Slate’s Katy Waldman posted a short piece Thursday commenting on an Advocate article by Neal Broverman which raised a question about gay men and chivalry. The gay Broverman described an incident in which a trio of apparently straight men held an elevator door open for him to exit first, and it prompted him to wonder if he were being treated like a lady by these knights because of his sexual orientation. Was this seemingly polite gesture “closer to a backhanded slap?”
This led Waldman to propose a “new world order” of “pan-chivalry” that knows no boundaries, and in which we are all – male and female, straight and gay – both knight and lady in the equation. Sounds great, except that what she’s describing is simple courtesy, which is not chivalry, although the former arose from the latter.
Chivalry has come under fire in recent decades, decried as an outmoded, sexist relic of the medieval knightly class. Today’s “liberated” women – and unfortunately, “liberated” too often refers to women who are merely emulating the worst qualities of men – resent chivalry’s implication that they are what used to be called the “weaker sex.” Even a courteous gesture like opening a door for them is viewed as a condescending, gender power play. Waldman herself writes that such acts of politeness like what Broverman experienced were “harder to swallow when you remember they’re predicated on your supposed weakness.”
It’s revealing that whenever chivalry is discussed today, holding a door for a woman is always the example that leaps to mind, as if that is chivalry’s quintessential expression. Sadly, that is what the ideal has been reduced to in our soft, civilized, and – dare I say it – emasculated twenty-first century America.
Chivalry was once considered the expression of the noblest and most honorable qualities of the ideal knight. It was the epitome of manhood: courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to defend the “weak.” For Edmund Burke, it was the “nurse of manly sentiment and heroick enterprise”; for Irish writer Kenelm Digby, the “spirit which disposes men to heroic and generous actions.”
That sentiment includes an unapologetically gallant, respectful deference toward women and a devotion to protect them if necessary, because that is a duty of men, regardless of whether women can protect themselves.
(Considering that leaping to the defense of a strange woman these days can very likely lead to a lawsuit, a prison sentence, a wheelchair, or a combination thereof, there is some debate among men as to whether inflicting that on your own family is worth it; but that’s a topic for another day.)
If some women today consider that protectiveness sexist, so be it. Their misconception of it or contempt for it should have no bearing on whether or not men embrace the qualities and responsibilities of their nature. The alternative for those women is: it’s every man for himself, and you’re on your own. No woman I know considers that a preferable state of affairs.
Waldman didn’t condemn the notion altogether; instead she suggests that, “Rather than do away with chivalry as the relic of a sexist epoch, let’s make it universal… That social development—human beings showing kindness to other human beings, not worrying about power dynamics, sexual preference, or gender—would be the real revolution.” She foresees a time when we will all pick up the check at a restaurant, share umbrellas, and open doors for each other.
Again, all that polite coexistence sounds great, but being chivalrous isn’t limited to being nice. And it isn’t an act of class/gender oppression. It’s about embracing the duties and highest qualities of manhood. It is intrinsic to exemplary masculine character, which is something greatly to be encouraged in our morally confused times.
Back to chivalry and gay men. Broverman, Waldman writes, “wants to know whether gay men count as knights or ladies.” Are gay men “the weaker sex”? Well, the gay men I know need no help defending themselves. The answer is that chivalry is about aspiring to the worthiest qualities and ideals of manhood, and being gay is no barrier to that.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 9/13/13)