A few days ago, Torn posted a video of an old "education" film from the early sixties. Like many others that appeared at the time, it was created to warn young men about the alleged dangers of “homosexuals.” With a title like Boys Beware, you knew that it was only going to go down hill pretty fast. The film authoritatively told its audience that homosexuals spend their days lurking about in dark sunglasses, telling dirty jokes, and murdering teenagers. Why? Because homosexuals are both sick and evil!
Since the video is forty years old, it’s fairly easy to dismiss it as a bygone piece of history. After all, we no longer hear dire warnings about the threat of creepy homosexual men who hang out in restrooms looking to exploit the innocent. Well, unless you happen to reside in Fort Lauderdale where Mayor Jim Naugle wants to install $250,000 toilets because he imagines gay men are using the current ones as the new Studio 54.
But that’s just some crazy mayor who still thinks it's 1959, right? Well, maybe not. Simply watch any of the three-thousand hours of coverage on Senator Larry Craig.
I avoided mentioning the Craig story because I was suspicious that it was “uncovered” at a convenient time for Republicans. It drew media attention away from the many White House resignations, including Alberto Gonzales’. The GOP seemingly felt it was better to eat one of their own than risk actual investigation into the ineptness that has marked the Justice Department for the past six years.
While I am happy to have Craig exposed (no pun intended) as a hypocrite, the media has rarely focused on that bit of the story. Instead, tearoom scandals like Craig’s are another means through which all same-sex sex can be lumped together as sad, anonymous, and even threatening.
To be candid, I really don’t care that much about bathroom sex. It’s certainly not my scene. It also seems like most of the men involved are unable to come to terms with their sexual desires. They would probably be happier if they could find other venues for sexual exploration. All in all, though, it just isn’t that big a deal.
CNN disagreed. Along with other networks, they spent entire segments obsessing about gay toilet sex. They brought in psychological experts to help explain why men (sick, sick men!) would do such a (sick, sick!) thing. In one memorable segment, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage valiantly tried to point out the role that the closet and homophobia plays in many tearoom participants’ lives. For them, sexual release can only be obtained in restrooms because they have internalized so much of society’s hatred of gays.
The interviewer, though, was not really interested in that type of assessment. Instead, he asked, “Aren’t these guys... just plain wrong and it has nothing to do with the culture leading them to do this stuff? I mean, after all, going into a bathroom to have anonymous sex with somebody you don’t even know is just . . . creepy.”
That is the bit where I start to get leery. One wonders what type of circumstances would the media endorse as “not creepy” for same-sex sex? Is it the anonymous bit that made Craig creepy? So, a couple who had one dinner together is not creepy? Is it the bathroom bit? No to toilets, but yes to pool tables?
I suspect it is really the gay bit. The focus on tearoom sex reenforces presumptions that all same-sex sex is ruthless, anonymous, and self-centered. David recently pointed out that the New York Post attempted to coin a new epithet by referring to all gay men as “toe tappers.” The leap from creepy Larry Craig tapping his foot to have sex in a restroom to naming all gay men as “creepy anonymous toilet-sex junkies” was an easy one for the paper to make.
There is a serious double standard when it comes to presenting same-sex sex and opposite-sex sex in the media. It is doubtful to me that a heterosexual couple who met randomly at a public rest stop, for instance, would have been construed as “creepy.” Granted, they might be considered “lusty, slutty, impulsive,” and maybe even “sinful.” I just don’t think, though, that the media would call it “creepy.”
Certainly, the media would never consider it “creepy” if a heterosexual couple hooked up at a local bar without even knowing each other’s names. That’s just “Friday night.”
Along the same lines, heterosexuals who have sex in public are often (not always, but often) construed as “adventurous” and sexual risk takers. In many instances, heterosexual couples who sneak in a bit of sex in a public place are imagined as more in touch with their erotic sensibilities. They are just being delightfully naughty and enjoying a provocative thrill! Gay men who have sex in public need medical treatment.
Some might suggest that the distaste had to do with the location of a bathroom. Once again, I am not as convinced. After all, I have heard many people tell stories of heterosexuals sneaking (or trying to sneak) into airplane lavatories to earn their mile-high wings. These stories, even when told by a third-party observer, are often presented with a wink and nod.
The media, of course, doesn’t need a sex scandal to present gay men as psychologically unstable. On the heels of the Craig affair, comedians and even major news outlets seized on an obscure “internet personality's” YouTube video. I won’t delve into the revolting level of hatred that bubbled up around the clearly distressed young person's pleas for the press to “leave Brittany alone.” Kenneth Hill already has an excellent piece on homophobia and the ridicule that follows men who refuse to conform to gender expectations (even within the gay community). It is enough to point out one of the most disturbing responses to the video which appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel show. In it, the supposed father of the young man cried about his son not being manly enough. He ended with a chilling proclamation of “He’s not a human being. He’s not a human being.”
That, I think, is the media’s real conclusion about Craig, Crocker, and all gay men. We are still not considered fully human. Instead, we are all walking on the edge of showing ourselves to be creepy, crazy, or evil monsters.
Even allegedly “positive” images of gay men prop up these stereotypes in fictional programing. Queer people are grossly under-represented in prime time. The most visible and consisten gay figures to circulate right now appear on Ugly Betty. Yet, I am left wondering about both Marc and Justin.
Marc is the traditional “evil queen” that has been recycled just too many times by television and films. He mostly follows the orders of a conveying African-American jezebel (a stereotype in the show that also desperately needs to be unpacked). That, though, is for another day). In every way, Marc is shown to be both shallow and vindictive. He tortures and humiliates the central character all for his good fun.
To redeem the show, many queer folk therefore point to Justin, Betty's adolescent nephew. On the good side, it is great to see a young person presented on television who resists gender conventions (Justin’s actual sexuality has never been discussed on the show – It is only through that gender nonconformity that he can be read by many as “gay”). I am not entirely sure that the presentation of Justin really makes him into a hero. Much of his behavior is shown as part of the show’s humor. We are intended to laugh at the awkward discomfort that Justin creates among those who surround him.
Justin also exists to reveal the hidden magnanimity of the other characters who tolerate and defend him. He doesn't really fight for himself. Instead, he has most often been defended by straight men. Those scenes have been less about Justin and more about showing the "good heart" and redemption of heterosexuals.
More importantly, the show has frequently suggested that Justin has a questionable sense of morality. Like Marc, he often denigrates others with “bitchy” comments about their clothes. At the end of the last season, it was further suggested that Justin intentionally poisoned one of his fellow students to get the lead role in a musical (!). Even the baby queers, it seems, are willing to murder to get what they want.
I don’t dispute that things have improved for gays since Boys Beware appeared forty years ago. Look! I am not in jail! Still, it is too soon to claim that the media no longer construes of queers as sick and maybe a bit evil. It has just become more subtle in its approach. If Ugly Betty allegedly represents the best portrayals of gay men in the mainstream media and Larry Craig the worst, we are still in a bad place.