|Butch Dates Butch|
Anyone who’s spent time on gay dating apps on which men connect with other men will have at least seen some form of camp or femme-shaming, whether they recognize it as such or not. The number of guys who define themselves as “straight-acting” or “masc”—and only want to meet other guys who present in the same way—is so widespread that you can buy a hot pink, unicorn-adorned T-shirt sending up the popular shorthand for this: "masc4masc." But as dating apps become more ingrained in modern daily gay culture, camp and femme-shaming on them are becoming not just more sophisticated, but also more shameless.
“I’d say the most frequent question I get asked on Grindr or Scruff is: ‘are you masc?’” says Scott, a 26-year-old gay man from Connecticut. “But some guys use more coded language—like, ‘are you into sports, or do you like hiking?’” Scott says he always tells guys pretty quickly that he’s not masc or straight-acting because he thinks he looks more traditionally “manly” than he feels. “I have a full beard and a fairly hairy body,” he says, “but after I’ve said that, I’ve had guys ask for a voice memo so they can hear if my voice is low enough for them.”
Some guys on dating apps who reject others for being “too camp” or “too femme” wave away any criticism by saying it’s “just a preference.” After all, the heart wants what it wants. But sometimes this preference becomes so firmly embedded in a person’s core that it can curdle into abusive behavior. Ross, a 23-year-old queer person from Glasgow, says he's experienced anti-femme abuse on dating apps from guys that he hasn't even sent a message to. The abuse got so bad when Ross joined Jack'd that he had to delete the app.
"Sometimes I would just get a random message calling me a faggot or sissy, or the person would tell me they’d find me attractive if my nails weren’t painted or I didn’t have makeup on," Ross says. "I’ve also received even more abusive messages telling me I’m 'an embarrassment of a man' and 'a freak’ and things like that.”
On other occasions, Ross says he received a torrent of abuse after he had politely declined a guy who messaged him first. One particularly toxic online encounter sticks in his mind. "This guy’s messages were absolutely vile and all to do with my femme appearance," Ross recalls. "He said 'you ugly camp bastard,' 'you ugly makeup-wearing queen,' and 'you look pussy as fuck.' When he initially messaged me I assumed it was because he found me attractive, so I feel like the femme-phobia and abuse definitely stems from some kind of discomfort these guys feel in themselves."
Charlie Sarson, a doctoral researcher from Birmingham City University who wrote a thesis on how gay men talk about masculinity online, says he isn't surprised that rejection can sometimes lead to abuse. "It's all to do with value," Sarson says. "This guy probably thinks he accrues more value by displaying straight-acting characteristics. So when he's rejected by someone who is presenting online in a more effeminate—or at least not the masculine way—it's a big questioning of this value that he’s spent time trying to curate and maintain."
In his research, Sarson found that guys seeking to “curate” a masc or straight-acting identity typically use a "headless torso" profile pic—a photo that shows their upper body but not their face—or one that otherwise highlights their athleticism. Sarson also found that avowedly masc guys kept their online conversations as terse as possible and chose not to use emoji or colorful language. He adds: “One guy told me he didn't really use punctuation, and especially exclamation marks, because in his words ‘exclamations are the gayest.’”
However, Sarson says we shouldn't presume that dating apps have exacerbated camp and femme-shaming within the LGBTQ community. "It's always existed," he says, citing the hyper-masculine "Gay Clone or “Castro Clone" look of the ‘70s and '80s—gay men who dressed and presented alike, typically with handlebar mustaches and tight Levi’s—which he characterizes as partly "a response to what that scene considered to be the 'too effeminate' and 'flamboyant' nature of the Gay Liberation movement.” This form of reactionary femme-shaming can be traced back to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which were led by trans women of color, gender-nonconforming folks, and effeminate young men. Flamboyant disco singer Sylvester said in a 1982 interview that he often felt dismissed by gay men who had "gotten all cloned out and down on people being loud, extravagant or different."
The Gay Clone look may have gone out of fashion, but homophobic slurs that feel inherently femme phobic never have: "sissy," "nancy," "nelly," "fairy," "faggy." Even with strides in representation, those words haven't gone out of fashion. Hell, some gay men in the late ‘90s probably felt that Jack—Sean Hayes's unabashedly campy character from Will & Grace—was "too stereotypical" because he was really "too femme."
“I don’t mean to give the masc4masc, femme-hating crowd a pass,” says Ross. “But [I think] many of them may have been raised around people vilifying queer and femme folks. If they weren’t the one getting bullied for ‘acting gay,’ they probably saw where ‘acting gay’ could get you.”
But at the same time, Sarson says we need to address the impact of anti-camp and anti-femme sentiments on younger LGBTQ people who use dating apps. After all, in 2019, downloading Grindr, Scruff or Jack’d still be someone’s first contact with the LGBTQ community. The experiences of Nathan, a 22-year-old gay man from Durban, South Africa, illustrate just how damaging these sentiments can be. "I'm not going to say that what I've encountered on dating apps drove me to space where I was suicidal, but it definitely was a contributing factor," he says. At a low point, Nathan says, he even asked guys on one app "what it was about me that would have to change for them to find me attractive. And all of them said my profile needed to be more manly."
Sarson says he found that avowedly masc guys tend to underline their own straight-acting credentials simply by dismissing campiness. "Their identity was built on rejecting what it wasn't rather than coming out and saying what it actually was," he says. But this doesn't mean their preferences are easy to break down. "I try to avoid talking about masculinity with strangers online," says Scott. "I've never had any luck educating them in the past."
Ultimately, both online and IRL, camp and femme-shaming is a nuanced but deeply ingrained strain of internalized homophobia. The more we talk about it, the more we can understand where it stems from and, hopefully, how to combat it. Until then, whenever someone on a dating app asks for a voice note, you have every right to send a clip of Dame Shirley Bassey singing "I Am What I Am."