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Can gays be manly?

A review of Androphilia (2007) by Jack Donovan

I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a certain skirt-chasing friend of mine. The topic was my homosexuality, and whether or not it had any connection to my general lack of female friends.

“Obviously,” said my buddy, “you’re only gay because you hate women.”

“Maybe,” I responded, only half in jest, “but I’d argue homosexuality is the highest form of misogyny.”

And now here is Androphilia, a self-described “manifesto” that takes a similar premise in a much more serious intellectual direction. Written by Jack Donovan (or, as he calls himself for the purposes of this book, Jack “Malebranche”), a swaggering, tattooed, unapologetically macho right-winger — who just happens to like guys instead of girls — the book offers up a brashly male-centric theory of conservative gay identity that is worlds away from the polite, libertarian tolerance of GOProud and Andrew Sullivan.

“I wrote this book for men who love men but are sick to death of the gay community,” Donovan declares early on, in one of his many blunt attacks on the American gay establishment, or, as he might put it, a self-serving racket of limp-wristed queens and haute couture nancy-boys that are robbing homosexual men of what should be their most prized possession — masculinity.

If you think about it, he says, there should be nothing more inherently manly than a man who loves other men. Unburdened by the taming influences of women, who demand their mates soften their rough corners as part of the elaborate dance of courtship, men who opt-out of heterosexual life are free to revel in their uncensored masculinity and celebrate the same in others. They can be however crude, tough, or chauvinistic as they want, and no one will call them on it. They can participate in all their manly hobbies and no one will ever get bored. It should be a perpetual frat party! Only with more consensual sex!

Yet homosexuality rarely seems to work this way in practice. Far from being paragons of machismo, gay men are frequently the precise opposite: effeminate, campy, priggish, and passive, with interests, tastes, and politics that are often in far closer sync with “womyn power” feminists than anything resembling mainstream male America. There’s lots of promiscuity, but little honor. Ample fashion, but scant dignity.

Donovan’s thesis is that this is an almost grotesquely unnatural state of affairs, and bizarrely counter-intuitive for an all-male subculture. So how did it happen?

As we know from studying our subversive history books, things weren’t always this way. An ample number of ancient civilizations championed the idea of “Androphilia” — Donovan’s word for masculine same-sex attraction — as a perfectly logical outgrowth of manly pursuits such as wartime camaraderie or carpentry apprenticeships. But then the Christians came along and ruined everything, with their uppity bans on sodomy and general dislike of any form of relationship beyond obsessively procreative one-man-one-woman couplings.

As inheritors of this Christian cultural tradition (I’m somewhat loath to even mention this, since it’s a fact so weird and distracting that it threatens to overshadow every argument the author makes, but Jack Donovan was apparently at one time an out-and-out Satanist, though I’m told the religion is really more of a Randian celebration of individualism than anything else), the modern West, even in its current liberalized incarnation, continues to idealize a certain stylized ideal of heterosexuality as the gold standard to which all romantic relationships must conform. Someone must always be the man or the woman, and embrace all the expectations of either role. Because homosexual men fail to fit into this either/or paradigm, they have come to be branded as something weird and “other,” some sort of half-man-half-woman-neither-fish-nor-fowl monstrosity, with that otherness then being used as a pretext for fear and discrimination.

Yet even though they suffer for it, mainstream gaydom doesn’t seem terribly interested in revising this understanding. As Donovan sees it, there are simply too many gay vested interests who don’t want to accept that same-sex preferences are  merely a “variation in desire, rather than indicating a different type of man.” If gays are just men, and encouraged to be no different culturally, socially, or physically from other men — regardless of who they want in bed — then much of the wind will be sucked from the sails of the American gay establishment (or as Donovan bitterly dubs it, the Gay Party), which thrives on the celebration of difference.

Victims of their own success in promoting widespread tolerance of homosexuality (as I noted in my review of  No Right Turn, even the most stalwart members of the supposedly anti-gay right will usually have gay friends these days), the gay rights movement has now mutated into something far more decadent and useless than its founding purpose. No longer the tragic proponents of unpopular civil rights, the Gay Party has shifted into an increasingly partisan hustle that now focuses on “dubious wants” (such as getting more “queer positive” characters on television sitcoms) and generic leftist causes (such as anti-war campaigns) rather than combating “dire injustices.” The gay leadership, in turn, has become predictably monopolized by the few remaining gays who are humourless and obsessive enough to see everything in terms of their sexuality, and revel in an exaggerated sense of persecution and victimhood. Finding no shortage of allies among America’s diverse rainbow of professional victims, the movement becomes but the latest appendage of the same people who gave you Al Sharpton and the ACLU.

And the consequences trickle down. Raised in a context where the concept of gay “otherness” is constantly pushed by the Gay Party through initially well-meaning, but now increasingly outdated and stratifying things like high school GSAs and segregated “gayborhoods,” homosexuals become products of a sealed-off subculture with a pre-packaged identity. Speaking from personal experience, I can affirm there is no shortage of gay men who have embraced a highly affected, over-the-top, effeminate gay persona for no other reason than they believe it’s expected, and to act in any other way would be akin to a lifestyle of repression and self-loathing.

While criticizing the leftist slant of professional homosexuals is hardly novel, what makes Androphilia‘s critique unique from that of other right-of-center gay critics is the way Donovan is willing to see a problem not just with the dubious political causes the Gay Party chooses to embrace, but also the calibre of man its subculture produces. Unlike groups like the Log Cabin Republicans, who view the most pressing issues facing gay Americans as legal questions of equality and recognition, Donovan sees homosexual men suffering from a larger crisis of confidence and purpose born from a broken culture of lost masculinity.

The cure, therefore, is for homosexuals to “reclaim masculinity” (Androphilia‘s subtitle), reject the phony, affected gay personas of the 21st century, and get back to something closer to what the Greeks did. History is ripe, writes Donovan, with “examples of how noble and productive love between men can be when masculinity is not in question, but rather is encouraged and allowed to flourish.” Idealized male values like honesty, dignity, courage, and loyalty, after all, are vastly more beneficial to generating successful friendships and relationships than the negative feminine stereotypes far too many gays have embraced, including sluttiness, gossip, materialism, and manipulation.

Though Androphilia is a profound and important book that will almost certainly be ignored in the closed-minded chambers of gender studies departments across the continent, it does have its problems. While the case for reclaiming masculinity and embracing a positive (and distinctly male) gender identity is undoubtedly a persuasive one, it’s also hard to escape the impression that Donovan’s own conception of the masculine ideal is a little too… well, personal. Jack clearly likes sports, military history, physical labor, and violent movies, and wants other gays to get more into these things, too. “I envision a world,” he writes, “where Androphiles become admired as knowledgeable outdoorsmen, avid hunters, successful sportsmen, skilled builders, do-it-yourselfers, shrewd businessmen, and accomplished leaders in their chosen fields,” adding that homos who collect “war and sports memorabilia” would be pretty cool, too.

Now, when I think of personal role models whom I admire for their masculinity (a task Donovan advocates all gays should do), I often think of Mark Steyn, the rugged British-Canadian political columnist. Through his eloquent writing, he continuously champions the same values of personal responsibility, integrity, honor, and tradition that Donovan holds up as male ideals. Yet Steyn’s after-hours interests include singing, Broadway, and fashion. Is he less of a man for it?

I bring this up not to go down some neo-feminist road of how all “gender ideals” are inherently arbitrary, but rather to caution that men are a diverse lot, and their maleness can manifest in a multitude of ways, not all of which may necessarily seem terribly masculine at first glance. While Donovan is right to belittle stagy homosexual airs, and the equally stagy over-compensation of the beard-and-leather set, there’s still a risk of fetishizing (in Donovan’s case, literally) the tastes and hobbies of a particular set of men whose interests stem as much from class and geography as anything else. Liking trucks or hunting might simply reflect the fact that you grew up around such things, while indifference may be just that. I’m open to the idea that someone can be a city-dwelling, cat-loving poet homosexual vegetarian and still retain a strong core of masculinity in their values and behaviour, though I get the impression Donovan isn’t.

His anti-gay marriage “essay,” which closes the book, is another apt example of overgeneralizing the personal into the universal. Though the premise of a gay man making the case against gay marriage is certainly novel, it quickly becomes apparent that Donovan’s argument isn’t really about defending the traditional definition so much as offering an extended treatise on why Jack Donovan doesn’t personally want to wed his partner. And the case he makes is probably not much different from the one you’ve already heard your cohabitating hipster buddies make on endless occasions.

Marriage, he says, is an “anachronistic, embattled institution” of sky-high divorce rates and other assorted “baggage.” Opting into this form of “institutionalized social control” makes no sense to him, nor do wedding cakes, tuxedos, and all the associated folderol. As long as you’re committed to the one you love, isn’t that all that matters? He stops short of trotting out the “just a piece of paper” trope, but only barely.

Buried within this postmodern rant is at least one good point: “marriage culture” is inherently hetro in its rituals and symbols, and gays can indeed look like goofy minstrels when they lazily ape centuries-old, highly gendered traditions that were consciously set up to celebrate a very different type of relationship than their own. Donovan’s idea that homosexual men should adopt their own rituals of partnership (which he, in his traditionally macho style, suggests could be matching tattoos or Native American-style blood brothering) is interesting, but gets lost amid a lot of tired rhetoric.

Though I’m very open about it with my friends, I don’t like making my sexuality a big part of my identity as a writer or artist. Like Donovan, I’m very partial to the belief that “sexuality should be no more than a subplot in the story of any man’s life,” and don’t like the way it can distract or muddle the expectations of strangers, especially when political positions are involved. But I do like men more than women, and believe that being a homosexual does indeed hold the possibility for becoming deeply in tune with one’s own masculinity, and therefore historic notions of manliness as well.

Androphilia articulates a rarely heard, but not uncommon, sentiment in the world of gay men that traditional gender identities can actually be useful principles worth defending, rather than oppressive barriers to be destroyed.

Unless you do it with a wrecking ball. That’d rock.




^ 30 Comments...

  1. ENDG4MER

    A good article, and I feel that it really points out the differences in the stereotypes that a lot of people, both in anti-gay and homosexual people, tend to hold about each other, and themselves. I myself am practicing bisexual, and my brother is fully homosexual. He doesn't focus on that though; he likes music (playing and listening), cooking, and is very big on aesthetics, but he also greatly enjoys working out and general physical activity. It's not that he is or isn't a manly man; he doesn't care which he is, and just enjoys himself as best he can, and I think that's probably the best way to go about it, really. Why force yourself into one camp or another?

  2. Chris

    "Get back to something closer to what the Greeks did"

    I don't know if this is really relevent; but, the image he seems to have of Ancient Greek sexuality probably has very little real connection to reality.
    Sure, manly Greek men were supposed to find each other attractive; but they were also supposed to get married to a woman and make children with her (ie. No one was allowed to avoid heterosexual relationships). Your standard manly drinking party involved lots of men getting together and singing, carousing and suchlike, but it also featured a contingent of dancing girls and courtesans for their titillation.
    Further, it was definitly not good for a Greek man to be the submissive partner in a sexual act. Taking that role would cause a Greek citizen to lose their citizenship (if consensual), or the other one to be prosecuted (if non-consensual). The submissive role is what slaves were for.
    Essentially, it was manly to penetrate things, both male and female.

  3. Chris

    It was also manly to take on a younger (pubescent) citizen boy, and form a close relationship with them (Though ideally stopping short of intercourse, because again that was criminal, and the boy's father would be furious). This has some parallels with homosexuality in that many of these couplings genuinely loved and cared for each other, but they were temporary, once the child reached adulthood all the physical stuff would cease. The older man would move on to someone else; so if this is a parallel for homosexuality then it is a promiscuous one (Which is not surprising: Ancient Greece is, after all, the culture which considered cheap prostitutes an inalienable right), It also has parallels with mentoring, in that the older man is meant to be showing the younger one how to be a citizen male, and with hazing in that the process was often unpleasant for the boys (There are depictions of them being… fiddled with by the man, while they stand there looking terrified; and several stories of boys troubled by the very unwelcome advances of a would-be mentor).

  4. Chris

    All of which doesn't neccessarily matter. I'm just saying that people who go "Oh everything was better before Christianity came along!" seem to feel they can present whatever they want as the pre-Christian model, reality be damned.

  5. @Cristiona

    " Though the premise of a gay man making the case against gay marriage is certainly novel…"

    I dunno. Elton John did it. Apparently he's flip-flopped a little on it, but he did it.

  6. Jeff

    Of course, for a homosexual to take back his masculinty, he has to realize that the definition of masculinity is based on traditional heterosexual values and principles on what it means to be a man. I believe that the homosexual community needs to throw out completely ties to the heterosexual worldview of what masculine and feminine mean and create their own definitions of what it means to be a male and what it means to be a female in their own terms.

  7. @Andy928766

    I think the fact of the matter should be that anyone, gay or straight, man or woman, should pursue their own interests regardless of what might be traditionally considered "manly" or whatever. Traditional masculinity is a sort of stereotype in itself, in that if someone acts in that fashion, than they must be a straight man. This is something that should not be true. Heck, I am a heterosexual and I do not think I would fit into the traditional definition of "manliness."

    Of course, our society simply does not function in that ideal. If you do not act in a way similar enough to those around you, you face ridicule.

  8. Mel

    Interesting. I haven't read the book and probably won't. The author seems to make good observations–that women soften men. But, trying to seel homosexuality as ideally masculine is a tough sell.

    Some of the commentators are correct. Romance,sexuality, marriage, etc, are all uniquely heterosexual.

  9. Svan

    You always leave me so conflicted. I adore your writing and your logics but your politics always manage to stab at something vital.

  10. Fnord

    Seconded. And this time he lost a reader for it.

  11. Dan

    So you only read people you agree with? You might as well just talk to yourself.

  12. Thomas

    You'd prefer if he'd stab at pointless things and fluff? There are endless articles, blogs, and magazines that sell just that everywhere you go.

    I don't always agree with JJ's views, but always I enjoy seeing new viewpoints from any angle if they are not filled with filler and guff.

  13. Trevor Martens

    I find this pretty ironic since it sort of summarizes nicely the way I pick my gay friends. They have to be guys first, not gays, I don't want their flamboyancy in my face all the time or hear about their latest encounters in their sexually gay world, I just want to have a guy friend who I'm not in direct competition all the time over women, someone who understands that sometimes having women out of the picture isn't necessarily a bad thing, and someone who can offer me a different viewpoint to my own, straight viewpoints (among other differences). I've known a few gay guys in my life that I've had as good friends because they fit this bill so well, they come off so much as just normal guys and don't feel the need to pretend (or legitimately want) to be a woman. While the in-your-face attitudes of gay men may have been more necessary in the past, when the gay community was going through a period comparable on some levels to what african-americans needed to do to get their equal rights and freedoms, the time of these attitudes has long-since past in many countries, especially Canada where gay marriage is allowed and many places now in the USA. Although the battles aren't over, undoubtedly, perhaps events such as the gay pride parades, which have helped to spread awareness and tolerance across the country and throughout the world, are no longer necessary to fight these last remaining battles, and the gays of the present and future can just "be" rather than "being out".

  14. @Kisai

    I find a problem is that for people who aren't familiar with gay culture, they only know what is seen on TV.

    TV networks are run by people decades older (and hence behind the times) with the current culture. This is why the gay characters on TV are still characacture stereotypes, and minor characters. Few people have a clue how to write such characters, as they aren't involved in gay culture to begin with. Also consider selection criteria on reality shows, those doing the diversity selections may also be passing over people who don't conform to their preconceived notion of what a gay person is.

  15. Jon Bennett

    I think as Gay becomes more mainstream, it will be revealed that those who are are more normal, and that they're not all Andy Dick clones.

    FWIW, the first point of business of all gay people should be to find and murder Andy Dick.

  16. Art Vandelay

    Jack Donovan must be the most profoundly self-obsessed person I have ever read. First of all, he is absorbed in his own persona enough to change his name twice. Secondly, he is obviously sexually excited by strength, power, manliness and violence (http://www.jack-donovan.com/axis/2011/03/violence-is-golden/). There is a certain stream of right wing gay men who are in love with male power and control. I would place Cardinal Spellman, J Edgar Hoover and probably Jason Kenney, in this same category with Sean Grady, aka Jack Donovan. (John Baird has mellowed a bit in the last few years, and he was too much of a lover of cats with kitschy conservative names like "Thatcher" too count).

    I also find this Mark Steyn love bizarre and obviously ideological (Come on, a "rugged" columnist?). To me, manliness is not about penis worship or beards or running around in pinnys (Living out Donovan's fantasies, really) , it's being polite and helpful to women, and providing for and teaching kids and sticking up for what you believe in et cetera. But, of course, I am a straight, progressive male with Christian values who has been infected by this slave ideology which causes me to believe that might doesn't make right, that muscles and sex and moustaches aren't everything, and that when Jack Donovan gets old and fat and has lung cancer from smoking (unless he only does so to "man-up" his press photos), he should have free healthcare and his spouse should be allowed to visit him in the hospital!

  17. Kyle Everett

    Dell dang, 5+ years of reading your stuff and I didn't know you were gay.

  18. Crunchy Onion

    Me too! Indeed, JJ shows he takes that "I don’t like making my sexuality a big part of my identity as a writer or artist" part to the heart. I admire him all the more for it, as I'm personally very partial to that idea.

  19. Jack Donovan

    Thanks for doing this in-depth and balanced review. I agree with some of your criticisms of the book–I've been working on developing my ideas about masculinity for the past several years, so they are more fleshed out and less about mere preferences now.

    I basically stopped writing for gays, because as you and I agree, sexuality SHOULD be a subplot. And it's a pretty boring one. I've been writing for a more general male audience for the past few years. The conflict between masculinity and feminism and globalism and technology is far more interesting than the conversation gays have been having with themselves for the past 50 years.

    It was fun to read a review of my first book as I sit here working on the last chapter of my new book, which has nothing to do with homosexuality and everything to do with men. I would be interesting to read what you think of it after it comes out this fall.

    Er…and, @Art…I'm lighter, stronger and faster than I was in 2007, and I really only smoke the occasional cigar, so you don't have to be concerned about me quite yet.

    Your idea that the frank acknowledgement of the primacy of violence in power struggles and masculinity must be a product of some kind of sexual excitement is, frankly, "homophobic" and hysterical. Most of the straight men I know acknowledge the same basic truths and also enjoy violent forms of entertainment, etc. Weirdly, it has nothing to do with sexual excitement. Huh.

  20. J.J. McCullough

    Thanks for the kind words, Jack. Though I had some problems with the book, I think it's still one of the most insightful things I've read in a long time. You're clearly a substantial thinker in the realm of modern western philosophy, and I'll definitely be keen to read your next work.

  21. Jack Donovan

    Thanks, and excellent.

  22. Dan

    I would think sexuality and manliness would be completely independent values.

  23. Art Vandelay

    If you shoot a bear, build a house and lift some weights, you might be "manly". If you shoot a bear, build a house and lift some weights and go home and congratulate yourself on your manliness, you are definitely not being manly. 90% of straight males like beach volleyball for the bikinis. Still, 10% can appreciate it as a sport. Maybe you are indeed a real badass who likes men, and you would be doing all these things anyway if you liked women.

  24. Jack Donovan

    It is always funny to watch men sort through their own conflicted and contradictory feelings about manhood.

    "A man can be anything and no one should tell a man how to be a man, but a man who does x is not manly."

    I don't claim to be a real badass. Boasting isn't the point of my writing. I'm an average guy who sees the value in masculine behavior and has made an attempt to understand it better, instead of believing whatever consensus women and feminist male therapists have managed to manufacture about who men are over the past 50 years.

  25. Anonymous

    In "Our Bodies, Ourselves," which you presumably know is a book about women's biology written 'by and for women,' the authors state that they are seeking to fill a particular information gap and would be delighted to see a group of men write an analogous book about men. If women have been so influential in mainstream discussions about the pros and cons of masculine gender norms, it is in part because men have been so quiet on the topic. I am still waiting for a 'men's movement' that criticizes some of the limiting aspects of traditional masculinity (e.g. not being allowed to cry/show weakness, the double standard about stay-at-home parenting). I see the paucity of male voices on the subject as a reflection of the fear of showing weakness or appearing feminine.

  26. H. G.

    While I'm in agreement with you regarding the opinion raised by Jack Donovan as a whole, I cannot deny that I find myself highly sympathetic to his arguments. I would definitely voice my opinion that his views aren't heard enough. As a bisexual, I am very uncomfortable about discussing my sexuality, and to many of my closest friends it remains a thoroughly guarded secret. All of this because of the simple reason that I really do not identify with the effeminate roles bisexuals are expected to assume, and strangely enough, I fear that being open about my sexuality would force me to transform into an individual that wouldn't be me.

    I have long been of the opinion that (probably completely unintentionally), the movement for gays rights has pigeonholed homosexuals and bisexuals into very rigid identities, or rather, identities which are expected of them, and I am angered every time I see these roles enforced by the (at least in my opinion) unrealistically effeminate gay and bisexual men in television. I would welcome a world in which sexuality isn't expected to define your personality.

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