Commentary | The changing nature of gay

WINNIPEG — When an out homosexual character on a prime-time sitcom exclaims, “Can you have him paint us something a little less gay?”, it sounds like being gay isn’t entirely about sexual orientation.

“Gay” is an ambiguous term these days. In fact, some have renounced it altogether. Academic, poet, and drag queen Sky Gilbert has quit being gay. He has since declared himself an ESP (effeminate sexual person, pronounced “espie”). He claims that being gay has become too mainstream and therefore meaningless. In a recent Globe and Mail article, Gilbert stated that “when being gay is the same as being straight, there’s no need for gay anything…. Gay culture as we know it will eventually disappear.”

Gilbert bemoans the loss of genderplay (the manipulation of one’s expression of gender) in gay culture, which he equates with the loss of the culture itself. But is genderplay part of sexual orientation, or is it a separate culture that happens to overlap? And when it comes to the important questions – particularly questions of equality – should genderplay figure in the discussion at all?
Genderplay has been historically tied to LGBT communities. Think “gay” and one image is of pride parades featuring equal amounts of skin and androgyny. Ask the wider population for synonyms of gay and you may hear “dyke,” “fairy,” “butch,” and other derogatory slurs.

However, this vernacular speaks to aesthetics rather than sexual orientation. These stereotypes are harmful and illogical. They equate a certain appearance with a certain sexual orientation – which is not a necessary relationship.

Unfortunately, the inflammatory rhetoric goes both ways.

Adam Lambert of American Idol fame has been lampooned by some LGBT groups for his flamboyance. This too confuses the issue. Lambert isn’t representing his sexual orientation with his makeup; he is representing a culture that engages in genderplay – a culture distinct from gay culture, since gender-bending is enjoyed by many straight people. In fact, for the gay community to appropriate genderplay as their own is an act of exclusivity – seemingly the antithesis of the inclusiveness they promote.

How does this fit into the LGBT rights movement?
The representation of gay people in popular culture is increasingly positive. There are lesbian and bisexual characters all over prime-time television (Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, and House, just to name a few shows). These characters bear two things in common: an aesthetic quality that doesn’t involve genderplay and enormous audiences.

It is these “normal” gay characters, marching into the living rooms of the straight world, who are the new ambassadors of equality. The straight majority may still balk at genderplay, but in much of North America, being gay is increasingly accepted.

That’s not to say gender roles don’t need revision; they certainly do. But if it means more recognition and less discrimination, perhaps mainstream gay isn’t so bad.

Confusing genderplay and sexual orientation, or trying to promote both on the same agenda, only poses additional barriers. It isn’t until equality has truly been realized that we can fight for Sky Gilbert’s right to wear tights and have no one bat an eyelash.

Alana Westwood writes for the Uniter, at the University of Winnipeg. This article originally appeared in the Canadian University Press (CUP).


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