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Effeminacy refers specifically to males who are not sufficiently masculine according to the expectations of their culture and/or context. These masculine traits generally involve strength, virility, emotional control, and lack of demonstrativeness. Men who fail to exhibit an appropriate degree of these qualities may be seen as more feminine than masculine—thus the term effeminacy. The term carries negative connotations, and as such reinforces normative patriarchy. To be closer to the feminine is an undesirable position for a male; conversely, for a female to be masculine (often called butch) is similarly negatively connoted. In this way, neither the female sex nor any feminine gender positions are valued as highly in most cultures as the masculine male position.

The difference (actual or perceived) between sex and gender in an individual becomes particularly important with the onset of puberty. Prior to this developmental stage, males are frequently associated with the feminine, partly because of the typical pattern in which children are raised, and thus most influenced, by women, and also because the prepubescent boy's lack of physical development is somewhat in line with expectations of femininity. As puberty progresses, the male is expected to develop toward a more masculine position: The body enlarges and strengthens, body hair develops, and the voice deepens. Any failure to meet these expectations of masculinity renders the individual suspect. The fact that the process of puberty is beyond the control of the individual is usually irrelevant; the proper alignment of gender and sex is expected, regardless of the body's ability to meet this expectation. The way in which the male comports himself, his demeanor and attitude, are expected to develop in tandem. Masculine males are expected to be somewhat dominant, to use their strength and virility in sanctioned ways (bravery, sexual aggressiveness, and the like), to express themselves physically more than intellectually, and, most importantly, to be attracted to the opposite sex. Boys who do not manifest masculine traits as expected, or whose development is delayed, are often ridiculed and subjected to a variety of treatment whose purpose is to both reinstate the normative expectations as well as define the individual's distance from them. Name-calling is a common form of torment; effeminate young men are often mockingly referred to by their peers as sissy, pussy, queer, faggot, pansy, pouf (British), nancy, poncey (British), cream puff, fairy, pantywaist, or mama's boy.


Effeminacy is suspicious because, as R. W. Connell (2005) states, "our culture believes [that] effeminacy [is produced by] homosexual relationships" (p. 32). The fear or suspicion of effeminacy, therefore, is actually a symptom of underlying homophobia. Because an individual's sexual practice can be difficult to ascertain, characteristics or traits of persons known to engage in specific sexual practices are read as signs of that practice. As with any stereotype, however, the fit is imperfect: Many effeminate men are not homosexuals, and many men who appear normatively (or even excessively) masculine are homosexuals. In the absence of definite knowledge of sexual practice, however, effeminacy has become a major marker that invites suspicion. This problem is discussed by Richard Dyer in The Culture of Queers (2002):

Queer has something to do with not being properly masculine or feminine. That "properly" is grounded in heterosexuality, but is held together with the assumption that if a person does not have the sexual responses appropriate to his or her sex (to wit, heterosexual ones), then he or she will not have fully the other attributes of his or her sex. This is how signs of effeminacy and mannishness, that have nothing directly to do with sexual preference but with gender, nonetheless come to indicate homosexuality. Moreover, they are a visible indicator of homosexuality, something which, short of showing acts, can't otherwise be seen.

                                              (p. 97)

Dyer makes clear that the connection between effeminacy and sexual practice or sexuality is not only artificial but oddly necessary. An individual's sexual practices cannot be concretely known (there is no "visible indicator") short of actual sexual contact with that person. Effeminacy, which is visible in nonsexual situations, becomes the sign of what cannot be known, regardless of its accuracy as an indicator. In modern Western culture, the connection between effeminacy and homosexuality became most solidified in the infamous trials of the Irish author and wit Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). Wilde had long been famed for his eccentricity of dress and mannerism; his effeminacy, or foppishness, was seen as a marker of class, education, and refinement rather than of sexuality, and was thus a source of envy rather than derision. His prosecution and conviction for obscenity, including sodomy, made public his sexual practice, and his effeminacy became quickly read as a sign of his homosexuality. While this connection had long existed, the Wilde trials to some degree made it more absolute in the public imagination.

Because effeminacy is linked in the popular imagination with homosexuality, it has often been taken advantage of as a kind of code. For instance, in mainstream films of the mid-twentieth century, when overtly depicting homosexuality was difficult, effeminate characters were sometimes used to create a kind of queerness. Often, though, these effeminate characters were married or in heterosexual relationships, which made their sexual location harder to read. By combining a character quality (effeminate) with a social position (heterosexual marriage), the queerness was simultaneously deflected and magnified. The characters clearly were not gay, because they were married. Yet their obvious gayness was made even stranger because they were married.

Some actors, such as Paul Lynde (1926–1982), made their entire careers out of this queer-yet-normative character position. His performances include films such as Send Me No Flowers (1964), in which he played a funeral plot salesman who claims to be married (his wife does not appear in the film), and who seems to be morbidly fascinated with burials as well as oddly attracted to Rock Hudson, who is one of Lynde's clients. Hudson's own macho queerness only magnifies the strange quality of their interaction. Lynde also played a husband and father of two children in the musical Bye Bye Birdie (1963), which found him infatuated with celebrity. He not only was thrilled at the prospect of appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, but was also excessively interested in Conrad Birdie, the Elvis-like superstar who lives with his family (and romances his daughter) as a publicity stunt. What might be understood as parental concern becomes translated into a kind of queer desire because of Lynde's effeminacy. His recurring role as Uncle Arthur on the television series Bewitched is also a famous example of mainstream queerness, again understood not through representation of actual homosexuality, but through an effeminate male character.


Effeminacy has been valued differently across cultures, but is most often seen as nonnormative. One of the earliest descriptions and judgments of effeminacy is the story of David's relationship with Jonathan in the Old Testament of the Bible. 2 Samuel 1:26 states "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." This verse seems to indicate a degree of nonspecific, yet intense affection between David and Jonathan, which is compared to that between men and women. According to 1 Samuel 20:30-31,

Then Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother's nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse liveth upon the ground, thou shalt not be established, nor thy kingdom.

Here, Jonathan's father curses him for his relationship with David, one that causes "confusion" and seems to prohibit either man from fathering subsequent generations. As with most readings of sexuality in the Bible, there is vast disagreement about the meaning underlying these verses, but the possibility of homosexuality seems to prevail because of David's effeminacy. In fact, David is famous almost because he is effeminate: In spite of his diminutive size and stature, he defeats the excessively masculine Goliath in battle. His relationship with Jonathan, however, is clearly not valued by Saul, and is a source of shame. The nature of the relationship is not specific, but has been claimed to be sexual by some scholars.


Effeminacy has not always been negatively connoted, however. There are numerous stories of the berdache, a kind of middle gender position recognized among Amerindian cultures. This formulation stands in stark contrast to Western notions of transsexuality, which assume two normative gender and sex positions with limited mobility between them; the berdache embodied a difference between normative gender and sex without attributing sexual desire or preference to this difference. Essentially, effeminacy (in males) and butchness (in females) could be incorporated into the gender spectrum without associating them with homosexuality in any way. It must be noted, however, that because knowledge of the berdache is mostly anecdotal and often conveyed in journals or writings of Western explorers rather than coming from the berdache themselves, there is a great deal of debate over the existence or status of such individuals.

In some pagan religions of the ancient Near East, there was also a tradition of male priests serving female deities. It was felt that the males needed to more fully embrace the feminine in order to serve their goddesses. To do so, a kind of gender transformation sometimes took place, including cross-dressing and even castration. Similar traditions of transgendering in order to spiritually bridge the masculine and feminine exist in Jewish Cabala. The Bible mentions pagan transgendered priests in 1 Kings; the word kadeshim has traditionally been translated as sodomites, thus contributing the notion that Jewish and Christian scripture prohibits homosexuality. The Latin translation of the Bible in 405 ce substituted the word effeminati for kadeshim, leading to a frequent English translation of the word as effeminate.

see also Wilde, Oscar.


Connell, R. W. 2005. Masculinities. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Corber, Robert J. 1997. Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Dyer, Richard. 2002. The Culture of Queers. London: Routledge.

Heasley, Robert. 2004. "Crossing the Borders of Gendered Sexuality: Queer Masculinities of Straight Men." In Thinking Straight: The Power, the Promise, and the Paradox of Heterosexuality, ed. Chrys Ingraham. New York: Routledge.

Idel, Moshe. 2005. Kabbalah and Eros. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Roscoe, Will. 1994. "How to Become a Berdache: Toward a Unified Analysis of Gender Diversity." In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. Gilbert Herdt. New York: Zone Books.

Wilson, Steve, and Joe Florenski. 2004. Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story. Los Angeles: Alyson Books.

                                              Brian Holcomb

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