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Men and Masculinity

Gay Liberation And Queer Theory

The most effective political mobilization among men around gender and sexual politics was the gay liberation movement that took shape around 1968–1970 in the United States and eventually became worldwide. Gay men mobilizing for civil rights, personal safety, and cultural space have acted on the basis of a long experience of oppression by heterosexual men. The term homophobia was coined around 1970 to describe this experience. A central insight of gay liberation is the depth and pervasiveness of homophobia, closely connected with dominant forms of masculinity.

Straight men's homophobia involves real social practices, ranging from job discrimination to media vilification to imprisonment, and sometimes to murder. These practices draw social boundaries, defining approved masculinity by its difference from the rejected. Theorists such as Dennis Altman in Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (1972) regarded the oppression of homosexuals as part of a larger enterprise of maintaining an authoritarian social order and often saw it as connected to the oppression of women. Yet gay men have also noticed a certain fascination with homosexuality on the part of straight men. This knowledge was behind the slogan "Every straight man is a target for gay liberation!"

Gay liberation coincided with the emergence of visible gay communities in many cities of the developed world. From the 1970s on, these communities have been the sites of public manifestations of gay identity, ranging from the election of gay politicians to street parties and gay pride marches. For example, by the 1990s the annual lesbian and gay Mardi Gras parade had become the most popular street event in the social life of Sydney, attracting a huge straight audience. Styles of self-presentation in gay communities have shifted with time, from traditional "camp" behavior to the parodic butch masculinity of the late-1970s "clones," changing again with the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the diversification of sexual subcultures, and the rise of "queer" sensibility in the 1990s.

Gay liberation, both in theory and practice, made a crucial difference to contemporary thought about masculinity. Gay culture makes visible alternative ways of being a man. Gay politics responds to, and thus makes visible, oppressive gender relations between groups of men. Gay men's collective knowledge includes gender ambiguity, tension between bodies and identities, and contradictions in and around masculinity.

Many of these themes were picked up in queer theory, a new style of lesbian and gay theorizing that emerged under the influence of poststructuralism in the 1990s. In a diverse trend of thought rather than a formal body of doctrines, queer theorists have challenged the notion of fixed gender or sexual identities, thus challenging the basis of gay community politics. They have identified homoerotic subtexts throughout Western culture and have criticized feminist gender theory as being based on an unexamined heterosexism. Applied to men and masculinity, in texts such as David Buchbinder's Performance Anxieties (1998), queer theory questions the naturalness of the category "men" and sees masculine identity not as the settled foundation of behavior but as something always insecure, constantly being created in performance.

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