Friday, October 19, 2012

How Gay is Too Gay?

Last year Colby College had a discussion series that explored a phrase heard around campus: "too gay." I didn't attend the series, but was intrigued by the topic and have been mulling over it for the last few months.

Saying someone is "too gay" is akin to describing them as "flamboyantly gay." Both imply extremity and being unambiguously out. People in this category are seen as "overly" gay, as though their expression of gay-ness or out-ness is too loud. The terms are usually used with amusement and sometimes a tinge of condescension. But they're harmless, right?

Unfortunately, these descriptors that we may use casually or in jest are also very effective shields for those who perpetrate or defend violence against LGBTQ people.

Lawrence "Larry" King (Source: Wikipedia)
Charges of "too gay" and "flamboyant" continue to be used frequently as justification for violence against those who do not conform to societal norms of gender and sexuality. As recently as last November, major news outlets were blaming 15 year-old Lawrence "Larry" King's cold-blooded murder on his own flamboyance, rather than his murderer, classmate Brandon McInerney. This HuffPost article notes that the L.A. Times and Newsweek (and Rush Limbaugh, if you count him as a relevant demagogue) all framed Larry's murder as the inevitable result of his gender presentation. They cite the Newsweek article:
The Newsweek article described the teen as someone who liked to "slick up his curly hair" into a "Prince-like bouffant," and as someone who "acted out from an early age" and "pushed his rights as far as he could."
These are the types of articles that make you question how much real progress we've made over the last fifty years. Deviations from culturally mandated gender expression are still so feared and so dangerous that even respected news outlets will effectively validate murderers' rationale. 'If only he hadn't been so gay,' they lament with false emotion.

The more I learn and write about LGBTQ issues, the more I see that language is never accidental. Turn-of-phrases can have embedded meanings that we don't hear because they are repeated so frequently. It's a difficult task to look at the words we use, but I think it's important to ask of ourselves 'why I am saying this and who does it serve?'

In this example, noticing that we never say "too straight" or "flamboyantly hetero" may be an indicator that they are not neutral, equally applied terms. Rather, "too gay" and "flamboyantly gay" have oppressive purposes, and when we use them, even casually, we affirm that there are indeed limits of how gay one should be. And that, in turn, leaves the door open for people like Brandon McInerney to violently police those limits.

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