“You don’t look gay”
It’s something most of us in the LGBT+ Community has heard at one point.
We hear it because society is filled with stereotypes and yes, it’s great to see society start to address and remove some of these stereotypes, but there’s one group of stereotypes society either fails - or seems to want to avoid - addressing.
If you were asked to describe a gay man chances are you would describe this thin, smooth, fashionable, sassy, individual with a walk that kinda sways the hips. When it comes to music taste you might think they’ll listen to broadway, or perhaps Beyonce and artists as such.
There is the assumption within our society that a member of the LGBT+ community will act feminine. It’s easy to think that we can just ignore what other people think but look at the portrayal of gay men in the media.
When I gave a description above of what you might describe a gay man as you might of thought it sounded familiar? If you thought it described almost every LGBT+ character that has been portrayed in the media then you’d be right.
If you thought of Kurt from Glee or Jack from Will and Grace then you’d be right.
This image of acting more feminine is not just untrue, it is also extremely damaging. It makes those who are in the closet believe they have to act more masculine - leading to toxic masculinity - in order to mask who they really are. This can be really harmful to personal development if that is not who they are.
Let’s be clear about something, coming out is not an event - it is a process. A process where an individual who has spent their whole life suppressing their emotions and personality to find out who they really are.
I wish I knew that when I was on my journey towards beginning that process because it could have avoided my battle with depression, anxiety, low confidence, and a lack of understanding who I am.
When I came out to someone the majority are supportive, some it takes a bit of time to process, and others have questions or knee jerk responses because the image that goes through their head as someone close to them comes out is the one portrayed in the media.
I’ve been told that I couldn’t be gay because I’ve not got cutting 6 pack abs and a thin appearance. I’ve been told I couldn’t be gay because I don’t have amazing hair or an excessive skin care routine. I’ve even been told that I couldn’t be gay because I don’t walk like one.
You read that right.
Body image issues
We’ve all at some point dreamed about having it - the “perfect” body! Those big muscles, 6 pack abs so cutting that you could use them as a guillotine for paper, the clear skin and well presented hair. You’re meant to be this confident outgoing person who it doesn’t matter what life throws in the way is expected to stay positive. In short, if you’re not a Calvin Klein model you are an outcast.
I don’t have any of those things and I’ve been slagged off within the LGBT+ community for not having them. At first I could ignore them hoping that it’s just a fringe of the community, but now it’s affected my entire life - each day I look in the mirror and look on in dread as I have to look at what I am with that subconscious thought of what I should look like.
When I finally bit the bullet and got Instagram (I was one of those people who thought it wouldn’t last - happy to admit I got that wrong), I followed a few gay people and support accounts and then the algorithm kicked in. My suggestion feed was filled with young male models in exciting places and if it wasn’t them it was young male gym enthusiasts. Again this was the image I was told I had to have and that knocked me down in terms of my mental health and self-confidence.
I have recently started going to the gym and to be honest I quite like it. That over an hour I spend 3 times a week allows me to zone out of everything that goes on in my life and focus on bettering me, and even after a week I noticed a difference in my mental health.
But I’m not going for the model-like body because I know the effect that will have on me. I’m going to stay active and improve my health. But even the first time going was a surprise because of the conception society has created of places such as the gym, from comments including “this is where the real man is made” (and other similar sexist comments) and “this is where you become your full gay”, but actually once you go for a few times you realise it’s not that at all.
Everyone is in the gym for their own unique personal goals and development. Truth is the gym isn’t a place where stereotypes are made, it’s where they are broken. The thinly built young male might look like he’s got low confidence by the rest of society but really he’s got more than his mate who has been in the gym game for a long time.
But there’s a trap here, one even I find myself trying to avoid falling into. That trap being that subconscious thought in the back of my head telling me I’m not good enough. Everytime I look in the mirror - which yes they are different in the gym - I have to begin an internal argument with myself over what I should look like.
There’s nothing wrong with going for that dream body but don’t do it just because society is telling you too - something like this should be done for you and you alone. It should be your goal and one you shouldn’t be afraid to change if you feel it’s having a negative effect on you.
There’s another side that we haven’t mentioned - what’s life like after you have the body society is telling you to have?
Having the 'perfect body’ doesn’t mean you’re invulnerable to body image issues and poor mental health. It can actually be worse as not only do you feel the pressure to maintain what you have but also meet the growing expectations society places upon you.
I’ll be honest, I’ve been quite lucky in the places I’ve worked not to have experienced any workplace homophobia, but that doesn’t mean if I was more openly gay I wouldn’t.
Truth is there’s this attitude in society that gay men are more likely to work in places like Topman, River Island, Starbucks and just to avoid debate - Costa. These workplace environments require creative and outgoing people to fill them which not every gay man is.
That’s not to say you either are or you aren’t this type of person. I for one can take a bit of time to fully be myself around new people but that doesn’t mean I can’t be that person - it takes confidence that’s all.
The other thing LGBT+ workers have to face is abuse from members of the public. They say the customer is always right but is the customer right when they hurl abuse at you or make sly comments because you have the walk?
Think about it, if someone came into your place of work and started calling you names and making sly comments behind your back would you feel good about yourself? Unless you’re a cyberman probably not.
So imagine being the gay man subjected to that day in day out.
If you’ve gone on the journey of finding out your sexuality then you’ll know what it’s like, that journey where you have to cover your tracks and tread carefully incase someone picked up on the trial.
In some ways it’s a relief when you accept yourself. I remember (roughly) I knew that I was gay quite early into my journey but it took me absolutely ages to accept it. This might have been to do with the fact I was bullied constantly because, well I guess everyone knows you before you knew yourself, or because I knew life was going to be harder and at that point in my life I was already not in a stable place.
So after you accept yourself society places this roadblock ahead. You’ve spent years trying to be someone you are not and if you can get over that roadblock the journey to finding that person begins.
What’s that roadblock? Society.
Let’s be clear about something, the fact someone who isn’t straight has to come out to begin with is one of the biggest flaws in our society. It places additional pressures on the individual and opens them up to the judgement of those who expect society to stay their way.
And it’s an accepted piece of society, it’s become a rock of the LGBT+ community, many see it as your entry ticket and nobody tells us what comes next - they just build you up to that moment and then your on your own.
Add to that the fact that if there’s a person in your school who has come out,the chances are they are being bullied and so for fear of also getting bullied or people finding out you can’t go to them for advice.
That in itself would have helped me someone who had gone through what I was going through.
The truth is nobody wants to be gay and that’s the bit that makes the fact we need to come out frustrating, not only do we have to learn to respect ourselves we have to ask for societies respect.
There is some light in the tunnel here. I am proud to live in a country that has already introduced LGBT+ inclusive education because when I was growing up I couldn’t ask these questions for fear of my peers or friends clocking on, but now stuff like this and other important topics are covered in the curriculum and I can only see how that will have a positive effect on the lives of young people.
So you’ve built up the confidence to come out and the responses…”oh don’t worry we knew”
No, they didn’t know because for a while even you didn’t know and this is an important point - just because you can come across as the stereotypical LGBT+ person that does not make you gay.
I’ve got friends who are as straight as a table leg who if you put them against me and told you one of us was gay, you would think I was the straight one.
So nobody can really know before you tell them because they’ve never been on the journey to coming out, or experienced the pressures that you may of faced throughout that journey as every person's journey is unique.
So, if someone comes out to you please don’t say anything like that - not only does it take away from the experience the individual has gone through but it can actually set them back in terms of growth. Please be aware that almost everyone who has or is thinking about coming out has built that moment up in their head to be probably a bigger thing than it is so the best thing you can do (in my personal opinion alone) give them a hug and tell them you love them no matter what and also thank them for having the confidence to tell you.
The drugs/drink culture:
Bars, clubs or any place like that can be really stressful for someone with low self-confidence and mental health problems, such as anxiety, with alcohol tending to only add to the pressure. These are normal for anybody but when we say LGBT+ bars are ‘safe places’ are we really telling the truth or burying our heads?
I don’t feel any more secure in a LGBT+ venue than I do in a spoons or a local. In fact, I find the desire to drink much stronger in these places because you want to try and fit in. This dependency on drugs and alcohol is far from healthy and can lead to addiction and other serious health issues down the line, yet that’s a track we leave open and it’s built on the mixture of stereotypes, body image issues, the pressure to be accepted. Address the cause not the problem and you tackle the issue properly.
How do we tackle the issues raised in this post? Well let’s start by talking more about the problems we face regardless of who we are around body image and mental health. Let’s create a society supportive of each other, because we should only be striving for individual personal goals not goals society expects of us.
Outwith the LGBT+ Community, let's help society trash the stereotypes they place upon us by learning how to be comfortable in our true selves. This change won’t happen overnight but over time we can make the world a better place for everyone.
This also requires change within the gay community too. We need to learn to respect and value others and not treat them any differently just because they don’t want to conform to societal expectations - as I’ve said multiple times if you want the perfect body then you should only want it for personal goals and not because you are expected to have it.
Also let’s support each other in finding out who we really are because everyone in the gay community has spent their live before coming out supressing their personality. We should be on hand to support them.
Finally, the rolemodels in the gay community I’ve seen have usually got the perfect body and the other attributes society places on us. We need role models in the gay community of all different backgrounds, not just for us but for the person sitting thinking about coming out so that they know whoever they are, whatever they look like - they are loved and it’s ok to be gay.
Written by Callum Reid, YSI National Communications Officer