Tag Archives: gay

One Time Buzzfeed Ruined Coming Out for Me

At this point it’s obvious that Buzzfeed is basically the crack dealer of media outlets, churning out mind-numbing content for mass consumption. But a new “trending” article has broken new ground, making me feel bad for not celebrating somebody’s coming out story.

My irritation began even before the “article” reached its first meme (the Buzzfeed version of an opening paragraph). The topline description reads:

“This is Austin (left) and Aaron Rhodes (right). They’re models from L.A., and they also happen to be gay.”

Screen shot 2015-01-16 at 8.47.43 PM

One does not happen to be gay. Being a sexual minority is a key identity factor. This may seem like an unremarkable turn of the pen (keyboard), but the writer is suggesting something insidious in subtext. Just “happening” to be gay implies that it’s no big deal and we can all just be bros, regardless of our sexuality, and whose right is it to make a big deal out of it anyway? These guys just happen to be models, have names that start with the same letter, live near the Pacific Ocean, and, oh yes, just happen to belong to an oppressed minority group that may or may not exhibit common characteristics that are both vital to people of that minority group and serve as fascinating foundations for sociocultural, psychological and political inquiry. And, oh yea, if the implication is that gay men are just so normal and we all just happen to be gay in the same way that I happen to be wearing green today, here’s a problem: this video wouldn’t be trending if they weren’t gay. It wouldn’t be a big deal. It wouldn’t, as the “author” (compiler of content) writes, bring us “ALL THE TEARS” (characteristically irritating Buzzfeed language). We can’t have it both ways, insisting that gay men are totally normal and so quotidian, and then go about appropriating the gay experience for mass consumption. Because, in fact, being gay is interesting and unique.

So these brothers that happen to be gay have decided to come out to their father. Which is great. And they’ve recorded the occasion for their followers. Lo and behold, daddy is totally accepting. Couldn’t you have guessed?

I want to celebrate. I want to share in the public joy and affirmation, especially as this specific relationship (father-son) is so sensitive for gay men who have grown up feeling like lesser men because we’re not attracted to the same gender as daddy and might be more feminine-acting than him, too. I certainly am happy that these stories are now accepted into our societal canon, but at the same time… it’s irksome that coming out has become a social media phenomenon.

Two gorgeous white gay men, twins are fun (people love twins), fathers accepting sons… who could object to all that, right?

Such is my objection exactly. It’s too easy, and that’s why it’s consumptive. It prompts absolutely no thinking. And there’s this inescapable fact: if you know you’re recording something, you act differently. In this case, you might use your father as a foil rather than treat him as a person with his own right to a place in this conversation. He might not want to be recorded. He might not want to act differently for the camera. Whether or not dad realized it at the time – and whether or not he objected after this was posted – his contribution to the conversation has been used to pad the social media following of his sons. And it’s not just that father-son(s) conversation that has been shilled for likes and shares: it’s also the dignity and self-respect of the brothers themselves. It’s hard for me to doubt that, at least at some level, they were hoping this would go viral, much as this Instagram photo of two (black) gay fathers going through morning routine did. They now now star in a commercial for Nikon. That I do not object to – those men weren’t posting to become celebrities, and it’s this amazing act of actual spontaneity that makes them genuine. The twins, however, were not being spontaneous. Their conversation was contrived, and now nobody – the twins or their dad – can ever have it in a genuine way.

So I object to the brothers’ decision to come out in this way. They’ve sold their experience for 2M+ views and the chance to be featured next to such rich content as “Which Ousted Arab Spring Leader Are You?“. Not kidding.

It’s sometimes hard to be such a stickler, but then I remember the conversations that I had when I first came out. They were heart-wrenching, personal, hours-long affairs at times. While it’s true that because they weren’t recorded I don’t remember every detail of my experience, I don’t necessarily have a desire to. The important parts stick out. When I came out, I was being my genuine, pure self – for the first time in my life. And that’s because there wasn’t a camera around, and I wasn’t worried about “sharing” the experience, digitally or otherwise, except with the very important person or people that I was sharing that conversation with, IRL.

Coming out is a sacred, deeply personal experience. Buzzfeed, social media, consumptive culture: these represent the opposite of the sacred. They are shallow, fleeting, and fueled by a quick high of unobjectionable feelings and a deep narcissism that has ingrained itself, now unquestioned, into the psyche of our culture. Obviously everybody’s gay experience is their own (everybody’s personal experience is their own), but if I had a younger sibling, nephew or niece, son or daughter that someday asked for my advice on coming out to a person that was important to them… I would advise them to do so with the cameras off.


The Homophobia of (Drunk) Straight Men

Homophobia happens to all gay people. A few weekends ago I was treated to a very special type of it: homophobic remarks by drunk, straight men – not meant for my ears, but overheard nonetheless. The remarks I heard and have heard throughout my life – and their underlying homophobia – are built into the way straight men interact. Gay men know this not just because of our memories of middle and high school bullying, but because – in vino veritas – we get to hear drunk people expressing their feelings on the subject all the time. 

Actually, I encountered two back-to-back incidents. On a Friday night, I was at a coworker’s birthday party when one of his (straight male) friends called another, jokingly, a faggot. The offender didn’t know he was in the presence of a gay person, and seemed like a genuinely nice guy, particularly after he apologized once my coworker brought it to his attention. He said something offensive and then expressed appropriate remorse.

On Saturday night, at a different friend’s apartment, a (straight) guy I’d never met questioned his friend, referring to me not as quietly as he intended:  “is that the gay guy?” He was too drunk and surprised to respond when I yelled at him in front of his friends. I left the party soon after, but not before everybody I knew there – all straight people – expressed their various permutations of remorse.

While I was upset, I found it oddly refreshing to hear validated for myself what I suspected, and what many gay men suspect in similar situations: that this guy had been primed to meet me by the other (straight) guys coming to the party, that he knew walking in the door that inside he would find a gay person, and, very possibly, that I would or would not be “one of those”gays, that I’d “be cool” or should be avoided. Of course, I was left to consider the details of this conversation about me (and about gay men in general) on my subway ride back to Brooklyn: did it happen in the cab ride over, or when they were still at their apartment, debating the pros and cons of heading to my (female) friend’s? Was it a passing remark or more a extensive conversation? What kind of gay am I, according to those straight guys who I was acquainted with in college?

These back-to-back events reinforce a larger pattern that gay men face socially. Even before coming out – especiallybefore – “acting gay” is an extreme social liability anywhere you encounter straight men: at family functions, on sports teams, during a job interview, or talking to friends on the street. Social reinforcement becomes internalized, and gay men growing up learn to hold our wrists straight, to walk from the shoulders instead of the hips, to swallow our words rather than let the dreaded sibilant “s” emerge. That internalization, fostered from a young age, stays with many gay men well after they’re out, and well after they’d wish it gone. Because while being attracted to men has become largely acceptable in most circles, acting gay is not.

Honestly speaking, I have no idea how uncomfortable I would render most straight men if I talked more gay. I will say that throughout my life I’ve received feedback, direct and indirect, that such behavior makes straight people uncomfortable. And thus I control it. Admittedly, as far as outward communication, natural linguistic patterns play a role: people change how they speak depending on their environments (consider the classic example of racial minorities “talking white”). I am surely more recognizable as a gay men when I’m around a group of girl-friends or gay friends than when I’m in a group of straight guys – or, for that matter, talking to the cashier at the deli or conducting an interview – and this is partly due to natural linguistic mirroring which makes social interactions more cohesive. It’s always felt like unfair criticism to expect somebody to not shift their language to their environment (read: remain “authentic”, to whomever has designated themself the vanguard of authenticity). But only minorities, sexual and racial, are held to such a strict standard, both within their communities and facing out from them. If you’re a member of such a group, you can’t really win no matter how you act. You’ll face backlash from one direction or another.

For gay men, I think that debate about language and behavior becomes an internal one, as nobody chastises me for “acting gay” or rewards me for “acting straight”. Like everybody, I behave differently in different environments. But there remains in me an embarrassing level of internalized homophobia, one that I suspect many gay men share. I know it for that temporary upswell in pride that comes when I can “pass”. 

I’ve always felt it easier to connect to and communicate with women in social settings. I’m not the only gay man who thinks so. This has changed somewhat as I’ve matured, but I think the tendency towards having female friends and male lovers is undoubtedly true for a lot of gay men. I have felt, and still feel at times, that interacting with straight men is like trying to speak a language I don’t speak fluently – manageable most of the time, but oftentimes hesitant; comprehensible on the surface, but indecipherable under the current; thrilling for a brief moment of clarity, but always pressurized and uncomfortable for the non-fluent.

All this is to say two things: first, that it’s not always the fault of straight men that gay men don’t feel themselves seamlessly integrated into social scenarios. Often, we feel awkward and unable to access these scenarios simply because they feel foreign, and not because the social codes are essentially homophobic. Second, that these interactions carry a lot of weight with gay men, because they go to the root of the rejection we’ve faced regarding acceptable expressions of our gender and sexuality: largely, straight expressions. And it’s the weightiness of these interactions that can make them so much more painful than those in the straight majority could ever understand – even a small slip on my part, an inadvertent rise in octave when it should have fallen, cuts to the heart of all the insecurities that come pre-loaded with such social situations: am I that obvious, do they reject me, am I in danger? Similarly, it’s more than a minor offence when I hear the word faggot thrown around from one straight man to another; it sets off a chain of negativity that is at once deeply personal (playground rejection manifested thousands of times over) and global (why do people still interact like this?).

The offenders are usually sympathetic when they find out I’m gay or that what they’ve said is inappropriate (for a word as basic as faggot the fact that I’m gay is fairly self-evident; for some other conversations the offense must be explained, such as: “no, it’s not a compliment to tell me that I’m the first gay person you don’t find annoying”). The guy who said “faggot” (Friday) gave me a sincere and well-delivered apology, which I accepted and moved on from. The second guy was stupefied and didn’t know how to react.

The reaction of bystanders is interesting too. Most are embarrassed; some apologize for their friend’s behavior. Sometimes, these apologies include explanations such as: “He didn’t mean it like that”, to which I always reply that he did, in fact, mean it like that; he just didn’t realize it. Faggot wouldn’t be faggot without the gay male stereotype, and there’s no arguing otherwise even if the word has allegedly taken on another, innocuous life for its users; the word and the shaming of gay men are, indisputably, linked at their heart. Sometimes the famous “black friend” defense is trotted out, as it was on Saturday: “He has nothing against gay people – he’s got a gay uncle!” Yes, and everybody has a black friend when they’re being racist, and every misogynist loves their sister. Woman, black, gay: these are not just disposable identities to be brandished every time somebody needs to defend their offensive behavior. Having relationships with people belonging to discriminated groups does not excuse you from proper decorum and general intelligence; in fact, these relationships arguably necessitate a higher standard of behavior. There’s something to be said for the guy who has genuinely never interacted with an out gay person being slightly uncomfortable with the idea– I think that’s understandable, though I know many disagree with me. What is not defensible is somebody with full exposure to real, live gay people who’s still a homophobe. And, if that person then hides behind their gay uncle, their use of hair products or their sartorial instincts, then they’re a hypocrite as well as a homophobe.

With the tension (and the booze) comes the over-apology, when the offender (or his friends) repeats their explanation or how bad they feel ad infinitum. Interestingly, the over-apology puts the onus back on the offended party to assuage the hurt feelings of those in the majority who “didn’t mean any harm by it”. I, the offended minority, after mustering the courage to call out the inappropriate behavior and then defend my stance, am now expected to placate those in the wrong because their feelings have been hurt – by their own actions. Because it would be a shame for anybody to leave the event not feeling like they’ve had the opportunity to air their feelings, clear up any negative energy, and indulge in a brief kumbaya before returning to the revelry. That is, it would be a shame if anybody but me has to carry negative energy from the interaction. And heaven forbid I reinforce that pernicious gay stereotype and appear hysterical if I choose not to accept somebody’s apology, or continue to be angry when I’m now expected to be soothing. 

Because no matter how much all the straight people have learned from the experience, gay men will leave these situations with a deep and uncomfortable sense of non-belonging. Because it confirms a suspicion many of us harbor, even if we don’t necessarily admit it to ourselves: that no matter what changes we’ve witnessed in the past decades, no matter what progress has been written into the legal codes and inscribed in the hearts and minds of many Americans, no matter what false-equality notion we’ve been fed by the cultural elite, gay and straight (“we’re just like you!”), we will always be fundamentally left out. There will always be social situations – whether explicitly involving gender and sexuality or seemingly irrelevant to those identities – that will leave us dumbfounded, hurt, and on the outside. 

Not all interactions I’m left out of are offensive. The mere fact that I can’t gain access to a conversation doesn’t make it homophobic. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to maintain full guy-banter with the bros, just as I wouldn’t expect to be able to converse with a group of senior-citizens about The War or with a group of tweens about the new it boy-band. Different groups discuss things differently, and that’s OK; in fact, I prize the in-group relationships I have with other gay men, unique and impenetrable to others.

But there’s a difference between inaccessible conversation and offensive conversation. My two examples – hearing faggot thrown around nonchalantly and being referred to in third person as “the gay guy” – are evidently over the line, wherever we choose to draw it. Homophobia is more insidious than it used to be, partly because those that take offense – LGBT people and their allies – are swifter and more vocal with our criticism. But driving the conversation underground, relying on subtleties, nods of the head or eyebrow lifts, makes offensive behavior harder to identify and prove. In these specific cases, thanks partly to the alcohol, the offensive behavior was on the surface. It was easier to call out.

It’s harder to see racism now that we all share the same water-fountains. It’s harder to claim sexism when federal law allows litigation based on gender-discrimination. And it’s harder to call out homophobia when somebody ostensibly supports the right legislation or has a gay uncle – even if he feels deeply, internally uncomfortable around him. I always speak up in these situations because I owe it to myself, and to the LGBT community, to do so.

And I get to choose how I respond, whether it is accepting an apology, rejecting it or telling somebody to stop apologizing; joking with the offender or yelling at him; explaining my feelings, or leaving the room without a word. I’ve exercised all of those options before, and certainly will have to exercise some of them again. Just as gay men have to live with the implications of homophobia, I think homophobes should have to live with the consequences of their actions: that is, being called out, and not necessarily placated, because of their homophobic behavior. No matter my response to them, if it’s logical and rational, I am in the right, and they are in the wrong.

‘Looking’ for a Plotline

The comparisons between Looking, HBO’s newest offering , and Girls, which just began its third season, are both inescapable and legitimate. Both follow the lives of a group of misguided, self-involved, and socio-economically privileged neurotics. Both shows are remarkably self-conscious of the present era in which they’re based: fast-paced, culturally fragmented and wanting for meaning under a distinct curtain of social vapidity. Both series are inextricably linked to the cities where they’re located: Girls portraying a precise post-graduate Brooklyn malaise, Looking set in a post-Stonewall, post-AIDS Castro. And, not uncoincidentaly, they run back-to-back, the former’s premier having followed the second episode of the latter this Sunday.

 While I don’t find Girls compelling enough to watch, I do at least find it clever; regardless of criticism of the show’s privileged, unlikable main characters, it has undeniably captured the lives of a certain subset of society (wealthy, entitled, unfulfilled liberal-arts grads) in a, if not accurate, than at least unique way. Everybody knows somebody like one of the Girls, and while you might not like them, the show is often pretty on-point.

 Not so for Looking. Though reviews have been mostly positive, noting the series’ use of naturalistic cinematography to showcase a “normative” gay experience (ie, gay men in their own settings, without any of the baggage of history), I found two points of criticism. First, and more importantly, it was boring. Second, its representation of gay men didn’t ring true for me.

 The characters are believable enough, though uninteresting. Our main guy, Patrick (Jonathan Groff), is cute and awkward, but it’s not clear why we’re supposed to root for him. The most compelling insight we’re offered is that his longest relationship was under six months (5 months, his friend Dom corrects him). Got it: he can’t find a boyfriend. Dom (Murray Bartlett) and the other main character, Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), are both clichés (the former is a nearing-40 waiter, the latter an artist without any art), but not particularly transgressive or interesting ones.

 The show has been lauded as groundbreaking in its unembellished portrayal of the lives of gay men, but this very “realism” makes it uninteresting in 2014. Most HBO viewers who might tune in already know gay men – and have likely heard them complain about their love lives IRL. Gay men being gay can’t be the basis of a show – not because it’s offensive to larger audiences, but because of just the opposite: straight people have (rightly) caught on that most of our lives are pretty boring. In this sense, the producers of Looking have accomplished their job. But if the point of the series was to show gay men in their natural setting, then 2014 is too late for that to be any news at all. 

Beyond the supposed naturalism of the show, the characters have been praised for their lack of “campiness”. I was curious about critics’ response to this, as I noted that of the three main characters, only one (Agustin) might be classified as moderately “femme”.  Unsurprisingly, this lack of femininity garnered praise from critics; Willa Paskin of Slate compliments the lack of “stereotypically campy gay men”, a fact that in and of itself would “be enough to justify Looking’s existence on purely sociological grounds.” The LA Times’ Marcy McNamara praises creator Michael Lannan, who “keeps the ‘get in the car, Mary’ tics to a minimum.” Nobody likes those gays, evidently.

 All of the positive reviews I read noted the characters’ lack of campiness, or, more pointedly, their obvious masculinity. The conclusion that this is necessarily a good thing for gay men (or straight viewers, who presumably shouldn’t be asked to stomach a high level of wrist-flipping flamboyance) is at least mildly offensive, the subtle implication being that “campy” (femme) gay men don’t belong in the modern gayborhood, or at least not on the modern television screen. That act was so ‘90s.



Hit the road, Jack


The glaring reality, though, is that many gay men are femme, and there are a lot of subtle power dynamics within the gay community revolving around masculinity – dynamics that would actually make interesting, groundbreaking fodder for a show like Looking. In fact, most of the gay men I know probably fall farther onto the femme side than any of our protagonists, and we don’t even live in gayborhoods like the Castro. I don’t proclaim to represent every gay man, or to know how gay men should be represented, but for a series that obviously seeks to take the mantle of “gay male TV”, you’d think at least one of the three might embody some camp – or at least play it up now and again, as my friends and I do.  

I wouldn’t want to demand that a producer has to incorporate unrepresented characters simply to be more balanced (see the fracas over SNL’s supposed lack of minority presence, or Girls’ prominent addition of a new black character to avoid public backlash). But if the producers of Looking seek to represent a modern gay reality (if a more dramatized, more interesting one), then their decision to pass on the camp skews that reality. If that’s the world that these three characters live in, so be it; I just can’t help but imagine that of a sampling of three random gay men in the Castro, at least one in three would have a slight lisp. And if that lisp was avoided merely for the sake of not portraying those gays, then I fear that these characters – and thus the modern gay man – have been commoditized to be acceptable to a larger straight audience, or to a gay audience that wishes to overtly side-step pervading stereotypes about gay men – stereotypes, which like many others, contain more than a grain of truth. And, if the show was made to deliberately side-step these stereotypes, then by this very fact it disallows the naturalism that Looking seeks to encompass.


I might have a handlebar moustache, but I can pronounce my S’s

 It was fun watching the premier in a room of mostly gay men living in San Francisco (and, typically, a few straight ladies added to the mix), but I couldn’t help observing the normalcy on the watcher’s side of the TV set. Most of the young gay men I know (perhaps a demi-generation away from these late-20s-to-30s gays) work in finance or consulting – a few of us, like me, are scattered around in startups or NGOs. Admittedly, our lives are too boring (normal) to put into film. If the point of Looking is to portray gay men from a normative standpoint, it certainly succeeds, but society has moved too far for this to be interesting TV. If creator Michael Lannan wishes to offer something more, it can’t be gay characters who are as boring as everybody else.

Note: I cited reviewers of ‘Looking’ who had access to the first four episodes of the series. I (a normal consumer) only watched the series premier.