"Sprinkle some gay on my straight": Hybrid hegemonic masculinities in a post-gay era

People always think I’m gay . . . always! . . . They see what I wear and . . . and they see how 1 talk ... I always tell people that 1 . . . come out as straight every time I meet someone . . .

I mean, I was in the closet and 1 didn’t even know it . . . [Pursing his lips] I like to sprinkle some gay on my straight.

(Peter, 22, Guys for Gender Justice)

Peter is a young, straight, white man still living at home. He is a “part-time environmentalist and feminist,” but his father is quick to respond, “It’s not a job if you don’t get paid, Pete.” Peter is a member of a pro-feminist group of men Tristan studied and, like those in two other groups of straight men in this study, Peter talked about some aspects of his gender performance as “gay,” though he identifies as straight.

When pressed about his sexuality in front of friends, Peter will say things like, “I’m straight. Like I’m only sexually attracted to women. And I’m really sexually attracted to women. But I’m like a gay straight . . . like a straight-lite.” And Peter is not alone. Tristan met straight, white men with very different gender and sexual politics who liked to describe aspects of themselves as “gay.” This paradoxical practice produced a consequence we describe in detail in this chapter: it shores up their masculine identities as heterosexual. This is surprising, in part, because a great deal of theory and scholarship has discussed homophobia and sexual prejudice as integral components of masculine identity. While this practice appears to challenge this relationship, we argue that this relationship is better understood here as reconfigured.

Little scholarship examines queer practices and performances among heterosexuals (e.g., Schippers 2000). We examine what motivates such practices, what they mean, how they are intended, and what kinds of consequences they have. Here, we explore the ways straight men make use of gay culture and “gay aesthetics” (Bridges 2014) to authenticate and accessorize their heteromasculine identities and obscure their relationship with power and inequality. To do this, we need to understand sexuality as both a sexual and cultural category (e.g., Halperin 2012; Ward 2008,2015), building on “hybrid masculinity” to make sense of these practices and their meanings (e.g., Bridges 2014; Bridges and Pascoe 2014,2018; Pascoe and Bridges 2017).

Gendered homophobia and the challenge of measuring change

Raewyn Connell first defined hegemonic masculinity as a cultural ideal that sustains or legitimizes men’s dominance over women and some men (Connell 1987, 1995; Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). Hegemonic masculinity achieves this position by being situated against other configurations of gender practice. Connell (1987, 1992, 1995) argues that gay men have long occupied a foil against which “masculine” identity is constructed. Indeed, masculinity has a long-standing relationship with homophobia. Since “gay” emerged as a sexual identity, masculinity has been linked to establishing distance from it (Connell 1992; Mosse 1996; Chauncey 1994; Ibson 2002, 2018). Yet, Peter and other men in this study appear to call this relationship into question.

Indeed, men’s sexual prejudice has shifted a great deal in very recent history. While high levels of anti-gay prejudice among men were among the early empirical examples (e.g., Kite 1984; Herek 1986) that gave rise to the modern theories of homophobia as connected with masculinity (e.g., Lehne 1976; Connell 1987,1992, 1995; Kimmel 1994; Corbett 2001; Pascoe 2007), more recent surveys indicate radically lower levels of sexual prejudice among men.

Some scholars suggest that homophobia has become much less attached to masculinity. Anderson (2009) argues, for instance, that the masculinities practiced by young men today are more “inclusive”—less hierarchical and homophobic (see also McCormack 2012). The behavior and comments from Peter shared at the beginning of this chapter could support this conclusion. Yet, scholarship examining the meanings, extent, and consequences of what appears to be a transformation in the relationship between masculinity and homophobia has also come to different conclusions.1 To make sense of this apparent paradox, we summarize theory and scholarship on “hybrid masculinity” (Bridges 2014; Bridges and Pascoe 2014, 2018) and introduce the concept hybrid hegemonic masculinity.

Hybrid hegemonic masculinities

Hybrid masculinities broadly refer to those gender projects that selectively incorporate elements of gender culturally associated with various “Others” (Demetriou 2001; Bridges and Pascoe 2014). Men occupying identities with concentrated collections of privilege (young, straight, educated, white, cisgender) are not the only people mobilizing “hybrid” configurations of masculinity, but the hybrid masculine practices associated with this group are distinct. As such, we refer to those hybrid masculine practices as configurations of hybrid hegemonic masculinity.

Since the article upon which this chapter is based was first published (Bridges 2014), the theorization of hybrid masculinity has further developed (e.g., Bridges and Pascoe 2014, 2018; Pascoe and Bridges 2017). Collectively, this work examines gender practices that blur various forms of social difference yet leave social dominance unquestioned. Scholarship on hybrid hegemonic masculinities supports the notion that they work to legitimate patriarchy and other forms of power and inequality while obscuring this process as it takes place (Bridges and Pascoe 2014, 2018; Connell and Messerschmidt 2005).

The adoption of identity practices deemed “soft,” “feminine,” “gay,” and more appears to be widespread or recognized among men in socially dominant groups (e.g., Messerschmidt and Messner 2018). Messner (1993) first analyzed this dynamic in the 1990s, arguing that the shifts were “more style than substance.” And, following Bridges (2014) and Bridges and Pascoe (2014, 2018; see also Pascoe and Bridges 2017), scholars have built on this framework to examine the motivations, meanings, and consequences associated with identity projects that work to recuperate power and privilege whilst appearing to challenge them.

For instance, Aboim (2010) found that Portuguese heterosexual men were more involved in domestic labor than previous generations, but that they also adopted discourses framing men as “better” than women at “feminine” tasks around the house. Rather than challenging inequality, Aboim (2010) argues they are “reinventing” gender hegemony. Groes-Green (2012) comes to a similar conclusion among heterosexual men in Mozambique. Similarly, Johannsdottir and Gislason (2018) examine how broad cultural orientations toward gender and sexual equality in Iceland exist comfortably alongside “lingering” forms of gender and sexual prejudice. And Young’s (2017) ethnographic study of men participating in Hawaiian cock-fighting communities shows these men who practice femininities in ways that work to reproduce gender inequality.

Pfaffendorf (2017) uncovered the construction of a hybrid hegemonic masculinity within a therapeutic boarding school for elite boys. McDowell (2017) discovered that Christian hardcore punk music fans cultivate “softer” forms of masculinity that shore up gender hegemony— something scholars examining evangelical Christians in the United States have found in other arenas of social life (e.g., Donovan 1998; Heath 2015;Gerber 2014; Diefendorf 2015). In another arena, scholars have addressed straight men’s adoption of gender egalitarian discourse in ways that promote less change than their discourses suggest (e.g., Lamont 2015; Elliot 2019).

Scholarship examining hybrid hegemonic masculinities has uncovered significant transformations in the expression of structures and systems of power and inequality (e.g., Messner 1993, 2007; Demetriou 2001; Arxer 2011; Bridges 2014; Messerschmidt 2010,2018; Barry 2018). This work supports an emergent body of scholarship on what is sometimes referred to as “modern” prejudice—those new forms of inequality' that are less easily captured by traditional measures. For instance, Doan, Loehr, and Miller (2014) discovered that while attitudes toward gay rights have liberalized in the “post-gay” era, heterosexual privilege and sexual inequality are also maintained in more subtle forms. Similarly, Brodyn and Ghaziani (2018) identify practices they call “performative progressiveness” to describe the “misalignment” between progressive attitudes and actions. And Sumerau and Grollman (2018) describe similar discursive tactics as “obscuring oppression” (see also Pascoe and Hollander 2015).

We now turn to examining how the shifting practices associated with homophobia among men and emergent practices that seem to challenge the relationship between homophobia and masculinity can be understood as hybrid configurations of hegemonic masculinity that simultaneously obscure and secure power and inequality.

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