The proliferation of gay online spaces and the opportunity they present to experiment and explore one’s own sexual identity have made online platforms increasingly significant in the social, romantic, and emotional lives of gay men. For many gay men, online spaces serve as sanctuaries to meet other gay men, experiment with their personal identity construction, and cultivate gay communities. Some scholars have researched how the internet, specifically social media platforms, have helped to normalize queer identities. The anonymous and disembodied nature of online engagement has created new opportunities for individuals who are questioning their sexual identities to explore and experiment with their own identities., Online platforms that provide social networking opportunities for gay men have transformed from simple forums and websites into sophisticated and highly popular apps like Grindr, Scruff, and Jack’d. These modern apps have been called “hybrid media” because they blend the offline and online experience of users and complicate the distinction between the offline and the online self; they provide gay men with the possibility of turning digital sexual exploration into physical sexual encounters.
Applications that provide men opportunities to foster relationships that extend into the offline world have exploded in popularity with recent studies showing that over 75 percent of MSM (men seeking sex with men) reported some or frequent use with dating apps and that gay men use these apps more frequently than their heterosexual counterparts., Unfortunately, not all users are able to enjoy these online spaces equally. Much of the homophobia, racism, and classism that affects gay men in the physical world is crystallized and exaggerated online.
Recently, a budding body of literature has examined how these online spaces are ripe with discrimination against men who do not conform to narrow conceptions of hegemonic masculinity.,,, This gendered discrimination is perpetrated largely by muscular, cisgender men who advertise themselves as hypermasculine and only seek other hegemonically masculine partners. These gay men help construct a gendered hierarchy that privileges hypermasculine, “straight-acting,” young, and white men., This culture of mascing marginalizes many gay men and creates exclusive and discriminatory spaces online. Mascing culture is enabled and enhanced by the anonymous interface, which emboldens users to use discriminatory language and shields bigots from social criticism.
Mascing behavior has been documented across many of the largest dating apps, including Scruff, GROWLr, GuySpy, and Hornet, and even on dating websites like Match.com. Men uphold this hierarchy by either advertising their valued characteristics or by seeking out “masced” men. This performance of masculinity can primarily be seen in the photos of users’ photos and their bios. These are spaces in which men have the opportunity to either show off what valued traits they have or to leverage some other aspect of their personality to make up for their lack of valued traits.,,
While there has been a limited number of studies that focus on gendered discrimination within gay spaces online, these studies have predominantly employed content analysis as the method of inquiry.,,,,Though content analysis is effective at identifying visual and rhetorical strategies employed in mascing culture, it does not enable researchers to understand the perceptions and attitudes of the users who operate within these spaces. Interviews provide an opportunity to engage the gay men who are forced to navigate mascing culture firsthand and learn about their experiences and opinions. This paper seeks to take advantage of this opportunity and asks the research question: How do gay men understand and navigate the pressure to construct and perform a hyper masculine self online?
The Persistence of In-Group Discrimination Within the LGBTQ Community Online
Because of the structural marginalization of the LGBTQ community and the systemic discrimination that queer people face, one might think that queer online spaces would be an oasis of acceptance and authentic self-expression. However, a number of studies have investigated how in-group discrimination and the construction of hierarchies persist in historically marginalized groups even as they continue to attain legal protection and earn public acceptance. Systems of oppression such as racism, classism, and sexism limit the opportunities and recognition of some minorities whilst giving status to others. This phenomenon of in-group discrimination is not unique to the LGBTQ community. In-group discrimination was persistent in the civil rights movement, during which the issues of Black women were neglected and violence against Black women was not made a nationally salient political issue.,, Furthermore, the feminist movement of the 20th century resulted in lopsided gains for wealthier women and white women, whilst once again ignoring the interests of poor women and women of color.,
Despite gaining the right to marry and being increasingly accepted by the majority of the US public, the gay community is struggling to accept one another. The body of existing research on in-group discrimination within the gay male community reveals the prevalence of racism, sexism, classism, and ableism amongst gay men, not only in physical spaces but also in processes such as the election and promotion of gay political figureheads and online.,,
Hyper-masculinity, Homophobia, and the Prevalence of Mascing Behavior
The anonymous and depersonalized environment of online platforms puts users under heavy pressure to conform to existing norms and hierarchies. The users of these apps are able to remain anonymous online and do not fear reproach for discriminatory language or behavior online. Because users’ actions are measurable, gay dating apps are an incredibly fruitful place to study patterns of in-group discrimination. While there is not an abundance of research on patterns of discrimination on gay dating apps, research that does exist relies primarily on quantitative studies of users’ behaviors based on content analyses of their photos, “bios,” and messaging patterns., These studies have found certain norms and patterns that permeate the dating app world: the high value placed on traditional hegemonic masculinity, the stigmatization of femininity, and the desire for traditionally “straight-acting” gay men.,
Similar to Erving Goffman’s suggestion that people put on a particular kind of performance to avoid reproach, Rodriguez et al. have identified a pattern of behavior amongst gay men online wherein men exaggerate their masculine traits and suppress their feminine traits, a behavior that has been called mascing. This pattern of behavior is largely driven by a fear of being reproached as a “sissy” or “fem” man and is fueled by persistent homophobia and misogyny which lingers in the gay community. This mascing behavior stratifies gay spaces in a way that places “straight-acting,” young, athletic, and lean men at the top and less-masculine users lower within the gendered hierarchy.
Shortcomings Within Previous Literature
The vast majority of studies on mascing behavior use content analysis as the primary method and seek mostly to describe the visual and rhetorical strategies employed online by analyzing profiles., While this methodology is effective at describing how queer users advertise themselves on their profiles and the kinds of pictures they utilize in their presentations, it does not provide information about the attitudes or experiences of users. In my study, I conduct semi-structured interviews in order to obtain more detailed descriptions about how men experience mascing and how they make decisions as to how they present themselves online and how they manage their “front stage” (online) performance. I also hope to understand how their racial and geographic backgrounds inform how they present themselves online. This study contributes to existing research that extends Goffman’s theories to the online realm, as well as existing studies on the prevalence and significance of homophobia and in-group discrimination within the queer community.
Significance of the Online Self
In all 21 interviews, the participants agreed that social media platforms, dating apps, and online spaces are particularly important to gay men and to the queer community at large. Specifically, participants were in agreement that queer online spaces have become crucial for enabling sexual experimentation and identity formation. Many participants discussed at length how online platforms and social networking sites facilitated their own gay identity formation and are essential to meeting other gay men, seeking potential sexual partners, and generating a greater sense of community within the LGBTQ population as a whole. One participant named Michael expressed how he viewed the importance of social media amongst gay men as universal, saying:
Social media has been the foremost, important tool in both my identity and narrative as a queer person but also for my generation. I think every queer kid who has access to the internet has used the internet as a way of connecting dots. By connecting with other people, by connecting with other stories, both me and a lot of the other queer people I know have been able to both express themselves online, but also kind of figure it out.
Many other participants echoed Michael’s sentiment that social media and online platforms have been important in the process of identity formation.
Participants also expressed that meeting other queer people in the physical world was extremely challenging, raising the stakes for their online interactions. Dating apps like Tinder and Grindr and other social media platforms such as Instagram are seen by many as the only way to find other gay men. While physical spaces dedicated to the gay community such as gay bars and gay clubs have long provided some opportunities for mingling, online platforms have grown far more popular due to their anonymity and accessibility, especially for younger gay men under the legal US drinking age. One participant, Alex, expressed how to him, the “real world” was not a viable space to find dates or hookups. He explained:
If I saw a guy who I wasn’t sure if he was straight or not, I would never feel comfortable going up to him and saying, hey, are you into men? What’s the situation there? And so, when you’re online, that’s the really the only safe way we can find guys.
Many other men echoed Alex’s sentiment, expressing that because sexual orientation was openly established in online spaces like Tinder and Grindr, they did not have to worry about questioning whether or not another man was straight.
Participants overwhelmingly expressed that online spaces had a special and heightened role within the gay community, and that dating apps and social media fill a crucial need that their straight counterparts do not have to the same extent. The importance of dating apps and other online spaces amongst the queer community raises questions about whether or not these spaces are equitable and, furthermore, what kinds of social dynamics and hierarchies exist online.
Hypermasculinity and Hegemonic Masculinity Online
The men who I interviewed overwhelmingly expressed that hyper-masculine and “straight-acting” men are glorified within gay spaces online and, furthermore, that deliberately making oneself appear more masculine online is a common practice. When read the definition of mascing behavior and asked if they believed the term described what they saw in gay online spaces, all of the participants agreed that mascing behavior was real and very prevalent on the platforms they used. One respondent Albert explained:
Oh, one hundred percent, that’s totally a thing [. . .]. So many gay gays on Tinder try to make themselves seem like super straight ‘bros’ when you know, in reality, they’re super gay. Most of the guys who post photos at their college sports games or with their cars don’t actually give a shit about sports or cars.
Some participants called this “masc4masc culture” and discussed how what is seen as “masculine” is very tightly interwoven with what is seen as “straight.” Participants agreed that men who used terms to indicate that they were experimenting with men but not “fully gay,” such as “straight but experimenting” or “dl” would earn them more attention on gay dating apps and hookup apps. One participant, Andre, explained why he thought these men got more attention online:
If you look at profiles with the same stats—let’s just say they’re a tall white masculine man—if one profile says “questioning” or “haven’t really done this,” that profile gets more attention because there’s a whole fantasy around maybe turning someone gay.
By distancing oneself from the gay community, Andre argues, men on apps like Grindr and Tinder get more attention because they play into a fantasy about “turning” straight guys, a fantasy that has been heavily perpetuated and propagated by pornography.
Some participants disclosed how they themselves bought into mascing culture and explained how they would alter their bios, manipulate the way they texted, and change their tone while interacting online. Some of these men performed hegemonic masculinity and embodied a more “straight-acting” self when texting on apps like Tinder. George, a cisgender gay man, spoke at length about how much effort he put into his bio and his self-consciousness of his presentation of masculinity:
I definitely put way too much thought into making my bio when I was taking Tinder more seriously. I’m not super outdoorsy, but I would put, like, ‘hiking, camping, climbing’ type stuff in my bio to make me seem more like a chill, natural guy and not more of a super gay, uptight LA guy who cares a ton about how they look.
George used his bio to try and convey a particular kind of masculinity and, further, to try and distance himself with a more urban, feminine self-presentation. George explicitly wanted to distance himself from a “super gay” presentation of self and, in order to do so, employed discursive mascing strategies to try to make himself appear more outdoorsy and less urban in his bio. Some participants responded similarly, reporting that their bios were a particularly sensitive place where mascing could be performed and where they could control how their masculinity was perceived by others.
Other participants emphasized how they changed their texting and vocabulary when messaging with other guys on Tinder. One participant, Jesse, expressed how he tends to change the way he speaks when first messaging other matches on Tinder and how he tends to use more “bro-ish” language that he typically would not use but feels a pressure to out of fear of seeming “too gay”:
When I’m online and first talking to someone, I’m always like “hey man,” or “hi dude” and sometimes I don’t know why because I literally never say that ever [. . .]. I hate that, I hate . . . saying “man” or “dude” or whatever. But I think when I first was on Tinder, I was afraid of people thinking I was too gay or that I had a gay voice. So now I say “dude” to everyone.
For Jesse, discursive mascing was a way to ensure that he was not discriminated against for having a “gay voice” or appearing “too gay.” Jesse also expresses that this discursive mascing behavior is something about which he feels conflicted and not totally comfortable. Jesse later went on to describe how he eventually limited the use of mascing strategies because they felt uncomfortable, and he did not want to feel inauthentic when talking to other men on Tinder.
While some respondents reported altering their profiles to highlight their masculinity or avoid appearing “too gay,” many of the participants were comfortable with their masculinity online and felt that for the most part they authentically represented themselves online. One respondent, Taylor, said, “I try to stay pretty authentic on there. I mean, that’s as true as you can be, but I try my best, you know? It’s just so hard to do.” While some men were more actively focused on trying to convey an authentic presentation, others, like Alex, put less thought into how they present themselves online, saying, “I feel like it’s definitely hard to be authentic and to authentically present yourself on any sort of social media platform. And I don’t really make a priority to do that either [. . .]. I don’t know. I just kind of post things.” These men reveal that while there is a climate of hyper-masculinity and mascing culture, not all men are particularly focused on manipulating their masculinity online. Many participants echoed George’s personal journey, saying that the more they grew comfortable with their sexual identity, the less they were concerned with their presentation of masculinity online.
While mascing culture is still extremely prevalent and hyper-masculinity continues to be valorized, many participants expressed that the queer online spaces are slowly becoming more accepting. Some participants themselves talked about how they used to “buy into” mascing culture but have since have decided to reject mascing behaviors altogether. Jesse, who previously was very conscious of how he represented his masculinity online, discussed how he no longer altered his profiles and presence in online spaces:
Thinking back, the difference now is that when I was first making bios, I thought that I could, you know, kind of “fake my way” with the bio and pictures or whatever. But honestly, they’re still going to look at me and see me for what I look like [. . .]. And if it’s not what they want, that I don’t want that either [. . .]. I don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with me.
Jesse’s experience speaks to both the prevalence of mascing as well as how it can make users uncomfortable or unhappy to feel like they have to present a different self online. For Jesse, “faking his way” did not seem worth it, and for that reason, he quit mascing his profile altogether.
The Rise of the “Twink” and the Flexibility of White Masculinity
While many gay men of color continue to face racialized fetishization and discrimination online, white gay men have enjoyed increased freedoms in the expression of their masculinity. One example cited by numerous participants is the rise of the “twink” in popular culture. The attention given to twinks on apps like Grindr and Tinder was seen by many participants to emphasize the enhanced freedom given to white men and reveal how gay white men have a wider range of gender expressions that are seen as acceptable compared to men of color. The acceptance and adoration of skinnier, less-muscular gay men was seen by many participants as the product of pop culture and films like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, both of which portray and sexualize young, gay white men who are not hyper-masculine.
Alex also expressed that straight women contributed to the attention towards these men, saying, “I see a lot of like twink idolization, through a lot of my straight female friends, largely in part because of movies like Call Me By Your Name.” The rise of roles for “twink-ish” men in Hollywood reveals how gay white men have been given more freedom in what kind of gendered presentations they can put forward while still being able to receive positive attention from other men, both online and in popular culture.
One white participant, David, echoed this discrepancy and in saying how he felt that gay white men had far greater freedom in expressing themselves online:
I think, especially in the gay community, for African American men, I think being flamboyant isn’t okay. It’s frowned upon, and I think for me as a white gay boy, if I want to go out and dress up in drag or do some stuff like that or just be super feminine, no one’s going to question it. But I think as it as a person of color, you are judged for that.
David explains how even as a white gay man he feels less pressure to “masc” himself online, saying that he would feel comfortable going out in drag while men of color might be stigmatized or fetishized for similar behavior. The ability of white men to remain desirable and powerful despite expressing themselves as less masculine fits within understandings of synthesized masculinities and how marginalized men, such as gay men, are able to use their race and class to perform masculinity. Russell elaborated on how he similarly thought white men did not have to think as much about how they present themselves online:
White people can kind of just like get away with it because it’s such like the norm that they don’t even have to think about that. I have to be a little bit more aware of like, “Oh, I don’t want to just be this random like object or fetishized version of myself.”
While men of color have to walk a fine line when presenting themselves online in order to gain attention without being fetishized, white men have a range of masculine expressions that are seen as attractive and receive attention on apps like Tinder and Grindr.
The gay men I interviewed overwhelmingly recognized mascing behavior in the online spaces they frequented. Almost all of the participants in this study had their own unique attitudes and strategies to navigate the intense pressure to perform a hyper-masculine self online. Some men conformed to mascing behavior and inflated their own masculine presentation, if only for a time. Others seemed unaffected and did not find it hard to present an “authentic” self in online spaces. Some participants like Cody proudly and openly presented themselves as their most feminine self online, in spite of intense pressures. Regardless of whether or not participants inflated their masculinity online, all men acknowledged being conscious of what kind of a presentation they did put forth. This behavior supports the argument that Goffman’s theory of social masks can be extended online. Whether or not participants felt that they were authentic in their presentation, they were aware of the mask that they wore. Even participants who did not actively engage in mascing behavior were aware of their authenticity and actively portrayed a mask that they felt best represented their offline self. Unfortunately, the range of masks participants could wear was limited by their racial identity, body type, and other factors.
The findings of this study contribute to the existing body of literature on in-group discrimination. While there has been a number of content analysis studies identifying mascing behavior and the pressure to perform a hyper-masculinity online, there have been very few studies that engage gay men and ask them about their attitudes and experiences in these discriminatory online spaces. Many of my participants echoed the belief that in-group discrimination within the gay community, specifically discrimination towards more feminine gay men, comes from a place of internalized homophobia. Some participants like Andre argued that discriminating against other gay men is an effort to distance oneself from his minority status and marginalized position within society. Both of these explanations align with existing understandings of why in-group discrimination can manifest within marginalized groups and reveals that even as the LGBTQ community attains more rights and recognition, bigotry and exclusion will persist amongst queer and trans communities.
In his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman lays out a framework for understanding social interactions that uses theater and the stage as a way to understand how people act and react in day-to-day life. Goffman argues that people’s everyday interactions can be understood as performers acting on a stage and that we are constantly using costumes (the way we dress) and props (symbolic objects we carry) to create specific impressions in the minds of others—a process he calls “impression management.” Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis and his idea of the stage can be used to productively analyze and understand queer online spaces, especially dating apps. Many participants agreed that dating profiles and social media performances were “performances” and that their own presence online could be understood as their “brand,” all of which reinforced the connections between social media, commodification, and theater. While Goffman himself did not see telephone calls or online spaces as being able to be analyzed through his dramaturgical analysis, the results of this research project supports the idea that people use social media and online platforms as a location to stage their own “front stage” performance. The participant Russell acknowledged that part of why he stopped engaging in mascing behavior is because he felt that he could not necessarily keep up his “bro-y” performance once he engaged with someone in the “real world,” so he decided to pursue more authentic presentations of self.
While this study is only a snapshot of one small segment of the queer population in 2019, it does paint a clear picture of what it is like to perform a hyper-masculine self online and suppress one’s feminine traits out of fear of discrimination. Overwhelmingly, participants agreed that the dynamics and politics of masculinity online were moving incredibly fast and in a positive direction. Many interviewees cited the number of recent Facebook posts they have seen from their old high school friends who are younger than them featuring same-sex couples going to prom, younger gay boys wearing makeup, and other openly queer expressions that they thought were impossible only a handful of years ago. While queer online spaces have a long way to go before they become accessible, equitable spaces for all, one can hope that increased visibility in the media and more protective legislation will contribute to a more inclusive and united LGBTQ community.
As physical space and digital space continue to blend, and offline and online identities merge, policymakers and progressive leaders should stay wary of the importance of digital spaces to gay men and the queer community at large. Efforts need to be made to ensure that digital spaces are as safe and equitable as possible. Furthermore, violence, racism, and crimes committed within digital spaces need to be investigated and prosecuted with the same fervor and seriousness as those crimes that are committed in physical spaces. Additionally, lawmakers and public health researchers should continue to view digital channels as highly effective and legitimate ways to spread awareness about mental health resources, HIV prevention, and the prevalence of suicide within the LGBT community.
This study had a number of limitations that provide opportunities for further study. Notably, the sample population was young, with most participants having lived exclusively in urban and suburban settings. Additionally, the snowballing method which was used to identify participants could explain cohesion in the answers of the participants. The sample population was also overwhelmingly educated, white, and cisgender, which can be in part explained by the demographics of colleges in the Los Angeles area. Further studies would benefit by examining how mascing is navigated by older men or by men in more rural areas. These further studies would likely generate very different perspectives that would be very useful in providing context and contrast to the findings of this study.
Abstract and references attached.Granath-–-Taking-Off-the-Masc_KW_FINAL