March 2000

Rebalancing visibility




By coincidence, soon after my article Three Takes on Cruising was uploaded, SiGNeL, a cyberforum for gay Singaporeans, was swamped by a debate about toilet cruising. Some participants felt that this gave the wrong impression of homosexuality to outsiders. Many gay men, after all, do not cruise. Some are in long-term monogamous relationships. A significant number of them resent the way a minority of promiscuous homosexual men distort the "image" of the community by their blatant cruising. Doing it in public toilets, where there is constant traffic of straight men passing through, is, in their view, particularly objectionable.

This problem of "image" is a vexing one. A handful of people, through their "reckless behaviour", have a significant impact on the "image" as held by heterosexuals of homosexuals. Yet the same brush tars all homosexuals. What to do?

You might have noticed, I put "image" and "reckless behaviour" in quotation marks. I flagged them because I think these terms need further reflection.

Consider for example, what is the image of the Dutch? Yes, there is stereotype, but most people know it is stereotype. Most people know that at the end of the day, there are as many "images" of Dutch people as there are Dutch. The more one gets to know the Dutch, or the more Dutch friends one has, the more one sets aside stereotype. Know enough Dutch people personally, and they will appear to be like you, me, and my great-aunt.

"Reckless behaviour" or "undesirable behaviour" will always exist. Not because the specific behaviour will always exist, but because at any point in time, something will always be labelled "reckless" or "undesirable". It depends on the prevailing values. Is only homosexual cruising undesirable? Straight men and women cruise in singles bars -- what about that?

Ultimately, the debate about some folks lowering the "image" of the gay community, can be seen as a debate about relative visibility. Those who hunt for sex are visible; those who have other priorities are not. Or more accurately, when hunting for sex, homosexuals are visible; when not hunting for sex, they are not. The "image", which many complain of, is therefore of sex fiends.

Another "image" which is complained about as being unrepresentative and pejorative, is that of gay men being limp-wristed cross-dressers, and gay women being tomboyish breast-binders. Again, it's the same problem of relative visibility.

A few years ago, I came across a report it's a great pity I didn't make a careful record of it that analysed the pattern of homophobic attitudes in the United States. I think it was subsequent to President Clinton's attempt to remove discrimination in the military against gay servicemen and women. The study compared attitudes held by straights towards homosexuality, against various socio-economic factors, such as educational level, income, geographical location, and age. It found that tolerant attitudes correlated best with the number of gay persons one knew personally, be they in the family, at the workplace, or in other social settings.

Clinton himself mentioned this correlation in a TV program in December 1999. In the show, Larry King Live, he said,

I think that -- the real problem, I still believe, is the absence of open, personal contact. I think there are too many people who don't know gay men and lesbian women in the ordinary course of their lives, and they don't see that there are people who -- their friends, their sisters, their brothers, their sons, their daughters, their co-workers, and that it is -- my judgement is, it's not a lifestyle people choose. It is the way people are.

This correlation is, in a way, entirely predictable. The more Dutch friends we have, the less likely we rely on stereotypical images of the Dutch. Likewise, the more gay friends a non-gay person has, the less likely he falls back on (usually negative) stereotypical ideas about gay people.

Of course, cause and effect could be the other way around. You could say, the more homophobic you are, the less gay people want to be your friend, but I don't think this is the usual sequence of events. Almost everybody has homosexuals within his circle of family and colleagues. It's just that they are in the closet, so they are invisible. But after you've come to know a person, and then you discover that that person is gay, you would most likely keep the friend and dump the image; not dump the friend and keep the image.

And that's how "image" is changed. Not by telling other homosexual persons how to live their lives "do not cruise!" -- but by examining how you live yours. One's own (in)visibility has as much impact on "image" as the other's visibility.

This impact was amply demonstrated when a friend of a New Paper journalist outed himself to her. The result was a column published on 24 Feb 2000. I would link you to the New Paper's archives except that it only goes back 7 days, so I have archived it in the Yawning Bread appendix. Please see The day he said he wanted a boyfriend

Well, the moral of the story is this: if you feel we're victims of homophobia and the "bad image" perpetuated by some homosexual persons, don't blame the others. You can be part of the redress -- by coming out.

Yawning Bread