And we are used to hearing the constant, insistent assertion—repeated endlessly for decades now, and in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary—that gay male effeminacy is a thing of the past, that polarized sex roles are antiquated, homophobic notions, that “the queen is dead,” that there is no difference between gay people and straight people, that there is no such thing as gay male culture beyond a series of hostile stereotypes. Gay men who want to style themselves as virile, non-queer, post-gay, or simply as ordinary, regular guys whose sexual preference does not mark them as different from normal folk, recoil instinctively from any aspect of male homosexuality that might seem to express or signify effeminacy. That is why they tend to disclaim any participation in gay culture or even any knowledge of its existence, despite their active involvement at times in the life of gay communities.
What exactly are all these people afraid of? That the carefully erected façade of gay masculinity, hard won through individual and collective effort, will come tumbling down like a house of cards to disclose the outlines of that abominated Other, the fairy or queen? That the long-awaited historical and personal achievement of dignified—that is to say, virile—gay identity will have been for nothing and that gay men will once again be overtaken by shades of pathology, by demeaning stereotypes, and by inescapable gender-deviant queerness? That every gay man is at risk of embodying the abject, despised figure he secretly both fears and believes himself to be?
No one wants to be a cliché, of course, but gay male effeminacy is not just a stereotype: it is a damaging one with a long history. The association of gay men with femininity is a cause for particular anxiety because it represents a throwback, a symbol of age-old homophobic prejudice. It resuscitates a host of ancient bogeymen that have been used in the past to harm us—to turn us into figures of fun, objects of abuse, creatures of satire, victims of hatred, moral condemnation, and violence—and it reminds us uncomfortably of those hoary medical understandings of sexual deviance that Edmund White shuddered to recall, according to which same-sex desire was a symptom of sex-role reversal and homosexual men were congenital inverts embodying the sexual nature of women. For all that we may deplore the flagrant misogyny behind the degrading force of those stereotypes, their power to humiliate us is no less effective, no less real. The enlightened ideology of the post-Stonewall gay movement has exhorted us to reject, refute and transcend such demeaning clichés—to prove them wrong, to become virtually normal ourselves, and to accede on that basis to an erotic community of equals.
Masculinity represents not only a central cultural value—associated with seriousness and worth, as opposed to feminine triviality—but also a key erotic value for gay men. Gay men’s sexual dignity depends on it, as well as our erotic prestige and desirability. So it is pretty clear why no gay man—at least, no gay man who has not been transformed by the practice of camp and by its radical perspective on gender and social hierarchy—would be particularly eager to associate himself with the highly feminized pursuit of traditional gay male culture. To participate openly and avowedly in cultural practices that seem to express a transgendered subjectivity, or that are marked as feminine—whether because queer sensibility itself is aligned with the feminine side of the traditional division between queens and trade, or simply because the worship of divas and other female icons would seem to reflect a profound identification with women on the part of gay men—is socially, and erotically, risky for gay men, no matter how proud or self-accepting they may be.
[…] Any gay man who forsakes the ranks of the privileged gender and desired gender style, who lowers himself to the undignified, abject status of the effeminate, the fairy, the poof, the bitch, the sissy, the flaming queen, incurs the easy ridicule and cheap contempt of both the straight world and the gay world—even, for all he knows (or fears), the disdain of his own lover.
If homophobia sometimes functions less to oppress homosexuals than to police the behavior of heterosexuals and to strong-arm them into keeping one another strictly in line with the requirements of proper sex and gender norms, for fear of appearing to be queer, it may be that one of the social functions of transphobia is to police the behavior of lesbians and gay men and to terrorize them into conforming to the gender style deemed appropriate to their respective sexes.
And there are certainly plenty of other bad reasons, in addition to transphobia, for gay men nowadays to reject [Will] Fellows’s argument [that gay men constitute a third sex, which Halperin does not accept either, but thinks deserves a serious response]: sexism, misogyny, effeminophobia, and/or a willingness to pander to them; machismo, snobbery, shame, denial; knee-jerk anti-essentialism and various other sorts of post-Stonewall gay liberation dogmatism. Gay scholars and critics are no less exempt from these tendencies than other gay men. As a child of the Stonewall era myself, I want instinctively to find political or social explanations for the way gay men are, not biological or psychological or congenital causes, and I also want to assert the centrality in male homosexuality of same-sex eroticism, not just queer or transgendered sensibility.
David M. Halperin, How to be Gay, Belknap-Harvard 2012, 305-308.