No One “Just So Happens” To Be Gay

This piece was originally published at Spook Magazine on April 24, 2015.

It’s the bold new trend in marketing the homosexual: incidental gayness. It might even be the new party line. “I didn’t want to play a gay doctor,” an actor might say. “I wanted to play a doctor who just so happens to be gay.” After so long spent fighting for the right to live openly as LGBTQI people — a fight which in so many ways has only just begun — our representatives in media are suddenly defining themselves by their ability to be backgrounded. Is this progress, or just the new shame?

“[His sexuality is] just part of his identity and is assumed. We wanted to make a film about a mathematician who happens to be gay — not the gay mathematician. That was always the goal.” That’s screenwriter Graham Moore talking about his script for The Imitation Game, the slick Alan Turing biopic. Moore — who identifies as straight — here spouts a line that has become remarkably common as more and more actors, writers and directors are called upon to explain why their gay characters should matter.

In his 2014 book Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, Harris includes a letter written to him, purportedly, by Perez Hilton. Hilton writes: “You are a successful and extremely talented actor, singer, father, and lover — who just so happens to be gay.”

In 2013, when it was announced he had been cast in HBO’s now-cancelled Looking, Russell Tovey said: “I really want to do it properly… Not someone who’s gay and miserable, dying of AIDS, secluded, a bit weird. I want to play someone who’s normal and just happens to be gay.”

None of these people have anything but good intentions. But the fact that they are all men — Harris and Tovey both gay — indicates that there’s a certain level of reflexive shame to these comments. For a long time, when LGTBQI people turned up on television or in film they were purely tragic characters, often winding up evil, dead, or both because of their sexuality (the gay villain archetype was perfectly skewered by comedian James Adomian on his album Low Hangin Fruit). The last 20 years have proven television to provide the most egalitarian form of populist queerness, with portrayals of gay people advancing via flawed but significant stepping stones like Ellen and Queer as Folk.

It’s important that the wider public know that many LGBTQI people live or desire to live their lives together just as any other couple would. But it’s just as important — perhaps even more so — that portraits of our lives exist beyond that.

This line of incidental gayness feels like a backlash against the negative portrayals of the past. As the gay rights movement has locked its sights on achieving marriage equality — a victory more or less in motion, at least in countries politically stable enough for it to be a possibility — it has also had to double down on the post-AIDS crisis marketing of the mid-nineties. A lot of this has involved putting the gay characters of the past at a kind of ironic remove; indulgence and mockery of stereotypes has become the same thing as being forced into them. The Jacks of Will & Grace and Stanfords of Sex and the City have been supplanted by the Connors of How to Get Away with Murder and Kevins of Looking; the Elton Johns and Carson Kressleys pushed aside in favour of Neil Patrick Harrises and Matt Bomers.

Whether or not this is a good thing is, in part, a matter of perspective. To many, this shift will likely appear as a much-needed sorting out of priorities in relation to gay presences in the media. What it is, in fact, is a narrowing of the field of vision. The march towards marriage equality has been a popularity contest, the crux of which has amounted to Gays: We’re Just Like You!-style relational politics. It’s important that the wider public know that many LGBTQI people live or desire to live their lives together just as any other couple would. But it’s just as important — perhaps even more so — that portraits of our lives exist beyond that. If the fantasy endgame of gay rights is legal equality and something resembling the end of discrimination based on sexuality, then the assimilationist approach is never going to be enough. It can be useful to ‘pass’ as straight for various reasons (most often safety), but it shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.

This is where things get tricky. The LGTBQI banner is often criticised for its unwieldiness, but it shows just how broad a church the queer community truly is. It also proves that the image of two-dads-two-kids/two-mums-two-kids is not the beau idéal it might have seemed to be, say, at the height of the debate over Prop 8. The desire to construct a picture of gay normality is exactly that: a level of artifice LGBTQI people are ultimately trying to escape. That this normality is usually presented as white, gay, cisgender men who generally adhere to traditional notions of masculinity adds several extra wrinkles to this discussion.

This extreme swerve away from effeminate gay men in particular seems to be a fairly standard overcorrection. The most prominent gay characters at the turn of the millennium were Will Truman and Jack McFarland of Will & Grace. In recent years, the character of Jack has frequently been decried as a negative, stereotypical portrayal of gay men on the grounds that his camp, theatre-fanatic femininity amounted to caricature. Will’s general goal to pass for straight — occasionally necessary in his career as a lawyer — is part of the foundation for the dominant vision for what gay men should look like in pop culture and beyond. Jack’s waywardness and aspiration to be an actor, combined with his over-the-top, energetic femininity, became a negative image by presenting gay men as something that couldn’t be taken seriously: unaccomplished, silly, and worthy of ridicule. But the show is underestimated; it takes both Will and Jack’s personalities and behaviours and supports them entirely. The series’ humour utilises their sexuality as a point of difference, but ultimately laughs at the way the heteronormative society they live in fails to accommodate them on their own terms.

The “just like everyone else” notion is a fantasy, just like the world we all envision where coming out is a thing of the past. Such a thing just isn’t within reach.

What criticism of Will & Grace tends to ignore is that both Jack and Will were fully-formed people, with dreams and desires and varied emotions. Yes, Jack could be bitchy and effete, but his performance of his sexuality was very much in line with reality just as Will’s was. It’s not untrue that effeminacy is a stereotype, but simply labelling a character stereotypical on this basis is incredibly superficial. There’s a lingering, often misogynistic desire to judge or shame other men — gay or straight — for a perceived inability to live up to essentialist masculine ideals. These judgements are helpful to no one. The stereotype that gay men are effeminate came about because for so long the feminine has been codified as weak and other; it’s only reinforcing that kind of archaic thinking to dismiss gay characters — and gay people — for their effeminacy. With the steady march of diversity on TV and in film continuing, we’ve moved past the point of needing to see every portrayal of a gay man as representative of all homosexuals. You can have an artistic, flamboyant gay man like Felix on Orphan Black as well as a rugby-playing aspiring entrepreneur like Dom on Looking, and neither is any less valid a depiction of gay life for being different from one another. Representations are complementary, not oppositional.

What the “happens to be gay” line does is assume that sexuality has ceased to be a performative part of LGBTQI people’s lives, when that remains incredibly far from the truth. Fear of public affection remains ingrained, while a European advocacy group recorded roughly 226 reported murders of trans people between October 2013 and September 2014. The “just like everyone else” notion is a fantasy, just like the world we all envision where coming out is a thing of the past. Such a thing just isn’t within reach.

The desire to construct a picture of gay normality is exactly that: a level of artifice LGBTQI people are ultimately trying to escape

This kneejerk assumption that effeminacy is only a stereotype keeps rearing its ugly head. For all of Modern Family’s problems, that Desperate Housewives actor Tuc Watkins recently called Mitchell and Cameron “a little bit like the gay equivalent of ‘blackface’” is both an offensive falsehood and a startling accusation. A recent episode of sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, which featured its lead female character being visited, and unable to detect, the obvious gayness of her college boyfriend (played by gay actor Rex Lee), received criticism for the character’s feminine qualities. As Louis Virtel smartly put it:

I think slamming gay characters as “stereotypical” is a coward’s way of saying, “I’m uncomfortable acknowledging that many gay people have specific personality traits in common.” Well, guess what? Many gay people have specific personality traits in common. Some of us think that’s a great, life-affirming thing. We’ve fought for gay characters on TV to be out and real, not just strategic avatars designed to feel “cutting edge.”

If I had to pathologise complaints like Watkins’, I’d say that it’s perhaps the lingering spectre of the closet we all struggle to shake off. Many gay people spend the first long chunk of their lives denying or suppressing their sexual desires and grappling with their sexual and gender identities, such that by the time they finally overcome the external pressures that create those conflicts, their freedom manifests itself as a desire for social distance from their sexuality. But as popular as the “being gay doesn’t define me” line is, it also misses the point. Gay people have never gone unrecognised as something other than a walking avatar of their sexuality; the challenge has been expanding what those other traits could be.

This is the beauty that being LGBTQI offers: the freedom of self-identification. The reality is that for decades, gay stereotypes were defined solely by conspicuous behaviour. The stereotype of the effeminate gay men with sibilant speech patterns became a stereotype because less overt performances of sexuality weren’t as visible. Nowadays, these less visible personae have drifted towards a middle-point labelled ‘normal’, when really they’re just part of the larger tapestry of notions of gender and sexuality. For all this fighting to be able to live openly as who we are, it’s strange to turn around and say that sexuality isn’t one of our definitional components.

The aim of LGBTQI representation in media is not to create an appealing, hetero-centric notion of what non-normative sexuality is. The idea of “good gay representation” is increasingly defunct, hinging on an antiquated dichotomy of stereotype versus reality. When Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt depicts a black, gay, aspiring musical theatre actor, it’s showing us reality. When Faking It portrays a popular, intersex girl in high school, it’s showing us reality. When Sirens writes one of its characters to be an asexual woman EMT, it’s showing us reality. An African-American trans woman in prison on Orange is the New Black and a middle-aged Jewish trans woman in Transparent both show us reality. These sexual identities don’t reflect stereotypes because they’re essential parts of the rounded, human characters these shows have put forth; none of them “just so happen” to be who they are.

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