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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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The judgments we grew up with, as deeply rooted in our psyches as they are, impinge upon our relationships in ways that are far more pernicious than the judgments we encounter in our adult lives. As gay men, most of us spent the early part of our lives trying to pass, trying to hoodwink the other guys into thinking we were “one of them” —which doesn’t exactly set the stage for honesty and intimacy with other men. And although most agree that things are changing for the better, many of us are still growing up in what feels like a pretty hostile world —one in which our brand of loving is hated, where our desires are viewed as disgusting, reprehensible, weak-willed, evil, or, at the very least, laughable.

Is it surprising then, given this hostility, that many of us would be just a wee bit emotionally bruised? For some, continuing to pass is the strategy. For others, when passing isn’t enough, the goal becomes disappearing altogether; higher levels of depression, substance abuse, and suicide in the gay community seem to bear this out. As long as we consider our uniqueness a liability, we’ll continue to try to extinguish what’s aberrant about us. Isolation and drugs remove us from reality, but only temporarily. When the pain returns, we’re forced to either embrace our uniqueness or else extinguish our very being.

This is the shadow, this is the dark current that runs parallel to gay pride parades and increased gay visibility. No matter how accepting some families may be, no matter how many episodes of Will & Grace get syndicated or how many people put Brokeback Mountain on their Netflix queues, coming out in America is still an act of sacrifice and risk and hope for just about anyone who does it. You’re sacrificing your assumed role in your family and society. You’re risking rejection, even abuse, from those who are supposed to love and care for you the most. You’re hoping you won’t feel like you’re the only one “like you” anymore—you’re hoping to trade passing for an actual sense of belonging.

And certainly, on the surface, San Francisco does provide a place where I don’t feel so alone anymore. I can step on any bus in the city, for instance, and know that there will be other out gays and lesbians heading to work and generally going about their lives, just like I do. But if I scratch that shiny iridescent veneer even just a little, I start feeling as isolated as I did growing up in the suburbs of San Leandro, where homophobes were legion. Just south of Oakland, and only 10 miles as the crow flies across the bay from San Francisco, it was nevertheless light years away culturally and politically. If anything, its geographical proximity to San Francisco made its inhabitants, including its children, more virulent in their hatred of gays, eager to distinguish themselves from the perverts who were parading and making waves on that side of the bay. The close proximity to San Francisco also made them hyperaware of gay cues—so that seventh graders with lisps were suspect, and words like “faggot” and “dyke,” rather than serving their traditional purpose as generic reminders to toe the gender-role line, had a more specific meaning: they were bold-faced accusations, official charges of wrongdoing.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I’ve witnessed many men metamorphose over time. Now 32 and having been “out” for half of my life, I often run into the skinny, soft boys I knew from queer youth groups in Hayward, Berkeley and Oakland, newly transformed into hulking Adonises. I even occasionally see some of them at the gym, where I seem to be spending as much time as they do. Well out of our teens now, we’ve abandoned our dreams of turning heterosexist norms on their heads and embracing our deviance. After years of trying to be “real men” in order to be accepted by heterosexuals, we gave up and ran for the hills of San Francisco. There, we learned the same lessons over again that were drummed into our skulls as kids: If you want to make in the world, kid, you’d better turn that swish into a swagger.

Despite living in what many refer to as the “Gay Mecca,” I still feel an intense pressure to conform, and the rules eerily resemble the ones that the jocks used to enforce in gym class. Don’t move your hands too much when you talk. Don’t lisp. Don’t smile or make eye contact with other boys (well, with one new proviso: only if you want to fuck them). And don’t let anyone accuse you of being a 90-pound weakling. Get big, big, big. Size matters.

The Castro is full of men who are on their way to or returning from the gym. A lot of these guys would get winded just from walking to their mailbox, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. They’ve made a career out of pumping iron (sometimes literally—you wouldn’t believe how many personal trainers I know), all in the ironic effort to emulate the thugs who pantsed them in the schoolyard.

Don’t get me wrong —I’m certainly not immune. I understand the desire to be considered attractive and healthy, but there’s something frightening about a community of men who are bulking up their bodies to achieve some predetermined definition of masculine perfection, meanwhile neglecting the fragile psyches that drove them here in the first place. When I visit the Castro, I see a lot of hurt little boys hiding inside the suits of armor they’ve created. As gay men, I think it’s time we ask ourselves: What is the armor for? What, or whom, are we protecting ourselves from? From gay-bashers? Doubtful. If Stonewall taught us nothing else, it taught us that an artfully thrown beer bottle is far more effective at deterring physical assault than a high-definition six-pack. No, we’re protecting ourselves from one another—that is, we’re protecting ourselves from being rejected by other gay men... (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