Several different discussions prompted me to think about the notion of Queer Heroes. An e-mail correspondence with Cooper, a blogger buddy; Adam’s recent post on Will and Grace (with a side conversation at Joe's); and Dorian’s discussion of same-sex-sexual violence in comic books all got me questioning the lack of queer heroes in popular media.
Right now, the media has a love-affair with presenting queer men as victims. They adore a good story about a man being trapped into lying and staying in the closet. They get positively giddy if that story also includes deceiving a hapless wife and/or drug addiction. Instead of heroes, we are offered victims of circumstance.
For the past eighteen-months, in particular, the media has been obsessed with those “on the down-low.” For those who don’t own a television, “being on the down-low” refers to men who are in heterosexual relationships, but still secretly have sex with men. If we believe what we see, heterosexual marriages are facing an epidemic as no good men seem to want to stay home anymore.
Even Oprah, the reigning queen over popular thought, featured an entire episode of her talk show on this subject. Thank God she promised not to do any more sensationalist topics. BET recently produced a news-style documentary on the subject, declaring being on the down-low a phenomenon. Yeah, that’s what is passing for journalistic analysis these days.
If we are to believe popular representations of the “down-low,” all African-American men and most Latino men currently lead double lives. These lurid shows suggest that men of color spend every waking minute trying to find hot-man-on-man action. As the nasty frosting to that unappetizing cake, they whip-up Terry McMillian’s personal grief over finding out her husband lied to her time and time again. Her famous example becomes proof-positive that queer men can trick any woman into their web of lies.
All the coverage of the “down-low” neatly plays off the tensions between both ultra-conservative viewers and the queer audience. For the ultra-right, stories about being on the down-low confirm their worst nightmares about queer folk. They have tangible evidence that gay men threaten families, even putting their unsuspecting wives at risk for disease. Given that discussions of the down-low are almost always limited to men of color, they also play into racist stereotypes. People of color have long been presented as having questionable sexual morality.
Yet, the media also gets to draw in a crowd of queer viewers with their down-low programing. We are told that we need to embrace the down-low folk because they are hapless victims. We are also asked to defend the down-low individuals as our fellow queer brothers and plead for understanding.
Whatever your sexuality, if you lie to somebody who loves and trusts you, this does not make you smart, clever, or casting a blow for sexual liberation. Queer folk need to avoid being sucked into the notion that somebody on the “down-low” is only a victim. Nor are down-low biopics adequate substitutes for stories about queer heroism.
There is a marked difference between somebody who is struggling to come to terms with their sexuality and somebody who actively hides their sexual escapades from a loved-one. Many queer men marry women before they fully accept their attraction to other men. We should be there for all queer men who are struggling to address their desires.
What we don’t need to endorse, though, is the notion that queer men are being forced into lying and leading a “double life.” Though there are many places in the world where the government will murder an individual outright for same-sex desire, no such laws exist in the United States. Divorce is readily available. Don’t want to get a divorce? Okay – It’s fine by me. But don’t start having sex with men behind your spouse’s back. As a queer community, we are under no obligation to support subterfuge. Tough love from the GayProf.
Spare me the notions of lying to a spouse “to spare their feelings” or saying “they must really know, we just haven’t talked about it yet.” There is nothing noble or interesting about being on the down-low. Rather, these lies show a selfish and thoughtless inner character. One can justify anything to one’s self, but these lies show that person is only thinking about themselves.
Perhaps the most romanticized vision of the down-low appeared in the overly-discussed film Brokeback Mountain. Given the main-characters’ whiteness, though, nobody seemed to discuss Jack and Ennis as being on the down-low. Yet, the two main characters created opposite-sex families while also hiding their sexual adventures with each other. If that ain’t the down-low, I don’t know what is.
This film got billed as allegedly a same-sex romance. Yet, neither character showed heroism or real love toward the other. Rather, their romance and personal failings left behind more wreckage in Wyoming than a tornado in a mobile-home park. The most notable film on gay men presented them as simultaneously victims and villains, but never heros.
I understand that the film makers wanted to present the tragedy of homophobia. Got it. Maybe I can even let it stand as is.
We can be angry, though, that the media offers us hardly anything about queer heroism. We can be angry that the most recognizable queer figures in film are pretty mediocre individuals. Let’s be honest, who didn’t want to punch Ennis in the nose by the end of the movie?
The media’s obsession with the down-low casts queer folk as hypocritical, dangerous, and deceptive. These visions just continue what the media has presented about gay men since the 1930s. The media serves the same old gruel, but have added zesty toppings from either the ‘hood or the western frontier.
What the mainstream media rarely gives us are visions of queer folk's daily heroism. Being out and up-front about our lives still requires an active commitment. Even in my local community, I know of instances of courage and fortitude. East Texas ain’t exactly a hot-bed of liberalism, either.
At a local gym, for instance, one of the personal trainers is a lesbian. She had been working with one client for several months and they seemed to have a good, professional rapport. Then he arrived for his training in early November with his car plastered with anti-gay statements supporting the Texas Constitutional Amendment to Ban Same-Sex Marriage. When he entered the gym, she told him that, as a lesbian, she could not work with him given his hatred of gay folk. In this instance, this trainer was willing to sacrifice real, cash money from her pocket and perhaps her position in the gym to defend all of our rights. That’s heroic, in my book.
Her story is unique because it belongs to her, but it is not singular. Across the blogosphere, I frequently find queer bloggers discussing how they navigate being out in the work place, or being out at their children’s school, or being out to their families.
Likewise, because of my own blog, I have received several e-mails from people which describe incidents where they took a stand for queer rights. In some ways, we have become so used to these types of actions we often forget that they require courage and fortitude. We also don’t like to mention that not all queer folk are ready to take up these fights. Those who are willing, though, need their stories given more expression. They can be celebrated as queer heros.
Having queer desires does not automatically make you a hero. However, there are plenty of queer folk who do heroic things despite being in extremely homophobic settings. We need to see more of these stories reflected in the media. I want coverage about those living on the out-high rather than the down-low.