Having spent roughly 37 years in the closet denying the reality of my sexual orientation, I know all about the mental gymnastics in which one engages to try to convince one's self that "it isn't really true" that one is gay. The phenomenon isn't unique to me or many others who finally stopped the efforts at self-delusion. It happens all over society and at all social levels. A piece in New York Magazine looks at the prevalence in rural America - the supposed home of "real men" and "real Americans." My personal assessment is that the men described are gay or at least bi-sexual but who, due to family, church and local societal expectations, can't and won't admit the reality about themselves. It makes some of my mental gymnastics look down right simple. Here are article highlights:
A lot of men have sex with other men but don’t identify as gay or bisexual. A subset of these men who have sex with men, or MSM, live lives that are, in all respects other than their occasional homosexual encounters, quite straight and traditionally masculine — they have wives and families, they embrace various masculine norms, and so on. They are able to, in effect, compartmentalize an aspect of their sex lives in a way that prevents it from blurring into or complicating their more public identities. Sociologists are quite interested in this phenomenon because it can tell us a lot about how humans interpret thorny questions of identity and sexual desire and cultural expectations.
Last year, NYU Press published the fascinating book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men by the University of California, Riverside, gender and sexuality professor Jane Ward. In it, Ward explored various subcultures in which what could be called “straight homosexual sex” abounds — not just in the ones you’d expect, like the military and fraternities, but also biker gangs and conservative suburban neighborhoods — to better understand how the participants in these encounters experienced and explained their attractions, identities, and rendezvous. But not all straight MSM have gotten the same level of research attention. One relatively neglected such group, argues the University of Oregon sociology doctoral student Tony Silva in a new paper in Gender & Society, is rural, white, straight men (well, neglected if you set aside Brokeback Mountain).
[T]he point of Silva’s project was less to draw any sweeping conclusions about either this subset of straight MSM, or the population as a whole, than to listen to their stories and compare them to the narratives uncovered by Ward and various other researchers. . . . Specifically, Silva was trying to understand better the interplay between “normative rural masculinity” — the set of mores and norms that defines what it means to be a rural man — and these men’s sexual encounters. In doing so, he introduces a really interesting and catchy concept, “bud-sex” . . . as Silva (forthcoming) explores, the participants reinforced their straightness through unconventional interpretations of same-sex sex: as “helpin’ a buddy out,” relieving “urges,” acting on sexual desires for men without sexual attractions to them, relieving general sexual needs, and/or a way to act on sexual attractions. “Bud-sex” captures these interpretations, as well as how the participants had sex and with whom they partnered. The specific type of sex the participants had with other men—bud-sex—cemented their rural masculinity and heterosexuality, and distinguishes them from other MSM.
[B]y seeking out partners who were similar to them. “This is a key element of bud-sex,” writes Silva. “Partnering with other men similarly privileged on several intersecting axes—gender, race, and sexual identity—allowed the participants to normalize and authenticate their sexual experiences as normatively masculine.” In other words: If you, a straight guy from the country, once in a while have sex with other straight guys from the country, it doesn’t threaten your straight, rural identity as much as it would if instead you, for example, traveled to the nearest major metro area and tried to pick up dudes at a gay bar. You’re not the sort of man who would go to a gay bar — you’re not gay!
It’s difficult here not to slip into the old middle-school joke of “It’s not gay if …” — “It’s not gay” if your eyes are closed, or the lights are off, or you’re best friends — but that’s actually what the men in Silva’s study did, in a sense . . . . In other words: It’s not gay if the guy you’re having sex with doesn’t seem gay at all.
One way to interpret this is as defensiveness, of course — these men aren’t actually straight, but identify that way for a number of reasons, including “internalized heterosexism, participation in other-sex marriage and child-rearing [which could be complicated if they came out as bi or gay], and enjoyment of straight privilege and culture,” writes Silva.
While Ward sidestepped the question of her subjects’ “actual” sexual orientations — “I am not concerned with whether the men I describe in this book are ‘really’ straight or gay,” she wrote — it should matter. As Juzwiak put it: “Given the cultural incentives that remain for a straight-seeming gay, given the long-road to self-acceptance that makes many feel incapable or fearful of honestly answering questions about identity—which would undoubtedly alter the often vague data that provide the basis for Ward’s arguments—it seems that one should care about the wide canyon between what men claim they are and what they actually are.” In other words, Ward sidestepped an important political and rights minefield by taking her subjects’ claims about their sexuality more or less at face value.
In all likelihood, when Silva’s subjects say they’re straight, they mean it: That’s how they feel. But it’s hard not to get the sense that maybe some of them would be happier, or would have made different life decisions, if they had had access to a different, less constricted vocabulary to describe what they want — and who they are.
The power of self-deception is amazing - and over time, very destructive emotionally and psychologically.