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"You Can Tell Just by Looking": And 20 Other Myths About LGBT Life and People

Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, Michael Amico

(Beacon; US: Oct 2013)

The year 2013 was a banner one for members of the LGBT community in the United States. Not only was Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act finally declared unconstitutional, allowing gay couples to have have the same federal rights as heterosexuals, but for the first time, a record eight states (including Utah and California) finally made gay marriage legal. There was also a shift in the way the popular opinion perceived LGBT marriage, with a large number of people polled acknowledging the importance of granting LGBT people with equal rights.


The rest of the world didn’t stay behind and global powers like Brazil and France also approved bills to grant gay couples with the right to marry, the United Kingdom also passed its law, but it won’t become effective until March, 2014. What this means in terms of legal rights is an enormous advance in the fight towards equality, but at the center of any conversation about homosexuality and LGBT rights we find ourselves dealing not with large nation-wide issues, but with specific citizens.


There are large factions of the world population (not to mention entire governments like those of Uganda, Russia and India) that think of homosexuality and LGBT people as something that must be eradicated. With more and more LGBT characters in the media, as well as famous people who come out, whether as queer themselves or as supporters of LGBT causes, we find ourselves at a turning point where the one thing that can truly make a difference is education. With that in mind, researchers Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini and Michael Amico have compiled a truly revolutionary guide entitled “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths About LGBT Life and People, in which they debunk myths that have plagued LGBT people for far too long.


In their introduction they begin by clarifying something that seems implicit but is hardly ever discussed “the idea that ‘LGBT’ is a single, clearly defined cultural entity is itself a myth” they describe, “being ‘gay’, being ‘lesbian’, being ‘bisexual’, and being ‘transgender’ are all distinct experiences”. “While there are some similarities these groups are often separated by more than what joins them together” they continue. As the introduction takes us on a quick crash course history lesson about the fight for equal rights throughout the 20th century, we realize why this book is essential; it not only intends to educate heterosexual people, it’s also meant to be used by members of the LGBT community, who are as prone to believe and perpetuate some of these myths.


Divided into five pithy parts, in which the myths are grouped according to their social and personal proximity, the authors explain why the famous “gaydar” is nothing but good old fashioned intuition. “But intuition is not hard facts”, they add, as they go into detail of how in past decades gay men had to device codes to recognize each other in more conservative cities and spaces. “We all decipher desire—whether cruising in a bar, attending a work party, sitting in the bleachers at a ball game—according to certain rules” they continue, and the very idea that something which brings pride to some heterosexual people (who think they have great gaydars” feels nothing short of revolutionary. Many times throughout the book we are forced to deal with truths that are uncomfortable and make us reevaluate the way we see ourselves and the world around us.


In a chapter dedicated to the notion that “10% of the World Population are Gay or Lesbian”, the authors make a powerful case of how popular depictions of homosexuality have led people to make assumptions about entire groups’ sexual behaviors. “The reality is that cultural assumptions shape how people express themselves sexually. Long-standing stereotypes around sexuality, such as ideas about who is promiscuous and who is monogamously faithful, are largely organized around presumed differences between men and women”, they propose. With readings like these which include men and women regardless of their sexual education, the book gains importance as an educational tool.


One of the most significant chapters deals with how religious groups represent and condemn homosexuality, and in this one especially, the authors remain at their most objective and stick to facts that can’t be denied. Mentioning the infamous passage in Leviticus in which the citizens of Sodom were destroyed for their amoral ways, the authors clarify that if anything, the Christian god did not punish them for engaging in anal sex, but for their lack of tolerance and respect for their fellow men and women. “The story of Sodom , warns against the transgression of social codes that ensure an ordered society” they explain, adding that using these extreme scenarios is how “allegories teach us moral lessons”.


If there is but one flaw in the book, it’s the design of its cover, which might lead others to believe it’s a piece of fluff literature the likes of which would appear in a regular fashion magazine. Despite the Cosmopolitan-magazine look of its cover design, “You Can Tell Just by Looking”, does not offer pop quizzes or tips on how to date. On the contrary, it’s one of the most complete sourcebooks about science, sociology and LGBT life out there. Perhaps the people behind the design were trying to make a cute case about us not judging a book by its cover?

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Jose Solís wanted to be a spy since he was a child, which is why by day he works as a content editor and by night he writes and dreams of film. Although he doesn’t travel the world fighting villains, his mission is to trek the planet from screen to screen. He has been writing about film since 2003 and regularly contributes to The Film Experience and PopMatters. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.


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