So by now we’ve all heard that gay dreamboat, Russell Tovey, dropped some problematic vitriol about effeminate gay men. For those of you who don’t know, Russell Tovey is a hunky openly gay actor who stars in the HBO series, Looking, that depicts the lives of gay men living in San Francisco. In a recent interview, Tovey shot from the hip about how he’s fortunate that he is not an effeminate man.
If you want to read all about it click here. Or just check out the quote in question and form wild opinions:
“I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to. Where I felt like I had to toughen up. If I’d have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now. I thank my dad for that, for not allowing me to go down that path. Because it’s probably given me the unique quality that people think I have.”
Naturally, the internet exploded. Some were quick to attack him, some were quick to defend him, some sent him a daily love tweet hoping he’ll respond with returned affection (but signed with only one set of XOs so he gets that I’m some one’s not too happy with him.)
Regardless of any one’s opinions of this singular actor’s actions, I think it’s time we address the issue of the effeminate gay man and #femmeshame. Russell Tovey is not the problem, only a mere manifestation of it.
Like so many gay men, I never felt like I fit in growing up. I was terrible at sports and frankly hated them so who cared. I loved theater and Britney Spears. N’SYNC was my shit and I attempted to dye my hair blonde on many failed occasions. On top of this, I was short and once made the blunder of creating the AOL Screen name “PetitePopp87.”
I was picked on a lot. I came home in tears more than a few times because some one called me gay or a faggot or some other hateful shit.
But my problem wasn’t that I wanted to fit into the idea of masculinity like the other boys. Based on my experience, being a MAN wasn’t something that seemed very appealing to me.
My father left my mom and me before I was born. We have never met and it seems unlikely that we will ever do so. With the exception of my great grandfather who passed away before I was mature enough to truly connect with him, positive male role models in my youth were scarce. So this idea of being a MAN to me equated more closely to being an awful human.
Luckily for me, I had some strong inspiring women to look up to as I was coming of age. Women who persevered through impossibly rocky times to give me a blissful childhood. I often think about what my mom’s life was like when she was my age and I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know how any human could and I’m filled with immeasurable gratitude and total anxiety because, like, what the hell am I doing with my life. I wouldn’t be as brave or resilient or independent today had I not watched her overcome time and time again. (She’s probably going to be very embarrassed by this.)
And so my idols weren’t athletes or tough cops or nerds who slept with pies like the other boys. I worshiped Pop Stars and Vampire Slayers. I fantasized about being caught in a beautiful romance film like Meg Ryan or deviously getting revenge on my enemies like Heather Locklear on Melrose Place. But these penchants were all roads that lead to harassment and the dreaded name: Gay. So ages 11-20 were especially confusing trying to reconcile who I wanted to be and who I thought I should be.
Eventually, I embraced that beautiful word and it set me free. I could love whatever the hell I wanted. “Gay” no longer hurt me the way it used to. I had stripped it of it’s power to scar and turned it into my shield. At this point I live for my own personal happiness and comfort. I don’t sweat what label some one might assign me.
However, even though I have been able to graduate from high school and am now getting my PhD in Fabulous Studies, I wonder if some of my gay peers are still working on life’s G.E.D. Some of us, it seems, think there is a hierarchy to gayness, as if there are better ways to be gay than others. The Masc guy on top and femmes on bottom (not a double entendre.) And Russell, my sweet handsome prince, I’m afraid you’re one of those misguided souls.
I suspect as gay men, all of us had to overcome various levels of alienation growing up, worrying how admission of our identity would be received by our families and friends.
So why is it that some of us, even after surviving high school, still celebrate the masculinity of our gay brothers as if it is the ultimate in gay identity? Why do some of us see the effeminate man as a lesser version of what a gay man should be? These men write on their Grindr profiles “Masc for masc only” or “No Femmes.” They create horrid notions like “Bottom Shame” or get uncomfortable when some one says to them “Girl, bye” as if some how the person they’re talking to forgot they were actually not a girl.
And then they express gratitude, like Russell, that they aren’t effeminate. But what they are really saying is “I’m so lucky that people don’t identify me as gay, that I can pass.” Call it self-loathing, call it privilege, call it sheer ignorance.
It has taken me a long time to absolutely love the shit out of my fabulous, sassy, gassy self and all the complicated ways I express my gender. So when some semi-famous gay man casually thanks his parents and school because he’s not effeminate I take offense.
And more over, I fear for all the young people out there who look up to Russell Tovey, who saw a successful gay figure state unequivocally that he would never want to be like them. What are they to take away from that?
These masc/femme politics are complicated. Sure, it’s perfectly reasonable to not want to date or have sex with some one who leans one way or the other on this spectrum. Attraction is attraction. But it seems to me that sometimes the “sexual” boundaries men put up seep their way into any bonds they might forge with another gay man. Thus creating enclosed sub-communities within our own community. And honety, high school is over. I’ll sit at any damn lunch table I want.
There is no wrong way to be gay. The only thing we should worry about it how to live our most authentic lives and love and support any one brave enough to do so. With so many others out there who already blindly fear and hate us, we can’t afford to do the same thing to each other.
Now if any one needs me I’ll be singing and prancing in the streets.
PS. Russell, it’s not over between us. It’s never over. But I hope you learned a lesson.