Nelly Power: When Coming Out Isn't a Choice

Nelly Power: When Coming Out Isn't a Choice

From Merriam-Webster:
having or showing qualities that are considered more suited to women than to men: not manly
having feminine qualities untypical of a man: not manly in appearance or manner
marked by an unbecoming delicacy or overrefinement <effeminate art> <an effeminate civilization>

Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is becoming more culturally acceptable than ever before. Laws are changing. Our current president and his wife have both made bold moves in including us in the national discussion. There are "ideal" cisgender role models of gay men and women that meet accepted standards. (Think Barney Frank and Portia de Rossi, for example.)

Younger and younger children are telling their parents that they do not identify as their perceived gender, and more and more parents are making allowances for children to make their own gender identities.

But the nelly man is still troublesome and controversial. What about the sissy?

It's the perfect story when the all-American high school athlete announces at the student body meeting that he is gay. But what about the boy who was unable to adopt the accepted gender behaviors — even from a very early age — and has been perceived as gay all his life?

That boy doesn't have the heroic moment of coming out. He has already been cast by his schoolmates, his teachers, and perhaps his family. Some boys try to "butch it up" as soon as they begin being teased and tortured by their peers. Some boys shut down and become like little robots of carefully thought-out butchness. Other boys turn up the volume and wear their otherness as armor.

For some, there is no possibility of behavior modification to fit the templates of "normal." These boys may have no confusion about their gender identity and may be years away from being sexually actualized.

In some cultures it is more acceptable to be a feminine man who dons the clothing of the opposite sex than it is to be a feminine man who enjoys his manhood.

The concept of effeminacy is nuanced. By definition (at least in the male-centric Merriam-Webster's) there is a difference between being feminine and being effeminate. "Marked by an unbecoming delicacy or overrefinement." The subtle message is that being like a woman is not a good thing, especially for a man, because women are not as good as men. That reminds us women's issues are gay issues, and vice versa.

So the little boy who can't turn down the volume on his nelly ways learns to become either invisible or very tough. And it gets even worse for these boys as they and all their peers kick into puberty.

In the long argument about whether civil rights include gay rights, there are those on one side who say it's different for African-Americans because they can't hide their race. They posit that gay men have a choice of hiding their gayness. That simply isn't so. Certainly they can keep their sexual attractions to themselves, although that seems a draconian measure. But many boys cannot adhere to expected gender norms. So they are not only discriminated against by the world at large, but often their families reject them for their gender-nonconforming nature. For example, in 2005 a Florida man named Ronnie Paris Jr. killed his 3-year-old son for being too "soft." Do African-American families kill their children for being black?

Once again, it's important to note the relationship between gay and women's issues. Stories come from China and India of female fetuses being aborted simply because they're female. It's difficult to be a gay man in this society, but it is still more difficult to be a woman ... perhaps deadly.

While an effeminate boy may eventually wear women's clothing and create space for gender play, he doesn't necessarily want to be a woman. And it's possible at this point in our media coverage of gender issues that there may be more support for a young child with a gender identity issue than there is for a sweet little sissy boy.

Now that we are past the happy rainbow moment of National Coming Out Day, let's look at some of the guys — both real and fictional — who could never be "in."

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The Queen Mother of Nelliness: Quentin Crisp

“It's been agony but I couldn't have done it any other way.”
― Quentin Crisp

Crisp — the author of The Naked Civil Servant — is a controversial figure. Outrageous and audacious, he had both bravery and style to be an effeminate iconoclast. He wore makeup in broad daylight, which put him in physical and legal peril, as he was both attacked and arrested.

Crisp maintains that his openly feminine appearance made him very popular with the American GIs in London during World War II because they knew what he was at first glance. The soldiers were comfortable enough with who they were that there was no apparent conflict with their heterosexual identitly while having homosexual sex with Crisp.

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At right: Crisp photographed by Angus McBean, 1940

Before Alfred Kinsey's book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), which included research revelaing that a large number of straight-identified men had been having homosexual experiences, a straight man having sex with a gay man who displayed sufficient feminine attributes did not worry about his identity as straight. George Chauncey also writes about this at length in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Feminine gay men were considered a third sex, and often a cheaper and more available sexual outlet than women and female prostitutes.

“I was from birth an object of mild ridicule because of my movements — especially the perpetual flutter of my hands — and my voice. Like the voices of a number of homosexuals, this is an insinuating blend of eagerness and caution in which even such words as 'hello' and 'goodbye' seem not so much uttered as divulged. But these natural outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual disgrace were not enough. People could say that I was ignorant of them or was trying without success to hide them. I wanted it to be known that I was not ashamed and therefore had to display symptoms that could not be thought to be accidental.”
Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant

Quentin Crisp eventually immigrated to the U.S. and continued to write his witty, if very critical books, and was a popular lecturer and performer.

Below: Mr. Crisp being interviewed by Mr. Harty in New York.