Straight-Acting. It’s a shorthand phrase used by many gay men to describe either themselves or the general character and behavior of the kind of guy they are interested in. It also sends many a homo into a tizzy of sputtering irritation. I get it. Sort of.
I am not straight-acting. I’m more than willing to acknowledge that I am tall and thin with a haircut that is just possibly Bieber-referential, compliments in my direction tend more toward “pretty” than “handsome,” I talk quickly, enthusiastically and with my hands when excited and the timbre of my voice does not resonant with overt masculinity. Thus, if one is looking for boxes to check in the stereotypical “is he/isn’t he?” game, I likely check off more than enough boxes to make the gay assumption not unreasonable. And thus, by straight-acting standards, I do not qualify.
Don’t get me wrong, on a scale from one to RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant, I’m probably squarely in the middle. Fifty yards of chiffon do not fly out of my mouth when I talk and my S’s do not last longer than necessary. Still, you can tell, and the ability to identify me as gay has grown stronger, not weaker. It does not take long in a conversation for many-a-somewhat unsophisticated individual to state, rather than really ask, “So, you’re gay, right?” or with the occasional addition of a particularly irksome adverb to become, “So, you’re obviously gay, right?”
And it’s true. The answer to the question is yes. So, I am not straight-acting. I have dealt with the aspects of my upbringing that caused me to feel the need to appear straight-acting at all times. I’m from Texas (cue eyeroll) where a particular brand of athleticism and masculinity is exalted and embodied in the cowboy/frat boy/football player straight-acting persona. It is a cultural aspiration taught to young men as the most desirable of male personalities. I am not, and was not ever close to being, that. I also have an unexplainable tendency to drop my voice two octaves when standing with a group of straight men discussing a particular sportsball match. Still, I’m not fooling anyone.
It’s taken a long time to get here, but I’m truly happy with who I am and with not being straight-acting anymore. Because that’s what it was – an act. My attempt to live up to a historical perception of what it means to be a man, so that on some subconscious level, being gay would not take away from my masculinity.
The secret is, it still doesn’t. I’m not more or less masculine for being gay, I’m more or less masculine by the way I choose to behave. Having feminine traits and allowing them to be present in my personality does not make me less of a man; it makes me a different kind of man. It is so very freeing to be okay with that. I allow myself to queen out on occasion, or anytime a Katy Perry song is playing, because I no longer care whether I am perceived as the historically and stereotypically gender-confirming definition and appearance of masculinity.
Because that’s really what we’re talking about here. Masculinity. “Straight-acting” is internet profile and dating shorthand for “one that could pass under the stereotypical definition of what it means to be masculine and a man.” As in, “one who could pass” as straight.
This is where I have a problem with it, because it does a disservice to both gay men and straight men. “Straight-acting” reinforces the idea that there is “gay-acting” behavior, which reinforces stereotypes once (okay, fine, often still) presumed to be negative. In times not long ago, the only easily-identified homosexuals were the ones who could not “pass” as a straight. The light-in-the-loafers, or swishy, men. Feminine behaviors, limp wrists, smooth walks, soft voices. They were also the first to be loudly and proudly gay because they could not hide. They were often the bravest, along with the drag queens, who made the choice to be proudly out in front while those who could pass stayed in the shadows or the closet waiting for safer times to stand up and come out.
We live in a time that is far more welcoming to both the “straight-acting” and those who are not or do not care to be, and the tent has grown to include out and proud gays of all shapes, types and sizes, and yet “straight-acting” continues to carry an element of self-loathing, or at least judgment of those who are not, as though to not be straight-acting is somehow lesser.
The other side of this coin is the message we as community send to straight men by continuing to use this phrase as some kind of ideal to be achieved or desired. There’s an implication that in order to continue to be perceived as straight, they must be even more straight-acting than the most straight-acting homosexual, or else be perceived as gay. With the suggestion that this would be a negative thing.
In being gay, and releasing any need to project a straight-acting persona, I’m allowed to cry watching The Vampire Diaries, sing like I’m Effie in Dreamgirls telling you I’m not going or catwalk down the sidewalk like it’s the Top Model runway if I so choose. (And I do all of these things.) By suggesting as individuals, or as a community, that “straight-acting” is something that is more attractive or more desirable, it propagates the idea that “not straight-acting” is less than. To other gays, and to straight men who may be sensitive, or artistic, or emotional or who just do not live their day-to-day lives as some kind of overgrown Abercrombie lumberjack, it sends the message that those may be okay things to be, but straight-acting and uber-masculine is still better.
And let’s be honest here, no homosexual is “straight-acting” unless they are having sex with women. That’s acting straight. It’s actually the only thing in a modern world where every individual should be free to be exactly who they are or want to be that should be considered straight-acting. Any of the other aspects of the definition have better and more accurate words to describe behavior traits that are personally preferable that do not somehow imply that some 1950’s definition of masculinity is the best and highest brass ring.
Call yourself athletic or, in the most clinically accurate description, “aligning with historical gender norms of masculinity.” Yes, straight-acting is shorter, but it’s insulting to both straight men and gay men, and the work the gay community has done to be seen as more than just the kind of sex we have. If you are traditionally masculine, with interests that align with some general concept of stereotypical straight men – good for you, you represent one aspect of the gay community that helps the general straight population understand that the only thing all homosexuals have in common is the attraction to other men. There is nothing wrong with having a preference for a particular kind of man, but how about you find a way in this amazing English language of ours, that has so many adjectives with particular and specific meanings, to describe your preferred partner that does not reinforce archaic stereotypes and suggest some kind of backhanded insult that the rest of us are somehow less than, or less desirable for not choosing to act straight. Thanks, gurrrrrrl!
I’m not straight-acting. And no matter how you look at it, if you’re having sex with men – neither are you.