The Pressure To Be ‘Macho’ Can Damage Gay Men’s Mental Health

Living in a hetero-normative world often demands men to act according to strict societal rules on “masculinity.”


I remember when I first thought my body was not good enough to be desired by other men. This feeling of disappointment with myself and envy of other men happened when I started going to gay bars and clubs. I noticed that men with defined muscles and often perfectly groomed facial hair received all the attention.

What they did not display was anything that was even slightly feminine.

Many gay men feel the pressure to have the perfect muscular body, which can be for their own self-confidence and health, but it may also be an attempt to exude society’s notion of masculinity in order to be desirable to other men. And part of this perception is due to toxic masculinity.

The term became known after Terry Kupers, a renowned American psychiatrist, published an article in 2005 titled, “Toxic Masculinity as a Barrier to Mental Health Treatment in Prison.” Kupers wrote that toxic masculinity was a “constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.”

MRBIG_PHOTOGRAPHY VIA GETTY IMAGES Muscular men getting more muscular.

“It (toxic masculinity) is when these traits and ideologies that (men) ascribe to as historically belonging to men, are exaggerated in a kind of dangerous form,” said Adam Davies, a doctoral candidate in education, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Toronto. “Many gay men therefore believe that in order to act like the ‘manliest’ man possible, this often means shunning anything that can even slightly be interpreted as feminine.”

“For a lot of gay men, just by being gay, there is this sense of insecurity of being a failure because they’re not performing their masculinity in the way that they (feel like they) are expected to,” said Davies.

Miah Mills, a Toronto resident, said that while he was very fortunate to have a non-gendered upbringing at home, his peers at school bullied him.

“They would police the whole boys do this/boys don’t do that nonsense,” said the 36-year-old. “Eventually, you police yourself.”

He said it took him many years to feel comfortable around effeminate gay men.

GETTY IMAGES Crowd of people in Berlin, Germany participate in a parade celebrating the LGBTQ community on June 21, 2014.

“I always knew that I should support them and be proud of them, but my first response was always to cringe. In them I saw the parts of myself that I hated. The parts of me that others saw in me and bullied me for.”

Alex McKenzie, a sexologist based in Montreal, said that he has also seen this same feeling of failure when working with predominantly LGBTQ2S men.

“This is a health risk because there is a constant dissonance between what they are trying to achieve versus what they actually want, which slowly has an effect on one’s mental health … it erodes your well-being the more it goes on,” says McKenzie. “I see a lot of issues in regards to anxiety come up, as well as depression, when people find themselves living in situations not right for them.”

Video above is a trailer for “Men Don’t Whisper,” a comedic short film about a gay couple emasculated at a sales conference, which screened at Sundance and SXSW earlier in September.

According to McKenzie, these mental health effects are also caused by dating apps, such as Grindr and Tinder.

“Dating apps are a phenomenon that started out as something innovative and fun, but has changed the landscape of dating and how we not only treat each other, but also how we view ourselves as individuals, which directly links to our self-esteem,” says McKenzie.

My own experiences on apps such as Grindr and Tinder have shown me that fit and active men (all traits seen as masculine) are the most desired men. While I consider myself to be fairly active, my lack of muscles and toned figure have made me close the apps at times wondering why I should even bother if I’m not the “ideal man.” Davies said this form of masculinity has always been put on a pedestal.

“In the (early 20th century) when gay men had different labels for themselves based on their gender expression, the feminized gay man was called ‘the fairy’ and was always seen as … the lowest denominator of gay communities,” said Davies. The word “fairy” was also often used as a homophobic slur.

A historical trope during the 1970s and 1980s that many gay men looked up to and tried to emulate was that of the “Castro” clone. Named after the historically gay Castro district in San Francisco, this stereotype was a rugged, muscular man with a moustache who would have sex with many different men without any attachments. I still find myself, from time to time, aspiring to be like one of them because of how they were so lusted after.

GETTY IMAGES Individuals congregate in the Castro District for the annual Pride celebration on June 27, 2015.

Rusty Souleymanov, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Social Work, whose doctoral work focused on the health and well being of substance-using gay, bisexual, as well as two-spirit and queer men in Toronto, said the desire to be seen as more masculine can also influence behaviours and lifestyles sometimes practiced by gay men.

“There’s this ongoing view that the manliest of men have a lot of casual bareback sex (penetrative sex without a condom) and also engage in substance use while having sex, and it can lead to a lot of health risks,” said Souleymanov, who has conducted research about HIV education among gay and bisexual men who use drugs.

The health effects that Souleymanov describes include higher rates of mental health issues and eating disorders on top of higher HIV rates. A 2007 article titled, “Eating Disorders in Diverse Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Population,” by Matthew Feldman and Ilan Meyer showed that gay and bisexual men are up to 10 times more likely to suffer from eating disorders than heterosexual men.

None of the above is to say that toxic masculinity is the sole reason why these issues exist, but it does play an important role. Davies said that gay, bisexual and queer men need to be more vulnerable with each other.

For a lot of gay men, just by being gay, there is this sense of insecurity of being a failure because they’re not performing their masculinity in the way that they (feel like they) are expected to.

Adam Davies, a doctoral candidate

“A lot of men think that it isn’t masculine enough to talk about our emotions, our struggles and things that make us appear weak, but we need to be more open with each other,” said Davies. “We need to practice being more vulnerable with each other and start working to take away this stigma to really come together as a community.”

I am more at ease with my sense of self and my own body these days. Of course, there is still some work I can do on myself (I mean, who doesn’t?) but at least now I know that when I see these standards for gay men, they’re not what I should necessarily be. I would be lying if I said that I never feel a little bad looking at my scrawny self in the mirror, but I do know that it does not take away from my sense of masculinity.


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