Every picture of Ian and Rex is glorious and yet each picture is the same. Social media has bestowed upon the masses the power to curate a self that is impressive and magnificent. Glory, it seems, is pretty generic nowadays. But Ian Spear and Rex Woodbury, an Instafamous gay couple, are particularly good at glory.
Just look at their Instagram. In one photo, they’re wearing royal blue suits and sipping what appear to be mojitos from striped paper straws. They have the same haircut and the same pretty American teeth. They have plucked eyebrows, which don’t make them look feminine so much as clean-cut — their strong jawlines and self-assured poses let us know the men we’re looking at are, without question, men. In one photo, they’re picnicking with gourmet food on the Seine; in another, posted two weeks later, they’re swimming in Italy. Looking at these photos, it’s hard not to be astonished by their bodies: the miraculous shoulder-to-waist ratios, Ian’s Ken-doll abs, Rex’s biceps, which threaten to rip through whatever shirt he’s wearing. In photos, they hike at sunset, go to Equinox, and drink smoothies. Their Instagram shows a prim life full of self-discipline, productivity, and predictable escapades. In one post, Ian stands in front of a coffee shop, smiling widely, legs close together, thumbs looped over his backpack straps. There’s an eagerness in his expression, like he’s trying his hardest to be the best boy in the world.
Ian Spear and Rex Woodbury are one of many couples who have landed thousands of followers and dozens of sponsorships on Instagram for being hot and gay. Urban Dictionary defines an “Instagay” not as any gay guy on Instagram, but rather those gay guys who become famous on the social media platform for being “attractive, fun, rich, outgoing, happy, and confident.” The rest of the Instagays are basically indistinguishable from Ian and Rex. They’re predominantly white, in their mid-twenties, and have a penchant for oversaturating their photos. They all live in California and have chiseled faces and bodies.
Instagays’ self-presentation is clearly homosexual, but not necessarily feminine. Chris Lin and Brock Williams, who run the Instagram account “Yummertime,” wear skimpy, effeminate clothing — but then pose with legs spread widely, thumbs in pockets, arms folded across the chest, bodies leaning cockily against a wall. Effeminacy on gay Instagram serves to affirm masculinity: Being in touch with one’s feminine side is evidence of confidence in one’s manhood. As feminist theorist Marilyn Frye writes in The Politics of Reality, “gay male affectation of femininity is a serious sport in which men may exercise their power and control over the feminine.” The Instagays give us not so much a performance of effeminacy as a mastery over it.
Gay Instagram is, basically, an arms race of self-refinement. Instagrays are constantly outdoing one another, not just with perfect photos or perfect relationships but with perfection itself. They try to make the concept of perfection real through filters and premeditated picnic displays, the baguette and the wine placed just so. The result, as everyone strives toward the same Platonic ideal, is a generic sameness. Even each boyfriend in each couple is the same. He is the same height as his partner, has the same coloring, the same body type, even the same amount of body hair. The boyfriends share clothes and seem to shave their faces on the same days of the week. This ensures that these men are framed not as objects of desire or an ideal to be aspired to but, as if hatched by a mastermind, that they are framed as both. “Be perfect like me, so you can have perfect me,” these accounts seem to say.
I started following gay couples on Instagram my junior year of high school, around the time I became obsessed with my body. I had my first kiss at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s that year. Losing weight seemed a way to gain more romantic and sexual experiences. The right body, however, also seemed to be an end in and of itself. It seemed, to me, like a staple of the good life.
I followed many Instagay couples, but I became obsessed with Ian and Rex. I pinned my hopes and fears to them. They weren’t just hot and fit. They had gone to Ivy Leagues.
At seventeen, the only thing I cared about more than my body was, it’s sad to say, Harvard. Ian and Rex had graduated from Yale and Dartmouth respectively, and the Ivy League was thematized in their Instagram photos. Not just in the obvious ways of taking kitschy photos in front of Yale’s library, but in more subtle ways: their clean crew cuts, their weekend trips to Manhattan, their button-down shirts and white tennis sneakers.
Ian and Rex not only did the Ivy League but they did it the way you’re supposed to. They each graduated Phi Beta Kappa; Ian worked at McKinsey and Rex at Goldman; and the couple recently founded Worthy Mentoring, an online platform that connects struggling members of the LGBTQ community with mentors. Rex currently holds a Knight-Hennessy scholarship (“It’s Stanford’s version of a Rhodes — I want one so bad,” a senior explained to me) as well the Guinness World Record for fastest half-marathon run in a suit. They’re Pete Buttigieg, but hot.
They, like a lot of gay men, are really good at doing the thing. Often, I’ve felt that gay cis-men here at Harvard are the best at doing the Harvard thing. They’re enabled in the same ways their straight counterparts are, but have more self-awareness. They’re confident and sometimes cocky, assured that they can achieve greatness. But, unlike a lot of straight men here, they’re never complacent, never assured that they already have achieved greatness. There’s a smoothness to them: good grades, good bodies, good clubs, good parties, good friends, good life. They’re what we’re told to be during Convocation: well-rounded. It’s like “Queer Eye,” but the gays have turned in on themselves and this lifestyle makeover goes on in perpetuity. Self-refinement doesn’t rest.
“I first heard the word ‘gay’ as an insult in grade school,” Rex says in a video about coming out. He then goes on to list his numerous high school accomplishments, saying that, despite all of that, “I still felt inferior. I hated myself for being attracted to men.” The video then zooms in on Rex’s eyes, which are beautiful and green and full of intensity. “I told my dad that I was gay, that I was scared of being gay, of being less than perfect,” he says. “I always wanted to be a man like my dad and my brother. I think I’m getting there.”
Rex narrates his gayness as a fall from manhood. Perfection, for Rex, is a way to return to that manhood. It’s compensation for his homosexuality. Rex’s father and brother were born men and remain men — Rex is “getting there.” This type of story is why therapists believe perfectionism is endemic in gay men: The shame and stigma of having to come out of the closet makes gay men determined to prove themselves against traditional standards of success.
I’m not so sure about that, though. As Masha Gessen spelled out in a recent New Yorker article on the queer opposition to Pete Buttigieg, not every gay person has to come out of the closet — gayness can sometimes be visible. Not everyone can blend. And not everyone wants to. “There are people who revel in their specialness from an early age,” Gessen writes.
I’ve always been one of those people. I never had to come out of a closet. My gayness never felt like a hurdle I had to jump over. Whereas Rex pushed aside his gayness, dismissing it as a flaw, I had no choice but to pick my gayness up and embrace it as something that could benefit me.
Most often, I used gayness to strive toward perfection. This perfection looked feminine: I wanted skinny and toned arms like a Pilates mom, wanted my hair to fall in Shirley Temple ringlets, wanted to be polite and pleasant, wanted neat handwriting and pretty prose. Everything I did, saying something smart in class or starring in the school play, felt important and heroic because I was doing it as a gay kid. I was constantly narrativizing my life. I liked my gayness because it was something I could engage with intellectually, because it blessed me with good taste, because it seemed to provide me with a self-consciousness that said, no matter what, I could always be better. My differences from my straight peers gave me a curiosity about myself, allowing me to find flaws and adjust them accordingly.
I don’t follow Ian and Rex on Instagram anymore. I unfollowed them pretty much as soon as I got to Harvard. When the Ivy League lost its mystique, so did Ian and Rex. I met gay men just like them — every strand of hair gelled into place, button-down shirt or J. Crew sweater tucked into straight-legged jeans, Saturday nights spent at The Fox, the evening documented on Instagram in garishly filtered photos — and I found the whole thing kind of corny. I realized quickly that I didn’t want to work at a consulting company, would never enter the weight room in the MAC, would never join a final club. I would write personal essays, move into a co-op, and buy a pair of clogs. I would strive toward a different conception of a perfect gay man, one who, in his casual quirkiness, is ostensibly indifferent to perfection.
Still, I thought about Ian and Rex often. Sometimes I would search them on Instagram, to see how sunny and healthy their new life in San Francisco was. If I was feeling fat, I’d look at pictures of Ian at the beach. I wondered about our similarities and differences, felt inexplicably cheated that the same thing could motivate us to be such different people. I felt a gnawing about all of this, and looking at their Instagram made it temporarily go away before making it rush back violently.
There are two online chat rooms, hosted by the gay internet forum DataLounge, that are dedicated to hating Ian Spear and Rex Woodbury. The thing people hate most about Ian and Rex is how perfect they are. The couple gets referred to as “boy scouts”' and “golden boys'' and “the Stepford gays.” Sometimes people express their hatred for Ian and Rex’s perfectionism through femme-shaming. Even if the perfect form being strived for is a masculine one, perfectionism — that detail-oriented and self-conscious thing, constantly requiring you to be attuned to what others want from you — is a feminine trait. “These two guys are attractive but too perfect (it seems they try to have eeevery small thing in place), it reminds me of a gay classmate I had who always wanted everything to be perfect,” one user wrote. “Fucking annoying.”
Between the two chat rooms, there are 672 replies and essentially all of them express the same desire: to see something human from Ian and Rex. But almost always this desire to see Ian and Rex’s humanity is expressed through berating them. People trash talk them and insult them and pick them apart, all for being too perfect. It’s self-defeating, though, this critiquing of perfection. It creates the very problem it aims to solve. It fuels the same demand to self-refine that caused Ian and Rex’s perfection in the first place. After you’ve read all 672 replies, the message is clear: No matter what, even when you’re perfect, you can always be better.
To get famous on Instagram requires more than just beauty and skillful editing. It requires discipline and exhibition. You need to have control over your body, your surroundings, your clothes, your friends, every little detail of your lifestyle. And then you need to know how to present that life in a way that will elicit desire and disdain, that will make people feel both envious and appreciative. Who better at all this than gay men? They get to partake in creating the ridiculously high standards they’re subjected to.
The only flaw that the men in the Data Forum chat room identify in the couple belongs only to Ian, not Rex. Apparently, according to a video Ian made and then uploaded online, he has major gay voice. “If I had to choose, I would say Rex is the hotter of the two. Mostly because when Ian speaks, a purse falls out,” one user writes. “Ian’s voice just sounds generically feminine,” another states matter-of-factly. Sometimes gay male effeminacy isn’t affected. Sometimes it’s not a mastery of femininity, but a surrender to it. Gay voice isn’t chosen, it just is.
I have gay voice. It’s one of the few parts of being gay I haven’t gotten comfortable with. Maybe it’s because I rarely hear my own voice. “Do I sound gay?” I’ll ask people out-of-the-blue sometimes, hoping that this time the answer won’t be yes. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing advantageous about it — like most abnormalities of speech, it just makes me sound less intelligent. Or maybe it’s just because it’s totally beyond my control. When I read that Ian had gay voice, though, I desperately wanted to hear him speak. I could imagine it. It made sense why he would be the one with the feminine voice: He had the smaller frame, the higher hair, the more earnest smile. When they pose together, Ian always looks like he’s slightly more encouraging of Rex, more doting and devoted. I wanted to hear Ian’s voice because I wanted the flash of recognition I’ve never gotten from his Instagram. Maybe then the gnawing would finally go away. I wished that I had his phone number so that I could hear his voice and he could hear mine and we could invest something, anything, in one another. I looked desperately for the video that the men in the chat rooms were talking about. After reading through almost all 672 responses, I finally found the link to the video in which Ian speaks. I clicked on it, but I was redirected to a white screen and a message telling me the video had been taken down by the user.
— Magazine writer Paul G. Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @neuroticgayboy. This is the first installment of his column, You Don’t Always Have to Be on Top, which explores gay male culture on and off campus.