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social sciences

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Sissies  
 
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Within the contemporary gay male community, then, a masculine persona is often more highly valued than an effeminate one. At the same time, however, there is also a powerful counter tradition within the gay male community that privileges effeminacy and celebrates sissies. Moreover, there are many men who find sissies very desirable sexually.

Often the effeminate male is the most obvious homosexual, one who is unable to "pass" as straight in a homophobic society. This inability to hide frequently inculcates admirable characteristics of disarming honesty, hard-won pride, and conspicuous bravery. Although the sissy is sometimes depicted as weak and cowardly, he actually evinces enormous courage simply by defying society's pervasive demands for gender conformity and by enduring the hostility of others. As Savage points out, sissies are often braver and more confident than those who are butch or struggle to appear so.

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In addition, the vulnerability of sissies, who are far more exposed to social ostracism than closeted gay men who appear conventionally masculine, often evokes empathy among other homosexuals and creates a bond that transcends different styles and erotic preferences. Indeed, there is a venerable tradition of campy identification with sissies, as epitomized in a kind of gay "sisterhood," especially among those who identify as "queens," whether or not they are themselves effeminate.

Sissies and Gay Male Culture

Heterosexual concepts of masculinity and femininity are often present in gay male culture, leading to anxiety about sissies and their relation to gender and behavior. Not only are they sometimes viewed as unattractive by some gay men, but sissies are also often perceived as presenting unflattering images of the gay community by other gay males, especially those who have developed a conspicuously masculine persona.

Overtly effeminate gay men are also sometimes perceived as flaunting their sexual orientation, and sissies on television or in film are ridiculed as being stereotypical depictions of gay males. Anxiety about gender can lead some gay men to disparage or avoid sissies.

The gay male adoption of the mainstream prejudice against sissies may be seen most clearly in the deliberate creation of self-consciously "masculine" styles of public presentation by gay men in the post-Stonewall era. In the 1970s, a blue-collar style of dress incorporating jeans and facial hair announced gay men as "masculine." Similarly, the prevalent gay style of the late 1990s co-opted the "all-American" athlete look of Abercrombie & Fitch. Both constructed styles conspicuously avoided the stereotypically feminine or sissy.

Gay male body culture is also a realm in which gay men, through bodybuilding, attempt to remove traces of effeminate or sissy appearance as they present themselves publicly. Similarly, participants in leather culture and the bear movement sometimes create exaggeratedly masculine personas. Often such attempts to achieve "masculinity" are reactions against having been sissies in childhood.

In his essay, "The Myth of Gay Macho," Richard Goldstein takes issue with negative attitudes toward sissies in gay male culture. He argues that there is no such thing as a gay behavioral norm, but since masculine men are more socially acceptable in mainstream culture than sissies, "straight-acting" or masculine behavior is what many gay men choose to present to heterosexual society and each other, in effect forcing themselves to conform to mainstream expectations.

But these negative attitudes toward the sissy risk erasing and distorting gay history. The sissy, after all, has played a significant role in the development of gay male culture, contributing especially to the creation of camp, a theatrical, exaggerated, and knowing critique of mainstream culture, especially its rigid gender roles. Camp is a form of humor that helped a persecuted minority cope with oppression and stigma.

Moreover, many of the stereotypes associated with the sissy, from an interest in fashion and old movies to an obsession with opera and show tunes, are important aspects of what it means to be gay to many homosexuals regardless of whether they identify or are perceived as sissies. The homosexual sissy has in many ways created and defined gay male culture.

Although frequently the butt of jokes, the sissy himself functions as a kind of living critique of masculine norms and expectations, his effeminate affectations affirming that gender is a social construction rather than a biological determinant.

Despite a concerted effort to present a masculine image of gay men in order to further political goals and acceptance by mainstream society, some gay men have worried that conformity may be bought at a heavy price and entail the loss of many distinctive aspects of gay culture. In response, some groups and movements, such as the Radical Faeries, have emerged to resist assimilationism and to embrace the sissy, who is seen as a version of the gender variant sacred outsider.

Historically, glbtq communities have been very tolerant of gender transgressions of all kinds, perhaps recognizing a relationship between sexual and gender nonconformity.

Sissies and Behavior

While there may be some correlation between gender nonconformity in childhood and eventual homosexuality, there is little evidence to substantiate the contention that adult male homosexuals are, in any absolute way, more effeminate than male heterosexuals. Effeminate behavior among homosexuals is almost certainly a subcultural expression rather than a biological one.

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