Gay Men, Cults of Toughness and Masculinities in Scotland

I recently revisited some of the interviews I undertook with gay and bisexual men from Scotland while putting together a postgraduate seminar on masculinities. One theme emerging from these interviews related to masculinity and effeminacy. Some of the men I spoke to remarked on the powerful cultural concept of the ‘man’, of the ‘otherness’ associated with the ‘failed man’, the individual who could not or would not bow to societal pressures over what constituted normative male behaviour.

Such concerns are not unusual amongst gay and bisexual men in many cultures, but are often central to projects of identity, specifically projects of identity which relate to so-called deviant sexualities. The power of concepts of masculinity have thus caused significant discomfort for gay and bisexual men, some of whom attempted to maintain an air of masculinity and themselves, to disapprove of non-conforming queer men. As Esther Newton has argued:

…the overt homosexual is accused of a more degrading crime, that of being “too nellie”, that is roughly, “too effeminate”…In effect, I will not associate with you because you are too stigmatized…[1]

This was certainly the case when Colin (b. 1945) came into contact with a ‘camp’ man at university:

he was from sort of like a middle-class English background and he was in the sort of student drama society and he was very, very camp and I had friends who were also friends of his but I was absolutely terrified of him, absolutely terrified…It just seems such an indictment of the time that this very nice, very intelligent man who was camp, that was what made me want to keep away from him. There were other people I knew at university who were nasty, manipulative, megalomaniacs, all kinds of things but there…wouldn’t have been the stigma associated with them as there was with him…

Colin’s fear of this ‘camp’ man was related to his own insecurities over his burgeoning sexuality, and the fear that associating with this man would direct attention to his own situation:

I mean it wasn’t that I avoided the guy, the chances of us meeting were very slight but I did have a friend who I remember seeing in conversation once with this English guy and my friend was sort of camping it up and I thought, ‘Why’s he doing this?! This friend was about the same level of sexual development as I was, struggling with his own homosexuality and I just thought, ‘He’s making a fool of himself!’

Other gay men who engaged in behavior that was deemed un-masculine were in receipt of opprobrium. Alastair (b. 1948) recalls how his interest in fashion singled him out for contempt:

I went to art school from ‘66 to ‘70 so fashion was a big driver and I was very fashionable, very cutting edge and for Glasgow that was a very scary. I think being fashionable was more dangerous than being gay but then the two were almost always lumped together. I was never beaten up but I was spat at, someone spat in my face once which wasn’t very nice. And laughed at.

Some gay men, terrified of the consequences of being labelled ‘queer’, sought to distance themselves more forcibly from effeminate or camp men. Harry (b. 1950) recalled how he didn’t fit that role and his apparent disapproval of effeminacy had lasting implications for his life as a gay man:

I suppose there was a time in my life when I thought an effeminate homosexual was basically what a gay man represented and I wasn’t an effeminate…I didn’t feel effeminate; I didn’t prance about or mince about…I still don’t feel at ease with an effeminate gay man. That’s just the way it is…. I wouldn’t ignore anybody in company, I would be polite and I’m not going to disturb them in any way. At that time I’d say that gay men were ‘Jessies’ and effeminate…

Another of my interviewees, Sean (b. 1955) recalled his experiences working in a Glasgow shipyard, where homosexuality may not have sat comfortably alongside the alleged ‘cult of toughness’ said to be in operation.[2] Curiously Sean suggested that a camp or effeminate man would be more accepted by shipyard workers than a supposed ‘straight-acting’ gay man. It would be easier to identify and stigmatise the ‘obvious homosexual’, which in turn may have reassured the men about their own masculinity.

People in the yerds could only accept somebody like that if ye were very camp….if you were like a joke or a caricature, they could live wi’ that but whit they coulnae live wi’ was somebody talkin’ the same way, cursin’ the same way, actin’ the same way. That is like a big major no-no. If ye were a caricature they could live wi’ that… there was one guy there but he did play up to the…oooh [puts on effeminate voice], but when ye seen that ye just cringed, ye didnae want ate be a part o’ that.

For some gay or bisexual men the camp stereotype was at once both confusing and admirable. Robert (b. 1937) remarked on the courage of some gay men in that they refused to conform to societal expectations of role performance.

The extreme is being effeminate a bit or….something that kind of tells you that they are kind of in that area and I have never been like that and I suspect most gay men aren’t but that always kind of amazes me because in a sense…I kind of admire that, there is a clarity about that but it puzzles me.

According to Stephen Garton, the effeminate homosexual has played a significant role in asserting a visible queer identity that challenged entrenched conceptions of manliness and masculinity:

Equally important, many of these men…refused to accept medical and criminological representations of homosexuals as deviant or sick.   They asserted their right to pleasure.[3]

These men were undergoing projects of identity, some were struggling with their own sexualities, and popular conceptions of gay men during the period in which these men matured, highlighted their ‘differentness’ ; their ‘otherness’. This led to a struggle, which occasionally saw them attempt to conform and to distance themselves from discredited, visible, queer identities.

[1] Esther Newton (1998) ‘The Queens’, in Nardi & Schneider (eds.), Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies (London; New York, Routledge), p. 40

[2] Ronnie Johnston & Arthur McIvor (2005) ‘Dangerous Work, Hard Men and Broken Bodies: Masculinity in the Clydeside heavy Industries, c. 1930-1970s, Labour History Review, 69, p. 138

[3] Stephen Garton (2004) Histories of Sexuality: Antiquity to Sexual Revolution (London: Equinox), pp. 215-216

Copyright © Jeff Meek 2014

All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “Gay Men, Cults of Toughness and Masculinities in Scotland

  1. Pingback: “Desperately Seeking Someone (Non-camp, No-effems)” | That Class of Men

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