I ‘unthinkingly’ made an offensive quip about homosexuality the other day. I did not consider the content of the joke, the people in my presence, or the impact the joke would have. I just didn’t think. I suppose I thought the joke was harmless. I only realized the seriousness, the disgusting homophobic undertone inscribed in my words, after they were uttered. I am still mortified about my carelessness. For that brief moment, I allowed myself to mimic the widespread hateful attitude our society seems to have toward homosexuals, and I am almost ashamed to admit this shortcoming, but how can I think about the tragic event that recently transpired at Rutgers University without acknowledging my own prejudice? I am not afraid of being labeled homophobic because of my joke; I know that we all have made offensive jokes and remarks at one time or another. To a certain extent I probably do harbor a prejudice toward the homosexual community because I do sometimes accept stereotypes about the community; because I would not want to be mistaken for being a homosexual because I am afraid of being classified as a member of this stigmatized group.
Homophobia exists because the gay and lesbian community is stigmatized; it is mocked and joked about in the media. Our society has a sense of humor. Sometimes I think we try to gage the amount of time that has to pass before we can start incorporating tragic, heated, and controversial events in our “comedy routines.” It’s good to have a sense of humor. It can be good to laugh at ourselves and each other. The fact that we can make jokes about the way we stereotype our differences can be taken as a sign of acceptance, as an acknowledgment of our common humanity, but we always have to consider that it is very easy to take a ‘joke’ too far. We cannot make jokes at the expense of others; there needs to be a level of comfort for the subject of a joke. What needs to be acknowledged is that there is a fine line between what is funny and what is offensive, just as, in this age of technology, there is a fine line between public and private life.
Tyler Clementi’s roommate violated his personal space by, allegedly, leaving his laptop turned on, allowing Clementi’s private life to be streamed onto the internet for the world to comment on. I don’t think that the roommate thought about his actions. He probably found Clementi’s personal encounter funny, and did not think that invading his privacy was anything more than a joke. Obviously, he should be held accountable for his actions, but this incident should also instigate an examination of our society. The roommate did not see anything wrong with streaming a live video of Tyler Clementi for a wide audience to comment on. I wonder how many people viewed this video and laughed. I wonder how many of those people who watched and laughed were members of the Rutgers community. Why does our society find homosexuality funny? We seem to consider it to be a joke in itself. Can anyone explain the punch line?
Perhaps the issue is that homosexuality is not taken seriously. The portrayal of gay men and lesbian women in the media either hyper-feminizes or hyper-masculinizes these communities, situating them as outsiders that exist on the fringes of male and female categories. In other words, there is a notion, I think, that lesbian women are incomplete women, and that gay men are not men at all. Straight women seem to be more accepting of lesbian women than straight men are of gay men. Lesbian women may not be welcomed with open arms, but they don’t seem to be completely ostracized from the category of “woman.” Women still bear a minority status next to men, so women tend to be more accepting of other minority statuses. However, gay men seem to be excluded entirely from the category of man. The media often turns them into a spectacle, something to mock and laugh at, but that is not meant to be taken seriously. Television shows like On the Road with Austin and Santino or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, present us with the preconceived notions society has of gay men, like being hyper-feminized and flamboyant. The fact that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is a show about gay men helping straight men become more cultured and better dressers only helps to reinforce the distinction that is made between gay men and straight men.
Gay men are considered something other than ‘men.’ I wrote a paper for a Women’s Studies class freshman year on Johnny Cash’s A Boy named Sue, which addresses the humiliation a man feels going through his life with a feminine name. ‘Sue’ stands in for ‘gay.’ A straight man is terrified of being labeled ‘gay’ not only because he will then be a member of a stigmatized group, but also because it is de-masculating. In Cash’s song, the boy goes through his life being criticized for having a girl’s name. At the end of the song we learn that the boy’s father named him Sue because he wanted to assure that his son would grow up tough and able to fight even though he was not around to raise him. His father realized that with a name like Sue the boy would “have to get tough or die.” Sure, the old man could have stuck around and raised the boy himself, but he was a drunkard, after all. This song is an example of the gender constrictions men face. The privileged category requires men to reject an emotional, feeling self that is often deemed to be feminine. Only those who can conform to the strict gender constrictions of this category can be considered ‘real men.’ This is a serious and frightening reality, but Johnny cash presents it in a humorous manner.
I question whether technology and the media have the power to erase the seriousness of everything. Can we take anything seriously? Is life just one big joke? People post their entire lives on the internet without even thinking. Some people look to gain fame from a scandalous sex video they post on the internet, but some people’s lives and careers have been ruined simply because they were tagged in a slightly distasteful picture on Facebook. No one seems to think about privacy in the cyber world because it is a public domain, but after the recent tragedies I think we should all become more responsible with the technology we use on a daily basis. The internet is a shared, public space, meaning we should be careful and considerate about what we choose to share with the other billions of people who are active within this ‘community.’ We should be careful not to offend another person, as it would deface their share in this public space. It’s true that everyone is entitled to free speech and their own opinions, but common decency should trump even the First Amendment. Common decency is the law of man and should dictate our interactions with each other, either face to face or via the World Wide Web.