As we all know from watching Will & Grace, ten thousand similarly vapid/occasionally amusing (as in one small smile per two hours, on average) Hollywood rom-coms, and pretty much every "reality" show going, gay men and straight women are on excellent terms. We are bffs! Because a gay man has no interest in sleeping with a straight woman, he's capable of seeing her as a non-objectified "real person," meaning he's more interested in her mind/personality/soul than whether she's fat/skinny/big-boobed/etc. Having a gay male friend makes the straight woman edgy and urbane; she can share in his pessimistic wit without completely driving off the road of convention; she can get drunk once in a while without becoming an alcoholic. Meanwhile, the straight woman offers the gay man a voyeuristic window into the society from which he has been shunned, but deep down really craves, meaning the society of marriage and childbirth, of aristocratic privilege and intimate association with the men who actually run things. Together, they can enjoy traditionally "feminine" pursuits like fashion, intererior design, book clubs, musical theater, intense housekeeping, and whatever other trait/interest/hobby you can think of that would, if exhibited by a straight man, raise some eyebrows. They can laugh at the doltish behavior of straight men, their lack of sophistication, their slovenly manners, their love of watching sports, their naive optimism, and their emotional immaturity, while also recognizing the deeper truth that, despite possessing such flaws, straight men are the most desirable, the most loyal (assuming they can be tamed), the hottest, the most powerful, the most fuckable.
I'm obviously describing a cliche here, and one that may or may not have any bearing on our actual lives. The reason I bring it up, moreover, is not to mock real-life friendships between gay men and straight women, but rather to explore the social and political effects of the cliche, and specifically how it masks what I believe is a complacency that increasingly impedes both groups -- and especially women -- by leading us to believe that we are helping each other more than we actually are, particularly in the political arena. If there's one thing we genuinely share, it's the same wily enemy, who is actively working to hinder us in our respective quests for civil rights/equality, and worse, an enemy -- again, especially for women -- who has already succeeded in rolling back advances in ways that would have been unimaginable to earlier generations. What we are -- or should be -- fighting, in other words, is a cultural stereotype that works to inhibit or stall political progress, and until we expose the cliche for what it is -- basically a lot of bullshit -- we are pretty much doomed to continue our downhill slide.
Misogyny (hatred of women) and homophobia (hatred of gays) have long been twin helixes in the DNA of societal hatred. (I'm not saying there aren't other hatreds, but perhaps no two are as closely linked.) For purposes of this piece, I'm mostly leaving gay women mostly off the table, because the relationship between gay women and straight women is basically not discussed in a mainstream context with any frequency and so doesn't rise to quite the same level of cliche. (Much like friendships between gay men and straight men.) Mostly gay women are ignored, which is another big problem, or they suffer from a wide range of debilitating/stupid/offensive/dangerous stereotypes and cliches, which again will not be the focus here, but which isn't to say we shouldn't be conscious of this sort of thing when it crosses our radar screen and call it out for what it is. I'm sure you know what I'm saying.
Returning our focus to the gay man/straight woman relationship: as we look at the current political situation, straight women (or really, all women, depending on exactly what we're talking about) have the most to lose, just by virtue of having made more progress than gay men, who are like severely beaten dogs just beginning to explore the confines of our tiny little cage after decades, and possibly centuries, of shaking/trembling in the corner. Which is why of all the hatreds that seem to rip through our society with alarming regularity -- and especially during election campaigns -- the hatred of women is arguably the most demoralizing. While I tend to be more viscerally threatened or at least offended by the anti-gay rhetoric of the Republican candidates (although let's be honest: the Democrats with one or two exceptions are not exactly progressive in the arena of gay rights), as someone who grew up in the 1970s the son of a politically active feminist, it seems unfathomable to me that almost 40 YEARS after Roe v. Wade (and the introduction of the ERA), we are still arguing about basic issues related to women's reproductive rights and health care, and also witnessing how these rights continue to be threatened and chipped away.
There's a serious argument to be made that our country has been in a misogynistic tailspin since the (relatively) gilded era of the "Free To Be You and Me" 1970s. Maybe I'm being nostalgic here but I think the 1970s marked a highpoint in our culture -- at least for kids -- in which gender stereotypes were actively addressed and dismissed. At the time it was meant to be a starting point -- something that could have easily paved the way for a less homophobic culture -- but in retrospect feels like a lost opportunity; depressingly enough, there's more pressure than ever for girls to act "girly," and for boys to act the opposite of girly, lest anyone be accused of being gay, which we can attribute to 1) the conservative swing of the country at large, and 2) the homophobic backlash against the increasing exposure of (usually gender-stereotyped) gays. In terms of the plight of women in our culture, let's not even talk about the crazy body-image pressure to be basically anorexic, the continuing inequality of pay structures in the workplace, the lack of representation in almost all areas of power (economic or political), and so on and so forth. Really, there are probably a 100 different ways in which this sickness continues to manifest. I say this as a (gay) man, which automatically makes me an observer to some extent -- and my purpose here is not to come across as some kind of Kristoffian knight in shining armor -- although for the record, I consider myself a feminist, meaning that I believe in gender equality under the law, equal opportunity in society and the workplace, and the elimination of bullshit gender stereotypes that basically lead to nothing but misery except for maybe a small percentage of exceedingly powerful people and their braindead, idiotic followers, and even for these powerbrokers, I like to imagine them reaching a point in their lives when they look back at what they have wrought and go to the grave with a Lee Atwater level of my-life-has-been-cruel-and-empty regret.
All of that said, I'm not here to argue about whether misogyny is a serious, pervasive, and (as I see it) growing problem -- if you disagree, you might as well close your tab now (if you've even made it this far) -- but rather to ask the question of why, and how it arises (to some extent) out of the "bff cliche" discussed above. Seriously, what gives? After all, you could (simplistically, naively) make the argument that women are a demographic majority: ladies, why can't you just get your collective act together and elect some leaders who are going to pass laws to protect your rights? After all, we still live in sort of a democracy. I can tell you, if there were as many out gay men as women, we would not be arguing about marriage equality. (Half kidding.) The answer of course is that large swaths of women are no less misogynistic than their male counterparts, and worse, are often allied with them. As with any kind of prejudice, those on the receiving end of the stick are often their/our own worst enemies, which is sad and depressing, but understandable if you consider the psychological effect of being bombarded from the moment of birth with literally millions of images that reinforce the supremacy of the heterosexual (white) male.
The picture gets even more complicated because a large percentage of women obviously can't just "walk off the field" (sorry, sports metaphor) of "heteronormative society," but must engage with heterosexual men if they want to find a romantic/life partner (or even find one to have fun with between the sheets), which is a very understandable desire or possibly instinct as far as the human race is concerned. Much as I wish that 90 percent of people were gay, it's probably something closer to the other way around. To be a straight woman makes it a lot more difficult to say (in the way gay people do), "fuck it, I'm going to play in my own sandbox with my own people, who appreciate me and vice versa." (Although I've certainly met my share of straight women who have effectively given up on men, which is another sad story beyond the scope of this piece.) Which by the way is why I often look at young people and think: "OMG, I really, really, really, really hope you're gay because otherwise you're going to have a much harder time of it in terms of finding someone who loves you." It just seems so hard to be straight these days, with so much hatred clogging up the works. (I'm only half-kidding about this.)
On the other side of the coin you have the conservative men and their allies who are continually at work rolling back the clock of progress, and, disturbingly enough, actually succeeding. Where exactly are the women in their lives? I mean, we can assume that they all had mothers, and most of them have wives and sisters and daughters. It's not like the situation with gays (or ethnic or religious minorities), where it's very easy to picture Rick Santorum & Co. existing in a bubble where he has basically no personal contact with any kind of outsider. These are men who obviously (in the loosest sense of "know") know women and even claim to love them, which makes the situation even more demoralizing, because they're apparently incapable of making or unwilling to make the connection between the hatred imbued in their political stances and the manner in which they view the women in their lives. It doesn't seem like much of stretch (although it's sad and bizarre to consider) that they hate their wives (and mothers and daughters). If Rick Santorum or someone of his ilk had his way with the world, isn't it clear that women would be reduced to chattel, to be bought and sold the way it was done in the Dark Ages? Or really, when you hear some of these men talk about the vision of society, it seems to raise the question of why women (much like gays) should exist at all: I mean, if Google could invent a reproductive machine to clone Republican men (and a machine into which they presumably could insert their cocks, for sexual pleasure), that would solve all of their problems.
"I love my daughter, but I never want her to use contraception, or get an abortion under any circumstance. I demand that she have sex with only one man during the course of her entire life, and only for the purpose of procreation. My God demands this of me, and I am proud to be His servant." -- Rick Santorum/Mitt Romney/New Gingrich/George Bush (either one)/Ronald Reagan, etc. etc.
Okay, I'm obviously half-exaggerating here (or not quite half), but seriously, where does this hatred of women come from? Because we're not talking about a garden-variety fear of outsiders here, but something much, much deeper, something that's really the essence of hate, something that aims to dehumanize those with whom you not only come into regular contact, but whom you profess to love. We're talking about hatred undiluted by any element of empathy or compassion, the kind of hatred that twists you, that allows you to completely dehumanize another person, to really believe that they are soulless and judged or shamed or -- really -- enslaved. It's a hatred the spills over and influences others, or one that can be mined or drilled like a natural resource to fuel hateful campaigns.
Okay, in order to answer this question (meaning the question of exactly where the hatred arises), I think we have to turn to the story of the gay male, or at least this one. As someone who was in the closet until I was 30, I must make a somewhat odious confession: I can understand misogyny. I can still feel its vile pull. It's not an abstract thing for me. It's not something I'm proud of, but at least by acknowledging it, I can take steps to counteract it, to fight the impulse. It's very much like any kind of addiction: you have to own up to the problem before you can fight it. I also believe that my situation is far from unique, meaning that we are all misogynists -- and I don't mean just gays, but every single person in this country, male or female -- with the difference being that some of us admit it and take steps to address it and some of us don't, with the latter category (ironically enough) being the ones doing the most damage.
So where did this misogyny come from? (I should mention as a preliminary note that all of this was unfolding on a very deep level, underneath my genuine interest in and support of my mother's work for the women's movement. I can assure you I knew more about women's history than your average eight-year old at the time.) Nevertheless. It started when I was maybe eight or nine, or at an age when (like most kids, I believe) I first became what I guess you could call sexually aware or curious, at least in an amorphous sense. I'm not saying I understood the mechanics of sex (or sexual attraction) in anything approaching an adult manner, but the knowledge of this eroticism was there, along with an inclination toward or attraction for my own gender, or at least -- because I probably couldn't have framed it in those terms -- away from girls. I just wasn't interested in girls in the way that pretty much every single adult in my life told me I would/should be, which -- as much as I loved being around (certain) girls -- led me to be terrified of girls. Why did I have to "like" a girl? Why did everyone assume that it was inevitable that the day would come when girls would no longer be "gross" and that I would want to kiss one of them? Or more! That I would fall in love with a girl, that we could get married, and have children? It felt so wrong to me, and if that doesn't make sense to you, then put yourself in the shoes of someone who feels badgered and coerced into pairing off with a member of the opposite gender than those to whom you are naturally inclined; for example, if you're a straight guy, imagine how you would feel if everyone was like "oh, just you wait: you're going to fall in love with the perfect guy some day." You get what I'm saying, you're just not going to ever feel good (to say the least) about this scenario. I knew from a very young age that this boy-girl thing was not for me, and I also knew that I couldn't begin to explain it in anything approaching these terms.
Thus I was terrified. I was in a more-or-less constant source of anxiety about girls (except, interestingly enough, when I was in all-male environments like the locker room, where I spent a lot of time as a result of playing hockey). When I was "liked" by certain girls, and when informed of this via the usual gossip channels, I would feel my stomach fall through the floor at the thought that I would have to follow through in some way, unless I wanted to be considered a "fag" (which would mean having to kill myself): either I would have to "go out" with the girl, meaning I would have to "like" her back, or I would have to (dishonestly) concoct some reason why I didn't like her (dishonest because I would never be able to say the truth, which was that, sorry, I wasn't interested in any girl in that way), or I would have to engineer some opportunity to be cruel or aloof to the girl in question, with the hope that she would stop liking me. It was horrible to be cruel, but in my mind, the costs were too steep to resist, so I gave in. I'm not saying I was a bully (thank god), but if a girl liked me, I would avoid her or not look her in the eye and all manner of things that if you're on the receiving end of the stick make you feel pretty shitty.
All of this may seem like kids' stuff, and it is to some extent, but to the kids living it, it's deadly serious, and it also plants the seeds of adult hatred. Meaning this is when we really learn how to hate, how to be cruel to others, how to lash out because we can't express our true desires and emotions. These are the patterns we establish as children that influence us for the rest of our lives. What's really tragic is that I -- like most kids, I think, if left to their own devices -- genuinely enjoyed the company of (certain) girls: I wanted to be friends with them but -- at least after a certain age -- I was always painfully aware of the fact that these friendships would be tarnished by the murky question of exactly why I, as a boy, would ever want to be "just friends" with a girl, particularly if I didn't have a girlfriend. I'm not trying to say that girls were constantly throwing themselves at me or that I avoided girls en masse, but as will happen, I did become friendly with more than a few, some of whom (understandably enough, because I was being dishonest) could be counted on to like me in more than a just-friends kind of way, which was basically the last thing I -- like any other gay or gay-leaning boy -- wanted.
As time passes, the pressure only builds, meaning that these small acts of dishonesty and cruelty can accrete, so that as the boy enters adolescence and later becomes an adult (physically speaking), his frustration and self-loathing turns outward and he is basically filled with the worst kind of anger and hatred and pessimism about his prospects of ever finding someone he is able to love freely or openly. The man begins to wish women didn't even exist, which is of course a kind of loathing or hatred for women, or pretty much the definition of misogyny.
This is not a small or statistically insignificant problem; let's just say conservatively that for every boy/man who comes out (and begins to address the problem), there are two (or three or five) who never do, meaning they either become "bachelors" or -- in most cases -- they marry women with the hope that they can fake it until they make it (which never works); in other words, they succumb to the pressure to conform, which let's be honest here, coming out is STILL a very difficult and courageous act, and not everyone has the guts to do it (or like me, they wait until they're 30). Except these men are acting, meaning they're pretending to be in love -- and probably even forcing themselves to "make love" with their spouses -- which if you put yourself in the shoes of these men, it's pretty easy to see why they would begin to blame women (and thus hate them) for getting them into this hateful predicament. I'm not saying this hatred is logically defensible, or that they are right to blame women (or that these men are anything but weak), I'm just trying to show how and why the hatred appears, and as time passes, grows and festers. Let's not even talk about what it's like in countries around the world where "gays don't exist."
Even for boys/men who come out at 12 or 16 or 20, it still means that in many cases they have at a minimum literally spent years of their lives being terrified of girls, which (despite the cliche) often means that when they do come out, they basically want nothing to do with women, ever. You can note in this regard that the world of gay men is not surprisingly riddled with misogynistic impulses to denigrate men who "look" or "act" effeminately, which leads to many gay men basically trying to out-macho each other by, I don't know, lifting weights to oblivion, wearing flannel, watching football, and a whole host of other things that basically makes them seem like obnoxious frat boys, but for the fact that they happen to like sucking cock. I'm obviously generalizing a lot here and sort of joking (but not really), and I'm not saying that there's necessarily anything wrong with any of the above activities -- or well, actually, I do have a problem with investing a lot of energy in notoriously homophobic/misogynistic corporations like professional sports franchises -- but it's often part of a larger picture where gay men value stereotypically "masculine" behavior.
Recently my mother was telling me about some old friends of hers, specifically a couple and their three kids whom my parents had known for like fifty years, and who we regularly visited on trips through Chicago and vice versa, when they were passing through Pittsburgh. The father -- now in his 70s -- had long struck me as being sort of a conservative asshole, but at least was personable enough, like we all used to play poker together. Whatever, old family friends. As the years passed, however, he became filled with increasing amounts of rage toward pretty much everyone, using the N-word, railing against women generally (and worse, in front of my mother) and Democrats, hating on homos, listening to Rush Limbaugh, etc. etc. You've probably met men like this, or if you haven't, you're lucky. I hadn't given him a thought in many years until my mother mentioned that her friend (the wife, with whom she's remained close) had offered the theory that her husband of close to fifty years might be gay, namely because they hadn't had sex in like thirty years or something. Keep in mind that this is not a man who ever exhibited any stereotypically "gay" qualities: he was captain of his college football team, he was considered handsome by many, he had a good career (but one that eventually went south as a result of his anger issues), three kids, and so on and so forth; basically someone who has arguably enjoyed the best American society has had to offer, and yet is still filled with this incomprehensible venom.
I don't know if he's gay -- much less if he ever acted on it -- nor would I deny that there aren't other reasons why he might have stopped having sex with his wife and become a fountain of rage, but I think it's certainly a plausible explanation in his case, and one that must be regarded with nothing but certainty in regard to a huge number of men of every generation now living. We as a society, over the course of the past 150 years or so -- or longer than any person now living (who's not a vampire) -- have created a silent army of men who are filled with a bottomless well of hatred for women, just by virtue of being forced (or coerced, or self-coerced, or whatever) to lead loveless lives counter to their most basic instincts. Everyone wants to love, and when they cannot do so, it's only a short step to hatred. It's a scenario that's as frightening as it is heartbreaking.
Obviously not every hardcore Republican is a homosexual closet-case -- although there are obviously quite a few, as we're now learning in the age of internet exposure -- but the hatred these men feel toward women, which is rooted in homophobia, is so intense and so personal that it acts as a kind of catalyst or trigger or currency that can be harnessed for all sorts of politically nefarious purposes involving the acquisition or retention of political power. Once you've learned to view yourself (and women) through a lens of undiluted hate, it's not that difficult to turn it on others (or to be manipulated into turning it on others), whether that means women (for obvious reasons), or some other constructed villain or outsider like immigrants or ethnic minorities or whoever else. You are basically emotionally wounded, and looking for any kind of salve. (Which is why logic is irrelevant when Republicans appeal to the most conservative factions of their party.)
This is what I mean when I talk about a "currency of hatred." It's a kind of hatred that, once accessed and expressed (even in a general way), can motivate other men who (for whatever reason) are even remotely inclined to lean in this direction, so that basically you end up with groups of men scouring the country on the lookout for targets, which they will meet with a level of violence (sometimes sanctioned, sometimes not) that would be beyond the capacity of any single one of them. If you think I'm being crazy or extreme about this, just look into the relationship of the Nazi party in Germany with the thuggish stormtroopers or Brownshirts whose ranks were filled with homosexuals and who basically paved the way for Hitler's rise to power. (Although he would execute many of them in the "Night of the Long Knives.") I'm not saying we've reached this point in our country, but I'm also not about to concede that it's not a plausible scenario. I mean, the Republican party has gotten increasingly extreme over the past 40 years, and I see no sign of change in the near future. Clearly they have hundreds of millions of people who are still willing to support them.
Okay, so now that we've identified the source (or at least the homophobic component, which is not insignificant) of misogyny, how do we address it? The bad news is that it's not going to be easy, because we (as in gay men and straight women) have our own problems to worry about, which on the surface don't really seem to have that much relation to one another. It's kind of like when you're being punched in the face, do you really have the inclination to turn and defend yourself from a kick in the kidney, notwithstanding the fact that the latter might actually be more dangerous?
Admitting that we have a problem is going to be a big first step. We all need to look in the mirror and say, "my name is ___, and I'm a misogynist and a homophobe (not to mention a racist and probably ten other things implicit to being an American in 2012)" and then conduct our lives accordingly. Which is to say that we need to fight the impulse to treat someone according to the dictates of a stereotype or cliche; we must meet people with an open mind and a willing spirit, we must not make assumptions. We must recognize the fact that we are probably failing anyway, despite our best efforts, but resolve to try.
On a more practical level, it means that we STOP supporting cultural institutions that have notoriously propagated offensive stereotypes and cliches. I understand that most of us are all super-busy scraping out a living and otherwise getting through the day, but there are small steps we can all take, short of demonstrating in the streets (which is not to say demonstrating is ever a bad option). For now, here are some of my ideas, I'm sure you can add your own to the list I'm about to offer, pretty much off the top of my head: it means you don't watch professional sports in which there are no women or gay players. It means you skip the Oscars or any movie that fails the Bechdel test (meaning is there at least one scene in which two women characters talk about something besides a man?) It also means avoiding movies and shows that perpetuate stupid/offensive gay stereotypes. It means that if you're writing an article about Marlon Brando and his scandalous sexual history/appeal, you don't omit the fact that (at least at times) he was a non-heterosexual who freely admitted to sleeping with other men. Basically it means being very suspicious of anything Hollywood has to offer unless/until there are more openly gay actors, and not just straight ones "playing gay" for golden statues. This doesn't mean you have to be an asshole about it, announcing to everyone on twitter or tumblr that you're now officially anti-Oscar or anti-Super Bowl, but you can quietly leave the party and go for a walk, maybe take some pictures of flowers or something. I'm serious: set an example, if nothing else, be an advocate of quiet and peaceful revolution. I'm not saying there aren't great things about sports and movies, but at the highest levels, the corporations responsible for distributing these forms of entertainment to us (the masses) are riddled with problems on the homophobic/misogynistic fronts, and if you're not against them, you're with them.
If you're a woman, it means that you actively search out art (however you want to define it) written by and about gay men (or gay women), and if you're a gay man, it means doing the same thing with regard to art created by and about women. It's easy to become complacent, to turn on the television and watch another episode of Will & Grace (or its progeny), maybe even to think that you're going to enjoy it on an "ironic" level -- as if you're immune to the cliche -- but I'm sorry, you're not: nobody is. It's always worth taking the extra step to find the stories that are going to make you into a more empathetic, compassionate person. It means teaching children to do the same, because unlike adults, kids are even more susceptible to the allure of mainstream stereotypes, and must be taught how to fight back. It means being suspicious of any organization, no matter how big or how small -- even self-professed liberal or literary or Marxist ones -- that never seem to include works by gay artists. If gays are invisible in (almost) any forum, women are (also) being hurt: it's that simple.
I'm sorry if any or all of this sounds preachy or obvious, and I'm not saying that I'm even close to perfect or even expressing my thoughts that well, but I try to adhere to the above guidelines as much as possible. It's long past time for the cultural and political pendulum in our country to swing back toward acceptance and equality, and not just lip service. We can't really celebrate progress on the gay-marriage equality front if women's rights are being threatened; we can't celebrate advancements for women if the rights of gays are not being addressed at the same time (which even more than in the U.S. is a big and growing problem around the world). We have to constantly remind ourselves that the homophobic seeds of misogyny are very, very deep, and will require a sustained effort for many generations to overcome.
Basically, it's time to stop laughing at the gay man/straight woman cliche, which perpetuates the ridiculous notion that everything is fine, when in fact, it's not fine at all. We need to stop trading in the same currency of hatred that is so easy to recognize but so hard to stop when used by our foes.
Previously: The Suicide Impulse
Fiction: The Metropolis Case
'It’s to the credit of Matthew Gallaway’s enchanting, often funny first novel that it doesn’t require a corresponding degree of obsession from readers, but may leave them similarly transported: the book is so well written — there’s hardly a lazy sentence here — and filled with such memorable lead and supporting players that it quickly absorbs you into its worlds.
-- The New York Times
On sale at bookstores everywhere or order online.
The Internet Is a Mystic Cosmos
Read my gardening column for The Awl and my literary reviews for The Millions.
Music: Death Culture at Sea and Saturnine
Listen or download songs and records from my indie-rock past with Saturnine here and check out my new band Death Culture at Sea here.
Music Video: Remembrance of Things Past
Watch the rock opera Remembrance of Things Past written and performed by Saturnine and Frances Gibson, starring Bennett Madison and Sheila McClear.
Video: The Chaos Detective
The Chaos Detective is a series about a man searching for 'identity' as he completes assignments from a mysterious organization. Watch the first episode (five parts) on YouTube.