Somewhere along the way many got the idea that the “gay community” was homogenous—their personalities immutable to sexual orientation. Often when I’m at a party carrying on a conversation with someone I’ve met and casually mention something about my boyfriend I’m met the classic “You’re gay? You don’t seem gay at all!” In my youth I always took this as a compliment, I felt more accepted. In these subtle ways we reinforce that there is something implicitly wrong or strange about being gay, and (unknowingly) perpetuate homophobia.
These comments, however, are not meant with harm. In fact, the statement is given as a compliment; it’s great that you don’t seem gay! The statement is based on assumptions that all gay men are effeminate and flamboyant. It also subtly implies that women, as a rule, are inferior. This is a large over-arching reason for institutional homophobia. Homosexuality upsets traditional norms of male and female in a similar way that multiracial children upset understandings of ethnicity and race. For some people it’s too much, but that is changing.
It’s not about tolerance; it’s about being inclusive as a community. We all want to be accepted and judged for whom we are—our individual personalities and character, not with a blanket (and superfluous) categorization. The issue is not exclusive to gays, we all face similar situations. To be judged solely on one facet of ourselves typically irritates and infuriates anybody. We’re all guilty for doing it to others as well. However, partaking in this behavior enables a culture of hostility, misunderstanding, and aggression.
Stereotypes aren’t necessarily norms; they’re what are easily visible. As an openly gay teen I dealt with surprisingly little harassment. However, this comes back to that original statement—“you don’t seem that gay”, meanwhile others in my position dealt with perpetual bullying. Our impressions of gay people as homogenous in mannerisms and behavior are as ludicrous as expecting everyone with brown hair to be good at math. We’re all unique individuals with many labels and roles—father, sister, friend, teacher, Christian, black, skinny, female, short, etc. We’re a lot of things, but first and foremost we’re ourselves.
So next time you’re talking to someone find out something you didn’t expect, take a minute to question if you’re seeing them for who they are or unknowingly imposing a stereotype on them.
Matthew Harby has a B.A. in Anthropology from Oneonta State College. He works as a community educator and development specialist in Delaware County, NY.