Emerson Collins suggests it’s time to create our own out gay icons
We would have far more gay stars if we would make more gay artists into stars. It really is that simple. The impact of the gay community on our culture — through our disproportionate influence in the media, pop culture and news, along with our much-buzzed-about buying power — should make it extremely easy to propel gay artists to the forefront of the American cultural conversation.
We have done so in many areas already. We are significantly and successfully represented by respected experts and geniuses at the pinnacle of many of the arts, especially in fields where the artist is the driving force behind the work: Writers (including screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, journalists, non-fiction and activist writers); visual artists; behind-the-scenes types in film and television (directors, producers and series creators and the accompanying creative departments). There are choreographers, fashion designers and the catch-all “creative directors” in nearly every industry. We’ve exploded most noticeable in the area of “personalities” as talking-heads experts on a myriad of topics and as the standout characters from all avenues of reality programming.
Where we continue to be under-represented, despite the recent trend of higher-profile nonchalant coming out adventures, is in the two areas that allow the opportunity for the greatest level of cultural saturation: singer (or musician) and actor.
For better or worse, these professions sit atop the pyramid of celebrity and influence in modern American culture. While we fill the ranks of the support systems of these two professions, we are not represented as we could be — and should be — as the talent out front.
(Resist the urge to count off currently notable out gay musicians and actors. The fact that it is possible to name nearly everyone of note in both categories does not counter my point, but reinforces it.)
Why is this the case? Certainly the resistance of certain swaths of Duck Dynasty America to embrace gay on any level has kept those that hold the purse strings from introducing gay artists because it brings an unknown factor that has little to do with the TV show, film or album being promoted. Openly gay actors and musicians could fill a volume of encyclopedias with horror stories of being shut down by casting directors, filmmakers, music venues, labels, etc., unwilling to take the “risk” on a gay artist. The motivations behind the business side of the delay are sadly not a mystery.
No, what I’m interested in the lack of enthusiasm and support by the community for fledgling gay singers and actors. As a community, we will fangirl like Beliebers for singers, actors and projects with a gay sensibility. Every diva has her diehard gay fanbase, esteemed actresses of any era can induce hour-long monologue tributes to the greatness of their ranges and shows, films and albums with gay-friendly themes or camp appeal are often defended to the death.
But things that are directly, outright and completely gay? Those we seem permanently ambivalent or outright derisive about. Bravo (which, full disclosure, I appear on via The
People’s Couch) and HGTV have legions of loyal gay fans. Logo has received sneers for its entire existence (Drag Race being the exception). Films with gay storylines from straight filmmakers with straight actors receive our thunderous applause, while gay films from gay writers and directors, with gay actors — if not snubbed completely — rarely register. If you’ve never heard “ugh, all gay films are terrrrrible” said before, then you’ve never been in a discussion about gay films.
Whitney, Mariah, Gaga, Madonna, Justin Timberlake or John Legend make new music and a massive gay following goes all One Directioner-level crazy. Adam Lambert? He’s all right. Clay Aiken? Ha-ha-ha (insert punchline). TV series with a gay sensibility like Girls are heralded as the best thing on television. Looking, by all accounts from the gay blogosphere, was basically on par with Sarah Palin’s Alaska.
There seems to be a permanent refrain cheering loudly for token storylines on popular vehicles and celebrating the gay-friendly rather than working to find and promote the actually and absolutely gay. We’ve taken our adoration for the celebrity straight ally into nearly fetish territory. Sexy, straight allies get our covers and huge feature stories because we’re so glad that Adam Levine or Josh Hutcherson like us.
I’m not knocking our allies or the importance of reinforcing our support for them when they step up and publicly support us. Wielding our influence to show them we appreciate them being in this fight with us is important. I’m simply saying that at the absolute least, showing the same level of enthusiasm for those that actually and directly represent us because they are us should be easy to do. And we don’t.
A straight guy plays gay and we laud him (well, if he’s hot) and he gets to be the featured story across all gay media. Gay actors and gay musicians and gay filmmakers and gay films do not receive equal time and attention, even from gay media and press. They never have. I realize the reality is, gay media and news outlets need sales and clicks so they continue to exist to tell our stories at the level they do. They have a business to run.
However, the rest of us could show them that stories that don’t just recycle the entertainment news from every other news site and blog, but with a gay twist or perspective, are actually interesting to us by paying attention. If we showed up, showed we cared about new and definitively gay artists, actors and content that cannot be found in any other aspect of the news media … they would give us more of it.
So while straight actors tell our stories, gay actors don’t get to play gay often because they aren’t well-known enough and so many established straight actors are now thrilled at the chance to do it because it’s so “brave.” Gay actors also rarely get to play straight either, again — not famous enough, and of course there’s the scary risk that the audience “might be able to tell” or worse, if they know he’s gay, they “won’t buy the story.”
A straight rapper puts out an LGBT-affirming track and wins every award known to music. A gay singer sings about that actual experience from the inside, and he struggles to get booked in the terribly-attended afternoon slots at Prides. Can you name five openly gay musicians beyond the standard 10-or-so listicle tokens? Or two? Or even one that you are as passionate about as the gay-friendly ally musicians?
The immediate response I regularly receive to this particular soapbox amounts to some variation of self-righteous tastemaker indignation stating, “we shouldn’t have to like something just because it is gay!” … as though there is some code of ethics we must adhere to as arbiters of taste lest we lose our credibility as the great Columbus of all things new and wonderful in pop culture America. Like defending a work or artist that is gay but has imperfections, or isn’t fully-formed as an artist, will destroy our integrity because we appear to like it just because it’s gay.
Oh shut up. Seriously. Shut up.
We will defend to the death the rough edges, plot problems and personal issues of our films, shows and artists of choice because we see the inherent genius in them despite the flaws. However, when it comes to similarly championing something or someone actually gay, we are unwilling to do so if they aren’t the perfect specimen of all that is gay, along with being a similarly perfect human being and activist. Eloquent but not arrogant. Stunningly gorgeous but not caught up in it. Spectacularly gifted by just the right amount of humble. Harvey Milk meets Laurence Olivier meets John Lennon with a six-pack and bedroom eyes.
While we wait for that never-going-to-happen guy to appear, we go overboard to show just how completely aware we are of its flaws by rushing to be the harshest critics and the first to be “so not impressed.” We stand with our arms crossed, one hip popped out, and an eyebrow raised while projecting an air of, “all right homo, impress me.” When we aren’t impressed, we eat our own. With relish.
This is the crux of the issue. The greatest inhibitor to using our massive cultural reach to actually push some of our own to the levels of stardom that create icons is seems ultimately to be a resistance to seeing one of us succeed beyond the rest of us. We all struggled. We all worked to become confident in who we are. We’re all special. Why should one of us be more special than the rest of us? That hot straight guy we want to be or want to bed — he’s special. That diva we want to be who sings the song that lives in our soul — she’s special. That actress who stands up to the same men we have to stand up to and chews the scenery off the walls — she’s special. That homo who might have a talent in these areas we all consider ourselves to be experts on? Yeah, he’s probably not that special.
Part of our collective stereotypical charm is the cutting wit that makes us great purveyors of the good, the truly terrible and the absolutely fabulous in pop culture. The result is we carefully choose the very specific and rare moments in which we unabashedly gush over something or someone. We just have not committed to regularly doing that for our own.
We whoop and holler (when we aren’t begrudging how long it took them) when those who are already famous come out to represent “our team.” Especially if they’re hot. Well, mostly if they’re hot. But what if we started even earlier? What if we found gay artists — YouTube, gay film festivals, shorts films and web series are littered with them — and discovered our own next generation of stars and celebrities? Ones who never needed to come out because they started “out?” What if Pride headliners were not gay-friendly superstars but actually gay stars? What if we stopped giggling at that gay boy online who made a cheesy video for his new dance track because it’s all he could afford and heard the talent in the voice and supported him into a place where he could afford to make videos he and we both would love? What if we fought for gay actors to play most of the gay roles until it becomes commonplace for the industry to not see it is a problem in casting them in straight roles?
Steve Grand should not stand as a singular exception as a gay star who arose without the help of the great machine, with the pointed caveat that the first Buzzfeed article promoting this brand-new, never-before-seen performer allowed us to find him to champion. (And yes, he’s one of the ones that establishment gays have rolled their eyes at for “needing to be shirtless” or having “mediocre talent” while all I could think was “good for him!”) You don’t like Steve Grand? Or Clay Aiken? Or Matt Dallas? Or Luke McFarlane?
Or the newly-minted Sam Smith? Fine. Find a few that your sense of “this talent is genuinely worth supporting” and introduce him to the rest of us and let’s make him a star!
We are one of the only major minority groups regularly represented in entertainment that doesn’t fiercely support the artists that can represent it. The ALMA Awards recognize Latino artists exclusively. The NAACP Image Awards do the same. It’s telling that there is no LGBT equivalent … and I’m not talking about the GLAAD Media Awards, which love to laud allies with all the honors while real gay folks struggle for attention. I’m talking where you have to be a member of the minority group to receive the award. Imagine a best actor in a film award race at the LGBT Awards with a five gay guys — one black, one white, one Japanese, a bisexual Puerto Rican guy and a Korean trans man — all phenomenally talented? (OK, I PC’d that awfully far, but a boy can dream, and how legit exciting would that be?)
It’s not favoritism or nepotism or any kind of other –ism that would suggest lowering the standards of quality by focusing only on our minority group. If anything, what other minority groups understand, that we so often do not seem to, is that this kind of specific celebration is actually a promotion and celebration of how much quality there is in the work of performers and entertainers from that minority group that those outside it may not be familiar with. Yet.
I’m not asking anyone to lower his standards — heaven forbid. My point is not throwing taste to the wind to willy-nilly support any homo who claims to be a great singer, musician or actor. But with the wealth and depth of LGBT artists and actors waiting in the wings for their opportunity, choosing to promote the best of them with collective zeal would not require any lowering of standards. There are so many more than enough for us to have dozens of each to be championing without feeling as though our pop culture perceptiveness is being compromised by doing so. The best of ours can certainly compete with, and often beat, the best any other group has to offer. Let’s put in a little effort to find them, support them, promote them and prove it.
After all, fangirling over our own should be an easy source of pride. We found them, we brought attention to them, we supported them and used our influence to make the rest of our culture pay attention to what they have to offer. We talk so often of Pride, and finding and cheering our own is something we can all be proud of if we just go the extra mile to do it. Driving the cultural commentary is important, and having more of our artists at the center who are shaping that culture would benefit our community, our society as a whole, and our continued journey to being more — and better — represented within our culture.
We can do better. We should do better. And with all of the power we truly do wield, we simply have to decide to do better.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 19, 2014.