Me, myself, I: changing gay male identity


In this podcast,  Dr Andrew Cooper, author of a  new book, Changing Gay Male Identities talks to Jeffrey Weeks, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at South Bank University, London and one of the first writers on queer theory, about how gay male identity is changing in a fast changing world.

As the world changes, so sexual identities are changing. In a context of globalisation, mass communication and technological advances, individuals find themselves able to make lifestyle choices in new and different ways. In this increasingly confusing world, sociologists have argued that ontological security is crucial, identities are in flux, and that traditional patterns of identity and intimacy are being disrupted and reshaped, with all the implications for sexual identities that this suggests.

Andrew Cooper’s research draws on the powerful life stories of twenty-one gay men to explore how individuals construct and maintain their sense of self in contemporary society. In his book, and in this conversation he and Jeffrey Weeks explore the theoretical debates on topics such as gender, sex, class, camp, race and ethnicity.

Jeffrey Weeks

Jeffrey Weeks

Jeffrey Weeks:  The whole idea of ‘identity’ has come onto the agenda only in the last 50 or 60 years.  The ‘search for an identity ‘ was only really discussed in the 1950s for the first time.  And the emphasis on a gay identity, or lesbian and gay identities, is even more recent – since the 1970s.

Andrew Cooper

Andrew Cooper


Andrew Cooper:  One man in his 60s told me that when he was growing up he thought all gay men were leather clad weirdoes or the TV stereotypes of camp entertainers like Larry Grayson and that was the only form of identity there was, which was quite frightening!

AC:  I interviewed 21 gay men and it was very interesting to see the different experiences those men had had.  But the common link through was a lot of self-awareness and thinking about what their identity was, gender, their sexuality.  For example, how they related to family members, their partners or their communities. In a lot of cases it was a struggle to put together a coherent identity.

A lot of other writers have talked about ‘successful identities’, or ‘unified identities’, of a sense of self.  And one of the strands I tried to pull together was ‘a liveable identity’ – how individuals who may have a very different sense of self and very different life experiences, are all straining to put together a liveable identity which can mean different things to different people.

JW: The language you use suggests agency, people making their own lives, not in circumstances of their own choosing, necessarily, but nevertheless managing to invent themselves.  Some recent queer theorists have questioned the whole idea of identity, seeing it as imposed, as a trap, as an imprisonment for individuals, but that’s not the impression you get from your book where people are creative about their lives, making their lives as they go along.

To what degree do people play with this idea of rejecting imposed identities and making their own?

AC:  When I started, I probably  assumed (and lots of theorists talk about it) that there was increased freedom from the social changes of the last few decades, thinking there are many more choices now, that sexuality has been in flux, and there is even a fracturing of identity.  I probably started with the assumption that there are many different choices, almost a bewildering set of choices. And through the interviews I began to build up a picture of what I’ve termed ‘identity work’ (and others have used the same term) for people working through different choices.

It’s paradoxical.  There is a background of homophobia. A lot of the men I spoke to talked of experiences at school – football always seemed to come through as one of the really strong experiences, that there was only one acceptable form of masculinity and football was often a marker for that.  If they weren’t into football culture, macho culture, then they felt they weren’t legitimate, or their identity wasn’t right, there was something wrong with them.  And that led to an incredible amount of creativity, of individuals working though different ways of thinking about their sense of self – whether that was to do with masculinity or femininity or different aspects of their life.

For example, I interviewed a couple of men, Greek Cypriots.  They had experience of the Cypriot culture and the gay culture, and the two didn’t seem to fit together. With considerable creativity, they went through a process of actively constructing their identity over a period of time.  One realised he was gay and rejected the Cypriot culture completely, but a few years later came back to it, saying there are things I like about Cypriot culture – the friendship, closeness, the family atmosphere (there were lots of different ways of behaving within the culture that he really liked), so he had to find a way of taking on those aspects of the culture he liked and his gay sexuality and forge a new path through.  This was possibly quite a struggle, hard work. But over a period of years he’d found a way to do it, which was acceptable to him even if others in the community wouldn’t recognise that as something they’d see every day.

JW: I was recently in Cyprus and was struck by the similarities but also the differences.  The differences are historical, which reminds us that the identity/identities we are talking about are forged in the British context, and we can’t universalise from that.  There are commonalities, of course.  Words like ‘gay’ are used frequently, even ‘queer’, in Cyprus, but they don’t necessarily have the same meaning we have here.  So we are talking about the development of specific British identities, though obviously they have been influenced by what goes on in the rest of the world, especially America, but also more recently in Europe and the general liberalisation of attitudes in Europe.

You mentioned gender, masculinity and homophobia.  To my mind these are the constraints within which identity is forged.  Different cultures have different notions of masculinity.  And homophobia, although seen as a universal condition of hostility, is differently interpreted and differently displayed in other countries.

AC: I looked at research from other countries, and it is helpful in raising the point that we have certain priorities and ways of explaining what sexuality is, and they can be very different in different cultures.  It is impossible to read across.  For example, some of the men I talked to had experiences of homophobia – people shouting ‘Queer!’ at them in the street. Yet in another country or situation someone might use the word ‘Queer’ to describe themselves, and it could be very liberating.

Over the course of our lives we construct a narrative about the story of our life.  One of the dangers of that, for me interviewing gay men, and them telling me their stories, meant I had to be aware that some of the stories were well rehearsed and well thought through.  They were a coherent story.  And some of the men seemed to present a journey that was now finished or that they had resolved a number of issues.  One of the things I drew in was a term ‘fortress identities’ – how individuals want an identity they can defend – they were under attack from homophobia.  It’s in contradiction to a lot of the theoretical thinking ie that we now have more freedom and choice and can do as we like.  Actually for quite a few of my interviewees, they were talking about forming something solid and coherent.  For example, Dave, in his 30s, working class, said

‘There are all sorts of people knocking all sorts of life styles and if I haven’t got an identity that I can stand up for and defend, then I’m just going to be walked all over by people in the street, by politicians, by any person who’s homophobic.  It’s important to have a strong identity you can defend, because that’s my identity’.

That illustrates how the context you live in can create a set of circumstances and you feel you need something very solid, it goes against some of the contemporary thinking about increased freedom and choices.

JW:  That illustrates the way these identities are socially formed.  Social constructionism is an abstract term, but what it means in practice is that we have to look at the historical and social contexts in which identity has become meaningful.  It’s very interesting that from the 1970s, identity (fortress identity, as you said) has been so central to the gay experience.

But of course we’ve seen a revolution in the last 40 or 50 years.  There has been an uneven, but remarkable liberalisation, especially in the last 10 years seen in all the changes in legislation – with discussions about same sex or equal marriage and so on.

The men you interviewed were brought up in a particular climate, a climate that in the 1980s saw a backlash against earlier gains and a painful reconstruction of identities from 1990s onwards (particularly in the wake of the HIV/AIDs crisis).  So your men had a particular formation.  I wonder to what extent you were able to assess how identities are shifting in the light of a more liberal climate – not, perhaps the disappearance of homophobia but it taking different forms.

AC:  I think that’s a really good point.  When I started the research I really wanted to look at how things are changing for example, the virtual revolution, the use of the internet – this is a drastic change, and since I did the interviews a lot of those developments have happened.

But I was trying to tease out partly their experience of growing up and partly their current experiences – to see what has changed.  Lots of people talked about bad school experiences, and they’d never have come out at school – they thought they might even have been killed – but homophobia is still there, even though it is taking new forms.  One man talked of the ‘chronic’ or ‘background’ homophobia he could see in his life.  He said he wouldn’t feel comfortable walking down any street holding hands with his partner – he couldn’t remember anyone shouting abuse, and he hadn’t been the victim of any violence, but there was a background, underlying noise that’s always there, so he was always moderating his behaviour.

And a few of the men I interviewed spoke of their ethnicity and sexuality.  One, Guy, who was black and gay, talked a lot about how his gayness and his blackness might fit together.  I call this ‘sticky identities’, where individuals (like the Cypriot men I spoke about before) are trying to stick together different aspects of their identity.  Guy spoke about the concept of community, gay community.  Now, you might assume the gay community would be inclusive but he said,

‘I suppose I feel on the periphery of gay life.  My views and my approach don’t fit in with most gay people.  I think I resent the general perception of the gay community because I don’t think it includes me – because of my race, ethnicity, and background, nor my political and social beliefs.  So, I don’t feel part of it. I make my own community through my friends.   With my black gay friends it’s wonderful, celebratory almost. Being black and gay and seeing the positive in both of them.  It’s wonderful to be in a room of black gay men,to fuse the two, to feel a connection on both levels, that’s really amazing and uplifting.’

The wider culture may have changed, there have been changes and developments, and there is increased freedom, but there are still effects – whether it’s a chronic level of homophobia or a black gay man feeling he doesn’t really fit in to certain aspects of gay communities.

JW: The ‘sticky identity’ is very close to what some theorists call ‘intersectionality’ – we piece together our sense of ourselves from a whole range of different experiences.  There are different communities and experiences being structured in particular ways, where some terms are dominant and others not.

We still live in a world dominated by heterosexual norms, ‘heteronormativity’.  Our choices are always limited, constrained, pressured, by these overarching structures.

But it comes back to this important idea of community.  People aren’t making identity choices in isolation, they are doing so in wider contexts of movements, of constituencies, of communities, of networks.  This brings us back to the significance of stories and narratives.  As Ken Plummer has pointed out, they aren’t individual stories, they are collective stories – we build a sense of ourselves as individuals but we have a sense of who we relate to, those who are like us or not like us, through the way we construct narratives and stories.  Stories are community building, and many of your interviewees  – for example as the black gay man does – talk about constructing their life narrative and their community narrative with their friends , and in contrast to those who are different from them, who are not like them or who ignore them.

AC:  My analysis is about individuals actively constructing their identity.  It’s not that people have a stable, core, true self that they are trying to discover.  It’s more fluid – a lifelong project over time.  In my analysis I was careful to make sure not to make a static model of identity, I was looking at how individuals see themselves and how they relate to others around them – communities, families, work colleagues. It is impossible to find a model which shows that an identity is formed over time. It’s much more nuanced.

I looked at the body as part of that lifelong project.  How an individual would dress, their sense of style, how sex would feature in their identity.  How it would have different meanings for different people.  The body is something that has to be achieved.  There are many choices involved in how we look and how we present ourselves in everyday life.

One or two of the interviewees had great self-awareness about the image they projected, for example they spoke of using camp and humour, which comes back to being playful with identity.  That’s the pleasurable side of identity.  We’ve talked about constraints and restrictions, we’ve mentioned freedom, too, but some of them would use camp in the workplace, finding it was a way of diffusing difficult situations or making friendships or relating to other gay men. It’s playful, playing with masculinity and femininity – which opens out into different choices and where identity can be different every day.

JW: The discussion of the body – its pains it can suffer and the pleasures it can enjoy – reminds us that we construct the body.  It’s a bedrock.

The thing about camp is that it was associated with a particular historical moment. A moment before gay liberation, which rejected camp, but it’s never disappeared.

But, the other side of the experience of the last few decades is that gay men have increasingly wanted to assert their masculinity.  The culture of working out, going to the gym, bodybuilding, even physical appearance of the body  – the movement of long hair to short hair, moustaches coming and going, beards coming and going – is the way we mould our bodies to fit in with our shifting identities.

AC: There is that pleasurable aspect to the project.  However, for quite a few of my interviewees, it was about homophobia, or the context around them, making them aware of the project, of how they might present themselves, mould their body and mould sense of self.

For some of the men, that created problems.  Some spoke of periods of depression, of struggle, being ostracised by their families, for example.  Some of those things might relate to a particular historical period, but still, it’s not just picking a gay identity off the shelf, it feels like there is still a lot of work to be done by individuals to create a liveable sense of self.

This plays out in the debate around same sex marriage.  In my earlier research there were a wide range of views on gay marriage.  Some felt, no, it would be copying heterosexual culture and that wouldn’t be the right thing to do.  But more recent thinking is that for equality purposes there are a lot of positive reasons to have same sex marriage, and that then is one choice that gay men have.  There isn’t a hierarchy, it’s not that one form of gay identity is better than another.

There are many intersecting and complex identities, some forged through great struggle, fortress identity, or trying to stick together a sens of self.  That is why I come back to the idea of a liveable identity, to encourage gay men to forge their own path, rather than feeling only this identity is acceptable.  I’m sure this debate has gone on since the beginning of gay rights, but it still seems pertinent today.

JW:  It’s an ongoing negotiation, people negotiate their identities in particular circumstances.  But I am struck by how you speak about the balance between coherence and fragmentation.  And that brings us back to how important identity is.

Everyone in the world is faced by a sense of fragmentation if the norms they’ve taken for granted disappear.  For example, what happens to a gay man who has organised his whole sense of self around his sexual attractiveness – picking up and having lots of sex, affirming himself through sex – but then, as we all do, he grows older.  Friendships tend to fade away and he loses his allure.  How do you make up the difference?

For me this highlights the important shift that’s taken place.  The move from the early 70s with the emphasis on sex as the core of your identity, to the idea of identity as a broader thing, embracing relationships too.  It’s in that context that same sex marriage has become an important issue throughout the world, not just in Britain, US and Europe.  It’s about getting equal rights (of course, that’s a given) but it’s also about the recognition of relationships as being important to your sense of self and sense of belonging in the world.

Anthony Giddens talks about ‘ontological security’ (ie we need to have a sense of security in who we are and where we belong) and the emphasis – especially since the 1980s AIDs crisis – of the need to affirm and have recognised the importance of our friendships, our networks and our intimate relationships is about achieving that security.

AC:  People do need a sense of stability and they form liveable identities through relationships – friendships, sexual relationships, long term partners – these were very much at the core of the identity project for my interviewees.  Sometimes fitting into a group – coming out, going to a gay bar for the first time and changing their look.  At other times they might be influencing those around them, a two way process, for example with their family, changing their family’s concept of what a gay identity might be.

But is there a danger in this stability?  If everything goes in one particular direction, might we look round in a few years’ time and find there are only three acceptable forms of gay identity?  For me it’s trying to find a balance between stability, day to day life and ‘ordinary’ life. Social life is changing, there are more choices.  But things oscillate,   there is more freedom of choice now, but things can change and those choices can narrow down.

JW: Since the 1970s, the debate has been framed as two extremes.  On the one hand there’s transgression, shocking the dominant norms, being different.  On the other hand there is being the same – even being assimilated – so it doesn’t matter whether you’re homosexual or heterosexual (or, the extreme form of that, we all become like heterosexuals).

But in the end that is a false polarity.  The historical shift is not towards a limited range of norms or patterns, but to a diversification of norms and patterns.  Surely that is the general drift of society, global society, not just in Britain.  People want to do their own thing, and be accepted as perfectly ordinary.  And that is different from assimilation, or surrendering to heterosexual norms.  Rather, it is saying, this is who we are, we want to be accepted for who we are, and there are many different ways of being who we are and of being ordinary.

Ultimately, that is what same sex marriage is about – the same rights for every individual in our culture, to choose to go this way or that way, marriage or not marriage, cohabit or not cohabit, choose to have multiple relationships or lifelong partners.  Being ordinary is, in the end, about just being ourselves.

I’m struck by the new book by Brian Heaphy, Carol Smart and Anna Einarsdottir, Same Sex Marriages: New Generations, New Relationships, about attitudes to same sex marriage amongst younger people, it’s very much about being ordinary. The drift of all your interviewees is about being ‘ordinary’.  They are not particularly interested in being transgressive or shocking the bourgeoisie or frightening the horses in the street, they just want to be accepted for who they are.

AC:  That’s right.  And one of the changes among the people I interviewed was their experiences in growing up.   One man in his 60s spoke of limited ideas of what a gay man could be, he told me that when he was growing up he thought, I think he used the phrase, that all gay men were leather clad weirdoes or the TV stereotypes of camp entertainers like Larry Grayson and that was the only form of identity there was, which was quite frightening!

If you fast forward to today, you see a much wider range of gay characters eg on TV soaps, and they are quite ordinary.  In the last couple of years there was a same sex marriage on EastEnders, and one of the men had kissed another man on the night before the wedding, should that endanger the wedding?  And it struck me that that was ordinary.  Just how a wedding would be presented on a TV soap.  There are many other forms.  Ordinary lives.

JW:  Gay men have always had to experiment, because there were no norms, but you could say that is now what’s happening in our culture generally, not just in the gay world.  We all have to make life experiments because the world is changing so rapidly.  And against that you have to balance a need for belonging and stability.  So experiment and stability are not alternatives they are part of the same process of living in an every changing world.

 Photograph (above) of Left to right: Scott Gill, John Barrowman (saluting) and politician Brian Paddick on a float at the 2007 London Gay Pride by Fae

Professor Jeffrey Weeks writing includes:

  • Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, Quartet Books 1977; 2nd revised edition, with new chapter and bibliography, 1990
  • Sex, Politics and Society. The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800, Longman 1981; 2nd edition, with additional chapter and new bibliography, 1989
  • Sexuality and its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.
  • Sexuality, Ellis Horwood/Tavistock, 1986. Revised second English edition, Routledge 2003
  • Between the Acts. Lives of Homosexual Men 1885-1967 (with Kevin Porter), Routledge, 1990; 2nd edition, with new Preface, Rivers Oram Press, 1998
  • Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity, Rivers Oram Press, 1991
  • Invented Moralities. Sexual Values in an Age of Uncertainty, UK: Polity Press, US: Columbia University Press, 1995
  • Making Sexual History, Polity Press, 2000
  • Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and other Life Experiments (with Brian Heaphy and Catherine Donovan), Routledge, 2001
  • Sexuality, Revised second edition, pp xii + 164, Routledge 2003