If I were Rory Albanese's sister (or his sister's girlfriend), I'd have been furious. On Saturday night I went to see Albanese and his Daily Show co-stalwart Adam Lowitt at their inauguration-themed comedy show at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., but amid the political wit, not one but both of them used their professed support of equal marriage as a springboard to make jokes about how lesbians are ugly. Lowitt was first up, saying that while lesbians sound hot in theory, when you meet them in real life they're ugly and look like men; Albanese followed up this gem by telling us his that sister is gay and that his sister's girlfriend has the same name as his own girlfriend -- but that there's no way he could mix them up, because his sister's girlfriend looks like a man.
The audience, being encouraged (twice) to laugh at the alleged "ugliness" of lesbians, mainly did so uncomfortably, and I sat amongst them feeling offended -- and wondering whether it was appropriate for me to feel offended. Was I being overly touchy? Politically correct? Is being gay such a non-issue now that it's ripe for this sort of treatment by Emmy-winning comedians? I don't think so. Last week's awkward coming out by Jodie Foster underlines that -- even as she received a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, she struggled to deliver the simple and prosaic information that she is attracted to women, and the Internet has bombarded us with editorials and blogs analyzing her words ever since. Actual or perceived sexual identity remains prime bullying and discrimination material. This isn't the face of a non-issue. Coming out, or being identified as gay, is still far from business as usual.
Furthermore, generalized, derogatory comments about lesbians' looks are clearly not OK. Last year Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll told reporters that she couldn't possibly have engaged in homosexual acts because she didn't look like a lesbian. This ridiculous statement spawned a huge furor and a social media campaign, "This Is What a Lesbian Looks Like," that saw lesbians posting photos of themselves to demonstrate that, just like anyone else, lesbians come in all shapes, sizes and styles. People were upset because she was pigeonholing a huge group of people and essentially fanning prejudice and stigmatizing lesbians for being different. And that's what these two men did in their comedy show: They tried to indoctrinate their audiences, through the use of humor, in the idea that lesbians are ugly. And just as it wasn't OK for Carroll to promote and seek society's complicity in this sort of judgmental prejudice, it isn't OK for them.
Perhaps if the comedians and audience had been lesbians poking fun at themselves, I might have felt differently, but these jokes were overtly "laughing at" rather than "laughing with." And for me, that just feels inappropriate, and not just inappropriate but crass, pathetic, insulting, and damaging to everyone.
At the end of the day, I think a lot of this comes down to visibility. Many people equate having a butch style with being a lesbian. It's a visual that traditionally carries stereotypical assumptions. Of course, some lesbians do choose that style (just as some non-lesbians do), and labeling it "ugly" or "like a man" is clearly offensively ridiculous and based in some outdated, male-defined vision of gender roles and exactly what a woman "ought" to look like as she cleans, cooks and defers to her masterful husband. Society has moved on, and these days definitions of beauty and ugliness say more about the labeler than the labeled. But the stereotypes persist, perhaps partly because sexuality is not publicly obvious, like the color of your skin, for instance. Many lesbians choose not to make their sexuality known to the people they meet, so not everyone has a passing familiarity with the infinite diversity of styles sported by lesbians, because they just don't know who is a lesbian. And so the old visual stereotype sticks.
Maybe it's time to not just criticize the ignorant public for perpetuating offensive jokes, assumptions and stereotypes about lesbians. Maybe it's time for lesbians (and LGBTQ people in general) to stand up and be counted. Stereotypes are fuelled by ignorance. Just by being open about who we are, we can educate people that neither the local woman with a butch style nor the woman in the porn video is the poster child for lesbians. In fact, most people probably know plenty of lesbians, whether they're aware of it or not, and just like heterosexuals, lesbians are diverse. They have long hair and short hair and medium-length hair; they wear dresses, jeans, high heels, flat shoes and medium-height shoes; they are friendly, rude, clever, less clever and everything else that makes up any population. Their looks don't dictate their personality. They aren't some sort of other; they're neighbors, teachers, doctors, artists, bus drivers and ballet dancers... and they're as normal a part of society as anyone else.
Though I don't think Jodie Foster was obliged to come out, I'm glad she did, because she is publicly visible, and that visibility challenges the assumptions about what lesbians are like, the stereotypes that people make out of ignorance, on a global scale. Many more people are now aware that someone they admire happens to also be a lesbian. But of course you don't have to be a celebrity to influence people's preconceptions and neutralize their prejudices. Anyone can do it. It's one of the reasons why, for instance, I talk about my wife at work and bring her to office functions. In one of my last jobs, doing so encouraged several members of my staff to come out at work, or to be more comfortable bringing their partners to work events. And that affected their happiness and social integration and led to a tiny shift that every member in my organization experienced in their perceptions and experiences about what a gay or lesbian person is.
Earlier this week Obama said, "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," and gay people can help make that happen by coming out and demonstrating that we're just like anyone else. So take your same-sex partner to the office party. Hold hands in the street if a romantic mood takes you. Talk about your partner without using an impersonal pronoun. Help society lose their prejudices through exposure to gay and lesbian people beyond the stereotypes. Of course, there will always be ill-intentioned, prejudiced people. But I reckon the majority of people are probably just well-meaning but uninformed. And every time we are brave, every time we reveal our sexuality in a matter-of-fact way at appropriate times, we help people understand that gay and lesbian people aren't all special or weird or different or ugly or beautiful or anything else. We don't look one way or another. We don't act one way or another. We don't need to be treated in a special way. We are just like anyone else. It isn't a big deal. And every time we come out, we help more people come out. So if you're someone who chooses to stay in the closet, there may be good reasons, but it would be great if you would reexamine them and help the public treat gay and lesbian people, as Obama says, like anyone else.