This week I received an email from an editor at a publication that's been noted for its homophobia. Here's most of it with grammar intact:
I need a gay male (just wrote gale!) freelancer to do a story...about this course they're teaching at the university of michigan, how to be gay. (one of the staffers saw it on perez hilton; http://www.umich.edu/news/index.html?BG/317descr) wondered if you could do something like, "I did think that all it took to be gay was sleeping w/men, but turns out I was wrong." that kind of thing. then talk to the prof, talk to other gay men -- maybe someone like carson kressley (he's got a new show so I'm sure he'd give you a quote). that kind of thing. find out what exactly it takes to be gay. should be funny. haha. yeah, a lot of you being funny.
I'd need 800 words tomorrow at noon. [Payment redacted]. you in?
I should say up front that by revealing this, I am not slyly bragging: a friend of a co-worker of this editor suggested me for the job simply because I'm a homosexual who can (probably) string a sentence or two together. It wasn't personal at all. And that, I came to realize, was the problem.
I didn't even read the email too closely before turning it down: I received this around 3:30 p.m. and that turnaround time was just absurd. First of all, I think starting a work arrangement off by inadvertently suggesting that you'd drop anything, including your spine, to take a job is a way to announce yourself as a bitch to be taken advantage of. For any future work that should come your way from this employer, you will need to assume the position and bend over. But even more than that, the proposed task was impossible anyway. I'm not privy to the homo hotline in which Professor David Halperin and Carson Kressley are perpetually hanging on, waiting to comment on whatever comes their way. Or maybe it's just that I'm just not cool like Carson Kressley.
So, whatever, it was a no-brainer: physical impossibility meant a quick reply of, "Thanks for the consideration, but I will not be able to turn this around by the deadline you gave." And that was that. Except, it wasn't. After I sent the email, I thought about the gig some more and I started to get really offended. Not as a person, not even as a gay person, but as a gay person who prides himself on being...well, not Carson Kressley. It seems to me that this editor could have written the story herself: clearly, she knew exactly what she wanted, right down to the writer's point of view. My ideas, at the very least, were unnecessary. What if, for example, I didn't think that all there was to being gay was sleeping with men? What if I already had considered homosexuality and its implications in a non-bedroom context? Most importantly, what if the very idea of spelling out "exactly" what it takes to be gay was inherently offensive to me? (For the record, to answer my own questions, I didn't, I had, and it is.) Since the idea was so clearly laid out, I don't think that she was calling on a gay man for an insider's perspective, per se. I think it more has to do with finding someone that could pigeon-hole his brothers on behalf of a publication and then take all responsibility away from said publication because: HA! He can't be homophobic; he's gay! "Pansy" is but one letter away from "patsy," and that's the kind of bitch I'm especially not trying to be.
I'm not trying to say that this person who contacted me is hateful -- I don't think she is, actually. Overly familiar? Yes. (I mean, "I need a gay male"? Quota much?) Hateful? Doubtful. What she was going for was a haha humorous thing. I think she wanted something that's probably more lighthearted than I'd be inclined to deliver on this subject. In giving her the benefit of the doubt, I'd like to assume that the quota thing is much like when people like Kathy Griffin refer to their gay friends as "their gays," as though their sexuality makes them emotionally interchangeable. It's that myopic, old-person, but not bad-natured way of thinking. It's annoying (I tell Tracie all the time that the minute I become a quota fulfillment to her is the minute we stop speaking), but at least it's not a condemnation to hell. That's something, right?
See, the more I think about it, the more proud I am to have turned down that piece. The editor didn't want a gay man but a gay, a human handbag that would do what she wanted (much like the way Kathy Griffin would call on her gays for fashion advice or to accompany her to see Céline Dion), including the legwork to support her idea. I may be taking the proposed gig and/or myself too seriously here, but representation is such a vital thing, I think, and that's not the way I want to represent myself. If you're distilling your very being down to just sexuality, you're dehumanizing yourself before anyone truly hateful can get to you. It's a defense mechanism, maybe, but it's so so harmful.
And that people do it in masses (per the still very one-note portrayal of gays in the media, for example) is all the more abhorrent. The more uniform we are, the easier we are to dehumanize, the easier we are to hate. (And I'm not trying to persecute the persecuted, but emphasize the importance of proactivity.) This is why something like Dumbledore's outing was, as beautifully described by Mark Harris, sly and brilliant activism -- he'd long been humanized before his sexuality was even considered. And it's why someone like William Sledd is capable of single-handedly redefining the term "gay disease." When your angle, your sole or even main selling point is that you're gay, you are a minstrel show with terrible music (probably trance). You are hazardous and you suck. It's that simple.
(Full disclosure: Bravo's frequent rewarding of gay minstrelsy, including giving Sledd his own reality show, had at least 50 percent to do with my disinterest in covering this season of Project Runway. Sorry, I no longer feel comfortable spending hours and hours a week supporting a network that, despite its pretensions, doesn't support my humanity. Any visibility is not good visibility.)
(Full disclosure No. 2: I'm not hating on anyone's mannerisms here -- William Sledd sucks not because he is effeminate, but because he has nothing, not even a morsel of cleverness, to offer beyond his sexuality. On the other hand, I'm all for an independent thinker like Chris Crocker busting in and getting a platform to share his bonkers world view. I wish he weren't as taken by his own fame as he currently seems to be, but besides that blip, I think Chris Crocker is actually extremely good for society because he is plainly and simply, an articulate freak. We need as many of them as we can get.)
And don't get me wrong: my sexuality informs so so much about me and, especially, what I do. I feel nothing less than quintessentially gay all of the time (and especially when I use the word "quintessentially"). But really, if there's not anything more to me than stereotypes and predictability, I might as well quit communicating now. Obviously, since I haven't, I have faith that I have at least a little more than bitchiness and girl-worship to offer. And that's the thing about the How To Be Gay class that I think may miss the point (although I obviously haven't taken it, and I do think that despite some semantic problems, it's well-intentioned). The gay experience is actually so splintered that about the only across-the-board common factor we share is the option of picking up whatever splinter we want, in terms of interest and behavior. From a taste standpoint (which is clearly the standpoint I'm most concerned with always), we're allowed to like whatever we want to like, without really getting bogged down by the stigmas that straight men might be more inclined to care about. We can watch football and coo over Mariah. We can drink beer and have a side of no-fat Cool Whip. Sure, some gay guys are concerned with being as masculine as possible (the conceptual paradox of hyper-masculinity be damned), but I think that largely, we don't have to worry about being persecuted for our interests because we're already persecuted. We've already been beat up for wearing high heels, whether they're actually in our closet or not, you know? There's a whole world of possibility that we have the unique situation of being privy to. It seems to me that to not take advantage of that, to merely stay within what is considered typical behavior and interests, to uphold this queer status quo, is to revoke your cultural birthright as a gay male.
What exactly does it take to be gay? It depends on the person, and how willing he is to actually be one.