When does a gay joke go from funny to offensive?

Posted on 24 Apr 2008 at 5:45pm
By Dale Carpenter – OutRight

It all depends on the background, the situation, on who is telling the joke and even on who the audience is

When is it ok to tell a gay joke? Consider three scenarios.

First scenario: In a magazine interview, a person says this: "The one thing I always say that I really, really mean is I should have had a gay son. [My child] doesn’t care that Ann Miller can tap without shoes. Doesn’t care! This breaks my heart. I’ve put on the Sirius show-tunes channel in the car and [she] gets upset with me. This is not right!"

Second scenario: In a meeting with an important client, a senior partner in a law firm tells a joke in which he makes light of gay men’s attachment to feminine things. The joke ends with the punch-line, "Faggot!"

Third scenario: An interviewer asks a guest who previously starred as an openly gay character on television to turn to the camera and give the audience his "gayest look."

Based only on the information provided, are these jokes anti-gay? Are all acceptable? Are some acceptable and others not?

From early on, we learn not to make fun of others in a way that is hurtful and demeaning to them.

Polite people don’t make fun of others’ physical and mental infirmities, for example. Jokes about mentally retarded people are the sign of a cad, not a bon vivant.

We also learn that jokes directed against some groups of people — like racial and religious minorities — can be especially harmful because of the discrimination, stigma and even violence the members of these groups have historically faced.

Jokes at the expense of other groups of people — like politicians or lawyers — don’t raise the same kinds of concerns because the targets of the fun aren’t disadvantaged.

Jokes are often funny when they rely on some generalization about members of the group, some trait or characteristic they are widely believed to share, whether true or not.

For this reason, a joke that made fun of Republicans for being too compassionate toward the poor or that took a jab at Moveon.org for being biased in favor of conservatives wouldn’t work.

But this same reliance on stereotypes can reinforce prejudice. And prejudice is the first step toward harmful discrimination.

Consider jokes that refer to blacks as stupid, lazy or criminal; or that treat Jews as conspiratorial, undeservedly rich or miserly. Though properly protected by the First Amendment, such jokes are socially unacceptable because they reinforce harmful prejudgments about these groups.

What’s acceptable when it comes to gay people?

Very few of us would take the extreme position that it’s never acceptable for anyone ever to tell a joke of any kind about gays. Even the gay-media watchdog group, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, is not so humorless.

Jokes about gays are not necessarily objectionable simply because they exploit some kinds of stereotypes about gays.

Think of the stereotype of gay men as promiscuous, effeminate and obsessed with couture and entertainment. These stereotypes were the basis for much of the humor in "Will & Grace," which was a breakthrough triumph for the equal treatment of homosexuals on television.

(For this reason, the attempted humor in Scenarios 1 and 2 isn’t necessarily objectionable on this ground, though it may be for other reasons.)

At the same time, there has been a history of anti-gay discrimination, stigma and violence that should make us sensitive to the ways in which we joke about homosexuals.

So gays are neither in the category in which are all jokes are presumptively objectionable nor in the category in which all are presumptively acceptable. How do we know when the line is crossed?

There is no bright-line answer applicable to all cases. Everything depends on context.

In the three scenarios above, it’s impossible to know whether the jokes are "anti-gay" without knowing much more.

The audience matters.

If I told you that the person in Scenario 1 was speaking to a general audience magazine, like Time, you might be at least uneasy that she was exploiting stereotypes of gay men as frivolously obsessed with Hollywood and Broadway. If I said she was being interviewed by a gay men’s magazine, this concern would be muted.

In fact, it was Joan Rivers speaking to Instinct Magazine, a magazine for gay men that focuses on celebrities, fashion and gossip.

The identity and history of the speaker matter.

If I told you, for example, that the "senior partner" in Scenario 2 is openly gay, you’d have one kind of reaction. If I said he was a homophobic straight man who believed he was speaking to other heterosexual men, you’d be more concerned.

In fact, the latter was true. It happened in my presence when I was a young lawyer and not yet out at my law firm.

Lots of intangibles matter, too, like whether the joke was told in a mean-spirited way or employed stereotypes in a way that undermined the stereotypes themselves.

In Scenario 3, the very idea of a giving a "gay look" to a camera is so completely ridiculous that it might be making fun of benighted people who think there is a distinctively "gay look" one can give. In fact, it was Jay Leno on the Tonight Show speaking to actor Ryan Phillipe.

The latter cases are the hardest ones to judge.

GLAAD objected to Leno’s attempted humor and Leno subsequently apologized. I’m not so sure.

It was an awkward moment and not very funny. But bad comedy is not necessarily bad comedy.

Dale Carpenter is a law professor. Some of his past columns can be read at www.indegayforum.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 25, 2008.
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