Methods: A phenomenological qualitative approach was used to describe how gay men define and experience masculinity. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews conducted by the primary investigator lasting between 45 and 90 minutes. Each interview focused on the following research questions:
- How do you define masculinity as a gay man?
- How does masculinity show up in the gay community?
A sample of 15 cis and trans adult gay men was selected through a combination of convenience and snowball sampling. Initial participants were recruited from various online LGBT-focused groups, who then provided referrals to other gay men within their social circles. Data was analyzed inductively to identify themes related to the research question.
Results: The majority of participants described masculinities among gay men as being more flexible than hegemonic masculinity, stating that “masculinity and manhood is whatever you are.” They contrasted this with hegemonic masculinity, which was a “mask” and “prison” that served to simultaneously hide their sexuality and limit their ability to make choices. There were, however, notable exceptions to this flexibility. While flexible masculinities allowed participants to participate in a wider variety of behaviors in platonic relationships, that freedom disappeared in the context of sexual relationships. Participants consistently described partner selection preferences for hegemonically masculine men, an “unsexualization” of traditional femininity, and the association of sexual role preference (i.e. tops or bottoms) with masculinity or femininity. Additionally, some men—particularly men of color and transgender men—described being held to a stricter expectation of hegemonic masculinity than their White cisgender counterparts.
Conclusion and Implications: These findings indicate that gay men perform masculinities differently based on social context, with greater rigidity found in partner selection. As adherence to masculine norms has been associated with intimate partner violence (IPV) within the gay community, future research should examine this differential level of flexibility between platonic and sexual relationships, specifically within the context of IPV. Findings also highlight potential racial and gender identity discrepancies, with White cisgender men describing a broader range of socially accepted performances of masculinities. Further research should explore how holding historically marginalized racial or gender identities impacts community expectations of masculine behaviors.