Terry From Derry: Looks Like Tarzan, Walks Like Jane, Talks Like Cheetah
By Terry Boyle
The above statement was something I was told years ago by a gay man about gay men. Most men, gay or not, would love to look like Tarzan. However, the jibe, which it most certainly is, delivers its punch in highlighting the popular notion that gay men are effeminate and delight in speaking with a particular affectation, think Truman Capote.
People of my generation grew up with the preconception that ‘queers’ were deviants from the norm. They were a small minority of mostly men who identified themselves through their flamboyance and exaggerated mannerisms. This stereotype was, and still is, reinforced by the media.
In writing this article, I am aware that these opinions are based mostly on experience and observations. I am not claiming to have hard evidence to support my view, but I do have an unfair advantage of growing up as a closeted gay man.
For those in my age group, the old boys, manliness was best demonstrated in a love of sports, womanizing and being able to stand up for yourself. In some ways, this absurd notion masculinity was a highly flawed way of separating the ‘real’ men from the queers.
I, for one, loved sports. I played soccer, squash, and was very competitive. My ability to ‘woo’ the opposite sex was on a par with my contemporaries, and I was quite capable to looking after myself.
The need to stereotype or, in this case, demonize the other is motivated by fear. Many gay men of my age found it impossible to identify with the caricature of a gay man, and consequently delayed our coming out. The absence of a role model we could relate to forced us to suppress our feelings and pretend to be something we weren’t.
Of course, fear of being found out often led to a toxic form of hypermasculinity, where you acted more manly than everyone else. You despised effeminacy, and in some cases the worst cases of gay attacks were perpetrated by closeted gay men who lived in fear of being exposed.
It’s quite funny to think that effeminacy among the upper classes in Victorian times was seen as a form of rebellion and not weakness. Young men, dandies, gay and straight affected effeminate mannerisms as a way of railing against the overbearing perception of manliness. Adopting an effeminate persona among the wealthier classes of men was a sign of good breeding.
You can see this trait in any of Oscar Wilde’s plays. The smart, suave men of the time are hopelessly effeminate, and their refusal to conform to the older generation’s notion of how a man should be is seen as a protest against masculine stereotypes.
However, the problem for someone like me, coming from a working-class background, these depictions of sexual ambiguity hold no weight. Money affords you certain privileges and rights denied to those without affluency.
For me, and many like me, we were under the impression that homosexuality among men was rare when in fact it was a lot more common than we believed. Many gay men married and had children. They would lead secretive lives courting dalliances with other married men or known gays.
Of course, homosexuality was still considered illegal right up until the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1967 that the UK decriminalized gay sex between those aged 21 and older. The threat of public exposure and jail time was also compounded by the church’s teaching on gay relationships. If you didn’t end up being publicly shamed and imprisoned, you were certainly going to be damned to hell for eternity.
With such high stakes, you can understand why a lot of young gay men committed suicide or allowed themselves to undergo conversion therapy. Who wants to be stigmatized by society, ostracized by their family, and forced to go and live somewhere they are not known?
As Irish people, we understand exile. We know what it’s like to be forced to live in a strange land in order to survive. We can easily point to those who made our lot unbearable, but we too have been responsible for forcing our own into exile.
Forcing Our Own Into Exile
Many young men and women were driven out of their homes because of their sexuality, unable to return to their homeland. Although things have changed, and there is a greater acceptance of gay relationships, there is still a lag when it comes to the media. It becomes tiresome to see the same old stereotypes occupying our screens. A host of pretty boys who walk like Jane and talk like Cheetah become society’s version of the gay norm, while the rest of us balk at the idea.
If we really care about our children, we need to provide them with a variety of gay role models, and not pander to the demands of a reality side show. Lots of gay men love sport, they are not always neat and tidy. They are not all fashionistas.
For the most part, gay men and women are simply like you, except for their sexual preference. They may not look like Tarzan, walk like Jane or talk like Cheetah. In fact, they may be so run of the mill that you’re surprised they’re gay. Don’t accept the stereotypes, just accept the gay man.