless we go about our day with a rainbow flag pinned to our sleeves, gay men are otherwise identified by their gender expression. If gay men engage in what we think of as feminine behaviors, they are then perceived as gay, and, accordingly, at higher risk for being victimized by oppressive structures.
Regardless of sexuality, when an individual perceived to be male does not conform to the norms and expectations surrounding masculinity, the response from others aims to single out and punish this individual. If a gay man does conform to these norms (i.e., is perceived by others as straight), unless “outed,” they are not at risk for this type of oppression. This, in turn, contributes to the overbearing hierarchy within the gay male population separating those with and those without the ability to pass as straight. Whether or not others perceive us to be gay or straight according to our gender expression is an example of our ability to marshal straight-privilege, or lack thereof.
Women and gay men will forever be at odds with this system. The only option that remains is to eradicate it. Gay men and the larger Gay Rights Movement ought to recognize this commonality with the modern Feminist Movement and start seeing feminism as an essential tool in a war that has been drawn out for too long. As hegemonic structures move from being the norm to anomalies, so will sexism and hetero-normativity. But this cannot become reality unless gay men do their part to recognize that we share a similar oppressor as women, and, while our struggles are not identical, we recognize our similarities with women of all sexual orientations and become allies to the feminist cause. I am not calling on gay men to refer to themselves as feminists, but simply to acknowledge the necessity of feminist ideas, spaces, and causes. In short, I am calling on gay men to recognize the necessity of the success of the women’s rights movement.
When the women’s rights movement succeeds, so will the LGBT movement.
Shawn Donnelly is a Community-Social Psychology M.A. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and studies social justice related issues within queer communities. For more from Shawn, follow him on facebook.