Earlier this year, I found myself in a video shop uttering words no self-respecting man should ever have to say.
“Hello,” I said. “My name is Benjamin, and I am here to pick up a copy of the film Beaches—starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey—that my boyfriend reserved earlier today.”
It doesn’t get much gayer than that, I know. Situations like this make me anxious. Because I’m a double-barrelled minority (ethnic; homosexual), there’s often a ticking little voice in the back of my head repeating the mantra: Don’t be a cliché. Don’t be a cliché.
Despite my best efforts though, sometimes it can’t be helped. What can I say? I am an Asian man who loves theme parks and yum cha. I am a homosexual who loves televised awards ceremonies and Meryl Streep.
(Say anything derogatory though, and I’ll report for you a hate crime.)
Like many of my fellow gays, I suspect the anxiety I feel in these moments springs from all the frustrations I felt growing up, watching portrayals of gay men on screen with whom I didn’t identify. Gay men were always presented as mincers and queens, the butt of everyone’s jokes, and that made me uncomfortable. It’s hard to articulate, but I felt these men didn’t represent me properly, or something like that.
So I recently read with great interest as Andrew Bolt—a writer who has encouraged us all to “not insist on the differences between us but focus instead on what unites us as human beings”—blogged about Alan Joyce, Qantas’s now much-maligned CEO. Incidentally, Joyce happens to be gay. Under the headline “Alan Joyce breaks the mould”, Bolt wrote this about Joyce:
What a fine challenge to the notion of gays as effete, flighty and soft—a straitjacketing that limited the media careers of gay friends, keener to talk politics than showbiz. […] Stupid stereotypes. How they kill our possibilities. How they dull our reason.
For a small second, I’ll admit I was genuinely heartened. Thank you, Andrew Bolt! Thank you, Alan Joyce! It was good to know that the gay dream had broadened. How wonderful to know young gay boys all over Australia could now dream to one day become CEOs! Or aspire to be union-crushing millionaires, hated by the majority of the country’s population! Through Bolt’s piece, it was also wonderful to discover Alan Joyce is—quelle f**king surprise—a three dimensional human being, capable of being both a left-leaning homosexual and a ruthless businessman. Who knew gays could be both!
And finally, how excellent for Andrew Bolt that Alan Joyce is (1) openly gay; and—more importantly—(2) not that type of gay. Because to be that kind of gay would be hideous, obviously. Comments like Bolt’s always seem complimentary at first, until you realise they’re so backhanded he may as well have double jointed wrists. Or as @CarpeDylan so succinctly put it via Twitter:
“So basically: ‘How great is Alan Joyce? Yeah, he’s gay, but at least he’s not a FAGGOT.'”
Because what’s wrong with being an effete kind of gay? Some of us are effete, flighty and soft, and that should be fine. And some of us are huge and muscled, built like brick sh*thouses and could demolish Andrew Bolt’s face if we wanted to, and that is definitely fine by me too.
Andrew Bolt, and a lot of gay men I know, would disagree. Last year, Westpac came under fire for airing a television advertisement featuring two camp, presumably gay businessmen, who rolled their eyes and spoke in quips. It provoked a lot of hand-wringing and discussion amongst people—gay and straight—on internet forums. It was also howled down with complaints, including one to the Ad Standards Board that argued the two men in the commercial “were being portrayed as gay men with horrible stereotypes that inaccurately portray gay people and is both inaccurate and offensive to gay men”.
As well as being a very long sentence, I disagree with that assessment. (So did the ASB). Partly, because I know gay guys like that. And if that Westpac advertisement was an “inaccurate” portrayal of gay men, how is someone supposed to go about “accurately” portraying gays? Is it better for them not to be talking “like that”? If they’d acted less camp, would that have made them more “authentic”? It’s all very confusing.
So if someone has a manual on how I’m meant to transform myself into a more accurate homosexual—or even tell me how heterosexuals should be accurately portrayed—I’d greatly appreciate it.
Sometimes, I feel the hostility directed towards something like the Westpac advertisement has less to do with stereotypes and more to do with the fundamental discomfort many of us—gay people included—feel towards certain kinds of gay people. And when you promote the idea that certain varieties of gay are better than others, that can be damaging.
In February this year, a La Trobe University survey of 3,134 young people between 14 and 21 found nearly 80 per cent of students attracted to the same sex had been either physically assaulted or verbally abused. When you’re a young person faced with those odds, it’s hard enough being queer, let alone having to deal with the weird pressure to be the “right” kind of queer.
On a fundamental level, Bolt is actually right: Alan Joyce should be congratulated. Like Apple’s gay CEO Tim Cook, Joyce is a man heading a mammoth international company, unafraid and unapologetic to be open about his sexuality. In 2011, that still takes guts and I salute Alan Joyce for that reason. But to congratulate Joyce for challenging the idea of gays as “effete, flighty and soft” is loathsomely patronising. I’d argue that Joyce hasn’t smashed stereotypes at all. In Australia, they were smashed years ago and people would have all noticed this if they had, say, eyes.
Every year, the Australian gay website Same Same releases a list called the Same Same 25, which showcases the most influential and prominent gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Australians. In 2010’s list alone, there were politicians, TV producers, musicians, comedians, academics, social justice advocates, athletes, novelists, a former high court justice and the Official Secretary to the Governor-General. Over the years, there have been people from rural Australia and urban centres, butch lesbians, effete gay dudes, macho guys, femme ladies, drag queens, transgender and transsexual people, corporate suit-wearers, tattooed folks, people with disabilities and people you—and by “you”, I mean Andrew Bolt—might never suspect of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
We’ve always been a diverse and inclusive community, hence our unwieldy LGBTIQ acronym that will eventually include all the letters of the alphabet and Wingdings characters. And as much as I think the rainbow flag is a gaudy mess, it also neatly sums up who we are: a hodge-podge of people who probably clash and look weird side by side. But we fly the banner in unity anyway, knowing not one of us is any preferable than the other. Pride should look like that: all of us so different, but unified as one hot rampaging mess.
The only way you smash stereotypes is to promote diversity, and that doesn’t happen when you prop some people up while declaring others less desirable. None of us should feel the pressure to be ambassadors or model citizens, or shoulder the responsibility of representing “our people”. In the end, the only people we can properly represent are ourselves.
And while no one wants to become a parody of themselves, trying to actively defy stereotypes can be exhausting. In the end, aren’t we all stereotypes in some way? Are we not hollering soccer mums on Sundays, or fathers with sheds who have emotional dependency problems with Bunnings?
To all of you, I say embrace your inner cliché. Don’t be afraid of it. If you are a mincing homosexual, mince so hard your legs become hamburger meat. And when people think they’ve got you sussed out, it’s not your responsibility to remind them of all the other things that make you a three-dimensional human being. It’s their responsibility to look closer.
What’s your experience with gay and lesbian stereotypes, or stereotypes in general?
This article was first published on The Drum and is republished in full here with permission.