Friday, January 19, 2007

Setting the Record Straight...Again

A few weeks ago, I saw a video on YouTube titled "Setting the Record Straight...Again". The responses to this video were surprisingly civil and the resulting discussion has been interesting.

Some viewers assume Clay is living a lie, deliberately deceiving his family, friends, and fans. Others blame agenda-driven media for perpetuating baseless scandal around the inaccurate caricature of Clay Aiken as a campy gay diva. Those who insist Clay is gay often reveal telling reasons for their beliefs, based on offensive sexual stereotypes and personal prejudice. Many who believe he is straight are looking beyond the headlines and simply taking him at his word, something any honest person would desire.

The purpose for the video is to present Clay Aiken's own words instead of "they say" and rumors. I believe every person has the right to self-identify. Making a man's name into a punchline on the assumption he is lying about his sexuality is wrong.

"Clay Aiken" has become a sort of sneering media shorthand for "closeted homosexual". In my opinion, the many punitive attempts to "out" him amount to sexual harassment on a shamefully wide scale. Any good man deserves better, gay or straight. Celebrities must prove "malice" in court, which makes collecting libel damages difficult, even for very offensive stories.

Sexual bigotry is a societal weakness. Should anyone, whether celebrity or private citizen, gay or straight, be treated with disrespect based on reckless and invasive presumptions about their sexuality?

And what if there is no closet?

Since 2003, Clay Aiken has answered "the question". Isn't it time to accept his answer?

Sexual Prejudice

Over the years, I've known that "homophobia" didn't accurately describe the sentiments and behavior of those who are uncomfortable/hostile about or toward homosexuals. I knew the attitude was usually not an irrational fear (phobia), but there didn't seem to be an acceptable substitute term.

The other day, I found an article by Dr. Gregory Herek, which provided a better term.

He writes:
Scientific analysis of the psychology of antigay attitudes will be facilitated by a new term. Sexual prejudice serves this purpose nicely. Broadly conceived, sexual prejudice refers to all negative attitudes based on sexual orientation, whether the target is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. Given the current social organization of sexuality, however, such prejudice is almost always directed at people who engage in homosexual behavior or label themselves gay, lesbian, or bisexual (Herek, 2000).

My note: Or merely perceived to be non-heterosexual, whether this perception is accurate or not.

Like other types of prejudice, sexual prejudice has three principal features:

* It is an attitude (i.e., an evaluation or judgment).
* It is directed at a social group and its members.
* It is negative, involving hostility or dislike.

Conceptualizing heterosexuals' negative attitudes toward homosexuality and bisexuality as sexual prejudice – rather than homophobia – has several advantages. First, sexual prejudice is a descriptive term. Unlike homophobia, it conveys no a priori assumptions about the origins, dynamics, and underlying motivations of antigay attitudes.

Second, the term explicitly links the study of antigay hostility with the rich tradition of social psychological research on prejudice.

Third, using the construct of sexual prejudice does not require value judgments that antigay attitudes are inherently irrational or evil.

In my previous blog, I wrote that sexual bigotry is a societal weakness. I asked, "should anyone, whether celebrity or private citizen, gay or straight, be treated with disrespect based on reckless and invasive presumptions about their sexuality?" I believe the continual public and media bashing of Clay Aiken and other celebrities who are perceived to be gay is a symptom of the pervasiveness of accepted sexual prejudice in our culture.

Case in point:

Today, I saw a video on YouTube where Jake Gyllenhaal appeared on Saturday Night Live. He said he had agreed to host on the condition of "no Brokeback Mountain jokes." Then, predictably, he proceeded to do just that. In the audience were two men dressed as cowboys. Jake asked if they are gay cowboys and one of them said, "No, just regular cowboys." But it was clear the audience was to presume they were, in fact, gay men. Jake said that "Brokeback Mountain" meant a lot to him and that he wanted to do something special for the fans of that movie. Jake put on a wig and adjusted his clothes to reveal a sequined evening gown, performing a parody of "And I'm Telling You" from "Dreamgirls". The camera revealed the cowboys swooning and screaming and "acting gay" in the stereotypical way that comedians tend to portray gay men. The lyrics include the lines:

You're the best man I'll ever know.
There's no way I can ever go,
No, no, no, no way,
No, no, no, no way I'm livin' without you.
I'm not livin' without you.
I don't want to be free.
I'm stayin',
I'm stayin',
And you, and you, you're gonna love me.
Ooh, you're gonna love me.

I wasn't sure why I felt offended until I realized I was thinking Jake should have known better. "Brokeback Mountain" was a sensitively told story of two men who could not love each other openly because of the sexual prejudice of those times. Jake's character died as a result of this sexual prejudice. And yet, after being personally involved in such a film, Jake still felt it was appropriate to facilitate a mocking skit about gay cowboys?

By his actions, Jake also implied that a man dressing in drag, singing a song about loving a man, was something the fans of "Brokeback Mountain" would "love to see me do". Really, Jake? Why is that, exactly? Who did he think liked that movie? What does he think "those fans" of such a movie must be like? Were any of the characters in that movie, including his, portrayed the way the audience cowboys behaved in his skit? Did any of the characters in that movie dress in drag? Of course not. So, did he learn nothing?

Undoubtedly, there were some fans of the movie, both gay and straight, who enjoyed his in-drag parody and who thought the stereotypical gay cowboys were funny. I didn't find Jake's performance particularly funny or enjoyable because I feel these stereotypes marginalize homosexuals as effeminate by definition. Society seems to have very narrow ideas of "masculine" and "gay" which were caricatured in Jake's skit on Saturday Night Live. Any man who does not fit certain rigid criteria for masculinity become a target of speculation and derision, whether he is actually gay or only perceived to be. It seemed to me that Jake was trying to distance himself from that role by saying in effect, "Look, just because I played a homosexual in a movie doesn't mean I am one." I wonder why he did that?

Sexual stereotypes fuel the kind of public and media negativity which has plagued Clay Aiken since the launch of his career. Because he is perceived to be gay, but says he is not, he also bears the added stigma of hypocrite and liar. If he were actually gay, the harassment might not be as furious, because then it would be politically incorrect to denigrate his sexuality. But because he is perceived to be closeted, he is fair game. Some who are determined to "out" him with rumors and lies insist they would leave him alone if he would only came out.

Every individual should have the freedom to self-identify without pressure from the public and media to comply with some arbitrary sexual standard. Brutish, coercive tactics are unfair to anyone targeted this way. Anyone deserves better, gay or straight.

And what if there is no closet?