As First Dates proved this week, it's hard to be a feminine gay man in the dating world

Coming out as gay is often pictured as the ultimate act of queer defiance – but we cannot kid ourselves that it alone exempts us from the pressures of heteronormative society

First Dates hopeful says he prefers 'straight acting' men

“I want [the men I date] to be straight-acting.” This is a direct quote from a gay man in a recently aired episode of Channel 4’s First Dates. And it’s not an uncommon phrase among gay men. After I watched the date in question, I felt upset, frustrated, but also unsurprised. As a genderqueer gay person on a journey to find love myself, I’ve been insulted on dating apps for being “too femme”, “a mincer” and, in one mathematical impossibility, “not 1,000 per cent straight-acting”.

On the First Dates episode, both men are white, cisgender and masculine presenting. They clink their beer jugs and bond over football, which leads one of them to rejoice that, “finding a gay who likes football is like finding the perfect Kit Kat”.

There are heartbreaking moments, like when both men confess to having been depressed because of repressing their sexuality for so long in their lives. And so the C4 episode celebrates how the two men are now “finding love after a lifetime of repression”. However, this rhetoric of only desiring “straight-acting” men is surely a sign of a latent, internalised repression that has not suddenly vanished.

Coming out as gay is often pictured as the ultimate act of queer defiance; but we cannot kid ourselves that it alone exempts us from the pressures of heteronormative society. As we watched on First Dates, the pressure to be perceived as “normal” by the standards of society makes many men unable to come out – and when they do, they replicate homophobic language towards other gay men who don’t “pass as straight”. Gay shame is a deeply systemic condition; it is ingrained into every fibre of our heteronormative culture, and it’s an impossible thing to shake yourself of entirely.

Even as a public drag queen, I have had to come to terms with how deeply my gay shame is embedded. For my first few years dating men, I used to clean off any trace of nail polish before a date, and if a guy was coming over, I would stuff away my neon wigs in a very literal closet – in fact, it was only late last year that I put a photo of myself in make-up on Tinder (and this has led to drastically fewer matches).

And it pains me to admit that in my early 20s, I predominately chased white straight men, no doubt rooted in my desire to be accepted by the normative institution that rejected me my whole life. So where does all this come from?

White cisgender masculinity is celebrated as the ultimate triumph in many gay spaces, coming with it a rejection of non-conformism in our communities. It’s telling that possibly the most celebrated gay male couple mass-culturally is Tom Daley and Dustin Lance, a fairytale picture of gay men who have won by the sign posts of heteronormative idealism– one is an Olympian, the other a Hollywood veteran, both are white, cisgender, masculine, wealthy, they’re married and expecting children. Their conformism makes them palatable to the tastes of the masses.

This deification of white masculinity populates gay spaces on the ground too. For instance, WE Party is a club night for gay male jock types, the promotion imagery of which is almost exclusively white muscular men who are dressed as Greek gods (they recently had an “Olympic Games”-themed party).

This obsession with white masculinity has dominated gay representation in recent film. The critically lauded Call Me By Your Name, though a ravishing piece of filmmaking, links gay male sexuality to the ideal male forms of classical antiquity. The men in the film have an all-boys academic club, where sculptures of Greek gods serve as a clunky projection for their homoerotic desires, as if the perfection of male musculature in antiquity comes hand in hand with what it means to be gay.

The British breakout feature, God’s Own Country, although an accomplished and rare depiction of rural England, has two straight actors portraying gay men who would no doubt satisfy those seeking a “straight-acting” Prince Charming. And the currently acclaimed gay-male play at The Young Vic, The Inheritance, is unashamed in its presentation of exclusively cisgender gay men with huge economic and cultural capital.

I have rarely seen femme gay men portrayed as sexually empowered subjects – when we see them in the media, they are often eunuchs, or serve as comic relief. Now I’m not saying that desiring a man who is masculine or who enjoys football is a problem. The issue at hand is the way representation has presented these “straight-acting” men as the zenith of success, which has resulted in internalised homophobia and damaging hierarchies within gay spaces. All forms of culture have an urgent responsibility to represent gay people in their spectrum of identities, so that white masculinity isn’t the ultimate goal.

When it is, it leads white cisgender gay men to enact homophobic patterns on their sisters and brothers. We cannot allow desire to become politicised to the point that those who do not conform become undesirable.

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