“I’m not gay,” the men would assure me. They told me this in gym locker rooms, via countless unsolicited messages on Twitter, and in the chatroom of the webcam service for which I occasionally performed during my leaner years in graduate school. Although I was studying to become a cultural historian, I was too poor and too confused to give their comments much consideration. It was just what they said, and if it meant some extra money in my pocket while I sat there shirtless, so be it.
But other scholars have examined such remarks, thereby illuminating a benighted piece of my past. The grand gender and sexuality theorizing of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has long since been enriched by an intersectional type of cultural criticism, and a host of excellent case studies on different segments of the queer community have emerged in recent years. Applying this kind of analysis to male behavior has yielded penetrating insights about everything from the girth-and-mirth-oriented “bear” subculture to the unique challenges faced by transsexual men.
Ward’s work — the work, she freely admits, of a lesbian outsider — gives voice and shape to the so-called “gay for pay” world in which I once dabbled.
All those professions of “straightness” made by men sexually attracted to other men have drawn scrutiny too. Jane Ward and C. Riley Snorton are among the experts who have researched the conjunction between heterosexual identification and same-sex intimacy. Ward’s Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men addresses the privileges afforded to white males in matters of sexual fluidity, while Snorton’s Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low explores a disadvantaged community unable to avail itself of such privileges.
Ward proceeds from a startling but ultimately commonsensical claim: that sex between white straight men, far from serving as an occasional and aberrant exception to heterosexuality, is an essential component of it. In fact, through the course of a book that moves from the oral-sex-oriented “tearoom trade” of the 1960s to Craigslist advertisements searching for sex with “str8 bud[s] just looking to crack a nut,” Ward gives us a comprehensive view of how the white community can shield itself from homophobia via whiteness, maleness, and middle-class propriety. For Ward and the men she studies, the cultural meanings attached to sexual activity make all the difference, with some men preferring “to have sex with men in backgrooms of gay bars after dancing to techno music” while “others like to have sex with men while watching straight porn and talking about ‘banging bitches.’”
Ward’s work — the work, she freely admits, of a lesbian outsider puzzled by all of this — gives voice and shape to the so-called “gay for pay” world in which I had once dabbled. I never truly understood it, nor did my white bodybuilding friends who, in the parlance of the gym, hustled “schmoes” (i.e., men interested in retaining their services as escorts), even while all of us were availing ourselves of intensely heterosexual self-presentations in order to justify our decisions. It was a white world, awash in privilege, and one in which certain behaviors that would surely be classified “homosexual,” in public, could be transformed in private into the badges and incidents of heroic “bro” masculinity.
Snorton, by contrast, focuses on African-American men, a group long ago forced, in the words of W.E.B. DuBois, into adopting a kind of “double consciousness” in the face of hegemonic white culture. Instead of practicing their sexuality in a closet with the door slightly ajar, black men occupy a far more fraught position: Both their race and their sexual desires become unspeakable subjects, kept “down low” in the basement of a society built on assumptions of white heteronormativity.
Instead of practicing their sexuality in a closet with the door slightly ajar, black men occupy a far more fraught position: Both their race and their sexual desires become unspeakable subjects, kept “down low” in the basement of a society built on assumptions of white heteronormativity.
For example, the masculinity of African-American male celebrities, as Snorton argues in a chapter on down-low rumor-mongering, is “constantly in a state of deconstruction” by audiences who watch these celebrities through the lens of their own preconceived notions and prejudices. For black men, already symbolically “feminized” thanks to centuries of control by the white majority, self-presentation is complicated by the subordinate social status they have occupied for so long. White men may easily swing back and forth while still presenting as heterosexual, but when black men pass from heterosexual to homosexual intimacy, their self-presentation is further circumscribed by the lingering residue of de jure and de facto rules that have governed their attitudes and limited their opportunities.
Consider Snorton’s compelling metaphor of the “glass closet” as an articulation of the problem presented by the “down low.” The glass closet, for him, is “a space marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle and speculation.” Sexual desires are driven underground, or rendered unspeakable, in a glass closet subject to ceaseless “regulation and surveillance,” first by the dominant white culture but also by friends, relatives, and, in the case of public figures, the tabloid media. In other words, the sexuality of black men is constantly being scrutinized; same-sex intimacy, while surely still a source of self-discovery, is something that must be kept as far from sight as possible. Ward, whose work is in conversation with Snorton’s, would recognize the value of such an analytic device: It offers a compelling explanation of how the white actor Tom Hardy can confidently distance himself from past claims of same-sex activity while continuing to accept homosexual acting roles, even as the black National Football League player Kerry Rhodes found his career more or less ended after a gossip magazine published photographs of him on vacation with his male assistant.
“Check your privilege” is now a common-enough remark to qualify as a new cliché, and Snorton and Ward provide convincing evidence that the clarifying merit of this exhortation is anything but exhausted. All around us, through the thousands of small interactions that inform our daily lives, we construct selves that either benefit from white privilege or fail without it. Ward tells the story of men for whom privilege is a default position. They are white and heterosexual, and their occasional public “outings” serve only to re-affirm the heterosexuality of all the other white men who define themselves as such. Meanwhile, African-American males trapped in the glass closet of the down-low find themselves sexual suspects in a society already unable to understand them. Yet even those whites and blacks whose unique experiences fall outside the boundaries sketched by Ward and Snorton are united by a shared refusal to identify as homosexuals.
“I’m not gay,” the men had said, but with these remarks and all others, context matters.