Too skinny for the gym rats, too hairy for the twinks, and too foreign for just about everyone else; my first experiences in Montreal’s gay village ended up being more intimidating than growing up in the aggressively ignorant environment I did in the Middle East. If any of you were like me growing up, then you spent your high school years being scrawny, awkward and unpopular versions of your current selves (full disclosure number uno: I’m still kinda scrawny).
Armed with the notion that things would in fact – for lack of a better term – get better, all I wanted was to go by unnoticed until I could come into my own in a more accepting environment. Little did I know that it would take me years to truly find my niche in a community so heavily focused on appearance that it fails to harbor any sense of inclusion among gay youth who struggle to associate themselves with unrealistic images of men continuously perpetuated by the media and within our community.
Everyone wants to look good and almost everyone also wants to be accepted. As painful as one’s teenage years can be, they can be an especially daunting time if you’re also struggling with your sexuality. In current public discourses surrounding bullying there seems to be more of a focus than ever on self-acceptance as well as the acceptance of others – whether it be their appearance, sexuality, or lifestyle choices. But I’m preaching to the converted when I say that, aren’t I?
At least this is what I assumed would be the case when I came out several years ago. I thought I’d be coming into a community where what makes people unique, physically or otherwise, is not only accepted but also encouraged and celebrated; but I was fed a harsh dose of reality to find a culture harping so heavily on personal appearance that anyone outside the thin confines of what ‘looks good’ is just as much an ‘other’ as he is in predominantly straight circles.
This urban gay environment is uniquely stratified, with Adonis-esque men comfortably perched at the top. Despite our anthems of acceptance and diversity, not all are welcomed into our clubs, bars, and parties with open arms. Unfortunately, those arms now need to be chiseled, white, hairless, and young and whoever they’re welcoming should look the same.
I love my hairy chest, dark features, and ‘ethnic’ nose but it’s taken me years of stubborn perseverance to get me to a place where I can disassociate myself from the superficial expectations projected at me everywhere I turn. This struggle is not unlike body issues faced by women as a repercussion of endless social and media pressure experienced on a daily basis. As a gay man, I completely understand and empathize with women’s criticisms of our image and body obsessed culture. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never look like the stereotypically buff, hairless ideal I see in representations of gay men. And that’s okay. But what about the millions of gay individuals, young or old, who don’t have the tools to accept the bodies they were born with?
I recognize that attraction is based on personal preferences, and age, size, skin colour and body type are part of that. But what angers me is the notion that our community celebrates diversity when all it does is segregate it, constructing an unrealistic hierarchy with dangerous, and often traumatizing, consequences.
Now more than ever, we’re expected to wax or shave every follicle of the millions of follicles on our bodies (full disclosure numbero deux: I manscape) and spend increasingly more time at the gym – not for health, but image. More often than not, the attitude around anyone who doesn’t put in the required effort to look like a walking Ken doll is sadly negative.
There’s a little Regina George in all of us. Unfortunately, it’s evident to me that as much as we like to rave about how inclusive and welcoming the gay community is, pressure and judgement internal to the community is almost as bad as the external. Instead of accepting others for who they are and what they look like, we do our best to classify them into any of the countless categories we’ve set up to differentiate each other. This does nothing but inadvertently disenfranchise a large member of the population who don’t feel like they belong to any specific group.
Montreal’s gay village is about as “diverse” and “welcoming” as a high school cafeteria, only the music blaring from the speakers are painfully generic remixes of current top 40 hits. You’ll find your bears, twinks, leather daddies, gym rats, or chubbies all coexisting on opposite ends of the same space (fun fact: I was recently informed that I’m an otter). In my opinion, it’s not because people want to hang with “their kind”, but rather, a strict social hierarchy based profoundly on appearance has been enacted to ensure people know their place, and inherently, their value. Basic high school politicking.
Do I think it’s great that people can feel like they freely belong to a subculture as gay individuals? Damn straight I do. But what about people who don’t identify with any of the obvious groups? What happens to them? There are definitely many other outlets that focus more on intellect than image where you can reach out to like minded individuals, but we all know that the first place most gay youth venture is the village. It’s obvious and it’s easy. Sadly, the boundaries placed by these strict superficial barriers could mean that a lonely 18 year-old teenager struggling with his weight as well as his sexuality would be hard pressed to strike up a conversation with someone with only 2% body fat and abs you can do your laundry on when it’s exactly this potential conversation that could give a lonely 18 year-old hope that there’s a place for him in the world, after all.
Before anyone comes after me complaining that it’s impossible to befriend everyone you meet, trust me when I say that that’s not what this is about. This is about us being so distracted with telling gay youth that things will get better that we fail to realize that we’ve built the exact same culture within our community. If you’re ‘hot’, you’re popular. If you’re not, good luck. Furthermore, an unbalanced emphasis on personal appearance does nothing but place the significant work that remains to be done to achieve equality for all LGBT individuals on the back-burner. So maybe men in the 70s weren’t as well groomed as they are today, but at least they spent a little more time focusing on the advancement of the gay rights movement than they did doing ab crunches at the gym.
It’s our responsibility to create an environment a little more accepting of diversity in all it’s forms and a little less obsessed with ensuring that everyone within it looks the part. Until that’s done, I firmly believe that complaints about bullying in schools is at best irresponsible, when we’re just as guilty of doing it to each other in our own special way, every Saturday night.