working together and the atmosphere was relaxed. In the
chair, mediating between the floor and the panel who had drafted the
statement, was Shivananda Khan, once London-based and (think Shakti)
the doyen of HIV activism in South Asia. Shiv is one of nature's aristocrats; in a previous life he was surely a
princess, both decorative and functional, the power behind the throne as
her maharajah dallied in the harem.
Bangkok, Thailand, September 2004: There we were, more
than a hundred gay* men from across the world at the International AIDS
Conference in Bangkok in July. It was the middle of the afternoon and we
were commenting on a statement of principles for HIV interventions for
men who have sex with men. Many of us knew each other from years of such
At some point - don't ask me how we got there; it seemed logical at
the time - Shiv asked rhetorically, "are there any real men in this
room"? I stuck up my hand and looked round. Only one other hand was
raised. Perhaps a few others were too shy to assert themselves in
public, but the point had been made: most of those in the room, who
shaved regularly or let their beards grow, whose chests were flat or
muscular and who were endowed with male rather than female genitalia,
because they were gay, they did not consider themselves "real men".
Shivananda, of course, had kept his hands firmly by his side. Shiv is
tall and handsome and of decidedly masculine appearance, with no more
feminine traits than several of my heterosexual friends. When I had
earlier accused him of being a "real man", he had mock-frowned and said
"hush! You'll ruin my reputation." As discussion moved back to the
statement of principles, I pondered the implications of this impromptu
vote. If the majority was right, then I was at best confused, or at
worst lying. Because I was gay I couldn't be
a "real man", or
if I insisted on being a "real man" I couldn't be "gay".
I remembered a conversation last year at a ceremony in
Bangkok when an elderly senator was given an award for services to the
gay community. "Is he gay?" I asked Nick, a local activist. "Of course
not," said Nick, "he has children". From a Western perspective, that did
not answer my question, but for Thais it was perfectly acceptable. Men
who are known to have sex with women - as proven by the offspring - are
"real men", even if they have sex with men. Which means that men who
only have sex with men are not real men.
The same point was made by Aditya Bondyopadhyay, another Indian activist,
responding to a column where I criticised the phrase "males who have sex
with males". (read here) Aditya argued that in
South Asia "males" was preferable to "men" because "feminised
males who adopt
many indigenous identities [kothi, dhurrani, murat, zennana, Aqwa Hijra,
Kathoy, Bacqla, Waria, Faffafini, et al], do not consider themselves as
'Men'. They just possess the physical body of a 'male' individual. Their
self definition, more often than not, is that they are 'women' or 'women
Of course underlying this discussion is different understanding of the
word "man". In South Asia, Thailand and many other cultures, manhood is determined by
not by appearance, but by behaviour, particularly sexual
behaviour. Those who are penetrated defer to those who penetrate; real
men penetrate and everyone else is a woman, or woman-like. They may
look like men, but they are not real men.
In anglophone societies - and, I suspect, in any culture where men who have
sex with men do not define themselves by who penetrates whom - most gay men consider themselves "real men". They insist on complete
legal and social equality with other men and many sculpt their bodies to
be decidedly masculine in appearance and wear clothing that emphasises
their maleness. Indeed, given that so much of men's fashion in the west
originates in gay men and is copied by other men, it is arguable that it
is gay men who are the real men and other men who are continually trying
- and often failing - to imitate them.
We could stop at
this point and accept that the meaning of the phrase "real men" differs
in different parts of world, just as "thong" has different meanings for
Brits and Australians, and "fanny" has different meanings for Brits and
North Americans. It sometimes leads to confusion, but there is no harm done.
Except there is an
inherent bias in the term "real". "Real" implies authentic, correct,
good, valuable. A "real man" is a man who has all the qualities of men.
A "real man" is something to admire, to aspire to. If I deny that I am a
"real man" I am automatically denigrating myself. You are real; I am
fake. You have qualities which I lack. You are admirable, I am shameful.
You are valued by society; I have no value. I may be intelligent,
physically and emotionally strong, brave, virtuous, kind, while you are
a coward, inconsiderate, violent and dishonest, but because you
penetrate me, you are superior to me because you are a "real man".
Furthermore, men who deny that they are real men and who call themselves
effeminate, feminine, women or woman-like, reinforce not only their
own secondary status in society, but that of women. If I am inferior to
"real men" because I am womanly, then all women are inferior.
Ultimately, therefore, no
matter how vociferously I argue for the rights of men who have sex with
men in society, as long as I deny being a real man and as long as I accept this division between "real" and
other men, I implicitly recognise my
secondary status in society. I want to be tolerated, not accepted as an
equal. I accept that where a man puts his penis is more important than
whether he is honest or capable.
but not much. I'm fully aware of the years of work that activists around
the world have put into improving the lives of men who have sex with men
- activists who have put their own comfort and health and sometimes even
lives on the line, while I have pontificated from the comfort of a
London house or Bangkok apartment. Nonetheless, I believe that activists who
accept the terminology of "real men" and who therefore accept that men
who penetrate are of greater value than those who are penetrated, they
are reinforcing rather than combating the stigmatisation of both
effeminate men and of women.
There are two ways
of overcoming this. One is to extend the definition of "real" to include
all men. You are a man of masculine gestures, a man who is the
penetrating partner in sex; I am a man whose mannerisms are effeminate
and exaggerated and I prefer to be the penetrated partner in sex. But
we should both be of equal value in this society; if you are real, then
so am I; if your identity is real, then so is mine; if you have
society's full respect, then, dammit, I insist on equal respect too. In
short, if you are a real man, then so am I.
However, to insist
that all men are "real" in this way is to shift the meaning of "man"
from behaviour to physical appearance, in other words towards a more
anglophone use of the term, as discussed earlier, which may not be
appropriate in many cultures. An alternative approach is to abolish use
of the word real in these circumstances. You are a man - or a male - who
prefers to penetrate; I am a man - or a male - who prefers to be
penetrated; they are men - or males - who take pleasure in both
activities. We are of equal value and words such as real are at best
meaningless and at worst demeaning and stigmatising.
So what it is going to be? That all men - and women - are real and
worthy of respect, or that "real" is an irrelevant word that should
never be uttered. Personally, I choose the former option. Which means
that as far as I am concerned - irrespective of their behaviour between
the sheets or on the streets - like me, Shivananda Khan and every other beard-shaving,
testosterone-producing, penis-endowed man across the world always
have been and always will be real men.
* I know, I
know... Not every man who has sex with men identifies as gay, but whatever individual men
call themselves in whatever language they speak and wherever they live,
in this column I'm using gay as shorthand for "I am a man who enjoys sex
with men and I am happy to tell the world - or at least my hundred
closest friends- that I do".