I’m Your Arcane Rhetoric: Slate, Reddit, and Gaybros

A recent story in Slate looked inside the community of “gaybros” on Reddit.com, a group of masculine-identified gay men who feel that they’ve been somewhat estranged from the wider LGBT community because of their masculinity. Columnist Bryan Lowder met with the gay bros, learning about their typical interests – sports, video games, grilling, the military, and so forth – and exploring the difficulties they’ve sometimes faced in relating to other gay men and dealing with cultural stereotypes of what it means to be a gay man.

This certainly isn’t a new phenomenon – practically every segment of the LGBT community faces its own challenges, even from within. Masculine gay men are seen as traitors who are trying to gain approval by mimicking straight people. Feminine gay men are called fairies and accused of putting on an act and making the community look bad. Butch lesbians are attacked for their masculinity and treated as unattractive, while femme lesbians are often invisible. Bisexuals are considered indecisive, untrustworthy, or secretly gay. And trans people are treated as freaks and told that they’re a special interest group that shouldn’t have anything to do with gays, lesbians or bisexuals. If you’re looking to have your queer identity demeaned and invalidated, there’s often no better place to go than the queer community itself.

That said, while there may be valid concerns here, the article seemed to promote the idea of a conflict without doing much to back it up. When you get into the substance of it, the notion of intra-community attacks on gay bros starts to look like more of a matter of perceptions than reality. And when the issue is one of men supposedly being marginalized for their masculine identities and interests, it’s easy to see why there might be just a little exaggeration involved.

This became especially obvious toward the end of the piece, when the community ethos of the gay bros was explained by contrasting it with that of the LGBT section of Reddit:

Of a piece with the brotherly vibe of Gaybros is the need to develop, as a site rule puts it, a “thick skin and sense of humor” toward contentious interactions, which crop up fairly often on threads about touchy issues like open relationships. Like “shooting the shit,” demanding a thick skin can at first sound like something a homophobic coach might yell at you for being upset by bullies, but it also has a socially useful function. Gaybros exists by nature and design outside the super-politically correct, college-bubble rhetoric that largely defines the terms of these discussions today (just check out the absurdly arcane ground-rules for r/LGBT to see what I mean). In this, it provides a so-called “safe space” for novice gay men who do not yet know the “right” words to explore their new identities and engage with their newfound community without fear of tar and feathers for not intuiting the difference between two-spirit and intersex.

This was especially interesting to read, because my partner Heather and I are in charge of the LGBT section, along with some very awesome volunteers. We launched it a few years ago because Reddit lacked a dedicated space for queer issues, and it’s currently the largest LGBT-related community on Reddit, with over 66,000 users. So we were a bit surprised to see the LGBT section described in this way, and we’re pretty sure our own community isn’t quite like how it was portrayed here.

In fact, for most of its history, the LGBT section had no rules at all, and it operated on the general principles now adopted by the gay bros: “We don’t remove posts of unpopular opinion, but try not to be a dick.” For a while at the beginning, this worked pretty well. The community regulated itself, dealt with trouble as it cropped up, and mostly kept itself in check. And then this stopped working so well. Eventually, the LGBT section grew to a point where this was no longer feasible. There were a lot of really transphobic posts going around, and it was discouraging trans people from participating in the community. When people started seriously claiming that 7-year-old transgender Girl Scouts were going to rape the other scouts, we realized this just wasn’t working out.

That was when we chose to enforce some pretty simple rules that you might expect to see in any LGBT community: don’t insult gay people, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, HIV-positive people, women, or racial minorities. These are the guidelines that Bryan Lowder described as “super-politically correct, college-bubble rhetoric” and “absurdly arcane ground-rules”. Personally, I’m not sure what’s so challenging about being expected to respect LGBT people in the LGBT section. But since many people do seem to have trouble with this concept, Heather took the time to explain what this means in terms of how to conduct yourself, using easy language and concrete examples. For instance:

  • Don’t come in here and tell all gay or bi or trans people how “annoying” or “unattractive” you think they are.
  • Don’t question people’s identities.
  • Don’t tell people they’re “hurting the movement” because of who they are.
  • Don’t tell people not to be offended by slurs that have been used against them for their entire lives.
  • Be willing to listen when someone explains why something you said was wrong or offensive.
  • If you’re going to say something that may be insulting, include a warning first.
  • Oh, and: Please don’t suggest that trans women are going to use their penises to rape everyone around them.

We understand that some of these particular examples of common sense may not be obvious at first, and that’s why we’ve pointed them out explicitly. Certainly no one should need a college degree to understand why you shouldn’t come to the LGBT section just to call gay people “faggots”, or tell someone their queerness is hindering progress, or act like trans people are all rapists.

Managing a diverse LGBT community is different from managing a community of gay bros. Their section is one-third the size of ours. It’s also populated by individuals who largely share the same identity, gender, orientation, interests, and sometimes troubled relationship to the larger queer community. And there’s nothing wrong with that – they’ve established a community that serves their own purposes.

But in the LGBT section, we have distinctly different needs, because we’re managing a space populated by gay people, bi people, trans people, men and women, masculine people, feminine people, and people with all sorts of different politics and concerns. In this situation, where the intra-community conflicts of LGBT people have the opportunity to play out on a daily basis, telling everyone to “have a thick skin” and “try not to be a dick” just isn’t enough. We would know – we tried that. I don’t think this misplaced comparison of the gay bros to the LGBT section is helping either of us.

And I especially don’t think that treating LGBT people’s identities as inaccessible, laughably radical, “college-bubble” nonsense is respectful to anyone. I’m sure it’s really easy to find some funny-looking words like “intersex” and “two-spirit”, and hold them up as an example of “political correctness” gone mad. Those college liberals sure are living in a fantasy world, aren’t they? “Intersex”, “two-spirit”, who has the time to learn about all these things?

These concepts and identities are portrayed as the domain of quibbling academics, incomprehensible and inconsequential to the lives of everyday people. I find that very interesting, because when people are calling someone a “hermaphrodite” or a “tranny” or a “he-she” or a “shemale”, I’m pretty sure they know exactly what they’re talking about. This isn’t ivory-tower pedantry, it’s prime time on Comedy Central.

Maybe this just didn’t occur to Bryan Lowder, but these terms refer to actual people. Of course, when you’re not one of them, you have the luxury of never needing to know what any of this means. You have the option to dismiss this as so much academic gender-studies blather, so it might seem like an unnecessary burden when anyone expects you to learn about this. It’s just not relevant to your life.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have that option. You get to walk away from this – I don’t. I’m the one who has to deal with it when people suddenly fail to understand that I’m a woman, or forget what words to use when someone is a woman. Meanwhile, you have your quote-unquote “safe space” that’s not safe for anyone whose identity isn’t part of a 4th-grade vocab lesson.

I mean, that is pretty much how privilege works, right? Oh, sorry – college word! Let me spell it out for you: You get to have an attack of pronoun amnesia, and I get to be called a man. Gay bros are important enough to have a reporter go bar-hopping with them and cover their struggle to be accepted as masculine men, but no one has the time to Google the word “intersex” or learn why they shouldn’t call me a “trap”.

You know what I don’t have time for? People who can’t be bothered to learn about anything outside the sphere of their immediate existence. When you’ve had to figure out just who the hell you really are, like I have, it’s difficult to be patient when someone acts like reading a paragraph is the hardest thing in the world. And after we’ve taken the time to help people understand how they can be respectful in our community, I’m really not impressed when a major publication would actually try to hold that against us. Maybe flaunting your ignorance is something to be proud of, inside your politically-incorrect idiot bubble. But out here, it just makes you look ignorant.