Straight Men: The New Gay Men

I was washing my hands in my hot new beau’s bathroom when I saw something frightening. Lined up on the sink counter next to the faucets, was something more terrifying and off-putting than any STD medication – products. Dozens of them. Shaving brush, bowl, cream, silk groom, moisturizer, three kinds of soap, toner, astringent, nail brush, three clippers, a buffer, and more. My bathroom products are soap, shampoo and conditioner. Suddenly I felt like the butchest dyke in town. I’d been trumped in the vanity department by my own potential boyfriend. My husband had become my wife.

I raced back into the living room where Sid was watching Any Given Sunday on DVD. “What’s all that stuff on the sink?” I moaned. “Why do you have so many items?”

“They’re useful.”

“But you have more than I do. It’s very disconcerting.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know who I am any more!” His dog barked loudly. I looked down at her. She was a Jack Russell terrier. Like the “Frasier” dog. I shuddered. I spotted a piece of mail on the table and as my eyes rested upon the zip code a wave of conniptions coursed through my fragile bod. 10011. Chelsea. I looked over at my pansyman’s tousled hair. Either Sid was a closet case, or, worse, this was just the new par for the course. Perhaps he wasn’t fageau at all, but simply part of an ever-increasing new brood of straight man – the Fe-man.

With straight men taking a growing interest in fashion, home décor, and beauty products, what were once exclusively the women’s concerns are now genderless trends. It used to be when you spotted married couples at Pottery Barn the men looked put-upon and exhausted. Now they seem glad to be there. They’re fingering couches and arguing about color schemes. They’re spending time on their hair, gardening, reading W, crying at male weepies like Frequency and The Family Man, piercing their ears, getting manicures for chrissakes.

Further complicating things, now that straight men are acting more like women, they’re beginning to look more like gay men. Go to Beige, the gay night at Bowery Bar, and the guys don’t dress so differently from the Bridge and Tunnels on the weekend. Today’s straight man looks like Jackie Jr. on “The Sopranos,” who, as Simon Doonan, creative director at Barney’s New York, points out, “wants to go into fashion and dresses like Ricky Martin, very Armani Exchange.”

As Doonan explains, the straight appropriation of gay style is nothing new. It’s just happening in wider numbers these days. “Obsessive gym workouts, tattoos, and leather jackets all came from the margins of the straight world. Then gay people made it a style statement, which was then re-presented to the straight world. It’s Arthur to Martha back to Arthur again.”

Now that straight men are acting more fruity, straight women have been thrown for a loop. It’s all well and good when Will gives Grace fashion advice, but it’s another story when her own boyfriend tries to. “Lisa,” a 34-year-old television producer, was disturbed by her dating experience with a fashion-conscious Fe-man. “Usually when you date a guy he just looks at your clothes and goes, ‘Cool. Cleavage.’ He doesn’t know where you begin and the products end. It takes some mystery out of it when the guy says, ‘Those are Robert Claire Jolie shoes and you’re wearing Allure.’”

“Mimi,” 30, a journalist currently involved with a Fe-man, had a moment of doubt when she woke up in her boyfriend’s bed and spotted a bowl of stuffed animals nearby. But when she confronted him he stood his ground. “He said he really likes them, he’s always collected them, and he doesn’t think it’s funny or queer or unusual at all. He doesn’t believe in male-female gender roles and I would say that I have more of an investment in them.”

Perhaps the problem isn’t that men are getting gayer but that women are so afraid of what that might mean for their own roles. In the seventies men were afraid of how the feminist movement might threaten their status as breadwinners. Now that men are so style-savvy, today’s liberated women are undergoing a similar paranoia. The new sexual double standard is perpetuated by women: “Be feminine, but not more feminine than I am.”

Of course, it’s a very slippery slope. As Tori O’Connell, 35, a writer/director, explains, “It’s the fine line between the great catch who loves foreign films and picking out clothes for you versus the guy who will redo your flower arrangement because he thinks it was done wrong.”

Joshua, 33, a silversmith and designer, says he’s been mistaken for gay since he was twelve. He calls himself a fop and all his pants are English split high back. He recently took a gender test on thespark.com, which has a 100% accuracy rate, and it guessed he was a woman. 

He says when women discover his feminine attributes they are either threatened or cagey. One fight with an ex, he recalls, was over his shoes, Alden oxblood cordovan monk strap. “She said, ‘I won’t go out with you if you wear that shoe. It’s not what I like.’ I said, ‘I spent two years looking for this shoe.’ She said, ‘I’m a woman. I should know what looks good on a man. It shouldn’t be your taste. It should be mine.’ We broke up. I fully believe that if I have a highly developed aesthetic I should be able to wear that and express myself that way.”

The new double standard extends into beyond the fashion world and into the realm of communication. In the ’90s, books like You Just Don’t Understand and Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus struck chords because they postulated that women were more connection- and communication-oriented than men. The dictate to men was, “Chat with us – even if you don’t have anything special to say.” 

Today we can’t seem to shut men up. As Maureen Dowd pointed out in a recent New York Times column, the once-stoic Greatest Generation has suddenly gone “gabby and navel-gazing.” With so many men, old and young, opening up, you’d expect women to be crying with joy. Instead, they’re crying uncle. 

Carolyn Mackler, 27 and author of the novel Love and Other Four-Letter Words, dated a Fe-man and found her own assumptions challenged. “He felt everyone’s pain and could communicate for hours. My feminist intellectual side thought, ‘I’ve found an equal,’ but we never got anything done because we were sitting around talking about our feelings all the time.” 

Joshua says he often takes the stereotypically female role in relationships – and pays a price. “When it’s put in reverse women feel like they have to act or fix as opposed to just be available and supportive. They knee-jerk away.” When men start acting more like women, women become more like men – meaning, they flee. A guy who shows vulnerability isn’t a dreamboat; he’s needy.

With gay men acting more straight, straight men acting more gay, and women acting more like men, it’s become much more difficult to type people on a first meeting. Some, like Joshua, say this is a good thing. “If somebody needs shorthand to understand who I am they would never take the time to be in a relationship that I would like.”

Others, like Doonan, decry the musical chairs, claiming the confusion isn’t good for anyone. “It used to be that if a guy had an earring you could talk him into doing your hair. Now he’d probably knock your teeth out. Everybody’s moving the goal posts. Gay men should be really nelly and straight men should lie on the couch watching sports and wearing Members Only.”

The real question, of course, is how the goalpost moving translates into the bedroom. When a man gives too-detailed fashion advice and the woman recoils, she may be wondering what will happen once the lights go out. She may fear that a pussycat in the vertical world can’t be a tiger horizontally. My ex-boyfriend, novelist Jonathan Ames, 37, tells me, “I worry about the American male. I don’t think he has to be a frat boy but I like the Humphrey Bogart male – the grab-the-woman-in-your-arms-and-kiss-her-with-cigarette-breath male. I think what women are looking for is the intimation of the affectionate rape.” 

All that talk about affectionate rape got me thinking about Sid again. So he owned an exfoliator – but he was still into Oliver Stone. He had a small dog but a big penis. He was courteous and clean and though he dressed too neatly for my taste he also drove a totally rugged SUV. Maybe I’d been too quick to judge him.

A few nights after the product placement fight, he came over to my apartment. As we were fooling around he spotted something on the floor by the bed. “What’s that?” he said, pointing.

I jerked my head over to look. “My Makita,” I said excitedly. “It’s an electric screwdriver and a drill and I put up twelve bookshelves with it, all by mys –” I looked over at him. He seemed kind of serious. Maybe I’d opened up about my power tool fixation too soon. “What’s the matter?” I said.

“I always get hard when I spot a Makita in a girl’s apartment.”

“Really?” I cooed.

“Yeah. Now turn over,” he growled, and dove for my neck.