Even in the all-male environments that I’ve frequented, from golf courses to gay bars to locker rooms, I never encountered the kind of brutish sexism that Donald Trump broadcast as he campaigned for office. And yet I know his continuing insults against women are not singular; attacks are festering from a wide cast of misogynists, from the Leslie Moonves type to the “incel” type to the Alabama statehouse type.
This is forcing some soul searching on me — namely confronting the worsening attitudes toward women next to the rapid-fire gains of gay male liberation in recent years. If any group has been steadfast in its support of gay men, it is feminists. In return, are we gay men who claim to be feminist really so?
You know that social lore that valorizes gay men as more refined and more sensitive — so aesthetically superior to everyone else? It enables many of them to get away with scandalous chauvinism. Knowing quite a few gay men at the top of their professions — media, fashion, philanthropy, academia — I witness a fraternity of privilege frighteningly indifferent to the backlash against women. The gender pay gap continues, never mind the inequality in political representation, and the horrifying spate of anti-abortion-rights laws.
How much internalized sexism still lards our interactions with women? Gay men might march toward universalized marriage and child-adoption rights. But that ethos shouldn’t seduce gay men to downplay gender-based prejudice. Our growing inclusion into marriage and childrearing doesn’t necessarily intensify gay men’s bond to women; it can heighten our empathy for entitled straight men. As gay men become more invested in heterosexual normativity, we have to redouble our efforts to dismantle its worst aspects.
Feminists, from the Daughters of Bilitis to the Notorious RBG, helped pave the way for gay male liberation.
One friend confided to me that she believes that gay men, at this historical juncture, are at least as misogynistic, if not more so, than straight men. Gains in feminism have chastened straight men, she claimed, but not their gay brethren. Another woman, an official at a major cultural institution in New York, told me earlier this year that she finds straight and gay men equally sexist, just in different ways. Straight men tend to need more from women, sexually and personally, so they couch their misogyny in subtle ways to finesse what they want. Gay men tend to need less from women, she said, so they’re at liberty to tell women exactly what they think; gay misogyny is more cutting and blunt.
Shifting personal identities in this country also now blur our social thinking. Young folk are running around America saying they are beyond categories. Above identity. I am post-feminist, post-gay, post-work, post-this-and-that, they say. I am just me.
Those post-label acolytes — who declare race, gender and vocation as outdated straitjackets, imposed by left and right doctrine alike — often dismiss women’s everyday adversity. Such a creed essentially dismisses feminist activism as outworn, while celebrating individualism, consumerism, sexual freedom and self-empowerment as the true harbingers of a woman’s liberation. People of all genders who have declared themselves and the moment post-feminist have spoken prematurely, just like those who said the nation is post-racial.
Any gay man paying attention could have felt the war against women brewing even back during the Obama years. In 2015, I certainly sensed it, when watching Congressional Republicans grill Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, an interrogation based on discredited videos that allegedly “exposed” fetal tissue sales. I wondered at the time if and how my gay brethren would show up for this female leader and the cause.
At first blush, abortion rights look like the least of any gay guy’s problems. Few gay men are causing unplanned pregnancies or raising a child in circumstances where they just can’t cope. But reproductive justice touches more than abortion access. Meaningful reproductive justice also concerns access to high quality, stigma-free reproductive and sexual health care. The core issue is control of one’s own body and life — which touches the heart of gay rights. Feminists understand how all these rights are connected, but gay men don’t always empathize.
Even though gay men are not engineering the recent surge of state laws restricting reproductive rights, nor committing the alarming number of sexual assaults against women, we are implicated in the imagistic, commercial and workplace misogyny that is still strangling women’s advancement.
Feminists, from the Daughters of Bilitis to the Notorious RBG, helped pave the way for gay male liberation. Women cared for a previous generation of gay men suffering from AIDS. Today’s gay male elites should be standing for women: combating sexual assault; advancing women’s reproductive rights; demanding paid maternity leave and support for child care; defending immigrant women escaping domestic violence and rape; and supporting all those women who are decidedly not “post-work,” but rather represent nearly two-thirds of the minimum-wage workforce.
Gay men shouldn’t dominate the debate, but neither should we hang back in apathy, fatigue or fear of saying the wrong thing. The post-gay, post-work, post-feminist movements might sound fashionable, but the spate of anti-women legislation demands we show up for women. Gay men may have become more liberated, but feminism hasn’t run its course.
Rich Benjamin, the author of “Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America,” is at work on a new book. Follow him @IAmRichBenjamin