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Sunday, July 3, 2022

“Not your best Judy”: The gay man’s misogyny

Fionn McFadden explores the role gay men play in perpetuating misogyny.

CW: homophobia, misogyny, racism, sexual violence

Gay men are not immune from contributing to the misogyny women face. In fact, they are often the worst offenders. This must change.

George and Jules. Stanford and Carrie. Damian and Janis.

The “gay best friend”.

A double–edged sword: both a timeless Western film trope, and a stereotype entrenched in the near-universal experiences of gay men. Whilst the former is, at best, a cheesy plot driver, the latter can extend a lifeline for young gay men in heteronormative environments like high schools and workplaces, many of whom still tremble behind airtight closet doors. A chance to play a role that will finally be met with acceptance, albeit contingent on an accepted notion of how a gay man should behave – one often laced with homophobic stereotypes. Nonetheless, the trope as both a cultural phenomenon and a lived experience has produced the same result: the widespread societal conception that a sense of solidarity exists between gay men and (mainly cisgender, straight/bisexual) women. Through the fact that we both face oppression of varying degrees and types from straight men, we are thought to share parts of the same struggle. Consequently, by banding together, we can alleviate each other of the damaging consequences of homophobia and misogyny.

This solidarity is evident through so many of our cultural practices: diva-worship, for example, which Daniel Harris[1] attributes to the “almost universal experience of homosexual ostracism and insecurity”. Gay men see ‘divas’ like Judy Garland, Diana Ross, and Lady Gaga as wielding the power to overcome the oppression of straight men, and attempt to attain some measure of this same power through idolisation. On the flip side, we can return to the aforementioned cinematic representation of the “gay best friend”, who, as Christine Linnell writes, is often stereotyped as a “wise oracle” of “love and romance”, supporting the female protagonist in overcoming her issues with men, only to fade into the background with little more personal or emotional development.

At this point, it is important to admit that I would be lying if I sat here and wrote that I do not engage in, nor benefit from, this phenomenon of solidarity, as a gay, masculine-presenting person. For example, as I am typing away, iced oat-milk mocha in hand, Ariana Grande’s “Into You” is blasting through my earphones: a well-known queer anthem from a woman worshiped amongst gay men for the reasons outlined above. The majority of my close friends are women, from whom I find a sense of comfort, safety, and to an extent solidarity, and with whom I am able to indulge in conversations about sex, romance, and fashion, free from the judgement I fear I would get from a straight man.

And of course, there is nothing wrong with ‘stanning’ Madonna or proudly proclaiming to your close female friend that ‘all men are trash’. In fact, I would encourage both. However, where the problem begins is that this perceived solidarity is taken beyond just that. Homophobia and misogyny are equally as appalling forms of hatred, both which entail ostracisation, violence, and entrenched discrimination. Nonetheless, they are distinct forms of hatred which operate and affect their intended targets in completely different ways. Whilst the sense of solidarity between gay men and women does provide comfort, it does not mean in any way that gay men can relate to the unique struggles women face under misogyny (and, evidently, vice versa).

Having had this conversation recently with close friends, it got me thinking not only about my own behaviour as someone who is both gay and masculine-presenting, but also about a frequently overlooked fact. This is that, unfortunately, the limits of this solidarity are something which many (mainly white, cisgender) gay men fail to recognise, and which has partially contributed towards misogyny becoming entrenched deep within the cisgender, gay male community. Cisgender gay men are in no way immune, merely on the basis of their sexuality, from perpetuating the misogynistic power structures and behaviours that oppress women. Cisgender gay men, clearly, still benefit from patriarchy, and do not have to contend with discrimination based on both women’s biological sex, and gender identity, as Tim Murphy notes:

 “Gay men, you don’t make 77 cents to a man’s dollar. You don’t have to worry, based on the state where you live, about losing access to birth control or abortion. You (generally) don’t worry about your biological clock ticking, or have to make complicated choices about how to balance childbearing and work, as many women do.”

Nonetheless, the myth that “the oppressed cannot oppress” still stands strong in many gay male circles, and in fact somewhat turbocharges misogyny amongst gay men, as they believe that their lack of sexual attraction to women, alongside the notion that they share the same struggles, means that they are exempt from misogynistic behaviour and rhetoric, as noted by Sadie Hale and Tomás Ojeda[2]. What is even more unfortunate is that this perceived immunity means that the examples of engrained misogynistic behaviour from gay men are countless. 

Let’s start with the basics, taking as our starting point the term “fag hag”- an epithet used frequently by gay men towards (largely cisgender, straight/bisexual) women who are perceived to spend much of their time with gay men, with the connotation that such an alliance is demonstrative or strategic. The woman is accused of making these friendships purely on the basis that the man is gay, and in doing so, she reinforces many negative stereotypes about gay men, such as that they exist purely as a woman’s sidekick.

Whilst (largely cisgender, straight/bisexual) women of course can and sometimes do partake in homophobic behaviour through the reduction of gay men to a mere effeminate accessory, this term is in fact a prime example of gay male misogyny. Instead of being met with constructive criticism, forcing the woman in question to hold herself accountable for her engagement in homophobic behaviour,  she is instead brandished as a “hag” – a long-standing misogynistic trope which mocks her purely on the basis of her existence as a woman, implying that through this behaviour she is physically unattractive and undesirable. Here, the gay man actively engages in the well-established misogynistic action of reducing a woman’s value merely to her desirability through a male lens. 

Insulting or demonising women’s appearances is evident in another form of distinctly gay male misogyny entrenched in the origins of British drag. The art form has changed a lot, represented nowadays by performers like Bimini Bon Boulash who emphasise the gender fluidity and celebration of femininity inherent to drag, but it cannot be denied that, beyond the end-of-pier and bit-of-rouge pantomime influences, the extremes of the “panto-dame” stereotype, which in some scenes continues to underpin the practice of drag in Britain, are laced with misogynistic tropes that insult and exaggerate distinctly female characteristics. Drag, whilst rightly a joyous and celebrated art form, is nonetheless riddled with problems of misogyny, most notably and alarmingly represented through the criticism of (and until very recently,  discrimination preventing) the inclusion of AFAB (assigned female at birth) and transgender women queens in drag shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, which originated largely from cisgender gay men, including RuPaul himself. 

Misogyny from gay men runs even deeper and in even more overtly damaging forms. As already stated, a key source of misogyny from gay men stems from their lack of sexual attraction to women, creating a feeling of immunity from one of the key tenets of patriarchal oppression: sexual violence. A pervasive issue, and an almost universal experience for women, sexual violence takes many forms: sexualisation, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and others besides. And gay men, as well as straight men, perpetrate them all.

Many of the examples of this behaviour I can think of take place right here at the University of Oxford, the political and social queer circles of which are notoriously dominated by racism, transphobia, and misogyny, and catered towards the elitist comforts of the rich, white, cisgender gay man. I have witnessed gay men non-consensually ripping into their female friends’ appearances and sex lives, seemingly for their own entertainment, and then getting aggravated when their friends don’t understand that it is “just a joke”. I have heard gay men make sexually-charged jibes at their female friends, insulting or degrading their features in a manner which when done by a straight man is called out with the fire of a thousand suns as misogynistic sexual harassment. I have heard too many stories from female friends of gay men (some of whom occupy high-up positions in political societies) who have subjected them to inappropriate and non-consensual touching. Upon confrontation, the gay man has laughed off the incident in a way which implies that it does not matter, since they are “just one of the girls”, blatantly ignoring the fundamental fact that sexual violence centres on power dynamics, not sexual attraction. Instances such as this are well documented, but the overall phenomenon remains unrecognised as gay men are afforded a conceptual immunity against partaking in sexual violence against women. This must end, and those who continue to believe such behaviour is acceptable must be held accountable.

The LGBTQIA+ community is and has always been riddled with myriads of forms of discrimination and oppression: notably, as aforementioned, racism, transphobia, and misogyny. Two of these intersect in misogynoir, a term coined by Moira Bailey in her seminal 2010 essay ‘They ain’t talking about me…,’ which describes “where racism and sexism meet, an understanding of anti-black misogyny.” It follows that within the LGBTQIA+ community, misogynoir inevitably stems from the dominance of white, gay, cisgender men. Examples of racism from white gay men are well known, including through racist dating preferences on Grindr. However, the more specific form of oppression represented by misogynoir originates from the intersection of the racism, and sexism, so present amongst white gay men.

This can currently be seen through the ongoing debate on social media platform TikTok regarding the behaviour of Ashton Baez (username @baezashton), a cisgender, white, gay male ‘influencer’ who has been accused of appropriating the vernacular, mannerisms, and distinct style most often attributed to Black women, posting videos in which he puts on a “blaccent” and dances nonchalantly to “I Get Out”, a 2002 song by American singer Lauryn Hill explicitly detailing her struggles as a Black woman. As Mark Williams (username @milliamss) put it, Baez’s behaviour is an example of how white, cisgender gay men appropriate Black femininity “as a means of rebellion and liberation”, and in doing so, as noted by Maxtyn Kamryn (username @alienstbh000), build platforms “off of mimicking people of colour”, in particular Black women.

Gay male misogynoir is also evident in the drag community. Anyone who has seen Drag Race, in particular the American seasons, will know that white queens and fans (who are often cisgender gay men) frequently use derogatory terms historically aimed at Black women to brand a queen’s drag as cheap, tacky, and undesirable. Season 8’s Derrick Barry’s repeated branding of winner Bob the Drag Queen’s style as ‘ratchet’ serves as the archetype of this gay male misogynoir. This ingrained misogynoir is also something I have witnessed here at Oxford: last term, I was conversing with a fellow white gay male student about my upcoming trip to London, and my uncertainty about attending the nightclub Heaven given the venue’s reputation for turning away queer women of colour.

“I mean, there’s a reason they do that” he responded, without hesitation.

He struggled to tell me exactly what this reason was, but I can guess with strong confidence that it was rooted in misogynoir. This type of behaviour further serves as an example of the power dynamics cisgender white gay men uphold, and the way they are actively abused at this intersection of misogyny and racism, often at the expense of fellow members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Traditionally queer spaces, in particular queer bars and clubs, have a huge historical problem with domination by white gay men, resulting in the exclusion of, notably, transgender women of colour, who have so often been at the forefront of the fight for queer liberation, and consequently bore the brunt of the worst consequences. The television series Pose heartbreakingly demonstrates this, in a scene from Season 1 in which the trans women of colour Blanca and Angel are kicked out of a bar run by white gay men, purely because they are trans women of colour. The oft-tweeted mantra that white cisgender ‘twinks’ are the “weak link” of the community indeed holds substantial truth in this regard.

So, is gay male misogyny an extension of the misogyny we so often attribute uniquely to straight men, or is it its own distinct and insidious form? The answer is, it is both. Gay men retain their male privilege under the incumbent patriarchal structures, whilst, as argued by Tim Bergling[3], no-femmes attitudes have dominated and continue to dominate the gay male psyche, ranging from exclusionary dating ads in newspapers during the 1980s, now through to “straight-acting” preferences on hookup apps. Hale and Ojeda draw on Judith Butler’s concept of “melancholy gender”[4] to explain this aversion to the feminine in the gay male community as “a violent response towards queer subjectivities that threaten heterosexualised gender identities”. When combined, these strands of gay male misogyny thus become a powerful, destructive force, masked by an abuse of a tenuous solidarity.

My purpose in writing this article is not some ‘holier-than-thou’ rant. All gay men, myself included, are guilty of upholding these misogynistic power structures, and of engaging in this rhetoric and these behaviours, damaging the lives of the women around us, and feeding into other forms of discrimination like racism and transphobia. Nor is it to say that women are guilt-free of homophobia – I myself have many experiences of being strung along as the gay best friend, or being branded as “ditsy” and unintelligent by women purely on the basis of my sexuality.

My purpose is to highlight the systemic rot at the centre of the (mostly white and cisgender) gay male community, whereby instead of standing strong as allies to women, recognising our male privilege and using it to actively dismantle the patriarchy, we repeatedly fail women through engaging in both established and unique forms of misogynistic behaviour and rhetoric. It is not enough that gay men stand by passively when these forms of misogyny are clearly on display: they must be called out and the men behind them held accountable. Otherwise, we will play into the patriarchal system of oppression that we claim to be so removed from. Just like, as feminists, we must turn away from the white TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) feminism of the likes of J.K. Rowling, we must turn away from male-dominated, Perez Hilton-esque notions of queer liberation that actively seek to exclude or even oppress women.

In Charles Donovan’s suffocatingly reactionary 2017 piece ‘The Dangerous ‘Gay Men are Misogynists’ Movement’, he concludes that “there’s a good article to be written about misogyny among gay men”, dismissing the “ill-researched, flimsy, anecdotal hate pieces” which have laid out the various ways gay men contribute to systemic misogyny. Donovan argues that these “hate pieces” are highly dangerous, as they hark back to the days of classing gay men as ill, riddled with the sickness of misogyny, attributed to them on the basis of their sexuality and the heteronormative oppression they face. Well, in rising to Donovan’s challenge to be the first “good article” on male misogyny, I will conclude with an attack on his central thesis (if one can call it that). It is not an oppressive, heteronormative expectation to hold a gay man to the same standards as a straight man concerning their behaviour towards women. By seeking to dismantle the patriarchy and treat women with respect and equality, you’re not a “pick-me gay” kneeling to the demands of heterosexuality. You’re simply not a misogynist. I know which one I’d rather be.

Image Credit: May H. Pham/CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


[1] D. Harris, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (1997)

[2] S. E. Hale and T. Ojeda, ‘Acceptable Femininity? Gay Male Misogyny and the Policing of Queer Femininities’ (2018)

[3] T. Bergling , Sissyphobia: Gay Men and Effeminate Behaviour (2001)

[4] J. Butler, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1997) 

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