In a world that prizes social behavior, can the shy gay man survive?
Our lives are increasingly massaged into a social existence. Some psychologists argue that we are social beings and thus interacting in group environments—and liking it—is sign of normal, adjusted behavior. Under this thought, the man that shies away from group behavior is seen as maladjusted, an outsider, loner or freak.
However, group mentality is often confused with a monolithic lifestyle. Everything around us encourages not only group-think, but same-think. I'll never forget my office days when collective thought and a homogenous environment were synonymous with teamwork. At one Park Avenue company, any sign of individuality was discouraged. Cubicle decorations could not reach above the carpeted walls. Only certain colors were allowed in the strict dress code. And although we were told we could manage our groups with our own styles, we were routinely asked to compare "best practices" with each other in hopes of developing one uniform way of doing things. Morning, lunch and evening commutes were modern version of Metropolis in full black and white.
Along those lines, another large Detroit-based manufacturer sat me at a workspace just under a pole. "A8" read in big letters on a sign hanging from a pole overhead. Looking around there were rows and rows of similar desks, so indistinguishable that they needed to be labeled like parking lot spaces. I'll talk to you later, Bob. Oh silly me, I sit at A8 not B5. Not surprisingly this company was notorious for designing one product marketing it as three "different" models.
Is there any surprise gay men have a difficult time being out at work? Team is tantamount, even during water cooler talk. No wife, no kids, no grass to mow? Not a team player.
Workplace aside, our lives are gauged by social potential. Measurements of manhood have slowly evolved from penis size to Facebook friend lists and Twitter followers. The popular kids in school have taken over and our family, friends and potential dates are in on the contest. Where before we kept some things private and others public, there is ever increasing pressure to broadcast the full package. Those details are shouted into the depths of the internet, only to await comparison and judgement.
For gay men this is a dangerous cycle. I recently met a mother who spoke of her gay son's Facebook habits. I don't mind that he's gay, she says proudly, I just don't think he needs to put all of those pictures up on Facebook for the family to see. Like the office, there are rules to being cyber social that mirror what society considers normal behavior. Post a pic of your cat, your new apartment and your vacation in Cabo, just crop out your boyfriend because we're not that type of crowd.
Unfortunately for the gay outsider, sometimes called the loner or the anti-social, the closet door can slam all over again, and again, and again with each page load. I've seen my fair share of gay men and women who are asked to censor themselves for fear of "offending" family members (many who aren't even invited to Thanksgiving) or "embarrassing" straight parents and siblings. The deadbolt is turned in our own community where the extrovert is praised as confident and sure while the quiet guy blends into the furniture.
For more social gays, rejection from others is a call to cling tighter to other circles of cyber family and friends. But what of the shy or introverted gay man? Does he take the blows in full resolution or retreat into where he wants to be most: with himself and a limited group of confidants? And, is he a freak for enjoying a party of two more than two hundred?
A common misconception is that the guy hanging out by himself at the bar or in other social settings is there, alone, not by choice but by some defect or circumstance. Thoughts fill most heads. Some pity him, assuming he's afflicted with the disease of solitude; others lambast him as the next headline: "Gay Serial Killer Seen Sipping Drink Alone At Bar".
It's here that most stereotypes and generalizations are born. The gay man that stays clear of the pride parade is assumed many things, his biggest offense being his refusal to join in the fight. The assumption is that he's not fighting at all. His anti-social behavior is seen as a rejection of an entire community, when in fact he just might not like crowds. The "loner" gay man's choices can root in a number of things ranging from social phobia to shyness. The presumtion, however, is most often slanted towards his perceived inadequacy or danger to the group.
"Shyness and introversion — or more precisely, the careful, sensitive temperament from which both often spring — are not just normal," says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts. Where in many social environments shy gay men are seen as rejects, Cain acknowledges that all introverts are "valuable." She goes as far as saying "they may be essential to the survival of our species."
Get Over It!
Cain's book is a loner in a crowd of publications and articles that tell men that the key to happiness is dropping the shyness for a more extroverted existence. Come out of your shell! Be less shy and more social! You can get what you want if you only accept that RSVP! I'm guilty of pushing gay men towards their dating goals with a similar solution in the past: Just walk up to a guy and ask him out! If anything, group-think is contagious.
In the article "Gay Dating Online – The Solution for Shy Gay Men", it is argued that the personalities of gay men are often overshadowed by fear and shame from their surroundings, but posits that being shy is a symptom of those experiences. As with every symptom, there is an implied cure. Get out of your chair and introduce yourself, the article chants along with many other sites eager to get introverted gay men out of their shells. That's the cause of all of their problems, right?
This only works if being introverted is a problem and for most introverts it's not! In a New York Times opinion piece, Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?, Susan Cain mentions the position of science journalist Winifred Gallagher:
"The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor 'Paradise Lost' was dashed off by a party animal."
Not all glory nor personal satisfaction is found in crowds. Shy individuals and introverts (sometimes not one in the same) make significant contributions to our cultural collectives. Their sociability does little to indicate their real motives. Put plainly, there are some who go to parties to enjoy the people and music; there are others who get more joy out of dissecting the atmosphere to figure out what makes it so attractive to the party animals. They aren't anti-social. They have different social curiosities.
As individuals we're wired with the same basic organs and limbs, but how we view the world is as different as the fingerprints on our thumbs. It is the shy, quiet guy, however that gets pushed to the back of the line for his seemingly lack of transparency. Ironically, most introverts don't see themselves cryptic at all. You want the truth? Ask the shy guy. They're not concerned with keeping up appearances. Their social image is already lower than the confetti on the dance floor. Want to know how many years of hearing you've shaved off of your life hanging out at the bar, the introvert is your man. Want to know who's slept with whom and he'll shake his head bewildered. Chances are he knows who you can ask, though.
The fact is no matter how many men we dress in the same suit, add to the same circle of friends, or wrap in the same flag, we are all different. We share many identities, such as being male and liking the same sex, but next to it all are other more individuals ways of thinking. For some that means being the life of the party; others are comfortable with their single stool at the restaurant. With each, the process to unraveling who they really are is the same. It digs well beyond the surface.
Admit it or not, much of our gay lives are dictated by stereotype because "that's just what gays do." Gay men like parties. Gay men like multiple partners. Gay men live for the lifestyle. Gay men are not loners or individuals.
Then, when the hackneyed ideas have been exhausted we easily default to gender roles where masculine guys are tops and the quiet reserved fellow a bottom eager for attention.
Party of One: The Loners Manifesto author Anneli Rufus ironically calls all loners together, dispelling myths that loners wait to be rescued by social invitations: "APART. Such a simple concept. So concrete. So easy to represent on charts or diagrams with dots and pushpins either in or out. Yet real life is not dots. Some of us appear to be in, but we are out. And that is where we want to be. Not just want but need, the way tuna need the sea."