Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Return of the Evil Queens

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.


Marlan said...

Amusing connection between how straights' views of public sex is somehow "titillating" and gay public sex is not. I guess the emphasis is on the tit-part, as usual.

That said, I was watching a little bit of "the best damn sports show..." tonight. Many of the opening segment's visuals were of these fading sports /media guys getting all excited by the attention from a few young women. It makes me wonder what it would be like if the objects of affection were, say, a young looking cop and an older, distingushed (and fading) senator.

It all comes down to the communication we send to each other--verbal and nonverbal, that signals our desire. Why it is seen as any different between two men than it is between a man and a woman is... well it is. For now.

Chad said...

It's funny; I read this post soon after doing research on homosexuality in ancient Greece and reading parts of Aristophanes' plays. For some reason I thought in particular of the scene in "Clouds" when a character representing "Just Speech" turns to the audience and shouts, "You're all wide-asses!"

Marius said...

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.”

You know, I read an article about a straight man who was caught in some sort of sexual act (the details weren't provided). He was charged with indecent exposure. Yes, his junk was exposed for the world to see. He is now a registered sex offender, along with child molesters. So, I would say that even straight people have to conform to certain societal rules. I agree that their indiscretions are probably considered more acceptable, but many straight men have also paid the price for being “adventurous”.

To give another example, Debra LeFave’s case received a lot of attention from the media, which was quite surprising. She’s the teacher who had sex with one of her students. Honestly, most of these offenses are committed by male teachers, but the media was obsessed with this and other cases of women having sex with minors. Why? Well, I think people are fascinated by this sort of thing. Sex sells.

Anyway, the real issues at hand are what we consider to be sexually deviant behavior and how much we’re willing to tolerate as a society. I think most people wouldn’t have a problem with gay men having casual sex in an appropriate place; however, gay men having sex in a public restroom may be crossing the line for some people (gay or straight). There are other interesting issues to consider. Should we tolerate Debra’s behavior? Should we reconsider our position on pedophilia? I think most would agree that sexual expression and behavior needs to be regulated to some extent, but who has the right to decide what’s right and what’s wrong?

Great post!

jeremy said...

On a related note, the Boys Beweare "educational" film is bonus material on the film Bob and Jack's 52 Year Adventure. Check out the trailer on their site. Its a good film.

tornwordo said...

When I realized that "boys beware" was likely shown to my parents in school, it made me soften up my view of their handling my coming out. (A rocky event, at best)

The Goldfish said...

According to the BBC, the the toilet in question has become a tourist site...

Cooper said...

The man who declared his son "not human" for not being manly enough is heart-breaking. He epitomizes the worst of patriarchal cultural psychoses. Only when we can start accepting and fully respecting gender and sexuality in its every nuance and expression, regardless of our own particular desires, then will we be free as human beings.

pacalaga said...

Wow. I have written and rewritten this comment, and for some reason, the post has ignited all sorts of only marginally-related outrage. Lest I get on a different soapbox than the one intended, I'll just say this - we are a nation of Puritan busybodies. Collectively, we seem to like being shocked by the depravation of others. So much so, that we have to call it "depravation" instead of "s/he chooses different things than I might". Gimme a break. I hope that guy who whined about his son is a dying breed.

Antonio said...

I think the creepy part comes from the fact that Craig is old. The idea that an old man is some sort of sex fiend (gay or straight) is considered creepy by our society, for better or worse. And the idea that anyone would have sex in a public bathroom is bizarre and gross to most people, which I think the interviewer on CNN was getting at. There's no question there's a double standard though. We need to look no farther than Vitter for that one.

What really saddens me is that people will take this incident as being indicative of the behavior of gay folks as a whole. The media devoted an absurd amount of time to the scandal, as if gay bathroom sex represents a significant segment of the community. I realize scandals get ratings, but c'mon a little balance.

As for depictions of gays on television, yeah there are some problems. I am grateful that Ugly Betty (which I haven't watched) would allow a character like Justin, particularly one so young. It makes sense to me that straight men stick up for him. As a kid, he can't always stick up for himself, particularly when adult straight men might try to suppress his effeminate tendencies, so an adult speaking on his behalf would do seem appropriate. But, again I haven't seen the show.

For a good depiction of a gay man on television, a friend mentioned "Brothers & Sisters". The gay brother avoids typical archetypes and doesn't fall into being the 'gay one' like that's all there is to him. But again this is a show I haven't seen.

AcadeMama said...

Great post GP! I'd also add one of the effects that the Craig "scandal" has had on straight men. While I give my husband credit for pointing out that he thinks any sex in bathrooms is gross simply because of the germ factor, I was really disappointed in what came next: fear. His response was one of fear, fear of being "mistaken" by a gay man in some bathroom and being "tapped" from the next stall. As if gay men are randomly trolling bathrooms for any man they see, he worried.

Considering that my husband is a quite liberal, intelligent man and a fellow academic, I just wanted to ask him, "What the hell is wrong with you?" If *he* had this "fear," I'm scared to even think of what other straight men are imagining lurking behind the bathroom stalls around the coutnry.

Greg said...

"Toe-tappers"!?! If that's the worst the Post can come up with to cut us down, maybe we ought to accept it as a name. Hell, in a few years, everyone will just think they call us that because we like The Showtunes.

In all seriousness, tho, great post GP, as always.

GayProf said...

Marlan: An older gay man who has the attention of a younger man is called "creepy" and "predatory." An older straight man who has the attention and admiration of a younger woman is called "lucky."

Chad: I hadn't thought of my blog as a Greek comedy, but now that you mention it...

Marius: I guess the question would be if the straight man was alone or not. Heterosexual sex is often considered sexy when done in public, but solitary masturbation is not.

I also think that economic class is important. Middle-class couples are judged differently than working class. So much for me to consider here...

Jeremy: Thanks for the heads up on the film. I had not heard about this.

Torn: If that was how they imagined gay lives to be (sad, scary, and ultimately ending in death), it does help explain many parents' fears for their queer children.

Goldfish: I had heard about this. One would imagine most of those tourists are male as they would be the only ones with full access...

Cooper and Pacalaga: Just to clarify, that was not really the young man's father. Jimmy Kimmel intended it as a "joke."

Even so, though, I am not sure that changes the message of the video. In other words, even if it is not his real father, Kimmel's team still suggests the idea that queer men are "not human beings."

Antonio: That is a good point about Craig's age. The elderly are often construed as "nasty" if they express any interest in sex (especially within the gay community). I have also heard good things about Brothers & Sisters, but have not seen it. I can't really say.

Academemama: Thanks for sharing. Even those intend well can get sucked into the same fears that guide the mainstream society. I imagine your husband has this fear because he has long been told that he needs to be fearful thanks to the type of coverage that accompanied Craig. Given all the consternation that seems to accompany straight men in restrooms, I am amazed they ever pee at all.

Greg: Wait -- Not everybody loves showtunes?

Oso Raro said...

BTW, the "Leave Britney Alone" thing is a deliberate, cynical pastiche of fan cultures by a dedicated YouTube personality. In other words, it is not "real," but rather a performance.

That doesn't undermine the nasty homophobic things people have been saying about the video, but it does force us to consider both the source, clearly a deeply narcissistic and self-involved Internet "Star" (with a business contact on his YouTube homepage, natch), and the responses, as the video by the "father" (Is it really him? Or a performance? How real is the real now that we know the originary device is fake?).

For instance, when I saw that video, I thought it was quite funny, as it spoke to the hysterical nature of the original piece. Now that I know "Leave Britney Alone" is most likely PURE performance, "real" tears aside, I don't know what to think...)

All this just goes to show it is hard to trace actual online phenomena as regards some of the issues mentioned in your post, in terms of the rocky shoals of representation and the increasing simulacra of everything we see and consume, especially online. For instance, what are we but disembodied projections of voice?

As for Craig, well, I've said my piece on that =)

dykewife said...

i have a sneaky suspicion that people of the g.w. jr. ilk would like all gay men to talk like pirates so that they could tell who's who. but not lesbians, cuz afterall, we all know that all they need is a "real" man to fix 'em.

David said...

Excellent analysis. You really showed your prof chops here.

M-Dub said...

Being a former military man, I have heard pretty much all of the anti-gay rhetoric from the staunchest heterosexuals (many of whom I found out later had a little hush-hush same-sex action). I have found that in most of the circles I have been in, the "straight" version of any gay "perversity" has been lauded or at least minimized in comparison with the gay counterpart. Just like a female teacher having sex with male students is the fantasy to end all fantasies (while male teachers who prey are sick, sick, sick!!), I think "straight" adventures are downplayed.

A final note in the rant...why does so much gay porn have a tearoom scene or two in it if we aren't that interested in it? Food for thought!

Laverne said...

Food for thought gayprof.

Although I do think that a hetero couple hooking up anonymously in a rest room is just as gross as homosexual couple doing it.

However, it's basically not heard of in the straight community; probably because each does not have access to the other's restroom.

I agree that the whole Craig thing was a way to divert attention from what was going on in our government. I don't trust our government and I don't trust the media.

Oh yeah, I think a much older man with a younger woman is creepy. I know society accepts it, but I still think it's icky.

That's just me.

JJ said...

Just for fun, how many of those men who responded here have had indecent exposure charges against them in the past? If so, were you younger than 25 or older than 25? I am aware that several of my gay male friends have had sex in parks, bathrooms, etc. Whereas the straight men I know seem to have outgrown this type of activity by their mid-20's. Maybe straight men still do have public sex but talk about it less?

As a mother of a pre-teen boy, I worry about my son being exposed to sexual activity when he uses the men's room. I guess I believe there's a time and a place, and a public restroom, where children or unsuspecting travellers are frequent visitors, shouldn't ever be the place.

GayProf said...

Oso: The concern over whether the first video was "authentic" is mysterious to me. It is hard to imagine that a teenager would have the foresight to calculate this type of media attention. In the end, I am not sure it matters. After all, everything we do is really just a performance regardless of venue.

Dykewife: Avast ye', lassy!

David: Now if only I could direct my prof energy into my actual job...

M-Dub: Your question will be answered in my forthcoming porn history project! Well, maybe...

Laverne: I am deeply suspicious of any relationship where there is a power imbalance (older/younger, richer/poorer, etc., etc.). Most of society, though, thrives on such imbalances.

JJ: Am I understanding that you think that I and my readers have likely been arrested for indecent exposure?

The "Won't somebody think of the children?" line is so tired that I don't even know where to begin. Once again, it conflates gay men with pedophiles, presumes that pedophilia most often involves boys (which it doesn't -- young girls are much more likely to be victims) and implies that pedophiles are strangers (when, in reality, they are most often family members or close to the family). Moreover, those involved in tearoom sex are not likely to choose restrooms where there is a high level of family traffic. Their goal, after all, is not to be detected.

All of that, though, is beside the point. I am only interested in how the media has used such incidents to vilify all gay men. It is through such portrayals that some people can conclude that all gay men must have been arrested for lewd activity at least once.

JJ said...

I didn't at all mean to imply I feared that my son would be accosted in the restroom - but rather am concerned as to what he would "witness" at a tender age. I certainly understand that being gay and a pedophile are entirely different. You are certainly correct in saying that most instances of sexual abuse are perpetrated by people known to the children, not strangers.

My comment about the indecent exposure arrests stems from my wondering about how wide-spread this public sex thing is. Is it a gay thing in particular, and if so why?

The first person my ex had a gay affair with (while we were still married) had an indecent exposure arrest on record. When I asked my then husband if this is what the kids and I could expect of him - he said, "I hope not". This leads me to believe that having public sex would not be out of the question for him, now that he's out as gay.

I don't mean to offend anyone, I'm just trying to understand. I'm trying to figure out how much of my ex's behavior is based on individual choices, and how much is based on trying to fit into his new gay culture.

Sin said...

Please. After "Queer as Folk" came out, I gave up the ghost on queens in the media (OK, not completely mainstream because it was cable, but still). Every time I see or hear of a freak-out involving homosexuality and an inadvertent "outing", I'm reminded of that scene from "Six Feet Under", when David's mother sees a man exiting her son's living-space, visualises a sordid S&M scene, and starts hosing him down.

The truth is, there's an odd dual obsession with the Gothic (in the sense of the "not normal", not pleather/vinyl/rubber clothing or Notre Dame), and with sexuality, period. Part of it is that for some reason, Americans seem to expect their elected representatives to be some sort of moral barometer, and so there's a tendency to pounce on a fall from grace.

But of course, there's all sorts of fun to be had by applying that tired old Freudian "Unheimlich" concept. You can distance yourself from that Uncanny, from that Otherness, reinforce opinions of self-worth...the possibilities to bask in your own superiority are endless! ;-)

GayProf said...

JJ: Thanks for clarifying your position and discussing your personal experience.

Without obviously knowing much about him, it does seem that your husband misled himself and others about his sexuality. Bathroom tearooms are mostly frequented by those who can't or won't admit their sexuality. Openly gay men have a different system of support that permits them to find romantic/sexual engagements in less risky venues.

I don't have the statistics, but I imagine that straight men are probably arrested at percentages equal to (if not greater than) gay men. For those straight men, though, indecent exposure is often about harassing and sexually intimidating women. The media finds little interesting about those stories.

Sin: I agree that there is a great deal of hypocrisy about sex and sexuality. U.S. society wants it both ways. They want to claim a narrow sense of moral purity, but then clamor for explicit examples of sexual expression.


just for the record --i know that there's a lot of authenticity arguments going around about the "leave britney alone" thing but it IS performance.

all you have to do is watch a few more of Chris Crocker's videos. Very self aware YouTube performance art is what it is. I thought it was real the first time and was a little scared by the intensity (but recognized that the intensity made sense due to media hysteria about Britney since day 1) but when i watched a few more of his videos i realized it's persona building

he's a performance artist

as for the post: excellent. if it weren't so damn depressing the heterosexual hypocrisy would be hilarious


and Chris has since clarified that he rehearsed it (though he claims the feelings are genuine).

that's not even the first take ;)