What happens when you're a dirty word in the gay lexicon?
Words: Siphesihle Dube | Illustrations: Muti
I am not the type that many gays will like.
I have been pondering penning something about life as an effeminate gay man for a while now, perhaps too long. Not an abstract account from outward observations of other effeminate gay men, but rather a more personal one from my own experiences as a gay man 'affectionately' referred to as 'femme'. I am choosing to take this approach for two reasons: firstly because we're all individuals who should refuse to be confined to a general collective identity, particularly insofar as it is limiting; and secondly, because my sexuality forms but a part of me, and by no means defines the whole – despite first impressions and the regular insistence on being referred to as 'Queen' *insert crown emoji*.
Let me start at the proverbial beginning: a journey through words and how they can be used to invoke the most negative of connotations, particularly as they relate to people. A journey through the so-called “dirty words” that you dare not allow yourself to be associated with, let alone have them used to describe you. In politics, words like 'communist', 'fascist', 'fundamentalist', 'militant', 'dissident', are but a few amongst many. In the gay world, you need not look much further than your average Grindr profile for a fast tutorial in Gay Dirty Words which will either make you run to the gym in a fit of bodily shame, or have you fork out your life savings for so-called 'Straight Acting' classes (who knows where these take place, but they are seemingly very popular, judging from their many graduates).
I use Grindr as a microcosm of the mainstream gay subculture on purpose because the platform fits neatly, with a refreshing honesty that comes from the absence of political correctness: the world can learn a lot from the Grindr case study.
In an attempt to put you very firmly in your place, too many Grindr profiles will assert 'No fats, no femmes, straight acting!' (Let’s not even touch on the often adjoining suffix of 'whites only' for the purposes of this discussion, lest I reveal too much on the topic of my next piece). In doing so, the laden implications are that these qualities and attributes are the most undesirable, even in the, clearly, very limited gay lexicon that struggles to exist independently of a heterosexual binary.
What this explicitly says is that if you do not slave away at the gym to sculpt a relatively chiselled physique (because of course, you must be mincing around in your booty shorts, flicking your imaginary weave back and forth) you are at the very bottom of the gay pecking order, and cannot possibly expect to find a suitable mate. Your time is clearly better spent French-braiding your fag hag’s hair and trying on high heels at the mall. Those Gay Dirty Words are used to belittle you, and make you feel like you don’t belong. They are a vicious fiction from which many draw their self-worth, or lack thereof; a uniformity trap that insists that you denounce your individuality and become a Ken Doll robot. Well, that exhausting exercise can miss me completely. It's not a game I care to play, nor is being straight something I aspire to.
As much as I'm relatively safe from the Ken Doll Robot Apocalypse – and get to watch them from the balcony of Café Manhattan (sipping tea with my legs crossed over my chiffon summer kaftan) as they march, single file, to the church of Saint Zone Fitness – I can’t help but wonder. The high-pitched enquiring voice in my head asks, “Why do they feel the need to conform Debbie? Why?” Well, I have my theories.
I suspect that the problem comes from an intrinsic self-loathing that stunts your sense of self-worth, particularly when you are so consumed with attaining the unattainable gay archetype that is constantly shoved down your throat. A grand hypothesis perhaps, but hear me out.
When our straight counterparts are born and raised, even through their tumultuous adolescence, their heterosexuality is not really something they have to fully grapple with. Their rearing has prepared them from birth to assume gender roles that come with presumptions extending to their sexuality. In fairness, we're all prepared, until such time as we start to shape our own identities. This process includes a realisation that our sexualities differ from what was presumed would befit our gender. That is when the waters muddy a bit, and our paths start to diverge from that of our straight counterparts.
At this moment, very many gay people start to form an unhealthy relationship with their divergent sexualities. While our straight counterparts can carry on on their merry path towards self-discovery, free from having to define their predetermined sexuality, gay people are forced to venture the path less travelled.
Instead of continuing on the natural path of human self-discovery and establishing a set of guiding values and moral centre – with their sexuality playing a significant but not dominant role in that journey – many gay people will fail to see themselves as people first outside of their sexuality. This may have been all well and good if a) everyone saw themselves as being defined by their sexuality first, before all else, which straight people do not, and b) being gay had not been so systematically maligned over generations. This last point has led to the creation of a different world for gay people to inhabit.
Once you've seemingly clawed your way out of the pit of shame that is your gayness (by “coming out” supposedly), many often start to either loathe their homosexuality, or be consumed by it. Both scenarios make you vulnerable to falling into various traps. Both can also distract you from doing the important work of formulating a healthy sense of self, where your individuality is the collective sum of your parts – not just your sexuality, which is just one of your many parts.
Failing to do this work will inevitably have you wake up in this fictitious Gay World. In this place, who you are, or should be, has been predetermined and ignores your individuality or agency. Where the playing field into which you entered when you “came out” was already a field of landmines: set to explode the second you step out of line and dare to charter your own course. Your only protection is to define yourself outside of your sexuality, and not within it.
For me, being gay certainly did not come first, EVER, but rather, my individuality did. I am a person shaped by a strong set of values, much like those of my straight counterparts, and not my sexuality.
I will continue to be defined by my values, despite being gay. The outward manifestations of other people’s insecurities will also to have little to no bearing on who I am.
I am not the type that many gays will like, and quite frankly, I don’t want to be. I would rather be the type of person that I would like, and leave all the bother to the Ken Doll Robots that like to be bothered.