Before I get into this episode, I want to acknowledge the recent death of a friend and inspiration, Jim Toy. Those of you who are particularly perceptive may have noticed that I have a photograph of Jim here on my desk. I met him in person only once, but we corresponded over a number of years while I was incarcerated. He recognized the injustice and prejudice in my prosecution, and hr supported and encouraged my hopes to shed light on these issues of oppression and stigma, much as he did himself throughout his career.
I keep his photo on my desk as a reminder that the work I’ve taken up has been going on in generations before, and it is not likely to be completed for generations to come. Sexual stigma has been part of our culture for centuries, but it is because of the enduring love and kindness of people like Jim Toy that we can hope to find peace and understanding with our sexual selves.
In the last episode, I spoke with TJ Konesky. As promised, the interview was not explicitly about sex. In fact, it was hardly about sex at all. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t relevant to the discussion we’ve been having on this podcast. At the beginning of the interview, I encouraged you to listen to the ways that sex—and gender, masculinity, and norms—influence identity even when it is not explicit. Today, I want to be a little bit more explicit about these processes and explore how they operate more generally.
TJ self-identifies as a YouTuber, gamer, actor, and athlete. He also has seen himself as part of various other identities or identity communities, including Brony, bisexual, influencer, and autistic. Each of these identities, with their accompanying norms and influences, potentially has an effect on TJ’s self-image and self-esteem.
From the first time I saw TJ, I saw him with sympathy and what felt like relatability. I imagined that he was like me in many ways. I saw a talented but awkward adolescent, quite likely misunderstood, possibly resigned to never being understood. It all felt very familiar. He was, I assumed, publicly embarrassed when an announcer misread his name. I knew what that felt like, and his reaction (to ignore it, because, what else could he do?) seemed like exactly the same reaction I would have had.
So, as I think about who TJ is, and what it might have been like to grow up in his shoes, I also think about my own adolescence and my own thoughts about identity and how I fit into the world. TJ, you’ll forgive me if I get it wrong, if I assume something about you that isn’t true. At those moments, I might be thinking about myself.
How Do We Identify?
Last time, I invited TJ to speak about who he is, about how he identifies, and what struggles he’s faced. He answered my questions honestly, I assume, but superficially. TJ is, in my estimation, endeavoring toward what the cute husband and remarkable writer Phil Christman describes as “the joys of being intimate, being intense, without having to be known.” He wants to be fully engaged with life and without the vulnerability that comes from acknowledging the full complexity of the past and of uncertainty.
We all do this to some extent. All of us want to be loved, to feel connection; but we also want to hold back, to keep part of us a secret. Because we believe that part of us might be rejected, criticized, scorned, judged, disliked. These contradictory desires might be strongest when we are at an age that requires us to be mature, responsible, and entirely put together; while we still lack the experience and wisdom to have a clue. And, quite likely, these contradictory desires might be strongest when it comes to sex.
A number of TJ’s identities align with stereotypical masculine activities. Athletics are often considered masculine, especially competitive athletics. While his chosen athletic competitions are not exclusively male-oriented (in fact, both American Ninja Warrior and the World Sport Stacking Association are more inclusive than most athletic organizations), a clear majority of competitors are male. In just about any activity, masculine normativity will urge male-identifying individuals to compete—and to win.
TJ has goals for 2022 related to his winningness. He wants to make the cut into the American Ninja Warrior competition this year, and he wants to become the fastest stacker in Ohio. Of course he does. Who wouldn’t want to be a winner? But the question, regarding sexuality, is what this pressure does to an individual’s identity. If TJ doesn’t make the cut, doe that mean that, as a man, he’s a failure? Not necessarily, but of course it’s much easier to be a man if you’re a winner. Men who are losers might be required to justify their lack of winning, in order to explain why it doesn’t make them less of a man. After all, men play to win.
I was not a big athlete at any point in my life, but I remember often thinking that whatever I did, I ought to do it well. This desire went beyond official competitions, where there was a clear winner or loser. It also included any sort of activity where there was a judgement of competence or quality. In short, I often chose not to engage in an activity if I thought I might lose.
Wanting to be good at things is not an essentially masculine characteristic. But comparing oneself to others is, and so is approaching everything with a competitive spirit. When TJ competes, part of his masculinity—part of his identity—is on the line. And, perhaps, even the choice to compete is, in itself, an expression of his masculinity. In the end, he may feel pressure to either win or quit.
This time, I said to myself, if I’m going to do this all over again, this time, I was going to do it better.
… However, if I mess up that comeback one last time, and if I stay on that loser side, if I mess up one more time, then I’m done.TJ Konesky
Less Than Masculine Identities
In our modern, progressive society, there’s not much that a man or a woman simply can’t do. Just as women are (mostly) allowed to participate in sports in more or less the same way as men, men are also allowed to do things that have traditionally been women’s work. Guys are allowed to be stay-at-home dads. Guys can even crochet. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy for them to do so. Just as it’s not easy for a woman to compete in sports, for numerous reasons, men who choose certain activities may experience friction, stigma, or at least raised eyebrows.
Bronies, Furries, and Sex, Oh My
I wondered with TJ about this in the context of his identification with the Brony fandom or with furry communities. Guys who like pony toys or cartoons are unusual enough for them to have their own category of fandom, separate from the more normal girls interested in these characters. Indeed, these characters are recognizable by their pastel hues, glitter, and rainbow motifs—signals which are decidedly not masculine. Further, there is a notable overlap between Bronies and furries, the latter of which is stereotypically associated with anti-heteronormative sex.
To make matters worse for TJ, he is known to enjoy playing with plush toys, a hobby which has endeared him with the pejorative, “man-child.”
When I asked TJ about this part of his life, his answers left me wondering. Maybe he was being engaging without being transparent, or maybe I’m just not as good an interviewer as I’d like to be. Either way, TJ’s responses seemed unfulfilling to me, leaving the questions answered but not satisfied.
I asked him specifically about the sexualization of those in the furry community. He answered, “it’s not all about that.” Well, fair, of course it’s not all about that. But TJ skillfully sidestepped any discussion of the part of the community that is about sex. Could you blame him? Not at all. I’m sure I’ve done the very same thing many times in the context of my own identity communities.
Because sex is taboo, it’s common to avoid any mention of sex within the context of other parts of our lives. It is as if we desexualize our lives in order to make them acceptable in polite society. To prove the point, look at the more successful messaging in the gay rights movement: it whitewashed over what makes gay sex deviant (that is, the sex) and instead focused on all the ways that individuals in the gay communities are just like anyone else.
Deflection is a common component of social acceptance. In order to keep your membership in an identity community secure, you may find yourself downplaying the differences and accentuating the normative aspects of yourself. In this view, “it’s not all about that” is the most appropriate response.
There’s a word the kids like to use these days: sus. Short for suspicious, sus calls attention to any behavior or characteristic that is non-normative. Most often, it is used when someone who claims to be an average guy (that is, a cis male heterosexual) does or says something that might lead to questions about his normative status. For example, if TJ is around the bros and someone raises the point that TJ likes ponies, another bro might turn to TJ and say, “Bro, that’s kinda sus.”
A common theme in masculine culture is for men to challenge each other’s masculinity. Sus perfectly embodies this challenge. When a man is accused of being sus, he must either defend himself or deflect the accusation by quickly moving the conversation to another point of focus.
Another aspect of TJ’s identity that might be a threat to masculinity is his bisexuality. Again, in our modern era, this issue might be of minimal importance, but being bisexual is still a deviation from the cis/het/male ideal standard. The mere fact that TJ had to come out is evidence that it might still be an issue.
We are trained, in this generation, to tolerate differences in sexualities. We are told that sexual orientation doesn’t matter. Gay, straight, bi, it’s a matter of personal identity, not a basis for fair judgement or discrimination. So, the polite thing to do might be to might be to ignore someone’s sexuality, or to act as if it doesn’t matter. Because it’s not supposed to matter.
But of course it does matter. TJ felt compelled to come out, to let the world know what he had previously kept to himself. And I love that he has the freedom to do that. It is wonderful that we are in a world where people are allowed to be different, and to acknowledge and even express those differences. But even though we sometimes say we “celebrate” differences, the differences are still notable.
People come out for a reason, and it’s not because they want to celebrate. It’s because something was hidden inside them, even suppressed. And why was it hidden? Because it felt wrong, unacceptable, deviant. Because it was a threat to their identity. Coming out is an attempt to shift shame into pride, to embrace a new identity that is more genuine.
I can only guess what TJ was expecting when he came out. Did he expect to lose friends? Gain friends? Find support from a new community? In a different time and place, when I came out, I was prepared to get kicked out of my house (it didn’t happen). I did, however, lose a girlfriend (can you blame her?). TJ was met with… very little. He wasn’t roundly rejected, nor was he overwhelmingly celebrated. His coming out was a non-event. Some would say that’s as it should be. But was it what he expected? Was it what he needed?
If someone is feeling shame, maybe feeling like an outsider, they might come out in order to justify what they are feeling. They might look for affirmation that they are shameful. Or, if they are optimistic, they might hope someone will prove them wrong. In any case, the intensity of the response may be expected to match the intensity of emotion the person is feeling inside themselves.
On the other hand, maybe the anticlimactic response could serve to calm the anxiety within. I suppose it depends. If the response demonstrates to the individual that their different sexuality is no big deal, that could be helpful. But if the response is interpreted as a lack of caring, or—worse—a distancing, then the individual could be left no better off than before.
TJ didn’t intimate that he was very anxious or ashamed before coming out as bisexual. I hope he wasn’t. However, his words did suggest an awareness of the potential social ramifications of admitting to something as sus as an attraction to guys. If you listen to his explanation, he was almost apologetic at first. Then he followed up with a re-affirmation of his masculinity by focusing on his affection for a woman friend.
I am sure that as TJ has more time and experience to move into his new identity, he will become less apologetic and more direct with his explanations. But for now, his words thread a needle that speaks to the precariousness of masculinity and of identity in general. At least when it comes to sex.
Being Sexual With Disabilities
One last point of identity that I want to mention that relates to TJ. He’s said that he has autism. Now, this is not my area of expertise, so I’m probably going to get some stuff wrong, but hopefully I can find an expert in the future who will help go into more accurate detail. Autism, like any disability, can come with stigma. And this stigma can attach in a particularly troubling way in the area of sexuality.
Before I go on, let me say as an aside that many people would argue that autism is not a disability. In fact, I would be one of those people. I am not using the term “disability” to imply that there is something wrong with a person, or that they are less capable, because of an autism diagnosis. I am only using the term because it is used by clinicians. Also, I am interested in disability as a social category; and when someone is diagnosed with anything, whether it is autism or cerebral palsy or cancer, there are social consequences.
Being sexual is complicated social business. In order to do it successfully (and normally), one must learn a complex array of unspoken social rules about normalcy, appropriateness, desire, and consent. And these rules may change as fast as they are learned; and they may vary completely depending on the social context.
Sexuality is confusing enough for people considered normal. It is even worse for people with a disability. And to be clear, autism is a social disability. It makes it more difficult for someone to understand and interact with social and emotional skill.
Beyond difficulty for the individual understanding how to be sexual, social stigma makes it harder for normal people to understand the sexuality of someone with a disability. If there is a perception that a disability makes someone less able, the first ability to go is often their sexuality. Let me say that more clearly: If someone has a disability, they are often presumed to be incapable of sexuality. This is particularly true for so-called developmental disabilities, which are indicated by diminished mental function and sometimes explicitly a lack of ability to make decisions.
This stigma is not just social misunderstanding. It also manifests in law, where those with developmental disabilities may be denied the legal right to consent to sexual behavior. Consequently, those who may be their sexual partners might be at risk of being prosecuted as sex offenders or sexual predators and further stigmatized accordingly.
As you can imagine, any one of these identities can result in shame, stigma, or even exclusion from normative social life. In our modern, progressive culture, overt stigma may be minimal. But when multiple non-normative identities intersect, it can become increasingly difficult to navigate a path to acceptance. Furthermore, even minor stigma can compound over time and lead to greater challenges for the individual, depending on coping strategies and support structures.
In this analysis, my working hypothesis is that minority identity stigma is strongest in the context of sexuality. Whether the minority identity is explicitly sexual or not, it probably complicates sexual identity just the same.
Christman, Phil. 2022. “Some Deaths Before Dying.” Harper’s Magazine. Retrieved January 6, 2022 (https://harpers.org/archive/2022/01/some-deaths-before-dying-phil-christman/).
Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Harris, Jasmine. 2018. “Sexual Consent and Disability.” NYU Law Review. Retrieved January 12, 2022 (https://www.nyulawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/NYULawReview-93-1-Harris.pdf).
Retzloff, Tim. 2022. “‘Gentlest But Most Unshakeable Campaigner’ Jim Toy, Michigan LGBTQ+ Trailblazer and Icon, Dies at 91.” Pridesource. Retrieved January 7, 2022 (https://pridesource.com/article/gentlest-but-most-unshakeable-campaigner-jim-toy-michigan-lgbtq-trailblazer-and-icon-dies-at-91/).