We’ve all either heard or it said it. Upon hearing that our gay friend doesn’t like musicals, or has never seen The Golden Girls, or doesn’t like and/or has not heard of Judy Garland, we inevitably ask that unfortunate person, “are you sure you’re gay?” Now, most of us probably say this in good fun, and most of us are guilty of it (even as we pretend outrage when someone else says it), but the important question is, what do we mean when we ask it? (Let me be clear at the outset that this post will mainly deal with gay men, as it is that experiential position with which I am most familiar. I welcome gay women to share their experiences in the comments section).
As with any expression that gets bandied about, it raises a host of questions that have multiplicitous and often contradictory answers. The simplest answer is this: when we ask someone if they are sure they are gay, what we are really asking is whether they have been adopted into or trained in the ways of gay culture. Not whether they, in fact, desire and have sex with men, but whether they have, as it were, learned what it means to be gay, i.e. learned the ropes of what constitutes the gay way of life.
As numerous scholars—including such queer theory luminaries as David Halperin, Alexander Doty, Steven Cohan, and Brett Farmer—have observed, gay men, as a result of their marginal place in 20th (and, to a lesser extent, 21st) Century culture, have developed strategies for appropriating straight mass culture in ways that make it meaningful for them. These have, typically, included such “gay” staples as Judy Garland and her films, the Hollywood and Broadway musicals, glamorous female stars like Dietrich, Crawford, and Davis (if you don’t know their first names, you might not be, ahem, gay), and female-centered television series such as The Golden Girls and Designing Women. Though obviously and primarily intended for straight audiences, these texts and personas have become objects of gay male worship, to the extent that liking them has come to be equated with being gay, or at least to having a gay sensibility (after all, there’s no law stating that a perfectly heterosexual man can’t love Judy or Dorothy or Bette as much as a gay man).
“Gay” has, however, come to assume an ever-increasing number of cultural functions and desires, including fashion, design, and all things tasteful. Again, part of the reason may be that these professions were often relegated—and by this I mean the dominant, patriarchal culture saw it as such—to women or those who, because of their gender performance (not, necessarily, their object choice) failed to live up to the masculine standard. What better way to make one’s way in a patriarchal/homophobic world than to master those arts that have been denigrated as beneath the notice of the masculinist dominant order?
Of course, all of this has begun to change, as gay men have become increasingly visible and increasingly mainstreamed. There is a persistent denial of “gayness” within gay male culture, which usually translates, in the world of online dating at least, into: “Masculine guy here. No fems or queens.” Read: DON’T REALLY BE GAY, ‘CAUSE I’M NOT THAT, DUDE. I MAY DIG OTHER GUYS, BUT I’M A REAL MAN, NOT A PUSSY FAG. As has happened numerous times in the past (as David Halperin notes, this was a common sentiment among young gay men in the 1980s), there is a persistent disavowal of femininity in the gay male community, and that usually includes those trappings of gay life that have, for better or worse, usually served as identifiers and signifiers of precisely that collective cultural identity.
All of this is not to suggest that gay men have to do these things. It is merely to point out that it is and has been a strong current in gay male culture for most of the 20th and, for some, the 21st. And, more importantly, that we should not forget and should definitely not condemn this way of life as being somehow abhorrent. Hard as it may be for these “straight acting gays” (and I hope my loathing of that term shines through the quotation marks) to comprehend, there are still those of us who like to sing along to showtunes, worship the ground that Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford walk on, and even enjoy Glee and The Golden Girls. And, believe it or not, some of us also enjoy typically “masculine” pursuits as well. Hell, some of us even like sports and, gasp, even play them. And all while singing a line from Chicago and thinking about our nice outfit that we’re going to wear to the theatre, too.
Thus, although it may be offensive/irritating when people ask the pointed question “Are you sure you’re gay?” in many ways the question captures the complexities of contemporary gay identity. This is not to suggest that gay male subjectivity has not always been complex and contradictory; it is to suggest, as David Halperin does in his recent book How to Be Gay, that there is a cultural initiation. Perhaps we—and by “we” I mean straight, gay, queer, and everyone else—would be better off accepting the multiplicity and the sheer diversity of lived gay male experience. Or, at the very least, we should be a little more self-reflexive about what we mean when we ask that most dangerous and irritating (and, let’s face it, most gay) of questions.