The Media, Gays and Lesbians, and Stereotypesby Beverly Greene
Author's Note: The word "media" in this article refers to any form of spreading information, which includes television, print, radio, and word of mouth.
We grow up learning different kinds of mental short cuts in many forms, one of which is stereotypes. We utilize this type of thinking in order to help us access a situation or a person so that we can feel more confident about knowing what we are dealing with. Unfortunately, this also means that we may think negative things about people without knowing them or anything about them. Take for instance someone who "looks" or "acts" gay. We have all accessed someone on TV or on the street as "family" just because of what they are wearing or how they talk or walk. Of course, we never know for sure if our gaydar, as it is called, is correct or not. We like to flatter ourselves into thinking that we can tell such things about other people without ever really getting to know them.
I think we are all influenced more than we would care to acknowledge by heterosexually oriented beliefs and ideas. We all, male and female, grow up with the "Barbie doll" dreams. We are told by our families, our societies, and our medias that in order to be attractive to the opposite sex and thus get that happiness, fame, fortune, and life that we all grow up wishing for, we must look a certain way and any deviation thereof will cause us to forfeit our right to that claim. Somehow, we all internalize this and place these ideas on all around us as well as ourselves. We end up with people who are racists, sexist, homophobic, and scream degrading statements at overweight people, especially women. Why? Because someone who does not fit the molds that we found in our childhood games, nursery rhymes, and Saturday morning cartoons can not possible be "right" as a person, including ourselves.
When we are growing up, we all dream of being a movie star or a rock star, or for some ambitious children, both. But, until recent times, there were no black or homosexual stars shining on our TV, other than in the trivial way that we treat those who don't fit the mold. Anyone who thought about it could see that there were no fat people in the commercials or in our favorite Friday night sitcoms, unless they were for comical purposes. All the wives were in the kitchen cooking dinner as their husband came home from a hard day at the office in his business suit. Even today, it is not all that common to see a black actor as the lead in some commercial or television show, especially when there are white people in the background. The most common roles for black actors were as servants to some rich, skinny, beautiful, white family. We learned the place of certain types of people from these images and ideas.
When I was growing up, the only gay people on TV that I knew about were The Village People and Boy George. Consequently, I believed that all gay men wore costumes and/or tried to appear female. I began to think, like most people that all gay men wanted to be women and all lesbians wanted to be men. I wonder now if they weren't marketed more as modern day side shows rather than musical talents. Hollywood did it's best to cover up the sexual identity of some of it's leading men in shows that I still grew up with even though they were already reruns, such as Bewitched. Darin didn't fit into what we thought a gay man should look like, so no one suspected that he went at nights to his man.
When I was growing up, we watched the shows our parents watched, so we were still influenced by the same things they were influenced by. I only saw black musicians on black shows. Even then, a lot of times the dancers where white. All the women were wives whose husbands took care of them, got them out of trouble, and took control of all situations. Look at Lucy. She only had one job, the infamous chocolate sorting job and she couldn't even handle that. Ricky told her what to do and she had to have his permission to do almost anything, or else she had to hide it from him. One wonders if he was her husband or her father.
I never saw a lesbian on TV either. All lesbians I heard about were in jokes about male fantasies. Lesbian sex was seen as another way for women to sexual serve their man. Lesbian love was never mentioned. Gay sex was talked about with disgust. Gay love was never mentioned. And through the personal lives of lesbian and especially gay (just because of their shear numbers) we learned that homosexuality was something to be ashamed of and to hide. When it came out later that some of Hollywood's leading men from perhaps its greatest era were gay, we all learned about the heavy cover-up that went on to keep their latest loves out of the main stream media. However, when Marilyn Monroe or Frank Sinatra had a new love interest, it was splattered on every news paper. This idea hasn't really gone away in more modern times. Although we know some of our favorite artists are gay or lesbian, how many of us hear about their latest love interest? This is, in part, because those who are brave enough to come out publicly are informed that they will not talk about such matters with the public. And even after gay or lesbian artists come out publicly, still it is kept out of much of the mainstream media. I've meet a lot of people who don't know that Melissa Etheridge is a lesbian, much less married to a woman, nor do they know that the Indigo Girls are dykes as well, despite their openness about the subject. These kinds of things are usually only talked about in the gay press.
Of course, the idea of the media not talking about someone's homosexuality is overlooked if a crime is involved. We hear about the Jeffrey Dahmer's sexual orientation as much as we do about the crimes he commited. I personally was angered by the media idea that his victims had somehow deserved what they got and were asking for it when and if the fact that they were also homosexual was brought up. We hear about men who rape little boys. That just proves that homosexuals are sexual deviants and are sick. The media looks over the fact that 1 in 3 women suffer at least an attempted rape by the time they are 18 (and the numbers can be much higher, depending on who you consult), usually by a male family member. However, the media does not use these examples to prove that all heterosexual men are deviants and sick. We all just think that they are sick individuals, not representative of any group of people.
When blacks and gays were finally shown in mainstream television shows, it wasn't always in the way that had been hoped for. We did start seeing minority groups on TV, but usually still not in leading roles. A lot of times, they still weren't even portrayed in a positive light. Gay men were seen more and more in Broadway shows and on TV, but almost always as the flamboyant interior decorator of some extremely good looking, heterosexual couple. And lesbians are still almost nonexistent even in nominal roles, much less as main characters.
In high school and college we all learn about some of the most famous poets, authors, thinkers, and composers of all times, but not until recently did we ever hear that so many of them were gay, lesbian, or bi. We all read some of Lord Byron's work, but how many people even today know that he was very actively bisexual? When we read Robert Frost or even when we read the available information about his life, which normally included the wife and children, how many of us were give the information that he was gay? How many of us know that Freud had a lesbian daughter? How many of us were taught that in Roman times, homosexuality wasn't a big issue as it is made out to be now? How many of us knew that some of the greatest scholars of that time where openly gay and even took part in "scholarly worship" which entailed young men being allowed to study under some of the greatest minds of the time in return for sexual favors? So in some ways, perhaps without even knowing it, we are being sent the message that homosexuality is something to hide.
The media, including those around us, has also given us the idea that all gays, lesbians, and bi's are lacking in any sexual morality. The new AIDS awareness that happened in the late '80's also brought with it the idea and stories of gay men sleeping around with every gay man that they came into contact with. The message was that everyone else was safe from this horrifying disease because only gay men slept around so much, and were thus being punished. We never saw or heard any mention of gay couples who had been together for 20 odd years. We only saw the images of the bath houses were men went to sleep with other men. We also never heard about all of the heterosexuals who acted much the same way. Well, we did, but they were just called "play boys" who sat in their mansions in their silk smoking jackets, smoking an expensive cigar and drinking a martini or they were just called "whores" if they were women.
We are all taught these types of stereotypes, even if we don't realize it. We use these stereotypes against others around us as well as ourselves. All of us go through phases when we are coming out in which we try to make ourselves look or act more gay. I know, after so many negative reactions about my very femme appearance, I went through a stage in which I felt guilty if I felt like wearing makeup. My hair was less puffed up and less stylized. Then I finally realized that we are who we are and that nothing makes us who we are but us. I'm a lesbian because I am, not because of how I dress or wear my hair. I not less of a lesbian because I don't look like the stereotypical butch dyke that we all call to mind when we hear the word lesbian.
Of course, some people try to cover up who they are by trying to hide how the feel the most comfortable dressing or acting. I know that my wife tried to cover her butch nature by long hair and makeup, but she always felt uncomfortable, like she was wearing a costume. She knew that she would fit the stereotypes of the horrible thing called dyke. She knew that if she looked like a dyke she would be treated differently, seen as less of a person, less of a human.
Fortunately, most of us grow up and get a real life and realize that it doesn't really matter what others think of us. It matters what we think of ourselves. We learn that we have to be who we are and portray ourselves as we feel comfortable. Life is just too short to hide our own souls in a dark closet. We may not be out to the world, but being completely out and comfortable with ourselves and our sexuality is what really counts.