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In this piece written exclusively for The Advocate, Angelo Pezzote -- advice columnist and author of the new book Straight Acting: Gay Men, Masculinity and Finding True Love -- examines the gay community's obsession with the idea of being "straight-acting" and how destructive it is for gay relationships and one's psyche.

Maybe you just want more gay friends.

Maybe you're single, a great catch, and have tried everything you know to find true love -- and still nothing's working. Perhaps you're fed up with "the scene" and wondering if there are still any good men out there. Maybe you worry you'll never find Mr. Right and be alone forever. Perhaps you're filled with envy every time you see a happy gay couple.

Maybe you're in a relationship and looking to feel closer to the man you're with. Perhaps you're tired of having the same argument. The passion in your relationship may feel like it's long gone. At times you may even wonder if you're with the right guy, but you don't want another failed relationship.

Maybe you can't quite put your finger on why it seems so hard to find a meaningful relationship that lasts with another man. You know you want deeper intimacy in your life. You're just not sure how to get it.

At times you may think of things as if something's missing. "How do I make a gay relationship work?" "I'm tired of the bars, partying, and one-night stands." "Is it all about sex?" "I'm sick of all the attitude." "How do I meet more guys outside of the steam room?" "I'll always be single." "Why does it seem impossible to meet a man for something more?" "No one wants me." "When do things get better?" "Something's just not right."

Don't spend another day racking your brain and beating yourself up. Want to know what's getting in the way of you and your man?

It's called straight acting.

The strong and pervasive American expectation that men should act like men ingrains a belief among gay men that being "too gay" is shameful and certainly not "manly." The way we see ourselves is in part a reflection of the way others see us. Growing up in a media-saturated culture that constantly bombards us with messages of what a "real man" is, many gay men ingest the belief that they're less than "all man," which brings with it a significant amount of stress. Dealing with this prejudice from the time we're very little, some of us may even be traumatized, attempting to cope in ways like unsafe sex, drugs, and alcohol abuse -- and focusing too much on appearance -- that end up being self-destructive. Being stereotyped as effeminate, it's understandable that many gay men would seek to present a normative masculine image within their discriminatory heterosexist (straight) and homophobic (masculine) culture in order to feel "normal" -- respected. Straight acting is a gay decoy -- gay men's camouflage. It's buzz cuts, tattoos, facial hair, military and sports garb, rock-hard bodies, and more. It says, "I'm gay, but I'm not a faggot." It attempts to level the playing field.

Take any gay personal ad: "straight acting, straight appearing only." "No fats, no fems." "Jock looking for same." "Real men only." The list goes on. No matter how out we are, the sly "gay shame monster" can sneak up on us, and at times we may play it more mainstream and masculine to pass and blend. It's more comfortable. But the tough, unfriendly straight guise -- and its buried shame -- block gay men from building deep lasting intimacy with one another.

If I feed a plant poisoned water, it can't help but absorb some of the poison. We too internalize society's heterosexism and homophobia that surrounds us, thus imposing limiting standards on ourselves. Those standards are so prevalent that they become a part of us, running our lives whether we're aware of them or not -- whether we believe them or not. We may police our own behavior by monitoring our appearance, mannerisms, and behavior to be seen in a relatively more positive light. When it suits us, we can tone down the signals that we're gay even after we publicly acknowledge it, muting our true rainbow colors. Acting like chameleons, we're careful not to stick out too much, not being too flamboyant. It's easier because we get less flack. Having evolved over many generations of gay oppression, straight acting may in fact be a leftover survival instinct imprinted on our collective unconscious to keep us safe from harm if we're "too obvious" -- in spite of relatively newfound cultural acceptance.

It doesn't matter whether a guy is really masculine or not. What matters is the perception that he is masculine. Problem is, you can't really say "I'm gay," and "I'm straight acting" in the same sentence. It's an oxymoron. Straight acting is engendered by gay shame. I don't think that straight acting is bringing us into equality as much as it's moving us back into an extension of the closet -- the closet of masculinity. By offsetting our inherent "gayness" with masculinity, we're not really progressing socially and assimilating into mainstream culture as much as we're actually doing a type of social conforming -- in which case we're really moving backward -- away from self-acceptance.

The problem isn't being masculine. It's when we use masculinity to cover our gay essence. To stamp out the sissy inside we learn to dislike, having to protect ourselves from severe ridicule, physical harm, and emotional rejection. Masculinity is not an essence. It's not a part of who we are. Masculinity is a set of social expectations based on one's being male. For instance, American men are not the same as European men. Masculinity is how males are socialized to behave -- how we're influenced to express our maleness in our culture. It's our gender expression. Masculinity is learned, and it can be unlearned.

The solution? Our focus needs to be on embracing our inherent gay nature and fostering self-love. It's not about what's wrong with you. It's about what's right with you. There is nothing shameful about being a gay man. When you're confident and accept who you are, it doesn't matter what other people think. You don't have to be effeminate if you're not. You just have to be the gay man you are without any facades.

By understanding what's keeping gay men apart, we can come together, finding one another's hearts.

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Angelo Pezzote