A few weeks ago an old friend reached out to me on Facebook with a problem: Anna (not her real name) works at a high-end cosmetics store, where she regularly interacts with gay male customers, many of whom are buying eyeshadow or blush for their latest drag look. A customer had come in, and, when she offered assistance, he replied, “Honey, I don’t need help from you. You need help from me.”
When Anna brought up the incident to her female coworkers, they told her the guys who come in frequently often call them “bitch” and “c*nt,” and get defensive when women say they don’t like it. It’s cool, they insist, because they’re gay.
“I’ve been in the industry ten years, and I can think of tons of situations like that,” Anna explained. “I feel bad for being so desensitized to it.”
These things happen so often, in fact, that she wasn’t sure if it was normal or something more insidious. She felt like she might be overreacting. But she wasn’t.
Misogyny among gay men has become a major topic recently: In 2014, Rose McGowan claimed that “gay men are as misogynistic as straight men, if not more so.” Some thoughtful responses called the comparison into question, but didn’t dispute her overall premise: When it comes to treating women like whole people, not objects or accessories, a lot of queer men have work to do.
We all know someone who loudly proclaims how grossed out he is by vaginas. Then there are the guys who think its fine to drunkenly toggle a woman’s breasts in a bar because he’s not attracted to her. Not all of us are gay Donald Trumps, grabbing at every woman with impunity, but enough are.
Because gay men, first and foremost, are men. We’re not immune to the cultural conditioning that comes with growing up in a society that views femininity as “weak” and “lesser.” Even if your best friends are women, that programming is difficult to break. Sexism among gay men persists because many of us don’t feel the need to change, especially when the hierarchy that glorifies maleness seems to benefit us.
But misogyny hurts gay men, too. Because misogyny is at the root of homophobia.
Gay men are stereotyped as feminine because we have sex with men, and society has a negative association with femininity. It’s an insult to walk, throw, or talk like a girl. When a gay man is beaten up, or taunted as a “faggot,” it’s because he’s viewed as being like a woman.
Which is the worst thing a man can be. (Just look at all the “no femme” profiles on Grindr.)
I told Anna that if her male customers use language like that again, she should call them out. Draw attention to their words—what they really mean, how they make her feel. Explain that it might be fun for him, but it’s not for her.
We can all benefit from a little education, and instead of brushing off accusations of sexism or, worse, gaslighting or female friends, we should just listen. But if gay men don’t evolve past their own misogyny, it’s not because our sexuality gives us a pass. It’s because we refuse to learn.