Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Sexual Orientation That Won't Shut Up

Heterosexuals just can't seem to shut up about their sexual orientation. A few weeks ago, the straight media were obsessed with the sexual relationship between an unemployed English girl and a soldier from a welfare family; now they are talking about the end of a sexual relationship between a Republican actor and his wife, and the lust child produced by the actor's inability to restrain his animal impulses. Will the revelation of his heterosexuality hurt his movie career? MTV asks. Not to mention the wealthy, powerful man awaiting trial on Riker's Island for forcing himself on a hotel maid. (Seriously: this morning at the store I saw two female anchors on CNN expressing their shock at the fact that a heterosexual attempted rapist was being held without bail after he was arrested while trying to flee the country: "He's one of the most powerful men in the world!" they spluttered. "Can they do that to him?")

But all this is invisible, not just to heterosexuals but to many gay people. So when another CNN anchor, Don Lemon, publicly acknowledges his homosexuality, it's news even though a celebrity's coming out is not exactly a novelty anymore. Part of this is the corporate media's short-term memory, but part of it is the ongoing struggle by heterosexual society to push us back into silence and invisibility: Oh, you are not! Shut up! Lalalalala I can't hear you! Why do you have to tell us you're gay -- you don't see heterosexuals going around saying "Hi, I'm straight!" (Sure you don't. What you see is incessant, obsessive babble about their sex lives, which are heterosexual because sex is assumed to be heterosexual.)

So coming out is always a beginning, not an ending. After you've broken the ice, the water starts to freeze over and you have to keep chipping, chipping, chipping away at it. Ideally, it's nice to be able to do it casually, as heterosexuals do, by speaking about your relationships and interactions: not "I'm gay" so much as "My boyfriend and I ..." Except for speaking on panels, I think most of my comings-out to straight friends, relatives, acquaintances, and coworkers have been that kind. In Lemon's case it appears to be more or less the same: he'd agreed to write a book about the path to success, which turned into a memoir, and that meant talking about his love life among other things. To his credit, he chose to tell the truth. Marketing the book meant that his sexual orientation would be a hook, but that's not his fault, it's the fault of a heterosexual society that still hasn't learned that not everyone is heterosexual, and insists on reacting to every coming-out as if it were the first in history.

Lemon said some good things in this interview with the annoyingly flirtatious heterosexual Joy Behar:

For example, Behar says "There's a lot of homophobes out there, you know..." and Lemon comes right back with "Who're you telling?" I've lost count of the heterosexuals who've warned me and other gay people that not everyone approves of our Lifestyle, as though this was news to me. (If I bring it up, though, I'm being an injustice collector.)  He also handles well Behar's question of how this revelation will affect his "objectivity," and her prurient question about the Down Low; he even pointed out that the Down Low is a phenomenon in other communities than the African-American: there are plenty of white men on the Down Low, but in my culture we call it The Closet.

He falls down in other areas, as when he talks about the perception that a gay man is "effeminate" or "weak," and the "I was born gay, just like I was born black." More embarrassing is his belief that the suicide of Tyler Clementi (the Rutgers freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge last fall after a fellow student put a sex tape featuring him and another man on the Internet) could have been prevented if more prominent people would come out. This is a little kid's fantasy: If I were there, I could have saved him. Gay visibility can't fix all our problems. Heterosexuals torment each other too, and bullying is not limited to the persecution of gay or gender-nonconformist kids. And black people have always been visible, and no one doubted that they were born that way, but that never inhibited racists in the slightest. But part of the problem is the murky zone of corporate-media discourse: it's meant to dumb down almost any issue, and you can see Behar hard at work doing so.

Keith Boykin's response has similar problems:
The popular narrative about gay men depicts a community of affluent, educated city dwellers who have come out of the closet and begun to flex their political and economic muscle. But this image doesn't hold up for black gay men, who often lack access to the same resources and support structure available to their white counterparts.
Um, Keith? Most white gay men aren't "affluent, educated city dwellers" either. And I know you know better.

I'm glad Lemon came out, and good luck to him. But the only way coming out has a chance of stopping bigotry is for people in all walks of life to stop tolerating bigotry, and actively express their intolerance of it. The PSA at the head of this post sets a good example. You don't have to be gay to criticize antigay bigotry, just as you don't have to be black to criticize white racism, or a woman to criticize sexism -- in fact, what is more important than gay visibility is visibility of straights who won't put up with bigotry, men who won't tolerate sexism, and whites who won't tolerate racism.

In practice such intolerance will be resisted. Consider all the people who are trying to claim that "gay" as an insult has nothing to do with homosexuality, and even trying to reclaim "faggot" for Fag Discourse. A straight friend on Facebook reacted strongly when his son's wife said something about her husband (newly posted to Iraq) going after "towlheads" (sic). First the son asked, "What's the point in being free if the wives can't express themselves"; when that didn't work he used the old "Dad relax its fine she was just joking" evasion. (At least he didn't say "chill.") We should expect this resistance and refuse to let it succeed.

But again, good for Don Lemon; good for Will Sheridan; good for Rick Wells; good for all the people who are refusing to be invisible anymore. And good for NBA Commissioner David Stern for putting his foot down.