Have you ever said these words? Have you heard someone else say them? Have you thought about what they really mean?
They’re usually spoken with surprise and disbelief. You hear them a lot when a celebrity comes out, especially a man known for manly roles: action heroes, womanizers, boozy schlubs, the EveryMan who works hard and comes home to a life that looks very familiar to most of us.
It’s likely these celebrities have spent plenty of time as themselves as well, on talk shows, in interviews, in magazines, at public appearances. By the time they’ve reached a point when coming out makes the news, they’re already a media commodity. We know them, or we think we do.
So what’s with the gasping and gawking?
Stereotypes. And they are alive and well.
There’s not a lot of shock when a stage actor or visual artist comes out, or a fashion designer or makeup artist. These are jobs people associate with gay men. There’s not a lot of shock when an effeminate man comes out. After all, isn’t that how you can tell, by their carriage and demeanor, that they’re a little bit light in their loafers?
Let me throw a few more phrases at you. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve said some of these, much as I try not to.
“He doesn’t read gay.” “My gaydar totally missed that one.” “He doesn’t act gay.” “He doesn’t look gay.” “He was married, wasn’t he?”
I know you’ve heard more.
They all boil down to one thing. There are expectations of appearance and behavior and voice of gay men. They are so deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness that our default assumption is that men who walk or talk or gesture in a certain way are gay, and that men who do not are straight. After all, what’s “gaydar” other than making an assumption about someone largely based on stereotypes, and let’s thank the metrosexual trend for, shortlived though it was, muddying the waters.
Gaydar is a myth. Unless they tell you they are gay, you know nothing.
When you say, “never would have guessed” or “totally knew” or “My gaydar went off as soon as he walked in,”, you are saying one thing: that you believe in and are actively willing to reinforce stereotypes, the kind that lead to judgements about people, judgements with consequences ranging from no effect at all to death.
“I always knew you were gay.” That’s another common phrase, usually from a parent or friend in response to someone’s coming out, and usually when the person coming out matches up to at least some of the Gay Checklist. I’m not going to bother making the list. I googled. The number of “How You Can Tell if Your Boyfriend Might Be Gay” and “Do You Have a Gay Child? Take This Quiz” and similar articles and lists out there, built on outdated notions of masculine and feminine behavior and appearance is appalling.
Just as damaging are the “How can you be gay?” “You don’t seem gay.” that are much more common when the person coming out meets traditional heterosexual gender norms, because it tells you, up front, that that person has embraced gay stereotypes and on some level believes then. There’s enough policing of this within gay communities, thank you. To have reinforced that you are somehow not properly gay because you are not a stereotype, particularly by people fighting to end stereotyping, makes no sense.
The media, as with many beliefs that we hold, is complicit in reinforcing this. There are very few gay characters that don’t fall into traditional gay tropes – strangely, soap operas are doing very well on this front – even as it becomes harder to pick out the gay guy in the crowd. Following stereotypes is easy. It’s recognizable. When there are guys who work next to you, or live down the street, or lift weights next to you at the gym or pick up their kids at school, and there’s nothing about them that sets them apart from anyone else, if you are conditioned to see gay as ________, it can be jarring to find out that what you’ve been taught is not true…especially if these are people you are supposed to hate.
It goes in reverse as well. With the emphasis on what gay is, men who have those qualities and are not gay have a heck of a time proving otherwise. I’ve heard firsthand people make gay jokes or use gay slurs and then quickly apologize to a guy in the group and say they didn’t mean to offend him, only to face bewilderment until he realizes it’s because they thought he was gay…and the discomfort that comes when he says he’s not.
Just once, I want that guy to ask, “Why do you think I am?”.
Just once, I want the guy who is offended, who matches no stereotype at all, to say that he is gay, and ask, “Why do you think I’m not?”
Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr