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No Thanks, We’ll Pass

Brent Calderwood

By Brent Calderwood
Brent Calderwood is a writer, editor, illustrator and musician. His essays and reviews have appeared in magazines and newspapers nationally; his poetry has appeared in journals such as Slow Trains and modern words, as well as in the upcoming anthology Solace. He won a 2007 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellowship for poetry, and he was a 2007 Chancellor's Fellow in English Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. In Fall 2008, he will begin working toward an MSW in Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in San Francisco, where he is finishing his book-length poetry collection, Fault Zone, as well as a memoir.
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friend of mine who’s taking a French class at San Francisco State University told me recently how the professor asked students, one by one, to answer the question, en français, “How would you describe your ideal man or woman?” My friend Toby began to describe his ideal—his boyfriend Marco (“His eyes are brown, his hair is black…”)—but the instructor suddenly interrupted Toby mid-sentence. “No, no,” she scolded him in English. “You’re not supposed to use the masculine form of the possessive. You should say, ‘Her eyes, her hair.’”

Toby thought the whole thing was pretty funny, but I wasn’t so amused. I spent my whole adolescent life changing pronouns and possessives, altering my language to pass as straight in school. I even learned to tell fag jokes as often as possible so they wouldn’t be told about me. When a boy in my seventh-grade Pre-Algebra class accused me of having a lisp, which he claimed meant that I was gay, I nearly banished the letter “s” from my speech. Plurals were out of the question. Things became singular, alone.

If I had known then that I’d see that same boy in one of the many gay bars in the Castro some fifteen years later—if I’d understood that he was just the first in a long line of gay men who’d pressure me to pass so they wouldn’t feel so lonely in the closet—maybe I wouldn’t have taken him so seriously. But take him seriously I did. As a result of my linguistic efforts, I probably have a larger vocabulary than many of my old classmates, but fifteen years later I still shy away from sibilant words whenever I’m the least bit nervous —like when I’m out on a date with a guy who manages to wear his masculinity with some semblance of authenticity and self-possession.

Now in college and talking to my openly gay friend Toby in the office of the Queer Alliance, San Francisco State University’s gay student group, I realized that the same pressure to conform I’d felt in the seventh grade was still alive and well here in San Francisco. Only the words had gotten bigger. Instead of being accused of being a cocksucker, I might be accused—if I were to take a French class too—of improper use of the masculine form.

When I arrived at SF State, I was ready to relax and stop fighting. After years of straining to pass as heterosexual in school, followed by more years of activism and advocacy for queer youth, I was ready to be on the academic equivalent of R&R —basking in the warm glow of queer community that San Francisco promised. I was ready to be accepted with open arms into that community, and I expected that I’d find a boyfriend by the end of my first semester.

But it wasn’t that simple. When I arrived, I was shocked to find that I still felt relatively invisible. What was going on? Hadn’t thousands of students from all across the country come here seeking safe haven from their backward backwater hometowns? The Castro was full of such refugees, even though they were loath to talk about such things at their favorite watering holes. I knew that, ever since the Gold Rush, San Francisco had been a place that attracted misfits and miscreants dreaming of hidden riches and open lives. That was the city’s reputation, but where were these misfits now? Changing their language in classrooms, changing their behavior on the streets to avoid the harassment that still happens.

A lot of people, including most of the gay people I know, think San Francisco is one of the best places in the world for gay people to live. But if San Francisco is one of the best places in the world for us, that says more about the sorry state of the world than it does about San Francisco. Sure, you can hold hands with your same-sex partner in the Castro. But travel six blocks north, south, east or west from the intersection of Castro and Market streets, and you’re just as likely to be sneered at as you are to be cruised. You might even be catcalled by passing motorists.

In a city where many gays look unnervingly like our “Governator” in his box-office prime, most bigots are sensible enough to wait till they’re in a moving vehicle to vocalize their bigotry. Just last week, in fact, I was walking through Hayes Valley, the upscale neighborhood just east of the Castro that’s home to our city’s LGBT Center, when a carload of boys yelled “fag.” At first I thought maybe they were calling me “fat”— was this, I wondered, a driveby attempt to urge me to spend more time on the Stairmaster? But no, they didn’t care a lick whether I toned up my midsection or not; they were calling me a faggot, urging me to tone down my faggish, gay, unmanly appearance. Their jeers were diminished slightly by the Doppler effect, but rang clearly in my ears even after their car had disappeared over a hill.

Accusations like this, such blatant reminders that I’m not cutting it as a “real man,” are blessedly rare now that I’m all grown up. Which makes me grateful, sometimes, to be single. The odds of being pegged as gay go up, after all, when you’re coupled, and if you two manage to walk out of the gay ghetto into some other neighborhood without being hassled, you’re aware with every step you take that you’re making a political statement. If you lean over to kiss your lover in a nice restaurant (since going to a nice restaurant arguably means leaving the Castro), you’re not just being affectionate, you’re being radical. And if your date seems cold and distant over dinner, you’re left to wonder, “Is Bob not interested in me, or is he afraid of being attacked?” Small wonder, then, that even in a city that’s about 25 percent gay, very few gay men seem to be in long-term relationships... (continue reading)

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Juan said:

If I had 1% more estrogen in my body, I would have probably cried my eyes out when I finished reading this. It was phenomenal! Thank you so much.

Posted at: May 20, 2008 11:30 PM

Joe Balestreri said:

Brent Calderwood's essay reminded me of my Italian conversation class. My instructor had a bad habit of constantly interupting me to correct my Italian but when it came time to decribe my ideal mate I corrected my teacher: "Non e' "lei', e' "lui"!" (Translation: It's not "she", it's "he"!) After that my intructor had to constantly prove how liberal and pro-gay she was, the cute Chilean class mate changed his mind about going to the movies with me and most of the other students were cool. It was a great way to come out in another language. Back to Brent's main point, it was a sad day when I realized there is as much pressure to conforn inside the gblti community as outside in the larger world. Joe

Posted at: July 10, 2008 10:54 PM

Nicolas Therrien said:

A great essay for sure, although I am not sure I completely agree: being gay does not necessarily mean you have to be swishy and skinny. I am sure some people are uber-queers hiding in muscle/macho bodies for fear of rejection, but there are some of us who just like how we look when ripped and who do like cars, sports, home renovations, sitting on the sofa drinking beer, burping and scratching ourselves, etc... I've even been accused of "trying to act to macho and I wasn't pulling it off", but the truth is, this is the way I act and who I am.

Posted at: August 28, 2008 4:40 PM

nic said:

I agree with you Nicolas, the idea that being gay is pure formula, kind of suggests, to me, that being gay is a commercial pursuit.
That's why i consider myself to be queer, and never gay.

Gay has been rendered into retreat, and if you don't behave a certain way, fellow gays will assume you are scared, or closeted.

There is a constant fight, and it isn't just with the hetero standard but it exists amongst ourselves.

“You’re not supposed to use the masculine form of the possessive. You should say, ‘Her eyes, her hair.’”
This reminded me of when i said Loca instead of loco, my teacher scolded me, but i explained that the masculine and feminine are traits of the past and that soon they will be left behind.

Nice essay

Posted at: September 4, 2008 12:45 PM

Candygirl said:

It really is a sad tale!
You burst my bubble about SF.
Guess I'm a bit of an idealist myself.
Anyway, you've made an interesting point here.
Tnx :)

Posted at: September 11, 2008 11:00 AM

Eve said:

Have you ever been to the town of Sitges, Spain? (Near Barcelona). It is full of super-pumped gays with the biggest muscles I've ever seen. When you walk into Sitges as a tourist all you see is the same type of gay men. No families, no old people, no women (except the tiny lesbian minority). It was very bizarre to me at first because where I grew up (Coventry, UK) the gay scene looked the complete opposite: skinny jeans on painfully skinny boys, indie shirts and emo haircuts.

Posted at: December 10, 2008 12:24 PM

Brandon said:


I don't think he was saying that gay men are supposed to be effeminate; I think he was saying that many of those who happen to be effeminate are forced to hide it, which is dishonest and sycophantic. So I don't think there is any need for masculine gay men to be upset by his premiss.

And we all know how many "straight-acting" fellows there are out there. They even claim, literally, to "act" straight (since that's what a "real" man acts like, apparently, except that they still have sex with men, funnily). Yet, for some reason, we never point out their dissemblance--only that of the gays who pretend to be flamboyant queens.

Talk about a double-standard.

Excellent essay. It made me tear up a little.

Posted at: February 26, 2010 4:13 AM

Billy C said:

Actually I think that the epithet-spewing cowards hiding in a fast car are proof that we're winning. It takes a long time to change the world.

Gay men bring all kinds of hate and insecurity with them into adulthood; we play out the bitchiness and throw shade because it's what we were taught in junior high. I'm hopeful this, too, will diminish as the younger generations have better and better role models to emulate.

Patience. We're winning.

Posted at: May 4, 2010 2:09 AM

David said:

Why can't people just be who they are?

We are born alone and we die alone. Everywhere in between we try to fit in by finding other people who share our values and interests. People always gravitate toward others with whom they have something in common. Who can really say that the people you observe in the Castro are "hiding inside the suits of armor they’ve created" or, are just being themselves? Do "before and after" pix exist?

Who exactly is protecting themself from being rejected by other gay men?

I think it is easy to generalize when looking from the outside into any of the many gay sub-cultures. Although I have no doubt that self-hatred is and probably always will be a fact of life for many people due to what is perceived as non-acceptance (whether it be gender, race, sexual preference, age, etc.), it is still up to each individual to find for themself where that place is that they will no longer feel fear. It is the responsibility of the rest of us to allow them their journey along the path of life and perhaps even make a friend or 2 along the way. What really makes all of us strong (therefore taking away all fear) is respect for all the diversity among our people.

Yes, look each other in the eye and see ourselves in one another.

Posted at: May 24, 2010 6:30 PM

vinay said:

Brent, your essay makes some very important points about acceptance (not tolerance) and how much further American society has to go to achieve that goal. I really appreciated that your essay made that point explicitly and clearly.

Your opening vignette about your friend and his French teacher, however, unfortunately, is not quite right. In the French language, possessive pronouns (my,his, hers theirs...) are NOT related to the subject (your friend in your example), but the object of possession. That is to say, whether you are a man or a woman, you use the same adjectives to designate hair, eyes (both of which are plural in the French). So, the teacher was absolutely right in correcting your friend -- it is not the masculine singular (son -- his eyes), but the plural (ses yeux, ses cheveux -- eyes and hair both in the plural in French). This is not just a nit picky grammar point. There is NO way you can give away the gender of the person you are describing if you do not explicitly state his/her gender. Anne Gareta (if you read French) has written an entire novel (Sphinx, 1986) about the love between two people in which the reader never finds out the gender of the main characters, a task that would have been impossible in English.

Having said all this, I appreciate the point you try to make -- people can be so heteronormative, that they refuse to acknowledge the possibility that same sex relations could and do exist.

Posted at: June 22, 2010 10:21 PM

Daigan said:


I wonder how much of this bulking and gym behavior have something to do with AIDS as much as with Masculinity.

I remember the days of wastings, of KS and of trying all kinds of things to "feel better".

I think we have also gone overboard on the gym as a way to in some way reclaim our bodies, or make it so folks don't see us as "sick".

Or maybe a bit of both.

Posted at: August 2, 2010 11:59 PM