Effeminophobia: Why It Hurts

Yesterday I had the best of intentions to write up a post, but I’ll admit it—I flat-out forgot. Mondays are tough, not only for the start of the work-week, but my particular Mondays don’t see me comfortably settled on the loveseat, post-dinner, until around seven-thirty or so. That’s when I begin to catch up from a long day. The evening seems to whiz past from that point, going through posts and emails, checking in with various peeps, until it’s getting late and, being on the West coast, I’m very much aware that many people are already in bed. So even when it’s early evening for me, my Monday posts are still pretty much night blogging.

Besides, I hear a lot of awesome people were at GRL, so it’s polite to allow a day’s margin post con-hangover. Well, it’s not quite a con, but same effect.

This week’s topic is effeminophobia. There are several things that have led me to this topic, but the primary driver is this: hate and fear have no place in my world. They’re destructive forces. They’re the opposite of everything I believe in, and so far as romance and writing are concerned, they may be in the writer’s toolbox of tricks, but as things to be overcome, something to triumph over, not a status quo to be upheld.

What is effeminophobia?

We’re at the first-ever Gay Romance Northwest, and during the panel on Diversity in Fiction, author Rick Reed looks out at the audience, the vast majority of whom are women (authors and readers), and asks the question: “Why aren’t there more effeminate men in gay fiction?”

For about a second, you could hear a pin drop. But then the tides unleash.

An author is the first to speak up. “We’re told that it’s a stereotype, and we’re not supposed to use stereotypes in our fiction.”

“My editor tells me to take out [effeminate men],” another says. “They edit out behaviors, gestures that can be seen as womanly.”

“We don’t want to see men acting like women. We want to see men with men.”

“I’ve had characters like that, but my editor advises me to take them out.”

Another author relates how she was lambasted for having a character who displayed feminine traits while I’m thinking whether to contribute my own anecdote of being accused by one reviewer of writing Bastian as “a woman in a boy’s body” all because he had the audacity to wear nail polish and eyeliner and display his emotions openly—as well as being an enthusiastic bottom.

“Effeminophobia.” Someone finally voices an underlying cause, the answer to Rick’s question.

“Misogyny,” someone else says. Now we’ve hit on the real reason. There’s an uneasy current in the room. We’re women, writing about men who aren’t supposed to act like women. Because that’s bad. But is it really bad, or have we been conditioned to think it’s bad because there’s a larger force in play?

Effeminophobia is fear of the feminine, or womanliness, and the behaviors, gestures, presentation, and identifying traits that are associated with the female gender. It’s far more pervasive than most realize, and it starts young. And it is not limited to men displaying and reinforcing this phobia, as you might think.

“You shouldn’t play with dolls, you should play with trucks.”

“Those are girl toys! You don’t want to play with little girl’s toys, do you?”

“Don’t give the kid an EZ-Bake oven for his birthday. Do you want him to be a sissy? A BB gun, now that’s a good gift for a boy…”

The Barbie and little pony aisle and the Transformers and action figures beside it. Don’t hit like a girl. Blue is for boys, and pink is for girls. What are you, a pussy? Put some muscle into it—are you a man or are you a princess? Take up a sport, we’ll make a man out of you. No, you can’t wear nail polish, that’s only for girls. The boy with pink shoes whose mother was slammed and vilified on Facebook for being such an unfit parent as to let him wear what he wanted. Another little boy who was assaulted by a stranger in the store because his mother let him wear a bow in his hair. You shouldn’t sign up for ballet, only gays and girls are ballet dancers. Why are you crying, stop being such a girl! Boys wear boy costumes, girls wear girl costumes. You’ve got to do better than that if you don’t want all your friends to think you’re a little bitch, son. You can’t take that job, it’s women’s work. Look, girls can wear suits, but if you’re a guy, wearing a skirt is cross-dressing. Let’s all prank that kid because he screams like a girl!

It goes on…

There are two things all of the above list has in common: implying that everything feminine is unmanly; and planting the seed that anything associated with women or girls is bad and undesirable.

Why is effeminophobia bad for us?

These cultural attitudes are so ingrained and pervasive that they’re often invisible to us, both men and women. They’re accepted as things being the way they are, especially by the older generation for whom gender is a clean division, men versus women. This sets up the false paradigm that men can only dress, behave, present, and talk like men, in a masculine fashion, or they are less than men, other, queer, feminine, bad. This is harmful to all men, gay, straight, bisexual, and trans*, because it sets up the expectation that any and all of these men can only comport themselves a certain way. Anything else, and they’re not considered men. Heaven forbid a man wears makeup and seeks out female partners. Lightning strike the man who makes limp-wristed gestures because he’ll get blasted as a sissy and a gay stereotype in the same breath. And men who overtly display feminine characteristics are subjected to violence, or the threat of violence, on a regular basis. You don’t have to be queer to be gay-bashed, after all.

This is also harmful to women across the same spectrum: lesbian, straight, bisexual, trans*, all of us. Conversely, women who display masculine traits are vilified as bitches, uppity, trying too hard, “thinking they’re the man,” having penis envy. Women who dress or act masculine, especially “butch lesbians,” are subjected to violence and the threat or perpetration of rape on a regular, widespread basis. Women who dress in a manner deemed too revealing, or “slutty,” also run the same risk. Women are told to stick to the kitchen in the same breath they’re told we live in a post-feminist world.
Women have the vote! Women rule the world. As long as you act and behave like a “real woman” or a “modest woman” or a “proper woman,” you’re safe, even as rape and domestic violence statistics beg to differ. Women in politics are subject to a level of scrutiny for the way they dress and act in ways a man would never experience. Women actresses are questioned on their diet and their underwear and other intimate details when men in the same film would never be asked the same things. Women are conditioned, from an early age, on what is feminine and coached that we need to stick to those things otherwise “men won’t want us.” And if you dare to toe the line, there’s a queue of people—men AND women—waiting to put you in your place!

When I was a little girl, I did not like the color pink. I rejected pink in all its forms, from clothes to decorations. If asked what color for anything in particular, my answer from age seven onward was “not pink.” My mother asked me what color I wanted my bedroom, and that was my outright answer. She asked if purple was okay. I thought about it and accepted it, dubiously. It seemed like a compromise. Years later, I still fought this battle—my mom and stepmom would buy me pink shirts, hot chartreuse gloves, magenta scarves, and probably wondered why I never wore them. My mom bought me a fleece robe for Christmas and said defensively when I opened it, “it’s not pink!” (I assure you, it was.)

As an adult, I got into nail polish for a multitude of reasons, one of which was there were more options than various shades of pink. And then I found a pink that I loved. And it was girly. And I embraced it. And I started to realize I, educated and open-minded and conscious of diversity and inclusion as I’d thought I was, had absorbed more than a few misogynistic attitudes of my own. It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that gender and sexuality are separate. And however you choose to present, as well as whoever you’re attracted to, is not bad. It simply is. You have the right to exist. You have the right to be who you are, no matter where you are on the spectrum. And you should be represented in fiction.

Not only an author, but as a person, it’s important to recognize there are all kinds of men, from the hypermasculine straight guy who is moved to tears at Evita, to the lisping, girlish-gestured gay boy who can roll up his sleeves and bench press twice his weight.

The lack of tolerance, shutting people down into rigid gender roles, prevents all of us from being our best selves. It keeps us from expressing who we are. It makes us unsafe, misunderstood, leads to bitterness and resentment, as well as withdrawal from the community and each other. It perpetrates violence, verbal and physical. And yes, a lack of safe spaces in fiction for people who present across the entire gender spectrum ties into this lack of tolerance and creates a culture of exclusion in the very places that we feel we should be safe and included.

What’s wrong with effeminophobia? You’re telling effete men of all stripes that they shouldn’t exist. Hell, ‘effete’ by itself has come to have a negative connotation. Isn’t that bad enough by itself?

What can we do about it?

This one is a little harder. A lot of prejudice is disguised as “I like what I like, and you can’t tell me what to like.” At the same time, you can’t make someone read and enjoy your story about an androgynous male beauty blogger any more than I can get into a novel about two hairy bears doing the nasty. (I can’t. I’m sorry. And lovingly dwelling on the hairiness factor and armpit sweat makes me bail faster than you can say ‘furry hole.’) But what we can ask for, nay, expect, is some more tolerance, a little respect, and an attempt at inclusion. I uphold your right to enjoy bears and hairy asses and buff, manly men. Where it becomes a problem is when readers and editors and publishers say those are the only kinds of men, and men in fiction, who should exist.

Tolerance … “I may not agree with what you’re saying, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.” You don’t need to understand everything about someone who’s different from you to tolerate their existence as their own individual person. Don’t vilify effeminate men or try to erase them from manuscripts where they’re presented. Do avoid portraying them as stereotypes; make sure they’re well-rounded people.

Respect … Abide by the Golden Rule, done one better. Treat effeminate men not as you want to be treated, but as they want to be treated. And if you don’t know what that is, ask.

Inclusion … Make them a part of things. Include them in your worldview. Embrace the fact that effeminate men exist—and they’re not stereotypes—by talking with them, not making fun of them. By giving their stories a try, even if you think it’s not your cup of tea.

Do you have to like it? No. But do effeminate men have the right to exist? Absolutely. Can we be tolerant of them? Gosh, I hope so. And you can show them they’re worthy of respect by including them—in your story, on your reading list (if only to give them a try, or support their existence as side characters), and in your submissions and editing process if you’re a publisher. Above and beyond, we can all raise the level of our playing field if we keep an open mind, avoid outright rejection of portrayal of men that’s maybe a little outside the norm, and celebrate men and women of all kinds without tearing either down.

15 comments

  1. I don’t think I have a lot to add here except to say you rock!

    I think there is definitely a lack of effeminate men in m/m romance. Quite frankly I haven’t seen a lot of truly bear-ish bear-on-bear couples in the genre either though. Gender as it’s represented in the genre seems, strangely, to tend towards being very heteronormative. Hardly ever does it stray into the kind of the grey outskirts where where bear leather daddies, effeminate queers, butches, studs, high femmes, androgynous people and most trans* people, by default, tend to hang out. Which is a problem I think.

    But of course when you are talking about effeminate gay men you get that plus a extra helping of misogyny as you so rightly point out. Which is a whole other but very real issue.

    1. ❤ ❤ ❤ The feeling is mutual!

      I think you're completely right, we don't see a whole lot of representation across the entire glorious spectrum, and that made me go off on a mental tangent wondering if most (female) authors are simply writing essentially heteromasculine normative characters who happen to be gay for each other. It's very different from gay fiction I read, say, 15 years ago (which was written by men) and it makes me wonder if the genre is tilted toward selling fiction to women rather than accurate representation.

      All we can do, I think, is try to write our way out of it.

  2. This is a really interesting issue. I think everything you say about the way we talk about gender – ‘crying like a girl’ – is absolutely true. When I do vocab prep with my kids, I can never get over the fact that “hysterical” merely means being in possession of a uterus.

    I certainly don’t think effeminate men should be erased from fiction or any other media (although it could be argued that they are the most portrayed type of gay men on television – always as sidekicks, but still). I do wonder, though, if since most gay romance writers are women, one of the reasons why we shy away from effeminate men is that those kinds of personality/physical traits are something women learn to recognize quite early in life as ‘not interested’? A lot of girls in middle school, high school, or beyond had to learn the hard way that the gorgeous theater kid with cuter yoga pants than any of the girls was really, really not interested in them. I think as a kind of self-preservation, a lot of women teach themselves not to be attracted to more overt signals of homosexuality, and that might spill over into the fiction we read.

    1. You may have a point there, but that doesn’t really address the rampant effemiphobia in the gay community — among gay and bi men, specifically — itself. 😕

      1. You’re completely right. While thinking about this entry I stumbled upon a facebook post: a picture of two out gay men. Someone commented on the photo, “omg Shaun, you look like such a bottom here”. And Shaun lost it at the guy. He was completely offended and ended up saying “if you keep calling me a bottom, you’ll find yourself at the BOTTOM of a well”.

        He was outraged that he might ‘look like a bottom’ and my only thought was…aren’t those the guys you sleep with? For some reason the fact that some straight men can be sexually attracted to women but also despise them doesn’t shock me (because I’ve seen it too much), but I was totally stunned that someone who ‘tops’ and therefore is necessarily exclusively involved with ‘bottoms’ would be so upset about being called one. I don’t know why I imagined there would be some sense of solidarity among the gay community, or the fact that this guy thinks bottoms are hot would influence how he thinks of the men as human beings. But I guess I was wrong.

      2. Not, of course, that merely being the partner who is penetrated makes someone effeminate, or that you can’t be effeminate and also penetrative, but the two were clearly being conflated by the men commenting on this picture.

    2. I don’t think I personally have ever shied away from writing effeminate boys, partly because I just love writing pretty boys, but also because I grew up with a lot of gay men in my parents’ circle of friends and just saw it as behavioral traits, never really negative behavioral traits, until wider exposure to media as well as media analysis and psychology as I got older.

      Do you really think that a lot of women (or non-gay-male) writers might be writing the type of guy they want to be attracted to rather than the kind their male character(s) would be? I guess that would play into the romance as wish fulfillment theory. But I’d like to think that any reader can enjoy the romance regardless of orientation if it’s well-written.

  3. There are always the stereotypes we all have to deal with… If a woman is independent and strong willed, she is a “bull dyke”, regardless of her sexuality. If a man dares move into the “controversial” area of wearing makeup, dressing well and actually being polite ans sweet, he is labeled as a “fag”, also regardless of his sexuality. In a great part I think this also translates to the M/M romance area. You may write about two men loving each other, but heaven forbid they even show the slightest gay characteristics (being slightly effeminate). Society molded us into thinking anything feminine is weak, and sadly, this reflects even in the open minded genre of M/M romance.

    1. Sorry for this terribly belated reply, I’ve had this tab open forever and should have replied long before now. Yeah, there are too many stereotypes and people buy into them, and it definitely translates into the m/m romance. There’s nothing wrong with men who have feminine traits, or women who have traditionally masculine traits, but assumptions run rampant in fiction as with other areas of life! It’s too bad, I think it’s holding the genre back.

    1. Randomly, this whole post reminded me of this, both the comic itself (that is wonderfully queer and brings up all body-types, genders and sexuality), but also…. the porn-series it reviews in this particular comic. Now, I haven’t seen much but trailers for this, as I am not paying for it. But it sure looks liberatingly fun with ALL sorts of men and women and genders and sexuality and just… everything. 🙂 One day… I migh even consider paying for it. Which would be a first for me to pay for porn online. This, however… looks worth it.

      http://www.ohjoysextoy.com/crashpad/

      🙂

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