Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Gays of Our Lives

What explains the right’s fear of homosexuality? The usual answers range from the religious (“they were just raised thinking sodomy is morally wrong”) to the psychological (“they harbor unresolved feelings of homosexuality themselves and fear they might say yes if propositioned by a gay man”). These explanations may well be correct, but they’ve always seemed a bit too ad hoc for my taste. The religious explanation in particular strikes me as a “theory of the data set” – a theory whose explanatory power is limited to a specific historical phenomenon, with no wider applicability or predictive power. Many religions do not condemn homosexuality with the fervor of the fundamentalist Christians, and many individuals have managed to escape the teachings of their childhood religions. Given these facts, it’s just too easy to say “religion makes them do it,” because then we need an explanation of why this particular religious view has had such influence and staying power.

These thoughts sprang to mind when I watched VH1’s “Totally Gay,” a retrospective on the influence of homosexuality on popular culture over the last 10 to 20 years. The show was surprisingly insightful for a VH1 filler piece, and a couple of its observations jumped out at me as potentially more fruitful explanations for the anti-gay backlash. They are probably not the primary reasons for anti-gay sentiment, but I wonder if they might at least play a part.

At one point, the show’s narrator said, “You can’t take the sexuality out of homosexuality, so the rising visibility of homosexuals has sexualized the culture.” Or something like that. And I think there’s a nugget of truth there. Unlike other marginalized groups like ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals are a group identified entirely by their sexual behavior or orientation. The growing visibility of such a group has got to have an effect on the sexuality of the culture in general. It’s pretty difficult to talk about homosexuality without talking about sex. It’s no secret that sexual humor and sexual situations are increasingly common in television and movies, and a lot of it has homosexual undercurrents (or overcurrents). Now, I’m okay with that, as are most people I willingly associate with: sex talk is fun! But lots of people are uncomfortable with sex, and for them this is an undesirable development. The anti-sex attitude most likely has religious roots, so maybe I’m back to the old ad-hoc “religion makes them do it” explanation, but with a twist. We don’t have to assert the existence of a pure “homosexuality-bad” meme within the religious structure; instead, we can view the homosexuality-bad notion as the consequence of a general discomfort with sex, combined with the empirical tendency of homosexual visibility to increase the visibility of sexuality more generally.

Another point made in the show was that homosexual norms vis-à-vis personal grooming, hygiene, fashion, and health have raised the bar for heterosexual men in all those areas. “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is only the latest instance of the phenomenon. One of the show’s commentators noted that when a buff gay man walks into a restaurant or gym, all the straight women’s heads turn – and the hetero men notice that. Straight guys have begun to realize that they look and dress like slobs compared to women’s gay friends, and women are now more likely to demand that straight men rise to the challenge. Before gays became prominent in pop culture, it was virtually unheard of for a straight man to get a facial or shave any part of his body except his face. Now, it’s becoming common – witness the “metrosexuals,” about whom I’ll provide no hyperlinks because they’ve been blogged to death already. Notice also that Maxim magazine, the quintessential magazine for the regular (hetero) guy, has now endorsed a line of hair coloring products. Point being, straight men as a group are having to meet higher standards because of the visibility of gay men, and some of them may resent it.

I’m hesitant to say that the expectation-raising effect explains the anti-gay backlash, because the straight men most affected by it are young single men of my generation and younger, a group that is not notably anti-gay. But it is, nonetheless, a real development that I hadn’t really thought about before, and compared to the usual reasons offered for anti-gay attitudes (which, as Julian notes, are so intellectually flaccid that it would be offensive to assume those who make them actually believe them), it’s a reason that would actually be marginally more rational. No one likes to be the victim of higher standards.

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