Over the past few years, as we've seen such rapid, astonishing progress towards LGBT equality, I've also noticed a rise in respectability politics among gay men. I have to confess I frequently make the mistake of reading the comments section, falling down the rabbit hole of rage, vitriol, racism, transphobia, biphobia, slut-shaming, PrEP-shaming, fat-shaming, and misogyny exhibited towards anyone who doesn't fit the "ideal" depiction of "our community," even though the most beautiful thing about our community has always been that it embraces individuality. Lately I've been struggling to understand why gay men feel so entitled to tell others how to behave, when so many people are of the opinion that we are societal deviants, no matter how well-behaved we are. Why are so many of us adopting the very same kind of oppressive language that has been wielded against us by antigay extremists?
Recently, The Advocate published an essay I wrote about gay Internet commenters slut-shaming the characters on my LGBT Web series EastSiders for exploring a not-quite-monogamous relationship in the show's second season. In just two days, the piece was shared over 15,000 times and evoked some very strong reactions, good and bad, that also included a great deal of slut-shaming -- no surprise there. If Fox News has taught us anything, it's that closed minds hate analyzing their own bias and prejudice; they're much more comfortable in an echo chamber where no one challenges them. More than anything, I was struck by how conservative the article's detractors were, hanging their arguments on the perception of a societal consensus of how people should behave in relationships. Basically, if you aren't married with 2.5 kids and a dog, you're damaging the cause.
It's surprising how many gay men consider themselves arbiters of social norms and mores, as same-sex marriage has only held majority support in this country for a few years now. And that majority is still very slim; according to Pew Research Center polling, only 57 percent of the country supports marriage equality, and in the world at large, only 21 countries allow gay and lesbian couples to wed in all of their jurisdictions. Legal recognition for gay marriage is actually a very recent development in history, with the Netherlands making the first steps towards equal marriage in the year 2000. It is a particularly galling feat of hypocrisy for gay men, who have been on the outskirts of acceptable society for such a long time, to turn around and assert their role as gatekeepers so soon after achieving "respectability." Whether we're religious or secular, we all have our own codes of ethics and morality, but we've seen firsthand the havoc that judgment and condemnation can wreck upon individuals who are deemed "immoral." If their actions aren't hurting anyone, then what compels you to attack them? Do you think the people that consider you immoral are going to be convinced otherwise when they see you parroting their outrage?
I recently stumbled across a Change.org campaign petitioning the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, Lambda Legal, and media outlets such as The Advocate to "Drop the T" and distance themselves from the transgender population. Although the petition hasn't been able to drum up much support, it's sadly in keeping with many negative comments I've read towards trans activists in other articles. There's an audible "I got mine" mentality in these exchanges that repulses me. Yes, I've seen exclusionary language from trans activists as well, and comments that seem homophobic or misogynistic, but it's all symptomatic of the same problem.
Why should your opinion of what is the "correct" way to express gender, gender identity, sexuality, or religion become a mandate for others? If what we are saying is that along with equal rights we want the right to judge and persecute others for not conforming with our ideas, then count me out. I left Mississippi at 16 to escape a society that I felt valued "respectability" over my humanity, and I hate to see LGBT people shackling themselves to the same kind of hatred we have overcome. Similarly, gay white men proudly stating their dating "preferences," such as "no blacks" and "no Asians," suggests a profoundly closed-minded view of humanity. To lump all people of a race into a single homogenous "unattractive" category is the definition of racism, and it's something to work through in therapy, not tout on your dating profile.
Yes, the pendulum sometimes swings too far in the other direction; liberals can be bigots too. I was as offended by Stonewall as the next guy, but I am almost grateful for the conversation that it's started about representation. Whether you want to watch it or not, I hope we can all agree that it should not be censored or banned from college campuses, as the Colorado College LGBTQIA+ campus group recently attempted to do. Of course people have a right to be offended and to boycott the film if they choose, but stating that the film's existence is a "threat to our identity and safety" is verging on South Park. I believe we can be sensitive and understanding of the experience of others without pushing political correctness so far that it becomes tyrannical and obscene. There is an obvious middle road we can take here.
If we accept a rigid society where the majority's experience trumps all others, then we must accept that our experience will never be valued equally as a group that will always be outnumbered. But if we espouse a philosophy of open-mindedness and compassion toward one another, then we have a shot at creating a society where all experiences are valued. In short, we are never going to cleanly fit ourselves into society's standards if we play into society's bigotry; we need to work together toward creating a more inclusive, loving society, where we accept and celebrate our differences.
We still carry the fighting spirit of an oppressed group, because we are still subjected to rampant hate and discrimination. When nearly half the country doesn't consider us a part of "respectable" society, the battle is far from over. But we need to be careful not to turn our passion and vehemence against one another; together we will all rise up, but divided we will all fall right back down to where we started.
KIT WILLIAMSON is an actor, filmmaker, and activist. He best known for playing the role of Ed Gifford on Mad Men and creating the LGBT series EastSiders. Its second season is now available on DVD.