As queer love becomes an increasingly visible part of American society, with explicit media representation and the dramatic growth of queer dating apps, it is critical that queer communities interrogate the beauty standards these institutions promote. Queer people don’t exist within a vacuum — queerness is often associated with non-normativity, social deconstruction, and perhaps even revolution, but the reality is that we are raised in a society where racism, misogyny, and fatphobia infiltrate every facet of our existence. These systems of oppression are reflected in the labels and categories that queer people regard as desirable forms of self-expression, what I will refer to throughout this article as desirability archetypes. One example of a desirability archetype is the idea of a twink, a skinny, young, and typically white cisgender gay man. Unsurprisingly, twinks are considered highly desirable within gay dating pools and the physical features that are associated with this label are naturally tied to white supremacy and fatphobia. Within lesbian dating pools, there can be immense pressure to present in romantic or sexual contexts as either “masc” or “fem,” labels that can be interpreted as a reflection of heteronormativity. Yet, while it is evident that queer people can internalize harmful beauty standards steeped in systems of oppression, there is significant nuance to extricate in how queer desirability archetypes manifest differently from heterosexual desirability archetypes. In this article, I will draw from my personal experience as a queer person of color to provide one perspective on the role of desirability archetypes in the formation of queer sub-communities and the harmful effects of rigid labeling on authentic self-expression.
If you spend an hour in a room full of single gay men, it’s more than likely that you’d hear at least one of them complain about an experience they had on the dating app Grindr. One common statement you might hear in the conversation might go something like a “gay man’s obese is a straight person’s skinny” or a more general complaint about how hard it is to get laid as a gay man of color. Grindr’s anonymity allows users to not use a profile picture, unlike other popular dating apps such as Tinder or Hinge, and therefore it’s not unusual to see profiles that explicitly prohibit certain races or body types from reaching out with a statement like “No fats, no fems, no Black, no Asian.” It’s important to recognize this fact as we simultaneously validate these experiences of blatant fatphobia, racism, and misogyny, while also realizing that it’s reductive to distance these issues from broader systems of oppression. Fat people, women, Black people, Asian people, and others who hold one or more of these marginalized identities experience these struggles on a daily basis, even if they do not identify as a gay man. The failure to acknowledge how queer beauty standards derive from systematic oppression and that they affect groups beyond spaces inhabited primarily by gay men is harmful to those groups.
In addition, it can reinforce stereotypes that gay men are uniquely superficial. Popular media often depicts queer men as superficial and appearance-oriented, from entire shows like Queer Eye to individual characters like Jonah on Never Have I Ever. While some of these tropes are rooted in homophobic stereotypes imposed by heterosexual directors, it is important that queer communities introspect on how certain intra-group behaviors can contribute to this budding narrative. Fixating on desirability archetypes as means of classifying people into rigid groups, while not exclusively limited to queer people, can be interpreted as a superficial behavior that is especially prevalent among gay men.
Given the harms of queer desirability archetypes, how can queer people begin to deconstruct them and make room for more authentic forms of self-expression? It is first important to acknowledge that categorizing people can be a form of community building. Particularly for queer people who may have had less opportunities for belonging, attaching oneself to a label might help them feel more included in queer circles. And yet, these labels remain rather limiting and largely tied to oppressive beauty standards. I do not have all the answers to resolve this dilemma but I believe that descriptors that are tied to interests, passions, and personality traits instead of appearance might facilitate more positive forms of queer community building. For example, many gay men are beginning to adopt labels such as “side” to signal a lack of interest in penetrative sex, a subversion of traditional top-bottom classifications, or other personality-based labels such as “gay-mer” to describe an interest in video games. I imagine a world of authentic queer self-expression, one where queer people can embrace every facet of their existence without feeling pressured into certain predefined modes of behavior.