Label Whores: Looking Beyond ‘Masculine’ And ‘Feminine’

labelI hate Wal-Mart.

Overcrowded, overwhelming and understaffed, this retail abyss was the bane of my existence back when I lived in Louisiana. Be that as it may, the prices were right so I—like most Americans who patronize the corporate giant—swallowed my pride and took my weekly trips to Wally-World.

One particular trip, though, will forever remain engrained in my mind.  As I entered the store one Saturday morning, I made my way through the clutter en route to the toy aisle. I’m not certain why my trip necessitated a venture down this particular aisle, but in retrospect I’m glad it did; what I saw was enlightening.

“Mom, can I get this?” A young boy (presumably around the age of seven) asked, pointing to a Barbie hanging above him, just slightly beyond his reach.

“No!” his mom retorted hastily. “That’s a girl’s toy.”

The boy—clearly disenchanted by his mother’s immediate disavowal of his request—simply replied “OK,” and continued to walk along. His mother then convinced the young boy to get an action figure instead. The boy begrudgingly agreed, his disappointment evident.

I thought to myself, “what makes a Barbie a girl’s toy? Is a vagina a prerequisite for purchase?”

This event is the perfect allegory to underscore how using gender and sex labels interchangeably can be toxic, especially within the LGBTQ community. As children, we are taught that individuals with a penis (men) are expect to be “masculine,” while individuals with a vagina (women) are expected to be “feminine.” While I certainly have reservations applying these terms even to environments that are considered to be heteronormative, I find these classifications within the LGBTQ community to be especially pernicious.

Below are some examples of how attempting to subscribe to one of these alleged “discrete” terms—masculine or feminine—can pose some unique problems for those who identify as LGBTQ.

How do we even define masculinity and femininity 

I’m often asked if I consider myself to be masculine or feminine—a question that is far too convoluted to be relegated to a simple either/or inquiry. And since the terms are used ad nauseam in parallel with sex (masculine = man; feminine = woman), it should be pretty evident how this could complicate the matter even further within the LGBTQ community. In other words, how do we use these labels in relative terms when there are two penises or two vaginas involved?

Nonetheless, my answer usually goes something like this:

“When I hear ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ I cry like a little bitch.  I’m not a Beyoncé stan, and I don’t know anything about ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race.’ I can be aggressive at times; on the contrary, I can be quite submissive. On Saturday, I can spend literally all day watching college football. So what am I? Masculine or feminine?”

Typically, when I respond in such a way I’m told that I’m just being difficult. But am I?

Just because I don’t sashay when I walk or enter a room asking for “ the tea” doesn’t make me any less feminine. Or does it? Since there are no clear, objective ways to ascribe certain characteristics to masculinity or femininity, perhaps we shouldn’t try. What’s the value-add anyway?

Homosexual relationships are inherently different than heterosexual ones…

…so we needn’t try to mirror the relationships of our heterosexual counterparts. I often hear many gay individuals lament the fact that there is a lack of versatility—usually in terms of sexuality, but generally speaking, as well—among those in the gay community. However, as we classify others and ourselves as either “masculine” or “feminine,” we are simultaneously eschewing the versatility we allegedly want. For with these labels come subsequent bucketing: The “masculine” guy is the “top”; the aggressor; the “man.” Meanwhile, the “feminine” guy is the “bottom”; the submissive one; the “woman.” It’s a slippery slope.

We shouldn’t feel obligated to declare “roles” for ourselves just to draw a correlation to that of heterosexual couples. Yes, it may seem as though identifying disparate roles and assigning ourselves to one of the said roles may make things easier, but…

…au contraire, these labels don’t make anything easier.

Marginalization is the natural foe of individuality and there are few things we as human beings espouse more than individuality. So why should this be an exception? Not to mention, the LGBTQ community is commonly stereotyped because of the terms we use to label ourselves. “Who’s the girl in the relationship?” “Who’s the one in control?” “Who ‘takes’ it?” These are all questions that I’ve heard straight individuals ask gay couples. And, honestly, I can’t even be upset because we’ve delineated ourselves as such.

A common stereotype is that a hefty number of gays are label whores. I guess that stereotype wasn’t limited to just designer clothing.

So here’s a proposition: I think we should make a collective decision—as an LGBTQ community—to stop being label whores, and just start being ourselves.

Any takers?

i hate cheesecake.

  • Unknowntatts

    As usual a well written piece, although you make a strong argument, I feel like I should disagree. It does make things easier while starting to date someone. Identifying yourself within the LGBTQ as which “position” you play can make dating easier and lets face it, dating in the gay community can be difficult. In the other hand, it does not mean its right, we are not actors so why do we have roles? You’ve made a good point. I did not notice that our community mirrors heterosexual relationships when i comes to dating. Ive heard numerous times of people asking who is the women and the men in a gay relationship, which now sounds absurd. Your article is making me reconsider my views on gay dating and relationships. Kudos

  • Alexis alerio

    Great point of view and interesting perspective of gay social roles.

  • YOMOSA Entertainment

    I would love for
    Jared Clemons to join me on my radio show to have a discussion about this topic
    and may more!

    YOMOSA
    Entertainment (703)-634-3679 Sammoto
    Yomosa

    • JC

      Sure!

      I’ll reach out to you soon.

  • Bob B

    As a child of the 50’s it was allot different..It wasn’t till the G.I. Joe in the late 60’s..for a Boy to own a doll..of course a fighting man ..no less. Then Ken..but I think if a little boy was playing with his best girl down the block..I don’t think he would be…Ken..lol..it still would be Barbie…Maybe the ‘Tom Boy” also playing.. would be Ken…but I doubt. Barbie was a lucky girl when she met Joe ! maybe not.

  • Omelio Alexander

    I think I love you. This sentiment is something I express all the time to deaf ears. My personal take or explanation to folks is that being masculine is inherently an aspect of being male and as such no matter what I do it is masculine. The way I put on my lipgloss to the way I wrestled in high school, how high my voice is to how much I can bench press all are done “masculinely” because they are done by a male. Effectively when you remove the value judgement of masculinity and femininity they are merely redundancies for your sex. You can only use them if you are espousing the the value judgement otherwise I’m with you rip those labels off and use more specific adjectives.

    • JC

      Omelio,

      Thanks for your comment! As you’ve pointed out, sex and gender can be mutually exclusive, and we should recognize this. Otherwise, can we really be upset if we’re judged unfairly? Very insightful!

      • Omelio Alexander

        I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. There is JUST sex. The problems we have in our community(modern society AND gay) come from thinking that gender is independent from sex. Masculinity and femininity are ways to describe gender performance. Gender performance is placing value on “appropriate” behavior for your sex. Being a man, being masculine are ways to say that you are appropriate. Referring to ourselves in “feminine” terms and overall identifying as “feminine” are accepting that we are “inappropriate”. In some ways and at one time I’m sure that was empowering to embrace our separateness but now it continues to be used to degrade one another and leave us marginalized among ourselves.

        • JC

          Omelio,

          I do think there is often a correlation between the terms and sometimes rightfully so, but the reason I said they CAN be mutually exclusive is because the terms don’t necessarily have to have any linkage. Of course, we’re socialized to believe they should and, for all intents and purposes, they do. That being said, we shouldn’t assume that just because someone is a man (sex), that they are or should be masculine. Same goes for a woman. I just think don’t think things are that black/white.

          But I DEF agree that now more than ever that the terms are used as a way to marginalize.

        • Omelio Alexander

          I think we are mis-communicating. In my vocabulary masculine does not actually exist. When I see it I translate it to what it means appropriate/inappropriate. I don’t assume or suggest that males must be appropriate(masculine) I assert that whatever you do is “appropriate” no matter you sex. My premise is that even using the terms masculine and feminine ALWAYS implies an indication of appropriateness. The only way to get rid of that implication is to eliminate the terms all together or reduce them to the redundancies for sex they should be, so that all varieties of male expression are masculine; flamboyant to stolid, colorful to bland, loud to quiet, aggressive to passive, artistic to athletic and so on. If masculinity is applied to both sides of the coin it looses it meaning and SO IT SHOULD. At least as far as the homosexual community and the feminist community should be concerned. The dissolution of gender is something I truly believe is necessary for us to build a stronger and healthier community.

        • JC

          OH! Got it.

          Bold stance, but I support it!

  • https://www.facebook.com/ZionMarQuiese.Devereaux Zion MarQuiese Devereaux

    In the gay lifestyle being “masculine” means you can wear a fitted, sag your jeans, and talk like you have sh*t in your mouth no matter the fact that your eyebrows are arched to high heaven, your makeup is flawless and you have skittles falling out of your mouth with every syllable.
    I had a dude tell me that I wasn’t “masculine” enough because I wasn’t dressed “hood.”
    I just laughed and walked away.
    He basically told me that home training, self-respect and self-awareness is not good enough for him. I must be what everyone else claims to be in order to be accepted.
    I wish I was raised in the gay era when being gay was good enough- you didn’t have to line up with all these ridiculous and immature prerequisites.

  • I AM A GOD & A MAN OF GOD!!!!

    I LOVE IT!!! [EVERY word]

  • AmericanBoi

    Well written. And in a perfect world these rules would apply. But lets be real.
    When asked the question are you masc or fem the answer you gave was you being difficult. All of the things you named are things that cannot be known by just looking at someone. I love Beyonce, I like Ru Paul drag race, and I LOATHE sports. But because of the way i carry myself and the fact that i get “Boy you look like you play football.” bc of my build, most ppl don’t even think i’m gay upon 1st meeting me. Its once they get to know me that i enjoy those things. So does the way you carry yourself mirror the american male or the american female? If you were raised in America, you know exactly what that is.

    I also think roles are necessary in our relationships. Like you said, our relationships are very different from heterosexuals. One of the main reasons my 7 yr relationship has lasted so long is because we both know our roles, and we like them. I’m a top, he’s a bottom. I tend to be more aggressive. He is very submissive. It just is what it is. How would 2 men who don’t enjoy being penetrated (2 tops) work in a relationship? I dated another top for about 5 months. We really liked each other. Did things for each other that we wouldn’t normally do. It didn’t work. What we preferred sexually just didn’t work. Both of us were to aggressive. I think ignoring these things is only us trying to fool ourselves into thinking they don’t matter, when they really do. I’m not saying everyone is strictly one or the other, but again, lets be real…we like what we like. We do take on roles. And i don’t think anything is wrong with that.

    • https://www.facebook.com/ZionMarQuiese.Devereaux Zion MarQuiese Devereaux

      I agree 1000%!!!
      Roles help us know where we fit and keeps the relationship working like a fine tuned machine.

    • JC

      AmericanBoi,

      Well, as the cliché goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” It seems like picking a “role” and finding a mate who also subscribes to his “role” makes things easier for you. That tends to not work for me. I definitely think my piece is steeped in idealism and I know that things won’t change, but a boy can dream, right? lol. I just honestly feel that these terms are ultimately used as a way to denote subservience (namely when identifying the “bottom”).

      If someone asks me if I’m not masculine or feminine, I won’t answer with either choice. Period. Call me an iconoclast lol.

      Appreciate your comment!! Keep them coming ;)

    • Omelio Alexander

      Its not being difficult if you don’t think those words apply to you. No matter what people pretend saying you are masculine IS saying you are NORMAL and that if you are feminine you are not. I am often described as feminine because of how I look but people who get to know me might describe me as masculine for MANY of my personality traits. For me, if its important for you to ask I already know not to bother with you. And just to prove my point “bc of my build, most ppl don’t even think i’m gay upon 1st meeting me” you just equated masculinity with NOT being gay. We can not function as a group if we create relationships and friendships based on NOT being gay. That is what this post is about the underlying issue of focusing on relationships with gay who aren’t gay. And to go back to myself. Just because I am perceived as feminine does not mean I am going to subscribe to those roles. I am constantly finding myself on the outs because I prefer to top, because I’m not submissive, because I am smart. Just because I am perceived as feminine am I suppose to subscribe to roles of a submissive bottom who stand in the shadow of your manly wisdom? or am I suppose to “butch” it up to “match” my internal traits? One way or another what you think isn’t going to match what you expect. So maybe we should start asking more legitimate questions. Like do you like to listen to? Are you outgoing? Are you nice? What’s important to you.

      • JC

        Eloquently stated, Omelio.

        I think you and I are the nonconformists at the table lol.

      • AmericanBoi

        Well i never said i equated “top”= masculine and “bottom=feminine. I those are sexual roles. And again, i dont think anything is wrong with having sexual roles and stating them. I know many masculine bottoms and many feminine tops. When i say masc/fem i mean how you are perceived by society. Some men you can tell they are gay at one glance. So men you cannot. Thats just the world we live in. If you choose to ignore it, thats fine, but its not going to change. Maybe i misunderstood what the author meant when he was asked “are you feminine or masculine.” when you meet someone you shouldn’t even have to ask that question.

        I also think you think being viewed as masculine means one is being viewed as “less gay” then someone feminine. I don’t think that way. We are all gay. Masculine or Feminine. So i dont think im any less gay then my boyfriend or any other “obviously” gay man. We are men who like men. Period. I dont think anything is demeaning or shameful about being a bottom. Who else we us tops top? I think WE give those meanings more power and text then they actually have. I like to keep it simple. Life is hard enough. You a top or a bottom. Top, ok cool, lets be friends. Its really that simple.

        • Omelio Alexander

          At least you put quotation marks aroung that obviously… the meaning of words are intrinsic. Masculine and feminine both by way of the dictionary mean “typical of and APPROPRIATE to” men and women. Every time we label a man feminine we are also labeling him inappropriate. In response to the rest of your post the quote I provided from your first post indicates that “femininity” IS associated with being gay(when it shouldn’t be, thank you for your quotation marks) whether that indication is by you or someone else is irrelevant. Also while you say that gay is gay you obvoiously have never been discriminated against as being UNCAPABLE of fulfilling some role other than submissive bottom. I doubt you have considered the ease at which you get to be a top because you look like a football player. People assume I am those things as much as they falsely assume you are a straight football player. No one should be assuming anything about us but as long as we hold onto masculine and feminine language they will continue to do just that. Cause masculine men aren’t gay and feminine men take dick, more specifically feminine men SHOULD take dick. They ARE like women afterall right?… or not!

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  • Dεε Jαy

    I love this Jared.

  • http://www.Twitter.com/Exhibit_REY The Chosen One ~♏~

    I love everything about this post and I completely understand why you phrased your answer the way you did when asked if you’re masculine or feminine. Why is it that gay black men are always being forced into a box for classification? When I’m asked that very same question, I reply “I’m neither……I’m a black gay man!” What the LGBTQ community needs to realize is that their incessant need to label everything only complicates things especially when it comes to the whole Top or Bottom debate. A masculine man can be a top or a bottom and the same goes with a feminine man. The same applies to the word “Trade”; that word seriously needs to go away immediately!

    • JC

      Yes, “trade” is the Generation Y term lol. I neglected to pull the term in, but it definitely is becoming a lot more universal!

  • TruthBeTold

    The age old Masculine vs. Feminine label debate. Gay men love to squabble over this question. Its exhausting. For what its worth, we all house both masc/fem energies to varying degrees. Its vital that we celebrate all of it. To accentuate the either over the other is to neglect a part of oneself. This excess or margin when neglected for too long becomes an itch or wound that must be scratched or tended to. Lets opt to own all parts of who we are..and celebrate each other’s masc/fem. It makes the sex hotter as well.

  • Mike

    Where can I email you at

  • BlackPegasus

    Another pro-effeminate propaganda piece written with the hopes of isolating and marginalizing Masculine Black Men….*sighs*

    If you wanna “be yourself”, then have at it.. But at the end of the day, using these “labels” will help myself and many others cut through the bullsh*t..

    • Really?

      Umm not sure what YOU read, but there’s nothing marginalizing about this piece at all. No where in this piece were masculine men criticized for being masculine. The whole point, which you appear to have missed, is that labels within themselves are damaging to our community…..to the point where people start making decisions based on perceived masculinity. That’s not healthy. If you want to “cut through the b.s.” as you put it, then you should work on your own issues such that these “labels” are no longer necessary.

      • https://www.facebook.com/ZionMarQuiese.Devereaux Zion MarQuiese Devereaux

        So, if you go into a grocery store and nothing has a label on but you are told to buy it what will you do when you get home, open the can and its not what you want?

        • JC

          Thanks for your comment! Keep em coming! :-)

          Not sure how I feel about using an analogy that draws relation to grocery store items. lol. And I don’t think it’s analogous anyhow. When you go to a grocery store, you know what a banana looks like; you don’t need a label. Moreover, you know if it’s too ripe or not ripe enough for you (which in this case would be where we’d draw the analogy, I believe), and there aren’t any labels stating how ripe the banana is anyway. Why? Because its subjective, and there really is no right/wrong answer.

        • https://www.facebook.com/ZionMarQuiese.Devereaux Zion MarQuiese Devereaux

          That’s the point of my analogy.
          If there is no label on the CAN and you DON’T know what it is and you take it home what will happen then?
          It’s not fair to someone who KNOWS what they want to meet someone who doesn’t know or is a blank can expecting them to like whatever they are bringing to you.
          That’s unacceptable.
          The real reason why black gay men have so many issues is because instead of us being who we want to be we are choosing to try and label ourselves to fit the needs and wants of a man that in nine times out of ten don’t want you anyway.

        • Omelio Alexander

          I disagree. The reason why black gay men have so many issues is because they reject the men they have labeled so broadly as undesirable. A guy I used to know who regularly asked “where the boys at?” in the middle of gay bars would refuse to talk to anyone there but on one occasion I witnessed him pick up what appeared to be a crack head or wine-o at least. That was an extreme case but he wouldn’t be the first to have a preference for a “masculine” piece of trash over a “feminine” person with purpose.

        • https://www.facebook.com/ZionMarQuiese.Devereaux Zion MarQuiese Devereaux

          You always disagree with what I have to say.
          Why even comment?

        • Omelio Alexander

          I don’t seek you out. I read the posts and I respond . If you were inarticulate and unclear I wouldn’t notice you. Thankfully you are articulate and clear about your point of view. Me disagreeing with you is only meant to further conversation. 1. because I do disagree and 2. because other people need to hear the opposing viewpoint to spark their own thought process. But to be honest I don’t think we’re even disagreeing. From what you’ve said so far it seems like your issue is with the people using fake labels not with the labels themselves. My issue (and I believe the authors issue is that we shouldn’t be shopping by labels but by trying a product on its on. To go back to the supermarket, it seems like your complaint is more about knock-off products on the shelf versus my complaint that the nutritional value of the product has nothing to do with the label. Asking someone if they are masculine or feminine means what, except a presumption about their “ingredients”? I assure you people label me feminine perpetually and they are ALWAYS shocked that I don’t meet their expectations. And those are just the people who bothered to find out. If they evaluated me by my ingredients and flavor instead of by whether I was Nabisco or the Acme brand they might be pleasantly surprised.

          The label masculine gets more and more narrowly defined to the point where some won’t even accept terms like in-between for a persons self identification. Its like asking someone if they are a top or bottom with no regard for the possibility of versatility or non-penetration. A person who asks you that is demonstrating their mind is closed and that you might be on the wrong side of the door. We need to stop arbitrarily shutting each other out.

        • JC

          Omelio,

          I agree whole-heartedly. Particularly with your last comment.

        • Omelio Alexander

          I agree with JC that your analogy doesn’t apply. But if it did it would be more like looking at two brands of lemonade and deciding you didn’t like one because you didn’t like the other one. Never mind the fact that the one you had was made of artificial ingredients no REAL lemon juice no real sugar. This trip to the grocery store is about prejudging all brands WITHOUT actually looking at the ingredients in the small print.

          But to be honest this whole topic is more like a child refusing to eat something because it looks “nasty”. While they never turn down candy that does nothing but rot their teeth and negatively impacts their health. We as a group need to start reading the ingredients and stop worrying about the name on the label. I personally eat a variety of foods and am open to try new things, the same mentality applies to my dating process.

        • https://www.facebook.com/ZionMarQuiese.Devereaux Zion MarQuiese Devereaux

          The analogy applies but it wont apply to you because the concept is too elementary.
          It’s basically common sense but we all know we don’t have that around anymore.

        • Omelio Alexander

          Elementary? Possibly. Hence the reference to children who won’t try new food.

    • Omelio Alexander

      The bullsh!t you are referring to is broken down as such.

      Are you feminine/masculine aka are you noticeably gay?

      Important only if you are worried about:
      1. Being presumed gay by association
      2. Being the “man” in the relationship
      3. Being the “woman” in the relationship
      4. Who is penetrating who

      1. If you are dating a man you are in fact gay or at least bisexual. Heterosexuals deal with people knowing they’re straight all the time get over it.
      2. You’re both men, whatever attributes they have that match or are counter to yours MIGHT actually benefit you.
      3. SEE 2
      4. I assure you demeanor has nothing to do with sexual position or prowess.

      If you are “turned off by” someone not matching their role please just remember that according to society your role is to be with a woman. i.e. your distaste for someone not behaving “properly” is ultimately a reflection of self hatred for your sexuality which is not “proper”

  • Jerome Kugan

    Love reading your articles JC – keep on writing, thinking – culture, attitude are not static entities – we define and redefine our reality all the time, and writers like yourself ask important intriguing questions. Make me think and reflect on my own experiences as a gay man dealing with gender stuff. Thanks.

    • JC

      Jerome,

      Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me. I’m glad I’m able to write things that people can really ponder and question. I agree that life isn’t static and if WE don’t take responsibility for our actions, who will? :-)

      JC

      • Jerome Kugan

        Oui. Growing up as a gay man in a Catholic family within a Muslim-majority country in the 80s and 90s and now working as a queer activist in an increasingly conservative and intolerant society has forced me to really question my own stance on the female/male binary. But just when I thought I was done with it in my early 20s, I started meeting and befriending transpeople a couple of years ago, getting to know them as peers within the community, learning about their transitioning, and appreciating their beautiful brave souls. I’ve come to realise that transpeeps have much to teach the rest of us about gender. They fuck it up, tear down the boundaries and blur so much of what we take for granted within the cisgender realm. Such tenuous assumptions that we irrationally hang on for dear life, giving rise to such hateful sentiments even within our own community. I’m not trans myself but I am eternally grateful to my trans friends for allowing me to see again the layers and layers, and challenging my own assumptions. And knowing that has liberated my perspective on life as a whole. We are not always who we think we are. We are the sum of our changes, and we have the power to affect those changes. You’re absolutely right. We have to take responsibility for that. We have to be answerable for this generation’s search for the answer (with the caveat that the answer is not always the answer we are looking for, if you know what I mean). Thank you again for this article. Your thoughts are inspiring, positive and dynamic; to me you are a truthseeker/truthspeaker. I look forward to reading more. Namaste.

        • QuietWarriorAtl

          So insightful! Thanks for posting, Jerome.

  • QuietWarriorAtl

    Jared, I’d like to thank you for tackling this issue. It seems that so many gay men and women struggle with issues surrounding masculine and feminine gendered roles. We struggle so much because as soon as we are born, we are submerged into a very heteronormative society. What saddens me is that we have adopted rigid and restrictive roles/labels that hinder us in the same ways it hinders heterosexuals. We end up being emotionally and physically unavailable in our communities and in our relationships. Lastly, after reading some of the comments below, I’ve come to the conclusion that patriarchy, internalized homophobia and assimilation are epidemics that need to die.