Friday, April 2, 2010

The straight-washing of America

This week, Ricky Martin confirmed that yes, he is in fact gay.  Which, of course, surprised no one.  So, while Ricky Martin's coming out was absurd, even more absurd was the fact that I've heard it being compared to Sean Hayes' coming out.  That's when I thought, Sean Hayes needed to come out?  What?  But, it turns out, Hayes had been demurring to questions about his sexuality since way back in the Will & Grace days.  So, is the problem with celebrities who improbably insist on their heterosexuality, despite all reasonable evidence to the contrary?  Or is it with media figures who badger them about their sexuality (as Barbara Walters did to Martin in 2000), forcing them into a queer Catch-22: their career or their integrity?

On balance, I'm not in favor of trying to "out" stars, because while I recognize the hypocrisy of their actions, I also understand that we live in a society where gay people are not treated equally, and definitely not in show business, so who are we to demand they bear that burden?  For stars who make their career playing romantic leads, or at least want to leave that open as an option, coming out can get them dropped from the shortlists for roles they covet.  As Autostraddle points out with a series of amusing info-graphics, coming out is a complex issue, with potentially huge career implications.  On the other hand, when stars outright insist they're straight, and produce fake boy or girlfriends to prove their point, isn't the media just doing their job by poking through the lies?  I hear Gawker, that at a certain point (especially for stars like Kevin Spacey and Queen Latifah, whose careers would likely not be impacted), the closet becomes a ludicrous sham.  No the problem isn't the stars or the media.  I think it's our ingoing presumption that people should be straight, therefore making it a big scandal if they don't produce an opposite-gender significant other for the media to fawn over.  Isn't it a little yucky that we need to dig, ask, poke, prod, when we should just be assuming a certain portion of the population, including the celebrity population, is gay?

A few months ago, NYMag had a piece about gay activist Larry Kramer, who is writing a book about how famous historical figures were gay.  Although the article teasingly notes that it's not possible that every historical figure is gay, I'd shoot back that it's not possible every historical figure isn't.  What we know about people's sexuality throughout history is mostly defined by the social mores at the time, not our own.  As a result, we have a straight-washed view of our own genesis.  Our view of the animal kingdom is straight-washed as well: this fascinating Times magazine piece tells how biologists never bothered to sex couples of birds; they just assumed one was female, and the other male.  When they actually tested a colony of Albatross, they found out a third of pairings were female-female, raising eggs apparently fertilized through quick copulations with male birds.

A lot of people reject the term "hetero-normative" as a criticism, because they say the hetero is normative, and should be.  But how do we know that?  When we look at the many documented instances of homosexual pairings in the animal kingdom, the sexual practices of civilizations we exult like the ancient Greeks, and the many, many gay people "appearing" all around us, now that society has given them a chance to be who they are, how can we deny that homo is normative, too?  It doesn't matter that more people like vanilla ice cream than chocolate, there's nothing extra-normative about liking chocolate ice cream.  Similarly, the new normative should be that a certain portion of the individuals we share workplaces with, watch on TV, and read about in history books are gay.  Moreover, this new normal is also the old normal, we just didn't know it back then (or worked harder to try to suppress it).

The other night, I watched the famous Errol Morris documentary, The Thin Blue Line.  The documentary is about Randall Dale Adams, a man wrongly convicted of killing a police officer in 1976, and is renowned for having resulted in the eventual freeing of its subject, after evidence against him was found to be falsified.  Amazingly, there was another clear suspect in the case, a 16-year-old named David Harris who had admitted to the killing, but fingered Adams to try to save himself.  The DA decided to pursue Adams because he was eligible for the death penalty, whereas Harris was not.  Adams had indeed been with Harris that day, but parted ways with him before the police officer was shot.  It became clear to me while watching the story unfold that Adams was gay, and that part of his reluctance to clearly document the time spent with Harris sprung from this fact.  Moreover, it also seems to have played a role in the police force and DA's eagerness to prosecute Adams, a queer drifter "corrupting" a local youth.  Morris declined to include this information in his 1988 documentary, and perhaps for good reason: Adams was still in jail, and revealing his sexuality could have jeopardized his life.  Nonetheless, I found the straight-washing of the story troubling--Adams' sexuality puts the zealousness of both law enforcement and false witnesses to convict him in a whole new light. 

That's right, wrongly accused criminals are gay, rightly accused criminals are gay, conservative politicians are gay, famous historical figures are gay, birds are gay, celebrities are gay, and so are more of your friends than you probably know.  Evangelicals seem to want to tell us that "gayness" is all around us, trying to corrupt our children.  Of course I don't believe in that last part, but they do have a point: We live in a big, gay world, and it's time we opened our eyes.

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