Keeping the Stereotype Alive
Keeping the Stereotype Alive
An Essay by William Grant
My boyfriend and I had been together for about two and a half months when we went to my friend Spencer’s Christmas party. It was being held in her apartment-style dorm in the South Loop. This was the first time my boyfriend, Jake, and I would be hanging out together with a larger group of friends. He had met Spencer before as well as a couple of my other friends, but this would be different. We were going to the party as a couple.
I had never been in a relationship before then. I had only moved to Chicago seven months prior from my small North Carolina town where you either weren’t gay or you weren’t out. Coming to Chicago had been an eye-opening experience for me, a place where I could be who I was in the most complete way. Chicago was a place where I could walk down the street and pass three Germans, a cross-dresser, a tree hugger, and a priest damning my soul to hell all between two Starbucks. Chicago was open to all.
It was shortly after I began my first semester that I met Jake. We met through a Columbia Facebook page and eventually decided to meet up for coffee. Jake was different from other gay guys I had met at Columbia so far. He was tall and well-muscled.
His voice was deep. He liked working on cars and hated romantic comedies. If I was judging him by a stereotype, he was a straight guy if I ever saw one. The other gay guys I had met at Columbia were on the opposite end of the spectrum. They were more effeminate with high voices and a penchant for fashion. They were good guys that I ended up becoming friends with, but that was it. There was nothing there that made me want to engage with them romantically.
When we got to the party, everyone else was already there. Spencer had hung Christmas decorations up around her living area. Cheap garland hung around the edge of the refrigerator, red and green balloons covering the floor. There was a small Christmas tree in the corner by her small television. Strings of popcorn and origami ornaments hung on the ends of the branches.
There were about fifteen people there, scattered throughout the small room. The couch as well as the three chairs she had were positioned around her coffee table where a game of Apples to Apples was being played. Spencer and our friend Tiffany stood in the kitchen area talking over plates of cheese and popcorn. They waved us over when they saw us.
“Hey!” Spencer said, setting her plate down on the counter to give me a hug. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too!” I let go of Spencer and turned to give Tiffany a hug.
As I leaned in she whispered, “He’s a hottie,” into my ear.
Stepping back, I winked at her. “This is my boyfriend Jake.”
Tiffany stepped forward and hugged Jake before he could say anything. “Hi!” she exclaimed, “It's so nice to finally meet you.”
Jake hugged her back, giving me a smile. “You too. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Uh oh,” Tiffany said
“Don’t worry, it was all good. I promise.” He replied with a laugh.
We meandered around the room for awhile, talking to several of my friends and eventually joining in the game for a few rounds. We sat on the floor next to each other, our shoulders pressed together. Every now and then he would push his shoulder gently against mine and I’d look at him out of the corner of my eye and smile. He would smile back, pulling a card from his hand and placing it with the others on the table. It was fun.
At one point, as we were all grabbing another card, a guy I was kind of friends with named Paul spoke up. Paul was someone I had met through Spencer. He was also gay and was the kind of guy that thought everyone was “at least 10% homo.”
“Hey, Will, so a bunch of us were talking when you got here and we agreed that we would never know your boyfriend was gay if he wasn’t here with you.” He smiled as he said it, like it was some kind interesting trivia fact that he knew.
I laughed a little, not sure what kind of response I was supposed to have to that information. Why was he telling me this? Jake was talking to Spencer who was sitting on his other side and had missed the comment.
“Uh, okay.” I replied, trying to mentally wave it off and move on to another conversation topic.
He didn’t say anything else about it and we continued playing the game. Later, after we’d left and I was on the train home, I started thinking about it again. What was the purpose of telling me that? Was it some kind of congratulations on finding a guy that didn’t fit the feminine gay stereotype? Maybe he meant it as just a comment? I didn’t know, but the more I thought about it the weirder it made me feel and I didn’t know why. His comment had just been so strange, like “Your boyfriends gay?” It was as if it was some kind of surprise. I didn’t say anything to Jake about what Paul had said. It seemed silly to be making such a big deal about it. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.
I mean, I probably wouldn’t have thought he was gay either if I think about it objectively. He didn’t act like other gay guys I’d known or been friends with. He didn’t fit in that mold. I saw him as gay because he was my boyfriend. He’d held me and kissed me and made love with me. I knew that he liked being with a man. But on the outside of our relationship, for someone who didn’t see our intimate interactions with each other, he probably would seem straight. But that’s kind of fucked up, right?
I was curious about what some of my gay friends thoughts were on the topic. The idea of basing our thoughts on someones sexual orientation off of how they acted seemed odd and I wanted to see what other people felt about it. I put together a few questions about stereotypes and gender roles and sent them out to several of my friends. The answers varied. For privacy, I have changed their names.
The question of stereotypes brought out mostly the same response in everyone: flamboyant men and butch women.
One of my friends, Marco, brought up the stereotype/idea that gay men are attracted to all straight men. He called it “the worst stereotype,” saying that it “caused me to not hold relationships with straight men out of fear that I do something gay.” I didn’t get to ask him what he meant by “do something gay,” but I imagined it would probably go back to the stereotype of flamboyancy.
When I asked what characteristics they saw in themselves that reflected more traditional ideas of masculinity or femininity, many of them seemed to see aspects of both. Another friend, Robert, said, “I think of myself as someone who is not afraid to get dirty or do rough work. I think some people will attach genders to clothing, so in that sense I probably dress slightly feminine, tight jeans, jewelry.” My friend Laura agreed with this comment, saying, “I have short hair and dress loosely so I guess that would be masculine. But I also wear makeup and occasionally wear dresses or skirts so that would make me feminine.” The general response seemed to be that none of them felt that they fit into one side of the equation. There were parts of themselves that were both masculine and feminine.
Out of curiosity, I wondered if they saw these traits coming forth in the form of gender roles within their relationships. Within the relationship, most agreed that there isn’t a specific role that they play. One friend, Toby, said that he and his boyfriend “take certain roles from both genders. One of us isn’t male and the other female.” In agreement, my friend Greg said that he doesn’t see any roles in his relationships. He says, laughing, “it's really just like having two guys in a relationship who like kissing and hanging out.”
These thoughts stayed the same when the discussion turned to sexual encounters. Greg added that, “obviously there's the whole Top/Bottom thing, but we are both versatile, so we mix things up. There are no roles, we just go with what we're feeling in the moment/for the night.” Robert agreed, referring to top/bottom in terms of dominance, “as a predominate bottom in the relationship, it’s a natural role of being the less dominate one. I think its more of a subconscious role. I have never thought of being dominated as a gender role, but maybe rather something that is assumed out of pleasure.”
I pulled another chip out of the blue bag in my hand and tossed it into my mouth, the salt sticking to my tongue.
“I was like, what the fuuuuuck?” Kyle lifted his boney hands into the air as he spoke, his high pitched voice reaching across to the table next to us where a woman sat reading a John Grisham novel. She glanced over at us and I could see the corners of her mouth twitch up.
We were sitting on the patio of a sandwich shop in Wicker Park. A black railing framed the small area, enclosing five vinyl tables that were each a different shade of fading green. It was a hot day in the summer and people were walking past on the sidewalk in groups. I watched them as Kyle continued to talk.
“It was so random. Why the hell would you just ask someone in the middle of the sidewalk if they have any acid? Who does that?” Kyle’s brown hair hung down in front of his eyes as he spoke. His outfit was all black: black skinny jeans with a black t-shirt. His favorite color was black and he was always trying to get me to buy more of it for my wardrobe. I preferred more color.
It had been awhile since we’d hung out and he was filling me in on all the details of his life since school had ended for the semester. He went to Columbia, too, and was studying cinematography. We had been friends since our first semester, him being the first friend I made that was gay like me. We hung out regularly during the semester, usually with Spencer and my boyfriend, Jake.
“Do people still even do acid?” I asked, lifting a hand up to block the sun from my eyes. “Isn’t the acid phase kind of over?”
“I guess not,” he replied, lifting a silver painted nail to his face and scratching his nose.
Kyle and I were different. He was my friend and I loved him, but we were very different. Kyle was the kind of guy that fit into the gay stereotypes. He loved fashion, obsessed over it. Whenever we went out, he was always looking at clothes and shoes. He had a penchant for boots. Frequently, I would ask him to go shopping with me when I needed new clothes so I could get his opinion. He also had a higher voice and what you could call “limp wrist,” also known as the physical attribute that is focused on when they portray gay characters on SNL (think Stefan). Kyle walked with swagger and occasionally wore eye liner. To the outside viewer, he was a stereotype.
Me, on the other hand, I didn’t lean too much in either direction on the masculinity/femininity spectrum. I had a foot on both sides of the line. When I was around Kyle, sometimes I would lean more in his direction. It wasn’t something I intended to do. It just happened naturally. Other times I might be more in the opposite direction, like when I was leading a group project or something. I could fall on both sides depending on my situation.
A waitress stepped out the door of the sandwich shop, a black apron tied around her waist. There was an orange stain covering the single pocket that hung down over her jeans. Her blonde hair was swept over one shoulder as she picked up a plate from a vacant table and used the grimy rag in her hand to wipe where it had just been sitting. When she stepped over to our table, she looked down at both Kyle and me, a smile showing off her white teeth.
“How is everything?” she asked, picking up the empty ketchup bottle that was on its side between our plates.
I smiled back at her, “We’re doing great, thank you.”
Across from me, Kevin looked at the girls neck where a gold chain hung down, a small arrow at its center.
“Oh, I love your necklace!” he said, his hand coming up to hold the gold chain he himself was wearing. Unlike the girl, there wasn’t any kind of ornament or medallion hanging from his.
“Thank you!” she replied, her smile getting bigger as she looked down at her chest. “It was gift from my boyfriend. Last week was my birthday.” Her cheeks turned a soft shade of red as she spoke, seemingly embarrassed.
Kyle laughed, “Well, damn. If only I could find a man to buy me some jewelry!” A small snort came out with his laugh that got the girl to start laughing.
I looked past the girl to see the woman with the John Grisham novel watching us, a smirk on her face.
“Oh my gosh, you’re funny!” The waitress shifted her weight to one leg, hip popping out. “I’m Rebecca.”
Kyle extended his hand to shake hers, “I’m Kyle. Happy late birthday!”
“Thank you!” Rebecca looked around the patio and sighed, “Well, I better get back to work before my boss comes out here. It was nice meeting you guys! Let me know if you need anything else.”
She turned and walked over to the table where the woman sat with sat watching us. The woman looked at me and raised her eyebrows as she smiled, as if to say “He’s a character.” I smiled back.
As much as I liked Kyle, there was a part of me that was annoyed with him. It took me a long time to realize why and when I did I got angry at myself. I was annoyed with him because of how he acted. It bothered me that his personality was so feminine, that he fit into that stereotype of gay men that act very effeminate. He was the kind of gay guy that drew attention to himself, like he had just done with Rebecca. He was loud and flamboyant, thriving as the center of attention. It was all part of a stereotype that I was trying to not be saddled with and he was embodying it. He was keeping it going. And the thing was, people loved it. Like Rebecca, people found his personality entertaining and fun. When we went out with other people, everybody was always laughing because of him, because of the way he spoke and acted. I was never like that. Don’t get me wrong, I could have fun. It just wasn’t the same. I didn’t feel like I was a big personality or some kind of exaggerated character. People loved this character he was playing, this stereotype. I hated it.
I know this is wrong. It’s so wrong and I hate that I thought it. It’s wrong because he wasn’t perpetuating a stereotype, he was just being himself. He was being Kyle. There was nothing about him that was wrong. Still, there was a time that I felt annoyed by him, that I thought he should be working to get rid of the stereotype instead of feeding it. I thought about it as I sat there across from him at the table. I watched him talking with his painted nails and dark eye lashes and wondered if he knew that he was a caricature.
Behind him, further down the street, was a group of construction workers tearing up part of the sidewalk. They were on a break now and were sitting on the curb, each holding a sandwich. One of them stood up on the sidewalk, pulling a cell phone from his pocket and holding it up to his ear. He was shirtless except for a neon yellow vest and his arms were covered with a shiny sweat. I looked at him talking on the phone and thought how attractive he was in a cliché kind of way. Kyle’s voice was still in my ear and I thought that I should point him out because he would find him super hot. I eventually did, but for a few moments I watched the man pace around the sidewalk and talk on his phone and thought that Kyle and I were the same. We would both look at this man and think he was beautiful, think he was sexy. Both of us would probably make an awkward sex joke about him and wonder what he looked like naked.
We were the same, but as I looked at Kyle across the table I saw someone who was as different from me as I thought possible. I looked at him and smiled and lifted my hand to show him the construction worker.
As I was sorting through the responses my friends had given me, I thought about how it applied to myself and my relationship. I couldn’t see myself leaning towards one side of the masculinity/femininity tug o’ war. Some of my mannerisms could be described as being more effeminate, but I also didn’t shy away from doing physically hard work. In my relationship, I sometimes took what could be called the more “feminine” role. When my boyfriend and I were cuddling or going to sleep, I was typically the “little spoon.” On the other hand, we were equal in a lot of ways. We took care of each other emotionally when one of us was having a hard time. The lines weren’t set in stone. There really were no lines. It was more based on what the other person needed at a specific moment. When I thought about it, the terms masculine and feminine really had no place in the discussion of someone’s sexual orientation or their interactions with a significant other. This is what made Paul’s comment wrong and also where I went wrong in my feelings about Kyle.
If you look up the word “gay” in the Webster Dictionary you’ll be relocated to “homosexual” which is defined as, “sexually attracted to people of the same sex”1. There’s nothing mentioned about masculinity or femininity. That’s not what being a homosexual means. It literally means to be attracted to someone of the same sex. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.
This means that seeing someone as being gay or straight based on their mannerisms or level of masculinity/femininity doesn’t line up. Those traits are based on the person and how they relate to their sex and gender, not who they are attracted to. There are straight men that have a high level of femininity in them and gay men that are extremely masculine. Like Jake.
In my friendship with Kyle, I became so frustrated with him for choosing to, as I saw it, continually perpetuated a certain stereotype. But the truth is that I was the one in the wrong. Kyle wasn’t perpetuating a stereotype. I was keeping a stereotype alive by forcing it on to Kyle. I was pushing him into a box that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Kyle was very effeminate, yes, but that wasn’t because he was gay. That was because he was just a more effeminate man. He was man who was gay and was also very feminine. Just like Jake was a man who was gay and was also very masculine.
Looking back at Paul’s comment, I see why it made me feel weird. I was bothered by the fact that his thoughts on my boyfriend’s sexual orientation were based on how much masculinity he portrayed in himself. It bothered me because I wondered what that would mean for me. Did I read as gay? Thinking now, what does that even mean? I’m gay. I’m masculine. I’m feminine. Those three sentences don’t equal out to the same thing. I’m all of them and I am each of them.
1. ”homosexual." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2015.
Web. 10 November 2017.