Since the 2016 election and even before, there has been a persistent meme, sometimes in the form of protest art or jokes by comedians, posing President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin as gay lovers. As HuffPost’s James Michael Nichols noted in criticizing a New York Times animated comic earlier this week, these depictions often depend solely on homophobia to get a laugh.
“There is no larger message, no big-picture takeaway,” Nichols wrote. “Just the supposed humor embedded within the idea that tenderness between two men is in some way mockable.”
He’s absolutely right.
There is, however, something going on with Trump and his affection for certain types of men. Well-meaning liberals either aren’t able to discern that it’s not a gay thing, or they’re not interested in aiming higher than the laziest, most offensive joke available.
Trump isn’t homosexual or bisexual ― at least, not based on any information we have. He likes having sex with women and has bragged about his sexual conquests in his books. A Playboy playmate has alleged an affair with him, as has a female porn star. And then there are his three wives, and, according to Trump, lots of other women before. There haven’t been any rumors of sex with men. But there have been allegations of leering at teenage girls at beauty pageants, and, of course, sexual harassment and assault against women, which he’s bragged about on tape and brushed off when asked about it.
Trump is, however, staunchly homosocial. That is, he appears to almost exclusively prefer men for intimate, meaningful (nonsexual) relationships, while he thinks of women as pretty much just for sex, as decorative accessories, or in traditional roles that do not put them on equal footing.
Trump shows a consistent pattern of viewing women as far beneath him, which makes him incapable of the kind of relationship in which he and a woman are intellectual equals. Whenever a woman rises to challenge him as an equal, he appears threatened and tries to slap her down ― from Hillary Clinton (who Trump said doesn’t have “stamina” or a presidential “look”) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (whom he demeans with a racial slur) to Rep. Maxine Waters (whom he’s attacked as a “low IQ person”) and, pathetically, grieving gold star mothers who’ve had the courage to criticize him.
Sociologists and psychologists have long discussed homosociality as distinct from homosexuality. One can be homosexual, for example, but heterosocial or bisocial ― having intimate, nonsexual relationships only with the opposite gender or people of both genders, respectively. And there are definitely homosexuals who are mostly homosocial ― only hanging out with other gay (or even straight) dudes, period. The world of gay men has its share of misogyny, too.
While sexual orientation today is considered an innate characteristic by most medical professionals and social scientists, social preference is learned within culture ― it’s literally about how people are socialized. Feminists have written about homosociality in societies: how it privileges men in the workplace and in familial and social settings where men and women have often been segregated. There are entire societies that are homosocial to the extreme, such as Saudi Arabia, and they are societies in which women are often brutally oppressed.
“Perhaps the greatest indicator of his extreme homosocial tendencies is that Trump even seems to view his elder daughter, Ivanka, less as an intellectual equal and more as a sex object.”
Trump often seems to connect more with the leaders of those countries ― he was wowed by the Saudi royal treatment, bonding with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on his first foreign trip ― than by those of Western countries where women are heads of state. He recently humiliated U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, trashing her in an interview, then falsely calling it “fake news” when asked about it in front of her. And he has repeatedly dismissed, mistreated and attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel in ways that seem more personal than political.
The term “homosocial” has been around for long a time, but the influential scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick popularized its use in the ’80s, writing on “male homosocial desire” and specifically about how anxiety around masculinity and around homosexuality influence it.
A 2007 Australian study documented “the homosocial organization of men’s heterosexual relations,” noting that among some men:
Male-male friendships take priority over male-female relations, and platonic friendships with women are dangerously feminizing. Sexual activity is a key path to masculine status, and other men are the audience, always imagined and sometimes real, for one’s sexual activities. Heterosexual sex itself can be the medium through which male bonding is enacted. Last, men’s sexual storytelling is shaped by homosocial masculine cultures.
Sound like a certain misogynist-in-chief? The last two lines are a perfect description of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.
Even the women closest to Trump, from what we can see, fall into the framework of a rigidly homosocial inclination. Trump and his wife, Melania ― whose beauty and sexual attractiveness he has touted, but with whom he rarely if ever mentions an emotional or intellectual connection ― have lived apart for much of his presidency (even in the White House itself). He spends more time with the men in his life who either work for him or visit the White House and Mar-a-Lago, such as Rudy Giuliani or Newsmax’s Chris Ruddy. On her birthday this year, Trump told “Fox & Friends” he was “too busy” to buy Melania a present but got her a “beautiful card.”
Perhaps the greatest indicator of his extreme homosocial tendencies is that Trump even seems to view his elder daughter, Ivanka, less as an intellectual equal and more as a sex object. He has, over the years, called her “hot,” “voluptuous” and a “piece of ass.” Playboy playmate Karen MacDougal and adult film star Stormy Daniels ― who claim they’ve had sex with Trump ― both say he told them they looked like his daughter.
Pop culture has examined homosociality in various ways over the years. The modern term “bromance” is somewhat related, though not exactly synonymous. A bromance only describes a specific kind of relationship between two men, not a social preference per se. Either or both men may or may not be exclusively homosocial, but both are reciprocating within that particular bromance. Alternatively, either or both men may be bisocial or heterosocial but simply having an intense friendship with the other.
In the case of Trump and Putin, it doesn’t appear to be a bromance. I don’t know enough about Putin and his history to make an assumption about his social preferences. But whatever the case, Trump’s homosocial affection for Putin seems to be unrequited ― which may make Trump even more determined.
Just because there’s not a sexual attraction doesn’t mean it’s not a deep, strong feeling that Trump has for Putin ― one that may indeed give him palpitations and have him doodling late at night. Sex, after all, isn’t everything. Sometimes it’s an expression between people of deep bonding, while other times it’s just hot fun.
Similarly, deep bonding ― and longing ― don’t require sex in order to be satisfied.
Trump doesn’t only experience discomfort and conflict with women who are regarded as his equals on the world stage. He seems to be completely thrown ― both attracted to and threatened by ― men like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron: virile, young heterosexual men who appear to be avidly bisocial. While Trump has policy differences with them, again, like May and Merkel, his bizarre, on-again, off-again demeanor toward both men suggests something else is going on as well.
Trump seems most comfortable with men he perceives as entirely homosocial (whether they actually are or not) and, thus, misogynistic ― like Putin, the Philippines’ dictatorial President Rodrigo Duterte, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ― even Kim Jong Un. The North Korean dictator heads a rigidly enforced, brutally homosocial society with a homosocial leadership. (Kim’s own wife, Ri Sol Ju, about whom very little is known, was only referred to with the mere title of “comrade” until recently, when she was upgraded to “respected first lady” in what was seen as an attempt to display equality to the West.)
It’s Trump’s homosocial predilections that commentators are latching onto when they make a joke implying he’s sexually attracted to Putin ― or any of these other men. But by doing that, they’re making the joke at the expense of an oppressed minority ― and tapping into overt or latent homophobia in their audience.
Their commentary, whether a sober critique or a biting joke, really ought to examine Trump’s insecurity about his masculinity. This is what inspires his misogyny, and it’s what drives him ― sadly, and dangerously for all of us ― to connect with men who are just like him.
Michelangelo Signorile is an editor-at-large for HuffPost. Follow him on Twitter at @msignorile.