Three separate groups of men were studied ethnographically over the course of two years. Each was selected for variation in gender-political affiliation (anti- to pro-feminist) and level of reflexivity surrounding gender/sexual inequality. The groups vary along both axes: fathers’ rights activists, pro-feminist activists, and a group without gender-political affiliation—bar regulars. Most of the men in this study are white (56 of 63) and 61 of 63 identify as heterosexual.
Men Can Parent Too2 is a fathers’ rights activist organization helping fathers navigate divorce and custody proceedings and organizing to actively protest what they see as gender inequality in those proceedings. Talking to these men about gender inequality is easy. If you ask about what it looks like, they offer answers similar to Chris, a 38-year-old journalist who has limited access to seeing his children from a previous marriage: “Gender inequality is such a load of shit. Women complain more and we live in a goddamned society that rewards complainers.”
Guys for Gender Justice is a pro-feminist group who meet to discuss gender and sexual inequality, raise money and volunteer for non-profit feminist organizations, and engage in various gender and sexual violence prevention work with boys and young men. These men are passionate about gender and sexual inequality. As one member, Seth, said, “Its a privilege to not have to think about gender inequality because you’re basically on the quote-unquote right side in that you benefit from it.”
The Border Boys are a group of bar regulars. Their “meetings” are less structured and organized than the other groups, but they meet at least as frequently. As a group, they think far less about gender and inequality, though gender, sexuality, and inequality are regular topics of conversation when they get together. When asked about gender inequality, men in this group were likely to say things like Travis, a 31-year-old manager at a gas station, did: “It’s like . . . I’m not saying gender inequality is not an issue. I’m just sort of saying it’s not my issue.”
The pattern of identification we address in this chapter (straight men’s reliance upon and use of gay aesthetics) was not observed among every member of each group. Rather, this practice was performed by some men in each group. Thus, this chapter is principally concerned with the further grounded theorization of “hybrid hegemonic masculinities” to examine the motivations behind and consequences associated with straight men’s use of gay aesthetics to bolster their heterosexual masculine identities.
Straight men's use of "gay aesthetics"
The aesthetic elements of sexualities are those performative and symbolic aspects that coalesce around specific sexual collectivities and give rise to distinctive sexual cultures (Ghaziani 2017). Bridges defines “sexual aesthetics” as the “cultural and stylistic distinctions utilized to delineate symbolic boundaries between gay and straight cultures and individuals” (Bridges 2014: 62; see also Halperin 2012). But, sexual aesthetics are best identified by how they are used rather than from what they are composed as they do not refer to the universal components of gay identity and culture. Rather, gay aesthetics are used in ways that suggest universal elements of gay identity and culture. Thus, when Matt (a Border Boy), told his friends, “I can tell a dude’s gay by the way he walks,” he implied a set of criteria he uses to assess gay men’s sexuality. Analyzing gay aesthetics does not depend on Matt’s criteria being accurate; what matters is that he believes they are. This means that we can think of gay culture as something analytically distinct from collections of gay individuals (Halperin 2012).
Men in each of the three groups had different understandings of what comprised gay aesthetics. Indeed, sexual aesthetics differ by groups and individuals and over time. For example, in Pascoe’s (2007) study of masculinity and sexuality in high school, she found that specific behaviors were understood as “gay” when enacted by white boys, but not black boys, like dancing and a concern with clothing and appearance. Despite variation in what qualified as gay aesthetics, men in each group relied on them in similar ways—suggesting universal elements of sexual identity and culture.
For instance, at a group meeting of Guys for Gender Justice, conversations about having been “mistaken for gay” were a common topic of conversation. At one meeting, Shane jokingly shared about how he responds to his apparent illegibility as heterosexual:
People sometimes think I’m gay ... I take it as an opportunity to help gay people . . . I’ll usually say something like, “Because I’m stylish? Or because I’m nice to people? . . . What? Because I’m healthy and care about my clothes and the way I look?” You know? Like, “Oh, because 1 have good taste in music?”
Shane was joking. He describes resisting heterosexism by strategically refraining the implications of being thought to be gay. Rather than being insulted, Shane claims to perform a “post-gay” discursive maneuver whereby he situates the comment as complimentary. While intending to neutralize difference, Shane is simultaneously reinforcing the boundaries separating “gay” and “straight” by (re) classifying a collection of behaviors and tastes as “gay” in ways that situate him as both different from and better than “most men.” Thus, in addition to resisting heterosexism, Shanes comments also work to distinguish him from other men as politically progressive—authenticating his feminist politics.
Men in each of the three groups engaged in similar uses of gay aesthetics toward different ends. Though their gender politics and levels of reflexivity surrounding gender and sexual inequality differ, each subjectively identified aspects of their performance of masculinity as “gay” in ways that discursively distinguish them from other men. Below, we describe the different evidence men in each group relied upon to frame themselves as “gay.” Subsequently, we describe how these findings offer a powerful illustration of hybrid hegemonic masculinity in practice.