Straight acting is such a peculiar term.
It’s probably seen less-often today but once was staple of personal ads placed by gay men seeking sex or romance. Together with “no fats/no fems” and “HWP” (height-weight proportionate), it’s mostly gone the way of platforms and Ultrasuede, but still rears its ugly head every now and again.
(Today’s gays are more likely to recognize the gay hook-up app phrase “masc4masc,” which is likely just the lovechild of “straight acting” and “GPS.” But the research is still inconclusive on that one….)
What does “straight acting” really mean, anyway? Isn’t having sex with someone of the “opposite” sex the only “act” that makes one straight? (But, in that case, large majorities of lesbians and gay men are “straight” acting.)
Or, is ‘straightness’ about more than the sex of the people you hook up with? That it’s also a kind of theatrical performance; an act or a pose? In other words, it’s not who you really are, but who you’re pretending to be? Not just who but what you’re doing? And not just in bed. But all the time. And who’s the audience, anyway?
(Poor straight people! Sounds exhausting!)
Isn’t it also curious that the term “straight acting” is only ever used by men; that is, gay men?
I’ve never once heard a lesbian assert her desire for a “straight acting” woman. For a femme or a butch woman, sure. Or a masculine or feminine one. And even a ‘straight’ one, on occasion. But not “straight acting.” Never.
I suspect that’s because lesbians (like all women) know better!(If in doubt, do please ask one.)
What all women seem to know is that the term “straight acting” is an exercise in male power that takes the form of gender policing. And since women are targets of the most-frequent, public, and historically-enduring forms of gender policing, lesbians just seem to intuitively understand what’s really going on when gay men use the term “straight acting.”
And they haven’t followed suit.
They recognize the term’s not about sexual orientation per se, but about gender; specifically femininity. Even more specifically, some gay men’s preference for masculinity (and distaste for femininity) in male romantic or sexual partners.
And sometimes that preference for masculinity is actually “femmephobia”: the fear or hatred of feminine or effeminate people. Just as racial preferences in romantic or sexual partners can be an expression of overt or unconscious racism, “femmephobia” can be an expression of overt or unconscious misogyny and sexism.
But, because there are no women involved (when a gay man rejects another gay man for being “too femme”) some gay men have a hard time seeing this…
In this, gay men aren’t so different from straight men. Both are taught (practically from birth) that the absence of femininity is what makes a man real.
Thus, Real Men engage in a lifelong project to purge themselves of this hated thing (femininity) by projecting it onto his objects of desire (women), where it can be subdued by holding them down and fucking them (literally and figuratively).
Or projected onto homosexual men, where it can be subdued through homophobic verbal and physical violence.
As a mountain of academic research has shown, much anti-gay violence is a response to the victim’s gender presentation. It’s the perpetrator’s perception that gay male victims are ‘doing gender wrong’ (i.e. they’re acting ‘like women’) that is punished.
After all, effeminate men — gay or otherwise — reveal just how precarious is any man’s claim that manliness is the birthright of maleness.
The expurgation of the femininity within will be achieved through subordination of effeminate others — women and men.
The Real Man’s success and failure in this work of manly self-making will be assessed and judged by other men, similarly engaged in their own man-making projects. Thus a man’s masculinity is less a physical trait or an innate condition than a provisional social status that’s granted (or withheld) by his peers.
The Real Man’s masculinity is (literally) always in crisis. (No wonder straight men are so anxious!)
So, let’s just call it what it is, shall we?
Expressing a preference for “straight-acting” men is how some gay men secure their own manliness by policing the gender of other gay men (to prevent it from wandering too close to anything resembling femininity). And they do it through a brazen sort of gender discrimination that’s all too common in gay male sexual culture.
Which is all just another way of saying: the term “straight acting” is how some gay men make common cause with straight men in support of the patriarchy and its denigration of femininity (in women and men). (I mean, just because you’re a dude who sucks dick doesn’t mean you should have to miss out on screwing women! That’s just crazy talk!)
Straight-acting. Who knew it would be misogyny (and not a six-pack of beer) that would finally get straight and gay men ‘in bed’ together?!
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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.