Last week, Sacha Baron Cohen, while in disguise on his new show, got the notorious Joe Arpaio ― the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and a loyal supporter of President Donald Trump ― to say he’d accept an “amazing blow job” from the president.
The stunt illustrated, as it was meant to, how far some Trump backers might go in supporting the president (though Arpaio later said he “couldn’t understand” Baron Cohen’s question). The absurdity of it draws a laugh, even from many of us who are queer.
But the joke nonetheless rests on the tired premise that gay sex is one of the most grotesque things anyone could possibly do. It anticipates a certain amount of shock on the part of the audience at the thought of two men engaging in a sex act. If the roles were different ― if Arpaio were an openly gay man who was being asked if he’d go so far as to have a female politician he supported perform oral sex on him ― the joke wouldn’t work. It would likely be seen as degrading to the woman to even raise the question, but Arpaio wouldn’t be the butt of the joke.
Baron Cohen could just have easily asked Arpaio if he’d clean Trump’s toilet with a toothbrush or eat maggots from a bowl if the president asked. But for many people, those actions wouldn’t be as funny as Arpaio receiving a blow job from Trump, and that says something about our popular culture.
Casual homophobia ― the perpetuation of anti-gay tropes and language ― persists in our society, including among those who consider themselves supporters of LGBTQ equality.
It appears more glaring in the Trump era. We’ve seen well-meaning liberals and late-night comedians, from Jimmy Kimmel to Stephen Colbert (and, more recently, even the New York Times editorial page), come under fire for joking that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are sex partners, often with Trump in the submissive role. Trump is Putin’s “cock holster,” Colbert cracked last year.
Chelsea Handler attempted to demean Attorney General Jeff Sessions a few months ago by calling him a “bottom.” She’s also joked that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ― who’s long denied rumors that he’s gay ― must be a victim of blackmail, with someone holding a “dick sucking video” over his head. “Wouldn’t coming out be more honorable?” Handler asked.
Queer people have certainly joked about Graham and the rumors. I have myself. But Handler’s tweets about these Republican men, coming from a straight liberal within a particularly mocking context and using gay and bisexual men’s sexual slang, comes off as an attempt to humiliate the target by associating them with gay sex.
In fact, bottom shaming is a running theme. Kimmel, feuding with Sean Hannity on Twitter in April, asked Hannity whether Trump prefers him to “bottom,” trying to ridicule him in the same way Colbert tried to ridicule Trump with his “cock holster” line. Over the past decade we’ve seen similar kinds of jokes in Seth Rogen’s films and films by director Judd Apatow. Yet both men ― like Kimmel, Handler and Colbert ― are progressive Hollywood champions of LGBTQ rights.
Tolerating casual homophobia opens up a space for more blatant forms of bigotry. Thus, in 2018 we still see comedians imitating gay men with stereotyped, effeminate, high-pitched voices, something Dave Chappelle continually works into his routines. Another classic smear persists as well: calling someone gay as an insult in retaliation for something offensive he or she did. The most prominent recent example was Kim Kardashian’s slap back at Tyson Beckford for fat shaming her in discussing her body. “Sis we all know why you don’t care for it,” Kardashian tweeted, followed by teacup, frog and nail polish emojis.
The use of anti-LGBTQ epithets by people who otherwise position themselves as supporters of LGBTQ rights ― or at any rate, who don’t pose as enemies of LGBTQ equality ― is still commonplace. Rapper Cardi B and her fiance Offset, while defending a song where Offset raps “I cannot vibe with queers,” claimed in February that they didn’t know the term “queer” has been used to refer to gay people, let alone its history as a slur. (Offset argued that the dictionary defines “queer” as “odd” or “weird,” which seemed pretty weak.)
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the resurfacing of racist and homophobic tweets from three Major League Baseball players, all of them white. Atlanta Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb, for example, used “fag” in tweet after tweet while in college. All three players issued apologies, and other players spoke out against the language. Sean Doolittle of the Washington Nationals tweeted out a terrific and powerful thread that went viral.
“There’s no place for racism, insensitive language or even casual homophobia,” he said. That Doolittle felt he had to say “even casual homophobia” was a telling indication that demeaning LGBTQ people is widely considered acceptable in a way that demeaning other groups isn’t ― at least in the male sports world. Doolittle also likely wasn’t aware that when he said it “sucks” to see racist and homophobic language, he was, ironically, engaging in bottom shaming. After all, what exactly are people talking about sucking on when they derogatorily say someone “sucks”? The truth is, many of us unknowingly use language every day that subtly stigmatizes.
The website NoHomophobes.com, a project of Canada’s University of Alberta, tracks homophobia on Twitter, tallying the numbers daily and listing tweets that include the terms “faggot,” “dyke,” “no homo” and “so gay,” each adding up to thousands per day.
“Homophobic language isn’t always meant to be hurtful, but how often do we use it without thinking?” the website asks, leaving it to readers to judge the tweets in context.
Why are we speaking out more about casual homophobia now? My theory is that it’s not because of how far we’ve come ― it’s actually because of how far we’ve realized we haven’t come.
We accepted casual homophobia among liberals, particularly comedians, just a few years ago. We seem to have thought it was all right for them, in specific contexts, to use anti-gay slurs and make gay jokes, since they ― and much of America ― were supposedly so much more enlightened in the Obama era.
An example of this was Louis C.K. and his “faggot” monologue in 2011 that received millions of views on YouTube and elsewhere. In the routine, C.K. uses the word “faggot” over and over again, but he jokes that he isn’t referring to gay men or men who have sex with one another. He just means guys who are a particular kind of annoying ― feeble-sounding guys with high-pitched voices who say “faggy” things like “People from Phoenix are Phoenicians.”
Partly due to his talent, but mostly due to the time we were in ― in which we thought full equality had arrived, and a seemingly enlightened straight man could throw this word around ― a lot of people bought that. Those who criticized C.K. were considered overly sensitive, or were accused of not getting the joke. Of course he wasn’t being homophobic, defenders said. And yes, they said, he could use that word.
But looking at the clip now, given the accusations of sexual harassment several women have brought against C.K. ― which he confirmed were true ― and the onset of the Trump era, it’s pretty cringeworthy. Misogyny and homophobia are interconnected (bottom shaming, for example, is both sexist and anti-gay), as both emanate from anxiety about masculinity.
Comedian and author Guy Branum, who is gay, sent the 2011 clip to his followers on Twitter shortly after the sexual harassment allegations against C.K. went public. “Just a reminder he did this a few years ago and you guys were still declaring him the greatest comic alive,” Branum wrote. Someone replied, “I have had so many straight dudes use that routine as a justification to say that word.”
Indeed, giving a pass to any public figure promoting anti-gay tropes or language ― including those considered well-meaning allies ― allows homophobia to flourish throughout the culture.
This Sunday, Sacha Baron Cohen was back with a new episode of “Who Is America?” where he tangled with a gun rights advocate. The punchline? He tricked his target into simulating oral sex with a dildo. Hilarious.
Michelangelo Signorile is an editor-at-large for HuffPost. Follow him on Twitter at @msignorile.