There is a question inappropriately asked of nearly every gay or bi man I've ever met. An assumption often accompanies the question, and it annoys me to no end. I don't find it unsuitable when asked by our consensual sexual partners, who pose the query for a different set of reasons, though I'll touch on that, too. I'm talking about the straight couple who ask in private after meeting my boyfriend and me; the female acquaintance who giggles while brazenly asking us over cocktails; a gaggle of gossiping gays who speculate behind closed doors. And now, I'm explicitly signaling out a writer who pontificated on the subject in a repugnant political thought piece.
Is he a top or a bottom?
Last week, Dale Peck wrote an aggressive op-ed about Democratic-hopeful Pete Buttigieg that was published and then taken down from The New Republic's website after widespread criticism. Peck, a literary critic, didn't outright ask the question of South Bend's openly gay mayor. He assumed. "... I get a definite top-by-default vibe from [Buttigieg], which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but is too uptight to do it."
I wouldn't normally pay heed to such ignorant linguistic acrobatics. I'm adept at brushing off homophobic rhetoric with the wave of my fairy wand. But Dale Peck, a gay man himself, triggered the deep-rooted, self-loathing homophobe bred in me by American culture. (I came of age when teenage boys would say "that's so gay" about anything they didn't like.) Now, with a gay man running for the country's highest office, it's time to expel the demon and set the record straight. Well, maybe not straight.
I'm no saint. What I'm about to preach is a practice I often fail to follow. As a gay man, I've grown upsettingly comfortable answering people who aren't my sexual partners when they ask me the question. As a citizen, I haven't done enough to curb the question's insidious patriarchal toxicity when I hear it asked of others. As a society, it's a taboo cultural conversation we haven't had loudly enough for everyone to hear. So now, I think it's time to scream it from the internet's mountain tops: Stop asking and assuming what position gay men pick in bed.
Unless you plan to visit the consensual fornication station with Mayor Pete, me, or any other gay man you meet, what we do with or dicks and asses is none of your business. The anecdotes of our private sex lives are not fodder for your homoerotic fantasy football leagues. That's just the tip of the iceberg, too. This argument isn't only about privacy -- it's about the thinly-veiled meaning behind the verbalized postulation. If you are not or do not intend to be a gay man's sexual partner, be honest with yourself. When you ask if he's a top or a bottom, what are you really asking?
Is he the man or the woman in the relationship?
Is he masculine or feminine?
Is he powerful or weak?
Does his sex life fit into the heteronormative worldview in which I participate?
If this logic doesn't apply and you never ask these questions, you go, Glen Coco! You're a better person than I am. If it does, you're not alone. But the internal hard drive storing our antiquated ideas about sexual roles needs an update. Let's toss away those sex-ed floppy discs created by our granddads and replace them with reality. First, the body's erogenous zones don't have a sexual identity. They have nerve endings that respond to touch.
Newsflash, fellas -- straight or gay, we all have a G-spot in our buttholes. It's called the prostate. If your sexual partner is skilled and patient enough to find it and you don't have some mental block against booty stuff, getting a prostate massage feels fantastic. You know what else? The gateway to the prostate has a boat-load of nerve endings that respond favorably to physical contact. Probing around your basement can feel great regardless of the labels you use to pigeon hole your sexual self. Get into it, literally.
Secondly, top is not synonymous with masculine and bottom is not synonymous with feminine. Dominant culture may persuade you to believe otherwise, but they're wrong.
Bottoming does not make you girly, nor does it make you the equivalent of a 1950s housewife in your romantic relationships. It makes you human. Welcome to the club! Likewise, topping makes you no more of a masculine man than the dude who sticks a dildo up his rear. You can ride a tractor-trailer, shoot a gun, religiously watch football on Sundays with your girlfriend and thoroughly enjoy anal sex as the penetrated partner. (Straight men -- if your interest is piqued, look up "pegging." Thank me later.) Uou can wear a full beat of makeup, listen to Ariana Grande's greatest hits on repeat, and paint a Lisa Frank mural on your bedroom wall and still be an insatiable top.
Here's more. Gay men aren't only tops or bottoms. There isn't always someone with a defined sexual role in gay relationships, and even if there is, that role may be malleable. Stuffing a gay man into a top or bottom box limits the full breadth of their sexuality.
Sure, some men happily fit into the top/bottom binary, but the rule doesn't always apply. Other men may label themselves as versatile, versatile tops, versatile bottoms, or whatever they want on any given day. Their choice should be free from the limitations imposed by intrusive questions. Do not attempt to fit our sexual roles into heteronormative standards, and do not ask us to choose a side in your binary world. We may have vanilla missionary-style sex or engage in wild dom-sub roleplay. Whatever the choice, it doesn't mean gay folks don't switch positions. The players on our baseball teams are capable of both pitching and catching. If they don't want to switch, that's their personal prerogative.
And now, an addendum for gay men who pose this question as a make-it-or-break-it to potential partners. Can't we let chemistry dictate a sexual encounter without forcing some preordained notion on what intimacy should look like? Stop should-ing all over yourself! Life is not scripted. Sex isn't either. Let your body love what it loves, and give yourself the freedom to choose and change your preferences as you and your partner see fit.
Straight people can have equally flexible roles in their sexual relationships, too. Aside from the pegging mentioned above, and other physical ways people play in bed, there's an essential mental component that factors into fucking.
The penetrated partner is not necessarily weak, nor is the person doing the penetrating strong. Women can run the sexual show without inserting anything into a man. Likewise, a bottom can boss a top with the command of a high-ranking army official. Sexual power play is a state of mind unrelated to our genitalia and the way we use them. If someone's genitalia aligns with your preconceived notions of sex, gender, and sexual position, that's super. But remember, our world is filled with equally super dominant bottoms, sissy tops, assertive straight women who love to get fucked, and subservient straight men who love to do the fucking. They come in all shapes, sizes, creeds, and colors.
Moreover, the roles people play in the bedroom don't always line up with how those people present in plain clothes. Do not assume there will always be a correlation. I've met drag queens who're award-winning tops and firefighters who are self-proclaimed bossy bottoms. The terms top and bottom aren't necessarily an indicator of anything other than how a gay man may or may not use his private parts during sex, and such finite labels don't always paint a full picture.
Now that we've gotten to the bottom of that argument, let's break down Peck's attempted take-down of Mayor Pete. "...I get a definite top-by-default vibe from him..."
Peck is defining "top-by-default" here as "masc-presenting." Mayor Pete has a deep voice that rarely flares with rangy emotional appeals. His hips do not swish when he walks, and he avoids gesticulating with limp wrists. He served in the military (a rough-and-tumble job), he's currently a mayor (a position of power), and he passed as straight without suspect until coming out at age 33. These are a few of the facts we know about Pete Buttigieg, and the common denominators Peck must be using to label him as a top. Mind you, this is a label being reinforced by a fellow gay man. Peck's assumptions about Pete's personal life don't end there, either.
"... which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but is too uptight to do it."
Aside from this being an arbitrary, invasive, and pigheaded remark, it's a red flag for the way Peck views and treats those who may or may not engage in gay sex. Peck implies that although the mayor of South Bend is top-presenting, he might as well have bottom envy written on his forehead in glitter. According to Peck, the mayor is also unfit to be president. These thoughts exist side-by-side in the same paragraph. Buttigieg is so manly he must be a top, not manly enough to take a dick, and as Peck argues, unfit to park his prostate on Pennsylvania Avenue until he gets all the gay sex out of his system. Dale isn't alone in his thoughts, either. Remember, someone at The New Republic had to green light the article.
All of this leaves me confused. Buttigieg isn't enough of a top or a bottom for you, Dale? Is your belief in the sexual binary really that strong? Are we going to bottom shame our fellow gays all the way to the top of Capitol Hill? And if this is how you feel about gay men who may or may not be intrigued by bottoming, what do you think about women who are naturally the receptive partners in their sexual relationships? If women don't prove they're dom-top peggers only, is there even room for them in the good old boys' club of American politics?
But honestly, I'm tired talking about the sexual exploits of a gay man vying for the Democratic nomination. Instead, I'd like to pivot and pose a question to all of you.
Why is no one asking these questions of the straight men running for office?
We think we control the bodies of marginalized groups like women and LGBTQ people. We enact laws over what they can or can't do with their bodies all the time. Remember, sodomy laws were only deemed unconstitutional in 2003. Women constantly fight against legislation that controls their bodies today. We believe we are privy to the information of these people's personal sex lives, and use their sexuality as weapons against them. This is particularly true in politics, where straight men don't face the same sexual scrutiny in popular media.
Can you imagine the uproar if someone asked how Joe Biden likes to bang? What Bernie Sanders does in bed? If Cory Booker likes butt stuff? If Beto O'Rourke is a bottom-by-default? They're completely inappropriate questions, and even if you did uncover the answers, they should have no bearing on whether these men are fit to run the nation.
But if you really want to talk about how a politician fucks, let's talk about how Trump has been nonconsensually screwing us since he entered the Oval Office.
If you want to talk to me or any other gay man about how we fuck, tread lightly. Examine how you fuck instead. Are you should-ing all over your possibilities for sexual pleasure with antiquated ideologies? Are you allowing yourself to explore the total wonder of your human body? Don't put yourself in a box. Don't put me in a box, either. And whatever you do, please leave Pete Buttigieg out of it.
John Garry is a NYC-based travel writer, performer, and actor. Find out more about Garry at his website or follow him on Instagram @tinyplanettravel.