Not long ago I was introduced to a few staff members at my New York publisher's offices as the author of a book on gay and lesbian manners. Asked what it covered, I said, "Everything from coming out to dating and dressing for success." Without missing a beat, two staffers jumped in: "I thought all gay people have good manners!" with the other adding, "Gay men sure have the style gene. Why would they need help?" Not wanting to be rude, I passed on the opportunity to say anything about the persistence, not to mention the inaccuracy, of these positive stereotypes.
Still, in my mind I couldn't help but picture the very boorish Rosie O'Donnell (whose ill-mannered feud with The View's Barbara Walters is now legend) and the perpetually rumpled Congressman Barney Frank as well as the sartorially challenged comedian, Bruce Vilanch. Style gene, indeed!
Fast forward two months, when a third -- and irritating -- example of a positive stereotype of gay men landed on my front door, literally. This time the affront came in the form of a column in my hometown paper, the Raleigh News & Observer, about a recent Diana Ross concert in Durham. Barry Saunders, the columnist, wondered why the audience, largely gay men "who should know how to dress for the occasion," had not in fact done so. Noting that the legendary singer is "the matron saint for many gay men," he couldn't understand why we had come clad in blue jeans and fleece jackets since "gays seem to be the arbiter of style."
Stereotypes are a tricky thing. For most, it's quite clear that there's little or no truth to negative stereotypes and that it's simply wrong to characterize the members of any large group with a one-size-fits-all cliché. Then, there's the fact that uttering a disparaging stereotype is socially verboten.
But what's wrong with positive stereotypes like "Asians are really smart and keep tidy to-do lists" or "Italians are great cooks." Simply, these notions perpetuate the same kinds of gross generalizations as negative portrayals -- that is to say they are frequently exaggerated, oversimplified, if not offensive. To boot, they prevent us from seeing members of a group as individuals. The Village Voice critic, Michael Musto, an out gay man, put it bluntly:
"Even a nice stereotype is still a reduction of a mass of people to a very limiting idea. It can be used to put all of us in a box rather than view us as folks with minds and styles of our own. So don't tell me I have good taste, honey. I'll tell you to eat a pile of dogsh*t!"
Dig an inch deeper and it becomes clear that these positive stereotypes aren't really as flattering as they might seem at first. Each one cloaks a negative portrayal. For example, if Asians are so smart and tidy, who isn't? The answer: Everyone else. Along these same lines, there's the infamous "damning with faint praise" remark uttered by Joe Biden as he challenged Barack Obama in the primaries: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." A nice pat on the back! -- except that such a "positive" statement implies that African-Americans aren't usually articulate, bright, clean or nice-looking.
This is not to exclude the pressure placed upon those who don't conform or fail to meet these arbitrary and generalized images. When I was in school, a Japanese-American friend of mine, who did not excel in math, said she felt both a sense of personal failure and a collective disappointment to her family and community. Similarly, a gay blogger recalled that while Queer Eye for the Straight Guy helped LGBT visibility, "It simply made the gays who didn't have lots of taste feel extra oppressed and shat upon."
Finally, there's the undue influence that these positive stereotypes have on us - sometimes guiding us in ways they shouldn't. Studies have shown that, all things otherwise being equal, an Asian programmer is likely to be hired for a job before someone of a different race, again (consciously or not) because of the positive stereotype that Asians have more aptitude for such a line of work. In a similar vein, those considered more attractive by employers are also thought to be better employees, get more job offers, usually at higher rates of pay. In short, positive stereotypes can fuel reverse discrimination.
All this takes us back to the Diana Ross concert in Durham. Perhaps the gay men in the audience fell short of the sartorial sensibilities we're assumed to have. The fact of the matter is that it's hard to distinguish gay men from straight ones and that most of us, regardless of sexual orientation, are sloppy louts who no longer dress up when we go out on the town -- even for a diva of Miss Ross's stature.
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