Abstract and Keywords
This chapter tests the limits of understanding what masculinity means or tries to mean. It insists that queer masculinities are those that are not only suspicious, resistant, or out of the ordinary, but are also those that elude while stabilizing meaning. In other words, at the moment we examine the Rocky Horror Picture Show or an online dating site, we establish a set of assumptions regarding who people are; yet, we develop this interplay of subjectivities that presumptively iterates binaries without ever challenging how heterosexuality is nothing more than a construction of the masculine ideal. The chapter beckons us to not get too comfortable with our learned sense that we know what masculinity is. It turns our assumptions regarding masculinity topsy-turvy and forces us to recognize that whether you are a Rasta, rude boy, martial artist, womanizer, athlete, or soldier, masculinities are defined social constructions that vary across culture, context, and community.
Masculinity is performative. Not simply that it is a performance as in a doing; maybe masculinity is performativity; an assessment of the embodied thing done, the iteration and achievement of the expected (Butler, 1990b; Diamond, 1996; Pollock, 2006; Edwards, 2006). Yet the foundational logics and the vast body of literature on masculinity fall short of actually defining masculinity in concrete terms, outside of the referential social expectations of being a man or manly, in relation to its assumed opposite—within the social and cultural context of its assessment. Such referential discussions of masculinity just seem queer to me. Queer, not as the assumed liberatory construction in queer theory that resists the regimes of the normal, or queer in that all-encompassing alternative identity construction that conflates gender difference for some emancipatory otherness; and not even queer as in the assumed co-opted politically correct reference to being gay or homosexual (Alexander, 2008; Yep et al., 2003; Warner, 1993). Queer for me in this instance is the denotative reference to something as just being suspicious.
What I find queer is that masculinity, as a social interactional determination, is grounded not in principles of exactitude but principles of perceptional expectedness, perceptions that are fluid and limiting to the larger possibilities of performing gender and embodied presence, particularly when exclusively linked to the category of heterosexual man. Defining masculinity is slippery. Yet, as Judith Halberstam (1998) alludes, determinations of masculinity are held firm in the mind as an ideal imaginary. Halberstam continues, “As a society we have little trouble in recognizing [masculinity], and indeed we spend massive amounts of time and money ratifying it, and supporting the versions (p.53) of masculinity that we enjoy and trust; many of these ‘heroic masculinities’ depend absolutely on the subordination of alternative masculinities” (p. 2). This is both a starting realization of most studies in/on masculinity and a clear point of intervention into the ways we think about and interrogate the social constructedness of masculinity (Whitehead, 2006).
In this chapter I explore the conflicted construct of masculinity through a queer lens that focuses on the definitional characteristics and assumed demeanor of “the masculine,” which reductively suggest the equation between masculinity and heterosexuality. Hence promoting the heteronormative construction of “acting manly” that provides a suspect range of acceptable male expressions of being and desire and desire as being, in which case desire “is not primarily one of libido and sexuality, but rather production (of self)” (Whitehead, 2002, p. 211). In particular, the chapter engages a queer reading of selected moments, scenes, and literatures that invoke masculinity to show how certain articulations of male performativity describe, promote, and invoke particular responses that are relational. In the conclusion I also place the nature of the very specific examples used in the text into a larger context of global queer identities.
Why Discussions on Masculinity Still Matter
I recently participated in a symposium co-sponsored through the Center for the Study of Genders and Sexualities, and the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at California State University, Los Angeles, addressing the question: “Why Discussions on Gender and Sexualities Still Matter?” I was asked to offer responses linked to the performance of masculinity. I want to offer the following responses as poetic framing logics that problematically define the nature and scope of masculinity studies in relation to the question posed.
When the told and untold stories of violence against women and children at the hands of men performing a masculinity that is rooted in power, control, and domination continue and abound (Bowker, 1998: Boonzaier & de la Rey, 2003; Craib, 1987, 1998; Hearn, 1998; Gadd, 2002; Hanmer, 1990; Morgan, 1993)—discussions on gender and masculinity still matter.
When the told and untold stories of gay bashings against those with a perceived gender variance from the reductively expected norm, happen everyday by men performing a hyper-masculinity that attempts to kill or maim difference (Linneman, 2000; Anderson, 2002)—discussions on gender and masculinity still matter.
(p.54) When performances of masculinity are equated with heterosexuality and are defined relationally, against women and against gay men, instead of an internal impulse of personal integrity and social responsibility (O’Sullivan, 1998)—discussions on gender and masculinity still matter.
When acts of war (on a local, state, national, and international level) are perpetuated as a performance of bravado, machismo, and what bell hooks calls “a dick thing … masculinity” (Dudink et al., 2004; Goldstein, 2003; hooks, 1992; Morgan, 1994) or a pissing contest between men that costs human lives—discussions on gender and masculinity still matter.
When gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered folks still feel that they need to live cloistered lives, as a form of self-protection from social ridicule, hatred, and violence—discussions on gender and masculinity still matter.
When on a state, national, and international level, in governments and in the realm of human social engagement, differential expectations, rights, and privileges are afforded to men over women, or heterosexuals over homosexuals, like the passing of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage—discussions on gender and masculinity still matter.
When acts of violence, “any relation, process, or condition by which an individual or group violates the physical, social, and/or psychological integrity of another person or group” are equated with the effects of performing masculinity (Bulhan, 1985, p. 53)—discussions on gender and masculinity still matter.
When staid notions of masculine performativity are keyed to heterosexuality and machismo, denying the plurality of masculinities that may temper the category of man and establish taxonomies of gender performances that might also liberate restrictive constructions of female performativities (Sinfield, 2002)—discussions on gender and masculinity still matter.
Rightfully or not, when women are still described as the “gentler sex,” socially conscious and caring men must stand up and engage why—discussions on gender and masculinity still matter.
These reasons all serve as justifications for the importance of why discussions on masculinities still matter. But they also offer and reinforce the particular ways in which masculinity in everyday life and masculinity in (p.55) academic discourse has focused its attention on the seemingly innate “aggressive, assertive, independent, competitive, insensitive” constructions of masculinity that easily make way for a destructive social dynamic in relation to its assumed opposite, women and gay men (Brittan, 1989, p. 4). Arthur Brittan offers a particular discussion of masculinism that is an important start to delineating assumptions about masculinism as a social construction of a performative identity that I could argue some women also perform, but is specifically attributed to masculinity and reductively to the category of man.
What is important in Brittan’s analysis is that he gives a name to the ideology that constructs, if not empowers, the social expectation of a masculine subject imbued with a particular relational dynamic. In the process he delineates masculinism, the masculine ideology, from masculinity as the particularity of an embodied presentation of self. Such delineation opens a space of discussion, unshackling the particularity of actualized male performativity relative to each man from the social and cultural constructions of that desired sex or gender presentation. The delineation also makes vulnerable the social investment in male domination and a pernicious investment in heterosexuality. I believe that the delineation of masculinism from masculinity also provides space for a greater acknowledgment of a masculinity without men (Halberstam, 1998), one that altogether critiques a fundamental difference between men and women and the relational possibilities of negotiating a more fluid sense of embodiment, labor, power, and social influence.
Following Stephen Whitehead’s (2002) analysis of Brittan, “masculinism becomes a dominant discourse rather than a dominant ideology” (p. 98). And while Whitehead offers a particular justification for the distinction, allow me to offer my own in these terms. If in its most rudimentary definition ideology is a system of meaningful cultural beliefs that attempt to make normative its perception of reality as socializing agent, discourse then serves as the articulating agent that translates thought and belief into action, enforcing the particularity of ideology in ways that have social and cultural consequences. I want to use Judith Lorber’s (2003 ) construction of gender as both exemplifier and battering ram to the ideology/discourse distinction being made here, particularly as it relates to a social construction of masculinism as social imaginary, and the relationship between the category of man and a particular performance of masculinity.
In her construction of gender, Lorber moves from gender located in individual self-definition or gender in the context of interpersonal negotiation, to “gender as an institution that establishes patterns of expectations for individuals, orders the social processes of everyday life, is built into the (p.56) major social organizations of society, such as the economy, ideology, the family, and politics, and is also an entity in and of itself” (p. 3). In her arguments, Lorber reinforces Judith Butler’s (1990a) logic that within the realm of gender politics “not biology, but culture, becomes destiny” (p. 8), noting that “gendered people emerge not from physiology or sexual orientation but from the exigencies of the social order” (Lorber, 2003, p. 22).
The masculine subject engaged in performing traditional notions of masculinity seated in power and domination—and particularly when that performance is embodied in a heterosexual man—over women as well as gendered others, cannot claim biological pressures as prime motivators in the particularity of performing masculinity; nor can he exclusively claim his acquiescence to the social expectedness of what it means to be a man (or what are acceptable performances of masculinity) as the dominating influence of his personal choices. The embodied performance of such a masculinity is the terrain of choice within the realm of social ideology; an enacted discourse as ideological manifestation is made palpable in a relational dynamic that asserts a will over another, seeking and gaining a social/cultural acceptance and advantage in that positional state of being and performing the assumed norm. Hence, the presumed opposite of the hetero-masculine endures the consequence of its subordinated position.
“In Just Seven Days” (I Can Make You a Man)
In the now cult classic science fiction film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, released by 20 Century Fox (1975), the lead character, Frank ’n’ Furter, a transsexual traveler from an unworldly Transylvania (with trans in the actual geographical locale now a specific reference to alternative sexual identity), challenges social constructions of sexual performativity—and the shifting, desirous directionality of masculinity. As a man who dresses in eroticized feminine garb, Frank ’n’ Furter variously moves between female and male sex partners in ways that both develop the storyline of unworldly queerness and also trouble notions of heteronormative social propriety. And even though such seemingly salacious behavior is part and parcel of the allure of the film, the storyline also reinforces the social sanctions of heteronormativity, and maybe a particular performance of masculinity to which the film offers multiple manly models (e.g., Eddie, Brad, Dr. Scott), in opposition to the primary queer/queen that dominates and subverts the expected storyline of male performativity, contaminating most of the straight men in the film.
- A weakling weighing ninety-eight pounds
- Got sand in his face
- When kicked to the ground
- (His girl split on him and then)
- And soon in the gym with a determined chin
- The sweat from his pores as he works for his cause
- Will make him glisten and gleam
- And with massage, and just a little bit of steam
- He’ll be pink and quite clean
- He’ll be a strong man
- Oh honey
- But the wrong man …
Telling is the descriptively idealized masculinity of Rocky with whiteness in the line: “He’ll be pink and quite clean.” While this reference is to the particularity of Frank ’n’ Furter’s desire, the literature in masculinity studies is rife with examples in which masculinity, and the performance of man, is constructed in race-based ways, idealizing white masculinity and either feminizing, homosexualizing, infantilizing, or beastializing the male figure in nonwhite cultures, particularly black and nonwhite men (Alexander, 2006; Hall, 1993; Harper, 1996; Jackson, 2006; Wallace, 2002; Pinar, 2001, 2003). Historically, masculinity has been associated with white men, both as a description of desire and as celebration of power, and linked with issues of class (Dyer, 1997; Halberstam, 1998).
Playing off Mary Shelley’s (1818) classic story of Frankenstein, the character of Frank ’n’ Furter strives to build his ideal man/mate from borrowed male parts and essences. In the song lyrics of “In Just Seven Days,” sung by Frank ’n’ Furter both as anthem and incantation, he heralds the constructed man that defines masculinity based on physicality. Alternately referred to as “The Charles Atlas Song,” the song offers the foundational logics and descriptives that undergird this particular construction of masculinity. The song (in various versions, from regional stage productions to the film soundtrack) actually narrates the now iconic Charles Atlas 1928 advertisement.
In the ad, in the promotional form of a comic strip, Mac, a thin preconception of Atlas himself, the ninety-pound weakling, is bullied and insulted on a public beach by a muscular and ostensibly more masculine man. This (p.58) results not only in his personal humiliation but also the loss of his girlfriend, who is attracted to the more aggressive performance of masculinity. The simple plotline of this narrative immediately defines masculinity as both relational, man to woman in a heterosexual coupling, and masculinity as physical strength and competitiveness in relation to other men. Gene Kannenberg Jr. speculates that “the ad also plucks the emotional strings of adolescent males who are insecure in their masculinity and who see the Atlas method as a way to gain the confidence they lack—also, of course, a dominant theme of the superhero comics tradition.” In defense and rescue of his own male subjectivity, Mac engages the Charles Atlas “Dynamic Tension” muscle building program and transforms his body and thus his masculinity—now equated not just with the pumped up physique but a particular level of aggression and defensiveness—making him less vulnerable to other aggressive males and empowering his ability to regain and defend femininity.
And maybe the Charles Atlas ad also signals and ignites a kernel component of male homosocial gendering: instilling an intentional comparative, competitive, and combative nature in men; bidding men against each other as a quintessential performance of masculinity with a presumed nonsexual desirous intent. In her essay “Back to the Boys? Temptations of the Good Gender Theorist,” Lynne Segal (2001) writes: “Anxiety and insecurity have always shadowed men’s assertions of virility. The search for affirmations of ‘manhood’ remains the cause of, not then the solution to, men’s problems. Men have always been forced into proofs of ‘manhood’ to ward off the dangers of ‘feminization’: through obsessive self-control, defensive exclusion and fantasies of escape” (p.13).
Later in the song lyrics from the film, Frank ’n’ Furter outlines and subverts Atlas’s program of transformation for his own desirous intent. Rocky is both the aftereffect and intent of such desirous efforts. In many ways, Frank ’n’ Furter’s homily is really about his surgically imaginative technique of “making a man”—as well as a potentially salacious reference to having sex as a component part of activating a sexualized identity in man. The engaged seven-day regiment is only added flavor to a particular presentation of desirous physicality, but unlike the Charles Atlas campaign, which foregrounds heterosexuality, Frank ’n’ Furter’s desire is altogether queer.
Invoking the logics of David Morgan (1993) in his essay “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,” the social construction of the ninety-pound weakling in the Charles Atlas ad brings an attention to the male body that has historically been on the female body; that being the body as a site of a particular construction of gendered identity that potentially reinforces what Morgan, (p.59) signaling Ortner (1974) and Sydie (1987), elucidates as “the women/men and nature/culture” binaries, in which the bodies of women are examined as biological detours from being men, hence warranting a particular level of investigation and exploration; and the bodies of men are always and already known through the social construction of the body’s own expectedness (p. 70, see also Ann Fausto-Sterling, 1995). The female in the Charles Atlas ad is presumably biologically predetermined to select the strongest possible male/mate, regardless of any emotional ties. Mac, realizing the biological determination of this social encounter, willingly sacrifices what might have been his own physical determination for the more performative and power-laden engagement of a hegemonic masculinity, which he must engage as a means of rescuing both his own masculinity as well as his girlfriend (femininity). And following Richard Dyer’s (1997) analysis on the representation of the white male body as desirous spectacle, “there is at least one aspect of muscleman construction that is generalizable and this is the way the hero figure both establishes white superiority and yet also transcends division. Indeed, it is perhaps the secret of all power that it both secures things in the interests of patriarchy, while passing itself off as above particularity” (p. 308).
In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the introduction of Rocky’s muscular and idealized white masculine body rescues and uplifts an assumed masculine ideal promoted in the film. This is in contradistinction to Frank n’ Furter, the cross-dressing effeminate transsexual. In the juxtaposition of the two characters, each tied together by the animation one of the other—the viewer sees both what is presumed to be extreme opposites of masculine performativity and the ways in which the two are always and already connected to each other, but in a tensive struggle to individuate not as correlates of sameness (Bersani, 1995). While the song, “In Just Seven Days” references the sex-specific designation of man (male), the specified characteristics of Frank ’n’ Furter’s desire of a strong man are in alignment with the social construction of masculinism, which is counterintuitive to his own conflicted performance of masculinity. Like Shelley’s confused and conflicted creature in Frankenstein, Rocky Horror is also seemingly born innocent. Yet the homoeroticism that undergirded and motivated his construction is resisted by the newly born Rocky—resisted, as if the category of man is equivocal to heterosexuality with an assumed and scripted masculine subjectivity in the very sinews of the male subjects from which Rocky was animated. In her essay, “How to Build a Man,” Ann Fausto-Sterling (1995) might argue that while there are biological directives in gendered behavior, nurture might also play a larger role over nature.
(p.60) In the film, Rocky eventually acquiesces to his master’s nurturing will, yet later engages in a heterosexual encounter with Janet, who also successively nurtures and seduces him to her desirous will, suggestively fulfilling a more organic aspect of his masculine subjectivity. The viewer of the film is asked to see the fulfillment of this desire as normal (male-female coupling), in relation to the abnormal couplings of Frank ’n’ Furter with the variously identified male characters in the film. Yet the fluidity of Rocky’s sexual encounters may also realize the assumed biological determination of Frank ’n’ Furter’s faux-insemination that animated Rocky, and literally constructed his masculine subjectivity.
The project of theorizing masculine subjectivity is key to studies of the masculine subject (Gutterman, 1994; hooks, 1992; Jefferson, 1994; Whitehead, 2002). Such studies often try to tease at the internal tensions, impulses, and yearnings that guide the psychosocial dynamics of boys becoming men—the pull between the father and the son, and the assumed Freudian rejection of the mother as an extreme necessity to ensure masculinity, but also in an Adlerian sense, masculinity as the necessary compensation for a devalued feminine opposite (see Connell, 1994; Butler, 1995; Vance, 1995). These psychoanalytic and social dynamic models of the masculine subject all offer functional approaches between the male and female sex that find “the ideas that women and men function as socialized beings at some subliminal but essentially biological level for the wider benefit of an ‘ordered society’ is, for many, a compelling and seductive notion” (Whitehead, 2002, p. 18). And in many ways in the Rocky Horror Picture Show the queer and incestuous progeny of Frank ’n’ Furter, Rocky, a man born of (created by) a transsexual father, rejects both the libidinal desires of the mother (in the father) and the queer performativity of the father (in the transsexual creator) for a performance of masculinity that is constructed in a social realism that is putatively normalized. How queer is that?
In the song lyrics, while Frank ’n’ Furter celebrates his particular construction of an idealized masculine subject, he also acknowledges that this might be “the wrong man.” When Frank ’n’ Furter speaks of the wrong man, maybe he is also acknowledging that the social imaginary of the idealized muscle-bound white male lover is linked with a feminine desire that is heterosexually based. Hence, his homosexual desire for such a man, for a Rocky, would not be easily (or exclusively) reciprocated in such a construction by its assumed heterosexual nature, which may be part and parcel a component of his forbidden or resistant desire. In his essay, “Postmodernism and the Interrogation of Masculinity,” David Gutterman (1994) plays off of Eve Sedgwick’s (p.61) (1990) Epistemology of the Closet, developing a metaphor of cross-dressing to describe the ambiguity of profeminist men, who seek to destabilize notions of sexual and gender identity. While the character of Frank ’n’ Furter in the Rocky Horror Picture Show may not have such lofty intentions, his presence, if only undermined by his versatile sexual exploits, offers the core of what Gutterman might call (drawing from Judith Butler, 1990a), an “incoherent and discontinuous gendered being” that challenges a stable notion of man and a consistent performance of masculinity (p. 231). Part of the storyline, and maybe the overall message of the film, the character of Frank ’n’ Furter is a somewhat indiscriminate lover—seeking and achieving sexual couplings in ways that worry notions of what it means to be homosexual and/or heterosexual. Frank ’n’ Furtur’s performative sexuality veers into the terrain of bisexuality, but not in an easily determined specification that resists the strictures of codified taxonomies in sexual otherness.
Maybe Frank ’n’ Furter is the filmic embodiment of what Judith Butler (1993) refers to as the failed heterosexual logic of mutual exclusivity: “if one identifies as a given gender, one must [exclusively] desire a different gender” (p. 239). This of course has always been a particularly heterosexist logic strongly mandated for the performance of masculinity, but held as a flexible and desirous variable for heterosexual men with their own voyeuristic intention (to quote the Rocky Horror Picture Show) of seeing same-sex activities between women.
At the end of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the otherworldly science-fiction project of Frank ’n’ Furter’s mission is not really revealed, but his sexual exploits and maybe the persistent instability of his gendered identity might be the reason why his mission is described as a failure. And like Tony Jefferson’s (1994) analysis of the poem “Looking Back at It” by Brian Patten (1967)—maybe the character of Frank ’n’ Furter encounters the “chastening effect of experience on the unrealistic desire to live up to the ambitious ideals (‘tremendous heights’) of masculinity” (p. 10). And for this failure, the film ends with his murder. Thus the film engages in an act of queering masculinity in that it explores the constructedness of masculinity through a framework of queer sex-ploitation—Frank ’n’ Furter creating and consuming, seducing and subjugating others to his desire. But maybe more importantly, most of the men in the film, presumably and committedly heterosexual, seemingly activate their own presumed feminine or queer performativity as displayed in acts of same-sex sex, and in their own cross-dressing performance of drag in the film. Such sexplotiation begs the question asked by John DeCecco and John Elia (1993) in their edited volume, If You Seduce a Straight Person, Can You Make Them Gay? In this volume, (p.62) DeCecco and Elia question and explore issues in biological essentialism versus social constructionism in gay and lesbian identities. Such discussions always trouble the notion of a fixed masculine subjectivity.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show offers a particular consequence to the presumed opposite of hetero-masculine performativity: the subversive male protagonist is killed. Yet the film as a cult classic also authorizes in its still legend audience-participation showing at midnight theaters across the country, a cross-dressing fantasy opportunity that allows mixed audiences to explore the salaciousness of gender play, even as it also repeatedly reinforces the same tragic consequences of such queer exploration.
“Straight Acting Seeks the Same,” or, Queer Masculinities
In the nomenclature of gay chat lines and dating sites, the description of desire is marketed both by positionality and performativity:
- Only real men.
- Top looking for bottom.
- Versatile top seeks versatile bottom.
- Straight acting seeks fem.
- Straight acting man seeks the same.
In this sense, positionality is not just political location but also a literal descriptive orientation in the performative act of sex. Such sites offer the potential for meaningful connections (a sort of queer interactive eHarmony type network), but also serve as a venue for immediate sexual encounters. The descriptive taglines serve as filtering devices both attracting the particularity of desire and signaling the incompatibility of others engaged in a search. The preceding epigrams reference such negotiations. And even though, as Scott Dillard (1997) points out, “we often, if not exclusively equate the masculine in men with heterosexuality and the feminine in men with homosexuality” (p. 1), these epigrams as marketing devices also demonstrate the ways in which the social constructions of the hetero-masculine or the dominating relational dynamic of the masculine-feminine binary seemingly play or do not play out in the context of a homosexual relational subjectivity and gay masculinities.
And noting in the quote from Dillard, there is not an easy correlate to the masculine in women and the feminine in women, that might suggest some other categorical distinctions of sexual identity. Maybe this is also what Halberstam (1998) refers to as a disavowal of female masculinity when she asks: (p.63) “Why is there no word for the opposite of ‘emasculation’? Why is there no parallel concept to ‘effeminacy’? … Why shouldn’t a woman get in touch with her masculinity? … Gender, it seems, is reversible only in one direction, and this must surely have to do with the immense social power that accumulates around masculinity” (p. 269). And almost as in direct reference to Eve Sedgwick (1995), Halberstam offers one of a series of axioms of/on the relationship between masculinity and femininity that will appear in this chapter when she writes: “Masculinity and femininity are in many respects orthogonal to each other. Orthogonal: that is, instead of being opposite poles of the same axis, they are actually in different, perpendicular dimensions, and therefore are independently variable” (pp. 16–17).
In making the comparative reference to same-sex sex roles in a discussion on the queer play of masculinity in homosexual relations, I am not reducing homosexual performativity to the particularity or consistency of a singular identity, role, or sexual position. I am not relegating all same-sex couples or couplings in the reductive masculine-feminine binary evoking the presumed social power differentiation that plays out in those roles. Nor am I reifying that the particularity of desire in same-sex relationships can be reduced to a mirror of heterosexuality. For I clearly know, as David Halprin (2000) reminds, “homosexual object choice, in and of itself, is seen as marking a difference from heterosexual object choice. Homo and heterosexuality have become more or less mutually exclusive forms of human subjectivity, different kinds of human sexuality” (p. 112). I further acknowledge the important contribution of Halprin when he writes, “homosexual relations cease to be compulsorily structured by a polarization of identities and roles (active/passive, insertive/receptive, masculine/feminine, or man/boy)” (p. 112). Or even the versatility of partners not necessarily to switch assumed performative roles in the context of intimate same-sex, but to be flexible in their expression and embrace of same-sex desire.
Yet with that disclaimer and a clear understanding both in an intellectual-academic sense, and in a personal and practical sense as a gay man—the marketing of identity as expressed in the particular context from which the epigrams are drawn, gay chat lines, are real. They are presented as practical articulations of desire that neither diminish the meaningfulness of committed identity politics nor seek to pass as some subversive act of trying to be “a real man” while engaged in sexual negotiations and encounters with other men. How queer is that?
Yet of these particular constructions, in relation to a discussion on masculinity, I am most often intrigued by the phrase: “Straight acting seeks the same.” (p.64) The subject of straight acting always begs the question of the performative nature of gender—whether such bodily enactments come naturally or whether they are put-on—as self-protection, deception, or passing, as in discussions on drag king performances (Halberstam, 1998; Volcano & Halberstam, 1999). Straight acting invokes what I have described elsewhere (Alexander, 2003) as heterotropes, reoccurring patterns of expected heterosexual behavior that become signifiers of masculine performativity—a public desirous display for women, the magnification of expected masculine performances and a vehement rejection of an embodied performance of the other; restrictive emotionality, staid physicality, and so on. This in opposition to homotropes, those expected, stereotypical, or overly generalized characteristics that are associated with homosexuals that might reductively and problematically include lisps, sibilant s’s, limp wrists, oversensitivity, the use of double entendre, snapping, throwing shade, swishy walking, chants such as “we’re here and we’re queer,” references to bull-daggers or queens, truck-driving dykes or hairdressing fags, flannel-wearing lesbians or flamboyantly fabulous gays, and so on. All of which are generated in and relative to culture, state, and nation.
The expectedness and evaluativeness of such performances of identity are spectacle enactments in need of an audience to assign particular interpretation—regardless of the accuracy of assessment (Duranti, 1986). Further, in Judith Butler’s (1995) terms—“there is no gender that is ‘expressed’ by action, gestures, speech, but that the performance of gender [is] precisely that which produced retroactively the illusion that there [is] an inner gender core. Indeed, the performance of gender might to be said retroactively to produce the effect of some true or abiding [masculine/] feminine essence or disposition” that is socially assigned, reified, categorized, and interpreted in terms that are meant to delineate and dominate (p. 31).
The phrase “straight acting,” when invoked by a gay man (in particular) as a self-reference or a desired performance, makes literal an acknowledged subversion or at least a knowledge of the expectedness of masculine heterosexual performativity in relation to its assumed opposite. It is an assessment of performance; it is performance as being. Acting is defined as an assumption of a character or demeanor that is presumably incongruent with the expectedness of a gay identity—otherwise why note its specification. And while such a description can be interpreted as a clear articulation of desire for a particular type of male performativity, the notion of being “straight” always invokes “the force of a compulsory heterosexuality” (Butler, 1995, p. 117), which becomes the standard on which the straight-acting identified queer bases the actuality of his performative self—outside of desiring men. (p.65) When in fact the straight acting gay man seeks a feminine acting gay man, in many ways “that investment in [a] hegemonic representation of masculinity is not only erotic … there is also a social chasm separating the two partners in this alliance,” or even a weird subversive attempt to reconstruct the already power-laden relational dynamic of heterosexual relationships to which they become both resistant and complicit in sustaining (Bersani, 1995, p. 117).
In the instance of the straight acting man seeking the same, short of the particularity of desire, there is an undergirding investment in a queer masculine heteronormativity that shapes desire and publicizes a social positioning within a community of gays that has always and already been shaped by a heteronormative and relational standard. Borrowing from Lynne Segal (2001) for my own purposes, it is in these moments that gay men’s “claims to identity, whether empowering or diminishing [to] us, and however necessary for uniting us in essential commonalities with others, also serve to obliterate different identifications we might have made, might still make” in renaming our masculinity in queer terms, and not in terms that further our own oppression (p. 10).
In the closing of his essay “Loving Men,” Leo Bersani (1995) offers the following important logic: “In our societies, the power of representation of masculinity is such that it can perhaps be resisted only by a provisional withdrawal from relationality itself, and a redefinition of sociality” (p. 122). While Bersani’s powerful charge is used to signal what he calls “a salutary devalorizing of difference that marks a move from homosexuality as castration toward a notion of difference not as a trauma to be overcome … but rather as a nonthreatening supplement of sameness,” it also reinforces for me a series of complex notions about masculinity and homosexuality (pp. 122–23). First, masculinity has traditionally been determined in a relational disposition to femininity (each for the other), and male homosexual desire is perceived as a misplaced directionality in which the expected masculine becomes feminine. Second, using a heterosexist model of relational desire in same-sex male unions it is presumed that each male assumes a role that simulates the masculine and the feminine. And third, an intervention is needed in how same-sex male couples reorient themselves (ourselves) from relational dynamics that might reify a heteronormative parity, to establish a new social orientation to being in a same-sex relationship and the emergent possibilities in that relational dynamic that does not seek to simulate otherness but embrace sameness. I believe Bersani’s primary construction can serve as a charge not just for gay men, but a broader societal perspective that would not demonize same-sex desire as deviant.
I have engaged this project from two distinct yet overlapping perspectives. First, to queer masculinity is in many ways to challenge the constructedness of a masculine ideal that is heavily invested in hetero-male performativity, even when that performativity is homosocial in nature and reifies its potency in relation to a presumed opposite. Such a queering invited the illumination of alternative constructions of masculinity—queer masculinities and female masculinities—as locations of emerging expressions of masculinity within and outside of the category of man. And second, to query masculinity is to both question and doubt that there is substantive evidence of masculinity’s essential quality outside of a social investment that defines masculinity as what it is not, which always places masculinity in a hierarchical position in relation to femininity and its embodied or performative presence even outside of the category of woman. Such a querying also invited reflections on the sometime destructive results of a hegemonic masculinity rooted in power and dominance, but also ways in which the heterosexual logic that is dominated by masculinity claims a particular authority over the social order and even penetrates the relational dynamics of queers.
In his essay “Are You a Man or a Mouse?” Homi Bhabha (1995) invokes the comparative relationship between a man and mouse in a way that harkens back to the Charles Atlas ad. The phrase is used to question masculinity itself, or the performative aspects of acting manly in relation to a diminutive opposite. In reviewing the challenge of defining masculinity, he offers the following:
Attempts at defining the “subject” of masculinity unfailingly reveal what I have called its prosthetic process. My own masculinity is strangely separating from me, turning into my shadow, the space of my filiation and my fading. My attempt to conceptualize its conditionality becomes a compulsion to question it; my analytic sense that masculinity normalizes and naturalizes difference turns into a kind of neurotic “acting out” of its power and it powerlessness. It is the oscillation that has enabled the feminist and gay revision of masculinity—turning back, the re-turning, of the male gaze—to confront what historian Peter Middleton describes as the “blocked reflexivity” that marks masculine self-identification, masked by an appeal to universalism and rationality. (p. 58)
In what ways might my compulsive probing of the conditions of masculinity in this chapter (or even this book project) reveal itself not to be just another (p.67) engagement of a prosthetic process of such efforts, a process of revealing yet again the artificial or performative qualities of an embodied performance, and not the undergirding formulations that anchor a social investment in masculinity—furthering our insights to both transform the social interrelatedness of gender possibilities working in relation? In what ways is the project of exploring masculinity a space of entrapment for men, both motivated to understand self in relation to other but with a blocked reflexivity that prevents the focused intensity that would reveal, unravel, or deconstruct our core investments of being?
In his edited volume Gay Masculinities, Peter Nardi (2000) states, “Gay men enact a multiplicity of ways of ‘doing’ masculinity that can be best described by the plural ‘masculinities.’ Some enact the strongest of masculine stereotypes through bodybuilding and sexual prowess, whereas others express a less dominant form through spirituality or female impersonation. Many simply blend the ‘traditional’ instrumental masculinity with the more ‘emotional’ masculinity that comes merely by living their everyday lives when they are hanging out with their friends and lovers, working out at the gym, or dealing with the oppressions related to their class and ethnic identities” (pp. 1–2). There are significant volumes to which this current volume significantly contributes that speak to the globalizing nature of queer and gay identity politics. Yet this volume also extends the ways in which place, space, and time as correlated with culture, race, and how ethnicities inform and shape the emergent performative nature of masculinities, and of my particular concern—queer masculinities.
Volumes such as Cruz-Malavé and Manalansan’s (2002) Queer Globalizations: Citizenships and the Afterlife of Colonialism, Johnson and Henderson’s (2005) Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, and Hawley’s (2001) Post-Colonial Queer: Theoretical Intersections, each take on not simply the caldron of culture that spawns and simmers queer identities but the progressive and counter-hegemonic rhetorical, political, activist, and pedagogical strategies used by queers of color to subvert, resist, and transform reductive conceptualizations of being, and expand progressive notions of raced and gendered identities—working and living within and outside restrictive gender categories.
Hence how do conceptions of queer vary across the globe? The answer is not a simplistic one. But what I purport, even in the very specific sites of my analysis in this project, is that the distance between the local and global, as it relates to queer identities, is mediated by the particularity of circumstance, the object of critique, or the audience to which such performances are directed. Queer is both an identity location and position in relation to the ways in which (p.68) sexed identities are constructed within the context of cultural production and cultural expectations of the normal, even when the normal is queer. By suggesting that masculinity is performative, and or performativity, an assessment of the embodied thing done, the iteration and achievement of the expected, I have been outlining the evaluative sense of masculinity across borders of difference. Such references also focus on the performed knowledge, complicity, and subversion of the expected that gives rise to queer masculinities.
Here I offer several different examples of the subversion of masculinity and/or masculinism. In her essay “Stealth Bombers of Desires: The Globalization of ‘Alterity’ in Emerging Democracies,” Cindy Patton (2002) outlines the case of young men in Taiwan in the early 1990s waiting to be psychiatrically declared homosexual, as a means of avoiding mandatory military service. While she frames this analysis as evidence of “emerging democracies that adopt apparently liberal stances on social issues as a means of demonstrating their modernness, or at least their distance from barbaric practices” (p. 195), I offer this reference as an example of queer masculine performativity in which the identified gays use a problematic social construction of queer (as pathology) as the grounds to subvert military service. In the edited volume, Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America, Pete Sigal (2003) outlines the complexity of homosexual desire; representations of masculinity, femininity, and power; and the more important understanding of the sometimes integrated practices of race, power, and sexuality as key components of cultural practice. Such analysis also reveals the ways that hierarchies of value, acceptance, and tolerance of sexual identities are also relative to cultural and historical definitional orientations to the nature of masculinity and masculine performativity. And in the work of Patton and Sánchez-Eppler (2000), Queer Diasporas, we encounter the important construct of tactical queerness, which invokes a strategy of performing a resistant queer identity. We see this in the case of transmigrant Filipino queers in New York who recreate and subvert a queer version of the Santacruzan Filipino religious ritual, as an act of subversion to restrictive cultural mandates on homosexuality in their homeland, creating an act of conversion and renewal, building an emergent and resistant spirituality within a queer Filipino community in diaspora.
I am suggesting that the social politics of masculinism are relative to culture and location, and grounded in a sensed expectation of gender performance, and a normalization of those identities both within the hegemonic tones of culture itself, as well as within communities of culture that might even subvert the larger social expectations, as in queer masculinities (plural not singular) (p.69) that seemingly pivot on the standards of the expected. And while the notion of queer is relative both to the politics of subversion that underlay or motivate queer politics, or the particularity of sexed desire or the multiplicity of non-normative identities in the construction of LBGTTQ, the essence of those identities emerge from a space of desire, and the performative enactment of that desire or desired way of being is evaluated against a social and culturally constructed template of the normal.
This book project as a whole has engaged a critical reflection on the cultural foundations of masculinities in particular contexts and the ways in which the cultural practices of masculinity are interpreted and practiced through discourse. In many ways, culture has been approached in a very traditional sense as the knowledge, language, values, customs, and material objects that are passed from person to person and from one generation to the next in a human group or society—used as a yardstick for social membership and evaluation. As such, culture—in the shifting contexts of racial and ethnic specificity, geographic locality, and socio-interactional networks—establishes cosmologies of knowing the world and one’s place in that world. Place in this instance is not only location, it is a relational dynamic that circulates within and between embodied beings. Culture as cosmology, “that arises out of people’s history … addresses issues of reality and creation, truth and value, meaning, process, and people’s place with creation” penetrates the psyche of its citizens (Akoto & Akota, 2005).
So in this sense, “masculinity … is the ‘taking up’ of an enunciative position, the making up of a psychic complex, the assumption of a social gender, the supplementation of a historical sexuality, the apparatus of a cultural difference” (Bhabha, 1995, p. 58). This is never exclusively local—in the specified space of cultural practice with similarly informed beings—but becomes mobile in the migration of those cultured citizens in their social and historical dis/placement, and in their relations to other embodied beings. Thus, if culture is considered an animating process, a system of ideologies made manifest in practice and embodied presence, then our “capacity for communication with one another is based on [our] common ownership of culture [in time and place]. But if [we] own culture, culture also owns [us]. Proprietorship thus introduces the subject-object relation, in which either may become a thing in the hands of others…. [Culture] stands as a thing over and beyond [us]” (Strathern, 1988, p. 322).
In this regard, we also understand that culture is dynamic and shifting, if only as tectonic plates through the sheer force of competing energies and the will of time and desire. What if we were to take seriously the fact that we are (p.70) not exclusively the products or victims of culture, but perceived ourselves—particularly in discussions of gender and masculinity—as those who conceive culture, and as such we are the composite representation of that conception, both woman and man; both masculine and feminine. Such a conception, as discussed in the work of Marilyn Strathern’s (1988, p. 13) concepts of Melanesian epistemology and the ways in which Shelley Mallett (2003) engages that work in Conceiving Culture: Reproducing People and Places on Nuakata, Papua New Guinea—might further our concepts of the ways in which the cultural construction of identity is in fact held as sacrosanct, ways in which we both justify our “relational embodied experiences” and our helplessness in changing those experiences (p. 36).
Such a move might allow us to move from studies of masculinity and the attendant bodies on which particular expectations are affixed to looking at masculinity as not fixed and bodies as contested landscapes, emergent territories of possibilities (Bender & Winer, 2001). Referencing back to the work of Strathern, such a reconceptualization of gender would not judge masculinity by social or intimate engagements, or even performative enactments separate from the immediate procreatory needs of a species—in which case, the discussion shifts from gender performance as informed by communities of culture to mere biological functionalism.
It is only those gender rebels, the few and the brave who dare not only offer critical commentary in the sanctioned spaces of academic discourse to question such limited constructions of being (masculinity and femininity) but engage in embodied performances, who help to make emergent the expressiveness of being outside of the constraints of cultural categories of gender expectedness visible. Such performances thereby expand the interpretations and interpolations of culture to see itself anew. When I reference gender rebels, I am no longer exclusively referencing members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgendered, queer (LGBTTQ) community, those of us who follow an impulse of our own design and desire. In the case of masculinity, I am also including those “straight” men who engage in performances of masculinity that do not intentionally reify the social constructions and expectedness of that political position. Straight men, who acknowledge and practice a humanistic masculinity that is grounded in equality and care, in compromise and negotiation, in respectful and mindful coexistence with difference; men who don’t measure their manliness on the principle of search and seizure, divide and concur, rape and murder; men who see the nature of their embodied experiences as relational and do not impose their sexed identity as a battering ram for social conformity. How queer would that be?
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