Commentary  Behind the Masc

What’s Up with Queer Spaces’ Love Affair with Masculinity?

Moving through queer spaces in Montreal that are mainly comprised of anglophone queers who were designated female at birth (DFAB), I have been noticing the central place masculinity holds in these spaces. I want to interrogate this observation without pathologizing individual folx’ gender presentation or sexual preferences. I instead want to ask about what happens when we collectively afford masculinity a privileged place in our communities. I suggest that valourizing masculinity produces hierarchies that harm all DFAB folx.

Those who move in these queer pockets know that our desirability in them partially depends on the activist and/or creative work that we do. The more recognized we are as activists and/or artists, the more social capital those who love and fuck us will be able to extract out of the interactions we share, and hence the more interested folx will be in interacting with us. In other words, being seen as rad helps with being desired as gay.

This gravitation towards radicality is a traditionally queer phenomenon. Writer Laura Brightwell points out that many queer theories have embraced anti-normativity and political radicalism as central principles. They have crafted the meaning of queerness into resistance to the cisnormative heteropatriarchy, including the hierarchies that comprise it. But simply resisting mainstream hierarchies doesn’t automatically make queer spaces non-hierarchical. We gays have proven extremely resourceful when it comes to making our own stratified orders. In particular, we have built our self-image as non-normative onto the antagonistic construction of the “normative.” This means that for some folx to count as non-normative, others inadvertently can’t.

I want to ask what happens when we collectively afford masculinity a privileged place in our communities. I suggest that valorizing masculinity produces hierarchies that harm all DFAB folx.

Those typically considered “normative” are queers who – for whatever reason – do not have an impressive political track record, but also DFAB queers who present feminine-of-center. Trans writer and activist Julia Serano coined the term “subversivism” to describe queer spaces’ “practice of extolling certain gender and sexual expressions and identities simply because they are unconventional or nonconforming.” Serano suggests that because we generally locate the root of patriarchy within the imposed binary gender system, we value expressions that disrupt this binary. For us DFAB folx from whom femininity has been expected all our lives, this means that presenting as “radical” is equated with presenting androgynous or masculine-of-centre.

As a result, we end up valourizing masculinity and androgyny, and elevating these gender presentations to be paradigm performances of queerness for DFAB folx. We like to think of ourselves as a non-hierarchical bunch of self-reflexive gays who work towards disrupting normativity, but we do end up upholding hierarchies based on gender expression.

We do very little work to recognize desirability politics as politics, and to acknowledge that being read as queer and desirable in queer spaces amounts to a form of privilege that we have to check ourselves for as we have to for other privileges. Just as we problematize the simultaneous hypo- and hyper-sexualization of transfeminine folx both outside and inside queer spaces, and call out gay men for masc4masc, we should be holding each other accountable for how quickly we tie the privilege of queer desirability to masculinity and androgyny.

That being said, these hierarchies we establish in specific queer spaces do not exist in a vacuum. Masculine-of- centre and androgynous DFAB folx inherently disrupt the gender presentations expected of them by a cis- and heteronormative society. Our valourization of masculinity in DFAB folx and the resulting privilege we tie to it does not extend to non-queer spaces. As a result, we fail to recognize the ways in which masculine-of-centre and androgynous DFAB folx are othered and punished for deviating from cis- and heteronormativity.

I want to emphasize that the valourization of masculinity and androgyny is in no way exclusive to masculine-of-centre and androgynous folx; any single person can embody masculine, androgynous, and feminine expressions all at once. I also recognize that the ways in which we perceive and value masculinity intersect with other systems of oppression. For example, we are more willing to value masculinity of cis and white DFAB folx than we are of non-binary, gender non-conforming, trans, and racialized people.

We like to think of ourselves as a non-hierarchical bunch of self-reflexive gays who work towards disrupting normativity, but we do end up upholding hierarchies based on gender expression.

I generally present feminine-of-centre, and I also have been trading the currency that masculinity and androgyny constitute among DFAB queers. In particular, I have previously sought proxy access to queer approval through relationships with masculine-of-centre folx. Feeling that I was barely performing queer enough, I felt like I couldn’t afford associating with another feminine-of-centre queer whose queer identity was not adequately recognized either. In contrast, because masculine-of- centre folx are considered both definitely gay and, as I have described, often more desirable, relationships with them seemed like a double stamp of queer approval.

I am also acutely aware that I am perceived as more attractive by other queers since I got an androgynous haircut. As I was returning home from the barber, another queer person spotted me on the bus and tracked me down via an online page that publishes queer missed connections. My new queer-hierarchy-aligned haircut had immediately made me both queer-identified and attractive enough for someone to make the effort to find me.

I hope that my challenging of queer spaces’ centring of masculinity won’t be misread as a call for centring femininity instead. Doing so would reproduce the same binary model that I’ve sought to problematize. This is partially also why I centred this text around the valourization of masculinity rather than around so-called femmephobia – the fear of the feminine. Instead of trying to sprinkle glitter on masculinity where we’ve placed it, I suggest we unsettle the central place we have been affording it more fundamentally.