Thursday, January 28, 2010

Funny, I Forget You're Straight All the Time

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great response to Chris Matthews' "I forgot Obama was black" gaffe gush, that however sincere and good his intent, it reveals a mindset with a limited idea of 'blackness.' That idea doesn't include things like leadership and so when Obama exhibits such a quality, that Matthews 'forgot he was black' reveals his own narrow expectations.

This may be a misreading (one of the discussions in the comments section is about whether Matthews meant to say that Obama is such a natural leader that we don't pay attention to his race, that we now just think of him as 'the president' as opposed to 'the first black president'), but it reminds me of experiences I've had as a gay man living amongst 'normal' folk.

I was in a strange closet limbo for much of high school and my first few years of college. My second year of community college I came out to a few close friends and then opened it up further after my third year. The thing is, hardly any adjustments were made by either me or my friends. My personality is what some would call "straight-acting," in that I don't have any femme qualities, I don't talk in a lisp, etc. etc. Even after coming out, about the only thing that would clue outsiders in besides a double male symbol pin I wear to easily communicate my orientation is that I make a lot of really raunchy gay sex jokes. And whenever I would come out to somebody, the typical reaction was of the "Oh wow, really, I never would have guessed!" variety.

I always took some pride in this 'hiding in plain sight,' that I didn't fit the typical gay mold, and even considered myself in some ways superior to the queen bitch types in not letting my gayness define my identity (an attitude whose dissection is worthy of its own post). But occasionally I would hear something to the effect of, 'you're the coolest gay person I know,' a statement which needs some unpacking: whoever it was that said this to me almost certainly grew up and lived in rural Idaho, and so his experiences with gays, period, was extremely limited, probably as much as Chris Matthews with black people.

One of his readers cites a similar experience:

I remember (and I realize the vast difference between this and what African Americans experience, but it's the closest I can get) when I lived in Israel and people would rail at me about Americans and I would finally say "But, I'm American," and they would say "Oh, you're not really like an American!" and mean it as a compliment. Dude, don't tell me that your ability to get over yourself with regard to who I am reflects well on me.

Everyone has a pre-conceived notion of what constitutes gays, blacks, Americans, gay black Americans, what-have-you. These stereotypes are a product of both unfortunate reality (lots of gays are twinky queens, poverty and crime are a constant presence in black America, and Americans and American foreign policy can be really belligerent and obnoxious), and a blinkered perception--in part supported by a lazy media--that accepts these, the most visible examples of a given group, as the norm, if there even is such a thing, and in the process reduces anyone we come across who doesn't fit our 'normal' template to an easily-pigeonholed 'other' with a stock set of expected characteristics. These traits may prove false or irrelevent the more one gets to know him. Put more simply, a rural Idahoan will meet a flamboyant gay man and see him as a flamboyant gay man, with whatever baggage is implied, before the sees him as a person. My own temperament allowed me, when I was still in the closet, to bypass that prejudicial wall, as a sort of Trojan Horse, after which the person may be forced to reevaluate his notions of what a gay man was (perhaps this is how I justified my air of superiority).

This all comes back to the problem of 'the norm.' Everybody's is different. A native-born Kenyan is born into homogeneity, a middle-class black may not be, and an inner-city black will be born into a homogeneous environment that is still outside that. Though the demographics are changing, there still is a heterosexual WASP majority in this country, and this is reflected in the makeup of our politics and our media, often to an extreme extent, to the exclusion of minority representation. I can only speak for myself, but when I see any number of advertisements with a white, straight couple, it's just background noise. The norm. If, say, a beachside hotel ad featured a gay couple instead, it would stand out precisely because it's out of the ordinary. I came of age with no "gay community" support, and as a result I still socialize almost exclusively with straight people--the gays I meet I are usually incidental, through Theatre or some other mutual interest. So removed am I from the gay community that I actually view the idea with some antipathy, that gays should make more efforts to integrate into mainstream society instead of insulating themselves in clubbing ghettos. That's awfully harsh, but it's my perception, shaped by my limited 24 years of life experience in Idaho. I try to keep that contingency in mind, as I think Chris Matthews did, trying to articulate what Obama means to a white man of his generation.

The takeaway question, I suppose, is: are we ever, especially in a country as geographically and demographically large as ours, going to settle into a more nuanced idea of the mainstream, or are we going to be constantly having to renegotiate our own conceptions and blind spots?


  1. are we ever...going to settle into a more nuanced idea of the mainstream, or are we going to be constantly having to renegotiate our own conceptions and blind spots?

    I would argue that the contant reevaluation of the latter is the very process that will lead to the nuanced ideas of the former.

  2. I should hope so. The diversity of our diversity--which is to say cosmopolitan urban vs. homogeneous rural demographics and everything in between--would seem to discourage any total mainstream consensus, but maybe there the national media has a role to play in normalizing minorities (let's just not think about Fox News' attempts to exploit the fears aroused by these reevaluations).

  3. hey ben I heard you were gay. confirm/deny?