That's Entertainment: Oprah, Eminem, and
Homophobic Representations in American Media
February 8, 2005
By Max Gordon
is furious. Hearing his voice, I am reminded that the friends I've
had in my life have usually fallen into two categories, both extreme.
There are the ones who are in a panic because the light inside their
microwave just went out and do I know how to fix it; and the others
who call to say everything's fine now, but did I hear they were
in a near-fatal accident last month?
Adrian is of the latter; he gets on with things. Living with HIV
as black man, he refuses to engage, for even the briefest moment,
in self-pity; in fact the opposite: he is triumphant. I admire this
in him, not because of the HIV, but for how he responds to the adversity
it sometimes brings him. When Adrian calls, and sounds as he does
today, I know there is a serious reason behind it.
"It's Oprah." He draws a long, deep breath. "She just did a show
about married men having 'secret sex' with other men. It was outrageous.
So shame-based and vicious. Did you see it?"
I remind him that I didn't see the show because I don't have a
television. It was a decision that I made out of college never to
live with one again. I have a TV monitor to watch the videos and
DVD's I own, and in the kitchen is a football-sized mini-TV that
I received as a gift and keep for emergencies and the radio; on
a good day it offers two snowy, wobbly channels and a screen the
size of a piece of burnt toast.
I knew very well how a television could fill a room with warmth,
how it could absorb loneliness, but I chose silence instead, fearing
that once I turned on the damn thing, I'd never write a word. "You
can just shut it off when you don't want to watch," the TV pushers
would say, but from a childhood of incessant television-watching,
I knew better.
Unable to resist the Law and Order, West Wing, Sopranos,
Six Feet Under, Sex and the City conversations at
work or parties, I'd have to watch because, more than anything,
I just can't stand being left out. The TV would always be there,
beckoning, demanding to be turned on because I was "missing something."
It was bad enough when I was a child with a few stations; now there
seemed to be more channels than there were countries to visit on
the planet. (I'd spent one night at my sister's house and stayed
up watching her cable, locked in a trance until 4 a.m., and promising
myself I'd go to bed after one last 70's sitcom, news update, old
movie, music video, infommercial, unsolved mystery.)
When friends came over to my house and shamed me, asking incredulously,
"You don't even have cable?" I told them that I chose not to have
a television because I liked what happened in homes without it -
someone gets out a deck of cards, a songbook is carried to the piano,
a magazine article is read out loud or an interesting story from
the day recalled and rendered.
More honestly and to the point, I knew it wasn't an exaggeration
that, given my level of compulsivity, and the severe depressions
I experienced in response to my past and unsatisfactory present,
when offered the more compelling existences found on television,
I would be tempted never to leave the house again (an option many
of us might consider if not forced out of our homes daily by economic
circumstance). TV distracted me from the constant exasperation and
disappointment I felt towards myself and what my life had become.
Wasn't that what stardom and the obsession to follow famous people's
lives were about anyway?
In 1994, I was returning to the office after a dentist's appointment
and noticed a group of people standing in line. I'd been in New
York for only two years from Michigan and the city still held a
sense of possibility that anywhere or at anytime something could
happen that might change my life forever. When I asked a woman what
she was standing in line for, she said brightly, "The Ricky Lake
Had there been one more moment to pause I might have walked away,
but the line began to move forward, and with someone standing directly
behind me, I realized I was in it and on my way to my first taping
of a television show. I had only promised the office that I'd try
to return before the day ended, so I stayed in the line, waiting
to be instantly ejected after someone demanded a ticket and scrutinized
the look of unease on my face. It didn't happen.
I wasn't particularly fond of Ricky Lake, but having grown up on
school closings and days home sick watching The Donahue Show (I
learned more from his interviews with male crossdressers, housewives
who held sex-toy parties for profit, and Ralph Nader's consumer
tips, than from anything that was going on in my 6th grade math
class), I was fascinated by the possibility of seeing how a talk
show was taped.
Ricky Lake was no Phil Donahue (by the end even Donahue was no
Donahue) but a talk show was a talk show, and as we were led into
the studio, and I saw the cameras and empty chairs on the stage,
the crew prepared for the taping, I remembered again that I lived
in one of the major entertainment factories of the world.
I took a brief moment to approve of myself for having the temerity
to move to the City, despite the horror that had already bubbled
to the surface of my New York experience. So far, I'd been mugged
twice; the first time with my consent, as I allowed myself to be
ripped off by a "music producer" named Mr. Mike. He'd overheard
me singing as I walked past him on the street, told me my voice
was amazing and that he would do everything necessary to make me
a star, all I needed was two hundred and fifty dollars to get things
started. It took two meetings with Mr. Mike to realize that I'd
paid three hundred dollars for the privilege of drinking two cups
of coffee in a hot office waiting to meet another producer who was
never "in" when we got there.
My second mugging had been more severe: I'd been in an alcoholic
blackout at the time. In two years, New York had lost some of its
shine, and though I was wary of suffering another humiliation (the
ones I faced daily at work and riding the subway didn't count),
there were still new adventures to be had.
Ricky's audience was primed by a truly ghastly comic, reminding
me of fabled funnymen who, when presented to the King, knew that
a deadly fate awaited them if he was not amused. It was the first
of many macabre moments before the show even started. I was sour
already, having been escorted to a seat in the corner that was so
far away from any camera's range, I might have been backstage or
underneath it. I'd at least hoped that someone I knew might be watching
at home when the show aired and would see me in the audience. In
the end, I decided it was useless to sulk. It wasn't their fault
that I had walked in off the street. The others wore jeans, tank-tops,
high-tops, low-riders, and chains: I was dressed in a conservative
suit and tie, and my hair had begun to gray that year at 24. Compared
with the others, I was a grandfather.
The events of that day have stayed in my memory in a "did that
really happen or was that a nightmare I had" way. Some minor details
are harder to recall, while others rush to the fore with insistent
clarity. The comic's hysteria was intended to pump us up for Ricky,
who finally emerged to earsplitting applause and cheers, wearing
an outfit that strained credibility: she had on a Shirley Temple
good-ship-lollypop number, with a little "anchors away" flap on
the back that no one over the age of seven should ever have been
asked to wear. That was the first time it occurred to me that I
might be trapped - sitting the farthest from the exit, if I pulled
someone aside and told them I wanted to get the hell out of there
that instant, I was very likely to be told to sit down until the
The show was called something like "My Baby's Got a Secret" or
"Partners who Cheat." A woman named "Stacey," who came on stage
wearing an attractive pants-suit and shaking out her auburn, shoulder-length
hair, sat down and crossed her legs after we welcomed her. Stacey's
secret was that she had been having a lesbian affair behind her
husband's back. She told us bits of her story, and Ricky listened
to the details of the woman's affair with a concentration normally
reserved for quantum physics. A hand shot up in the audience and
Ricky rushed to it, extending an enormous studio mike.
"What I don't get," a woman said, obviously the mother in a mother-daughter
duo (they were wearing the same outfit), "is that you don't look
anything like a lesbian. You don't have a motorcycle helmet or big
shoulders, you're not tough or hard like a man, you know what I
mean?" The audience chuckled and Ricky turned to Stacey for a response.
Stacey smiled as if she'd been offered a compliment.
Throughout the taping, Ricky had been glancing over to the side
from time to time, and when I finally followed her gaze, I noticed
her offstage team; a woman with professional, no-nonsense-producer
glasses, two men in corporate suits who whispered to each other,
and another man, squatting with headphones, who held giant cue cards
and a black magic marker. The producer woman whispered to the techy-looking
man who quickly wrote something in oversized letters and lifted
the sign, "RICKY YOU MUST ADDRESS THAT WOMAN'S COMMENT ABOUT LESBIANS."
The conversation was onto something else, but Ricky interrupted
it, enunciating with great care, "I just want to remind everyone
after the last question that not every lesbian wears a motorcycle
helmet or looks like a man. That's a stereotype." She announced
we'd return after a commercial break, we were encouraged again to
applaud wildly, and Ricky's strained smile finally relaxed when
an official voice announced the taping had stopped.
She'd barely walked two feet before a woman ran at her, wielding
a make-up brush with the exuberance of a serial killer. Cords were
gathered, cameras slid across the floor, and people rushed around
in every direction, studying clipboards, checking sound and doing
TV people things, until eventually the announcement was made we'd
be back on in a few seconds. Despite myself, I was enthralled.
The make-up woman evaluated Ricky, turning her face this way and
that, until Ricky wrenched herself free with irritation. Hair restyled
and make-up freshly glamoured, she smoothed the front of her dress,
took her mike and her cards, and the countdown began. "And five,
four, three, two, one..." The assistant accidentally brought her
in at the wrong time and Ricky had started her monologue a few seconds
too early. Someone said, "Cut."
The sunshine leaked out of Ricky's face and was replaced by a smoldering
hostility. The woman, bent almost double, offered an apology. "I'm
so sorry, Ricky. We're going to have to do it again." Members of
the audience roared with laughter, not at the technical error but
the groveling, and a chant began making its way from the first row
to the back. "Yeah, Camera Lady, Lick That Ass, Lick That Ass!"
The woman walked off to the side with a look of mortification and
Ricky seemed temporarily mollified. I thought of lions and Christians,
the perversity of the human animal, and how much I despised us,
including myself, for what it took these days to entertain us.
Now came the moment we'd all been waiting for - the response from
the cuckolded partners. Stacey was with a man named Mike who came
out on stage. After brief applause the interrogation began: How
did it feel to know his wife had been with another woman? Was it
the same as if she'd cheated with another man? What did his friends
think? Did his family know? Mike squirmed in his chair, looking
too small and boyish in his suit jacket.
Despite the humor of it all, there was a storm cloud of despair
hovering over everything, threatening to break. I wondered how much
Mike was getting paid; he was probably wondering the same thing.
It might have been different if he'd been the "Sure my wife's getting
it on with another woman and I'm a little jealous, but come on,
you gotta admit the shit's kinda hot" variety of straight man, but
he wasn't. With his slightly unkempt blonde hair and the whiskers
under his chin, he struck me as a guy that might be bewildered to
find he was still bagging groceries at 26. There were other couples
on stage too; buffoonish, too loud and aggressively false, but Mike
and Stacey are forever imprinted on my memory, because of what came
Thinking there were no greater depths to descend to and that the
show had almost ended, I was dispirited to find out there was still
more. Ricky brought out her last guest, a "psychic" black woman
in a purple turban or towering, crushed Dr. Suess hat who was to
predict the future for each of the couples. I might have laughed
at the comic absurdity of it, the freak-show, three-ring circus,
show-stopping outrageousness of it all; but off to the side and
catching glimpses of Mike's face, I was starting to feel like a
bystander at a hit-and-run accident, or a drowning.
When the psychic got to Stacey and Mike, saved for last, she faced
the audience and admonished Stacey for her indiscretion, then leaned
over and spoke directly to Mike. Stacey's affair was definitely
over, she predicted, she wouldn't cheat again. And yes, she had
been wrong, but ultimately it was Mike who was at fault. The psychic's
accent was West Indian (of course) and she moistened her lips, unable
to resist the deadly deliciousness of her pronouncement: "If you
had been 'getting the job done' in the bedroom, my dear, Stacey
wouldn't have had to find a woman to satisfy her."
Mike's body went rigid. He sat bolt upright and glanced around,
as if he'd just woken up from a nap and found himself on the stage
of a national television talk show. The audience roared and stomped,
and he blanched. I couldn't decide what was worse, the show's creepy
message, Mike's humiliation, or the fact that the writers had been
too cowardly to have Ricky deliver it herself, but had sent instead
this Aladdin's lamp of a black woman, looking drunk and wearing
a broken umbrella on her head.
Once again, with a Coke and a smile, TV had bowled another strike
and with one show managed to knock down black women, lesbians, and
working-class white men, while leaving the rest of us to its nasty
payoff - a momentary condescension and superiority that we could
all enjoy, no matter how low the lives we returned to were when
we walked out of the studio or turned the channel at home.
The show was definitely over - maybe everyone sensed that in one
more minute Mike might have erupted and gone for Ricky or Ms. Lampshade
- and I was outside again, inches from where I'd asked the woman
why she was standing in line two hours ago. It took days to consider
exactly what I'd seen. What I did know was that I had an ominous
feeling about the new direction of TV talk-shows, and a sense of
dread for what was to come.
In March 1995, talk-show host Jenny Jones did a program called
"Secret Crushes." Jonathan Schmitz, 26, agreed to appear, expecting
his admirer to be a woman, not his gay neighbor, 32-year-old Scott
Amedure. During the taping of the show, Schmitz was told that Amedure's
fantasy was to "tie him up in a hammock and spray whipped cream
and champagne all over his body."
Three days after they returned to Michigan, Schmitz purchased a
12-gauge shotgun, went to Amedure's mobile home, and fired two shots
at close range into his chest. Once outside the trailer park, he
stopped at a payphone, called 911, and told the operator: "I just
shot this guy . . . because he fucked me on national TV. . . I just
walked into his house and killed him. He was after me day and night."
Although the defendants in the case argued that the show had no
reason to suspect that Schmitz would kill Amedure, and that Schmitz's
behavior and answers in a pre-show interview did not suggest that
he was homophobic or had the potential for violence, the lawyer
for the Amedure family emphasized Schmitz's history of mental illness,
particularly his prior suicide attempts, and what the producers
of Jenny Jones allegedly could and should have done to screen
him and prevent him from coming on the show.
Lawyer Geoffrey Fieger argued that the producers knew Schmitz did
not want his secret admirer to be a man. The talk-show world anxiously
awaited the verdict of the damages case: an Oakland County jury
awarded Amedure's family 25 million dollars. The case was later
appealed by the show's owner, Warner Brothers, and on October 23,
2002, a Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the decision. In June
2004, the Supreme Court denied the Amedures a final opportunity
In February 2000, actress Robin Givens took over the hosting duties
of a talk-show called Forgive and Forget. 17-year-old Charlene
Burkey appeared on the show with her boyfriend Larry Kieper. The
two were paid $135 dollars and their travel expenses to appear.
The episode was called, "You're 17, Quit Making Babies." On the
show, Burkey was urged by her friend Nora Ibrahim to leave Kieper.
During a heated moment of the taping, as reported by About.com,
Burkey slapped Keiper.
On the plane ride home, Keiper repeatedly referred to Burkey as
a "ho." The New York Post reported that three weeks later,
she was found lying on a Cleveland street bleeding from two bullet
wounds in her head. Kieper was not charged in the murder, but two
of his close friends were. Charlene Burkey died the day her appearance
on Forgive and Forget aired, and was survived by her two
In an episode of The Jerry Springer Show entitled "Secret
Mistresses Confronted," taped in May of 2000 and aired in July,
Ralf Panitz and his wife Eleanor Panitz accused his former wife
Nancy Campbell-Panitz of stalking them. The Sarasota Herald Tribune
reported that Campbell-Panitz was apparently unaware at the time
of the taping that her husband had remarried, and had been lured
onto the show in the belief that her former husband wanted to reconcile
CNN reported at the time that she arrived on the show only to be
confronted by her ex-husband and his new wife. Using the "gotcha"
element of surprise typical of "reality" TV, the couple announced
to Campbell-Panitz that they were married. They accused her of stalking
them, and Campell-Panitz walked offstage after the audience applauded
Eleanor Panitz for calling her "old and fat."
A few days after the show aired - not long after she told a judge
she feared for her life - Campbell-Panitz was found dead in her
Sarasota home. Ralf Panitz was taken into custody and charged with
beating his ex-wife to death, allegedly because of an ongoing property
dispute over their house.
Several months before my mother died in 1998, I used to beg her
not to watch Jerry Springer. I remember telling her during one visit,
"You might as well just watch a flashing screen with the message
'God is Dead' over and over again, Mom." She had a degenerative
bone disease that wasn't improving and I'd taken the "new-age" high
ground at the time, preaching that she wasn't going to get well
if she kept taking in so much negativity. I was insensitive to the
fact that as the disease had finally moved into her hands, and as
she was no longer able to manipulate a computer mouse or hold a
book, the only entertainment she felt was left to her was television.
I think Jerry Springer gave her immense pleasure, although she
would not have been proud to admit it: she'd finally lived long
enough to see white people debase themselves on television with
the wretchedness normally assigned to blacks. Lower-class whites
who might have been overheard uttering in their homes or trailers,
"I ain't living next to no niggers" now "niggerfied" themselves
before the world on national television as guests on Springer's
show. I tried to remind her with my college-politics arrogance,
exceeded only by my "new-age" arrogance, that white working-class
people were victims of the system too; but she was more interested
in the spectacle. "They have the nerve to call us niggers, and just
look at them."
Defeated, I sat on the edge of the bed and watched with her, trying
to supress my own fascination. That woman really slept with her
daughter's husband and had a baby, and now the daughter's husband's
child is really her own half-sister? After the relief and "jollies"
that always come from knowing there is a family in the world more
fucked-up than yours, I began to feel the pain again of watching
white and black people, morbidly obese, some of them without teeth
or adequate clothing, pulling each other's hair, throwing chairs,
cursing, lunging across the room, slapping each other, and making
violent threats as they were held back by family members or Jerry's
staff, while Jerry stood by with a feigned look of surprise.
I felt the same way watching boxing - I was an ultra-fag, a humorless
priss, who couldn't appreciate a good sport and see the talent and
glory of being a prizefighter. Instead, I could only focus on the
theater of two black men almost beating each other to death in a
ring while wealthy white people clapped, placed bets and ate hot
dogs. The Springer show was just another ring with spectators; poor
families beating each other over abuse, neglect and betrayals, mothers
and daughter fighting for the same man and crying while the audience
I remember thinking, It can't get any worse than this in America.
We're like a monster that eats its own babies. These people don't
need to be paraded as comedy for the rest of the country: they need
substance abuse and family counseling, they need jobs and food,
they need some goddamn dental work, for Christ's sake. Their crimes
aren't really incest, rape, infidelity or domestic violence as the
show would suggest - America doesn't mind those, really, if they
are done in private by people with wealth. Their crime is that they
are poor, and that they need attention or money badly enough to
let us exploit them.
Occasionally I'd encounter people who just loved watching Springer,
and who loved even more the look on my face when they announced
it. When I argued that the show was corrosive to the spirit, it
was suggested in veiled terms that I was a prude, a bitter nerd,
a killjoy. Besides, everyone knows that's how "white trash" acts,
and that they are getting paid. It's just a television show. It
never seemed to matter when I argued that the pain is real and that
we are exploiting it for pornographic thrills rather than offering
help. That people may be poor, violent, cruel to each other, and
desperate, they may even give up hope eventually, losing contact
with their dignity and becoming whores who sell their pain for someone
else's profit; but nobody deserves to be violated like that, even
if they do sign up and get paid. No one, whoever they are, is ever
trash. (There is no such thing as "black trash" in America
- the term would be considered redundant.)
When aging pop stars came out a few years ago to show how hip they
were by defending Eminem, they used his creativity and fame as jumper
cables for their own stalled careers. Those who were critical of
his music were accused of wanting to censor him or of being unable
to appreciate his "daring" brand of pathological humor. The only
conversation was about how brave or funny Eminem's music was, and
the discussions about the homophobia and sexism in his lyrics ended
there, eventually sealed forever with the gay stamp of approval
when Elton John performed "Stan" with him at the Grammys in 2001.
An artist isn't brave when attacking the easy targets: blacks,
women, gays - the underdogs. As America's stream of hate already
flows in that direction, there is no tension, no matter how hard
the beat or surprising the inventiveness. It is the ennui at the
core of most of our commercial art - the garden-variety fascism
and sleepwalking that some artists engage in when they take the
party line on oppression and choose to empower our hateful cultural
beliefs - that women and fags (anyone who resists patriarchal dominance)
should be dead.
The possibilities for social transformation and protest are lost
on an artist like Eminem, who will always have a place at the table
of patriarchy as a white man, but who also understands being "niggered"
in America, having grown up white and working-class in Detroit.
With an access that many oppressed people could never have, Eminem
can enter the "master's house" as a white man (a phrase used by
the great lesbian poet Audre Lorde), and "dismantle it" from the
I wanted Eminem to pick on someone his own size and direct his
awesome contempt towards one who really deserved it. (He eventually
did. The song "Mosh," Eminem's read on George W. Bush, is a masterpiece;
one white bully stands up to another. Eminem, as George W. Bush's
American son displaced by poverty, repudiates and rejects his father's
patriarchal war and his inheritance of racist world dominance.)
At the time of Eminem's earlier work, I waited for the conversation
about his CD cover showing his dead ex-wife extended from the trunk
of a car, while he and their daughter stand a few feet away near
a body of water, as he prepares to dump her corpse. In his song,
"Kim," Eminem engages in a "dialogue" with his ex-wife, Kim Mathers,
brutalizing her as she pleads with him for her life. Her screams
are heard in the background as he chokes her to death, saying, "Now
shut the fuck up and get what's coming to you."
If you come from a family where there has been violence against
women, as I have, or if you've read the newspaper in America even
for one day in the entire year, you've seen a headline about a woman
murdered by a husband, a boyfriend, or a son. And you know it's
only music on the radio, but someone is listening to that music,
and they are seduced by the great charisma of the person singing
it. And maybe it wouldn't ordinarily occur to you to kill your wife
on Tuesday, but after listening to the song and knowing there are
millions of copies of the mainstream CD in stores, where no one
even seems to flinch at or question a cover image of a woman who
has been killed because she's a pain in the ass to her husband,
it occurs to you on Friday that your wife is a pain in the ass too,
only this time you're drunk or high, and your wife who is screaming
at you starts to seem more and more like the bitch on that album
cover, and why doesn't she just shut up, why doesn't someone just
shut her up, why don't you just shut her up?
It seems an incredible connection: we are told you can never assign
specific crimes to cultural influences in the media, but we also
seem to live in a world where it's "just a movie," it's "just a
television show," it's "just a song"; and yet someone who was "just
a husband" just killed his wife and kids.
Watching television as a child, I could project myself into each
show, each family, as my own struggled with addiction, violence,
and isolation. There was no greater pleasure I knew at that point
in my life than to come home from school at three o'clock, get a
bowl of cereal and bring it totteringly, so as not to spill the
milk, to the television to watch Gilligan's Island or The
Brady Bunch. Even now, watching the DVD's of my favorite sitcoms
or catching an occasional re-run in a hotel or at a friend's house,
I can sometimes recall exactly what was happening in our family
during a particular episode of Good Times, All in the
Family, Sanford and Son, or The Jeffersons.
It is healing to see the shows again: I can bring an adult, nuanced
interpretation to episodes that I truly couldn't fathom or recoiled
from, because I wasn't able to understand the source of their anger
and cynicism, or the power of their critique. I wasn't aware at
seven years of age in 1977 that the country's trust had been devastated
by the assassinations of the sixties, the protracted war in Vietnam,
and - the final straw and breach of faith - the Watergate scandal.
Many of the shows of the 70's had the sass of authority disrespected
and an embittered desire finally to "tell it like it is." I can
appreciate now the character of Archie Bunker, and how his racism
and bigotry were exposed through his diatribes, but at eight I wondered
why that man was so "mean." Where did George Jefferson's contempt
for interracial couples come from, and why were Tom and Helen, a
black woman and white man who seemed happily married, "zebras?"
Why did Klinger on M*A*S*H always dress in women's clothes? As he
was the most "ethnic" looking regular on the show, was that about
the empowerment of crossdressers or the emasculation of a man of
Then there were the shows that had such a clearly adult sensibility,
the ironies sailed right over my head: Maude, Soap,
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I search now for the depictions
of homosexuality on these programs, and the decisions I made as
a child about homosexuals and about myself as a gay man, based on
On an episode of Sanford and Son, viewed more than a quarter
of a decade after the original aired on NBC, Fred and Lamont Sanford,
father and son junk dealers who are black, are paid to move a piano
from a white man's home. The man who has hired them wears a flowery
scarf around his neck and carefully coiffed gray hair. Upon their
entering his apartment he insists that they change into shoes that
he provides so that they will not ruin his antique Persian carpet.
Fred discovers that the man has recently divorced his wife to start
"a whole new way of life" and speculates to Lamont that the man
is "fruity," questioning him in an oblique attempt to find out whether
he is a homosexual.
Fred later overhears the man on a phone conversation to a "friend"
who he assumes must be the man's lover. When the man eventually
leaves the room, Fred, played by the comedian Redd Foxx, takes a
cigarette and enacts for his son a small pantomime of gay pretentiousness,
of what Fred imagines it must be like in the man's home on an evening
when the rest of his gay male friends are gathered for a party.
Gay actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein has said that he enjoys
the depiction of the "sissy" on screen, suggesting that a negative
portrayal of gays is sometimes better than none at all. The scene
from Sanford and Son is complex and, without question, problematic,
but I am also grateful for it. I know that Fred's curiosity about
the man is wrong-minded and based on a desire to trap him in an
admission of perversion, but there is more at work in this scene.
It is a working-class black man's characterization of a wealthy
white man he assumes is gay. Fred's impersonation is laced with
the bitterness of interpreting an affluent lifestyle he can only
access as a servant. (Fred: "This is a nice apartment. I wonder
how much the rent is?" Lamont: "What difference does it make? You
could never live here." Fred: "The Supreme Court say I can live
anywhere I want to." Lamont: "Well, you better get the Supreme
Court to pay your rent.")
When Fred tosses back his head and lies on the couch, he affects
the voice of an imagined party reveler; how he envisions a gay man
might respond if he were to meet a working-class man like him. With
his hand pressed to his chest, Fred's "gay man" draws back, startled:
"My goodness, how long have you been doing manual labor?"
I can't avoid the fact that my own internalized homophobia may
still allow me occasionally to laugh at a cruel gay joke, and I
am very aware that there are activists who will tolerate nothing
short of complete allegiance to the gay cause. But Foxx's portrayal
has truth to it, and a sting: whether this man is gay or not, he
is white and has privilege. His manner is supercilious and he treats
Fred and his son, although politely, like laborers. This may seem
an appropriate response - they are. It is only when one asks the
questions why certain people are laborers and certain other people
own antiques, and why a disproportionate number of the laborers
are black and the antique owners white, that the complexity of Fred's
homophobia and resentment may be understood in context. Ridiculing
the man's sexuality may be the only way to bring a rich white man
As there isn't an overabundance of white men on the show anyway
(with the exception of the un-cool, slightly precious cop "Officer
Hoppy" who, with his butter-creamed hairstyle, bumbled black slang
and verbosity, is instructed on one episode to "get a woman"), by
examining the ones that are, a common theme emerges: ridicule of
a white homosexual, at least on television, may be one way that
a heterosexual black man can reconcile the shame of "allowing himself"
to be victimized (feminized) by racism. By ridiculing homosexuality
and its perceived loss of masculine power, a straight black man,
menaced by the impenetrability of white male dominance, is provided
a point of weakness. His black male esteem is restored when contrasted
with the effeteness and emasculation of the white faggot. (What
the black gay man uses to "even the score" isn't as clear.)
White audiences tolerate the humiliation of the white gay man,
too, because of their conditioned prejudice, but also for reasons
of self-concern: the white "fag" character is offered as fair trade
for the way in which black masculinity is consistently denigrated
and imperiled in our culture. We are all too happy to throw the
gay white man (a man who by making himself sexually vulnerable to
other men has rendered himself, by patriarchy's standards, worthless)
to the black male "sharks."
The message to frustrated black men whose scales are tipping dangerously
towards rage and riot is, "You'll never have any real power, but
enjoy the illusory power of bashing this white gay man on television
instead," while discharging the potential for violence against "normal"
In a Sanford and Son episode the following season, Lamont
and Fred are locked in jail after being busted for mistakenly agreeing
to appear in what turns out to be a porno film. Fred finds himself
sharing a cell next to the film's director, a man with a shirt opened
to his waist, a hairy chest and carefully-layered blonde hair. The
stereotypes are at least diverse; he looks more like a rugged "San
Francisco" gay cupcake than the polished East coast "Hamptons" homosexual
in the previous episode.
Fred assumes the director is gay after he announces earlier in
the episode that Fred would be "delicious" in one of the porno film's
scenes. Later in jail, Fred asks for a cigarette; the man reaches
from the adjacent cell and, passing one to him, talks wistfully
of the loneliness of being incarcerated (he's clearly been in jail
before) and begins to stroke Fred's hand through the bars. Fred
refuses the cigarette and walks away, wiping his hands as if he's
touched something diseased.
I don't find this episode as amusing as I did the first. Watching
the brief scene again, I try to project myself back into my eight-year-old
sensibility. I am aware of my feelings of attraction to other boys
at this age, but inside I am still a straight boy, judging gay men
on television. I am not really straight, of course, but until gay
children are no longer driven underground by homophobic terror and
shame, all gay boys are straight until proven "guilty." Every gay
man has a conditioned straight boy in him and the homophobic teaching
this identity engenders, until he chooses to claim his difference.
(The conditioned inner straight boy continues to call him a faggot
for the rest of his life until he heals the dichotomy in his psyche.)
When I watch the episode through an adolescent boy's eyes I see
a drippy, perverted white man, a "fairy," who has a skin-crawly
voice and an obvious attachment to tragedy and victimization - a
man for whom I am invited to have pity and contempt. He is a prototype
of the older white men who will approach me in bars when I come
out of the closet at 19. I am unable to see their humanity, conditioned
already by television characters like this, and I am convinced that
it is impossible for them to see mine, as they project onto our
exchange the stereotypical representations the media has given them
about me - as a young man of color it is assumed I have an enormous
black penis, I'm always available for sex and I'm often referred
to as "dark meat."
After hanging up with Adrian, I try to get a video of Oprah's show
on married men in the gay closet. There is no video available, so
I buy the transcript provided online instead. It's worse - without
the images, quick editing and sexy colors of television, without
the mind-chatter about whether Oprah is still keeping the weight
off or what she's wearing today to keep one visually mesmerized
and to obfuscate the content, all I get are the words. It is the
second show within the last year that Oprah has done on the same
theme: the other dealt with men who have sex on the "Down-Low" -
a term for men who have gay sex and continue to stay in relationships
with women in the African-American community.
Having provided this chitterlings-circuit version of the show for
black women, the tone of this new Oprah show is a cautionary finger
lifted for white women who have been shaking their heads at those
sad black woman who, as usual, don't know where their men are, suggesting
that they might want to check their own husbands' e-mail accounts.
Yes, the rising epidemic of Down-Low sex has moved from the inner
city to suburbia, and white men are proving to be just as freaky
as black men are (if not more so). Stay tuned.
Oprah's show was titled, "My Husband's Gay." (At least someone
had the sensitivity not to include an exclamation point.) The show
begins with a psychological drum roll, Jim McGreevy's news conference,
as he announces to the world, with his wife standing by, that he
is a "gay American." It must be every married woman's nightmare,
or at least in the top ten; the public disgrace of a press-conference
with your husband where he tells the entire world that your marriage
is a "sham" and that he lied and "never really loved you at all."
From the opening moment there is an uncomfortably sensational aspect
to the show, of ugly curiosity and stinky things being held at arm's
length with pinched fingers. Oprah repeatedly uses phrases like,
"This is going to be very interesting for you at home watching,"
"You are going to like this show," and, "Millions of women are watching
the show today: some of them are going to find out today that their
husbands are gay," as she jacks up the horror. (I briefly consider
that Oprah's aggressiveness towards the topic, her desire to "get
at the truth," may have more than a little do with the tabloids'
speculation at the beginning of her relationship that her paramour
Steadman Graham was bisexual.)
The couples she introduces are suburban cut-outs; callous, insensitive
businessmen, with wives who had "no idea," women who are completely
victimized, thoroughly devastated. To add color and spice, a "real"
gay man is brought in halfway through the show, possibly shipped
in from New York or L.A; a real pro who's been around and educates
all on the realities of anonymous gay sex. He is used for lifting
up the moldy rug and revealing the scattering married gay bugs who
run for cover when exposed to the light - men who hook up for sex
with men on-line and on business trips, unbeknownst to their trusting
Our gay tour-guide David leads us through the scary terrain of
anonymous sex, showing a woman watching at home exactly how online
pickups work and the easiest ways to track her husband's computer
activity to find out if he is, in fact, a closet case who has been
lying to her.
I'm disappointed in Oprah, but it's not the first time. Criticizing
Oprah isn't easy: she is enormously personable, her great contributions
cannot be disregarded, and she has the deep affection and loyalty
of many. I know this from the few times I've suggested in conversation
that there may be a shadow side to the Oprah phenomenon and have
been instantly met with a murderous resistance, most of the time
by white people. I was amazed, the first several times I encountered
it, wondering where the absolute, uncritical loyalty came from,
and the great desire to smash a standing-in-front-of-their-face
black man to protect their mythologized, superstar TV black woman.
Everyone famous has to go through Oprah's pearly gates: actors,
athletes, authors, politicians running for President - she's become
the St. Peter of stardom. Yes, criticizing Oprah isn't easy, but
it isn't impossible, either.
When Gray Davis was being recalled as governor of California and
Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican challenger, faced myriad allegations
of sexual harassment, he appeared on Oprah, ostensibly as a favor
to Oprah's old friend and colleague, and his wife, Maria Shriver.
I thought I might never forgive Oprah. She, who had been a proponent
of protecting children from sexual violence and who had courageously
come forward early in her career about her own sexual abuse, seemed
like the last person to make an alleged perpetrator of violence
against women, especially women who were employed under Schwarzenegger
at the time, look like a warm and cuddly koala bear.
No matter what one's opinions about her, Oprah wields enormous
power and influence: the beef industry in Texas filed a lawsuit
against her because she said during a show on mad cow disease that
she would never eat a hamburger again. Cattle prices in some areas
I imagined the people influenced by the warm fuzzies from the Oprah-Arnold
chat; "Well, he might have grabbed that woman's ass, but I guess
if Oprah likes him, then he probably apologized or something, so
it's okay now." There was a greater danger, at the time, than just
having a groper for Governor: if Schwarzenegger did win the election,
a possibility existed that he might influence California to vote
Republican in the 2004 election. It is not clear what impact his
governorship will have on the election of 2008, or his attempt to
reach our highest office, if the law against non-native-born citizens'
running for President is changed in his lifetime. Whether Arnold
Schwarzenegger becomes the president of the United States may not
be Oprah's responsibility, but he did become governor, and a necessary
tension in his campaign was alleviated when he appeared on her show.
Although his responses to the claims of harassment weren't sufficient
for justice, they were good enough for the majority of voters in
Whatever Gray Davis' weaknesses before being recalled, his unseating
had all the signs of a Karl Rove "joint" - a Republican candidate
given a greater opportunity for election after a Democrat's public
disgrace and the subsequent manipulation of popular opinion. The
last thing we needed was a coffee klatch with Arnold on Oprah, and
it ended for me forever the perception that "Oprah's not political,
she's just spiritual." After that show and Schwarzenegger's
other television appearances, the enmity turned away from a Hollywood
star accused of believing he was beyond censure or the law, and
who had allegedly harassed and humiliated countless women, to the
women accusing him, who were now seen at best as bitchy, jealous,
couldn't-take-a-joke election spoilers, at worst liars.
I feel betrayed and yet possessive. I do not know what I would
have felt as a woman, but to me as a black man, Oprah was my black
mother, sister, friend, and she was supposed to protect and project
my reality as a black person in America who needed to resist a Republican
administration for my sanity, health and survival. It is only when
I watched Oprah on stage with Shriver and Swarzenegger that I remembered
what I so often forgot; having major wealth in this country is a
social identity too, one that is perhaps more binding and demanding
of loyalty than race or sex. In America, it is money and power that
form the ultimate tribe.
After the presidential election of 2000, I'd hoped for an Oprah
on the recounts, black voter disenfranchisement and what the election
results meant to American justice and democracy. More than 30 years
after the civil-rights voting act of 1964, black Americans were
still fighting the same bloody war for an equal right to representation;
the fundamental principle on which our country is based. What I
got instead was a show featuring first Lady Laura Bush as she shared
with Oprah's audience how much fun she was having picking out the
White House furniture in storage.
Halfway through the transcript, the sinister intent of "My Husband
is Gay" becomes clear: take titillated and terrified married women
who are afraid their husbands are no longer attracted to them, and
turn them into Nancy Drews, as they lurk around their homes determined
to find out if their husbands are homosexuals. Certain words and
phrases are repeated throughout the episode: The Death of a Dream;
Living A Lie; Secret Double Lives. Every phrase is uttered and announced
with the bold, capital letters of a potential trademark.
I almost expect to read to the end and find an announcement at
the conclusion of the show: For those of you who are really worried
about your marriage, try: "The Death of the Dream Secret Double
Life Closet Case Kit - For Wives Who Have To Be Sure." Simply add
this colorless liquid to your husband's mashed potatoes at dinner
time. If his lips turn blue, he's been sucking cock.
Something is very wrong here. Oprah's "gay men" engage in gay
sex, but they give off straight frat-boy vibes; they're braggadocios.
One of them can't wait to tell Oprah that he's had sex with a thousand
men. It's not that gay men can't be assholes, let's make that
clear (you definitely know at least one gay asshole if you've tried
to date in our community for awhile); but these guys are a particular
kind of asshole that only comes in "straight." One man admits that
when confronted by his wife who thought he was having an affair
with a woman, he blurted out savagely, "Wrong! I'm gay."
The show is kid's stuff: good guys vs bad guys. Courageous women
validated for their suffering, even though their "you go, girl"
host exploits that suffering right in front of their faces on national
television. Not one "hip" wife admits, "Please, Oprah, I knew he
was gay, but the house was beautiful, he was always buying me things
out of guilt, and when we went to bed, he left me alone, which was
fine with me. I stayed because I'm a greedy whore." Or, "I've hated
him for awhile, Oprah. Now I finally have an excuse to get the divorce
I've wanted for ten years." Almost every single relationship was
a perfect marriage, until homosexuality reared its head; dream-homes
destroyed by little gay termites. Before their Fall from Grace,
everyone on Oprah lives in Candyland.
The coming-out process has an alchemy to it. If gay people are
exceptional at all, it isn't because of whom we have sex with, but
what gets burned away in the crucible of having to say to the world,
"I'll stand up for who I am even if it hurts. I'm not going to hide
myself any longer." This is true for any closet, for anyone who
risks their comfort, or their life, to tell the truth.
Sometimes something extraordinary is revealed through this process
and we get a hero. Oprah's show is about a very real aspect of gay
life, the closet, but there is no history or context, no gay dignity
to be found here, not even a crumb. The men on the show may let
other men touch their penises for pleasure, but lesbian and gay
culture is also about Stonewall, Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, Essex
Hemphill, Paul Monette, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Harvey Milk,
Virginia Woolf. I envision Oprah letting Larry Kramer on the show
to talk about the politics of what it means to be closeted, married
and gay, for just five minutes. The show would be blown to bits.
LaTrice calls the next day and asks me if I've seen the same Oprah
episode. My closest friend from college, LaTrice and I call each
other once a week for BlackTalk, our ongoing "talk-show" where we
complain to each other and examine the craziness in the world each
week from a black gay perspective. LaTrice watched the last half
of Oprah, too, and describes to me the black lesbian who
was brought in five minutes before the end. "The rest of the show
was a mess," she says, "but you should have seen this woman. Her
eyes were so sad."
A lot of people fantasize about one day picking up everything
and starting their lives over somewhere else. LaTrice is one of
the few people I know personally who has stepped through the "looking
glass." Her life changed completely when she came out as a lesbian.
I attended her wedding and I spoke to her the day her divorce was
final, I saw her fall in love with a woman, leave a brand-new home,
the comfort of a marriage to a man she genuinely loved, and the
prospect of a larger family. Although she never had any kids while
married, she could be Nikki on Oprah's show, a black lesbian who
came out to her husband and family.
I watched LaTrice's heart break as she put life back together,
facing both the disappointment of family members who needed her
to be married more than she did, and the friends who seemed personally
betrayed and said she must have been crazy leaving a husband who
was a doctor. Knowing the great price she paid, the idea of seeing
her up there Oprahsized for living a "Secret Double Life," and being
responsible for "The Death of the Dream," makes me outraged.
There is another insult, perhaps the most egregious of all: the
absence of a psychiatrist or doctor, even a new-age guru, to give
the topic weight and raise it from the depths of hearsay and innuendo
to the level of serious psychological and therapeutic understanding.
Recognizing that we are dealing with the crisis of identity that
coming-out can sometimes bring to a life, or the pain of a twenty-year
relationship that seems suddenly unrecognizable after one sentence,
it would make sense to have a therapist or expert in the field to
These days, however, talk-show hosts are everything from medical
doctors to spirit guides just because they browsed through a guest's
book the night before or were briefed in a meeting by their producers.
In her interview with Anne Heche after the publication of Heche's
book, Call Me Crazy, Barbara Walters spoke with Anne about
her family abuse, her use of the drug Ecstasy, and the end of her
lesbian relationship with Ellen Degeneres. The book was offensive,
not because of Heche's interpretation of her own life, but because
of the title, the timing, and Heche's follow-up heterosexual relationship.
It was impossible, whether or not you read the book, not to take
from it that her relationship with Ellen had been little more than
an adventurous stunt, like bungee-jumping or the outrunning of the
bulls in Pamplona: "Hey, Call Me Crazy!"
Walters transforms during their television conversation from an
entertainment interviewer into a psychiatrist, in a scene that recalls
Joanne Woodward and Sally Field in Sybil, as Barbara coaxes
Anne to speak in the voice of Celestia, Anne's fantasy interplanetary
alter-ego described in the book. Anne hesitates but, with Barbara's
loving encouragement, finally begins to speak in a language and
voice that are a combination of a religious devotee speaking in
tongues, R2D2 from Star Wars and an adding-machine gone haywire.
The irresponsibility is extraordinary on the "My Husband is Gay"
show, but because it's about sex, and "deviant" sex at that, it
falls in the category of "Brad and Jen" or "Bennifer" rather than
family trauma and psychiatry. Anyone who has an opinion, however
ignorant or uniformed, can join the party. "Well, my best friend's
sister thought her husband was gay and..."
A woman uncovers the fact that her husband has sex with men after
searching through his e-mail, as the show suggests, and then what?
What if he decides he's not ready to be outed that day and chooses
to be violent towards her? (We're still talking about men here,
gay or not.) It takes sensitivity and coaching to come out of the
closet, and it takes perhaps even more sensitivity to drag someone
out and confront them on being a closet case. The show doesn't say
when it might be a good time to confront your husband on his sexuality:
as soon as he walks in the door from the business trip, or later
that night when he's in the shower, pulling his gay porn up on the
computer and leaving it as a screensaver to let him know the jig
The idea that a show on incest or sexual violence against children
would be treated as crudely ("Something is going on upstairs during
naptime and play dates! Do you know what is happening after school
at your house?") seems horrific and grotesque, but gay people, the
devastation that many of us have faced in coming-out, and the subsequent
pain in our families and gay suicides, are still offered as topics
with "sizzle." Our pain is commodified as we continue to be "othered."
One of the reasons we craved Oprah in the first place is that
The Phil Donahue Show had become intolerable; one had to
sit through all Phil's ticks to get to the guest. As he ran up and
down the aisles and threw the mike in the air, hands on hips and
eyes rolling because an audience member was taking too long to make
a point, but worse, when he stopped listening, the show went from
his sexy ardor and unique brand of white-haired feminine macho to
something unrecognizable and over the top; a one-man dance recital.
Then Oprah arrived - fat, emotional, folksy, and without pretension.
Her chicken-and-waffles accessibility, best-friend arm around a
crying guest, and home-permed, Woolworths glamour made Phil's show
seem as stylized as Kabuki theater. We were liberated: Phil had
become a Stepford host - but Oprah was "one of us."
To be fair: it could also be argued that as we became collectively
dumber as a nation and television audience, Phil pissed us off because
he was too smart for his own good even when he tried to dumb himself
down and go for the lowest denominator. He gave us too much grist
with our gossip. We jumped ship because we mistook Oprah's down-home
quality for a lack of intelligence, relieved to have a conversation
that was less rigorous; gossip, with real news tossed in occasionally
for flavor. This is evidenced by the hosts that came after; Geraldo,
Montel, Sally Jesse Raphael. Donahue, and his integrity, which at
least recalled for viewers the roots of journalism somewhere, however
stridently applied, disappeared without a trace.
Now I watch Oprah and wonder whom we will crave next. The
show is stodgy, submerged, gasping for air. The guests and the audience
are brought in to exemplify the point, no longer to shape it, and
no real conversation takes place. Oprah pronounces, heads nod. In
the end, even the transformations are rehearsed: there is no discovery.
Just because a black person or a woman is the owner and host of
her own show, it doesn't necessarily mean it is a "black" show or
that it defies a patriarchal, white supremacist standard. It may
still focus predominantly on the experiences of white America to
the exclusion of blacks, or have the bullying tone of a leader and
his "followers," as we are dominated by, and encouraged to fetishize
another cult figure as opposed to trusting our own power. It may
not be Oprah's responsibility to reflect black culture, but if there
are any aspects of American blackness that we can call African-inspired,
it may be the spontaneity and creativity, the great generosity in
African culture that sometimes trickles down to Africans themselves,
and people of African descent.
It was this generosity that originally attracted us to Oprah. This
love that many black people have (specifically women), becomes something
else, however, in its shadow - when it is attached to the threat
of social violence, poverty or a compulsive need for approval or
wealth. Our African gifts have always been mutilated and handed
back to us as pornography: our desire to rejoice becomes a minstrel
song; our sacred dance becomes a "buck and wing" on a vaudeville
stage; the pleasure of eating fruit becomes the bulging eyes and
rows of savage teeth of a picaninny biting down on a watermelon
wedge; our desire to comfort and heal becomes Mammy, who cares,
not because she wants to but because of the gun at her head, because
her children may be sold tomorrow.
Mammy's lap may be spacious, big enough to hold the entire American
TV viewing audience, but Mammy can never consider herself or her
children first. She is a creation based on terror and complacency,
as America exploits black female nurture for profit. In our post-Madonna
80's school of capitalist thought, it is easy to see why Mammy would
seem more empowering today, just because she also happens to be
one of the richest women in America and her own slave owner. We
are allowed to stay within the limitations of our prejudiced assumptions
as Mammy rocks us gently to sleep, never forcing us to wake up to
our own illusions, no matter how uncomfortable, about ourselves,
each other, or Mammy herself.
"The difference between Mammy and Mama," LaTrice clarifies at
the end of our conversation; "Mammy always reassures, but Mama won't
stand for it. Mama may comfort, but if she really loves you, she
ain't going to let you get away with shit."
What's fascinating about the black lesbian Nikki, who appears
with her mother at the end of the "My Husband is Gay" episode, is
that despite Oprah's catchphrases as she utters yet again, "The
Death of the Dream," an impossiblity occurs: Nikki's humanity comes
through, not because of Oprah, but despite her. She resists the
pornographic gaze that show's tone extends to her; she refuses to
sign the gay-shame contract. Nikki says to Oprah, "It's been a journey.
It's still a journey, but being true to who I am is most important.
I hope it lets my girls know that you need to stand up for who you
are on the inside." Winfrey thanks her and the show ends, because
it has to. Nikki isn't sensational or scandalous in a TV-oddity
way. She is a woman who has faced an enormous amount of pain and,
at the risk of losing her family and her children, makes a decision
to tell them the truth.
Although not "acting" on the show, Nikki achieves what some black
performers have accomplished through endless stereotypes and racist
representations of blacks in Hollywood films in the last century
- when black actors were imprisoned in the racism of a film, but
were willing to tell a truth in their performances which the movie
denied. Like Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey,
and many others of that time, the gay truth and dignity of Nikki's
"performance" shatters the talk-show's homophobic screen.
There is an urgent need for a discussion about men who have sex
with men and who lie about it while continuing to have sex with
women. With the rise in numbers of women becoming HIV positive,
and specifically women of color, it is a vital and lifesaving conversation.
But another equally vital conversation must also occur: there has
to be an understanding of why men and women have to hide their homosexuality,
why a man who is sexual with men but married to a woman, isn't a
"gay man" by default, but that there are different kinds of men
who choose to have male partners - that the man who decides to live
his life as gay and out, regardless of the consequences to his job,
his family and the potential loss of societal power is not the same
as the man who is married, has affairs with men and lies to his
We may need to find compassion for the closeted married man, the
gay man who is "out," and the wife, but compassion shouldn't keep
us from realizing the distinctions and nuances of each of these
identities. We must talk about men who are survivors of childhood
incest from a male perpetrator, and how male survivors of assault
reconcile a male rape that occurred in prison; how they bring this
experience back to their communities after incarceration and whether
this trauma is an example of "secret gay sex" or domination and
How do we categorize the men who have had consensual same-sex relationships
within that context, and, when released, return to relationships
with women or consider a revised sexual identity with no therapy
or support to navigate it? Are heterosexual men who visit transgender
prostitutes or enjoy watching transgender porn ("chicks with dicks")
gay, bisexual, or straight? New definitions are called for. Can
we expect to have an honest conversation about homosexual sex with
any man as long as our society perpetuates the idea that for a man
to be sexual with another man is an admission of weakness and an
abnegation of power?
The perfect guests on a panel of male "secret" sex may not be the
secret sexers themselves, but men who perpetuate war; Rumsfeld,
Wolfowitz, Cheney, Bush. Oprah could ask: why do you continue to
perpetuate a world-view of competition and war that keeps men ashamed
of discussing their sexuality openly or of expressing their gay
sexuality without hiding? Your war machine cannot fuel its tank
with the masculine myth if men are redefining their interactions
with each other, if they are finally willing to commit to having
relationships with men, gay or straight, that are nurturing rather
than violent and destructive. Do you understand that women and men
are dying because we can't have this dialogue, because men have
to hide their desire to be vulnerable or feminine to uphold a pathological
standard of masculinity and what it means to be a man?
When we get past the convenient distraction with which homophobia
provides us, we may be able to look at the sadder reality underneath.
If gay and straight men have nothing else that binds us, we do have
one thing in common: sex addiction. We are all men, regardless of
where we put our dicks, who are trying to compensate for low self-esteem,
our grief at having to compete with our fathers as boys when we
needed them to love us, and our terror of one day being considered
a failure. Hundred of sexual partners whether they are male or female,
may be less about a man's desire for "secret-sex," and more an indication
of his depression, feelings of inadequacy, and despair.
I don't presume to have the answers, but where there are no easy
answers, sometimes one has to content oneself with intelligent questions.
What seems most clear is that the topic of male homosexuality, covert,
deceptive, political, in the closet or heroic, deserves greater
examination that the "do you know where your man is tonight, ladies?"
It demands a rigorous intention, unlike Bill Cosby's shapeless
critique of the black community last year, when he "let blacks have
it" for being lazy, irresponsible, uneducated, and profane. A few
of his points had merit, but taken outside a context of the pathologies
of a country that continues to promote the social terrorism of racism,
lack of educational opportunities, no standardized health care,
and extraordinary poverty in the face of extreme wealth - all the
things that contribute to neglect, abuse, and families' being overwhelmed
- Cosby's "gift" to the black community was just the usual right-wing
jeremiad about poor black people "living off welfare." It was compelling
only because it was offered this time by a rich black celebrity
in designer sunglasses.
Similarly, a conversation about closeted men can't exist without
a sensitivity to the dynamics of retribution against a man who admits
he has male sexual partners and the cultural bias against him. In
a patriarchal context, a man who is gay is endangered in a way that
can be compared with, but differs from, that of women. Gay men still
wield sexist power, but they are also harmed by the consistent,
relentless attack on the feminine in our culture. This translates
on the crudest level to the constant threat of physical assault
to gay people, but we are also menaced by the way we are depicted
in mainstream media representations. In their psychological destructiveness
and cruelty, television's homophobic portraitures become time-release
murders: beginning with an eight-year-old child who watches the
faggot humiliated on an episode of Sanford and Son and ending
with the same gay man on the other end of a fatal hit of crystal
meth at 32.
I can't go back in a time machine and make my gay child not see
all the homophobic shows I watched, nor can I stop the child who
watches Oprah in 2005 as "gay men" exploit their hatred of
themselves on television, paid handsomely to whisper about their
"secret sex." An eight-year-old may not understand why these men
are eager to debase themselves on TV, and is probably confused by
the glaring contradiction of gay sex paraded for its repulsive glamour
and vilified, as the masses condemn gay people while hungering for
a spark of prurience from a gay sex story or tragedy.
I can't stop this boy from feeling shame about himself. But I can
be more forgiving of my own feelings of self-hate, the ones I can't
always put my finger on, but that seem, more often than I would
like, to inform my life. Like the roach rule - for every one you
see, there's a hundred you can't - these images, some more noxious
than others, are evidence in a lifetime criminal case against me
as a gay man: The United States vs. Homosexuality. The prosecution
is insistent on my guilt and the jury of my peers ready to deliver
their verdict and my sentence: a shame-based, disempowered, unhappy,
I can't know all that has been poured into my head about homosexuality,
but I do know that it came from so many places: relatives, family
friends, trips to the barbershop, whispered conversations on the
school playground, teachers, older children, magazines, movies,
the church, and TV. If I accept that the negativity is there, I
can begin the constructive act of deciding on some new beliefs about
my sexual identity, ones that no longer destroy or violate, but
empower and sustain. I can finally work to create the life that
I want as a gay man, knowing that a healthy self-esteem is not going
to mysteriously fall from the sky into my backyard.
Just like the radioactive meteorite that dropped into the lagoon
that time on Gilligan's Island. Remember?
Visit Max Gordon's blog at http://maxgordonworks.blogspot.com.