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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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Having left our homes and old lives behind, we need desperately to find love and acceptance, and the possibility for being rejected yet again, by yet another community, for being soft and effeminate—or even sick, dirty, or contagious—is too much to bear. So we head to the gyms, there to sculpt physiques that look strong and healthy. Then we head to the locker rooms, where we keep our heads down and hone on our finely tuned peripheral vision, just as we did in high school. If we make connections there at all, it is in the steamrooms, where faces and eyes are obscured.

It’s a sad tale, I know, and one I fear will add a new label to my already-chafing nape: cynic. Am I risking ostracism yet again? Who wants to be around a cynic, after all? After all those hours I’ve spent in the gym, the last thing I want to do is earn the scorn of other gay men. My friend Toby, certainly, thought I was being too critical of his French teacher. But if I am critical, it’s because I’m an idealist. It’s because I love men, and gay men in particular. And I think we can contribute more than we currently do—to ourselves, to each other, to the broader culture. I believe our presence as queer outsiders in a heteronormative world is illuminating. But we can only bring our own kind of light to the world if we are, in fact, present—here, now. Present to the reality that we will never gain political, social, or personal acceptance by disappearing ourselves, subsuming ourselves to bland, outmoded notions of masculine identity.

Queer liberation means being accepted as we are. For that to happen, we must each start by accepting, and being, fully ourselves—masculine, feminine, somewhere in the middle, or maybe somewhere entirely outside of the gender binary. We’re almost there, too. In coming out of the closet, we jettisoned expectations about who we were supposed to be in order to find out who we really were. Along the way, many of us gathered with other gay men in urban enclaves. And although it’s understandable that once there, we reverted to imposing those old, familiar expectations on each other, that strategy hasn’t brought us any closer to personal or political liberation. It’s time to make a change.

It’s time to let go of those tired old expectations and give ourselves permission to be who we really are. This will require letting go of a lot of fear, the fear that drove us into the closet in the first place: the fear that we would be punished for failing to be just like the other guys in the locker room. But guess what? Now we are just like the other guys in the locker room, in the gyms we’ve made for ourselves in places like the Castro—so why are we still afraid? If we let go of the fear and look each other in the eye, we will see ourselves in each other. We will see the beautiful, queer, imperfect boys—and men—that we were meant to be all along.


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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