By Neal Broverman
Originally published on Advocate.com June 06 2013 7:00 AM ET
“When are you getting a new phone?”
This is a standard greeting from three gay men in my life. Each is appalled that I communicate via an iPhone 3G, as if I have a beeper strapped to my belt loop. While their phones can talk to them, I must rely on a Google search to find the nearest Starbucks. (It’s amazing I get by.)
My gay male friends hound me about owning an outdated phone, even though many of my lesbian friends couldn’t care less. Until a year ago, one of my best gay girlfriends used a flip phone. Another one has a Blackberry that looks like it went through a garbage disposal.
What’s especially frustrating about the gay pressure is that an iPhone 17 will not really transform me with any additional conveniences I now lack; I’ll have a better camera, maybe my Internet will be faster. The unspoken reason to drop $300 is because the gays believe phones say something about the individual carrying them. It’s a status symbol, not a communication device.
The compulsion to have the newest car, tablet, or haircut is an aspect of gay culture to which I’m not completely immune (especially when it comes to the latter indulgence). An appreciation for the finer things in life is one thing, but our fixation on material items isn’t Epicureanism.
Maybe my friends and I are just like Mitch and Cam on Modern Family, Anderson Cooper and his boyfriend with their fire station house, or that insufferable couple on The New Normal: rich urban gays with disposable income pouring out their ears like slot machines.
No, that’s not it. I’m certainly not insanely wealthy, nor are they. We all have real dogs and babies who eat food from the grocery store, not the craft service table. The myth that all gays are rich is indeed a myth, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The LGBT think tank just released a report that said, in essence, queer people are actually poorer than our straight counterparts, especially lesbians, bi women, transgender folks, and LGBT people of color. So, if we’re not any richer than straight people, without limitless money to burn, why is there so much pressure among gays to have unnecessary toys? Why do we place so much emphasis on inanimate objects? (Remember: Siri isn’t alive.)
“[Material things] offer the notion that [people] are ‘good enough’ and masks what might be a helpless or bruised sense of self,” says Yassi Zarrin, a Beverly Hills clinical psychologist whose patients include gay men. “In essence, one is trying to heal their internal world by attempting to create a beautiful and flawless external world.”
Buying stuff we don’t need is our coping mechanism, Zarrin says, pointing out it’s an endemic quality of all people who’ve been through the wringer.
But wait — our lives in New York and Los Angeles as out gay men, especially the white ones, are privileged! Our straight coworkers meet our boyfriends; our hair salon subscribes to Out magazine.
Sure, conditions are better than they were 20 years ago, especially since we’re not all succumbing to AIDS, but it isn’t all coming up roses. We all know of the vicious attacks on gay men in New York — more than 20 just this year, with one murdered in the street. A gender-nonconforming person was just beaten in Hollywood. If we dare hold hands with our husbands or partners as we walk down a street that is not located in a gay ghetto, then try to find one queer man in America who can honestly say he doesn’t worry for a second he’ll get heckled, sneered, or glared at.
Knowing that the society you live in thinks you’re, well, garbage, does something to people’s psyches. Most of us, like all minorities in this country, accept that intolerance exists, but we don’t necessarily marinate in it. Still, that knowledge manifests itself in weird ways, like fixating on “things.”
Blowing your rent on a pre-order for Google Glass is better than a meth bender, but it should give us pause. The next time you shame someone for having an old phone, outdated jeans, or a lemon of a car, think about why you’re doing it, and remember you could end up shamed yourself — on a national website.
NEAL BROVERMAN is a columnist for The Advocate and the editor in chief of Out Traveler. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman.