Russell Tovey, one of the stars of HBO's "Looking," recent found himself at the center of a controversy after he made the following comments in a Guardian profile:
I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn't gone to the school I went to. Where I felt like I had to toughen up. If I'd have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now. I thank my dad for that, for not allowing me to go down that path. Because it's probably given me the unique quality that people think I have.
Reactions to the actor's statement came swiftly and most people fell into one of two camps: Some were outraged that Tovey would imply being effeminate is a condition that needs to be overcome and others believed that Tovey was, as one commenter I saw on Facebook put it, "just speaking his truth as a masculine gay man."
My own truth is that I went down the very path that Tovey claims he was able to avoid: I was an extremely effeminate boy. A sissy. A faggot.
I know some of you are recoiling at the sight of that word. I am using it on purpose. It symbolizes everything that Tovey and his father were terrified of seeing materialize before their eyes and everything I was because I didn't have a choice in the matter -- or a father with a plan to prevent it. I wasn't merely gay or just a boy attracted to other boys, I was a swishing, prancing princess wagging my penis at the garbage man and waving a My Little Pony figurine like a scepter as I sashayed through my neighborhood. I was the very embodiment of everything our society worries could go wrong with a little boy, and in my small Midwestern town in the early '80s, I was every father's nightmare awoken and menacingly mincing my way through our local mall's food court.
But my father wasn't like other (most?) fathers. My father didn't care. Or, perhaps more importantly, if he did, he never let it show. When I was six and he signed me up for soccer, he made me play for a month and then let me quit when I made it clear that it was killing my soul. Then, instead, he let me take gymnastics at the YMCA. When I was eight he bought me a Cabbage Patch doll named Ivy Rose with corn silk hair. He was in many ways what many would refer to as "a man's man" but he was also sensitive and cried easily and openly while watching old movies and there was never a moment that he made me feel I was anything less than exactly who I was supposed to be (unfortunately I can't say the same for the rest of the world, but that's a different story).
I don't think most dads who want their sons to "man up" are bad guys. Like the rest of us, they've been living in and trying to measure up to a culture that tells us that if you're assigned male at birth, then there are specific ways of being and acting that must be adhered to and if they aren't, there will be trouble. It's too frightening and too exhausting to attempt to challenge and change the culture, so instead, they attempt to challenge and change their boys.
The same goes for the boys themselves. I don't think Tovey or anyone who thinks like Tovey is a bad person for feeling the way that he feels. But let's be clear that Tovey is passing judgement on effeminacy. If we look at his statement again, he isn't simply saying, as some have argued, that he is masculine and that's just the way it goes. When I read comments from people trying to make this into some kind of attack on the masculine gay men of the world, I seethe. Tovey states that he "had to toughen up," which implies that his natural state of being wasn't tough. What's more, when he says, "If I'd have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now..." I can only read longing in that statement. Despite how much the lady doth protest, he gives himself away. He wanted to relax. He wanted to prance. He wanted to sing in the street. But because his dad -- and society -- wouldn't allow him to "go down that path," he didn't. That's not something to celebrate or be thankful for, even if it did result in "the unique quality that people think" Tovey has (which is what exactly? Not coming across as a faggot?). In fact, it just makes me feel sorry for him and his dad -- and all of us. Being exactly who or however he was just wasn't good or good enough and so he was forced to change and conform to what society says a boy should be. That's not inspiring, that's heartbreaking. But pity can be progress' worst enemy and excusing thinking like his -- or accepting the idea that it's just his "truth" -- leaves us exactly where we started: in a world where being a faggot is akin to a death sentence.
And of course it must be said that there are masculine gay men. And of course there are effeminate straight men. If you are gay and you're masculine, that's great. Congratulations. But let's stop pretending and positing that masculinity is (or should be) the default and desired setting for gay boys and men, especially when it's apparent that so many gay boys and men -- like Tovey -- would have to admit that their masculinity came about as a result of deliberate conditioning, whether by a father, a school or just the fear of the dire consequences they would face if they didn't butch up.
In many ways, I think that masculinity is the final frontier for gay men. Even as we pass more laws to legitimize and protect our relationships, it's the notion that gay men aren't real men that continues to haunt us as individuals and as a movement. From Grindr profiles that demand "masc only" to men like Tovey who think their masculinity -- however manufactured, however antithetical to who they truly were when they landed on this planet -- is what makes them marketable or desirable, our obsession with what it means to be a man and what it means to fall short of that is keeping us from becoming truly liberated.
If it weren't for my father, I wouldn't be who I am today. I could have been forced to play football in hopes that it would somehow unleash the man dozing inside of me. I could have been sent to therapy in hopes that I could be reprogrammed, repaired, made whole. I could have ended up with a belt around my neck and swinging from the light fixture in our formal dining room. But I wasn't. But I didn't. I am one of the lucky ones.
My father died eight years ago. He never got to see the man that I've become and we never specifically talked about everything he did for me -- what he made me -- simply by loving me. Without a son of my own, it's a gift that I can only attempt to pay forward to the thousands of boys and men who come after me -- who brush past me in crowded subway cars or surround me on Facebook or might be reading this now -- by speaking up and saying I am a faggot and it didn't happen by mistake. And if you're a faggot too, I hope you know you don't need to toughen up. You never have to stop prancing. You are not a mistake.