Hijras occupy a special place in Hinduism. But their relationship to modern Mumbai, where transgender people are legally recognized, remains fraught.
MUMBAI, India — When Lord Rama was exiled from Ayodhya and his entire kingdom began to follow him into the forest, he told his disciples: “Men and women, please wipe your tears and go away.”
So they left. Still, a group of people stayed behind, at the edge of the forest, because they were neither men nor women. They were hijras, which in Urdu means something like eunuchs. Those people waited in the woods for 14 years until Lord Rama returned, which won them a special place in Hindu mythology. There’s a bit of a mystery about the story’s origin — scholars say it’s not in the early versions of ancient Hindu texts — but in the past century this folk tale about the hijras’ loyalty has become an important piece of their identity. Hijras figure prominently in India’s Muslim history as well, serving as the sexless watchdogs of Mughal harems.
Today hijras, who include transgender and intersex people, are hard to miss. Dressed in glittering saris, their faces heavily coated in cheap makeup, they sashay through crowded intersections knocking on car windows with the edge of a coin and offering blessings. They dance at temples. They crash fancy weddings and birth ceremonies, singing bawdy songs and leaving with fistfuls of rupees.
Many Indians believe hijras have the power to bless or curse, and hijras trade off this uneasy ambivalence.
Gurvinder Kalra, a psychiatrist who has studied the hijra community, recalled the time when a troupe showed up uninvited at his nephew’s birth.
“The first thing people said was, ‘Oh my God, the hijras are here.’” Then there was a nervous pause, he said. Then laughter.
“There is this mixture of negativity and positivity, a laughter, a fear, this sense they are oddities,” Dr. Kalra said.
Behind the theatrics are often sad stories — of the sex trade and exploitation, cruel and dangerous castrations, being cast out and constantly humiliated. Within India’s L.G.B.T. community, the hijras maintain their own somewhat secretive subculture.
Radhika, a hijra living near a railway station in Mumbai, didn’t think of herself as different until she started school, a chapter of her life that did not last long. After being teased by other children, she realized she wasn’t exactly a girl, but she wasn’t a boy either. Her mother told her not to dwell on it.
“She told me, ‘You’re a girl. Stick to it.’”
It hasn’t been easy for Radhika. Her parents split up when she was young, and her mother died soon afterward. None of her relatives wanted to take care of her. After she was essentially abandoned , an older prostitute discovered her and put her to work in a garbage-strewn park selling sex. She was 8.
A decade and a half later, Radhika is still a sex worker. She wears dark saris, chipped purple nail polish, a gold ring in her left nostril and her hair down the middle of her back.
When asked how she feels each evening as she heads off to work, to stand in a line of other prostitutes along the railway tracks, waiting for customers, she shrugged.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I learned the world runs on money,” she said. “I learned that if I don’t have money, I don’t exist.’’
In many ways, Radhika’s story is no rougher, lonelier or more desperate than those of many other hijras. Many are engaged in sex work, locked into service for a guru who takes most of their earnings.
Radhika wouldn’t utter her guru’s name. She seemed scared to talk about her. Within the hijra world, gurus fulfill the hybrid role of den mother, godfather, spiritual leader and pimp. The gurus are hijras as well, usually in their 40s or 50s.
There is a bit of a pyramid sales scheme within the hijra community. Younger “chelas,” or disciples, are managed by midranking hijras who report up to gurus, who are often steered by their own elder mentors. For every hijra, the idea is to get as many chelas working for you as possible. The money flows up; the protection from abusive customers or police officers flows down.
When I tried to interview a guru in Radhika’s neighborhood, the guru shook her head and said she had to get permission from her guru.
But one guru opened up. She lives on the second floor of a slum house in Mumbai, up a narrow metal ladder, like on a ship. Different from Radhika and most hijras, who spend their years in small, airless shanties with the smell of feces wafting through cracks in the walls, this guru, who calls herself Chandini, rents a relatively large apartment. She sat on a cleanly swept floor, slumped against a Whirlpool fridge.
“These days, it’s so much easier to be a hijra,” Chandini said. “Now there are doctors. When I had my sex change, we had to do it ourselves.”
In the past, she said with a sigh, countless young men died from sloppy castrations. They were often performed by people with no medical training.
India has come a long way from that. In some states, such as Kerala, in the south, a person can now get a sex change at a government hospital. A few years ago, India officially recognized transgender as a third gender, eligible for welfare and other government benefits. Not all transgender people are hijras or members of guru families.
Hundreds of years ago, under traditional Hindu culture, hijras enjoyed a certain degree of respect. But Victorian England changed that. When the British colonized India in the mid-19th century, they brought a strict sense of judgment to sexual mores, criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” That was the beginning, scholars say, of a mainstream discomfort in India with homosexuality, transgender people and hijras.
Many hijras feel a sense of alienation, of being looked at as freaks. They complain about being heckled, harassed and assaulted. Gurus help the young hijras navigate some of this; their networks of disciples are known as “houses” or “families.” The houses operate a bit like street gangs — they fight over territory for begging and prostitution and settle disputes among themselves, sometimes violently, in the shadows of train stations and slums.
Chandini made no bones about how it worked among her 15 chelas.
“They give me what they earn,” she said.
She even keeps a stack of receipt books, heaped by her TV, so anyone making a donation to a hijra in her neighborhood can keep a record of it.
Puja, a 28-year-old hijra, said she felt a “sisterhood” with the other hijras in her house. Puja seemed a lighter spirit, happy in her own skin. She lives with three other transgender women and they cover their rent by dancing at temples and begging on the street.
“Personally, I don’t want to beg. Nobody wants to beg,” Puja said. “And the situation is worse now for begging. The police harass us. They don’t let us beg anymore on trains. But we aren’t given any other opportunity, and now you ask us not to beg? This is not fair. This is not justice.”
At end of interview, Puja looked at me and asked very earnestly:
“What do transgenders do in your country? Do they do sex work?”
(Jeffrey Gettleman is the South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi. He was the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for international reporting.)
At Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers gave an eloquent summation of why a semen-stained dress and the manifold uses of a cigar had become of such absorbing interest: “HL Mencken said one time, ‘When you hear somebody say, “This is not about money” – it’s about money. And when you hear somebody say, “This is not about sex” – it’s about sex.’”
Many of those involved in Britain’s Profumo affair, which took place 50 years ago, also liked to pretend that it wasn’t really about sex. The allegation to which they repeatedly returned was that the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, 48 years old and married to former actress Valerie Hobson, and a Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeni “Eugene” Ivanov, were sharing the favours of Christine Keeler, a young, beautiful woman who eked out a living by combining erotic dancing and modelling with occasional sex for money. Keeler, who was raised on London’s fringes in a converted railway carriage, met both men at the Cliveden estate of Lord Astor on which her friend, society osteopath Stephen Ward, lived in a cottage. Profumo had been impressed when he and Astor encountered a naked Keeler, trying to shield herself with a towel, at the estate’s swimming pool on a warm July evening in 1961.
That a Tory minister had been involved in some naughtiness was the subject of rumour for several months. While there had been sly hints concerning that minister’s identity in the press, Profumo’s threat of a libel suit managed to keep all but a low-circulation Westminster newsletter in line. But several players in the affair – Keeler, Ward and Mandy Rice-Davies, another “party girl” – were already hawking their stories around Fleet Street. The scandal fully broke on 5 June 1963 when Profumo admitted that he had lied about his relationship with Keeler in an earlier parliamentary statement. Profumo immediately resigned as a minister.
The effect on a conservative government already seen to be reaching its use-by date was dramatic, especially after a blistering attack in the Commons by new Labour leader Harold Wilson. A bewildered Harold Macmillan, the Tory prime minister, never quite seemed to recover from the sordidness of it all, and soon resigned citing ill health (although he would live another 23 years). In the meantime, Macmillan had appointed the eminent judge Lord Denning to investigate the affair’s security ramifications. Denning took his duties seriously, to the extent of arranging for a doctor to inspect a government minister’s penis to see whether it matched one shown being fellated in a photograph. Denning’s published findings, unusually for a government report, became a bestseller.
It was a grubby little book. Richard Davenport-Hines’s fine new account of the scandal, An English Affair (HarperCollins; $35), justly describes the report as “awash with the spite of a lascivious, conceited old man”. Whereas Denning found kindly things to say about Profumo’s loyalty and Astor’s philanthropy, the best he could manage for Keeler was to acknowledge her “undoubted physical attractions”.
Denning could not ignore the fact that Profumo had enjoyed an extramarital affair with a woman less than half his age and then lied about it to both parliament and his party colleagues. Nonetheless, the war minister was spared the lashing that Ward received. An admittedly unattractive figure, whose hobbies included “collecting” aristocrats, celebrities and young, pretty working-class women, Ward served as a convenient scapegoat in the affair. Denning called him “utterly immoral” and a communist sympathiser, and elsewhere accused him of “vicious sexual activities”. In her memoirs, Keeler went so far as to claim he was spying for the Soviets. In August 1963, Ward took his own life during a trial for pimping, a trumped-up charge made to stick through police blackmail of witnesses.
Davenport-Hines has produced a lively book, more than two thirds of which is devoted to establishing the affair’s historical background and main players. Davenport-Hines has no time for the humbug that the scandal was about national security. Rather he sees it as a manifestation of a crisis in a class-bound and hypocritical Britain. In this respect, Davenport-Hines follows other recent scholarship, such as Frank Mort’s Capital Affairs. Mort puts much greater stress on the affair as a product of a changing city, but he is as insistent as Davenport-Hines that the episode was not primarily about its Cold War connections: the scandal crystallised wider apprehensions in Britain about sex, morality, crime, race and gender.
Anxieties about postwar immigration were a critical ingredient. Keeler had relationships with two Caribbean immigrants, “Lucky” Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe, an aspect of the affair that many would later find particularly shocking. In 1963, we are just five years away from Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, in which the Tory politician warned of the likely violent consequences for British society of mass non-white immigration. The presence in the story of the Caribbean men affected public judgements of Keeler, Ward and even Profumo, connecting Whitehall and Westminster with the unsavoury suburb of Notting Hill. By the early 1960s, this centre of West Indian settlement had acquired a reputation as a hub of violence, prostitution and drugs. The adventurous Keeler and Ward couldn’t resist its offerings of pot and sex. In October 1962, arguing over Keeler, Edgecombe slashed Gordon’s face with a knife in a nightclub. Later, Edgecombe fired shots at Keeler and her companion, Mandy Rice-Davies, after they refused to let him into Ward’s flat.
Keeler and Rice-Davies were not the liberated young women of second-wave feminism, yet nor were they mute and passive victims of the men who wanted to possess them. They sold access to their bodies and their stories because they understood their market value. They were true children of the consumer age. Had Keeler been born 35 years later, says Davenport-Hines, “she would have starred on Celebrity Big Brother and consulted her publicist every time her footballer boyfriend knocked her about”. But, equally, had this troubled working-class girl landed in the Swinging London of 1965 instead of the very different city of 1957, she might well have fallen into a lucrative career in the media or fashion, for she had the look that model Jean Shrimpton was already, by 1963, turning to fame and fortune.
Instead, it was her destiny to be recalled as the “tart” who helped bring down a government. There is a brief comment in Keeler’s recently updated autobiography Secrets and Lies that neatly illustrates how these women were carefully fashioning themselves for the age of celebrity. On trial for perjury, she recalled of herself and Rice-Davies: “We were having our hair done every day for the trial, trying to look our best, at Vidal Sassoon’s in Bond Street.”
This attention to image was not in vain, for the scandal produced one of the most famous photos of the century. The Lewis Morley picture of Keeler sitting naked behind the back of a chair whose lines are almost as sensual and alluring as her own hints at the sexual liberation to come, while leaving enough to the imagination to evoke the more straitlaced era being left behind.
Denning remarked that scandalous material about the famous had turned into “a marketable commodity”. That market was now global. The Australian newspapers of mid 1963 were full of the affair, while models complained about the name of their profession being attached to Keeler: “That tramp never has been and never could be a model,” trilled a former Miss Australia, Patricia Woodley. Pictures of Keeler and Rice-Davies covered the tabloids. The case was debated in serious magazines such as the Bulletin and Nation, and less earnestly among Australia’s schoolchildren, who in a witty playground rhyme calculated that a half a pound of Rice and a half a pound of Keeler added up to one pound of sexy sheila.
Davenport-Hines shows that the Profumo affair was fundamentally a media event. Some newspaper proprietors had scores to settle with the affair’s key players and many journalists were fed up with the government and the self-serving establishment it was seen to embody. Chequebook journalism, which was commonplace, fuelled the scandal, as the major protagonists sought to cash in on their stories. Journalists adopted tactics, such as burglary, that make the phone-hacking scandals of the recent past seem unexceptional.
The media used the Profumo affair as a means of attacking the whole upper class and its way of life. If journalists and newspaper owners were ruthless in their methods, collecting too many innocent victims along the way, there was at least something constructive about the outcome. Old forms of class-based deference were eroded. Women would in future would be able to exercise more independence with less risk. There would be greater sexual freedom. A country that just a few years before looked to have settled in to a decline towards comfortable mediocrity, could once again seem – if only for a few brief years – dynamic, creative and exciting.
The male athletes who’ve come out recently reinforce the obvious: Gay men can be masculine. But people should also be accepting of men, gay or straight, who don’t conform to traditional gender norms.
A couple weeks ago, Mark Carson, a 32-year-old gay man dressed in a tank top, cut-off shorts, and boots, was walking with his friend in the West Village when they were approached by Elliot Morales. “Look at you faggots,” Morales allegedly said. “You look like gay wrestlers.” Morales followed the men down the street shouting anti-gay slurs before fatally shooting Carson at point-blank range just blocks from the Stonewall Inn. Carson’s murder comes at a time when anti-gay crimes in New York City are on the rise, according to the NYPD. There have been 29 reported this year, up from 14 in the same period last year, even as hate crimes overall have declined during that time by almost 30 percent.
This recent uptick in anti-gay violence also comes during the same month that three more states passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage and just weeks after NBA veteran Jason Collins revealed that he is gay—and was largely greeted with open arms by the sports world. Last week, soccer player Robbie Rogers, who had said he would leave the game when he came out back in February because he didn’t “want to deal with the circus,” had a change of heart. When he took the pitch in a Los Angeles Galaxy match on Sunday night, he beat Collins to the punch to become the first openly gay athlete to play in a major U.S. men’s professional sport.
This moment of staggering contradictions seems like a good time to take stock of how far we have—and haven’t—come in dismantling homophobia. And the hopes we pin on these pioneering athletes may offer some key lessons.
Shortly after Collins came out, Brendon Ayanbadejo, former Ravens linebacker and advocate for marriage equality, explained the importance of his announcement on Meet the Press. Of course, given the sheer number of Americans who tune in to watch professional sports, athletes have an unprecedented platform to offer positive representations of LGBT people to large swaths of the population. But Ayanbadejo got to the heart of why the importance of a figure like Jason Collins extends beyond the celebrity factor: “People think gayness has something to do with femininity when really we just need to erase that stereotype from our minds,” he said. “LGBT people come in all different types and shapes and forms.”
As many commentators noted, this helps explain why college basketball phenom Brittney Griner’s casual “coming out” just weeks before Collins’ was greeted with so little fan-fare. The belief that sports—and perhaps team sports particularly—are a masculine endeavor lingers even 40 years after Title IX ushered millions of American women into the game. And since for women, we think gayness “has something to do with” masculinity, we hold the opposing set of assumptions about female athletes: “In sports right now, there are two different stereotypes—that there are no gay male athletes, and every female athlete is a lesbian,” Patrick Burke of the gay sports advocacy group You Can Play explained to the New York Times. The news that Griner, who wore a white tux on her 6-foot-8 frame at the WNBA draft, is gay didn’t fundamentally challenge our notion that sexuality has something to do with gender—and it just confirmed the stereotypes we had about women who excel in sports. As Garance Franke-Ruta put it, “Female professional athletes are already gender non-conforming. Male ones are still worshiped as exemplars of traditional masculinity.”
Within this context, the hope is that a high-profile gay male athlete—or, more realistically, a few of them—could finally smash the stereotype that “gay” equals “unmasculine” once and for all. And, in fact, to some, Collins and Rogers don’t have enough macho mojo to do the trick. Writing at The American Prospect, Joel Anderson argued that Collins’ underwhelming performance on the court has taken away from the potential power of his announcement. The New York Times’s John Branch noted that Major League Soccer is probably only the nation’s fifth-most popular league—and, at least in the American sports landscape, soccer players hardly have an uber-masculine image. (In fact, according to the Onion, soccer became the “world’s first openly gay sport” in 2010.) The real game-changer, Anderson wrote, would be if a player in the NFL, that bastion of “a certain kind of masculinity if not outright machismo,” came out. “Football players are supposed to be our manliest men,” he explained. “Their acceptance of a gay man into that world could go a long way toward unpacking some of the most insidious stereotypes about gay people.
There’s no doubt those are stereotypes that need unpacking. Sociologists have long noted that homophobia is a fundamental ingredient of masculinity in modern American culture. In his seminal 1994 article “Masculinity as Homophobia,” sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, argued that “homophobia is a central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood.” Since homosexuality is associated with femininity, feminizing and anti-gay comments are the primary mechanism for enforcing the boundaries of masculinity. If a guy steps ever so slightly outside of gender norms, his peers will bring him back into line by calling his heterosexuality into question (which implicitly challenges his gender). The pressure to prove and re-prove hetereosexuality is part of what it means to “be a man”—and it pushes men to embrace both homophobia and hypermasculinity. “Homophobia, the fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man, keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women,” Kimmel wrote. “Homophobia and sexism go hand-in-hand.”
Homophobia, then, is not simply social disapproval and discrimination against gay people, but an entire cultural structure that disqualifying all but the “most virulent repudiators of femininity” from “real manhood”—in the process upholding gender inequality and maintaining a hierarchy of men based on sexuality, race, class, ability, and so on.
It’s entirely understandable, then, why Collins took pains to highlight his masculinity in his Sports Illustrated article announcing the news. “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel.”
But where does that leave the guys who do fit the “gay stereotype”?
After all, while it’s certainly true that not all gay men are “soft,” it’s also true that some of them are. The gay guy who would rather be belting out some Barbra Streisand than shooting hoops is not just a stereotype. He exists, too. He’s probably been spared the awful loneliness and anxiety of living for 34 years without being open about his sexuality to those closest to him, as Collins did, but he probably had less of a choice in the matter. The first time he had an anti-gay slur hurled at him may have happened before he even came out to himself. In fact, like 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, he may only be perceived as gay.
Mainstream gay rights advocates seem largely optimistic that the visibility—and acceptance—of gay male athletes like Collins and Rogers will help that guy, too. “By doing what he did, Jason Collins has extended gay kids a lifeline,” Fred Sainz, VP for communications and marketing for the Human Rights Campaign, told Time. “The message to that gay kid, even if he’s not involved in athletics, is reassuring. Even the jocks are gay. And there’s a message to bullies: gay kids are not second-class citizens.”
But it’s not completely clear that showing that “even the jocks are gay” necessarily makes things better for those guys (gay or straight) who don’t so readily conform to traditional masculine norms. Since gayness and femininity are still so linked, it’s nearly impossible to determine what homophobia’s driving factor is. As Kimmel explained to me, “As long as we think homosexuality is about effeminacy in men—as long as we think we can tell if a guy’s gay if he’s acting ‘feminine’—then we can’t tease it out.” But if that link is successfully broken—say, by the growing visibility of “macho” gay athletes who challenge the stereotype—then it will be possible. “Then the effeminacy part will be about subscribing to gender norms, not revealing anything about your sexual orientation.”
For now, though, it’s hard to say: Is being a feminine man bad because it’s considered evidence that you’re gay? Or is being gay bad because it’s seen as feminine? Or are both bad? And if the association between femininity and gayness is severed, what happens next?
The changes over the last two decades may provide some clues. After all, anti-gay attitudes in the United States have declined dramatically since the 1980s and ’90s. As recently as ten years ago, the public was evenly divided on whether homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society. Today, 59 percent of Americans say it should be accepted, according to a Gallup poll released recently. For the past three years, more Americans support same-sex marriage than oppose it. The most recent Pew Research Center survey, conducted this past March, found 49 percent in favor, compared to 44 percent opposed—and other polls have put the level of support even higher. About two-thirds of the public thinks that gay and lesbian couples can be as good parents as heterosexual couples and that they should have the same legal rights as their straight counterparts.
Among young people, especially, anti-gay views are decidedly the exception. About three-quarters of millennials believe homosexuality should be accepted and 70 percent support same-sex marriage. And, in large part, it is young men who have been driving this trend. Ever since we’ve been asking about it in public opinion polls, men have been more likely than women to espouse anti-gay views—a fact that buttressed the theory that masculinity is intimately connected with homophobia, says Tristan Bridges, assistant professor of sociology at The College at Brockport, SUNY. But just recently that gender gap has begun to narrow. Among millennials, it’s virtually non-existent: 69 percent of young women support same-sex marriage, compared to 65 percent of young men. Though homophobia is by no means eradicated—after all, Bridges points out, straight men especially still seem be far more comfortable with gay identity than actual gay sex—the largely supportive response to Collins and Rogers coming out would seem to reflect a real and rapid change in anti-gay attitudes, which should certainly be celebrated.
What’s far less clear is whether this shift is actually changing the way homophobia is used as a weapon for maintaining traditional masculinity. “Surely, it’s incontestable that the attitudes that people have about gay people have changed a lot—largely for the better.” Kimmel tells me. “But the attitudes that people have toward what constitutes masculinity, and how to enact being a ‘real man,’ haven’t changed very much at all.” Consequently, the use of homophobic slurs as a “mechanism of gender policing remains relatively intact”—even if those words have become less likely to be applied to actual gay people.
That’s what sociologist C.J. Pascoe found when she spent a year and a half at a California high school doing research for her 2007 book, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Homophobic slurs were tossed around constantly, but the students insisted they weren’t really about sexual orientation. “When I talked to these boys about what they were teasing about, they would go out of their way to say, ‘Oh no, we would never actually call a gay boy a fag. That’s just mean,'” she told me. Instead, boys labeled their peers “fags” for things like dancing, being too emotional, caring about clothing, being incompetent, or not have success with girls. While actually being gay wasn’t exactly accepted, Pascoe discovered that it wasn’t nearly as bad as being considered an unmasculine guy. As one student told her, “Well, being gay is just a lifestyle. You can still throw a football around and be gay.” Indeed, of the three out gay boys at the school, the two who were traditionally masculine weren’t really bullied by their peers much at all. But the third boy, who broke both the norms of sexuality and gender, faced such severe tormenting that he eventually dropped out of school.
Some scholars see cause for optimism, though. For example, Eric Anderson, an American professor of sociology at the University of Winchester, England, argues that declining homophobia is already starting to create “inclusive masculinities.” According to Anderson, homophobia only serves a weapon for enforcing gender norms in an environment of “homohysteria”—in which there is both widespread social disapproval of homosexuality and being gay is associated with femininity. As anti-gay attitudes decline and “the stigma of being called gay doesn’t sting” anymore, Anderson explained to me, the boundaries of acceptable masculinity expand. “It’s not to say that there are no hyper-macho men,” he says. “But it is to say that those who are more feminine are perfectly acceptable, because they’re not regulated by homophobia anymore.” And a similar transformation would be expected to happen if the link between femininity and gayness were broken. If being feminine is no longer considered incontrovertible “evidence” that you’re gay, who cares if you bend gender norms? Anderson’s research backs up his theory. He’s found that the male college athletes and fraternity members he studied in the U.K. and the U.S. are increasingly more accepting of their gay peers—as well as less aggressive and sexist, and more emotionally intimate and physically affectionate with their male friends.
But others aren’t convinced of such a large-scale transformation. Anderson argues that since sports have historically been highly homophobic spaces, other male groups are likely to be moreinclusive than the primarily white, straight, middle-upper class college athletes he has researched. But studies suggest that, paradoxically, those are the guys who may actually have the most freedom to bend the rules of masculinity. Pascoe describes it as “jock insurance.” In effect, men who have the most status have the masculine capital to be able to get away with flouting some gender norms. “Gender is at the heart of all this stuff,” Pascoe explains. “It can really make up for your deviance in other ways.” Bridges agrees: “I think it might be the case that gender flexibility is becoming more ok for young men today than it was in previous generations. But I would say that that is the case for a very select group of men.”
Research on LGBT students’ experiences in K-12 schools also suggests that anti-gay harassment may be driven as much by gender anxiety as by homophobia. For starters, the growing acceptance of homosexuality has been slow to translate into a change for LGBT youth, according to GLSEN’s national school climate survey, which has been conducted every two years since 1999. There has been some improvement: The frequency of anti-gay comments has slowly but steadily decreased over the last decade. The most recent report from 2011 found the percentage of students who reported hearing slurs like “faggot” or “dyke” was about 70 percent, a drop from over 80 percent in 2001. Even the pervasive use of the expression “that’s so gay” seems to have slightly declined in recent years (though “no homo” may have risen to take its place). Yet LGBT students’ reports of being harassed or assaulted held steady from 2001 to 2009, before finally dropping somewhat in 2011. And there has been no change at all in incidence of negative comments about gender expression.
Furthermore, gender non-conforming LGBT students are more likely to be bullied than their fellow gender-conforming LGBT peers. Of course, some of that may be because bending gender norms is conflated with being gay in a culture that still hasn’t let go of the idea that gender and sexuality are linked. But the high rates of harassment and violence faced by transgender people—who most radically reject the gender binary—suggest that gender policing is playing a role over and above the role of homophobia. A whopping 80 percent of transgender students reported that they felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression. And it doesn’t get much better for adults: Ninety percent of the trans and gender non-conforming people surveyed by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job, or hid their identities to avoid it. A 2012 report on anti-LGBT violence from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that trans people were 28 percent more likely to be physically assaulted, and trans women specifically made up 40 percent of hate murder victims.
It’s not just boys who are punished for breaking gender norms, of course. Take Griner for example. In an op-ed in the New York Times, she recalled that in seventh grade “the teasing about my height, appearance and sexuality went on nonstop, every day.” Notably, it seemed to have more to do with her gender than her sexual orientation: “People called me a dude and said there was no way I could be a woman. Some even wanted me to prove it to them.”
Still, at this moment in history, it is easier to be a gender non-conforming girl. “Girls are allowed a lot more leeway to be outside of traditional femininity than boys are allowed to be outside of traditional masculinity,” says Barbara Risman, head of the department of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families. So while girls also hold each other to rigid standards, and are vicious when someone doesn’t conform (one word: slut-shaming), they’re far less likely to be homophobic. The GLSEN report, for example, found that over half of students reported hearing remarks about students not acting “masculine enough,” but just over a third heard comments about students’ “femininity” as often. Up to a certain age, girls can usually get away with being tomboys, while “sissy” boys are discouraged from very early on—and not just by their peers. Studies have shown that parents—especially fathers—are more uncomfortable with their young sons playing with dolls or dresses than with their daughters doing stereotypically “boy” activities. And though stepping too far outside of acceptable gender norms is seen as a problem for everyone, to a degree, women may even be rewarded for distancing themselves from femininity at times.
This is not to say that declining homophobia doesn’t have the potential to lead to a serious reimagining of masculinity more broadly. And obviously this isn’t the kind of change that happens overnight. After all, the millennial generation that’s driving the momentum towards marriage equality is just beginning to create families of their own; I have no doubt that we will raise kids who are more accepting of different sexualities than any before them. And I’m also optimistic that millennials are well-poised to finally retire rigid, outdated versions of masculinity for good. After all, we’ve come of age in an era of unprecedented gender equality, and as traditional gender differences continue to converge, a masculine ideal that still defensively defines itself primarily against what it is not no longer makes any sense. The crisis of masculinity—predicted by a zillion trend pieces on the so-called “end of men”—offers a real moment of opportunity for my generation. As Thomas Page McBee wrote in the Atlantic last year, “Feminism allowed women to unlock the parts of themselves society kept from them, and now men are doing the same.”
But there are dangers to seeing these two trends as inevitable—and inevitably linked. After all, Bridges warns, “the most important and most dangerous forms of inequality are really capable of shifting.”Indeed, Pascoe points out that our ideas about what it is to “be a real man” are constantly changing—gender roles are always in flux—and “the important thing is not really what is included or excluded in the definition, but that that definition maintains gender inequality.” So while “sexuality might not be as big of a deal anymore,” what remains “a big deal is differentiating yourself from femininity.” In other words, we may well be moving toward a culture in which being gay is no longer on the list of things that are considered automatically “unmasculine.” However, unless we throw out the list altogether, the gender-enforcing function that homophobia currently serves—and the sexist culture it supports—will continue relatively unchanged. In such a world—to take another (extreme) example from sports—perhaps the Mike Rices of the future won’t call their players “faggots” and “fairies.” But if they still shout “cunt” and “pussy” as they physically abuse their athletes, that will be superficial progress indeed.
In fact, if the association between gayness and femininity is broken without more fundamentally expanding masculinity, it may even make things worse. Kimmel emphasizes that we don’t really know yet how this will all play out, but it could end up creating two tiers of gay men: “the really gay guys and the macho gay guys.” To some extent, that distinction already exists. Being “straight-acting” is valued—not only in the heteronormative culture at large but within gay communities, too. Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak explained last year, “As a gay, you understand that while you’ll always find peers who allow you to be exactly as queeny as you are, there is still a social hierarchy that puts a premium on masculinity.” Kimmel notes that, if that’s the direction we’re headed, gender non-conforming gay guys, who used to provide a critique of the dominant masculinity, “are gonna be seen as a real problem. If even gay men can be real men, what’s wrong with you? So in a funny way this could be another reassertion of the power of traditional ideas of masculinity.”
But, hopefully, instead it will be the first step in an important cultural change. “It’s a very good and powerful conceptual shift to decouple sexuality and gender,” Risman explains. “That is, to show there are very masculine gay men and effeminate gay men, but there are very masculine straight men and effeminate straight men, too.”
The brave decision by Collins and Rogers to come out should not be so narrowly taken as proof that even “real men” can be gay. Instead it should remind us that human beings^mdash;yes, even men—”come in all different types and shapes and forms.”
“You’re too ugly to be gay,” a man in a Huddersfield gay bar told Jakeb Arturio Bradea.
It was the latest in a series of comments from men that Jakeb says made him feel worthless. Last summer, following the comments, he tried to kill himself.
Manchester-based charity the LGBT Foundation has warned that body image issues are becoming more widespread in gay communities. It says gay and bisexual men are “much more likely” than heterosexual men to struggle with them.
A number of gay men have told the BBC they are going to extreme lengths to change their bodies – including using steroids and having plastic surgery – just to become “accepted” by others in the LGBT community.
Several said pressure from social media platforms and dating apps was exacerbating their body issues.
“Guys with stunning bodies get the comments and the attention,” says Jakeb. “I’ve not gone on dates because I’m scared of people seeing me in real life. I would honestly have plastic surgery if I could afford it.”
Instead of surgery, a few years ago Jakeb turned to anabolic steroids – class C drugs that can be misused to increase muscle mass.
I got to a certain weight from just working out and going to the gym, but I couldn’t get any bigger, and I got into my head that I needed to be bigger,” he says.
“My friend said he knew a steroid dealer, so I thought maybe I’ll just do a low dose to see what happens.”
But anabolic steroids can be addictive. Jakeb soon found himself unable to stop.
“I got to the size I wanted to be, but it didn’t feel good enough,” he says. “I kept wanting more. It was like there was a harsh voice telling me I’m skinny.”
Jakeb had his second near-death experience in November last year when – after several years of heavy steroid use – he suffered heart failure.
“I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t sleep, I was days away from dying,” he says. “The cardiologist said if I had done one more injection or gone to the gym a few more times I would have dropped dead.”
Months later, Jakeb has stopped taking steroids and has lost the extra muscle he gained, but he continues to have health problems for which he is receiving hospital support. “It just hasn’t been worth it at all,” he says.
And Jakeb is not alone in taking drastic measures to try to appeal to men.
James Brumpton – a software engineer from Lincoln – found himself “catapulted into this world of self-consciousness”, after he hooked up with a man at a local gay bar.
When James went back to the man’s house and took off his T-shirt, his date looked at him and made a disgusted noise. “Nice arms though,” the man added.
Eventually, the experience led to James deciding to have an abdominoplasty – otherwise known as a tummy tuck.
“I allowed another man to influence me to a point where I literally had part of me removed,” he says.
Prof Afshin Mosahebi, of Baaps, says gay men are currently having more cosmetic procedures done than straight men, although he notes that women have more procedures than men overall.
The surgeon believes the pressure of social media is pushing people to go under the knife.
“Some patients don’t need surgery, they need psychological help, and even the patients that do need surgery need to be appropriately informed of all the potential risks,” he says.
After James’s tummy tuck went wrong, he was left with permanent scarring, which made him even more conscious of his body.
“I’ve been shamed many times since then,” says James. “A guy I was dating once said that I needed to go and find jeans in the maternity section because I have wide hips.”
Dating apps have fuelled body image concerns, he says. “People having in their profiles ‘no fats’, or that they’re only into masculine and muscular guys, so they don’t want anyone that’s super skinny,” he says.
Images on social media and in leading gay magazines have also led James to feel he is an “invader in the space”.
“The idea in your head is that to be a gay man, is to look like a Calvin Klein model,” he says.
Photos of “sexy bodies” drive sales of gay magazines, according to Matthew Todd, a former editor of one such publication, Attitude.
“It was a tension the whole time and I continually tried to put people on the cover that weren’t like that: the first trans man, the first trans woman, the first lesbian,” says Matthew.
“I kept doing those kinds of things, but they didn’t sell well.”
When Matthew put a photo of Stephen Fry on the front of the magazine in 2010, “it was one of the worst selling editions ever”, he says.
“That’s not a reflection on Stephen Fry, because he’s incredibly popular,” he says. “I think it says more about what readers are coming to gay publications for.”
Matthew, the author of Straight Jacket: How to be gay and happy, says homophobia has fuelled gay men’s body issues.
“It’s really important to remember that there is unprecedented pressure on everybody to present themselves in a visual way,” he says.
“But I think you can’t take out of this discussion the fact that LGBT people grow up, shamed, not able to be themselves.
“And I think for lots of people, that’s a massive trauma that manifests as low self-esteem. If you don’t like yourself, that manifests as not being happy with the way you look.”
The result has been that gay men are under more pressure than straight men to have the perfect body, Matthew says.
“If you go on to some gay dating apps, you would think that the vast majority of gay men are supermodels,” he continues.
“If you’re a gay man, the act of finding another man attractive is also making a judgement of yourself. Many gay men confuse ‘Do I want to be with him?’ with ‘Do I want to be him?'”
Jeff Ingold, from LGBT charity Stonewall says it is “crucial” that we see more diverse representations of gay and bisexual men with different body types in the media.
“Not only would this help gay and bi men see themselves reflected in what they watch, it would also help break down harmful stereotypes that affect gay and bi men’s body image and self-esteem.”
But as it is, Jakeb says he still gets people online telling him they “wouldn’t leave the house if they looked like me”.
“I didn’t go on pride marches and have bricks thrown at me to have the community we’ve got now,” he says.
“We have equality, but we’re horrible to each other.”