About 16 months ago, Michael, my best friend since age six, told me that he was gay. He knew I had no problem with gay people in the abstract, but he also knew that I, 16 years old and from Georgia, had scarcely interacted with anyone of alternate sexual orientations.
Nothing changed; Michael is still my best friend. What troubled me, however, were the stories of bigotry he experienced growing up, of which I had only been peripherally aware. Only with his reminder did I realize just how liberally the word “faggot” was used all throughout elementary and middle school. In eighth grade, our health teacher basically told us that LSD would turn you gay, as it would make you suddenly want to make out with other men. The class responded with the requisite disgust and mutterings of “so gross,” thoroughly alienating the kids who might actually be attracted to the same sex.
Fortunately, our peers slowly became more tolerant, and there was little hostility when Michael came out midway through senior year. Unfortunately for me, however, some of our classmates suddenly wanted to be best friends with Michael, solely to show how tolerant and open-minded they were. To them, his presence was a novelty. We joke now that they treated him like their pet. Yet, while this group of people was so interested in showing everyone how liberal and free-thinking they were, one girl presented me with an odd observation: “It’s so funny. Of the two of you, we all thought you were the more likely to be gay.”
While I may disagree with how they arrived at their conclusion, I understand what they meant. Michael is muscular and athletic, while I’ve always been scrawny. At the time, he was also more reserved than I was. Stereotypically, gay men are interested in arts and theater, whereas straight men excel in athletics. Straight men are supposed to be brusque and gay men are expected to lead conversation. Taking this either consciously or unconsciously, everyone would target me before Michael.
In prejudging us both, our peer revealed her belief in the very stereotypes with which she supposedly disagrees. Deciding who can who can’t be gay based on appearance inherently involves reliance on the social constructs that, in the past, have only been used to degrade and demean LGBT men and women. A man with a high voice is only considered gay because the discussion around homosexuality originally relied on gross misconceptions that gay men wanted to be women. Enemies of gay rights used to be the ones who openly acted on these notions, socially alienating those men, whether they were gay or not. Now, though, even gays and allies act as though they are entitled to make these decisions about people. What previously might have been called “discrimination” is now simply “gay-dar.”
The snidest judgments I’ve seen have come from gay men at Georgetown. Someone I knew used to look at the Facebook photos of my friends, tell me which ones of them were gay (despite never having met them), and proceeded to call the ones that weren’t openly gay “faggots.” Although this is an extreme case, this person felt justified because he somehow “knew” that my friend was gay, and that he is deigning to gay people everywhere by not being open about it. And he knew that just from a picture.
People like him often forget that there are many who have legitimate reasons for not coming out quite yet. One person I know comes from a conservative, evangelical family. He may wish that he could come out, but he knows if he did, his parents would refuse to pay for his education. Sneering at someone like him for remaining in the closet is completely unjustified. While being true to oneself is a high goal, I hold education above it. Anyone who seems gay but is not out could be in a similar situation, and we can never know enough about everyone’s personal circumstances to make any sort of judgment.
Further, gay-dar is a fully one-dimensional concept. It puts people into two categories—straight or gay—despite the spectrum of human sexuality, which includes bisexual, transsexual, and asexual, among others. No one considers someone’s outward appearance and says, “he’s so bisexual.”
Another friend of mine at Georgetown happens to be bisexual. Although he is not ashamed of his identity, he is not openly bisexual. So, when his peers saw him kissing another man at a party they automatically assumed that he was exclusively homosexual. Bisexuality was never considered. Even though lip service is granted every letter in LGBT, many only seem to pay attention to the first two.
The paradigm in the gay rights movement has been to empower homosexuals to come out to their family and friends, and this goal has largely been accomplished. Gay communities exist across the United States, and the stigma of being gay has been highly diminished. Still, people never seem to consider that men and women who exhibit certain stereotypical behaviors could be something other than exclusively homosexual, or not even homosexual at all. This attitude is the same one that alienated gays and lesbians from their communities in years past, and should not color discussion of sexuality in this country.