Why Pop Culture Tells Gay Stories For Straight People

Last week, I went long on the future of popular culture about gay people and a pet peeve of mine: the treatment of homosexuality as primarly a source of problems instead of joy, whether it’s in the historical pop portrayal of gay people as deviant, miserable, and damned, or of homophobia as the primary dramatic story engine for gay characters. As is always the case on this subject, my writing was informed by conversations with friends and writers like Tyler Lewis, who writes better on the specific experiences of black gay men than anyone I know, and Slate critic June Thomas. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to sit down with June and tape our conversations for a new Bloggingheads episode:

It was a conversation that helped mentally crystallize for me the extent to which non-straight characters are written for the enjoyment of and in deference to the perspectives of straight people. Shows and movies that aren’t made specifically for gay people, like both iterations of Queer as Folk, are allowed to have one gay person or gay couple. We don’t get to see gay people in gay communities, to see gay men who are friends with lesbians (though that seems like it could change on The New Normal, where creator Ryan Murphy has announced plans to introduce a gay couple) because shows with gay characters are so often about gay characters’ relationships to a straight-dominated world, or more often, about straight people’s relationships to gay people, no matter whether or not straight people are the gay characters. Cultural signaling, like a man’s interest in fashion or a woman’s interest in sports, or is less about fleshing out the personalities and interests of the characters who possess them than in signaling to straight audiences about story developments: Kurt’s clothes on Glee mean there will be bullying, parental difficulty, a change of wardrobe, a revitalization of his confidence, and an eventual journey to the big city. Homophobia is something for gay characters to overcome, but also for straight characters to learn from, for straight viewers to use as a self-congratulatory benchmark, assuring themselves that they’d never behave so badly.

I’m being harsh here. I know that. The process of straight people learning and appreciating, rather than demonizing, gay people’s lives and challenges and gay cultures, such as they exist, is not an irrelevant process. But I’m tired of the constant need for accommodation. I’m tired of the idea that straight people are going to be most interested in stories about themselves than in stories about gay people even if the execution of say, an excellent love story about two men like Keep the Lights On is richer and deeper than so much romantic comedy claptrap. I’m tired, similarly, of the idea that stories about men are the default, that both men and women will turn into them, and that stories about women are somehow niche, that men won’t tune into them. In both of these areas, people who limit themselves to stories about themselves are both denying themselves great pleasure and beauty. And they’re defaulting to the privileged position of being able to expect that Hollywood will continue providing them stories about people whose lives are a heightened version of their own. At the end of the day, if people want to cut themselves off from stories that could move them, that’s their loss. It’s just frustrating to me when someone else’s lack of curiosity reaffirms Hollywood’s own, and limits what options are available to the rest of us.