Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Queer Heroes?

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.


Anonymous said...

Have you heard anything about Oprah's show with Terry McMillian? I was somewhat tempted to watch it, but I was afraid of losing all the goodwill Oprah managed to generate with me through one episode where she tried to show her audience that it is possible to be homeless and working a full-time job.

Not that I don't agree with your points on how those on the down-low shouldn't be portrayed exclusively as victims (at least because of the risks they expose their spouses to if they're highly promiscious), but catching the ads while watching a show that certainly wasn't a daytime soap opera (*ahem*) I was afraid the episode might feed the concept that gay relationships are only about sexual gratification.

jeremy said...

Um. I don't know. I mean, you make good points, as always, but you're a history dude, you should know that this idea of living life outside of the closet is still pretty new. I mean, sham marriages for gay men was(is) a pretty common occurence, and, even if Todd Haynes would have us believe differently, worked for many families. In fact, claiming the gay moniker separates us from gay life pre-Stonewall.
That's why artists like Bruce la Bruce totally gross me out. They yearn for that 50's (Kenneth Anger) world of anonymity and, predating that, the love that dare not speak its name. But it has been named and anonymity is less of a choice but one in which there is some still find comfort. I think your stance is a bit naive--we're still navigating our way into the collective consciousness.
We haven't had time to define what a gay hero is. Is it that guy on a diving board with AIDS? Is it a martyr tied to a fence a pistol-whipped? Is it a bitchy-ass British hasbeen pop star? Perhaps its a police officer in a Montana town.
I think it is easiest for straight media to sensationalize the salacious details of being "on the down-low," but to protest how we are portrayed by other people seems like wasted breath (let GLAAD get on 'em). What we need to be concerned with is the voice we raise to the straight world--an more importantly that that voice is heard by those outside of our community.
Let me tell you a little anecdote about the town in which I live.
A personal trainer at my gym said he felt that homosexuality was wrong. Shortly thereafter, the club saw a drop in membership. Then he got fired. Then a lesbian entrepreneur gym owner bought the establishment.
We shouldn't be looking for heroes--human beings are flawed. We should be looking at how we as a community can mobilize and affect change. So maybe one day we can offer healing to the pariah that is on the down-low.
(Now who's being naive?)

Roger Owen Green said...

Here's my problem with the term hero in this context: you've labeled "heroic" someone who, save for someone else's bigotry, wouldn't be in that position at all. Maybe it is heroic.

Maybe Hank Aaron was heroic because he perserved in spite of racist death threats to hit his 715th HR. (Hank's been on my mind lately.) Don't think HE'S think so.

kate.d. said...

can i just say, i'm really glad that i found your blog. posts like this, ones that make connections, are few and far between. this is really making me think, and hopefully i'll be back with some thoughts later.

Anonymous said...

What is the problem exactly with lying?????

Kalv1n said...

I do think that there are queer heros. There just aren't queer heros in the straight media. And I'm usually on the no one should be in the closet bandwagon.

I did actually see that special on BET (I missed the Oprah stuff), and I have to admit, that I felt like I was watching a special on the bird flu. The most upsetting part to me is that the men on the "down-low" were never given the opportunity to speak. Just like in real life, they were silenced. The object to be viewed by a more superior observer.

I would like to hear the voices of men on the down low, and not this current spokesperson who (sorry) doesn't strike me as being all that together or credible.

Hilaire said...

On heroes, I'm with Jeremy...I wonder whether "heroism" needs to be examined more in general...I wonder whether we queers expect more of queer folk than we expect of others...and is it fair to ask individuals to bear communal burdens?

But I love your blog, tho', GayProf!!

GayProf said...

I recognize that I might be na├»ve. Indeed, it might be a willful naivete on my part. In many ways, though, I prefer the notion of being idealistic. It doesn’t make me sound quite so crazy.

In terms of asking people to step up, yeah I think that is fair. Being part of community involves a certain amount of sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

Harvey Milk, Martina Navratalova,and Larry Kramer are all queer heros to me. Rarely do people take a stand for honesty in public discourse. The tabloid type treatment of the "Down Low" issue stems from issues of race and class. Jack and Ennis were certainly on the down low but because they were white and the story set before AIDS,few made that connection. Heros need not make monumental changes to society, sometimes just starting a dialogue is enough.

tornwordo said...

Wow, not only do I agree, but you've made me aware of something I wasn't quite able to articulate.

It's that somehow "dishonest" has been infused into minorities. And I agree that people who live the double life aren't helping.

Gayest Neil said...

Mark Bingham is an excellent, contemporary example of a gay folk hero. Atleast the best I can think of off the top of my head.

Anonymous said...

Points well taken.

Now, not that I've seen Brokeback (still in it's wrapper in my new room), but what that movie seems to do is spell out what one of the major problems with being gay was and, to a much lesser extent in some cities, is still today. I can't see criticising it for what it is. But I can criticise (as I think you are) the lack of anything else to compare it with.

What would be a good counterpoint to that expression of the realities of fear and hiding and deception, and self-hatred stemming from all that, would be a similarly stirring story of just the opposite.

Not a Cosby show style "we wear knit sweaters, too" thing (I still liked that show, though).

Maybe something that shows a couple fully breaking free of the fear. Like two guys who are hiding it finally just saying, "Enough! I don't have to live my life this way! We're not pussy-footing around this anymore. We love each other and that's that. Yeah, we're gay. You got a problem with that, you come right over here and we'll talk, ok? But we will not be disrespected - I'll make sure of that. You got it?"

That's a small-"h" hero. The world doesn't get saved, but in that couple's life and in the world they are a part of, there are unquestionably tremolo strings and rising brass playing in the background. It's personal heroism. It's finding that courage in the face of deep fear and standing your ground.

See, so then, seeing Brokeback and this non-existant movie as a double feature would have audiencies marching out in a joyful mood. They saw how bad it can be and that it can be much better.

So anyone want to make a movie?

Oso Raro said...

Dearest Blanche,

But str8 men are so delectable sexually, and so vulnerable, and better yet, for the most part, never want a repeat performance! How can we, Clara Bartons of the sexual underground, turn them down in their (our) hour of need?

I, for one, agree with your observation of the unsung LGBTQ (ABCXYZ) heroes in our midst, those in our community who take uncomfortable or dangerous stands. The DL thing, well, all I guess I have to say is that human sexuality is complex, not the least of which is gayness. The riddle of gay sexuality, wrapped in a mink and on its knees in a dark, dank tunnel, and one that HRC types are always wringing their hands about, is why is it that 35 years after Stonewall, when we (or at the very least, some of us) can walk in the sunlight of goodness, propriety, and IKEA shopping, do many gay men still fetishise and sexualise the bad old days of hidden sex, rough trade, and elicit public sex? The Reeperbahn, the park men's room, the gloryhole. Miss Raro has her own private notion, of course, but let's just say that honesty is hard, and a full-time job, especially in our society of dirty rotten liars, scoundrels, and thieves (and that's just in the halls of Congress!).

A quick tour by even the most thick-headed observer, say Bill O'Reilly, would demonstrate that, on some level, the internet has revolutionised sexuality and sexual practises, including the invasion of DL men (white, black, blue, purple, whatever) married to women and fucking lots and lots of men. God knows I had my share, back in the day, when I was still beautiful!

Among the many things this suggests to me, is that the metaphor of the closet may no longer encapsulate the experience of gayness through the phenomenon of MSM ("Men who have Sex with Men"). This, in case you're taking notes, are dudes who fuck guys but aren't gay/queer/"homo," whatever. How and why proud, rainbow flag waving queers are implicated in this moment is complicated (All those str8 men are not, after all, sleeping with each other. Heaven forbid, what would they do with each other? Grunt? Scrape teeth? Use their wife's hand lotion as lube? Where would they learn? Someone has to teach them!). I have no answers to this conundrum, if indeed it is a conundrum, other than the phrase "Do No Harm," which goes for affairs of the heart as well as of the body. We can only try, as best we can, wrapped in our minks.

In any event, this comment thread has been delish. I especially love Kalvin's metaphor of the bird flu. Brill, doll!

Love you, Baby Jane

Luciferus said...

Without having read your whole post.... "Right now, the media has a love-affair with presenting queer men as victims"?

Right now?? This has always been the situation, just the current iteration of it.

But you know that, my dar(l)ing.

trey said...

Why do I get the feeling that you were older than nineteen in 1963? I was thirteen. It seems that it is hard for many gay men under forty to even begin to understand what it was like to be "queer" back then. Tread carefully when pontificating. You may not even have a clue, but without that generation, believe me, you would probably be less self-assured about self-indentifying in an authentic way.

GayProf said...

Oso: Blanche? Baby Jane? You aren’t planning on driving over me with your car, are you?

I agree with you that human sexuality is complex. I also didn’t mean to inadvertently reinforce the hetero/homo binary (a historically specific Western creation). If the DL men desire sex without claiming a “gay” identity, that’s cool with me. To be honest, I really don’t care about glory-holes and such either, as long as everybody is of age and plays safe (which often does not happen). However, these desires still fall into the zone of “queer.” Moreover, the DL’s dishonesty about their desires (however complex) only shows their selfishness.

Luciferus: What?!! As soon as they are posted, you don’t spend hours reading and rereading each of entries religiously? I am so disillusioned.

Trey: Thanks for stopping by my little bloggy. I take your point about not projecting our current ideals into the past.

If you are referring to Brokeback Mountain, though,I hasten to point out that it was created in 2005, not 1963. The short-story appeared in 1997. Jack and Ennis never existed outside of fiction. As a historian, I would note that it doesn’t really tell us anything about life in the 1960s as it is not a primary source. Rather, it only tells us how people today imagined life to be in the 1960s. Regardless, my entry concerns men today, not forty years ago.

By the way, many men did assert their sexuality in the early 1960s and earlier. Don’t presume things about the past just because the mass-media tells you that they are true. If you are interested in reading more about queer history before Stonewall, I recommend starting with George Chanucey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Cheers.

Kyle said...

Incidentally, have you read Graham Robb's STRANGERS, about Victorian homosexuality? It's pretty enlightening. I'm still reading on it, but I've learned a lot so far.

GayProf said...

Frank: It is a book that has been on my shelf for some time. Alas, I have not read it yet and can't give an opinion. Soon, though, I will pick it up.

dirk.mancuso said...

I understand your call for gay heroes, but some of the biggest heroes for me are gay couples living openly, raising families, and supporting both their gay community and the community they live in without any fanfare.

They don't have a "look at me! look at me!" approach to life, just a "this is who I am, judge me by my actions" take instead. Which in some ways I think is just as helpful as figures in the media.

Just one gay guy's opinion.

As always, your writing makes me think. I so want to be you when I grow up.

GayProf said...

Dirk: I totally agree that the type of gay folk you describe are heroes. They do these things because they have a strong moral core (rather than saying, “Look at me. I am a leader, do what I do. I am better than you.”) Still, it is these everyday types of resistance that I think needs more attention.

Da Nator said...

Excellent post, as usual, Gayprof. I, too, saw the BET DL special and found it sadly ridiculous (and Terry McMillan? For real? Girl, get a hold of yourself. Sometimes grief ought to be private). I suspect that the focus on the DL is just another media flavour-of-the-month (or year), like lesbians in 1993 and gay cowboys since Brokeback. (Hmm, can we cycle back to lesbians for a little while?)

In most regards I agree with you that all queers should own their sexuality and be out. This has been a point of some complaint of mine for years. However, I sometimes have to take a step back and realize that I am very fortunate to have grown up in somewhat progressive times, with a liberal family, a nearby urban center and the general privileges of being born middle class and white. I am proud that I do not compromise on being out, but even though the lies and dangers the DL involves disgust me, I have to acknowledge that being honest has not involved all the same repercussions for me as it does for others.

I'm totally with you on the media, however. If not queer heroes, then at least some average characters in movies and television that just happen to be lesbigay, rather than that being their entire definition and motivation?

Elizabeth McClung said...

Interesting - Coming from a religious background the "coming out" process is almost always one of coming out of marriage - I personally know several gay people who were instructed to marry as "God would take care of things" - And while the idea of a man with same sex attractions marrying, then divorcing in order to be out while still not having any male-male intimate contact seems incredibly idealized. I agree that a healthy relationship isn't build on deception but I am not about to ascribe a morality which doesn't account for human failings any more than I am going to accept one placed on me.

Also interesting in that I believe Vermont last month (one new england state) decided in court that a lesbian affair for a married woman did not constitute adultery. Now that says a lot more about the passive view of women's sexuality in heterosexual society.

Michael The Shadow said...

While I know that the gist of this was not about the comic books you posted pictures of....Thank you for showing off Northstar. He is one of my favourite characters from the Xmen universe (and in one title has asked Peter Rasputin to go to prom with him. Peter said yes by the way).

I'm planning on doing a bit of research and posting about gay superheros in current comics sometime soon. Personally, I like the fact that in the comic realm, we are not all steriotyped, plus the gay heros kick some major ... well they do their jobs well :)

Great post!

Anonymous said...

The BBC has an article about Batwoman being reinvisioned as a "lipstick lesbian".

Sure, it's stereotypical and a *tiny* bit offensive, but it's sign of some progress... i think.

Joe said...

OK, I'm a little behind on posting a comment here, but I have to say that I am sooooooooo sick and tired of the "down low" bandwagon. Yes, I'm a gay white male pig, but I don't like to think that I'm totally insensitive to racial/ethnic community politics and social issues. I read one commentary several months ago that sums up how I feel entirely, that went something like this: "White men have been living on the 'down low' for years, possibly centuries. Only they called it something else: The Closet."

Anonymous said...

Not to whore out my own blog, but I wrote something relating to gay comic book heroes a while back (like February maybe). There's definitely been an upswing in the tendency to portray some homosexual comic book characters. Yes, there's Northstar, but Marvel (for example) has gone ahead and redone a "classic" X-Man (Colossus) as being gay; the new "Young Avengers" series features two prominently gay teenagers in a relationship with one another, and outside of Marvel, there've always been Apollo and the Midnighter from "The Authority" series (I think that's the one). Throw in Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" or a handful of other titles by most of the major comics imprints (say, Alan Moore's "Watchmen"), and I certainly think there's a positive trend that's been creeping up slowly over the last decade or so.

I realise that this is of course, ancillary to your main point, and agree whole-heartedly re: Brokeback, but I figured I'd share anyway.