Monday, July 28, 2014

On Stereotypes, Generalizations, Clichés, Straight People and Gay Voices

I'm always up for a good fight, and considering what I do with my life, I'd better be. Or perhaps it's the other way around: I'm fighting fit for a healthy, heated debate because my work has made me that way.

Over the course of the years I've spent writing essays (and an entire forthcoming book!) on race and sexuality, particularly my past six months as a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and, I've become accustomed to exceptions to the rules, trends and patterns I write about who take offense when I point out those rules, trends and patterns. The implication of their ire: "Well, I'm not like that, so you're wrong."

Some of them suggest cosmetic adjustments, like prefacing opinions with "I think" or "I believe" as if that isn't already implied in any kind of personal essay or op-ed piece. One reader suggested that I re-title my latest HuffPost Gay Voices article "8 Things Some Straight People Occasionally Get Wrong About Some Gay Men" -- or something to that waffling effect. I don't know. That just doesn't have the same ring as "8 Things Straight People Get Wrong About Gay Men."

At any rate, if those would-be editors would put aside their righteous indignation and reconsider where I'm coming from, they'd realize that the "Some" is silent. It's like when women complain about men. They aren't talking about all men, just the ones who've done them wrong and all the other ones like them. It's a generalization intended to make a point: This is a common occurrence or habitual behavior. Of course, there are always exceptions.

Despite what we've been told about stereotypes and generalizations, both tend to be based on truth (if only a grain of it), information acquired from observations made over an extended period of time. They are not inherently evil or misguided. Stereotypes and generalizations become dangerous when people are unable to see past them, when people use them as the basis on which they pre-judge people. That's when racism and homophobia begin to rear their ugly heads.

If you're an exception to the rules, trends and patterns, good for you. Feel free to tell us all about it. I want to hear from you because you're the one who gives me hope. But it's not all about you. "You" doesn't necessarily mean you, nor does "people." If you'd prefer a "most" in front of "people," put it there yourself. Any writer, if he or she is a reasonable thinker, probably put it there in his or her mind, too. But "most" and "some" rarely work in good, compelling headlines.

When Jim Morrison sang "People are strange" in the title of The Doors 1967 No. 12 Billboard Hot 100 hit, did rock fans write the band to complain: "Well, I'm not strange, so your song is shit"? When The Bellamy Brothers declared that "Lovers live longer" in the title of their 1980 No. 3 country single, did country fans take them to task because lovers sometimes die at an unripe young age? Have we become such a hyper-sensitive culture that every comment, every sentence, must now be qualified so as not to risk offending people who can't handle the truth (or those to whom it doesn't apply)?

At the end of every post cycle, though, I'm thankful that anyone, whether in agreement with me or not, would bother to take the time to read anything I write. And comments are always welcome, even if it's just to criticize my choice of photo because the guys in it are so attractive. The one above has already been damned and praised by readers of my latest Gay Voices piece (where I previously used it) for that very reason. Never mind that the couple sets a good example by being interracial. Does the twosome have to be good-looking, too? I suppose Men's Health should start looking for cover models with a bit of a beer belly because by the PC beauty standards, you don't look like a "real" person if you're too pretty or too perfectly sculpted. (Yet when Valerie Bertinelli gains a few pounds it becomes home-page news.)

Someone commented that running a photo of two hot gay men with "8 Things..." undermined the entire essay because, I guess, that's another thing straight people get wrong about gay men: They think they're all attractive, too. Who am I to argue with a flattering assumption like that? Or maybe by being good-looking, the two guys support the straight theory that says gay men are obsessed with their looks. Should we all stop shaving and bathing to dispel that horrible myth?

I recently had a guy on Grindr take me to task for having the nerve to say that I'm looking for a non-cliché in my profile while parading around shirtless in the pic that goes with it. I'm the cliché, a gay cliché, he suggested. So does that make any shirtless guy with a decent body a gay cliché? Or is it just when he's undressed that way on Grindr? Is going topless on Grindr any more of a gay cliché than being on Grindr in the first place? I wonder if he would have called me a gay cliché if I had love handles and a paunch in the photo? I wonder if he would have said anything to me at all. The cliché I'm looking to avoid has less to do with what app you use and what you're wearing on it than what you say after you have my attention. (Hint: Flattery, even via clichés, will likely get you farther than critiquing my profile pic.)

But those are issues for another blog post. Getting back to "8 Things...," not all of the feedback has been critical. In fact, most of what I've read has been quite the opposite, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction -- 5.2k "likes" and still rising -- has floored me. I know people are more likely to come out in droves to read a listicle, but I had no reason to expect this particular one to find such a large appreciative audience.

It's even apparently crossed over to heterosexual readers. One "straight" guy felt "insulted" by my generalizations, mostly because they don't apply to him, and we had a somewhat heated Twitter exchange over it. Twitter is usually not conducive to intelligent discourse, but this was one of those exceptions to the rule. Ultimately, we arrived at common ground and hugged it out virtually, with my former Twitter rival offering to buy me a beer if I'm ever in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, "C Warren" wasn't so open-minded. In fact, judging from the comments "C Warren" made on Twitter (see below), I'd say "C Warren" is proudly homophobic. This makes one wonder why "C Warren" would bother reading HuffPost's Gay Voices to begin with. Surely there must be plenty of other reading material on the web that's more in step with the interests and beliefs of someone who thinks "gay" is a euphemism for sexual deviancy.

In a way, the Fox News Channel's loss was my gain. The declarations of "C Warren" made for some entertaining weekend reading. But why should I have all the fun? Enjoy!

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