Joy Reid made homophobic remarks. To her credit, she released an apology addressing this controversy. However, is she just becoming a scapegoat for our cultural sexual orientation hierarchy, and how we compare straight and gay men? This isn’t just about where heterosexual men sit on the hierarchy, but about where they are placed by others as well. And using “gay” as an insult is one way of keeping that hierarchy firmly in place.
There is a really tough truth in this Joy Reid story. Gay insults aren’t just a conservative issue. They are very much a progressive issue as well. As a gay man, I have observed many insulting comments from progressives and liberals. What makes these comments dangerous? They came out of the mouths of self-proclaimed allies of the gay community, with no awareness of how hurtful they were being.
As a mental health therapist, many of my experiences with progressives and our gay hierarchy have occurred among colleagues. I am in a private practice with several gay practitioners. However, we also have a straight male in our practice as well. As a practice, we focus heavily on helping LGBTQ clients with self-acceptance. On at least two occasions, I had colleagues insinuate that our straight male therapist was secretly gay, because he worked in our practice and felt a passion to help the LGBTQ community as well. These comments came as suspicion, but also came as insulting gossip as well. The undertone felt like someone was saying, “no straight man in his right mind would work with gay men, unless he had an ulterior motive.”
I have observed similar insulting behaviors with my friends as well. For example, a heterosexual tennis player joined a primarily gay tennis league that I’m on. It wasn’t long before people were assuming that this meant he was gay. Straight men are treated with suspicion and insinuation when they are friends or want to interact with gay men. These assumptions communicate that straight men should really only interact with gay men if they are forced to. Also, if they do interact with us, they have made themselves the willing participants of gossip and ridicule.
On the surface, it looks like these insults offend only straight men. The truth is that they offend the gay community so much more. When we use gay stereotypes and insinuation to tear men down, we keep gay men firmly in their place. We communicate to them that they are less worthy and acceptable than straight men.
So what about Joy Reid? Her comments were about Charlie Crist, the former governor of Florida. Crist has long been subject to rumors that he is gay. He also has a history of being anti-gay in his political perspectives. Therefore, he obviously wasn’t advocating for or openly engaging in interactions with gay men. However, it speaks to that larger issue of sexual orientation hierarchy. Why is it a tear down or an insult to be called gay?
We often put identity political failures on the backs of Republicans, especially as it relates to LGBTQ issues. Can we really do this in good conscience, if we don’t start to look in our progressive mirrors first? We are all contributing to this hierarchy, and point out the failures of other groups allows us to evade dealing with ourselves.
It’s uncomfortable and it’s vulnerable to face how we hurt people. We are all at risk of stereotyping and putting people into categories where they don’t fit. We’re likely to fail, but we have to accept our failures, discuss them, and circle back around to our own values systems. This means that we may have to own some things by apologizing and sharing those lines that we’ve crossed. This helps to mend some of the hurt that is left behind when we cross these boundaries.
We also have to leave the identification of sexual orientation up to each person. It isn’t news worthy, because it’s not gossip worthy. Whether a man is gay, straight, or bisexual, we have to accept their own identification. Of course, there are many journeys that people go through to find their own self-acceptance. However, gossiping and approaching these people with suspicion only increases isolation. So does using sexual orientation as a way of pushing forward your own agenda.
In the case of Joy Reid’s comments, politics were being discussed. We have to remember that emotions can make us step outside of our own values. We all are at risk of ending up this territory before we even know it. In fact, we’ve all been there in different ways. I don’t know Joy, but I do think people make mistakes and they can recovery from them. This takes time, and it’s a journey that she is going to have to travel. However, the journey of this rhetoric isn’t really about her. It’s about a long history, a long hierarchy, and who really wants this to change. It’s in our nature to categorize, which makes it easy to live in a world of hierarchies. Yet, I believe that these hierarchies can really hurt and shame people. This means we have to take those long, difficult walks into the discomfort of knowing how much our lack of awareness can cut into other people.