Wednesday, February 02, 2005

That’s Entertainment: Oprah, Eminem, and Homophobic Representations in American Media

By Max Gordon
Democratic Underground
February 8, 2005

Adrian is furious. Hearing his voice, I am reminded that the friends I’ve had in my life have usually fallen into two categories, both extreme. There are the ones who are in a panic because the light inside their microwave just went out and do I know how to fix it; and the others who call to say everything’s fine now, but did I hear they were in a near-fatal accident last month?

Adrian is of the latter; he gets on with things. Living with HIV as a black man, he refuses to engage, for even the briefest moment, in self-pity; in fact the opposite: he is triumphant. I admire this in him, not because of the HIV, but for how he responds to the adversity it sometimes brings him. When Adrian calls, and sounds as he does today, I know there is a serious reason behind it.

“It’s Oprah.” He draws a long, deep breath. “She just did a show about married men having “secret sex” with other men. It was outrageous. So shamed-based and vicious. Did you see it?”

I remind him that I didn’t see the show because I don’t have a television. It was a decision that I made out of college never to live with one again. I have a TV monitor to watch the videos and DVD’s I own, and in the kitchen is a football-sized mini-TV that I received as a gift and keep for emergencies and the radio; on a good day it offers two snowy, wobbly channels and a screen the size of a piece of burnt toast. I knew very well how a television could fill a room with warmth, how it could absorb loneliness, but I chose silence instead, fearing that once I turned on the damn thing, I’d never write a word.

“You can just shut it off when you don’t want to watch,” the TV pushers would say, but from a childhood of incessant television-watching, I knew better. Unable to resist the Law and Order, West Wing, Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex in the City conversations at work or parties, I’d have to watch because, more than anything, I just can’t stand being left out. The TV would always be there, beckoning, demanding to be turned on because I was “missing something.” It was bad enough when I was a child with a few stations; now there seemed to be more channels than there were countries to visit on the planet. (I’d spent one night at my sister’s house and stayed up watching her cable, locked in a trance until 4 a.m., and promising myself I’d go to bed after one last 70’s sitcom, news update, old movie, music video, infommercial, unsolved mystery.) When friends came over to my house and shamed me, asking incredulously, “You don’t even have cable?”, I told them that I chose not to have a television because I liked what happened in homes without it—someone gets out a deck of cards, a songbook is carried to the piano, a magazine article is read out loud or an interesting story from the day recalled and rendered. More honestly and to the point, I knew it wasn’t an exaggeration that, given my level of compulsivity, and the severe depressions I experienced in response to my past and unsatisfactory present, when offered the more compelling existences found on television, I would be tempted never to leave the house again (an option many of us might consider if not forced out of our homes daily by economic circumstance). TV distracted me from the constant exasperation and disappointment I felt towards myself and what my life had become. Wasn’t that what stardom and the obsession to follow famous people’s lives were about anyway?

In 1994, I was returning to the office after a dentist’s appointment and noticed a group of people standing in line. I’d been in New York for only two years from Michigan and the city still held a sense of possibility that anywhere or at anytime something could happen that might change my life forever. When I asked a woman what she was standing in line for, she said brightly, “The Ricky Lake Show!” Had there been one more moment to pause I might have walked away, but the line began to move forward, and with someone standing directly behind me, I realized I was in it and on my way to my first taping of a television show. I had only promised the office that I’d try to return before the day ended, so I stayed in the line, waiting to be instantly ejected after someone demanded a ticket and scrutinized the look of unease on my face. It didn’t happen. I wasn’t particularly fond of Ricky Lake, but having grown up on school closings and days home sick watching The Donahue Show (I learned more from his interviews with male crossdressers, housewives who held sex-toy parties for profit, and Ralph Nader’s consumer tips, than from anything that was going on in my 6th grade math class), I was fascinated by the possibility of seeing how a talk show was taped. Ricky Lake was no Phil Donahue (by the end even Donahue was no Donahue) but a talk show was a talk show, and as we were led into the studio, and I saw the cameras and empty chairs on the stage, the crew prepared for the taping, I remembered again that I lived in one of the major entertainment factories of the world. I took a brief moment to approve of myself for having the temerity to move to the City, despite the horror that had already bubbled to the surface of my New York experience. So far, I’d been mugged twice; the first time with my consent, as I allowed myself to be ripped off by a “music producer” named Mr. Mike. He’d overheard me singing as I walked past him on the street, told me my voice was amazing and that he would do everything necessary to make me a star, all I needed was two hundred and fifty dollars to get things started. It took two meetings with Mr. Mike to realize that I’d paid three hundred dollars for the privilege of drinking two cups of coffee in a hot office waiting to meet another producer who was never “in” when we got there. My second mugging had been more severe: I’d been in an alcoholic black out at the time. In two years, New York had lost some of its shine, and though I was wary of suffering another humiliation (the ones I faced daily at work and riding the subway didn’t count), there were still new adventures to be had.

Ricky’s audience was primed by a truly ghastly comic, reminding me of fabled funnymen who, when presented to the King, knew that a deadly fate awaited them if he was not amused. It was the first of many macabre moments before the show even started. I was sour already, having been escorted to a seat in the corner that was so far away from any camera’s range, I might have been backstage or underneath it. I’d at least hoped that someone I knew might be watching at home when the show aired and would see me in the audience. In the end, I decided it was useless to sulk. It wasn’t their fault that I had walked in off the street. The others wore jeans, tank-tops, high-tops, low-riders, and chains: I was dressed in a conservative suit and tie, and my hair had begun to gray that year at 24. Compared with the others, I was a grandfather.

The events of that day have stayed in my memory in a “did-that-really happen-or-was-that-a-nightmare-I-had” way. Some minor details are harder to recall, while others rush to the fore with insistent clarity. The comic’s hysteria was intended to pump us up for Ricky, who finally emerged to earsplitting applause and cheers, wearing an outfit that strained credibility: she had on a Shirley Temple good-ship-lollypop number, with a little “anchors away” flap on the back that no one over the age of seven should ever have been asked to wear. That was the first time it occurred to me that I might be trapped—sitting the farthest from the exit, if I pulled someone aside and told them I wanted to get the hell out of there that instant, I was very likely to be told to sit down until the taping ended.

The show was called something like “My Baby’s Got a Secret” or “Partners who Cheat.” A woman named “Stacey”, who came on stage wearing an attractive pants-suit and shaking out her auburn, shoulder-length hair, sat down and crossed her legs after we welcomed her. Stacey’s secret was that she had been having a lesbian affair behind her husband’s back. She told us bits of her story, and Ricky listened to the details of the woman’s affair with a concentration normally reserved for quantum physics. A hand shot up in the audience and Ricky rushed to it, extending an enormous studio mike.

“What I don’t get,” a woman said, obviously the mother in a mother-daughter duo—(they were wearing the same outfit), “is that you don’t look anything like a lesbian. You don’t have a motorcycle helmet or big shoulders, you’re not tough or hard like a man, you know what I mean?” The audience chuckled and Ricky turned to Stacey for a response. Stacey smiled as if she’d been offered a compliment. Throughout the taping, Ricky had been glancing over to the side from time to time, and when I finally followed her gaze, I noticed her offstage team; a woman with professional, no-nonsense-producer glasses, two men in corporate suits who whispered to each other, and another man, squatting with headphones, who held giant cue cards and a black magic marker. The producer woman whispered to the “techy” looking man who quickly wrote something in oversized letters and lifted the sign,” RICKY YOU MUST ADDRESS THAT WOMAN’S COMMENT ABOUT LESBIANS”. The conversation was onto something else, but Ricky interrupted it, enunciating with great care, “I just want to remind everyone after the last question that not every lesbian wears a motorcycle helmet or looks like a man. That’s a stereotype.” She announced we’d return after a commercial break, we were encouraged again to applaud wildly, and Ricky’s strained smile finally relaxed when an official voice announced the taping had stopped.

She’d barely walked two feet before a woman ran at her, wielding a make-up brush with the exuberance of a serial killer. Cords were gathered, cameras slid across the floor, and people rushed around in every direction, studying clipboards, checking sound and doing TV people things, until eventually the announcement was made we’d be back on in a few seconds. Despite myself, I was enthralled.

The make-up woman evaluated Ricky, turning her face this way and that, until Ricky wrenched herself free with irritation. Hair restyled and make-up freshly glamoured, she smoothed the front of her dress, took her mike and her cards, and the countdown began. “And five, four, three, two, one…” The assistant accidentally brought her in at the wrong time and Ricky had started her monologue a few seconds too early. Someone said, “Cut.” The sunshine leaked out of Ricky’s face and was replaced by a smoldering hostility. The woman, bent almost double, offered an apology. “I’m so sorry, Ricky. We’re going to have to do it again.” Members of the audience roared with laughter, not at the technical error but the groveling, and a chant began making its way from the first row to the back. “Yeah, Camera Lady, Lick That Ass, Lick That Ass!” The woman walked off to the side with a look of mortification and Ricky seemed temporarily mollified. I thought of lions and Christians, the perversity of the human animal, and how much I despised us, including myself, for what it took these days to entertain us.

Now came the moment we’d all been waiting for—the response from the cuckolded partners. Stacey was with a man named Mike who came out on stage. After brief applause the interrogation began: How did it feel to know his wife had been with another woman? Was it the same as if she’d cheated with another man? What did his friends think? Did his family know? Mike squirmed in his chair, looking too small and boyish in his suit jacket. Despite the humor of it all, there was a storm cloud of despair hovering over everything, threatening to break. I wondered how much Mike was getting paid; he was probably wondering the same thing. It might have been different if he’d been the “Sure my wife’s getting it on with another woman and I’m a little jealous, but come on, you gotta admit the shit’s kinda hot” variety of straight man, but he wasn’t. With his slightly unkempt blonde hair and the whiskers under his chin, he struck me as a guy that might be bewildered to find he was still bagging groceries at 26. There were other couples on stage too; buffoonish, too loud and aggressively false, but Mike and Stacey are forever imprinted on my memory, because of what came next.

Thinking there were no greater depths to descend to and that the show had almost ended, I was dispirited to find out there was still more. Ricky brought out her last guest, a “psychic” black woman in a purple turban or towering, crushed Dr. Suess hat who was to predict the future for each of the couples. I might have laughed at the comic absurdity of it, the freak-show, three-ring circus, show-stopping outrageousness of it all; but off to the side and catching glimpses of Mike’s face, I was starting to feel like a bystander at a hit-and-run accident, or a drowning. When the psychic got to Stacey and Mike, saved for last, she faced the audience and admonished Stacey for her indiscretion, then leaned over and spoke directly to Mike. Stacey’s affair was definitely over, she predicted, she wouldn’t cheat again. And yes, she had been wrong, but ultimately it was Mike who was at fault. The psychic’s accent was West Indian, (of course), and she moistened her lips, unable to resist the deadly deliciousness of her pronouncement: “If you had been ‘getting the job done’ in the bedroom, my dear, Stacey wouldn’t have had to find a woman to satisfy her.”

Mike’s body went rigid. He sat bolt upright and glanced around, as if he’d just woken up from a nap and found himself on the stage of a national television talk show. The audience roared and stomped, and he blanched. I couldn’t decide what was worse, the show’s creepy message, Mike’s humiliation, or the fact that the writers had been too cowardly to have Ricky deliver it herself, but had sent instead this Aladdin’s lamp of a black woman, looking drunk and wearing a broken umbrella on her head. Once again, with a Coke and a smile, TV had bowled another strike and with one show, managing to knock down black women, lesbians, and working-class white men, while leaving the rest of us to its nasty payoff—a momentary condescension and superiority that we could all enjoy, no matter how low the lives we returned to were when we walked out of the studio or turned the channel at home.

The show was definitely over—maybe everyone sensed that in one more minute Mike might have erupted and gone for Ricky or Ms. Lampshade—and I was outside again, inches from where I’d asked the woman why she was standing in line two hours ago. It took days to consider exactly what I’d seen. What I did know was that I had an ominous feeling about the new direction of TV talk-shows, and a sense of dread for what was to come.

In March 1995, talk-show host Jenny Jones did a program called “Secret Crushes.” Jonathan Schmitz, 26, agreed to appear, expecting his admirer to be a woman, not his gay neighbor, 32-year-old Scott Amedure. During the taping of the show, Schmitz was told that Amedure’s fantasy was to “tie him up in a hammock and spray whipped cream and champagne all over his body.” Three days after they returned to Michigan, Schmitz purchased a 12-gauge shotgun, went to Amedure's mobile home, and fired two shots at close range into his chest. Once outside the trailer park, he stopped at a payphone, called 911, and told the operator: "I just shot this guy . . . because he fucked me on national TV. . . . I just walked into his house and killed him. He was after me day and night." Although the defendants in the case argued that the show had no reason to suspect that Schmitz would kill Amedure, and that Schmitz's behavior and answers in a pre-show interview did not suggest that he was homophobic or had the potential for violence, the lawyer for the Amedure family emphasized Schmitz's history of mental illness, particularly his prior suicide attempts, and what the producers of "Jenny Jones" allegedly could and should have done to screen him and prevent him from coming on the show. Lawyer Geoffrey Fieger argued that the producers knew Schmitz did not want his secret admirer to be a man. The talk-show world anxiously awaited the verdict of the damages case: an Oakland County jury awarded Amedure’s family 25 million dollars. The case was later appealed by the show’s owner, Warner Brothers, and on October 23, 2002, a Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the decision. In June 2004, the Supreme Court denied the Amedures a final opportunity to appeal.

In February 2000, actress Robin Givens took over the hosting duties of a talk-show called Forgive and Forget. 17-year-old Charlene Burkey appeared on the show with her boyfriend Larry Kieper. The two were paid $135 dollars and their travel expenses to appear. The episode was called, “You’re 17, Quit Making Babies.” On the show, Burkey was urged by her friend Nora Ibrahim to leave Kieper. During a heated moment of the taping, as reported by, Burkey slapped Keiper. On the plane ride home, Keiper repeatedly referred to Burkey as a “ho.” The New York Post reported that three weeks later, she was found lying on a Cleveland street bleeding from two bullet wounds in her head. Kieper was not charged in the murder, but two of his close friends were. Charlene Burkey died the day her appearance on Forgive and Forget aired, and was survived by her two children.

In an episode of The Jerry Springer Show entitled “Secret Mistresses Confronted”, taped in May of 2000 and aired in July, Ralf Panitz and his wife Eleanor Panitz accused his former wife Nancy Campbell-Panitz of stalking them. The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported that Campbell-Panitz was apparently unaware at the time of the taping that her husband had remarried, and had been lured onto the show in the belief that her former husband wanted to reconcile with her. CNN reported at the time that she arrived on the show only to be confronted by her ex-husband and his new wife. Using the “gotcha” element of surprise typical of “reality” TV, the couple announced to Campbell-Panitz that they were married. They accused her of stalking them, and Campell-Panitz walked offstage after the audience applauded Eleanor Panitz for calling her “old and fat.” A few days after the show aired—not long after she told a judge she feared for her life—Campbell-Panitz was found dead in her Sarasota home. Ralf Panitz was taken into custody and charged with beating his ex-wife to death, allegedly because of an ongoing property dispute over their house.

Several months before my mother died in 1998, I used to beg her not to watch Jerry Springer. I remember telling her during one visit, “You might as well just watch a flashing screen with the message ‘God is Dead’ over and over again, Mom.” She had a degenerative neurological disease that wasn’t improving and I’d taken the “new-age” high ground at the time, preaching that she wasn’t going to get well if she kept taking in so much negativity. I was insensitive to the fact that as the disease had finally moved into her hands, and as she was no longer able to manipulate a computer mouse or hold a book, the only entertainment she felt was left to her was television. I think Jerry Springer gave her immense pleasure, although she would not have been proud to admit it: she’d finally lived long enough to see white people debase themselves on television with the wretchedness normally assigned to blacks. Lower-class whites who might have been overheard uttering in their homes or trailers, “I ain’t living next to no niggers” now “niggerfied” themselves before the world on national television as guests on Springer’s show. I tried to remind her with my college-politics arrogance, exceeded only by my “new-age” arrogance, that white working-class people were victims of the system too; but she was more interested in the spectacle. “They have the nerve to call us niggers, and just look at them.” Defeated, I sat on the edge of the bed and watched with her, trying to suppress my own fascination. (That woman really slept with her daughter’s husband and had a baby, and now the daughter’s husband’s child is her own half-sister?) After the relief and “jollies” that always come from knowing there is a family in the world more fucked-up than yours, I began to feel the pain again of watching white and black people, morbidly obese, some of them without teeth or adequate clothing, pulling each other’s hair, throwing chairs, cursing, lunging across the room, slapping each other, and making violent threats as they were held back by family members or Jerry’s staff, while Jerry stood by with a feigned look of surprise. I felt the same way watching boxing—I was an ultra-fag, a humorless priss, who couldn’t appreciate a good sport and see the talent and glory of being a prizefighter. Instead, I could only focus on the theater of two black men almost beating each other to death in a ring while wealthy white people clapped, placed bets and ate hot dogs. The Springer show was just another ring with spectators; poor families beating each other over abuse, neglect and betrayals, mothers and daughter fighting for the same man and crying while the audience cheered. I remember thinking, It can’t get any worse than this in America. We’re like a monster that eats its own babies. These people don’t need to be paraded as comedy for the rest of the country: they need substance abuse and family counseling, they need jobs and food, they need some goddamn dental work, for Christ’s sake. Their crimes aren’t really incest, rape, infidelity or domestic violence as the show would suggest—America doesn’t mind those, really, if they are done in private by people with wealth. Their crime is that they are poor, and that they need attention or money badly enough to let us exploit them. Occasionally I’d encounter people who just “loved” watching Springer, and who loved even more the look on my face when they announced it. When I argued that the show was corrosive to the spirit, it was suggested in veiled terms that I was a prude, a bitter nerd, a killjoy. Besides, everyone knows that’s how “white trash” acts, and that they are getting paid. It’s just a television show. It never seemed to matter when I argued that the pain is real and that we are exploiting it for pornographic thrills rather than offering help. That people may be poor, violent, cruel to each other, and desperate, they may even give up hope eventually, losing contact with their dignity and becoming whores who sell their pain for someone else’s profit; but nobody deserves to be violated like that, even if they do sign up and get paid for it. No one, whoever they are, is ever trash. (There is no such thing as “black trash” in America—the term would be considered redundant.)

When aging pop stars came out a few years ago to show how hip they were by defending Eminem, they used his creativity and fame as jumper cables for their own stalled careers. Those who were critical of his music were accused of wanting to censor him or of being unable to appreciate his “daring” brand of pathological humor. The only conversation was about how brave or funny Eminem’s music was, and the discussions about the homophobia and sexism in his lyrics ended there, eventually sealed forever with the gay stamp of approval when Elton John performed “Stan” with him at the Grammys in 2001. An artist isn’t brave when attacking the easy targets: blacks, women, gays—the underdogs. As America’s stream of hate already flows in that direction, there is no tension, no matter how hard the beat or surprising the inventiveness. It is the ennui at the core of most of our commercial art—the garden-variety fascism and sleepwalking that some artists engage in when they take the party line on oppression and choose to empower our hateful cultural beliefs—that women and fags (anyone who resists patriarchal dominance) should be dead. The possibilities for social transformation and protest are lost on an artist like Eminem, who will always have a place at the table of patriarchy as a white man, but who also understands being “niggered” in America, having grown up white and working-class in Detroit. With an access that many oppressed people could never have, Eminem can enter the “master’s house” as a white man (a phrase used by the great lesbian poet Audre Lorde), and “dismantle it” from the inside. I wanted Eminem to pick on someone his own size and direct his awesome contempt towards one who really deserved it. (He eventually did. The song “Mosh”, Eminem’s “read” on George W. Bush, is a masterpiece; one white bully stands up to another. Eminem, as George W. Bush’s American son displaced by poverty, repudiates and rejects his father’s patriarchal war and his inheritance of racist world dominance.) At the time of Eminem’s earlier work, I waited for the conversation about his CD cover showing his dead ex-wife extended from the trunk of a car, while he and their daughter stand a few feet away near a body of water, as he prepares to dump her corpse. In his song, “Kim”, Eminem engages in a “dialogue” with his ex-wife, Kim Mathers, brutalizing her as she pleads with him for her life. Her screams are heard in the background as he chokes her to death, saying, “Now shut the fuck up and get what’s coming to you.” If you come from a family where there has been violence against women, as I have, or if you’ve read the newspaper in America even for one day in the entire year, you’ve seen a headline about a woman murdered by a husband, a boyfriend, or a son. And you know it’s only music on the radio, but someone is listening to that music, and they are seduced by the great charisma of the person singing it. And maybe it wouldn’t ordinarily occur to you to kill your wife on Tuesday, but after listening to the song and knowing there are millions of copies of the mainstream CD in stores, where no one even seems to flinch at or question a cover image of a woman who has been killed because she’s a pain in the ass to her husband, it occurs to you on Friday that your wife is a pain in the ass too, only this time you’re drunk or high, and your wife who is screaming at you starts to seem more and more like the bitch on that album cover, and why doesn’t she just shut up, why doesn’t someone just shut her up, why don’t you just shut her up. It seems an incredible connection: we are told you can never assign specific crimes to cultural influences in the media, but we also seem to live in a world where it’s “just a movie”, it’s “just a television show”, it’s “just a song”; and yet someone who was “just a husband” just killed his wife and kids.

Watching television as a child, I could project myself into each show, each family, as my own struggled with addiction, violence, and isolation. There was no greater pleasure I knew at that point in my life than to come home from school at three o’clock, get a bowl of cereal and bring it totteringly, so as not to spill the milk, to the television to watch Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch. Even now, watching the DVD’s of my favorite sitcoms or catching an occasional re-run in a hotel or at a friend’s house, I can sometimes recall exactly what was happening in our family during a particular episode of Good Times, All in the Family, Sanford and Son, or The Jeffersons. It is healing to see the shows again: I can bring an adult, nuanced interpretation to episodes that I truly couldn’t fathom or recoiled from, because I wasn’t able to understand the source of their anger and cynicism, or the power of their critique. I wasn’t aware at seven years of age in 1977 that the country’s trust had been devastated by the assassinations of the sixties, the protracted war in Vietnam, and—the final straw and breach of faith —the Watergate scandal. Many of the shows of the 70’s had the sass of authority disrespected and an embittered desire finally to “tell it like it is.” I can appreciate now the character of Archie Bunker, and how his racism and bigotry were exposed through his diatribes, but at eight I wondered why that man was so “mean.” Where did George Jefferson’s contempt for interracial couples come from, and why were Tom and Helen, a black woman and white man who seemed happily married, “zebras?” Why did Clinger on M*A*S*H always dress in women’s clothes? As he was the most “ethnic” looking regular on the show, was that about the empowerment of crossdressers or the emasculation of a man of color? Then there were the shows that had such a clearly adult sensibility, the ironies sailed right over my head: Maude, Soap, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I search now for the depictions of homosexuality on these programs, and the decisions I made as a child about homosexuals and about myself as a gay man, based on their representations.

On an episode of Sanford and Son, viewed more than a quarter of a decade after the original aired on NBC, Fred and Lamont Sanford, father and son junk dealers who are black, are paid to move a piano from a white man’s home. The man who has hired them wears a flowery scarf around his neck and carefully coiffed gray hair. Upon their entering his apartment he insists that they change into shoes that he provides so that they will not ruin his antique Persian carpet. Fred discovers that the man has recently divorced his wife to start “a whole new way of life” and speculates to Lamont that the man is “fruity”, questioning him in an oblique attempt to find out whether he is a homosexual. Fred later overhears the man on a phone conversation to a “friend” who he assumes must be the man’s lover. When the man eventually leaves the room, Fred, played by the comedian Redd Foxx, takes a cigarette and enacts for his son a small pantomime of gay pretentiousness, of what Fred imagines it must be like in the man’s home on an evening when the rest of his gay male friends are gathered for a party.

Gay actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein has said that he enjoys the depiction of the “sissy” on screen, suggesting that a negative portrayal of gays is sometimes better than none at all. The scene from Sanford and Son is complex and, without question, problematic, but I am also grateful for it. I know that Fred’s curiosity about the man is wrong-minded and based on a desire to trap him in an admission of perversion, but there is more at work in this scene. It is a working-class black man’s characterization of a wealthy white man he assumes is gay. Fred’s impersonation is laced with the bitterness of interpreting an affluent lifestyle he can only access as a servant. (Fred: “This is a nice apartment. I wonder how much the rent is?” Lamont: “What difference does it make? You could never live here.” Fred: “The Supreme Court say I can live anywhere I want to.” Lamont:” Well, you better get the Supreme Court to pay your rent.”) When Fred tosses back his head and lies on the couch, he affects the voice of an imagined party reveler; how he envisions a gay man might respond if he were to meet a working-class man like him. With his hand pressed to his chest, Fred’s “gay man” draws back, startled: “My goodness, how long have you been doing manual labor?”

I can’t avoid the fact that my own internalized homophobia may still allow me occasionally to laugh at a cruel gay joke, and I am very aware that there are activists who will tolerate nothing short of complete allegiance to the gay cause. But Foxx’s portrayal has truth to it, and a sting: whether this man is gay or not, he is white and has privilege. His manner is supercilious and he treats Fred and his son, although politely, like laborers. This may seem an appropriate response—they are. It is only when one asks the questions why certain people are laborers and certain other people own antiques, and why a disproportionate number of the laborers are black and the antique owners white, that the complexity of Fred’s homophobia and resentment may be understood in context. Ridiculing the man’s sexuality may be the only way to bring a rich white man down. As there isn’t an overabundance of white men on the show anyway (with the exception of the un-cool, slightly precious cop “Officer Hoppy” who, with his butter-creamed hairstyle, bumbled black slang and verbosity, is instructed on one episode to “get a woman”), by examining the ones that are, a common theme emerges: ridicule of a white homosexual, at least on television, may be one way that a heterosexual black man can reconcile the shame of “allowing himself” to be victimized (feminized) by racism. By ridiculing homosexuality and its perceived loss of masculine power, a straight black man, menaced by the impenetrability of white male dominance, is provided a point of weakness. His black male esteem is restored when contrasted with the effeteness and emasculation of the white faggot. (What the black gay man uses to “even the score” isn’t as clear.) White audiences tolerate the humiliation of the white gay man, too, because of their conditioned prejudice, but also for reasons of self-concern: the white “fag” character is offered as fair trade for the way in which black masculinity is consistently denigrated and imperiled in our culture. We are all too happy to throw the gay white man (a man who by making himself sexually vulnerable to other men has rendered himself, by patriarchy’s standards, worthless) to the black male “sharks.” The message to frustrated black men whose scales are tipping dangerously towards rage and riot is, “You’ll never have any real power, but enjoy the illusory power of bashing this white gay man on television instead,” while discharging the potential for violence against “normal” whites. The show becomes a hit.

In a Sanford and Son episode the following season, Lamont and Fred are locked in jail after being busted for mistakenly agreeing to appear in what turns out to be a porno film. Fred finds himself sharing a cell next to the film’s director, a man with a shirt opened to his waist, a hairy chest and carefully layered, blonde hair. The stereotypes are at least diverse; he looks more like a rugged "San Francisco” gay cupcake than the polished East coast “Hamptons” homosexual in the previous episode. Fred assumes the director is gay after he announces earlier in the episode that Fred would be “delicious” in one of the porno film’s scenes. Later in jail, Fred asks for a cigarette; the man reaches from the adjacent cell and, passing one to him, talks wistfully of the loneliness of being incarcerated (he’s clearly been in jail before) and begins to stroke Fred’s hand through the bars. Fred refuses the cigarette and walks away, wiping his hands as if he’s touched something diseased.

I don’t find this episode as amusing as I did the first. Watching the brief scene again, I try to project myself back into my eight-year-old sensibility. I am aware of my feelings of attraction to other boys at this age, but inside I am still a straight boy, judging gay men on television. I am not really straight, of course, but until gay children are no longer driven underground by homophobic terror and shame, all gay boys are straight until proven “guilty”. Every gay man has a conditioned straight boy in him and the homophobic teaching this identity engenders, until he chooses to claim his difference. (The conditioned inner straight boy continues to call him a faggot for the rest of his life until he heals the dichotomy in his psyche.)

When I watch the episode through an adolescent boy’s eyes I see a drippy, perverted white man, a “fairy”, who has a skin-crawly voice and an obvious attachment to tragedy and victimization—a man for whom I am invited to have pity and contempt. He is a prototype of the older white men who will approach me in bars when I come out of the closet at 19. I am unable to see their humanity, conditioned already by television characters like this, and I am convinced that it is impossible for them to see mine, as they project onto our exchange the stereotypical representations the media has given them about me —as a young man of color it is assumed I have an enormous black penis, I’m always available for sex and I’m often referred to as “dark meat”.

After hanging up with Adrian, I try to get a video of Oprah’s show on married men in the gay closet. There is no video available, so I buy the transcript provided online instead. It’s worse—without the images, quick editing and sexy colors of television, without the mind-chatter about whether Oprah is still keeping the weight off or what she’s wearing today to keep one visually mesmerized and to obfuscate the content, all I get are the words. It is the second show within the last year that Oprah has done on the same theme: the other dealt with men who have sex on the “Down Low”—a term for men who have gay sex and continue to stay in relationships with women in the African-American community. Having provided this chitterlings-circuit version of the show for black women, the tone of this new Oprah show is a cautionary finger lifted for white women who have been shaking their heads at those sad black woman who, as usual, don’t know where their men are, suggesting that they might want to check their own husbands’ e-mail accounts. Yes, the rising epidemic of Down-Low sex has moved from the inner city to suburbia, and white men are proving to be just as freaky as black men are (if not more so). Stay tuned.

Oprah’s show was titled, “My Husband’s Gay.” (At least someone had the sensitivity not to include an exclamation point.) The show begins with a psychological drum roll, Jim McGreevy’s news conference, as he announces to the world, with his wife standing by, that he is a “gay American.” It must be every married woman’s nightmare, or at least in the top ten; the public disgrace of a press-conference with your husband where he tells the entire world that your marriage is a “sham” and that he lied and “never really loved you at all.” From the opening moment there is an uncomfortably sensational aspect to the show, of ugly curiosity and stinky things being held at arm’s length with pinched fingers. Oprah repeatedly uses phrases like, “This is going to be very interesting for you at home watching”, “You are going to like this show”, and, “Millions of women are watching the show today: some of them are going to find out today that their husbands are gay,” as she jacks up the horror. (I briefly consider that Oprah’s aggressiveness towards the topic, her desire to "get at the truth", may have more than a little do with the tabloids’ speculation at the beginning of her relationship that her paramour Steadman Graham was bisexual.) The couples she introduces are suburban cut-outs; callous, insensitive businessmen, with wives who had “no idea”, women who are completely victimized, thoroughly devastated. To add color and spice, a “real” gay man is brought in halfway through the show, possibly shipped in from New York or L.A; a real pro who’s been around and educates all on the realities of anonymous gay sex. He is used for lifting up the moldy rug and revealing the scattering married gay bugs who run for cover when exposed to the light—men who hook up for sex with men on-line and on business trips, unbeknownst to their trusting wives. Our gay tour-guide David leads us through the scary terrain of anonymous sex, showing a woman watching at home exactly how online pickups work and the easiest ways to track her husband’s computer activity to find out if he is, in fact, a closet case who has been lying to her.

I’m disappointed in Oprah, but it’s not the first time. Criticizing Oprah isn’t easy: she is enormously personable, her great contributions cannot be disregarded, and she has the deep affection and loyalty of many. I know this from the few times I’ve suggested in conversation that there may be a shadow side to the Oprah phenomenon and have been instantly met with a murderous resistance, most of the time by white people. I was amazed, the first several times I encountered it, wondering where the absolute, uncritical loyalty came from, and the great desire to smash a standing-in-front-of-their-face black man to protect their mythologized, superstar TV black woman. Everyone famous has to go through Oprah's pearly gates: actors, athletes, authors, politicians running for President--she's become the St. Peter of stardom. Yes, criticizing Oprah isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible, either.

When Gray Davis was being recalled as governor of California and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican challenger, faced myriad allegations of sexual harassment, he appeared on Oprah, ostensibly as a favor to Oprah’s old friend and colleague, and his wife, Maria Shriver. I thought I might never forgive Oprah. She, who had been a proponent of protecting children from sexual violence and who had courageously come forward early in her career about her own sexual abuse, seemed like the last person to make an alleged perpetrator of violence against women, especially women who were employed under Schwarzenegger at the time, look like a warm and cuddly koala bear. No matter what one’s opinions about her, Oprah wields enormous power and influence: the beef industry in Texas filed a lawsuit against her because she said during a show on mad cow disease that she would never eat a hamburger again. Cattle prices in some areas temporarily plunged. I imagined the people influenced by the warm fuzzies from the Oprah-Arnold chat; “Well, he might have grabbed that woman’s ass, but I guess if Oprah likes him, then he probably apologized or something, so it’s okay now.” There was a greater danger, at the time, than just having a groper for Governor: if Schwarzenegger did win the election, a possibility existed that he might influence California to vote Republican in the 2004 election. It is not clear what impact his governorship will have on the election of 2008, or his attempt to reach our highest office, if the law against non-native-born citizens’ running for President is changed in his lifetime. Whether Arnold Schwarzenegger becomes the president of the United States may not be Oprah’s responsibility, but he did become governor, and a necessary tension in his campaign was alleviated when he appeared on her show. Although his responses to the claims of harassment weren’t sufficient for justice, they were good enough for the majority of voters in California. Whatever Gray Davis’ weaknesses before being recalled, his unseating had all the signs of a Karl Rove “joint”—a Republican candidate given a greater opportunity for election after a Democrat’s public disgrace and the subsequent manipulation of popular opinion. The last thing we needed was a coffee klatch with Arnold on Oprah, and it ended for me forever the perception that “Oprah’s not political, she’s just spiritual.” After that show and Schwarzenegger’s other television appearances, the enmity turned away from a Hollywood star accused of believing he was beyond censure or the law, and who had allegedly harassed and humiliated countless women, to the women accusing him, who were now seen at best as bitchy, jealous, couldn’t-take-a-joke election spoilers, at worst liars. I feel betrayed and yet possessive. I do not know what I would have felt as a woman, but to me as a black man, Oprah was my black mother, sister, friend, and she was supposed to protect and project my reality as a black person in America who needed to resist a Republican administration for my sanity, health and survival. It is only when I watched Oprah on stage with Shriver and Swarzenegger that I remembered what I so often forgot; having major wealth in this country is a social identity too, one that is perhaps more binding and demanding of loyalty than race or sex. In America, it is money and power that form the ultimate tribe.

After the presidential election of 2000, I’d hoped for an Oprah on the recounts, black voter disenfranchisement and what the election results meant to American justice and democracy. More than 30 years after the civil-rights voting act of 1964, black Americans were still fighting the same bloody war for an equal right to representation; the fundamental principle on which our country is based. What I got instead was a show featuring first Lady Laura Bush as she shared with Oprah’s audience how much fun she was having picking out the White House furniture in storage.

Halfway through the transcript, the sinister intent of “My Husband is Gay” becomes clear: take titillated and terrified married women who are afraid their husbands are no longer attracted to them, and turn them into Nancy Drews, as they lurk around their homes determined to find out if their husbands are homosexuals. Certain words and phrases are repeated throughout the episode: The Death of a Dream; Living A Lie; Secret Double Lives. Every phrase is uttered and announced with the bold, capital letters of a potential trademark. I almost expect to read to the end and find an announcement at the conclusion of the show: For those of you who are really worried about your marriage, try: “The-Death-of-the-Dream-Secret-Double-Life-Closet-Case Kit—For Wives Who Have To Be Sure.” Simply add this colorless liquid to your husband’s mashed potatoes at dinner time. If his lips turn blue, he’s been sucking cock.

Something is very wrong here. Oprah’s “gay men” engage in gay sex, but they give off straight frat-boy vibes; they’re braggadocios. One of them can’t wait to tell Oprah that he’s had sex with a thousand men. It’s not that gay men can’t be assholes, let’s make that clear (you definitely know at least one gay asshole if you’ve tried to date in our community for awhile); but these guys are a particular kind of asshole that only comes in “straight”. One man admits that when confronted by his wife who thought he was having an affair with a woman, he blurted out savagely, “Wrong! I’m gay.” The show is kid’s stuff: “good guys” vs “bad guys”. Courageous women validated for their suffering, even though their “you go, girl” host exploits that suffering right in front of their faces on national television. Not one “hip” wife admits, “Please, Oprah, I knew he was gay, but the house was beautiful, he was always buying me things out of guilt, and when we went to bed, he left me alone, which was fine with me. I stayed because I’m a greedy whore.” Or, “I’ve hated him for awhile, Oprah. Now I finally have an excuse to get the divorce I’ve wanted for ten years.” Almost every single relationship was a perfect marriage, until homosexuality reared its head; dream-homes destroyed by little gay termites. Before their Fall from Grace, everyone on Oprah lives in Candyland.

The coming-out process has an alchemy to it. If gay people are exceptional at all, it isn’t because of whom we have sex with, but what gets burned away in the crucible of having to say to the world, “I’ll stand up for who I am even if it hurts. I’m not going to hide myself any longer.” This is true for any closet, for anyone who risks their comfort, or their life, to tell the truth. Sometimes something extraordinary is revealed through this process and we get a hero. Oprah’s show is about a very real aspect of gay life, the closet, but there is no history or context, no gay dignity to be found here, not even a crumb. The men on the show may let other men touch their penises for pleasure, but lesbian and gay culture is also about Stonewall, Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, Essex Hemphill, Paul Monette, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Harvey Milk, Virginia Woolf. I envision Oprah letting Larry Kramer on the show to talk about the politics of what it means to be closeted, married and gay, for just five minutes. The show would be blown to bits.

LaTrice calls the next day and asks me if I’ve seen the same Oprah episode. My closest friend from college, LaTrice and I call each other once a week for BlackTalk, our ongoing “talk-show” where we complain to each other and examine the craziness in the world each week from a black gay perspective. LaTrice watched the last half of the Oprah show, too, and describes to me the black lesbian who was brought in five minutes before the end. “The rest of the show was a mess,” she says, “but you should have seen this woman. Her eyes were so sad.”

A lot of people fantasize about one day picking up everything and starting their lives over somewhere else. LaTrice is one of the few people I know personally who has stepped through the "looking glass”. Her life changed completely when she came out as a lesbian. I attended her wedding and I spoke to her the day her divorce was final, I saw her fall in love with a woman, leave a brand-new home, the comfort of a marriage to a man she genuinely loved, and the prospect of a family with him. Although she never had any kids while married, she could be Nikki on Oprah’s show, a black lesbian who came out to her husband and family. I watched LaTrice’s heart break as she put life back together, facing both the disappointment of family members who needed her to be married more than she did, and the friends who seemed personally betrayed and said she must have been crazy leaving a husband who was a doctor. Knowing the great price she paid, the idea of seeing her up there Oprahsized for living a “Secret Double Life”, and being responsible for “The Death of the Dream”, makes me outraged.

There is another insult, perhaps the most egregious of all: the absence of a psychiatrist or doctor, even a new-age guru, to give the topic weight and raise it from the depths of hearsay and innuendo to the level of serious psychological and therapeutic understanding. Recognizing that we are dealing with the crisis of identity that coming-out can sometimes bring to a life, or the pain of a twenty-year relationship that seems suddenly unrecognizable after one sentence, it would make sense to have a therapist or expert in the field to guide us. These days, however, talk-show hosts are everything from medical doctors to spirit guides just because they browsed through a guest’s book the night before or were briefed in a meeting by their producers. In her interview with Anne Heche after the publication of Heche’s book, Call Me Crazy, Barbara Walters spoke with Anne about her family abuse, her use of the drug Ecstasy, and the end of her lesbian relationship with Ellen Degeneres. The book was offensive, not because of Heche’s interpretation of her own life, but because of the title, the timing, and Heche’s follow-up heterosexual relationship. It was impossible, whether or not you read the book, not to take from it that her relationship with Ellen had been little more than an adventurous stunt, like bungee-jumping or the outrunning of the bulls in Pamplona: “Hey, Call Me Crazy!" Walters transforms during their television conversation from an entertainment interviewer into a psychiatrist, in a scene that recalls Joanne Woodward and Sally Field in Sybil, as Barbara coaxes Anne to speak in the voice of Celestia, Anne’s fantasy interplanetary alter-ego described in the book. Anne hesitates but, with Barbara’s loving encouragement, finally begins to speak in a language of chirpy blips and bleeps that is a combination of a religious devotee speaking in tongues, R2D2 from Star Wars and an adding-machine gone haywire.

The irresponsibility is extraordinary on the “My Husband is Gay” show, but because it’s about sex, and “deviant” sex at that, it falls in the category of “Brad and Jen” or “Bennifer” rather than family trauma and psychiatry. Anyone who has an opinion, however ignorant or uniformed, can join the party. “Well, my best friend’s sister thought her husband was gay and…” A woman uncovers the fact that her husband has sex with men after searching through his e-mail, as the show suggests, and then what? What if he decides he’s not ready to be outed that day and chooses to be violent towards her? (We’re still talking about men here, gay or not.) It takes sensitivity and coaching to come out of the closet, and it takes perhaps even more sensitivity to drag someone out and confront them on being a closet case. The show doesn’t say when it might be a good time to confront your husband on his sexuality: as soon as he walks in the door from the business trip, or later that night when he’s in the shower, pulling his gay porn up on the computer and leaving it as a screensaver to let him know the jig is up? The idea that a show on incest or sexual violence against children would be treated as crudely (“Something is going on upstairs during naptime and play dates! Do you know what is happening after school at your house?”) seems horrific and grotesque, but gay people, the devastation that many of us have faced in coming-out, and the subsequent pain in our families and gay suicides, are still offered as topics with “sizzle”. Our pain is commodified as we continue to be “othered”.

One of the reasons we craved Oprah in the first place is that The Phil Donahue Show had become intolerable; one had to sit through all Phil’s ticks to get to the guest. As he ran up and down the aisles and threw the mike in the air, hands on hips and eyes rolling because an audience member was taking too long to make a point, but worse, when he stopped listening, the show went from his sexy ardor and unique brand of white-haired feminine macho to something unrecognizable and over the top; a one-man dance recital. Then Oprah arrived—fat, emotional, folksy, and without pretension. Her chicken-and-waffles accessibility, best-friend arm around a crying guest, and home-permed, Woolworths glamour made Phil’s show seem as stylized as Kabuki theater. We were liberated: Phil had become a Stepford host—but Oprah was “one of us”. To be fair: it could also be argued that as we became collectively dumber as a nation and television audience, Phil angered us because he was too smart for his own good even when he tried to dumb himself down and go for the lowest denominator. He gave us too much grist with our gossip. We jumped ship because we mistook Oprah’s down-home quality for a lack of intelligence, relieved to have a conversation that was less rigorous; gossip, with real news tossed in occasionally for flavor. This is evidenced by the hosts that came after; Geraldo, Montel, Sally Jesse Raphael. Donahue, and his integrity, which at least recalled for viewers the roots of journalism somewhere, however stridently applied, disappeared without a trace. Now I watch Oprah and wonder whom we will crave next. The show is stodgy, submerged, gasping for air. The guests and the audience are brought in to exemplify the point, no longer to shape it, and no real conversation takes place. Oprah pronounces, heads nod. In the end, even the transformations are rehearsed: there is no discovery.

Just because a black person or a woman is the owner and host of her own show, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a “black” show or that it defies a patriarchal, white supremacist standard. It may still focus predominantly on the experiences of white America to the exclusion of blacks, or have the bullying tone of a leader and his “followers”, as we are dominated by, and encouraged to fetishize another cult figure as opposed to trusting our own power. It may not be Oprah’s responsibility to reflect black culture, but if there are any aspects of American blackness that we can call African-inspired, it may be the spontaneity and creativity, the great generosity in African culture that sometimes trickles down to Africans themselves, and people of African descent. It was this generosity that originally attracted us to Oprah. This love that many black people have (specifically women), becomes something else, however, in its shadow—when it is attached to the threat of social violence, poverty or a compulsive need for approval or wealth. Our African gifts have always been mutilated and handed back to us as pornography: our desire to rejoice becomes a minstrel song; our sacred dance becomes a “buck and wing” on a vaudeville stage; the pleasure of eating fruit becomes the bulging eyes and rows of savage teeth of a picaninny biting down on a watermelon wedge; our desire to comfort and heal becomes Mammy, who cares, not because she wants to but because of the gun at her head, because her children may be sold tomorrow. Mammy’s lap may be spacious, big enough to hold the entire American TV viewing audience, but Mammy can never consider herself or her children first. She is a creation based on terror and complacency, as America exploits black female nurture for profit. In our post-Madonna if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em, make-money-off-your-own-oppression, is-it-exploiting women-if-I’m-the-woman-I’m-exploiting-and-getting-all-the-money? 80’s school of capitalist thought, it is easy to see why Mammy would seem more empowering today, just because she also happens to be one of the richest women in America and her own slave owner. We are allowed to stay within the limitations of our prejudiced assumptions as Mammy rocks us gently to sleep, never forcing us to wake up to our own illusions, no matter how uncomfortable, about ourselves, each other, or Mammy herself.

"The difference between Mammy and Mama,” LaTrice clarifies at the end of our conversation; “Mammy always reassures, but Mama won’t stand for it. Mama may comfort, but if she really loves you, she ain’t gonna to let you get away with shit.”

What’s fascinating about the black lesbian Nikki, who appears with her mother at the end of the “My Husband is Gay” episode, is that despite Oprah’s catchphrases as she utters yet again, “The Death of the Dream”, an impossibility occurs: Nikki’s humanity comes through, not because of Oprah, but despite her. She resists the pornographic gaze that show’s tone extends to her; she refuses to sign the gay-shame contract. Nikki says to Oprah, “It’s been a journey. It’s still a journey, but being true to who I am is most important. I hope it lets my girls know that you need to stand up for who you are on the inside.” Winfrey thanks her and the show ends, because it has to. Nikki isn’t sensational or scandalous in a TV-oddity way. She is a woman who has faced an enormous amount of pain and, at the risk of losing her family and her children, makes a decision to tell them the truth.

Although not “acting” on the show, Nikki achieves what some black performers have accomplished through endless stereotypes and racist representations of blacks in Hollywood films in the last century—when black actors were imprisoned in the racism of a film, but were willing to tell a truth in their performances which the movie denied. Like Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, and many others of that time, the gay truth and dignity of Nikki’s “performance” shatters the talk-show’s homophobic screen.

There is an urgent need for a discussion about men who have sex with men and who lie about it while continuing to have sex with women. With the rise in numbers of women becoming HIV positive, and specifically women of color, it is a vital and lifesaving conversation. But another equally vital conversation must also occur: there has to be an understanding of why men and women have to hide their homosexuality, why a man who is sexual with men but married to a woman isn’t a “gay man” by default, but that there are different kinds of men who choose to have male partners—that the man who decides to live his life as gay and out, regardless of the consequences to his job, his family and the potential loss of societal power is not the same as the man who is married, has affairs with men and lies to his wife. We may need to find compassion for the closeted married man, the gay man who is “out”, and the wife, but compassion shouldn’t keep us from realizing the distinctions and nuances of each of these identities. We must talk about men who are survivors of childhood incest from a male perpetrator, and how male survivors of assault reconcile a male rape that occurred in prison; how they bring this experience back to their communities after incarceration and whether this trauma is an example of "secret gay sex" or domination and power. How do we categorize the men who have had consensual same-sex relationships within that context, and, when released, return to relationships with women or consider a revised sexual identity with no therapy or support to navigate it. Are heterosexual men who visit transgender prostitutes or enjoy watching transgender porn (“chicks with dicks”) gay, bisexual, or straight? New definitions are called for. Can we expect to have an honest conversation about homosexual sex with any man as long as our society perpetuates the idea that for a man to be sexual with another man is an admission of weakness and an abnegation of power? The perfect guests on a panel of male “secret” sex may not be the secret sexers themselves, but men who perpetuate war; Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Bush. Oprah could ask: why do you continue to perpetuate a world-view of competition and war that keeps men ashamed of discussing their sexuality openly or of expressing their gay sexuality without hiding? Your war machine cannot fuel its tank with the masculine myth if men are redefining their interactions with each other, if they are finally willing to commit to having relationships with men, gay or straight, that are nurturing rather than violent and destructive. Do you understand that women and men are dying because we can’t have this dialogue, because men have to hide their desire to be vulnerable or feminine to uphold a pathological standard of masculinity and what it means to be a man?

When we get past the convenient distraction with which homophobia provides us, we may be able to look at the sadder reality underneath. If gay and straight men have nothing else that binds us, we do have one thing in common: sex addiction. We are all men, regardless of where we put our dicks, who are trying to compensate for low self-esteem, our grief at having to compete with our fathers as boys when we needed them to love us, and our terror of one day being considered a failure. Hundred of sexual partners whether they are male or female, may be less about a man's desire for “secret-sex”, and more an indication of his depression, feelings of inadequacy, and despair.

I don’t presume to have the answers, but where there are no easy answers, sometimes one has to content oneself with intelligent questions. What seems most clear is that the topic of male homosexuality, covert, deceptive, political, in the closet or heroic, deserves greater examination that the “do you know where your man is tonight, ladies?” variety. It demands a rigorous intention, unlike Bill Cosby’s shapeless critique of the black community last year, when he “let blacks have it” for being lazy, irresponsible, uneducated, and profane. A few of his points had merit, but taken outside a context of the pathologies of a country that continues to promote the social terrorism of racism, lack of educational opportunities, no standardized health care, and extraordinary poverty in the face of extreme wealth—all the things that contribute to neglect, abuse, and families’ being overwhelmed —Cosby’s “gift” to the black community was just the usual right-wing jeremiad about poor black people “living off welfare”. It was compelling only because it was offered this time by a rich black celebrity in designer sunglasses. Similarly, a conversation about closeted men can’t exist without a sensitivity to the dynamics of retribution against a man who admits he has male sexual partners and the cultural bias against him. In a patriarchal context, a man who is gay is endangered in a way that can be compared with, but differs from, that of women. Gay men still wield sexist power, but they are also harmed by the consistent, relentless attack on the feminine in our culture. This translates on the crudest level to the constant threat of physical assault to gay people, but we are also menaced by the way we are depicted in mainstream media representations. In their psychological destructiveness and cruelty, television’s homophobic portraitures become time-release murders: beginning with an eight-year-old child who watches the faggot humiliated on an episode of Sanford and Son and ending with the same gay man on the other end of a fatal hit of crystal meth at 32.

I can’t go back in a time machine and make my gay child not see all the homophobic shows I watched, nor can I stop the child who watches Oprah’s show in 2005 as “gay men” exploit their hatred of themselves on television, paid handsomely to whisper about their “secret sex”. An eight-year-old may not understand why these men are eager to debase themselves on TV, and is probably confused by the glaring contradiction of gay sex paraded for its repulsive glamour and vilified, as the masses condemn gay people while hungering for a spark of prurience from a gay sex story or tragedy. I can’t stop this boy from feeling shame about himself. But I can be more forgiving of my own feelings of self-hate, the ones I can’t always put my finger on, but that seem, more often than I would like, to inform my life. Like the roach rule —for every one you see, there’s a hundred you can’t—these images, some more noxious than others, are evidence in a lifetime criminal case against me as a gay man: The United States of America vs. Homosexuality. The prosecution is insistent on my guilt and the jury of my peers ready to deliver their verdict and my sentence: a shame-based, disempowered, unhappy, addicted life. I can’t know all that has been poured into my head about homosexuality, but I do know that it came from so many places: relatives, family friends, trips to the barbershop, whispered conversations on the school playground, teachers, older children, magazines, movies, the church, and television. If I accept that the negativity is there, I can begin the constructive act of deciding on some new beliefs about my sexual identity, ones that no longer destroy or violate, but empower and sustain. I can finally work to create the life that I want as a gay man, knowing that a healthy self-esteem is not going to mysteriously fall from the sky into my backyard.

Like the radioactive meteorite that dropped into the lagoon that time on Gilligan’s Island. Remember?

© Max Gordon

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Blogger Manda said...

Wow. Thems alota' words.

I can't stand the tv being on all the time. My family is of the mind set that if you cannot find something interesting to watch, then flip through the channels for however long it takes the hour to change.

I love silence. But I also can't live without the latest, greatest shows. Primetime offers up Lost, Alias, Desperate Housewives, and Veronica Mars. I absolutely cannot live without my pessismistic British comedies. LOL.

Yeah, I did read the WHOLE thing, but I'll just comment on this. Chow.

12:59 AM  
Blogger Dreamwalker said...

I have just finished reading!! It is the most amazing blog I have ever read. I agree with so much of what you say, and have to still go away and digest a bit more. It has made me think - deeply. I intend to print it off and get my children to read it. With blogs like this, who needs TV anyway.

8:22 PM  
Anonymous lavenderpop said...

I too must admit to having a TV fetish: Lost, American Idol, The Apprentice, The Real World, reruns of Soul Food, etc. At 41, I'm a little older than Max. But coming of age in the 70s, I can so relate to your take on TV and its ability to shape identities.

I'm grateful your piece on Condi Rice was posted on which of course led me to your great blog. I'm ashamed to say I haven't read something this long in a while, but I'm glad I was very powerful. As a Black gay man I am thirsty for more critical thinking and cultural critiques of homophobia, sexism, and racism.

I'll be back soon to read what I suspect are fascinating pieces. Maybe my TV won't be off, but the sound will definitely be down.


10:41 PM  

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