All Yours

11.12.14 10:50 AM ET

How Straight World Stole ‘Gay’: The Last Gasp of the ‘Lumbersexual’

Have you met the lumbersexual: all beards, flannel shirts, and work boots? It’s the latest gay ‘look’ co-opted by straights. Have it. We have nothing left to give you.

Hmm, there’s something familiar about “lumbersexuals,” I thought, scanning the facile breakdowns of this supposedly new smoking-hot male subset.

In a flash it was obvious. Straight people have discovered, and co-opted, the gay “bear” and “cub.” Of course they have, just as gays co-opted the look once from lumberjacks and rural workmen. It was only a matter of time that the wheel turned its full revolution.

First, straights came for the smooth, pretty gay look recustomized as “the metrosexual,” and now you have come for our hairier brethren. What else would you like? What else can we give you? You’ve taken it all. All our cutting asides and repartee, design expertise, gym dedication, fitted shirts, food knowledge, high and low culture snarking, gift-buying nous, and our smarts (“She’s such a drama queen”)—straight culture has gobbled gay culture as ravenously as Cookie Monster atomizes baked dough.

It’s fine, we’ll take the compliment, even if we are baffled that you’re now wanting a slice of performing and playing with masculinity, given the amount of homophobia and legislative discrimination you have put in our way. All that gay fear you’ve labored under and battered us with, all that crap about what men should be, and now, with the lumbersexual, the metrosexual, the use of camp, and so much more, you’ve not only come over to our side, you want in on the joke.

And lumberjacks, well, you should have really trademarked your look.

The lumbersexual is beards and flannel shirts, the opposite of the waxed chest, sculpted muscles, empathetic male cyborg of a few years ago: the straight man who was “gay” apart from where he chose to place his penis. He knew all about cilantro and the best facial cleanses, but in bed and on the kitchen table he was all about the ladies. 

Gay men bequeathed straights the metrosexual—truly, the word was the invention of a gay author, Mark Simpson—and thought that would be enough. But no: “the lumbersexual” is the metrosexual’s equally pantomimic flipside. His beard is so thick it can sweep floors. His flannel shirts are thick. He looks unkempt. The beard, in fact, can be short or totally out of control. The message of the “lumbersexual” is: I am earthy. I am earth. I care more about chopping trees down than buying you that Yohji Yamamoto blouse as a surprise.

Despite all the breathless style magazine articles, the lumbersexual is less a new desirable heterosexual model, but an acknowledgment that heterosexuality is a performance and jape. Everybody, even those in flannel shirts and Abe Lincoln whiskers, knows the lumbersexual wants proper coffee more than he wants to chop down a tree. Before a lumbersexual picked up an axe he’d consult his back doctor.

Beards and moustaches were customized as sexy by gay clones and bears years ago—they were just two demographics within a gay demographic that helped people into that kind of look shortcut conversations about sexual likes and dislikes. Gays observe hetero-excitement over the lumbersexual with a weary eyeroll. Been there, done that more interestingly.

Now beards are ubiquitous, like masculine knotweed, wrapping themselves around any bloke-face they can find, and adding to the general confusion on the streets of not just sexual identity, but more profound questions, like why on earth the data programmer from White Plains wants to look like a Newfoundland logger.

You used to suspect the bearded of being lazy or feckless. Now the clean-shaven look suspicious. Patrick Bateman was clean-shaven, and look at how he spent his evenings.

But the rough-looking, dependably butch lumbersexual, despite his honest-guy uniform, is a drag queen, just as we all are. On go our costumes every day, and so it especially is with those whose uniform is dedicated to looking like they care least of all what they look like. The lumbersexual is the biggest drag queen of them all.

Above a picture of a muscular-looking bearded twentysomething in cool hat, flannel shirt, and trousers, GearJunkie says: “He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway pine. He looks like a man of the woods, but works at The Nerdery, programming for a healthy salary and benefits. His backpack carries a MacBook Air, but looks like it should carry a lumberjack’s axe.”

So, the Brooklyn lumbersexual is just playing a part—though trying to look rough when you’re not is the least sexy thing a man can do, surely. The gap between image and reality is laughable. Instead of finding the performance of that sexually or romantically attractive, surely it would make any sane partner, potential or otherwise, immediately run weeping into the arms of the nearest pinstripe-suited, stubble-free banker.

GearJunkie counterposes pictures of real lumberjacks and hipsters who look totally ridiculous. This ham-fisted visual coding reminded me that a few billion years ago, when gay men cruised each other on actual streets, when their heads weren’t stuck in their mobile phones even as they stood in gay bars surrounded by other people, they looked at one another, searchingly, flirtily.

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We wore hankies in our back pockets that symbolized what we liked to do sexually with one another. It was all so efficient, and also much more fun and inventive than an app.

Gay sexuality was once so proscribed that wearing “uniforms” and decoding uniforms was necessary. Having a “gaydar” was once a necessity, rather than a joke. “Cruising” could be a delight, when—a few paces on in their respective directions—two men turned at the exact same moment to re-check each other out.

It could be a momentary bummer when you turned and the object of your desire did not. And it could be a total shit-show if the other guy turned round, and said angrily, “What are you looking at, faggot?” Then you hoped it wouldn’t turn nasty, and pretended you were mesmerized by the fascinating brickwork of the nearest building.

In the late 1980s, gaydars pinged and pinged if you wore light blue jeans, white T-shirt, and tight black leather jacket; if you had square-cut hair and highlights. In Oscar Wilde’s time, gay men wore a green carnation in their lapels.

The lumbersexual is just straight culture’s latest belated attempt to theatricalize masculinity, decades after gays got there first—and we did it to make finding each other easier in times, ironically, when we had to hide.

The lumbersexual’s beard speaks symbolically of straightforward—even if the lumbersexual is not found in the woods, even if he doesn’t make shelves, or chew grass looking soulfully out to a lake while his black lab sits at his feet. Even if he panics not about crops or drainage systems, but whether he’ll make 300K this year.

Cosmopolitan has asked readers, “Are You Dating a Lumbersexual?” For a start, it would be pretty bloody obvious, as your previously fairly average partner will have sprouted a beard, and started wearing flannel and heavy boots. He who once liked a glass of Malbec and looking tidy for his mother now slugs beer from the bottle, and wants to give everything up to open a craft brewery.

Cosmo educates us about the lumbersexual’s characteristics: “Whenever you suggest a quick Ikea trip for a new dresser, he jumps in and volunteers to build you one and next thing you know, nine months later, you have a new dresser. You go to the grocery store to pick up basil and he says, ‘No need. I’m growing my own.’ You go hiking and try to pack Power Bars but he tells you he already knows where the nearest patch of wild blackberries is.”

If any of this flim-flam is true, the lumbersexual already sounds way more annoying than the metrosexual. Yet his ubiquity symbolizes the dissolving of more barriers between gay and straight. We are looking the same, acting the same, and mimicking masculinity the same. Soon, the only difference will be who either group chooses to sleep with, and straight men will no doubt find a way to sleep with other men, just as more gays get married, have children, and move out to the suburbs, from the inner-city areas they once gentrified and populated, which have now been colonized by straights-with-strollers.

Gay men used to adventure, and now—just like straights—apps and websites mean they can tailor their sexual lives very specifically. Gay sexual desire has become privatized, and a lot less interesting.

The lumbersexual, cute and beardy as he is, is just the latest, depressing sign of the withering on the vine of gay counterculture, the latest pasteurizing of sexuality. “Gay” is no longer different, or even challenging, and marriage equality—vital as it is—only serves to make homosexuality even safer and less threatening. Does political and social equality really have to entail a leveling of sexual difference?  

Maybe the wheel will turn again, and heterosexuality will come to seem edgy. Perhaps in 40 years the straights will liberate gays; maybe we will be spirited from Home Depots and encouraged to have transgressive sex on the streets, and in meat lockers, again. Maybe Grindr and Scruff will combust, and we’ll return to the hankie code, and looking and speaking to each other. Maybe they’ll be a run on green carnations. Until then, men shall all wearily grow our facial hair, wear flannel, and confuse the hell out of each other out on the streets.