Sex & Relationships

Don't Look Gay: Why American Men Are Afraid of Intimacy with Each Other

Why do adolescent boys often leave empty seats between each other when they go to the movies? It's a product of the culture of male homophobia in America which pushes men to avoid intimacy and gay stereotypes.
This article is reprinted from American Sexuality Magazine.

On Saturday afternoon at the Cineplex you can see them: adolescent boys, there to watch one of the action films that Hollywood makes with an audience of young males in mind. What’s distinctive is where the boys sit in the theater. Though they might’ve come to the movie together and might even be close friends, they’ll leave an empty seat between them.

Just where the empty physical, as well as emotional, space between men comes from has been the essential subject of my research as a scholar of American culture. My work has culminated in a recent book, Picturing Men: A Century Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography.

What accounts for that space? A short answer, something academics like me are notoriously reticent to provide, is that countless American boys and the men that they become are afraid of intimacy with each other, fearful of how intimacy might be construed -- of what others and maybe even they themselves might decide that the closeness suggests. What I’m alluding to, of course, is homophobia.

I have examined the shifting history of intimacy among American males, charting the role that homophobia has played in the shifts that men’s intimacy has experienced over the last century and a half. What are the implications that my historical work might have for two matters prominent in contemporary public debate: first, the so-called “boy problem” in the United States, and secondly, whether persons of the same sex should be permitted to marry?

At Cal State Fullerton, I teach courses called The American Male and Sexual Orientations in American Culture. In some ways these classes occasionally overlap, as my students and I discuss the differences and the similarities between men who consider themselves gay or bisexual and those who think of themselves as straight. Though of course widely accepted today in the United States, the idea that one’s own identity is grounded in the sex of those whom one desires sexually, that the sex of the object of yearning identifies the yearner, rather than simply defining his desires, is a comparatively recent cultural notion.

But it isn’t a universal way of thinking about human sexuality. Scholars too rarely ask if what we know as “sexual orientation” is a fundamental distinction between human beings, or instead is less significant, perhaps much less significant, than gender distinctions.

My students and I often consider whether various kinds of fuss over sexual orientation actually are indirect ways of addressing more basic issues of gender, the ways that a particular society defines the appropriate behavior of males and of females. We examine the ways that negative stereotypes of gay men, for example, not only stigmatize those males considered gay, but also coerce all men to stay within the boundaries of culturally prescribed “male behavior,” lest they be thought queer. It’s common in our culture for a gay male to be thought “unmanly,” but it’s not inevitable that this equation be in force, or even that sexuality be viewed as a simple question of one or the other, gay or straight, with bisexuality in the middle ground.

Such, however, has been our society’s obsession with sexual orientation -- and with “appropriate” manliness -- that an association with gayness came to include certain occupations, words, gestures, and items of apparel, as well as one male’s willingness to express intimacy with another. The greater the scorn heaped upon gay males, the more that all males have been discouraged from displaying behavior associated with gayness -- with anything resembling intimacy heading the list of taboos.

Reflecting the powerful significance of gender in our society is the fact that lesbianism functions quite differently in the culture than does male homosexuality. Though lesbians and gay men are subjected in common to certain forms of discrimination, lesbianism is both stigmatized in some segments of “straight” society and powerfully eroticized in some “straight” quarters as well, a largely unknown occurrence with male homosexuality.

One hardly need suggest that life is easy for lesbians to observe that gay men seem to trouble straight people more, to observe that gay men are more associated with “perversion” than lesbians have been. A tomboy, revealingly enough, is often thought appealing or amusing, qualities never attributed to sissies.

This situation, rather than suggesting that lesbians (often stereotyped as the ultimate tomboys) have it easier, probably attests instead to the fact that the doings of men are simply paid more attention in our society. With male behavior mattering more, those who deviate from the strictures of manhood, then, are singularly bothersome. For those who believe in traditional gender distinctions, females whose behavior is thought to mirror that of males would be considerably less annoying, disgusting, laughable, or even noteworthy than that of “effeminate” men. Whatever the reason, a dislike of lesbianism did not bring about severe restrictions on displays of intimacy among all women in any way analogous to how homophobia prompted distancing between all American men.

For many centuries, various societies in various ways have differentiated between same-sex and different-sex activity. But the word “gay” and, according to many historians, even the very notion of sexual orientation on which it’s based, are of comparatively recent vintage. “Heterosexual” and homosexual” were coined, initially in German, less than a century and a half ago, a simple fact that should give pause to those who speak as if everyone everywhere has always been subject to inborn biological imperatives directing their sexual attention.

Societies may vary in terms of how sexual activities between persons of the same sex are scorned, ignored, or endorsed, but about the existence of oriented sexuality -- even the existence, some suspect, of a gay gene -- there is rarely any doubt. Those who expect to discover a “gay gene” may be just as wrong-headed as those who believe that they have discovered a Biblical injunction against homosexuality.

My own belief, by contrast, is that sexual meanings do not travel well across time and space, that history suggests that “sexual orientation” may be more of a recent human contrivance than a timeless biological phenomenon. Yet one doesn’t have to solve or even directly address the nature versus nurture riddle to simply observe that belief in an oriented sexuality brought with it a fear of male intimacy.

In the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, as Americans increasingly came to believe that “homosexual” was both an adjective and a noun, and that the word referred to something highly undesirable, men became much more hesitant to express, and even perhaps to feel, intimacy toward one another. In what might aptly be called a lost world of American men, it once was different. Other scholars, notably E. Anthony Rotundo in his 1993 book American Manhood, have shown that intimacy between men was once so encouraged and so widespread in our society that we may accurately speak of “romantic friendships” between males of the nineteenth century.

Picturing Men

While others have relied on traditional historians’ sources, letters and diary entries, to document nineteenth-century comfort with male intimacy (elaborate terms of endearment and unselfconscious physical closeness, for example), my own documentation of the lost world has been with everyday photographs of two or more American men together. With these photographs we can literally see the lost world as it existed, as it later began to disappear, and as it then reappeared with revealing intensity in a particular moment and setting, only to disappear yet again with stark finality.

After systematically reviewing many thousands of images, as well as more conventional sources, I write in Picturing Men that American males, together in pairs and larger groups, once had professional portraits of themselves taken with a revealing frequency, in dramatic contrast to the virtual lack of the practice today. The poses they once commonly struck were even more revealing than the fact that the portrait was taken. With notable nonchalance, they might hold hands, sit on a companion’s lap, share a chair, drape their arms around each other, or perform for the camera what I’ve termed a “pageant of masculinity,” perhaps dressing up as cowboys or striking a frivolous pose that often included a “token of manhood” such as a cigar, liquor bottle, or firearm. Official athletic team portraits were once especially common scenes of closeness among males, with teammates sometimes lying atop each other. When George Eastman’s introduction of roll film in 1888 made it easier for amateurs to take pictures, the earliest snapshots also often showed males, boys and men alike, posing very close together, obviously delighting in one another’s company.

With a distancing and stiffness of pose in team portraits, the first widespread signal of a change, males began slowly but quite surely to move apart in photographs as the twentieth century progressed. If there was to be any more hand-holding, lap-sitting, or chair-sharing, there would usually be an exaggerated facial expression or some other gesture, reassurance to the observer and the observed alike that this was all purely in fun, with no genuine intimacy involved. The contrast between earlier and later poses of men together in photographs is striking, charting an increasing discomfort with closeness to each other’s bodies. The practice of males having their studio portraits taken together, once such a common token of association, was by comparison virtually extinct by the 1930s.

The closeness of old, and even studio portraits of men together, survived, however, even thrived, in the military, particularly in wartime. So common were poses of obviously tender affection between servicemen during the Second World War, and so extensive was men’s participation in that war, that one can speak of no less than a widespread revival during those years of romantic friendships among men.

Some of the wartime photos displayed in Picturing Men may well be of those who discovered other men with same-sex yearnings during the War, a development analyzed well in Allan Berube’s 1990 book, Coming Out under Fire. But the everyday photos that I have studied, unless there is some explicit inscription on an image, cannot document a sexual relationship between the subjects. The presence or absence of intimacy is another matter, and is something to which an everyday photo can sometimes eloquently attest.

Revealingly enough, the ubiquitous intimacy of wartime was conspicuously absent among male civilians in photographs taken during the early postwar years. Even young boys, who, in contrast to older males, had shown more closeness in everyday photos before the War, posed in the 1950s with a formality and lack of closeness that mirrored the poses older males had been striking for decades. The fear of intimacy that would account for the empty theater seat had triumphed, commonly inhibiting the relationships of American males of all ages. Though Picturing Men ends with the 1950s, I believe that the distancing and fear of intimacy that was intensified and became so widespread during those years continues to vex American males in our own time.

The price paid for the fear of men’s intimacy is high –– for all males, not just those who yearn for each other sexually. William Pollack, Jr., in his Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, and Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, in their Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, have been foremost among those contemporary analysts looking at how lonely and emotionally inhibited the world of boys can be. They have shown how an intense fear of being thought gay can lead to various forms of overcompensation with cruel consequences. For many American men, this overcompensation does not cease with the end of boyhood.

Because men’s doings have been given more weight, deviations from the culture’s prescriptions for men are particularly troubling for many Americans, with displays of intimacy between men arousing much more scorn than similar displays among women. For example, with a tiresome, utterly predictable, yet highly revealing frequency, the lead actors in Brokeback Mountain were asked what in the world it was like -- implicitly how they could possibly have endured -- kissing another guy. You’d have thought that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal had climbed Everest. Culturally speaking, for male leads in a major American film, apparently that’s just what they’d done.

It seems plausible, therefore, to propose that some of today’s opponents of same-sex marriage are more bothered by men marrying than by weddings for women. My argument for a gendered approach to sexual orientation does not imply that lesbians have it better. If this must be made a contest, it might be said that, as women, with their doings trivialized, lesbians actually have it worse. What I am suggesting is that some opposition to “gay marriage” is animated by tremendous discomfort with the love, tenderness, and intimacy between men that their marrying each other implies. Notions of men having furtive sex with multiple male partners with whom they are not in love or lastingly involved might be considerably less disagreeable.

Apparently thanks to the cynical design of Bush partisans, debates over same-sex marriage, usually focused on proposals to ban the practice, have in recent years aroused the Bush political base, sending the president’s supporters to the polls in numbers larger than might have been the case without a “gay marriage” controversy. However, the recent Democratic electoral successes suggest that many voters weren’t as distracted by the sexual orientation of their fellow citizens as they had been in 2004. This allowed attention to be turned to more pressing concerns.

It might be well if sexual orientation were less of a distraction –– for us all –– in other aspects of American life beyond politics. We would be a considerably healthier society were we to see sexuality as a matter of much more nuance than a simple gay-straight dichotomy implies. And American men, whoever their sexual partners, would surely have a better time of it if they were able to restore some of that world lost to homophobia. At its heart, history teaches us that little in life is inevitable or immutable, that things surely don’t have to stay the way they currently are. In looking at the quite different way that things once were, Picturing Men reinforces that lesson.
John Ibson is Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. He is the author of Will the World Break Your Heart? Dimensions and Consequences of Irish-American Assimilation (Garland, 1990) and Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography (Smithsonian Books, 2002, University of Chicago Press, 2006). He is currently writing a book on manhood in 1950s America.