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    Monday, April 10, 2006

    How To Be Queer

    When Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out, a lot of gay and gayish didn't know how to feel. At that point we had, what, just Queer as Folk and Will and Grace with a few "lesbian" kisses every sweeps and a bizarre cable Real World/Road Rules of queerness, so a lot of the gay organizations got excited that a show like Queer Eye was out because it met two critera: 1. gay people 2. these gay people weren't sociopaths or pariahs.

    When I first heard about it, I was like, "You've got to be kidding me." I was just tremendously insulted by the premise: that straight men are fundamentally bumbling slobs who can't take care of themselves and that gay men are inherently aesthetes and culture mavens who can save them.

    Of course, my heterosexual Midwestern parents (around Amendment 2 railed against gays having "special rights", now since having me for a daughter, want same-sex couples to have the full rights of marriage) told me what fun the exploits of Carson and the gang were to watch and clearly felt that their viewership was progressive and were proud that some of their friends watched it too. And I didn't want to look down on that. The white people that say, "I have a black friend," may not be all the way there, but I think there's something sad and bridge-burning about simply pointing and laughing, "You think you're an ally? Ha! You're just stupid!"

    So, while visiting my parents, I watched the show. And enjoyed it. I cringed a lot, I'll admit. The way the show, when I saw it, seemed structured around heterosexism and plain ole sexism drove me crazy. Lots of gussying up to "pop the question" and such. On the other hand, while Carson was camping it up (and doing so very entertainingly), the other guys did seem to offer more and spectrum of behavior. It wasn't straight-up "gay minstrel", especially because these guys were so good at what they were doing that it quickly ceased to seem so much about gay vs. straight ... that just seemed a gimmick to get you to watch what amounted to a particularly engaging makeover show.

    The other thing that was fascinating was that, as the gay/straight dichotomy receded into the background, there was never any homosexual panic. Straight men were standing there with a gay man crouching to measure their inseam, straight men were opening their mouths to be spoon-fed bites of ridiculously expensive delicacies by a gay food snob, straight men sat attentively while a gay man massaged their scalps, stroked their cheeks, and plucked the hairs from between their eyebrows. But the straight men on this show were entirely cool about it. And, to me, that was what was best about it: while the underlying premise fit tired cliches about the inherent differences between gay and straight, macho and faggot, much of what you actually saw disrupted that premise.

    But let me be clear: much of what this show was doing was not "revolutionary". The show was a love letter to consumerism, a paean to the chic urbanity money can buy, a celebration of the notion that "gay identity" is where you shop, and it rarely pointed out that the very relationships the show sought to uplift between husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends, were sanctioned by more than Pottery Barn and foie gras, though certainly by those, and that the men who were doing the work here were also barred from participating. Yes, it would have been too corny to have an activist component, where the straight folks then went to City Hall to fight for marriage equality, but there was an underlying discomfort for me around the silences.

    For more discussion, beyond Queer Eye, lets look at couple of things I found in the blogosphere recently.

    An awesome post from Terrance on Republic of T:

    This morning I happened across Tom Shales’ review of the HBO documentary on Rosie O’Donnell’s cruise line for gay families, and he seems strangely disappointed — especially for a straight guy — that the families on the cruise didn’t show a little more skin, or sex camp it up a bit more. (Before I go on, I should note that my own gay family is hoping to join Rosie for one of those cruises sometime next year.) I’m not sure what Shale’s deal is, or where he stands on gay adoptions or gay people in general, but there are a few things about his review that I can’t let go unaddressed.

    "It’s as if the primary concern of Rosie O’Donnell, who captained the project, was presenting to the mainstream TV audience a scrubbed-up, politely tidy image of gay men and women — a portrait meticulously devoid of the drag queens, pierced nipples and campy vamping one often sees when a local TV station rushes off to cover a gay-themed event. O’Donnell earns herself a citizenship award or a political correctness award, but the unfortunate byproduct of the consciousness-raising is that it isn’t engaging, it isn’t much fun, and sometimes it’s punishingly platitudinous.

    O’Donnell almost robs her subjects of their sexual identity in the pursuit of making them wholesome. In short, there is no gay cruising on this gay cruise." ...

    Shales’ basic complaint rests on two basic assumptions. The first is essentially that the gay families in the documentary are "gay enough" by his definition. It’s pretty clear that as far as Shales is concerned there’s only one or two way to be gay, and anyone strays from the approved script is putting on an act for some purpose or another. It’s not that different from, say, making the suggestion that a black person who’s portrayed as studious or well-spoken isn’t "really black" or "black enough."

    That he mentions, longingly even, the usual local TV news shots of gay pride parades clinches it. Hey Tom, there are plenty of gay parents pushing strollers in those parades. Local TV doesn’t show you that, because it clearly doesn’t get guys like you to park your butt in front of the set and stay there. Because they know what I know. People often expect their minorities to be two things: predictable and entertaining. Kinda like Homer Simpson said.

    "I like my beer cold, my TV loud and my homosexuals flaming."

    That brings me to my other point. Some people typically expect their minorities to be entertaining, often in the extreme. So, someone who isn’t a walking minstrel show isn’t "acting black" or isn’t "really black." And someone who isn’t in drag or leather isnt’ "really gay," and is just putting on a show (and a boring one at that) for some other purpose. After all, that’s what they’re for; minorities that is: to entertain. If the minority in question were black, would Shales expect someone to break out into a tap dance, or at least to a little rappin’? Because he seems truly disappointed that someone doesn’t break out into a drag number, or at least a couple of Judy Garland tunes. (I’ve done both, so there’s nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned.)

    And a letter to Andrew Sullivan:

    As a 21 year old, Ivy-educated gay man, I find it interesting, albeit predictable, that older gay men are lamenting the death of gay culture. Frankly, I'll be much happier once drag shows and camp goes out the window. Unfortunately, I feel sincerely that the prevalence of sex shops and theaters, the celebration of farcical dress, and the obsession older gays have with a separate minority identity have done little outside give fodder to the religious right and keep us out of the mainstream. In fact, I feel that the older generation has done a great disservice by not giving us real role models and, instead, taking joy in anonymous sex in darkened theaters, dissolution of the family model, and wallowing in outrageousness. All of these things have contributed to a gay culture wherein I, as a politically active, liberal, professional, educated, monogamous, partnered, JCrew/LL Bean wearing, HIV Negative man am an unfortunate minority.

    How am I supposed to support gay leadership when they seemingly endorse a culture of death (excessive partying, no interest in children, HIV, anonymous sex, etc.) and lament whenever another pit of self disrespect (i.e. sex shops/theaters, drag theaters) is closed?

    All this of course coalesces in the marriage debate, where some queers think same-sex marriage is some pathetic heterosexual mimicry while others hanker for the opportunity to prove to straights that they're "normal" (though most everyone is more nuanced).

    Which immediately reminds me of the butch/femme fights, which continue in various ways to this day!

    Like with The L Word. When it first came out and still to this day, people were going, "They're supposed to be dykes?" And, honestly, I'm among the people going, "Where are the butches? or even andros?" But I remember when the pilot aired and all these Shescape-type monied lipstick lesbians were going, "FINALLY, lesbians who look like me!"

    And the comment about Carson Kressley made by Bob Garfield: I personally think Carson Kressley is the Steppinfetchit of homosexuality. As much as Kressley may conform to straight stereotypes of gay men, what's he supposed to do? Would we be happy if he were, to use that loathed term, "straight-acting"? Would that make him a gay role model? Or would he then simply be another sort of sell-out, making straights feel comfortable with gays by throwing out all differences? And, does the fact that Kressley is free-to-be-camp make him less of a queer role model? Actually, I think he's been rather amazing, partnering with so many LGBT organizations and also writing his childrens book. Should gay kids growing up only be exposed to the notion that the only way to be gay now is to be absolutely unreadable? Doesn't seem more progressive to me.

    My first instinct is to say to everyone who is so polarized, "This isn't about you." But then I think, actually the whole "you", the whole individualist impulse is, what we're fighting to have. Not everyone wants to be a suburban parent and not everyone wants to be a scenester. But everyone should have the choice to do either and right now queers don't have the choice to do either, really, fully, with the cultural support afforded to straights who do the same stuff. Like with the marriage thing: I'm anti-hetero marriage and pro-same-sex marriage. Because it doesn't mean anything to reject same-sex marriage if it wasn't really on the table for you to begin with. If everyone can marry and you think, "Fuck marriage!" that's cool, but it's not really meaningful yet. There's a good chance that gay folks will, like straight folks are increasingly, continue to shack up and not feel the need to have a piece of paper from the City Hall. But that choice needs to exist. Otherwise, there's nothing radical about it.

    Yes, yes, yes there is some privilege involved in a lot of this. Choice exists to various degrees based on where one lives, one's racial and ethnic background, one's family, one's job, and probably most importantly, on economic status. Here in New York, you can probably live a little more camp as a gay man and "get away with it" (read: survive) and I know that a lot of the dykes I know would have trouble even being hired for a lot of their jobs back in Colorado where I'm from. They're just too readable. Which is why we can't just go with the LLBean Ivy guys's preferences. But also why we can't locate all gays in a culture of partying and drag either.

    As Terrance implies above with his comparisons to expectations of black folks in the public sphere, unless identity multiplies or disperses rather than consolidating, both will always be threatened. For example, if LL Bean Ivy guys are the only acceptable gays, they will not be accepted without suspicion that, deep-down or behind closed doors, they are in fact campy polyamorous and kinky. So they'll have to constantly shore up the identity they've decided is natural to them anyway.

    And the point Terrance makes positing straight viewers vs. gay players actually stands in for another point, where one gay viewer is able to delegitimize the gay s/he views. "We aren't really like that."

    Tradition is, in my view, never a good reason or excuse for anything, but it is interesting that both of these threads go way back. When we go through "reclaiming" writers and other public figures, we are often locating people who "passed" enough to make it, like Virginia Woolf or Bayard Rustin. Also though, we have our Oscar Wildes and Gertrude Steins. There have always been many ways of being queer. In hindsight, we don't seem to so much disclaim either group, so much as we embrace them as history.

    I guess this yields a sort of boringly postmodernist conclusion: the multiplicity of accepted identity, rather than the complete erasure of difference, is a goal that suits all our purposes.


    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I am a long-time gay activist myself, was once named to OUT Magazines "Out 100" and have written letters to the editor for 35 years (do a google search on my last name and you'll find many). I am also a personal friend of Tom Shales. Tom, who is in his 60s and has never been married (read into that what you will) is not a right-winger nor a homophobe in the least, as others on the internet keep saying. I feel the need to defend him because he has been very supportive of lgbt issues in his writing over the years. I believe his latest column was misunderstood and many have taken what he said out of context. And, for the record, I agree with him that Rosie's HBO show was rather boring. "Good Intentions" shows usually are. I'm glad it was made, but it was pretty dull (to me) - others may disagree. I know that Tom would be the first to agree that most gay and lesbian people look and act and are completely "normal." I'm sure he didn't mean to imply otherwise in his column.
    William Stosine
    Iowa City Ia.

    11:32 AM  

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