Saturday, December 26, 2009

Skinny-Jeans and Durags: Gay & Black Normativity

If only through watching American TV, many of us are familiar with the stereotypical characterization of the gay man. (The Jamaican stereotype is far more limited- cross dressing-limp wristed-go-go dancing- gyali gyali-he-shes.) Many gay men do not fit either stereotype. Interestingly though, the gay community and the media have helped to normalize the stereotypes, by which all other gay men are judged as being out or not, gay or straight. I do not feel as though I am a part of the gay community in America, but my situation is more complex- even though I apparently fit many of the stereotypes, I never grew up in America and so do not associate strongly with what I like to term ‘rainbow culture’.

I recently spoke with a gay man, two years my senior, who said that he did not fit into the gay community, and was made to feel unease for this reason. His experiences forced me to ask, is there any utility in perpetuating an exclusive dominant culture within a stigmatized population? Otherwise, what are the negative implications of having a dominant culture that everyone is expected to acculturate to, and do these implications merit a revolt against the normalizing culture?

My friend shared that people suggest that he is not out enough, or assume that he is not comfortable with his sexuality, for the mere reason that he ‘passes’ more easily than others who embrace popular representations of gay men, or. How we present ourselves has a lot to do with our gender identity. You would think that gay men should better be able to recognize that the male gender encompasses a diversity of gender identities, and would be more empathetic to those excluded by the now normative standards. 

Is this dynamic different in other minority communities? Some of the elements of the stereotypical African American identity are as follows: Baggy jeans hanging below the butt. Hoodies. Durags and hats. Air Force sneakers. Having swag. Walk around any major American city, and you will see many black men who present themselves in this way. Others who do not are teased for trying to be white, and they too feel excluded from the dominant culture of which they should supposedly be a part .

Many aspects of the Black identity are stigmatized, and so a perpetuation of the black identity as we have come to know it potentially furthers the marginalization of Black males as the stereotypical male representation is also the stereotypical profile of criminals. How is it sensible for stigmatized minority groups to present themselves in ways that further distinguishes them for the dissenting majority? Because it is comforting. It gives people something to cling to... a group within which they can give their lives meaning, independent of the majority's view of them. This seems to be more important than capitulating to the expectations of the majority through assimilation.

I am very put off by suggestions that I am merely acting out what society has prescribed as appropriate social roles for gay men, so I always feel compelled to make disclaimers as to why I fit some gay stereotypes. Insecurities surfacing? Perhaps. I still have some issues with popular representations of gay men, and how they in turn influence people to perceive me a certain way I mean, some people fit the stereotypes because that is what they are most comfortable doing, and there should be nothing wrong with that. It's the disappearance of choice that gets to me. But even if I fit the stereotype, do I dance well because I am gay? Am I loud and self-confident because society expects me to be so? Do I dress well because gay men are supposed to?

It so happens that I came out at a time and in a place where it was okay to make a fool of myself on the dance floor. It was okay to have an opinion to the contrary of the majority. And I could finally afford to buy my own clothing (I do have a certain style, but I think that has more to do with being Jamaican than being gay). So it is easy to look and say Fiyu came out to the gay identity that society has created for him. How much of what I do is innate? It's hard to see when you observe countless other gay men doing the same, and when your actions mirror popular representations. Should it matter? I'm still the process of trying to figure this out.

I wish people were able to come out without the fear of being murdered. Maybe then we would be able to deconstruct the many stereotypes that help to perpetuate our marginalization; some Jamaican people are of the opinion that gay people (i.e., what little they know about them) and their lives don’t matter. I would like to introduce Jamaicans to my friend, who doesn’t think he dances well, would never be caught dead in skinny jeans, is very reserved, yet fully cognizant of his sexuality.

I can acknowledge the utility of creating some singular identity behind which people can be mobilized for the greater cause, but gay men must be careful to recognize the diversity that exists in our community, and find way to engage people of various characters. The media has put us in a box; we need not reinforce its walls and make it more difficult for others to come in... we must be doing the opposite.

This issue matters to me because I can empathize with the extremely effeminate, flamboyant gay men. I'm as gay as they come in Jamaica, so I stand out easily- or so I think. Also, I believe I was much more effeminate when I was younger. I'm not quite sure if I lost (most of) it as I matured, or if Jamaica's efforts at social conditioning finally got to me. Flamboyant gay men are stereotypically bold. They are at the forefront of the fight for LGBT rights, and it makes sense that they are, since they are most easily identified as gay, and suffer the most homophobic hatred and violence. Those of us who can pass do so, because life is that much more challenging otherwise. But I also empathize with those that become outsiders to the gay community, because I understand well what it means to be ostracized from a community in which you feel you should belong.

It is impossible to create a singular identity for all members of any minority group. Or rather, it is difficult to create a singular identity that everyone will embrace. Every community is by its very nature exclusive. It is imperative that we have a certain sensitivity to this, and help to integrate people who may be different from prevailing standards as much as is possible. Diversity is good. After all, Isn't that the message we take to the majority?


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