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Nelly, Sissy, Mary, Girl (revisited)


“I’m a man, not a girl,” I wrote last year in June, “so don’t call me a girl.” My view at the time was that gay men calling each other things like girl and Mary was evidence of subterranean – and sometimes not-so-subterranean – self-loathing and homophobia.

Then, in December, I wrote about my evolving opinions of “effeminate” men, and how disdaining so-called effeminate mannerisms was evidence of my own internalized homophobia.

Things continue to evolve.

I recently had coffee with my friend Stuart, the guy I met at a dinner party in December, who declared himself a “great big nelly,” and proud to be one. He sometimes refers to himself and other gay men as girl and Mary, too. When I first met him, my views on this sort of thing were already evolving. With his declaration, and the obvious fact that he’s totally comfortable being who he is, they continued to evolve.

And yet, I found the whole subject was still bothering me. So, over coffee, I asked Stuart to talk with me about it.

We talked about all sorts of things: awareness that, because of the world we grew up in, there is some degree of internalized homophobia among many, if not all, of us; that we have to deal with it honestly; that there are gay men who don’t like themselves or other gay men; that he does feel comfortable with who he is; that his use of the female terms doesn’t feel negative to him, nor does he feel this makes him any less a man; the use of those terms certainly can be negative depending on the context.

It was a good conversation.

I think I see this a little more clearly now – in the round, as opposed to only from my personal angle. Setting aside the lingering negatives for the moment, I have several rather more nuanced thoughts about what this kind of talk represents in gay culture.

We are a minority community. It is true that most of us are pretty run-of-the-mill and “normal” in our day-to-day lives. We defy the fevered – and, dare I say it, erotic – nightmares of the so-called-Christian right and other bigots. But in one very important way, we are different from everyone else. We are sexually and emotionally drawn to members of our own gender. In that respect we are a group apart, and it’s reinforcing to occasionally be able to speak in code to identify ourselves. It’s like a secret handshake, a privilege of club membership.

Diversity While we are a group apart, it’s quite clear that within our group, we are not all identical. Among us there are drag queens, truck drivers, and everything in between. I don’t call myself or other men girls. But I’m no more or less gay, nor any more or less a man, than men who do. If we don’t conform to the rest of the world, we certainly aren’t going conform to everyone else in our tribe.

Resistance It’s a way to push back, to say, “You can’t define us. We do that ourselves.” It’s very much like young black men referring to each other using the N-word. They can do that, but white people can’t. It’s an act of defiance. Furthermore, co-opting the meanest epithets leveled at you by outsiders, using them to reinforce your group, removes some of the sting.

Given these ideas, I have come to a couple of conclusions for myself:

1. I still don’t want to be called a girl. It just doesn’t fit. I’m not a girl. I’m a man who loves men, but that doesn’t make me a girl.

2. I still don’t like to call other men girls. Like I said above, it doesn’t fit. And it feels negative, demeaning, when I do it. So I won’t.

3. I will be more tolerant of this. While I don’t like it especially, I will not automatically assume that it represents some toxic personality defect. That assumption, in and of itself, is the dregs of my own homophobia rising to the surface. Gay men don’t have to conform to my ideal any more than we conform to the rest of the world’s ideal. Embracing diversity is good for the soul.

And, for all of us late bloomers, a thought:

We need to get very clear on our internalized homophobia – confront it and deal with it even if it’s painful. After that, lets get out there and be ourselves, unafraid and proud. If, underneath your Brooks Brothers suit, or your garage mechanic duds, you’re a great big nelly, then go for it and love yourself as you are. If you’re not a great big nelly, love yourself as you are, and love the nellies, too.

We’re all in this together.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Hilton permalink
    03/11/2011 6:49 AM

    In regard to this issue, f you haven’t already, you might want to check out I’m one of the early contributors on there. It would be possible to misconstrue that wonderful site as pigeon-holing “gay” as being effeminate mannerisms since so many of the pictures are of happy, young gay people displaying those mannerisms in an innocent way at an early age. But, those mannerisms are more than that, they’re our natural selves before we learned we had to hide behind society’s accepted mannerisms for “proper” men or women. The site really shows our “Two-Spirit” natures that we are born with. Reclaiming that nature, after internalizing society’s displeasure with it, is quite a task.

    • 03/11/2011 9:07 AM

      I have been to the Born This Way site and loved it. I’ll look for you. I had thought of digging out my old family photo album to see if there is a picture of me that should have been a total tip-off. Your comment spurs me on to do that this weekend.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  2. 03/11/2011 10:32 AM

    I’ve always felt that a lot of it is gay men’s misogyny as well. Especially in the south, some of the stuff I’ve heard coming out of friends’ and acquaintances’ mouths has kinda shocked me regarding woman (sometimes lesbians in particular.) Makes it hard for me to not think that the self- and outward-feminizing often isn’t much different than straight people referring to “stupid” or “lame” things as “gay” or “queer.” The gist seems to boil down to “women = weak, flighty, slutty, icky, etc.”

    While some has surely morphed into an ingrained and not-at-all-hostile ribbing, I also think it’s still somewhat rooted in a more damaging self-loathing sprinkled with misogyny.

    (not in all cases of course, but it’s just something I’ve wondered/noticed, especially since moving back to a southern, smaller city)

    • 03/12/2011 6:30 AM

      I think you’re right about the misogyny, but I’ve always seen it as a reflection of an overall cultural bias against women that isn’t especially specific to gay men. I’ve been sorta shocked by the anti-lesbian stuff I hear from gay men (and sometimes racism, too) but always saw that coming from a different corner of the barn – true self-loathing that needs a group to put down and be “better than.” Not unlike the fact the the most virulent racism (and this ain’t just in the South, believe me!) often comes from whites who are poor, ignorant and disadvantaged.

  3. Dottie permalink
    03/11/2011 11:09 PM

    Darling Davey — I enjoy all of your blogs, and I think this one is especially brilliant. Kudos!
    In the “Resistance” category, the equivalent among straight women, who are close friends, is to call each other (and themselves) “bitch”. And, your corollary also applies: we can call each other that, but don’t you dare.

    • 03/12/2011 6:33 AM

      You bet. I’m not calling anyone, male or female,”bitch” – but for somewhat different reasons depending on gender.

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