My Opinion: We Are More Than a Single Stereotype
“There goes another walking stereotype,” my friend Sam said as he pointed out the window at a young man dressed in short shorts and a mesh tank top, happily swishing down the sidewalk. “Could he be any gayer?” he asked before adding, “Flamboyant queens like that ruin it for the rest of us. Why can’t these guys just be normal?”
His words completely caught me by surprise. I was unsure what my friend’s definition of “normal” could be. After all, Sam regularly spends more money on skincare products than food, quotes lines from Designing Women in casual conversation, and has lived in San Francisco’s Castro district (A.K.A. one of the gayest places on the planet) for nearly 10 years. There are a number of things about my friend that could easily fall into the “stereotype” category, and yet, he had no problem assessing a perfect stranger’s level of gayness as unacceptable.
Sam’s comments rattled around in my brain for days after we said goodbye that afternoon. Not only because his words were harsh, but because they reflected a double-standard upheld by a growing number of people in our community. It’s OK to be gay – as long as you aren’t too gay. Because that would make you a stereotype.
Of course, it’s understandable that some gay men would fear being labeled the dreaded s-word. After all, the idea that we’re nothing more than a bunch of limp-wristed, screaming queens who spend our days obsessing over fashion trends and show tunes are stereotypes that have served to reduce our community to a single note. However, one of the reasons our community is so wonderful is the fact that we are these stereotypes– and so much more.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie once suggested, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” She insightfully asserted that hearing only a single story about any group of people is dangerous because it leads to ignorance, and this is an issue with which the gay community is only too familiar. We continually struggle to be recognized as more than the reductive power of the single story that has plagued our community for decades.
Nevertheless, in our efforts to highlight the symphony of diversity that is the gay community, many of us have become intolerant of any person, or aspect of our culture, that rings in the key of stereotype.
This attitude is also reflected in mainstream culture. Today, positive depictions of gay men are more visible than ever before. Gay characters appear in movies, TV shows, comic books, and even video games, but in many of these cases it is only the most masculine images of gay men that are promoted. Positive images of effeminate gay men are far rarer finds in pop culture, and when they do appear, many gay men cry “stereotype.” This may seem like a perfectly normal response to challenging negative labels, but it also presents a danger of exchanging one single story for another while still placing a segment of the gay population in a negative light.
As an out gay man for more than 22 years, I’ve seen my fair share of people make comments exactly like my friend Sam did that day, but as a writer for various LGBT websites I often have a front row seat to the most extreme reactions some gay men have for anything branded with the big S. I typically need to look no further than the comments section of articles on LGBT websites to be reminded that our community is sometimes the most unforgiving of stereotypical behavior.
Many of the stereotypes that have been used to belittle gays for so long do exist. However, as Chimamanda Adichie points out, it is not these aspects of our culture that are harmful, but the fact they have been used as the only story to describe us.
Challenging traditional gender roles and perceptions of sexuality are equally important issues in the fight for equality. We become our own worst enemies when we resort to placing values on one another based on concepts of traditionally masculine and feminine behavior, or worse, reject aspects of our culture because they have been used to harm us in the past. This perpetuates the idea that a certain type of gay man, a stereotypical gay man, is not only a terrible thing to be, he’s not even worthy of being accepted by his own community.
Thankfully, mainstream culture appears to be making some strides in this area. Positive gay characters who display some stereotypical behavior are being included in entertainment with greater frequency. Glee’s Kurt Hummel, Modern Family’s gay dads Mitchell and Cameron, and even DC Comics’ flamboyant out Teen Titan, Bunker, are all characters who embrace gay stereotypes as role models rather than existing for the sole purpose of providing a punch line.
Unfortunately, as long as we continue to create a hierarchy where being “too gay” is too bad, we’re standing in the way of our own progress. Before we can truly move forward, we have to accept the fact that there are many ways to be gay, including those that have been branded as stereotypes.
JASE PEEPLES is an Editor for Gay.net and a contributor for Advocate.com, Out.com, and She Wired. He lives in San Francisco with his partner.
Follow Jase on Twitter: @jasepeeples