We speak to those who self-identify as gaycels about dating apps, gay stereotypes, and body shaming
On the evening of May 23, 2014, 22-year-old California native Elliot Rodger stabbed three men to death in his apartment. He then drove to a local sorority house, shot three women, continued to a local deli and shot a man to death there, too. By way of explanation, he posted a chilling, seven-minute video detailing the specifics of his murder rampage, describing it as ‘retribution’.
His rampage cast an international spotlight on incels – a portmanteau of ‘involuntarily celibate’, coined by a blogger known only as Alana back in 1993. In a rare 2018 interview, she described originating the term as a description of a “lonely community” that couldn’t find love.
This is no longer the case – and she’s spoken about her fury at the term being hijacked. Now, it’s used mostly to describe men like Rodger, and over the last two decades, it’s been applied to a series of prolific ‘incel forums’, whose posts have gradually become more violent and misogynistic. Some are on 4chan and Reddit, but some are standalone – and one of the most popular currently has more than 10,000 users and some 150,000 threads. In these hidden spheres of the internet, what began as fury spiralled into far-right ideations of white supremacy, genetic superiority, and mass revenge on so-called ‘hypergamous’ women. These aren’t just sexually frustrated men with bruised egos, they are dangerous radicals determined to lash out.
“There’s a lot of double standards coming from ‘the straights’. They expect us gays to date anyone who looks our way, yet they’re allowed to be picky!” – an anonymous ‘gaycel’
Six years after Rodger’s murder spree, this notorious community is still making headlines. These compulsive men – and a handful of equally obsessive ‘femcels’ – have been likened to terrorists, and their forum posts have been unpicked ad nauseam. They obsess about ‘looks theory’, fantasising about shaving away a few millimetres of bone to ‘looksmax’ into a vision of flawless masculinity. The ‘blackpills’ (read: hopeless nihilists) amongst them share ‘suifuel’ (suicidal rant) posts stating there’s no hope, and encouraging fellow incels to kill themselves.
Much has been written about incels, mainly in the context of toxic masculinity, far-right radicalisation, and mental health. But very little has been written about the tiny proportion of gay men among them, and it’s worth asking: who are they?
The first person I speak to, who asks to remain anonymous, is 18 years old. He recently moved to university in a small town, where he struggles to find any sense of community, let alone one amongst other LGBTQ+ people. He has never had sex. He feels depressed, disconnected from the gay community, and ostracised by his fellow incels, who respond to his nihilistic posts with the argument that ‘gaycels’ are always ‘volcels’ (voluntarily celibate), a rationale which stems from the untrue stereotype that gay guys can always get laid.
Queer sexuality has always been censored and subsequently pushed underground. It’s why gay culture has a rich history of cottaging and cruising – men were forced to fuck covertly for fear of prosecution, so they ended up doing so in ways that straight people deemed ‘seedy’.
But as attitudes have relaxed over the years, society has opened up to the idea that casual, or even anonymous sex, can be pretty hot. Location-based hook-up apps were initially created for gay men – Grindr was the first, launched back in 2009 – who were arguably less obliged to follow cultural norms – again, because marriage and adoption were off the table for centuries. It’s easier for gay men to assimilate into heteronormativity (or homonormativity), and the pendulum has swung the other way, too: now, the location-based formula of hook-up apps is common on straight dating platforms. Gay sex is still framed as more available than straight sex, but that’s arguably less true than ever – and even then, it’s obviously not available to all gay men. Anyone with a Grindr profile can attest that it’s full of shaming and discrimination, and that gay beauty standards are arguably even higher than the hyper-chiseled, Insta-male model norm. In other words, being gay doesn’t guarantee you a fuck.
Reddit user xeverxsleepx, who also self-identifies as a gay incel, confirms this. “The biggest misconception is that we can get sex and dates any time we want, and that we’re just too picky – that we say no to everybody.” He also reasons that even incels shouldn’t have to just sleep with anyone that comes their way. “There’s a lot of double standards coming from ‘the straights’. They expect us gays to date anyone who looks our way, yet they’re allowed to be picky!”
In xeverxsleepx’s experience, most other incels he has spoken to online were straight, “anti-gay”, and likely to downvote gay users. This is hardly surprising when you consider the landscape of hardcore incel forums, clandestine pockets of the web where potential sign-ups are required to write extensive descriptions of their reasons for joining and where hatred thrives. Every other word is a slur of some description, and users ‘jokingly’ post detailed death threats.
Another anonymous poster often wades into these threads to offer solace because he can empathise – he used to identify as a gay incel too. Yet his words of encouragement are often met with hopelessness. “I was talking to one twink, and no matter how much I told him he was very attractive, he just wouldn’t believe it,” he tells me via email. “I suggested talking to people, going out to clubs, maybe working out. He was dismissive at my suggestions, but the real scary thing was that he had just turned 18 – he had his entire life ahead of him to find a man.”
Bizarrely, he found himself banned from another subreddit when offering similar advice. “This guy hit closer to home, because we had similar proportions. I explained that even if you’re short or not the physical embodiment of G.I. Joe, you can still get a man and you will find love someday. That’s when I got banned, and my post got deleted too. I messaged the moderator asking why, but I got no response.”
Incidents like these prove that there’s more to being a gay incel than a lack of sex. When Alana first coined the term, she envisioned it uniting a group of lonely singles whose only commonality was their lack of a sex life. But now, ‘incel’ is cultural shorthand for a community bound largely by rage and misogyny – and, incidentally, the same is often (although not always) true of ‘gay incels’, who generally glorify masculinity and vilify femininity in the same way as their straight counterparts.
This pattern was identified by Reddit user zanmato1109, who also happens to be a PhD candidate, and summarised in a mini-essay: The New Internalised Homophobia, or, Revenge of the Gay Incels.
“Repeated rejection leads some young men to concoct an unflattering, two-dimensional caricature of the group that spurned them, whether it’s women or gays” – @zanmato1109
Although he says he wouldn’t use the term ‘incel’ had he written it again today, the insightful post drew key parallels between the gay and straight men reframing their personal issues through the lens of a broader worldview. He tells me he noticed this happened often in the ‘gaybros’ community, which “started off with an internalised homophobia vibe” – “these posts complaining about the state of the gay community were written by guys who didn’t do well in the bar scene, and whose dates never turned into anything”. He found that their anger turned into a “moralising stance,” which frustrated him. “It was disheartening to read what were essentially homophobic, right-wing talking points repurposed as handful of disaffected gays’ wrongheaded coping mechanisms.”
In the same way that incel forums have become hotbeds of far-right ideology and misogyny, these gay incels often share similarly right-wing views and a hatred towards the potential partners rejecting them. “I don’t think we’re wrong to see some kind of parallel,” he continues. “In both cases, repeated rejection leads some young men to concoct an unflattering, two-dimensional caricature of the group that spurned them, whether it’s women or gays. In both cases, part of their attack is some kind of moralising about sexual promiscuity – particularly in online spaces.”
These conversations are nuanced: there are clearly some forum users identifying as ‘incels’ in the way that Alana once did, when she was simply seeking a virtual shoulder to cry on. But for these men in particular, there’s a real risk of incel forums becoming a gateway drug. After all, suicidal men can become homicidal men – and we see that most clearly with hardcore incels, whose pent-up fury and frustration spiral into rage-fuelled nihilism.
Despite repeated attempts to understand and characterise ‘incels’, existing debates rarely factor marginalised identities into the mix. This is important – in some cases, that understanding can be used to intercept the road towards radicalisation. But this means actually doing the work to understand what drives incels to seek these online communities, and acknowledging that there is no one demographic. By ignoring that fact, we’re worsening the lives of frustrated, defeated, or nihilistic men already desperately seeking a community, but being shut out at every turn.