"If they smell gay on you, it's over!"
So declared a prominent casting director to me in my acting days. She was referring to the flat rejection actors face if they "seem gay" at auditions -- a professional danger faced by all actors whenever they enter the room regardless of how they identify -- gay, straight or otherwise. At the time, I didn't realize how prescient her words were.
The very same statement could apply to people around the world -- in Africa, Russia and portions of the United States -- wherever it is legal to discriminate against LGBT people. But who determines "gayness," and based on what criteria? Sight? Sound? Smell?
Anti-gay laws have metastasized globally over the past few years and now prescribe a variety of consequences for being -- or seeming -- gay. They range from the death penalty to imprisonment, public lashing, or employment or consumer discrimination. While frightening in their range of punishments, these laws share one thing in common: The implied message that those who seem gay -- a highly subjective, perception-based determination -- are socially acceptable targets of discrimination and violence.
Nations such as Nigeria and Uganda are obvious examples of this targeting, as their laws insist on punishment for those who engage in "known homosexual acts." But countries with laws less explicit -- Russia anyone? -- have still effectively sanctioned general violence against anyone with a "non-traditional" gender presentation. Sadly, the U.S. is no exception. After twenty years of repeated introduction and subsequent languishing in Congress, our country still hasn't passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The need for such uniform federal protection could not be more apparent. In the past month alone, the legislatures of Kansas, Arizona, Mississippi and Georgia have all introduced bills seeking to allow anyone to "stand their ground" and refuse service to people who seem gay if it would compromise their "sincerely held religious beliefs." (Those bills have all been vetoed or slowed for now, but the cultural message rings loud and clear.)
It's one thing to be denied a wedding cake by a baker who can't think outside the Bible. It's quite another to be physically attacked for simply walking down the street. But the implicit messages in all of these anti-gay bills is that such targeting is fair game -- and people are getting the message, right here in America.
Consider the man who last week suffered a broken nose after getting punched in the face by a stranger in a Greenwich Village subway station -- allegedly just for seeming gay. He was gay, as it turns out, and celebrating his anniversary with his partner of ten years on the night of the attack. But consider alongside this story the one of Jose Sucuzhanay, an Ecuadorian immigrant who in 2008 was beaten to death in Brooklyn by strangers who thought he and his brother -- who were holding each other in cold weather on their walk home -- seemed gay.
The regular and flamboyantly ignorant statements of Representative Steve King's (R-Iowa) remind us how those perceived to be gay can easily become targets of hatred and violence, and how such perception is an essential part of a paranoid, homophobic worldview. In 2012, the Congressman stated that those who are gay or lesbian do not need legal protection so long as they don't wear "their sexuality on their sleeve" or make "their sexuality public." Just last week, King implied that victims of anti-gay discrimination are asking for it because their sexuality is "self-professed," "mutable," capable of being "willfully changed," and therefore undeserving of constitutional protections.
Now how many of the LGB or T people you know wear "their sexuality on their sleeve" by engaging in "homosexual acts" in public? Right, me neither.
Representative King is not talking about people having sex in public. Much like the Christian Tennessee pastor who recently stated that God punishes gays and lesbians by making them "effeminate" or "mannish," the Congressman's views about perceived sexuality are based upon a person's gender presentation, i.e., the way one "acts." His relentless implication being that so long as guys butch it up, and gals femme it up, everyone will be safe. (And, presumably, actors will have a fairer shot at nailing their auditions). I call this pressure to closet oneself Don't Act, Don't Tell.
But even if we were to accept this oppressive logic, who gets to decide if somebody is acting "too gay"? Whose rubric of gay or straight, masculine or feminine, is being used?
In New Jersey, seeming not-gay apparently means "being a guy," not being "weird," not enjoying "peculiar fetishes" like "getting a manicure," and instead enjoying "good Scotch and a cigar." In Olympic skating -- a seemingly gender non-conforming sport to begin with -- seeming not-gay apparently means not wearing a costume with sleeves, if you're a guy, and always wearing a skirt if you're a girl. Where do these subjective judgments of perceived sexuality end?
And, more significantly, what happens to those of us who are perceived to be gay, at any given moment?
A client I worked with in my therapy practice suffered facial disfigurement after he was beaten unconscious at a high school party in suburban Connecticut. Not in Uganda, Russia, Arizona or Mississippi, but a state with marriage equality and good laws that nonetheless got the message that "acting" gay makes someone an acceptable target of hatred and violence. The perpetrator, a teenage male at the party, was heard saying,"I'm going to beat up the gay kid," while knowing nothing about my client aside from his self-presentation -- voice, mannerisms, personality, etc. And when I consider that alone, I'm frightened to think that any one of my straight brothers could have been attacked that night, in just that way, based on just those criteria.
My client continues to live in a state of fear and hyper-vigilance, due to this trauma. As should you. When our own laws discriminate against a particular group, it encourages hatred and violence against that group, which is disturbing enough. But more disturbing yet, when membership in said group is open to subjective perception, it makes targets of us all. Homphobia based on seeming gay makes the world a more dangerous place for every person, however one identifies.
The piece first appeared in Mark's column Quite Queerly on PsychologyToday.com.