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Joan Garry

Joan Garry

Posted: April 29, 2008 02:00 PM

"Normal" Gay People in the New York Times


Maybe I'm just trying to distract myself from "Democratic Celebrity Death Match." But I don't think so. I've been quite focused this week on the cover story of this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine -- the story called "Young Gay Rites." Do take a minute to read it online if you haven't seen it. You will no doubt have varying reactions to it -- some will reflect on the couples, some on the journalist, many on you.

The piece offers a very narrow swath of gay "married" life (maybe we should use the word in quotes until we have all the same state and federal legal rights and responsibilities as straight people) -- young white men in their 20s in the state of Massachusetts. The photography is clever ("kitschy" would be the gay adjective) and as a sociological portrayal of a small niche, I suppose it was rather good. But a cover story? A cover that teases the piece this way: "Life among young men who are married (to men) in Massachusetts could not be more normal. Strange."

Strange indeed.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been with my partner since I was 23. By the time I was the age of the men profiled, we owned a home in the suburbs, had joint bank accounts and yes, two cats. I know from settling down in my 20s. And I don't know -- call me old fashioned -- but I considered it a sign of maturity. The right to "marry" was not available to us in 1983 but had it been, we'd have avoided "living in sin" lo these many years. In fact, it could be said that the strangest thing about us was that we were not and could not be "married" like our straight neighbors.

The journalist appeared to be making a case that the profiled couples were normal and not strange. Instead, Mr. Denizet-Lewis introduces us to couples who are silly, vacuous and naïve. "We've thought a lot about household roles," says Marc about his partner Vassili. "I'm going to clean and Vassili is going to cook." At another point, Benjamin reminds Joshua that he is 25 and not 24. "Am I desperately trying to hold onto my youth," Joshua asks his partner. "Honey, am I a gay cliché?"

Bingo. And while you are at it Joshua, you might want to attempt to hold onto your dignity.

I asked a number of people about their reactions, recognizing that I am, after all, no longer in my 20s. Or 30s. OK -- even 40s. One friend wrote: "Gay people are allowed to be boring, too." I agree completely. The only problem is the Mr. Denizet-Lewis didn't give us boring. He didn't give us "normal." He gave us cardboard stereotypes that make June Cleaver look deep.

I suppose when all is said and done, my biggest issue with the piece is not the piece itself. It's the placement. A cover story infers a degree of credibility and universality. And cover stories get promoted. And so, if you go to the Times website, this article is currently one of the most popular. Mission accomplished. The topic always sells and the clever cover photo worked like a charm.

Or maybe I am just stuck on this word "normal." I don't know what it means and it rubs me the wrong way. The same way the phrase "ordinary Americans" rubs me the wrong way when our presidential candidates use it. I don't know anyone who is "normal" -- I don't know what that word means. OK, so I know that there are more straight people in the world than LGBT people. Does that make them normal and me something other than normal? It makes me different, yes. It puts me in a minority, yes. I also live behind a white picket fence. Pretty normal, huh? Actually, I'm quite privileged to have a white picket fence. Many straight Americans dream of living in a house with a fence as nice as ours. So which of us is normal?

To Joshua and Benjamin, Brandon L and Brandon A, to Marc and Vassili, to Jason and Paul -- I wish I knew more about you. I bet you have interesting lives and careers. And I wish you all the happiness in the world. I hope you use several of your 15 minutes of fame to educate a few people about what your Massachusetts marriage license provides you with and all the rights it does not. And I wish for you as much happiness in your relationships after 27 years as I have in mine.

And it may seem strange but I hope your lives are never normal.