‘My taboos, your taboos. Why we don’t talk about them, but probably should.’
The new taboo: how to be a ‘proper gay’
As representation of the LGB community grows, and the taboos around being open about your sexuality begin to disappear, there are new taboos to overcome. As marginalised groups become part of mainstream society, the pressure to fit in can affect many LGB people negatively. This article explores the reasons why, drawing on the author’s own experience and interviews with several cisgender gay men.
The strangest thing about coming out as a gay man, at least when you’re a cisgender “straight-acting” white man, are the back-handed compliments. “I’d never have guessed”; “You don’t act very gay”; “Do you do drag?” While my personality and fashion sense have evolved over the years to the extent that I doubt many people now would be surprised by my sexuality, the point remains that I don’t necessarily fulfil the societal stereotype of how we expect gay men to act. I have never attended a Pride parade; I have never done drag; I squirm if required to discuss sex in public – although this may have more to do with being British. In short, I don’t live up to certain expectations.
Western countries are experiencing a period of unprecedented LGB representation. The issue of trans representation is a more nuanced one and can be explored in greater detail here. Award-winning movies like Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight have served to lift the taboo around queer narratives, or the perception that gay movies would not be watched by everyone. Gay public figures have become normalised and it is no longer seen, as Rupert Everett once put it, as career suicide for a celebrity to come out. Equal marriage has been passed into law in many countries. Of course, I enjoy unprecedented privilege as a gay man in a Western country in 2019. And yet, the taboos have not gone away – instead, they have subtly shifted. Both within and outwith the queer community, there are new rules and norms around being gay – and new taboos.
‘The right kind of gay’
Representation is undoubtedly on the rise. However, the fact is that the representation is of a certain kind of gay figure. The gay characters who we see on our screens or who are championed in society are largely cisgender, white and male: on US television, for example, over 55% fall into this category, according to a study by GLAAD. Often these characters are played by heterosexual actors. Additionally, outside of the media, many of the influential LGB figures we are aware of in the media also fulfil these “normative” requirements, from Owen Jones to Stephen Fry. One gay man I spoke to discussed this type of gay men entering the mainstream as “assimilation”; as if they wanted to fit in without their sexuality becoming their defining factor.
Of course, figures as non-conforming as RuPaul and Jonathan Ness can also be embraced by society – but there is still evidence that in order to be taken seriously, gay figures need to be heteronormative. I believe that in Western societies, memories of the initial AIDS scare and ongoing association of homosexuality with paedophilia are too recent to be completely removed from the collective consciousness. However many gay friends we have or however many gay figures there are on the TV, the ones who we will trust to entertain our children or decide on our laws are those who are largely indistinguishable from heterosexuals. The taboo is not to do with being gay now, but to do with being “the right kind of gay”.
“Eine schwule Erfahrung”
And so those who cannot or do not want to live up to heterosexual norms are ostracised still further – and how do they react? In her seminal 2018 Netflix comedy special Nanette, queer Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, overwhelmed and unable to relate with the energy and vibrancy of Sydney’s Pride parade, quips: “Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?” There is an expectation that comes with the label of homosexuality: sexual promiscuity; left-wing political views; an association with party drugs or the gay club scene. On a recent trip to Berlin, when I explained that I was not planning to spend most of my time in gay clubs or seek a one-night stand, I was asked by a friend why I didn’t want to have “eine richtige schwule Erfahrung” – “a proper gay experience”. The idea that anything I chose to do which did not fit these stereotypes was not “richtig” has stuck with me, because I didn’t have an answer. Explaining that I was simply not that kind of gay felt like a taboo.
In other words, although there is more tolerance than ever before for the gay community, the rejection of certain parts of gay culture has led to some parts of the gay community to remove themselves entirely from society. One gay man I spoke to commented that if he could not be accepted with full acknowledgement of his campness, sexual preferences and political views – without having to portray a watered-down version of himself – he would rather simply spend most of his time with fellow members of the LGB community.
As times change, so do taboos. Writing as a gay man a few short decades ago, I may have chosen to devote this article to the controversy around homosexuality itself; around the discrimination levelled against queer folks every day. This is undoubtedly still a problem which needs to be addressed by contemporary journalism, not least with regards to the more than 70 countries of the world where homosexuality acts are illegal or not recognised and, closer to home, the skewed social problems which LGBT+ youth experience even in the UK. While these problems still exist, discussing them is at least on the table in contemporary Western countries. The greater taboo which I, and many gay people, experience on a day-to-day basis is not about being gay – but about being “the right kind of gay”.
You can see my short video introducing myself here.