Straight Acting: The Truth Behind the Myth
Author Angelo Pezzote’s new book examines gay male identity and stereotypes
Duane Wells | March 18, 2008
Do you really know what it means to be “straight acting”? Or do you just think you know?
If you’re a gay man, you have more than likely encountered the term ‘straight acting’. In fact, through your experience with online dating, networking or a range of other gay-themed social interactions, you’ve probably even formulated a definition of the term – irrespective of whether or not you’ve ever employed it to describe either yourself or someone with whom you’ve been acquainted. However, your own characterizations of what ‘straight acting’ implies may only begin to touch upon the personal relevance and import of a description that has increasingly come to be used as a defining characteristic among gay men.
Beyond the simple meaning of the heterocentric classification, the larger questions are – How accurate are our perceptions of what it means to be ‘straight acting’? What is the source of those perceptions? And what are their implications on the lens through which we view ourselves and relate to the outside world?
Straight Acting: Gay Men, Masculinity and Finding True Love, the new book from author, columnist and psychotherapist Angelo Pezzote, answers all of these questions and more in a compelling and sometimes deeply personal way. A sort of guide book on navigating issues like internalized homophobia, self-esteem and building sustainable relationships based on healthy principles, Pezzote’s new tome provides a road map to real intimacy for all men – gay and straight.
In a recent GayWired exclusive interview, the popular "Ask Angelo" columnist talked to Duane Wells about the inspiration for his new book, what it really means to be ‘straight acting’ and how gay men sometimes resemble characters right out of the film Mean Girls.
Duane Wells: What inspired you to write this book?
Angelo Pezzote: I think there’s some truth in that what we teach is also what we need to learn most. My passion came mostly from my own struggle coming to terms with the issues, particularly from when I lived in West Hollywood. While I tried my best, I just wasn't an L.A. person.
I couldn't relate to the people there and it was a painfully lonely time. Emergent from this personal experience, in combination with my professional education and clinical experience, I was inspired to address the problem because I realized I wasn’t the only gay man feeling the way I did. There were many gay men who felt lonely just like me no matter where they lived.
So, besides helping others, writing the book was a way for me to figure out what was happening in our community around disconnection, and to figure out a way for all of us to work through it together. In this way, I think we’re all students and teachers.
DW: So as a student yourself in this process, what was the most revealing or enlightening lesson you personally got from your journey in writing this book?
AP: The intellectual endeavor to "map" Straight Acting – the what is it, where does it come from, and how does it work – the first half of the book, helped me tremendously to cope with it myself; and to help other gay men cope with it through my private practice, workshops, retreats, Ask Angelo advice column, podcasts, teleseminars, and AskAngelo.com website. We can change something if we understand it. Which leads me to the second part of the book, which focuses on solutions.
Thinking those out and writing them inspired me to live my advice each day, not just preach it. So I strive to embody my words.
What was particularly enlightening was adopting a daily practice to stay emotionally open, despite life's daily challenges. It's the idea of being fully yourself and being loving, rather than focusing on trying to get love – thinking it's something you don't have – from someone else. It's focusing on what's present, not absent. It's celebrating what's right about you, not wrong. Now that's attractive! And it gets your man.
DW: What separates Straight Acting: Gay Men, Masculinity and Finding True Love from other gay self-help books?
AP: I think my book reflects a slice of reality – the truth of the way a piece of it really is that comes from the heart. I think both my own self-disclosures and the stories of the men I share in it makes it honest, human, and wise. I think this enables my book to touch readers’ hearts and souls, as well as their minds, which allows the book to have a greater affect and inspire real change.
DW: Speaking of self-disclosure, this book is very personally revelatory. Were there any parts that were difficult for you to write or re-live?
AP: No. I'm pretty self-aware. What was challenging for me was deciding what to reveal and how much of that to reveal, and what to keep. I made my decisions based on making sure that what I shared was both on topic and benefited the reader. In other words, that my sharing wasn't for me, but more for my message and my audience.
DW: Chapter two suggests that every gay man needs to read this book. Why do you think that?
AP: I do think every gay men – out or otherwise – can benefit from reading this book. I think that homonegativity is so strong and pervasive that even though we may not be aware of it – even though we may not even consciously subscribe to it – it can still run our lives. It works like the white noise machine I have in my office. I'm aware that it's on when I first turn it on. But after awhile, I don't notice it anymore. I don't even hear it even though it's on. I'm not aware of it again until I go to shut it off when I leave.
Similarly, we're constantly bombarded with powerfully influential messages of how to be a "real man" in America. They are so prevalent that they just become part of us… ingrained. And we can collude, even in the subtlest of ways, to tone down our gayness and pump up our manhood to escape feminizing gay stereotypes. We deal with anti-gay sentiment from the time we're very young. And that homophobia and heterosexism can be traumatizing.
So we learn to mute our gayness to conform in order to be more "acceptable." This "straight acting, straight appearing," "discreet," straight guise that most of us do to some degree to protect ourselves, and win more love, is gay male drag. It's buzz cuts, ink, goatees, military, athletic, or other manly uniforms, youthful gym bodies, and more. It's gay men's camouflage. It's a gay decoy that says "I'm gay, but I'm not a faggot. I have value because I'm masculine."
I'm not anti-masculine. If you're masculine that's fine. If you're not, that's fine too. A mix – fine. It's when we take on society's idea that to be a man means being masculine. It's using masculinity as a cover, to not be "too flamboyant." You don't have to be effeminate if you're not. You just have to be the gay man you are without any facade.
In fact, while my focus is on gay men, I think all men can benefit from reading my book. Moreover the book is for any person who's experienced any form of oppression for it's empowerment.
DW: You counsel gay men as your career. So on the scale of issues affecting gay men today what do you rank as the most pressing?
AP: Absolutely, the internalized homophobia we ingest from our polluted environment. Anti-gay sentiment creates shame and low esteem, which in turn drives self-destructive behavior like unsafe sex, alcohol and drug abuse, excessive dieting and exercise, as well as anxiety, depression, addiction, attitude, straight acting, and disconnection. All of that puts a wedge between gay men and comes from internalized homophobia. It disrupts how we connect with ourselves and one another. I think it impacts every facet of our lives.
DW: Allow me to play devil’s advocate. As younger gay men are learning to be very comfortable with their sexuality from a very young age, do you think the concept of identifying as ‘straight-acting’ is becoming increasingly generational? Does this shift among gay youth represent progress?
AP: I think there's basically two camps of the young generation. One that fully embraces who they are, censoring nothing about themselves, and wanting to be recognized and treated just like anyone else – which represents progress.
However, other gay youth ditch the gay label, wanting to be seen as "normal" from that place of shame I've been talking about.
So whether it's progressive, or it's just an extension of the closet – the closet of masculinity, depends on where the youth is coming from – a place of esteem or a place of shame. We can't forgot the staggering gay youth suicide rates as well as the rising practice of unsafe sex, new HIV infection rates, and alcohol and drug abuse among gay youth. Obviously shame and low esteem, that come from internalized homonegativity and drive these self-destructive behaviors, are still an issue. All is not yet well in paradise. While I recognize and appreciate progress, being gay is still hard.
DW: How do you feel about Los Angeles these days? Still feel like it’s not your kind of town?
AP: While LA is fine, I'm just not an LA person.
DW: Fair enough. But given your own negative experience with living in a gay mecca, what do you say to gay men about reconciling where they live with how they live? Especially if the old adage ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ holds true.
AP: It's funny ‘cause I think we can be most like Mean Girls in our gayest places: West Hollywood, Chelsea, FireIsland, Provincetown – heck even in gay bars, clubs and organizations where we ought to treat each other more like big brothers. The level of attitude can be toxic.
Counterintuitively, some gays in less metropolitan places may in fact find more of a sense of friendliness and connectedness in their community than their counterparts in large cities who can feel extremely isolated. So I don't think it's about where you live at all. We have an issue of disconnect in the gay men's community that needs to be addressed and it transcends location.
For more information about Angelo Pezzote or his new book Straight Acting: Gay Men, Masculinity and Finding True Love, visit www.AskAngelo.com. – Issued by Gay Link Content
A few words (some foul) from Joan Rivers