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date: 21 July 2017

Intergroup Communication Dynamics Within Gay Male Culture

Summary and Keywords

Like members of many social identity groups, gay men within certain racial or ethnic groups (e.g., gay white men in the United States) generally share a sense of group entitativity that is characterized by the experiences of unity, coherence, and organization. Notwithstanding its members’ overall sense of entitativity, gay white male culture in the United States, specifically, has formed an array of diverse subgroups along dimensions such as physical attractiveness, musculature, masculinity, and age. These subgroup categorizations often are highly salient to individuals, and they frequently serve these gay men’s drive to self-enhance through intragroup comparisons. Given that many of these subgroups are well established, with members who share not only unique physical characteristics but also particular communication patterns and/or traditions that contribute to group stereotype formation, it is possible to consider communication and comparisons across these subgroups to be intergroup in nature as well.

Social psychological theory provides useful frameworks for understanding the intra-/intergroup dynamics among such subgroups of gay men. One framework is self-categorization theory. According to this theory, individuals engage in self-stereotyping. That is, they react to themselves and others not as unique individuals, but as members of a group who share common characteristics and have similar needs, goals, and norms. It is through such categorization that group members differentiate themselves from members of other groups or subgroups. Another framework, social identity theory, also sheds light on intergroup dynamics within the gay white culture in the United States. In line with this theory, gay men may cope with discrimination from the heterosexual mainstream through the adoption of one or more coping strategies. These strategies include leaving their group or changing negative values assigned to the in-group into more positive ones. Additionally, they may avoid the use of the higher-status heterosexual group as a comparative frame of reference, instead making downward comparisons with members of other gay male groups that they consider to be inferior in order to self-enhance. Of course, though not to achieve positive distinctiveness, members of lower-status groups also orient themselves in gay culture by making upward comparisons with members of subgroups they consider to be superior to their own. Again, these subgroup distinctions may include those based on physical attractiveness, musculature, masculinity, and age.

Keywords: gay, gay culture, gay men, queer, LGBTQ, identity, social identity, social comparison, intergroup communication

Introduction

Like members of many social identity groups, men within the gay white American community generally share a sense of group entitativity that is characterized by the experiences of unity, coherence, and organization (Hamilton & Sherman, 1996). Notwithstanding its members’ overall sense of entitativity, U.S. gay white male culture has formed an array of diverse subgroups along dimensions such as physical attractiveness, musculature, masculinity, and age. Intergroup communication is considered to occur between individuals when their communicative behavior is based on perceptions of self and others as belonging to different social categories. Given that many of these gay men’s subgroups are well established, highly salient, and defined by not only unique physical characteristics but also particular communication patterns and/or traditions that contribute to group stereotype formation, it is possible to consider these subgroups to be “groups” and communication across these subgroups (or groups) to be intergroup in nature. Accordingly, as with other social identity groups, identification with these subgroups may serve one’s drive to self-enhance through intra-/intergroup comparisons (Hajek, 2012).

Pertinent to intra-/intergroup communication dynamics and subgroup formation is gay men’s use of linguistic labels (Hajek, Abrams, & Murachver, 2005), which for some white American men may include, for example, “gay,” “queer,” “bear” (Moskowitz & Seal, 2009), or “muscle boy” (Alvarez, 2008). These and other labels will be explored in later sections. Additionally, gay men’s aforementioned experience of entitativity, or being self-consciously bound together as a community, may carry added salience by virtue of their shared history of social stigma and discrimination on the basis of their sexuality (Herek, 1991; Kite & Whitley, 1996). Examples of such discriminatory behaviors enacted against gay men by mainstream society include verbal harassment, familial disownment, hate crimes, and political efforts to unwind results of gay people’s hard-fought battles for equal rights in the United States. As proposed by theoretical frameworks covered in the following section, this discrimination may fuel some gay white men’s identification with subgroups in the interest of gaining or maintaining self- or social esteem.

Theoretical Approaches

There exist several traditional intergroup theories that provide useful frameworks for understanding such dynamics among subgroups of gay men. These theories derive from the social psychological intergroup tradition that considers many social identities to be relatively stable and essentialized, a perspective compatible with the gay studies approach taken here. To note, this intergroup theoretical base and gay studies approach are incompatible with a “queer theory” approach (see Lovaas, Elia, & Yep, 2006). One theory that focuses on cognitive processes at the core of social identification is self-categorization theory (SCT; Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). According to SCT, individuals categorize and label themselves in the search for personal meaning. This self-categorization may lead to self-stereotyping, in which individuals adopt a group stereotype. That is, they may react to themselves and others not as unique individuals, but as members of a group who share common characteristics and have similar needs, goals, and norms. It is through such categorization that group members differentiate themselves from members of other groups or subgroups. Additionally, the theory states that the likely result of self-stereotyping is depersonalization, in which individuals come to regard themselves as interchangeable with others in the category. Again, this analysis adopts the perspective that a gay male subgroup comprises a social identity category. Therefore, it is assumed here that the intergroup social identity dynamics presented in SCT may apply to this subgroup identity formation and expression.

Also important for understanding gay male subgroup dynamics is SCT’s notion that self- and other-categorizations are linked (see Harwood, Giles, & Palomares, 2005). That is, the categorization of an out-group member invokes an implicit self-categorization as not being a member of that category, and therefore as belonging to some other category along the salient dimension. For example, from the gay white American male cultural perspective, considering an out-group member to be in the “leather man” category may invoke the implicit self-categorization as being not a “leather man” and rather as a “muscle boy” or “twink” (i.e., thin and hairless gay man) or as a member of some other gay male social category. From the SCT perspective, gay men may engage in these self- and other-categorizations in the service of negotiating their place in the gay male culture as far as social status is concerned.

Another theoretical framework that is useful for understanding intra-/intergroup dynamics among some gay white American men is social identity theory (SIT; Tajfel & Turner, 1986; for a critique, see Brown, 2000). Like self-categorization theory, SIT proposes that social categorizations are key to the establishment of social identity group memberships and that these categorizations are highly salient in the formation of a person’s self-image. The theory also holds that group members share emotional involvement in their group definitions, that they achieve some degree of social consensus about their group’s evaluation, and that their social identities “provide a system of orientation for self-reference; they create and define the individual’s place in society” (Tajfel & Turner, 1986, p. 16). Key to SIT is the proposition that individuals are driven to seek a positive social identity in order to self-enhance or increase their self-esteem (see Rubin & Hewstone, 1998). From a psychological perspective, “self-enhancement” may be defined as “the desire to maintain or increase the positivity (or decrease the negativity) of one’s self-concept” (Leary, 2007). Importantly, individuals may do this by focusing on and celebrating positive aspects of their identity, or they may compare their group’s social position, or status, with that of other groups that they consider to be inferior (e.g., other gay male subgroups).

Approaching gay male social identity from an SIT point of view offers valuable insight into influential social factors, such as discrimination among subgroups. This discrimination may or may not be sparked by identity threats and an accompanying loss of self-esteem due to the condemnation of gay people by the heterosexual majority. In terms of SIT’s mechanisms, gay men who experience a threatened subgroup identity (based, for example, on the possession of physical characteristics deemed to be of lower social value among some members of gay culture) may respond by employing SIT’s well-defined and researched responses.

Firstly, some gay men may enact an individual mobility strategy, that is, attempt to leave their threatened subgroup and join a more positively distinct subgroup. For example, “midlife” or “older” gay men may attempt to assimilate with a “younger” out-group. Second, some gay men’s unsuccessful attempts to leave their subgroup, or an unwillingness to attempt doing so, may result in their adoption of a social creativity strategy. One form of social creativity may involve changing negative values assigned to the in-group into more positive ones (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). For instance, gay men who form a subgroup identity around being HIV-positive may subvert the negative connotation of the term “positive” by embracing a “poz” identity. For some men, this nuanced form of linguistic inversion may be a strategic way of reclaiming power in the face of discrimination from HIV-negative men. In another example of changing negative values into more positive ones, some gay men may transform the negative social value placed on gay femininity by openly communicating a “nelly” or feminine identity in gay venues and at gay cultural events. Members of gay male subgroups also may enact social creativity by making downward comparisons with another gay subgroup on some useful dimension—for example, musculature or physical appearance—to gain positive distinctiveness. Of course, though not to achieve positive distinctiveness, members of lower-status gay male subgroups also may negotiate their identities, or orient themselves in gay culture, by making upward comparisons with members of subgroups they consider to be superior to their own. Overall, SIT is deemed appropriate for application to gay white American male subgroup dynamics given its propositions related to group categorization and social comparison, its openness to context-specific extension and adaptation, and its focus on processes of membership, including how group “’belonging’ is both initiated and sustained” (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006, p. 25). These processes of membership are particularly relevant in the gay white American male context, given this gay culture’s number of well-delineated subgroups and the permeable nature of some of these groups’ boundaries.

Communication accommodation theory (CAT; see Giles, 2016) is another theoretical framwork that is useful in further understanding gay white American male subgroup identity formation and communication. CAT explains the adjustments individuals make to increase, decrease, or maintain social distance in their interactions with others. Individuals’ motives for making these adjustments may include gaining social status or approval or achieving a sense of positive distinctiveness as a member of a social identity group. One accommodation strategy a group member may use is convergence, which is the adaptation of communicative behavior that assists an individual to become more similar to an out-group member or fellow in-group member. Convergence toward fellow in-group members may be enacted in the interest of building in-group solidarity or to gain approval. Alternatively, individuals may use a divergence strategy, which entails the accentuation of communicative differences from those typical of an out-group member or, less frequently, a fellow in-group member. Finally, a maintenance strategy may be used. This approach is similar to divergence and is marked by the persistence of one’s communicative behavior, regardless of the behavior or communication style of out-group or fellow in-group members with whom one is interacting.

The CAT strategies are relevant to gay white American male subgroup communication in various ways. For example, when subgroup members interact within their own groups, convergence should lead to individuals’ adoption of visible or other features of group identification such as being “leather,” “bear,” “older,” or “muscle-boy,” to name a few dimensions that will be defined in a later section. Importantly, convergence within a subgroup will likely maximize differences from other subgroups, strengthening the subgroup identity. For instance, a “muscle boy” identity may be strengthened through the celebration of the body at dance parties where there may exist among some members an awareness of exclusivity and superiority. In a conflictual situation, as may occur when a younger man rejects the sexual advances of an older gay stranger in a bar, divergence between members of these two age-based subgroups also should lead to an increased awareness of group differences. In both instances, awareness of group differences increases, but for different reasons (i.e., intra-subgroup convergence vs. inter-subgroup divergence). CAT strategies also are salient in the communicative context of online dating and chat sites frequented by many gay white American men. Online profiles often contain self-descriptions of type or body build (e.g., “masculine” or “leather”) and may include reference to subgroup category members the man is interested in converging with, or diverging from (e.g., “fems,” “twinks,” “older”).

Subgroup Dynamics in Gay White American Culture

Although the term “gay” has been used as a unifying label by and for many men with a homosexual orientation, subgroups comprising the gay white American culture possess quite contrasting identities. These identities have been enacted, in part, through gay male subgroup members’ aforementioned label use and accompanying self-stereotyping behaviors—acts that have at times been problematic. Whereas some might consider identity labels to be restrictive or unnecessary (Horowitz & Newcomb, 2001), they serve important boundary functions for some gay male subgroups—boundaries that are enforced in ways reflective of the theoretical mechanisms noted above. The following sections explore such boundary management and other gay subgroup dynamics across a number of group distinctions. Importantly, these explorations take what may commonly be referred to as an intragroup approach to the gay white American culture generally, and they regard subgroup dynamics within this gay culture to be intergroup phenomena. This is because they occur between (not within) the specific identities/entities of interest. These subgroup distinctions include those based on physical attractiveness, musculature, masculinity, and age.

Physically Attractive

Physically attractive gay men may be considered a social identity subgroup in gay white American male culture. This subgroup distinction is related to what has been viewed as an exaggerated appearance-consciousness among these men (e.g., Hajek & Giles, 2002; Hooker, 1965). Regarding this culture’s arguably elevated focus on appearance and its potential to support subgroup identification and differentiation, Nimmons (2002) has stated that the beliefs gay men share about beauty work to help them erect barriers and that these beliefs have become “the single most fertile domain where we [gay men] enact difference and distance. Looks are the first place we dismiss, devalue, diminish, and disrespect one another” (p. 195). Differences between gay and heterosexual men in this regard may become clearer when conceptual links between physical attractiveness and a gay identity based primarily on sexuality are considered. Illustrating this connection that may be unique to the gay male mindset, one of Mann’s (1998) gay interview respondents stated that, “when we look at the imagery, it’s both ‘I want to look like this person’ and ‘I want to have this person’” (pp. 348–349). Mann’s point is that a heterosexual man who defines beauty by the ideal of a female fashion model does not simultaneously want to look like that fashion model. This additional layer of focus on male physicality may contribute to its personal and social value among gay men, including the drive to perfect it and gauge the self and others in terms of attractiveness. Such a mechanism may be further exacerbated in light of the view that men may be more sexually aroused by visual stimuli than are women (see Bailey, Gavlin, Agyei, & Gladue, 1994), coupled with the absence in gay male culture of women’s stereotypically countervailing tendencies.

Divisions based on physical appearance may be communicated through verbal and nonverbal rejection and discrimination from those considered to be members of a community’s “A-list,” for example (a group whose membership also may be based on professional and/or financial success). In terms of SIT, such discriminatory communicative behaviors would be pursuant to social comparisons, and they would function to assist the men who meet the gay white American culture’s strict standards for physical appearance to gain positive distinctiveness. Downward comparisons on the part of members of the more attractive subgroup also may be explained by concepts related to in-group extremity, or the “black sheep effect” (e.g., Marques & Paez, 1994). According to the black sheep effect, group members may show positive bias toward socially desirable in-group members and simultaneously derogate undesirable ones. In other words, group members that negatively contribute to social identity, or that detract from the group’s sense of positive distinctiveness, are purged in the interest of protecting the group’s threatened social identity. Applying this theory to the physically attractive gay male subgroup, if the prevailing mindset in gay male culture equates being a “good” gay man with being physically attractive, less attractive gay men are considered “bad” and must be rejected. Moreover, as discussed by Marques, Yzerbyt, and Leyens (1988), positive and negative evaluations of in-group members can be more extreme than for out-group members. Applied to the gay white American culture as a whole (i.e., not just the physically attractive subgroup), it therefore follows that gay men with physical appearance that most resembles the cultural ideal will be overly well received, whereas members of the less attractive subgroup will be overly rejected. Such an in-group (i.e., gay male) extremity effect may serve to propel the exaggerated appearance-consciousness in gay male culture.

Some men who do not identify as members of the more physically attractive subgroup may seek creative ways to self-enhance, such as rejecting the “looksist” cultural norms and superficiality in favor of adopting a “bear” subgroup identity. According to Moskowitz and Seal (2009), bears tend to be heavier and have hairy bodies and faces. A subgroup that values a “blue-collar” look, bears also are more sexually inclusive of a wider range of men as far as attractiveness is concerned but may discriminate against men who do not embody their general characteristics, such as “pretty” men. More specifically in line with SCT propositions, men with larger, hairier, less manicured, or more natural bodies, seeing that they do not fit the “attractive” gay male image, may self-categorize as “bears” and may self-stereotype accordingly as a member of this subgroup. From a CAT perspective, this behavior may be considered to be a form of divergence from mainstream gay ideals. Consistent with SIT, these behaviors may enable men to change negative values assigned to their “less attractive” class into more positive ones, thereby elevating the status of their rougher physical characteristics that they celebrate in their own bars and at their own events. Interestingly, many men that do not possess physical characteristics of “bears” self-stereotype as such, indicating that being a “bear” may be as much a state of mind as it is the possession of a certain body type. The fluidity of this subgroup boundary indicates that, for some, embracing a “bear” identity absent the conventional physical characteristics may serve as a way for some less attractive gay men to find a niche in a gay community that can be slavish to high standards for attractiveness. The blurred subgroup boundaries also underscore the complexity and flexibility of the self-stereotyping process.

Muscular

Gay white American men also may form a subgroup social identity along the muscularity dimension. Similar to the rationales offered in the section above on physical attractiveness, some gay men’s sense that a gay identity is marked by weakness or inferiority compared to the heterosexual mainstream may lead them to compensate by reinventing themselves through exercise and diet to create a strong and beautiful body—in essence countering an “aberrant” psychology with an aesthetically pleasing physiology. Feraios (1998), a critical writer on gay culture, has alluded to such a mechanism by pointing up the seemingly “inverse relationship between the size of one’s biceps and one’s self-esteem” as a commentary on some gay males’ bodybuilding motivations (p. 424). Some gay men also may build musculature to compensate for negative images associated with the impact of AIDS (e.g., Signorile, 1997) as well as lipodystrophy from older medications used to control HIV infections. The potential relationship between musculature and HIV may be perceived in images of muscularly “perfect” bodies in advertisements for antiviral HIV medications, with accompanying text that speaks to defiance of the infection’s ability to compromise quality of life. Parallel to these specific reasons offered for gay male identification with muscle is the general notion that the white U.S. gay culture has simply evolved to worship the muscular male form. In line with this view, Nimmons (2002) has distilled the iconic relationship between gay men and muscle to the simple, yet profound, statement that “muscle is gay culture’s embodied metaphor” (p. 195). Media images have aided in gay men’s tendency to identify with muscularity. For instance, popular gay publications display exposed muscular bodies in advertisements for an array of services, such as auto maintenance and medical specialists. Nimmons also asserts that, whereas it is common for gay professionals to shed their shirts to woo clients, it is difficult to imagine a “married insurance broker pumping up in his muscle tee for his photo in the local Rotary Club newsletter” (2002, p. 192).

Members of the muscular subgroup in the gay culture have been referred to as “muscle boys” (e.g., Alvarez, 2008). Individuals in this social category work out to attain muscle mass and leanness that they believe will provide self-confidence, power, and a sense of control. The formation of an identity around this body type significantly influences socialization and vice versa. That is, these men’s pursuits lead to immersion in the gay gym culture that, in turn, influences further obsession with achievement of their physical ideal. This idea is consistent with Signorile’s (1997) suggestion that the muscle culture has cult-like qualities, in that men become caught up in it and it seems to take over a significant part of their lives.

Some writers on gay white American male culture have identified several muscular subgroups, members of which may use muscularity for purposes of social comparison. First, there are “poz jocks,” HIV-positive men who work out excessively and who may take anabolic steroids to counter weight loss that is a possible side effect of advanced HIV infection or older antiviral treatments. For these men, bodybuilding may raise self-esteem in the face of challenging health circumstances, leading them to feel more control and sexual desirability in the face of rejection from HIV-negative men. Second, and adding a thread to the tapestry that is the aforementioned “bear” identity, is the category of the “muscle bear.” The “muscle bear” is a “bear” with more muscle and less body fat. In contrast to traditional bodybuilders, who seek to maximize muscle bulk and its definition by shaving their bodies and keeping fat to an absolute minimum, “muscle bears” welcome some level of hairiness and are not as concerned with definition. Interestingly, whereas “bears” formed their culture around not being body-conscious and slavish to the greater gay culture’s ideals, “muscle bears” seem to have become a cross between a body-conscious “gym clone” and a “bear,” and, unlike “bears,” this group’s members strictly follow prescriptions for diet and exercise and pay close attention to how they trim their facial hair. This has, paradoxically, resulted in “muscle bears” becoming an improved and more desirable version of the bear by gay cultural standards (Alvarez, 2008).

Finally, there is the “circuit boy,” who is distinguished from other “muscle boys” by his identification with, and participation in, the “circuit” culture. The “circuit” is a distinct form of communal life that takes the form of mobile dance parties in popular gay destinations (e.g., Palm Springs, Miami’s South Beach) that are populated by thousands of gay men (often business professionals, and often young and white). The term “circuit” refers to the parties’ occurrence on a regular, alternating basis. Whereas the parties feature shows and other events, celebration of the gay muscular physique is of paramount importance. From an SIT perspective, and of all the muscular subgroups discussed here, circuit boys may derive the most self- and social esteem from social comparisons with non-muscular men. One subgroup with whom “muscle boys” may make social comparisons for self-enhancement is “twinks,” who value the party scene as “circuit boys” do, but tend to be less than thirty years of age, with lithe body types and little or no body hair (Drummond, 2005; Filiault & Drummond, 2007). Interestingly, gay men who do not possess the muscular body type may make unfavorable upward social comparisons as well, which may compromise self-esteem (Signorile, 1997), or they may creatively engage in favorable downward comparisons with muscular subgroup members, using derogatory terms such as “gym rat” or “clone” to derogate muscular men in their pursuit of physical uniformity and in fitting the image of the physical ideal. Furthermore, and in terms of CAT, some non-muscular gay men may diverge from the muscular ideal, considering the muscular subgroup cultures to represent “body fascism.”

Masculine

Similar to the motivations offered for the above-noted identity dimensions based on physical attractiveness and muscularity, some gay white U.S. men’s sense that a gay identity violates traditional (i.e., heterosexual) gender roles (e.g., Kurdek, 1988; Madon, 1997) may lead them to compensate by counter-stereotypically adopting some form of a “masculine” social identity (Rofes, 1998). In support of this view, and historically, one goal of the U.S. and European gay liberation movement in the early 1970s was to replace the “limp-wristed swish” gay male stereotype (Taywaditep, 2001, p. 9) with a hypermasculine image. This trend resulted in the formation of a subgroup of gay men who identify as masculine and who may marginalize feminine gay men. Some have referred to this change as “the butch shift” (Humphries, 1985). Signorile (1997) has referred to these cultural phenomena in terms of some gay men having formed a “cult of masculinity” that centers around a preoccupation with an appearance of masculinity, absent some behaviors traditionally indicative of it, such as physical brutality or the subjugation of women. Nimmons (2002) supports Signorile’s view by suggesting that gay male culture is less violent than other male cultures (e.g., sports fan cultures) and provides as evidence the experiences of police officers that serve in jurisdictions with large gay male populations.

The “leather” identity is a specific expression of some members of the masculine subgroup. Concerned with hypermasculinity, the leather identity is expressed through the wearing of leather clothing, buzzed hairstyles, and engagement in “rougher” sexual activities (Moskowitz & Roloff, 2007, p. 31). The “leatherman” subculture is further characterized by hypersexuality that members express through adherence to sexual control dynamics such as dominance or submissiveness (e.g., Graham, 1998). For an individual to be a member of the leather subgroup, these associated sexual orientations—that may be considered expressions of masculinity or service to it—must be key aspects of the self (e.g., Thompson, 2004). As with “bears,” “leathermen” engage in communal activities such as creating their own organizations, competitions, bars, Internet sites, and social events. The leather identity may be driven by obsessions with male gender typicality that may be rooted in the aforementioned need to compensate for the stereotype that gay men are effeminate (Moser, Levitt, & Manley, 2006). By some accounts, this has led to a social identity group that values callous attitudes toward sexual partners, tendencies toward sexual aggression, and the enjoyment of danger (Mosher & Sirkin, 1984). Leathermen’s adoption of leather chaps, bands, and harnesses seems to symbolize masculinity, as does the “bears’ ” cultivation of a rougher, more natural appearance.

Theoretical concepts offered at the outset are useful for understanding intra-/intergroup dynamics involving the masculine subgroup. In terms of SIT (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), masculine subgroup members may make downward social comparisons with, and discriminate against, more feminine gay men in order to psychologically distance themselves from fears of their own femininity or mainstream expectations of femininity. To the extent that it exists, this could be related to internalized homophobia, that is, a fear of one’s own gay sexuality. From a CAT perspective (Giles, Coupland, & Coupland, 1991), masculine subgroup members’ discrimination against feminine gay men may be considered communicative divergence, and it may be evident in sexual rejection through the posting of online chat room profile text that states as a preference “no fems,” for example. Approaching masculine intra-/intergroup dynamics from an SCT perspective, it is useful to consider that gay men who espouse a “leather” identity engage in self-categorization (as “leathermen”) and self-stereotype as such. Further self-categorization as a “dominant,” “submissive,” or “switch” may serve to strengthen the identification. Leathermen who self-categorize as “dominants” tend to prefer being the active partner in sexual behaviors and prefer holding more power. They also self-categorize as “doms,” “masters,” “sirs,” “tops,” or “daddies.” In contrast, men who self-categorize as “submissives” prefer to be receptive partners in sexual relationships and tend to play an obedient role. They also may self-categorize as “subs,” “slaves,” “pups,” or “boys” (see Moskowitz, Seal, Rintamaki, & Rieger, 2009). Finally, those who self-categorize as “switches” are willing to take either the dominant or submissive role depending on the desires of their partner or depending on the situation (Moser, Levitt, & Manley, 2006).

Younger, Middle, or Older Age

Some white American gay men also form social identity subgroup distinctions along the age dimension, given the group-based nature of age identities and the high salience of age in a gay culture that arguably places a particularly high value on physical attractiveness (e.g., Hajek, 2012; Hajek & Giles, 2002). The words of health educator and writer Feraios (1998) speak to the potential for such subgroup formation and accompanying gay intra-/intergroup dynamics. He states that “just as young [gay] men grow up feeling ‘less than’ their heterosexual male counterparts, they also carry the division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ as they come out of the closet. The ‘cute’ guys get to be ‘us,’ and the older … men become ‘them’” (p. 428).

Age identities in gay culture traditionally have been conceptualized and researched in terms of the labels “young,” “midlife,” and “older” (e.g., Hajek, 2014; Hajek & Giles, 2002). Gay men in the “younger” subgroup may form a distinct—if not stereotypical—gay identity around appearance, dance parties, and social events that may include nightlife and gay pride events. From an SIT viewpoint, members of the “younger” subgroup may make downward social comparisons with “midlife” and/or “older” gay men who cannot meet the culture’s physical standards. These comparisons may be, in part, a social creativity strategy invoked to self-enhance given the possession of a sexual identity that is threatened by the heterosexual mainstream, as noted above. The younger gay men’s ceasing to use the heterosexual out-group as a comparative frame of reference may enable them to self-enhance and regain self-esteem while living with the status quo of the heterosexual culture’s domination. Such a social comparison scenario is illustrated by Kiley (1998), who states: “Homo is to het as … mature gay men are to the subculture. Is it as easy (and complex) as shifting axes of discrimination from sexual identity to age? Perhaps. Probably” (pp. 340–341).

Social comparisons by younger gay men may be accompanied by negative stereotypical conceptions of older gay men as being lonely, isolated, pathetic, and despairing (Berger, 1996; Fox, 2007). The decades-old “predator” stereotype rings in the words of a younger gay interview respondent: “We think of older gay people as vampires, out to prey on our youth, obsessed with recapturing their own youth through sexual domination of a younger person” (Rogers, 1978, p. 21). Not surprisingly, negative stereotypes of older men may lead to discriminatory behaviors (e.g., Ratigan, 1996). For example, younger men may use verbal jeers toward older men in public places, in ways that reflect the homophobic verbal assaults from their heterosexual peers that they endured as teens (Warren, 2000). In line with CAT, other forms of discrimination may include divergence through the avoidance of eye contact and conversation in public meeting places or in online dating profiles that read “no old trolls.” Intriguingly, this divergence may be enacted by younger men given fear of the psychological proximity of their own aging.

Midlife and older gay men form subgroup identities as well and, like younger gay men, may elevate their threatened social status through downward intergenerational social comparisons. As may be seen also in the above discussion, identity threats to aging gay men that influence subgroup identity formation and intra-/intergroup communication often emerge from within the gay culture. Hooker (1965) has stated in her ethnographic account of gay white American culture that “life in the bars, for sexual purposes, is ‘time-limited,’ that is, that men of thirty-five or more may not ‘make out’ unless they pay for partners” (p. 100). Relatedly, some older gay men become generally frustrated with the lack of community support in urban gay enclaves and move into suburban environments, a practice sometimes referred to as “mainstreaming” or “post-gaying” (Warren, 2000, p. 4). The negative effects of this marginalization may be compounded by a gay midlife “crisis” that may involve challenges associated with searching for meaning in a heterosexist society (Kimmel & Sang, 1995). This crisis also may be influenced by internalized homophobia, the concealment of one’s gay identity (e.g., Wight, LeBlanc, de Vries, & Detels, 2012), gay culture’s aforementioned emphasis on youth, and/or the influence of AIDS, with its contributing to the experience of “finitude” and “personalization of death” (Cohler & Galatzer-Levy, 2000, p. 250).

Interestingly, many academic articles and books conflate the experiences of midlife gay men with those of their older counterparts (see Herdt & de Vries, 2004), classifying both simply as being “older.” Consistent with CAT and SCT, older men in general may respond to identity threats and marginalization though maintaining a self-categorization as “gay” rather than adopting what they may consider to be the inferior “queer” label used by some gay men of the younger generation. From the SIT perspective, some older gay men may attain positive distinctiveness by jokingly objectifying younger men as being “chicken,” in reference to younger men’s being victims of older men’s stereotypical and predatory role as “chicken hawks.”

Turning specifically to the gay midlife subgroup identity, some members may respond to identity threats by employing SIT’s social creativity strategies to self-enhance (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). For example, they may make downward comparisons with members of the younger subgroup on dimensions such as personality characteristics (e.g., being more mature than younger gay men) or communication skills (e.g., having more finesse or subtlety in their face-to-face communication). They also may avoid comparing themselves to younger men at all, in favor of comparing themselves favorably with other (lower) classes of gay men, older gay men, and heterosexual midlife men who are aging poorly (Hajek, 2014). Also consistent with the SIT perspective, some gay midlife men may self-enhance through the formation and development of identity dimensions that become salient during intergenerational conversations with younger gay men. These identity dimensions may include consideration of oneself as a gay “tribal elder,” being beyond “gay drama” that is associated with gay youth, and becoming more “subtle” in one’s gayness. Additionally, intergenerational conversations can make salient for midlife men their not having formed an identity as a “predator” of younger men and as not being the stereotypically desperate older man who needs to pay for sex. Other strategies that midlife gay men may use to self-enhance given intergenerational subgroup dynamics include changing their focus from the pursuit of physical attractiveness to the development of an “alluring maturity” that includes physical and non-physical characteristics, as well as owning (i.e., accepting) gay midlife and/or being a mentor or role model for members of the younger gay subgroup (Hajek, 2016). In terms of SCT, midlife gay men may self-enhance through the disengagement or avoidance of conflicting social identities and self-stereotypes. That is, they may release a “gay” social identity and/or self-stereotypes, and/or avoid adoption of “old” midlife social identity and/or self-stereotypes, if they believe that these labels no longer suit them.

Conclusion

This article has explored subgroup dynamics and associated communication within gay white American male culture as they manifest across an array of dimensions, including physical attractiveness, musculature, masculinity, and age. These identities are created by individuals perceiving themselves as members of particular social categories. Interestingly, all of the subgroups discussed here are distinguished by features that are highly visible. However, membership in these subgroups also carries a certain ambiguity from the perspectives of both members and non-members alike, when the overlapping nature of these identities is considered. That is, individuals may claim membership in more than one (or all) subgroup(s) simultaneously and in any number of combinations (e.g., the muscular and physically attractive subgroups, or the age and masculinity subgroups). Furthermore, the social identities associated with these subgroups may be more or less salient in different social contexts. Very importantly, it is communication—through collective action at circuit parties, rejection or acceptance of men based on attractiveness, labeling, signs of physical aging, and clothing—that represents the outward expression of this identification and a means by which membership is negotiated. Additionally, and as the above theoretical applications have illustrated, these subgroup members may form an understanding of their identities in contrast to “others,” and may do so in order to achieve self-enhancement and improved self-esteem, positive distinctiveness, and/or communicative divergence.

Discussion of the Literature and New Directions

In addition to examining discrimination against gay men and its effects, researchers have studied myriad aspects of gay male identity and communication practices that carry implications for subgroup formation. Relevant research topics have included, for instance, gay male speech patterns, pronunciation, and vocabulary (Chesebro, 1981; Jacobs, 1996), topics often approached by contrasting the speech of gay men and heterosexuals. Some linguists generally have termed this area of inquiry “lavender linguistics,” deriving its name from the association of the color lavender with gay and lesbian culture (Leap, 1995). Others have documented the lost language of Polari that many gay men used among in-group members from the early to mid-20th century to avoid detection by heterosexuals (e.g., Baker, 2004).

Other research has examined more specifically intra-/intergroup dynamics within the gay male culture (e.g., Hajek, 2012, 2014; Hajek & Giles, 2002). Though not presented in “intergroup” terms and lacking application of intergroup theory, several books on gay male culture written in the 1990s and early 2000s alluded to intergroup processes (e.g., social comparison). These works focused on subgroups and related social phenomena covered in this article, such as distinctions based on physical appearance (Feraios, 1998; Moskowitz & Seal, 2009), muscularity and masculinity (Nimmons, 2002; Signorile, 1997), and age (Feraios, 1998; Nimmons, 2002). Rofes (1998) has noted a long-standing history in gay culture of other subgroup comparisons between mainstream gay men and early gay libbers, gay hippies, and drag queens. Concerning subgroup dynamics based on age, some researchers have taken a non-intergroup, critical approach to the topic and have focused on younger and older men’s disinclinations to conceive of a future (i.e., “futurity”) as gay men (e.g., Edelman, 2004; Goltz, 2007, 2009). As noted in the above article, scholars have studied the role of language and speech acts in the formation of gay and gay age identities and in gay intergenerational communication (e.g., Fox, 2007; Hajek et al., 2005; Hajek & Giles, 2002; Thurlow, 2001). More recent research has explored gay midlife identity specifically, applying concepts from social identity theory (Hajek, 2014, 2016) and communication accommodation theory (Hajek, 2015).

Scholars also have explored gay male subgroups from intergroup and health communication perspectives (e.g., Moskowitz & Seal, 2009). The premise of this research is centered on the notion that men who have sex with men (MSM) subgroups’ different perceptions of sex and sexuality lead to different behavioral norms (Isay, 1989; Rubin, 2002; Troiden, 1988), and this influences their varied approaches to safer sex behaviors. In addition to the subgroups mentioned above, subgroups studied in regard to their safer sex behaviors and testing for sexually transmitted diseases include “chubs” (heavy men), “closeted” men, “drag queens,” “barebackers” (men who have anal sex without condoms), “POZ” men (i.e., HIV-positive men), “twinks,” “ravers,” “partyboys,” “skaters,” and “escorts,” for example (Moskowitz & Seal, 2009).

In the intergroup and health communication vein, future research may address subgroup dynamics between HIV-positive and HIV-negative men in terms of self-disclosure and deception about HIV status. Research is needed that takes into account recent developments in HIV prevention, specifically the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP; i.e., taking a daily dose of antiviral medication to prevent HIV infection). This research may examine the categorization and stereotyping of men on the preventive medication regimen who are sometimes referred to as “Truvada whores” by gay out-group members (Truvada being the name of the medication used, and “whore” being used in reference to the assumption that the regimen is being followed to enable irresponsible sexual behavior). Relatedly, research may investigate any effects of the “PreP” movement on potential deception about HIV status. Continued research in the area of gay male aging may examine how gay men handle life transitions, including what landmarks (see Kertzner, 1999) they may create for aging that provide opportunities for communication and social support. In regard to self-categorization, work also is needed to better understand how members of the physically attractive, muscle, and masculine subgroups use labels in conversation to define themselves in intra-/intergroup encounters. Future research also may examine how membership in these subgroups intersects with race and ethnicity, and what effects these additional factors have on communication and identity. Such research will shed needed light on the communication practices of the complex and constantly evolving American gay male culture.

Further Reading

Alvarez, E. (2008). Muscle boys: Gay gym culture. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Baker, P. (2004). Polari: The lost language of gay men. New York: Taylor & Francis.Find this resource:

Feraios, A. J. (1998). If only I were cute: Looksism and internalized homophobia in the gay male community. In D. Atkins (Ed.), Looking queer: Body image and identity in lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender communities (pp. 415–429). New York: Harrington Park Press.Find this resource:

Filiault, S. M., & Drummond, M. J. N. (2007). The hegemonic aesthetic. Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, 3, 175–184.Find this resource:

Hajek, C. (2014). Gay men at midlife: A grounded theory of social identity management through linguistic labeling and intra- and intergenerational talk. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33, 606–631.Find this resource:

Hajek, C., & Giles, H. (2002). The old man out: An intergroup analysis of intergenerational communication among gay men. Journal of Communication, 52, 698–714.Find this resource:

Hooker, E. (1965). Male homosexuals and their “worlds.” In J. Marmor (Ed.), Sexual inversion: The multiple roots of homosexuality (pp. 83–107). New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Mann, W. J. (1998). Laws of desire: Has our imagery become overidealized? In D. Atkins (Ed.), Looking queer: Body image and identity in lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender communities (pp. 345–353). New York: Harrington Park Press.Find this resource:

Moser, C. M., Levitt, H. M., & Manley, E. (2006). Layers of leather: The identity formation of Leathermen as a process of transforming means of masculinity. Journal of Homosexuality, 50, 93–123.Find this resource:

Nimmons, D. (2002). The soul beneath the skin: The unseen hearts and habits of gay men. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Find this resource:

Rofes, E. (1998). Dry bones breathe: Gay men creating post-AIDS identities and cultures. Birmingham, NY: Haworth Press.Find this resource:

Signorile, M. (1997). Life outside: The Signorile report on gay men: Sex, drugs, muscles, and the passages of life. New York: Harper Collins.Find this resource:

Taywaditep, K. J. (2001). Marginalization among the marginalized: Gay men’s anti-effeminacy attitudes. Journal of Homosexuality, 42, 1–28.Find this resource:

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