I recently watched a pair of YouTube videos in which a young man, MarkE Miller, asked people (one video girls, one video guys) on a college campus essentially if they thought he looked gay. Now, at least part of the point of the questions and the videos were to create awkward situations. At that, Miller was certainly successful. However, he also seemed to be attempting to judge people’s attitudes toward homosexuality. He seemed to be happy with the responses, but I was much less impressed, though I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why until rereading a section of Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner.
I do want to be clear that the videos were made for fun. His methods were certainly not scientific. In the course of the two videos he asked different people different questions, with no demonstrable methodology as to which questions he asked, but the questions strongly influenced how the people he was questioning responded. Some of the questions he asked were “Based on appearances, would you say I’m gay?” “Do you think I’m gay?” and “Would you believe me if I said I had a boyfriend?”
I had a mixed reaction to the questions themselves. Part of me appreciated that Miller was fighting the stereotypical image of a gay man. Part of me was frustrated because just asking if someone looks gay reinforces the connection between homosexuality and appearance, when sexuality and gender expression are not the same thing.
Everyone he asked the third question said “Yes. Why wouldn’t I believe you?” However, almost everyone he asked the first two questions said “No.” Four guys did say “Yes” or “Maybe.” Three of them said they were gay themselves.
Miller seemed to think that his videos had positive results because most people, after they said no, he doesn’t look gay, and he revealed that he is gay, said that it was fine or some variation of that sentiment. I agree that it is good that no one cursed him out, called him a sinner, or told him to go to hell. Whether or not everyone was telling the truth, that overwhelming verbal support/acceptance/tolerance/indifference does say that the majority position is that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality. It shows progress, certainly.
But the initial “No” from everyone except three gay guys shows how far we still have to go. Why wouldn’t anyone else say “yes?”
A couple guys explained why they answered “no” by saying, “I don’t judge people like that.” But thinking “no, you don’t look gay” is a neutral answer is in itself a judgment of what is or isn’t ‘normal.’
The quote from Bi that explained my frustration with the videos is, “Even in regard to cisgenders, research shows that it’s ‘easier’ for people to identify male than female features, meaning that the default ‘visible’ person in our culture is male ‘unless proven otherwise.’ Concurrently, bisexuality as an identity is never presumed since it is always a deviation and never a default (or even an option).” With this, Eisner is saying that people always assume a person is part of a privileged group (her examples are male and straight) until proven otherwise and that this default assumption further marginalizes all other groups by refusing to acknowledge that they exist.
What these videos illustrated most clearly to me was that the default ‘visible’ person in our culture is still straight. Regardless of how far the LGBT rights movement has come, especially for gay men and ignoring how far behind lesbians, bisexuals, trans* people, and queer people of color lag in terms of rights (to name only the other most recognized groups under the queer umbrella), in mainstream consciousness homosexuality, and queerness in general, is still a deviation.
If the term ‘gay’ wasn’t considered an insult, if being gay wasn’t a deviant identity, if it was as fine to be gay as it is to be straight, if people didn’t assume everyone was straight until proven otherwise, people could and would respond to the question “Do I look gay?” with a “Yes.” And it wouldn’t matter if that answer was wrong. We aren’t there yet.
But if we stop when saying “Yes, you look gay” means as much or as little as “Yes, you look straight” then we have still fallen short. After all, what does gay look like?
It doesn’t look like anything, the way straight doesn’t look like anything. Both gay and straight people come from every walk of life. What we look like is more a reflection of the culture and subcultures we belong to and our gender expression than it is a reflection of our sexuality.
This links back to my mixed feelings about the questions the young man asked in his videos.
There seems to be an interesting and somewhat tense intersection between the desire to dismantle stereotypes about what a person who is gay looks like and the desire for homosexuality to become a ‘visible’ identity, an identity that is so much part of mainstream culture that no one assumes, as a default, that another person is straight.
What we need to remember is that ‘visible’ identity doesn’t mean that the moment a person who is gay walks into the room, everyone else knows he is gay just by looking at him. It means that the moment anyone walks into the room everyone knows that person could be homosexual or bisexual or pansexual or asexual or heterosexual, regardless of how they look, and no one assumes anything about their sexuality based on appearances.
In the end, while I want people to be able to answer the question “Do I look gay?” with a confident “Yes” and have the asker receive that response as a compliment, the answer that would really show progress is “I don’t know” or even “I don’t understand what you are asking.”
Featured Image from Cheezburger.com