An earlier version of this post appeared in WBEZ. You can find the original here.
A few months ago, College Humor released a video entitled "Gay Men Will Marry Your Girlfriends" that satirically pushed for marriage equality by threatening to deprive men of an important resource: their ladyfriends. Based on the premise that gay men and women share a "special relationship," the men in the video argue that they would be better partners for the girlfriends of straight men, as they know many of women's most intimate secrets. They also promise to cook women quiches every morning -- based on the stereotype that all gay men are great chefs. Although the video relies heavily on these Will and Grace-era, white-centric gay cliches for humor, the premise was clever enough to make the video go viral. Over the next month, College Humor elicited responses first from straight men, lesbians and then finally straight women, who argued that they didn't want to date gay men. They already did that in high school.
Although almost everyone has had their satirical swing at the (often witty) video, few have challenged its central idea -- that gay men have privilege over women's bodies. I was honestly surprised that no one tackled it head on, as the video grossly objectifies women while also completely marginalizing their sexual agency. (However, the women's response does touch on this, noting that the video's regressive gender politics are straight out of Fiddler on the Roof, back when women were akin to property.) The men in "Gay Men Will Marry Your Girlfriends" very graphically discuss their knowledge of lady parts, which the video argues would make them better sexual partners than straight men. One gay respondent states that he could play a woman "like an upright bass." It's pretty gross.
The video is meant to be over the top and not taken seriously, and we can both laugh at it and find it problematic, using humor as an invitation for dialogue. This is because such objectification reflects a sad reality in the gay community -- where queer men expect a privileged access to the female form, usually without consent. By not critiquing this norm and presenting it as the norm, it looks like an endorsement.
In 2010, fashion designer and Project Runway judge Isaac Mizrahi caused a scandal when he unexpectedly grabbed Scarlett Johansson's breasts on the Oscar red carpet. Johansson took obvious offense to her breasts being treated like silly putty in front of the entire country -- as Issac Mizrahi was casually assaulting her -- but Mizrahi didn't seem to understand what the problem was. He didn't realize he'd done anything wrong.
A few years ago, a trans friend of mine came out to a mutual acquaintance of ours at a party, who responded by grabbing this friend's private areas -- to check. However, it's not just this individual behavior alone that's the problem, but a gay culture that legitimizes assault by labeling it as harmless. Queer writer Yolo Akili argues in his November article for The Good Men Project, that this naïveté is an extension of societal male ownership of female bodies, a privilege that often goes ignored in the gay community. Akili gives us a personal example:
I was at a gay club in Atlanta with a good friend of mine who is a heterosexual black woman. While dancing in the club, a white gay male reached out and grabbed both her breasts aggressively. Shocked, she pushed him away immediately. When we both confronted him he told us: 'It's no big deal, I'm gay, I don't want her -- I was just having fun.' We expressed our frustrations to him and demanded he apologize, but he simply refused. He clearly felt entitled to touch her body and could not even acknowledge the fact that he had assaulted her.
After the Mizrahi incident, Gawker's Maureen O'Connor responded from her own experiences on the issue:
Gay guys... You may not think of my body parts sexually, but I do, and as long as they are attached to my body, nobody touches them but me, my doctor, and straight guys I want to f--k. Even if you work in the fashion industry and are giving me advice about the bias cut of my dress, you may not touch my butt, stroke my thigh, or pinch the fat on my hip... gay or straight, if you grab a lady's boob without permission -- or an underage girl's butt on the dance floor -- you're a perv.
Although men like the one that Akili describes might not realize O'Connor's hesitancy to have her body treated like a life-size Barbie doll, this lack of awareness only proves Akili's point. The abuse is rendered invisible when gay men don't perceive it as such. Acts such as these not only serve to perpetuate a rape culture that silences assault but also a society that tells women that they do not own themselves. We see the latter in a number of aspects of the complicated relationship between gay men and straight women -- from a gay-male-dominated fashion industry predicated on critiquing female imperfection to a gay culture in which casual misogyny is too often ignored. (For a telling example of the latter, check out Vice Magazine's "An Etiquette Guide for Straight People in Gay Bars.")
As Akili notes, not all queer men are like this, and I was glad to see my Facebook friends rip that Vice article a new one. And most who behave that way aren't bad people and don't see their behavior as sexist. They simply rationalize it as "celebrating women" or "diva worship." But if queer men truly want to celebrate women's bodies and love women in the right way, we must hold ourselves accountable to dismantling a system that marginalizes and abuses them. Being oppressed ourselves, we must recognize our everyday roles in perpetuating the oppression of others -- whether it's watching a funny video or copping a feel -- and work to create a culture that affirms women's rights to their bodies. As our straight allies stand by us to make marriage equality a reality here in Illinois, we must also ask how we can stand by them.