Recently, PopMatters added a feature allowing readers to post comments about the articles and reviews on the site. After the publication of my column “The Ugly Duckling Has Two Daddies”, one reader, Aaron Jason Silver, posted a lengthy comment in which he argued, “Many of the stereotypical behaviors concerning the gay culture I believe are true and I believe it is time that we, as gay people need to own up to many of these behaviors…”. Silver’s comments had absolutely nothing to do with the actual content of the article, which was about homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom, and his thoughts seem to be a response to the teaser for the article, not the article itself.
Still, Silver raises an interesting point. He has written a book entitled “Why Do Gay Men Do What They Do”: An Inside Look at Gay Culture, which purports to shed light on gay culture in hopes of allowing straight culture to better understand homosexuals and their behavior. I haven’t read the book, so Mr. Silver will have to forgive me if I misstate his position, but he seems to believe that by playing into stereotypes about homosexuality, the gay community is responsible for creating the confusion and false perceptions prevalent in the straight community. Silver is not alone in supporting this position. However, I respectfully disagree.
Image from TheCloset.TV
To buy into the premise of the argument, one must believe that a large percentage of the homosexual community models stereotypically gay behavior. However, such an assumption is questionable. Several recent television shows, among them Bravo’s Boy Meets Boy and Lifetime’s Gay, Straight, or Taken?, have been built around the premise that distinctions of who is gay or straight are increasingly difficult to make in today’s society. There are countless gay men and women who lead quiet, unassuming lives, from doctors to plumbers to students. They appear as “normal” as the presumably heterosexual guy or girl next door, whatever “normal” might be. In fact, they may well be the guy or girl next door.
These members of the gay community often fly below the radar. They don’t flaunt their sexual orientation because they consider that aspect of themselves to be only one part of their complex personalities. For instance, the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association has 70,000 members, representing LGBT doctors and medical students. One could also look to the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, The National Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association, National Gay Pilots Association, and Gay Real Estate Agents. It is hard to imagine that most members of these organizations would achieve high levels of success by playing into the stereotype of the flighty, feminine queen or no-nonsense diesel dyke. Even the most die-hard homosexual would probably be a little disconcerted should his or her doctor flit into the room exclaiming, “Girlfriend! Your X-rays look faaabulous!”
Likewise, those who do not belong to professional organizations often must keep a low profile in terms of their sexual preference. One can easily imagine the amount of harassment that a “stereotypical” gay man would receive on a construction site, in a factory, and driving a garbage truck. Additionally, butch lesbians would face unfair obstacles in traditionally female occupations, such as hair-dressing, nursing, and secretarial work. Professional success, whether it be blue or white collar in nature, too often depends on conformity.
If there is a significant population of LGBT individuals who don’t fit into the established stereotype of homosexuality, why do such labels get such wide attention? Much of the fault lies with the media, which too often presents false information or refuses to challenge blatant stereotyping when it has the chance. In January of this year, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation released its annual report of those in the news media who tolerate or perpetuate anti-gay language. Among those cited were MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (for cracking sophomoric Brokeback Mountain jokes on Don Imus’ show and for allowing noted homophobe Ann Coulter to spew hate terms unchallenged on his own show), The New York Post (for publishing two anti-gay editorial cartoons in a three week timespan), and MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson (for referring to a transgendered teacher as “crazy” and “unstable”).
It is troubling to think that supposedly objective television media sources would allow slurs against the homosexual population to air. But they are even incorporated into our comedy. An advertisement for CBS’ new sitcom Rules of Engagement features David Spade saying with disdain, “That’s SO gay.” It is hard to imagine CBS airing a similar line: “That’s SO black.” Slurs against African-Americans, Hispanics, or other demographic minorities would most certainly be challenged, and activist groups would rightly denounce their use. One need only ask Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington if the gay and lesbian population is offended by derogatory language aimed at us.
Topping GLAAD’s list, however, was Time magazine, for its publication of Focus on the Family leader James Dobson’s article “Two Mommies is One Too Many”, a response to the pregnancy of Vice-President Cheney’s lesbian daughter, Mary. Dobson was criticized for misquoting his scientific evidence, taking material out of context, and selecting only research and quotes which supported his position, without giving a full overview of all scientific data. After the publication of the article, two of Dobson’s sources reportedly contacted him to demand he no longer cite their work and lambasted his distortion of their positions. Psychologist Carol Gilligan told Dobson in her letter, “Not only did you take my research out of context, you did so without my knowledge to support discriminatory goals that I do not agree with. What you wrote was not truthful and I ask that you refrain from ever quoting me again and that you apologize for twisting my work.” (“Experts Say Dobson’s Time Column Distorted Their Research to Denounce Same-sex Parents”, Media Matters, 14 Dec 2006) Although unforgivable, it is not difficult to imagine Dobson distorting the truth to promote his agenda; it is not as easily understood why a reputable periodical such as Time would print such mistruths about the role of gay parents (the magazine did print a counter-argument a week later, but only on-line).
In fact, it’s the conservative, anti-gay forces who are most guilty of spreading the myths of gay and lesbian stereotypes. One need only watch The 700 Club‘s coverage of Gay Pride events for evidence. Prominently featured are the participants dressed in drag or leather; missing are the proud parents marching with their gay children, gay parents pushing strollers, and gay professionals. A quick sampling of the press releases from homophobic individuals and organizations further reveals how the gay stereotypes are perpetuated:
“People, especially the young, can be seduced into homosexual behavior and have their identity molded around the homosexual lifestyle”- - Linda Harvey, Mission America .
While it may be true that teens will feel freer to experiment with homosexuality due to exposure to it, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that one can be swayed to change his or her sexual orientation.
“When it comes to molestation of boys, homosexual men are a much greater problem than heterosexual men.”— Jeff Lindsay advocate of religious conversion therapy for homosexuals.
All credible statistical evidence proves that the overwhelming majority of pedophiles and child molesters are heterosexual.
“One may debate whether or not homosexuality is a pathological disorder, but it is clear that the APA’s (American Psychiatric Association) 1973 decision cannot be cited as medical consensus that homosexuality is a ‘normal’ condition.”— Joseph P. Gudel, Christian Research Institute
This ignores that the same conclusion of the APA was subsequently reached by American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, The American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers. Additionally, the APA has reported that the majority of psychological problems homosexuals experience stem from stereotyping and social disapproval.
“The gay agenda…is invasive and aggressive.”—. Paul Fallavollita
Of course, gay political and civil-rights organizations have agendas: to insure equality and equity for their constituents. All organizations, including conservative and Christian ones, have agendas. It’s hard to function without one. But to assert that all homosexuals have the same agenda is as absurd as to say that all Jews, African-Americans, or women have the same agenda.
These mistruths are repeated with such frequency because playing up the gay stereotype solidifies opposition to gay rights legislation. Studies published in Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology measured the responses of individuals with the personality of Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) to gay stereotypes. RWA individuals have three primary characteristics: submission to authority figures, aggressiveness against various persons, and a desire for the enforcement of social conventions. In other words, individuals who are likely to accept the positions of fundamental Christian and ultra-conservative leaders without question. The studies found that the more RWA individuals were exposed to gay and lesbian stereotypes, the more likely they were to actively oppose social and legal acceptance of homosexuality and gay rights. (Stones, Christopher R., ” Anti-Gay Prejudice among Heterosexual Males: Right-Wing Authoritarianism as a Stronger Predictor than Social-Dominance Orientation and Heterosexual Identity”, Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 2006; Whitley, Bernard E. Jr., “Right-wing Authoritarianism, Social Dominance, and Prejudice”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, July 1999; Haddock, Geoffrey; Zanna, Mark P.; Esses, Victoria M., “Assessing the Structure of Prejudicial Attitudes: The Case of Attitudes Towards Homosexuals”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dec. 1993)
Thus, the greatest tool Pat Robertson, Rick Santorum, Ann Coulter, and other anti-gay forces have in solidifying a core constituency to campaign and vote against equal rights proposals is to perpetuate the mistruths and lies inherent in stereotyping. It’s an ages-old propaganda strategy, one that was used to oppose civil rights legislation in the ‘60s and to justify the internment of Asian-Americans during WWII. Hitler relied on it to get neighbor to turn against neighbor in Nazi Germany, and Al-Qaeda uses mistruths and lies to vilify democratic societies. And, to be fair, it’s the same ploy gay activists and hardcore liberals use to malign conservative Christians.
All this is not to suggest that gay and lesbian stereotypes don’t have some element of truth to them. Of course there are sex-obsessed, lisping, limp-wristed gay men and short-haired, flannel-wearing, masculine lesbians. And it is true that members of certain professions—fashion design, for instance—are more likely to be gay. There are also gay pedophiles. There are homosexual individuals who are over-zealous about shoving their sexual orientation in others’ faces. There are gay men and women who engage in kinky and dangerous sexual practices. One could also make the same arguments about the straight population. Yet, no one believes that because dumb jocks and gold-digging blondes really exist means that all heterosexual blonds – natural and not—into those categories. Nor does anyone believe that the fact that most pedophiles are straight or that some straights are into domination sex means that all straights are child-molesters or participate in kinky sex acts.
In 2006, ABC reporter John Stossel and producer Gina Binkley put the notion of stereotypes to the test in their report, “Gay Stereotypes: Are They True?” The report features Northwestern University psychology professor Michael Bailey, who acknowledges that some gay men are more effeminate that their straight counterpart, but goes on to argue, “There’s no obvious reason why sexual orientation should be associated with how masculine or feminine one is, but it is in our species.” In conjunction with 20/20, Bailey arranged for a dozen strangers to mingle with five straight men and five gay men for an hour, then make guesses as to who was straight or gay. The participants guessed correctly only 60 percent of the time, and the one man who most thought was straight was in reality gay.
As Dr. Bailey’s experiment suggests, Mr. Silver is correct to a certain extent in asserting that some heterosexuals are confused by gay stereotypes. But that population of heterosexuals is decreasing as more homosexuals from all walks of life and of all personality types emerge from the closet. Those who remain confused reflect their own ignorance more than anything else, whether that ignorance be from leading secluded lives or from ignoring mounting evidence counter to their world view. There is no need for gay men and women to change who we are, as there is nothing wrong with who we are—regardless of whether we appear to fit into others’ stereotypes of us or not.