Monday, October 31, 2005

More Gay Musings

Er, perhaps I should call this, PeaceLove's Musings on Gayness, lest you should read this and think, "That's so gay!" Here are a few more thoughts on homosexuality and culture that I really wanted to put into that last post but couldn't quite shoehorn in.

The expression above -- "That's so gay!" -- sounds for all the world like it should be derogatory towards homosexuals but I think it's not, at least not as it's generally used in popular culture. I hear it used a lot by young people I know are not homophobic or prejudiced. Hell, I've even heard it used by gays. It's worth unpacking the expression a bit, and I think what's going on is this:

Gay people are different, and not only because they sleep with people of the same sex. They are different because they come from a persecuted minority, because they are bound together by a commonality (sexuality) which remains largely taboo and hidden. In addition, many of them share a particular type of dysfunctional family background, especially if they grew up somewhere in America's "heartland."

The historically hidden aspects of gay culture mean that much of the gay presence in the mainstream culture has had to be communicated via a whole occult (hidden) language of signs and signifiers. I remember sitting in film classes with the late Gerald Mast, who was gay, and learning something of the visual language of gay Hollywood film. For instance, the director George Cukor was gay, and if you watch his classic comedies like Holiday (1938) and Adam's Rib (1949) with this in mind it becomes easy to spot the gay characters - Hepburn's brother Ned (Lew Ayres) in the former, Tracy and Hepburn's next door neighbor Kip (David Wayne) in the latter. Mast was fond of pointing out the signs, such as Kip's Buddha statue (a sign of gayness in the 1940s) and his line to Hepburn (who in the movie is married to Tracy), "You should marry me, Amanda. It'd be so convenient."

From Mast's class I began to realize that there's a whole language of homosexuality, hidden in plain sight within mainstream culture. This is not hidden in there with the intention of secretly converting heterosexual children to homosexuality (take note, fundamentalist gay-bashers), but rather as a way for gay people to communicate to other gay people that they're not alone. As the culture opened up, the avenues for gay expression opened up, too. Today, many of the most familiar signifiers are so well-known as to approach (or surpass) camp. In film and television, a man interested in musicals (especially involving Judy Garland or her daughter Liza Minelli) or the fashion industry is tagged (with some justification) as a gay character.

The Internet has opened the doors wide open; without the Net there would probably have been no Time cover story like the one I discussed previously. Given the well-established gay signifiers in the culture, the expression "That's so gay!" is simply an affectionate tease, expressing that the straight recipient of the comment is dressing or acting in a manner that overlaps a bit too heavily (for a straight person) with gay style and culture. I don't think there's any undercurrent in the comment that gayness is inherantly bad, only that it's unbecoming for a straight person to look or act gay.

Just the other evening on Loveline, a radio show with Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew, Adam had on his assistant Matt Haber (who is also his TV sidekick on The Adam Carolla Project). Haber is an openly gay young man, a sassy queen with a sharp sense of humor and a sweet spirit. It was refreshing to hear him discuss his sexuality and culture so openly, but it also amused me when Adam used the "That's so gay," line a few minutes later to a different person in a different context. I'm quite sure that Adam in no way meant to disrespect gay people; rather he was hitching a ride on a cultural idiom in a way only someone comfortable with gays ever could.

Years ago, a Canadian friend told me that she was perfectly comfortable making jokes about race with black friends of hers because "we don't have that whole slavery thing you Americans have, so we don't have to worry about being taken seriously when we joke." I believe something similar is happening with today's young people with regard to homosexuality. They are beginning to grow up in (and perpetuate) a world in which they can embrace gays and straights alike. Last year, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom opened the courthouse for gay marriages -- thus pushing the issue permanently into the forefront of our national consciousness -- I suggested to a twenty-four-year-old straight male friend that Newsom should get a Nobel Prize. I was extremely surprised and moved when he replied without any hesitation, "I think he's going to be President."

That had never really occurred to me as a possibility, since historically, standing up for gays has never been a path to political success. Perhaps times have changed. Maybe voters have changed.

Maybe, in this new world, a little joke about gays is just that: a joke.


Vikram Johri said...

Great post!!

PeaceLove said...


Anonymous said...

that post is so gay.

PeaceLove said...

Oh, don't be so bitchy.

Anonymous said...

Now that seems like an anti-female response. Bitch is usually a derogatory term for a woman... thoughts?

PeaceLove said...

A "bitch" is a female dog. I only meant, "Quit dogging me."

Seriously, though, I don't think "bitch" is necessarily a derogatory term for a woman. It's a descriptive insult for a certain type of woman, just as "asshole" is a descriptive insult usually reserved for men.

Of course, if you say, "While out having walkies, Rover smelled that bitch's asshole," it could be a simple description, too.