Film Gay Politics Politics Television

Should gay roles be played by gay actors?

Today’s social media controversy comes courtesy of former Doctor Who show-runner Russell T Davies who has gone on record in an interview that he believes gay roles should generally be played by gay actors.

As you might expect, the response to this argument has been both immediate and strong. Some people have argued that it’s against the whole principle of acting to say that people should only play people like themselves (while obviously skipping over the obvious complexities of — or analogies to — a white actor playing a black character or a man playing a woman’s experience). Others have argued that if straight actors can’t play gay, then gay actors should not be able to play straight characters either.

In the middle of a lot of this is the same sort of generalized tedious sentiment we often get in these kinds of discussions – stuff that goes along the lines of, “it’s all political correctness gone mad” – groans about the “woke brigade”.

Now, these positions are infuriating, frustrating and wrong, but for many people why they are wrong is far from obvious. Superficially, they seems simple, commonsensical, self-evidently right. So for that reason I thought I’d go a bit above and beyond the call of duty and write a little piece explaining why subjects like these are more complex and intricate than they might initially appear, and why—in my opinion—even if it may not be desirable long-term, it is far from unreasonable to argue that gay parts should generally be played by gay actors.

I’m going to break this into three separate questions which I think have bearing on who should play which roles:

  1. Is there equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors?
  2. Can (and do) straight actors accurately portray gay people?
  3. If straight actors shouldn’t play gay, does it therefore follow that gay actors should not be able to play straight roles?

I’ll then try and wrap things up with a brief summary (you can skip to that right now if you can’t be bothered to read everything) and a brief articulation of my own opinion.

But if you’re with me for the long read, let’s jump right in…

Question 1: Is there equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors?

No. The truth is that there is not equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors, any more than there has been equality of opportunity for female actors, people of color or any other non-gay member of the LGBT community.

While it has clearly become easier for gay actors to get ahead in Hollywood or in acting generally in recent years, being gay is still often an impediment to a successful acting career at the highest levels.

It is simply true that actors who are out and proud and well known as being gay simply don’t get given straight roles as often—particularly straight leading roles—in movies or TV. Out gay actors who take on these roles are often characterized as ‘not believable’, while a straight actor who plays a gay role (at least over the last thirty years or so) is more often characterized as ‘brave’.

So here is our first argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people. There simply aren’t very many LGBT roles on TV or film, gay people are under- and often mis-represented, and (if they’re out) they’re often simply not allowed to play high profile non-gay roles.

Surely then, if gay actors are being purposefully excluded from many prominent straight roles, they should at least be considered preferentially for gay roles?

Question 2: Can (and do) straight actors accurately portray gay people?

Our next argument is based on the assumption that it is necessary, desirable or significant for gay people to be accurately depicted in drama. You can break this assumption into two parts – (a) that it makes for better drama to have more authentic performances, and (b) that it is morally or politically important to portray gay people in an accurate, convincing or (most importantly) non-stereotypical or discriminatory way.

I think that first part is self-evidently true most of the time and barely worth interrogating. The second part depends on whether or not gay or other LGBT people are still disadvantaged in society, experience discrimination or harassment, or are under-represented in drama. All the evidence says that they absolutely are.

Gay men generally earn less than straight men, gay people still often don’t feel comfortable express affection to their partners in public, gay teens are twice as likely to attempt suicide than straight teens, and twice as likely to ‘succeed’ when they try. Gay kids also represent 25-40% of homeless youth across the US and UK, and well over 90+% of gay kids report hearing homophobic abuse in the playground on an almost daily basis.

It seems clear to me—given this situation—that there’s an obvious imperative to try and fix things, or at least to not be complicit with them. And one obvious way to fight misinformation and discrimination against LGBT people is by attempting to represent them properly on TV and film.

This obviously does not mean by any means making every gay character a paragon of virtue. But it does mean representing gay people as they actually are—in all their range, variety and complexity—rather than resorting to stereotype or discriminatory tropes.

Which brings us to our second question – are straight actors capable of doing this?

The short answer here is yes. They absolutely can. And they sometimes do. I can name a number of films and movies where I think straight people have done tremendously good work portraying gay characters.

But as always, the devil is in the details. And the longer answer is that even today, many straight actors do not truly understand the lived experience of gay people and so — rather than depicting rounded characters that reflect real life — they either portray two-dimensional figures without any richness or understanding, or they resort to codes or symbols or stereotypes to communicate ‘gayness’.

The reality is that LGBT people often have some commonalities of experience that are often invisible or simply not understood by straight people. There’s the common experience of growing up around homophobic comments, and then coming to realize that those comments are about you. There’s the common experience of having crushes on people and knowing that you have to be completely secretive about them. There’s the common experience of lying to people around you and misleading people because you’re scared of how they’ll react if they find out the truth. There are the common experiences of coming out to friends, family, colleagues – over and over and over again as you meet new people. The common experience of someone you like making homophobic comments because they just don’t know. The common experience of not knowing how much of yourself you can reveal on the street without fear of attack. There’s the different way you meet people like yourself, the different support infrastructures you fabricate for yourself. The list goes on and on.

Not all LGBT people experience all of these things, and no doubt some experience none of them. But for most LGBT people, their path has been different from most of their straight peers and there will be things that most LGBT people experience that most straight people will not. And these things are a part of the complexity of the character and backgrounds of almost every fictional gay person.

For many straight actors, their experience of gay people will be via two unrepresentative samples, (a) their most confident out gay friends, (b) via previous representations of gay people in movies and TV. Forty years ago those representations were of sad, disillusioned, broken people who had horrible times coming out or were in the process of dying of AIDS, or ultra-camp flamboyant people with limp wrists and catch phrases. Twenty years ago they were more often than not very attractive and well-groomed men who were slightly bitchy best friends to nearby career women. Today they’re a lot better and more nuanced, but they’re still flawed. You only have to look at fantasy fiction to see that there’s still prejudice in movie making. How many daring archaeologists are gay? How many leather coat wearing space cowboys are gay? How many spies? How many secret agents?

So let’s summarize our second argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people: while there are a number of examples of particularly good straight actors who have very effectively played gay characters, they are uncommon and massively overwhelmed by bad ones. If you want to fix that misrepresentation (and in turn have a positive effect on the lives of gay people) then one thing you can substantively do is cast gay actors in gay roles.

Which brings us to our final question…

Question 3: Does it therefore follow that gay actors should not be able to play straight roles?

The two previous questions are, I think, fairly self-explanatory. But now we reach one that is a little more complicated to answer. The threads of this answer are already present in the two we’ve already made, but to make them clear and explicit we really need to address the most fundamental mistake people tend to make when they talk about minority groups.

So the commonly expressed position we’re investigating is superficially simple – if straight people should probably not play gay characters, then surely it’s only fair to say gay characters shouldn’t play straight?

But the basis of this position is fundamentally flawed. The argument is that we should treat both groups symmetrically — that the experiences of gay actors and straight actors — more still, gay people and straight people — are fundamentally the same but opposite, effectively equivalent and therefore if we decide on an action for one, it should necessarily apply to the other – ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’.

The problem is this is simply not true. When you’re talking about minority groups in this way, the two sides are almost always not symmetrical. The two sides are in fact very different. And the logical consequence of this difference is that things that might be okay for one group might actually not be okay for another.

The best way for me to explain this is through an example and please bear with me here, because I think it will make things much clearer.

A position based on symmetry might be a bit like this: “It’s wrong to have gay bars if we don’t also have straight bars!”

Now—for the moment—I’m going to ignore the reality of the situation that there are often straight people in gay bars, and that most non-explicitly gay bars are effectively de facto straight bars containing an equally small proportion of gay people. Instead I’m going to take the position at face value – and talk about why explicitly gay bars are a thing and explicitly straight bars are not.

So here’s the first bit of asymmetry in the lives of straight and gay people. A very small proportion of people in the world are LGBT. It is strongly debated what that proportion is, but for the sake of simple maths let’s say one person in fifty is explicitly gay.

Now, one of the most common places to meet someone you end up forming a relationship with is at work. The percentage of people who meet their partners at work varies depending on who you ask, but it’s somewhere around 15-25% of relationships.

So let’s imagine an office containing fifty people with an equal gender split and one in fifty people being gay. That means the company contains 25 men, 25 women.

It follows then that if you were a straight person in that company, you would most likely meet 48 other straight people. And of those straight people, 24 or 25 of those people would be of the opposite sex.

Let’s compare that with the gay person in that company. They will most likely meet no other gay people. Probabilistically, to have a second gay person in the company, it would need to double in size to one hundred employees.

Now you have two gay people in the company, but they are just as likely to be the opposite sex from each other, and therefore incompatible. To be confident that our initial gay employee will likely meet one other gay person of the same sex at work, the company would have to be twice the size again (200 people). That would mean likely four gay people at the company in total.

In comparison, in a company of two hundred people, 196 would likely be straight. And each straight person at the company would meet 98 heterosexual people of the opposite sex.

And we’re still not done! It’s still the general assumption that people you meet are straight, and there are still a number of reasons why gay people might not be out at work. So let’s imagine only 50% of gay people come out. So now we need to double the size of the company again. We’re now in a company of four hundred people, where each straight person is associating with 196 heterosexuals of the opposite sex. The gay employee meanwhile knows one out gay person of their preferred sex.

That’s an example of an asymmetry in action. And it doesn’t just apply to workplaces, it also applies to bars, nightclubs, universities etc. Every environment that is simply representative of the general population will make it dozens to hundreds of times easier for a straight person to meet someone eligible and potentially interested than a gay person.

As a result, gay people create ‘gay clubs’ and ‘gay bars’ to meet other gay people, while straight people already have de facto straight bars all around them at all times and making them explicitly straight simply excludes gay people from 98% of society.

So how does this apply to our final concern – if straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles, does it follow that gay actors should not play straight roles?

Well, let’s look back at our first question – are gay actors given an equal shot at straight roles? The answer was no, there’s an asymmetry there. Out gay actors were less likely to get leading straight roles than straight actors were to get gay roles. Giving gay roles to gay actors starts to fix that problem, but as long as there are disproportionately few gay roles, making things equitable also means letting gay actors play straight roles.

Does the same apply to our second question? Are there asymmetries at play that mean that it’s less problematic for a gay person to play straight than vice versa? I would argue there are at least three worth mentioning:

  • An asymmetry of knowledge
  • An asymmetry of power
  • An asymmetry of number

First up – the asymmetry of knowledge – most straight people do not grow up or live in predominantly gay environments, whereas most gay people do grow up and live in predominantly straight environments. The entire world is a predominantly straight environment that gay people simply have to operate within. For this reason, gay people are much more likely to be comfortable and convincing and accurate playing straight – at least partly because they may have spend good portions of their lives doing precisely that.

Second – the asymmetry of power – unlike gay people, straight people generally do not grow experience prejudice because of their sexuality. This means that accidentally misrepresenting straight people is much less problematic. Instead of furthering or creating a negative view of all straight people, it’s more likely to simply make that character look objectionable or unpleasant.

Third – the asymmetry of number – because there are far more straight characters and straight roles, the negative effect of one misrepresentation of a straight person—among all the thousands committed to film and TV each day—is also much less pronounced or important.

Conclusion: So should gay roles be played by gay actors?

Okay, so let me bring that all together. In short, the argument I’ve made goes like this:

  • The argument is that anyone should be able to play anyone else and that if straight people can’t play gay roles, then gay actors shouldn’t play straight ones. This position sounds intuitive but is in fact wrong;
  • On the whole gay actors have fewer opportunities than straight actors, and if we’re not going to give leading straight roles to gay actors, then the least we can do is give gay roles to gay actors;
  • Straight actors often are more ignorant of the lives of gay people than gay actors are of straight people – and since accurate representation matters, gay actors are better placed to play gay roles;
  • These situations are built on asymmetries of knowledge, power and number between straight and gay people, which mean that straight actors playing gay roles are much less likely to be accurate and much more likely to be damaging than gay actors playing straight roles.

For these reasons, I think it is perfectly reasonable to make the argument that Davies’ arguments are not self-evidently wrong or hypocritical.

But I’d like to go a bit further. As I’ve argued throughout this piece, these positions are fundamentally based on asymmetries between gay and straight people. Some of those asymmetries just won’t go away – it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see a time where there are as many gay people as straight people in the world.

But some of them can be fixed. We can make the experience of growing up gay or being gay in the world less alarming, dangerous and scary. We can make straight people more aware of the experience of being gay with more accurate representation and education. We can work to help audiences feel more comfortable with gay actors to take on straight leading roles. We can increase the number of LGBT roles in drama so that it’s truly representative. And here is where I think my position diverges a little from at least the summaries of Russell T Davies we’ve seen around in the last day or two.

Because if we do try and fix these things then at least some of these arguments will—over time—lose their potency. We actually can work towards a day where it is at least more okay for any good actor working in good faith to play gay or straight whatever their sexuality. Where we don’t have to think continually about how we make sure that gay people are represented and gay actors have equal opportunities and we genuinely can just give the right roles to the best people. We’re just not there yet. And to get there we probably have to follow a narrower and more complicated path – much like the path that Russell T Davies has mapped out.

In the meantime, we work and we push and we explain, in articles in the Radio Times or in never-ending blog posts, to those few who are willing to listen, always hoping that together we might get a little closer to that day.

Thank you for listening and goodnight xx

Conference Notes Gay Politics Talks

I'm the only gay in this village?

Right. I’m in a bit of a mood right now because Valleywag just called me the token gay at all-white-male conference Future of Web Apps. Apparently this was in response to Chris Messina’s post the other day on the future of white boy clubs which argued that white men should do something about the diversity of the tech community. There’s something deeply entertaining to me about fighting for inclusivity by suggesting that some people only got to speak because they were in a minority group. Smart move! Inclusive! Fuck you Valleywag! And while I generally applaud Chris’ post for being positive and saying that people should do something in a positive direction, I’m still a bit weirded out by his labelling of Tantek as ‘Turk’ compared to ‘white’ for the rest of us, and I still don’t actually see anything in his post which suggests actually solid actions to go forward with rather than just the positive sentiment, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

This whole thing is really beginning to piss me off, and it’s beginning to piss me off because lots of smart, good people are getting involved and fighting for some really weird things. Let me talk to you briefly about conference organising. I’ve had some conversations with people recently who organise conferences. They say that if you do a conference in visual design, web design, web standards and all that kind of stuff then audience and speakers are fifty-fifty men and women. The same holds true in the academic conferences. I have no idea about the various ethnicities of the people involved, nor of their sexualities. People comment on those things less frequently. But at least the gender thing is worth noting.

What’s more interesting is that the very same conference organisers, when they’re trying to do something around the geekier or more-business focused ends of the industry find that those ratios skew massively towards men. Note these are the same conference organisers! Their heavily prejudiced attitudes don’t seem to be causing endemic sexism or homophobic imbalances in the design and academic communities. So why on earth do they get lynched every time this debate comes up in the technology industry? It’s bullshit! The problem is elsewhere. Technology community, heal thyself!

I’ll give you another example – last year’s ETech committee was pretty much specifically chosen to open up to new communities. I was on the panel for the first (and I suspect last) time, as were Paula Le Dieu and Liz Goodman (among others). The conference team looked wide and far and tried to find a whole range of new people to talk at the conference, and clearly trying to open up the conference to previously excluded communities was a priority. And after all of that, with a real focus on uncovering hidden women and getting them to speak, we only managed (roughly) 15 female speakers to 95 male speakers. I think the ratio of men to women in the audience was even more imbalanced. Again, I don’t know the numbers of gay people or ethnic minorities off the top of my head. SXSW was much more balanced in the gender stakes, but again – it’s a very different subject area.

I really want to make this clear, the industry would probably be better able to provide products for a diverse group of users if it was itself more diverse. But wishing doesn’t make it so, and nor does shouting at the organisers of conferences. If you know people within the industry who should be talking or standing up, then you should encourage them to do so. If you’re observing brilliant people being passed over for venture money because of their gender, ethnicity or sexuality then for god’s sake there’s a real business opportunity there! And sure, if you genuinely don’t believe that conference organisers are doing their bit, then talk about it and pressure them. But let’s not just assume that a conference that evidences a giant skew towards straight white men is anything more than a reflection of the lamentable current state of our industry – a state that’s not going to be transformed by conference organisers alone. And while we’re at it, I’d really rather prefer it if people stopped arguing that anyone who is at a conference and isn’t a WASP is a token stab towards political correctness. The way this debate is being conducted at the moment is doing no one any good whatsoever.

Film Gay Politics

Some thoughts on Brokeback Mountain…

I went to see Brokeback Mountain this evening with a lovely group of people, and I think it made an impact on all of us. It really is what the hype says it is – an intelligent and sensitive film about a love that dominates the lives of two people but is frustrated by circumstance, baggage and by a raft of general human failings (some innate and some imposed). It’s beautiful and it’s melacholic and it feels true.

As a film, it caters to a gay sensibility only in accepting that love between two men is as possible and as real as love between a man and a woman. It’s not a cartoon film, it’s not a polemic. There’s a sense of danger around the relationship, but it’s not a dehumanised threat from outside – straight people aren’t evil, nor is the church or the uneducated or the parents. It’s a much more sophisticated film than that. The leads are not saints – there’s deceit and there’s prostitution and seediness and infidelities. And no character is a cypher – Ennis and Jack are complex, different and conflicted (you’d expect that), but so are their wives and the other women they come into contact with. No one gets a particularly easy time, but each has an opportunity to reveal how the situation they find themselves in has affected them, each has their fragilities exposed, each reveals strengths and insight. The wives are real, and as tragic as the leads. Their children are as plucky and remarkable as their parents. Sometimes more so. It’s a narrative in which every character is treated with respect by the film makers, even if they do not treat each other with respect in the film. As a piece of characterwork, as a piece of craftsmanship and as a piece of art, I genuinely think it’s exceptional.

I find it harder to present a personal perspective on it. One of my favourite reviews of the film by Roger Ebert said:

“the filmmakers have focused so intently and with such feeling on Jack and Ennis that the movie is as observant as work by Bergman. Strange but true: The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.”

I think he’s right, but I think there has to be a special resonance for gay people in watching a film in which same-sex love and its complexities are so well represented. It’s a rare occurence at all, let alone at this quality. I’m sure many people believe that gay people are as equal as everyone else and as free to operate in the world and do as they please as straight couples. But it’s not true – while watching the fear on Heath Ledger’s face about being exposed and revealed, I could see the anxiety on the face of an ex-boyfriend about any display of affection in public. He lived in fear of public hassle or approbrium – a fear that I’d like to say was unjustified, but cannot. My own lack of fear is probably more an artifact of years of anger and frustration than it is because I experience no threat. There’s something here that’s still more resonant today than many people understand.

But of course the other side of the personal experience is about remembering the relationships that got away, about the personal Brokebacks. It’s hard to resist recasting one’s failed romances under the influence of the film. It’s too tempting to find a familiar pattern in these epic narratives that stretch across a life, and to wallow in your own tragic arc. But if there’s one thing that Brokeback illustrates, it’s the danger of embracing neither the inevitable nor the desirable, about the paralysis of fear and of ceasing to fight because it’s the simplest short-term option. In our darkest moments and our most difficult relationships, or when it seems like unrequited or frustrated feelings will drag us down and segregate us off from the rest of humanity, it’s worth remembering this point. Because I for one want to resist the tragic conclusion. I want to fight against it and win. So if you’re feeling Brokeback too deeply – as I think maybe I did tonight – then maybe recognise that the ending was not inevitable, and however beautiful it was, there was still somewhere in all the pain a deeply missed and wonderful opportunity.

Gay Politics

What lies beneath 'gay' and 'straight'?

There’s an article I’d very much like to write about in the Guardian today, except that it seems to be one of the only articles in the damn magazine not posted up online. And worse still, I wanted to take it to task by colliding it with another article that I read sometime earlier this year in New Scientist. Unfortunately, I can’t find that article online either. The web has failed me. Or more specifically, The Guardian and New Scientist have failed themselves.

The article in the Guardian concerns itself with the question “What really makes us gay or straight?” and talks about the biological research into gay genes, the shape of the brain, the influence of sex hormones in utero and childhood behaviour. I read extensively around this subject a few years ago and was relatively convinced by the argument that there is a biological rather than sociological basis to gay sexuality. This wasn’t a shock, of course. No one seems to think it’s even a legitimate question to ask whether heterosexual sexuality has a biological basis, after all. Perhaps we should start…

The Guardian’s retelling of this research is a bit suspect to me, though – and has opened up a bit of a troubling problem for me. The article – much like many others I’ve read recently – seems to be rife with stereotype, innuendo, conflation of categories and misunderstandings of the complexity and variety of people in the world. It implies a world where societal prejudice seems to govern the terms and limits of the scientific research. It suggests to me a form of science which has taken the labels and political allegiances that individuals been labelled (or have used to self-describe) and reified them to undeniable facts of nature. Imagine a western culture where all non-whites have claimed an identity of ‘black’ or ‘people of colour’, and now imagine a science organised around determining what it is that makes all these people non-white. That’s what the science that the Guardian reports feels like to me…

Which presents me with a problem. Is the science itself deformed and collapsing? Are the categories actually useful and legitimate but unsupported in the discourse of the press? Or is the press simply misunderstanding or recasting the science in clichéd, prejudicial terms it thinks that its readership can understand? It’s led me to think about all kinds of questions – from the role of the press as an intermediary, through to the number of gay people working in these fields. It’s all very troubling.

Let me give you some examples. The structuring principle of the whole article is the case of twin boys ‘Thomas’ and ‘Patrick’. They are both seven. The article states:

Patrick is social, thoughtful, attentive. He repeatedly addresses me by name. Thomas is physical, spontaneous, a bit distracted. Just minutes after meeting me outside a coffee shop, he punches me in the upper arm. It’s a hard punch. They horse around like typical brothers, but Patrick’s punches are less forceful and his voice is higher. Thomas charges at his brother, arms flexed in front of him like a mini-bodybuilder. The differences are subtle – they’re seven-year old boys, after all – but they are there.

When the twins were two, Patrick found his mother’s shoes. He liked wearing them. Thomas tried on his father’s once but didn’t see the point. When they were three, Thomas blurted out that toy guns were his favourite things. Patrick piped up that his were the Barbie dolls he discovered at nursery school.

Their mother was concerned. She wanted Patrick to be himself, but she worried that his feminine behaviour would expose him to ridicule and pain. She decided to allow him free expression at home while setting some limits in public. That worked until last year, when a school official called to say that Patrick was making his classmates uncomfortable. He kept insisting that he was a girl.

When you get to the end of this particular chunk of stuff, you’re left with a few questions. First you’re left with a sense that the little boy in question clearly exhibits some ‘feminine’ traits. After that, my immediate impression was that the child in question was exhibiting some form of transgender behaviour. He even said that he wanted to be a girl. But there’s no mention of this in the article. Instead it launched straight into a discussion of the incidence of homo- versus hetero- sexuality in children that exhibit ‘Childhood Gender Nonconformity’:

Not all homosexual men show this extremely feminine behaviour as young boys. But the research indicates that, of the boys who do exhibit CGN, about 75% of them turn out to be gay or bisexual.

Now it’s difficult to know where to start unpicking this one. Firstly we’re given no sense of what proportion of people born male who end up being gay exhibit this ‘Childhood Gender Nonconformity’, so it’s incredibly difficult to tell whether or not it’s in any way representative of the wider category or not. Secondly, ‘Childhood Gender Nonconformity’ seems rather woolly – particularly when you consider that most people don’t remember their childhood behaviour terribly well, and many parents will be probably pretty prone after the fact to try and make sense of it all with, “well he did choose that pink piece of candy once in that shop rather than the blue one”-post-hoc rationalisation. But most importantly, what if these children are transgendered? What if they’re not actually ‘homosexual’ at all – but consider themselves biologically the wrong gender? Then they could grow up as ‘straight’ in their minds and only ostensibly gay because of an accident of biology. Fundamentally, what if the behaviour of finding (say) men attractive had many disparate manfestations with different roots? Is the homosexuality of an apparently male, but self-identified female, man-fancier really the same as the homosexuality of someone who identifies as male and still fancies men – whether they be drag queen, leather queen, dom or sub, top or bottom, bear or cub, versatile or polymorphously perverse?

I’m afraid I don’t think they’re the same thing at all – I think that sexuality and gender are much more varied and complex than most of these bits of reporting and ‘science’ indicate. “Homosexuality” is a descriptive label for a whole range of behaviours, sex acts and attitudes, just as “Homosexual” is a clumsy label for a much wider variety of people – just as “Heterosexual” in turn. And the articles own statistics suggest problems with the theory. If the children did grow up to be transgendered in some way, even then it’s not completely clear that they’d be end up attracted to people of their born-gender. There are many reported cases of male-to-female transexuals, for example, who still report being attracted to women – much to the consternation of a lot of the general public who can’t seem to grasp that there are a lot of gay men who do not want to be women, just as there are a lot of transexuals who do not see a direct correlation between their gender identity and their sexual preference.

Fundamentally, the whole problem for me in the article – and perhaps in the science – is that these simple correlations are swallowed whole. Men fancy women, women fancy men. The map of divergent sexualities is presented as map of miscegenated genders. And homosexuals are all the same, created by the same processes, through simple changes or errors producing an identical class of deviations from the norm – a group of people who are the same because they share a name, whether or not there is any ontological similarity in their sexualities. It’s clumsy and – I think – a little stupid.

This is kind of where I wanted to bring in the article from New Scientist, which I just can’t find. The article basically talked about this idea of ‘male’ versus ‘female’ brains and what that entailed. I’m writing about it from memory, so you’ll have to forgive me if I get some details incorrect. Fundamentally, the argument has gone like this – men and women are fundamentally different in many ways in the brain. If you do comparative studies of men and women you can map these differences – the example that everyone knows is that men are better at spacial reasoning. So, in fact, it is possible to bluntly look at a man or a woman and say that statistically he/she’s likely to be good at some things and worse at others.

Now, the interesting thing comes when you actually look past the gender of the subject and start to categorise the responses and the brain organisational patterns. And it turns out that you can loosely categorise the brains into three categories – a brain pattern traditionally associated with the male, one with the female and one that seems ‘balanced’ between the two. But that’s not the most interesting bit. The most interesting bit is that people who are biologically male are mostly split between the ‘male’ and ‘balanced’ brain patterns, where biologically female people are split between ‘female’, ‘balanced’ and ‘male’ brain patterns.

So yeah – in aggregate you can start making bland claims about biological and profound differences between genders, but in the end it turns out that these are only aggregate changes. There aren’t two brain patterns, there are three (on this metric), and they’re not split between the genders, they’re distributed differently among them.

I want to make the same claims about sexuality – that it is quite possible to make aggregate claims about ‘heterosexual’ & ‘homosexual’ behaviours in men and women, but that until these are all shown to be consistent and to have congruent explanations, we must assume that there are deeper patterns of organisation to be uncovered. These may represent entirely different ways of categorising, exploring and unpacking concepts of gender and sexuality – generating different maps of our selves and different ways for us to gain purchase on our identity.

Unlike many other people I have met, I want to know why I am the way I am – I want to understand what it means to be gay (whatever version of gay I am). I think there are straight people in the world as well who would like to feel the edges of their preferences, to understand how things fit together and where the intersections are between their identities and what they get up to (or don’t) in bed. I want a science in the world that is prepared to explore all aspects of our lives and shine light in the darker places, but that is open-minded enough to not try to simply prove or disprove the prejudices of society but to reach some greater understanding. It’s a shame that I find myself so often disappointed.

Addendum: Thanks to MacDara for pointing out that the Guardian article in question is a reprint of a piece from The Boston Globe and is available here: What Makes People Gay?

Film Gay Politics

On Alexander and Uncle Tom…

The other day I was watching BBC Breakfast and they got their film critic on to talk about the premiere of Oliver Stone’s new film Alexander. Now Alexander has not got terribly good reviews and they showed a few clips of the director and some of the actors talking about why it’s been such a flop in the States. Oliver Stone’s opinion was that America had trouble with the idea of a general who had a long-standing homosexual relationship. Apparently in some parts of the States they wouldn’t even show it in theatres. As a consequence Stone decided to re-edit the film for the DVD release—presumably to remove some of the gay stuff.
To give you a bit of the context, here are some articles around the film:

Anyway, after seeing the interviews, BBC Breakfast dragged out their critic. And they asked him if it was true that the film was only rejected because of the gay stuff. And the critic said (and I paraphrase), Well, I hope that’s not the case. But in my opinion, if anything the film needed to be more gay—you know—camped up a bit! A bit more glam!
Nnngh! Nngh! Grrr! Nnngh! I mean for Christ’s sake—this is a film about a man who led armies across all of the known world—who pushed his people beyond the limits of that worldand who did it all in his twenties. This was an epic leader! This was one hell of a man! Why is it so extraordinary to want to represent this hero of Macedonia seriously? Some cultures thought he was a monster of enormous proportions. Other cultures idolised him. Classical academics who are not generally prone to hyperbolae referred to him as “undoubtedly the greatest general of his race and probably of antiquity”. This isn’t some made up piece of modern hokum like Gladiator was – nor is it an attempt to represent an ancient literary work and mythological tradition like Troy. Why on earth would you want to ‘camp it up’?
Now, I’ve now gone and seen the film. I was determined to see it and pretty determined to enjoy it and to find value in it. But I can report that it is not a particularly good film. It has really good bits in it if you’re prepared for the crap, but it’s badly structured and clumsy and has obviously been hacked to pieces for time. Whole sections of the life of Alexander are excised or put in briefly as flashbacks, some characters are hammy beyond belief and for some extraordinary reason everyone in Macedonia speaks with an Irish accent. I mean, I could go on all day with the things that are wrong with it.
But there are things that it’s been criticised for unfairly, and—worse—reactions from audiences and critics that demean themselves and our culture. Whenever Alexander was seen to be interested in someone malethis epic leader and warrior became suddenly subject to titters and giggles from the auditorium. Because it’s apparently laughable—embarrassing even—to imagine that a great warrior could have been more interested in men than women. The sincerity of the feeling that Alexander evidences is apparently ludicrous to these people. That’s why they need the film ‘camped up’ a bit—because most of the modern western world appears to be prudish or infantile when it comes to sex and feeling, and completely unprepared to deal with different cultural morays or with the representation of a character who managed to be larger than any of them will ever be, while also fucking men.
Having been in the auditorium with these reactions, I think I can state right-out that there is homophobia in the way this film has been received. I think that’s true. It’s only one reason that the film has failed of course—there are dozens of others—but it’s certainly one of them. And in experiencing people’s reaction to the film, I’m reminded more and more that the successes in gay rights over the last ten years or so have also ushered in an Uncle Tom-ish culture of the desexualised, non-threatening and funny little poof who is apologetically grateful for the positive reaction he can get from straight people by being entertaining. I’m increasingly angry about the way that we’ve petitioned for rights by turning everything about ourselves that could be possibly considered threatening into some kind of joke. Alexander the Great was no man’s bloody pet.
You can find out more about Alexander the Great at these various sites:

Advertising Gay Politics

Why I won't be buying any Muller products…

I sent this letter to today because I finally had enough of the stupid bloody adverts in which mincing gay men flounce around the place looking at straight men’s cocks. I’m sorry to be crass, but it pisses me off…

Dear Sir / Madam,

I am writing to complain about the Muller adverts which include a highly camp and stereotypical gay air steward mincing through a hotel (or on a plane) staring suggestively at the crotches of vulnerable and anxious-looking straight men. I was horrified when this advert was on a few years ago, but had assumed that it had been withdrawn because it was so crass. Now I see that it has returned to our screens I’ve decided I should complain.

As a gay man I find this representation both insulting and dangerous. When I was growing up gay I was under the misapprehension that gay people were dirty and sickening and pathetic because of adverts like this. When I became an adult I realised that these stereotypes were only used by small-minded, petty, vindictive and scared little people – people desperate to ‘belong’ and unable to handle anything even vaguely different from themselves. Unfortunately other gay teenagers didn’t have the luxury of coming to terms with these images as easily as I did. While working with the Bristol University Gay and Lesbian society, I met and tried to counsel an enormous number of young gay men who were coming out and who had experienced considerable abuse – including harrassment at school, on the street and even – in one occasion – being stabbed by their own father for being a ‘disgusting sissy’. Your advert is prolonging precisely the stereotypes that cause children to be harrassed in this way – and contributing to the culture that results in twice as many attempted suicides and successful suicides among gay teenagers than straight, as well as an enormous over-representation of gay teenagers among the homeless.

I will not be buying any more of your products until I am reassured that this advert has been withdrawn and I will be doing my best to encourage other people to boycott your products as well. I have also written a complaint to Ofcom.


Tom Coates

Gay Politics

Lunatic Tebbit blames "buggery" for fatness…

The new caring version of the Conservative party doesn’t inspire that much faith in me. I know they’re all multicultural this and “ooh happy gay people” that, but all it really takes is someone like Lord Tebbit to pull back the Transylvanian’s cape to reveal the genuine sentiments of the Old Guard Tories. On the Thursday morning edition of the Today programme, Lord Tebbit says the cause of obesity is “buggery” (RAM). Having said that the cause of obesity is directly the consequence of a decline in family life he continues:

And the government is pursuing the break down of family life. We’ve had one thing after the other… In the House of Lords at the moment we’ve got this gay marriage bill at the moment – that doesn’t help – and we’ve not only got an epidemic of obesity … we’ve got a huge problem of AIDS and the government’s attitude is to do everything it can to promote buggery – the two are somewhat intimately connected!

Weirdly we’re left with Boris Johnson having to save the day and say, “I don’t think you can really say that gay marriage is responsible for obesity, with the best will in the world…”

Gay Politics

My blood is unclean…

I couldn’t agree more with this piece on gay men being banned from being sperm donors. The same thing happened a few years ago with the blood transfusion service. They’re desperate for donors and yet the rules say (in the UK) that any man who has ever had sex with another man should not donate. I’ve been tested regularly for pretty much everything and am clear, have a relatively rare blood type (A-) and there are chronic blood shortages that could result in deaths. What possible rationale could there be for stopping me from helping?

Gay Politics

Legal gay marriages in the United States

Massachusetts has become the first state in the US to allow same-sex couples to get married. Whether it will last or be crushed under the weight of a Constitutional amendment I don’t know, but it’s bloody wonderful in the meantime:

Other towns and cities across the state were also prepared to wed large numbers of same-sex couples as the law came into force. The Supreme Court ruling upheld a decision by the state’s highest court. It said that denying marriage licences to same-sex couples violated anti-discrimination laws.

The Massachusetts ruling has fuelled heated debate across the country – and the controversy has been particularly intense in an election year. In a statement, President Bush said he had called on the Congress “to pass, and to send to the states for ratification, an amendment to our Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman as husband and wife. The need for that amendment is still urgent, and I repeat that call today.” His rival John Kerry – who is a Massachusetts senator – is also opposed to same-sex marriages, but favours a more limited form of legal recognition.

I think the issue of gay marriage only started to matter to me when I realised that many of my gay friends actually wanted to get married. And on the day when a friend of mine showed me a marriage booking form online in San Francisco and I started looking for the section for gay people and there wasn’t one – It was all the same form… That affected me too I think – to realise that while it was clearly an issue at the moment, the whole point of this battle was about completely collapsing that difference around relationships. That’s a pretty cool goal…

Gay Politics Science

On adaptive success and theories of homosexuality…

The latest issue of New Scientist contains an article – “The In Crowd” – that is both profoundly interesting and yet totally unavailable online. Gradually, I’m delighted to say, this situation is becoming more rare and more of a surprise each time it occurs.

Anyway, the article – written by Joan Roughgarden – contends that: “Same-sex relationships are not a biological dead end. They are a glue that helps hold many animal societies together, and a fatal flaw in one of Darwin’s central ideas.” Here are a few choice chunks of the article that I think encompass most of the article:

Author Bruce Bahemihl, in his book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and natural diversity, has catalogued over 200 vertebrate species in which same-sex genital contact regularly occurs. In some species, homosexuality is not very common – around 1 to 10 per cent of all mating. In others, such a bonobos, homosexual mating occurs as often as heterosexual mating. In some species only males participate, in others only females, in still others both sexes. Sometimes homosexuality is associated with pair bonds that last for years, and in others with short-term courtships. This broad occurrence of homosexuality among vertebrates raises the possibility that if it has a genetic basis at all, it has some broad adaptive significance, and is not an aberrant condition just a few species happen to be stuck with.

In humans, moreover, homosexuality is much too common for it to be considered a genetic aberration. Real genetic diseases are really rare, and their frequency inevitably depends on their severity. A disease that is uniformly lethal must arise anew each generation, so its frequency is equal to the mutation rate, say one in 1 million. A disease that causes only a 10 per cent drop in offspring production (fitness) is 10 times more common than a lethal disease – about one in 100,000. Similarly, a mere 1 per cent drop in fitness leads to a frequency of one in 10,000. If homosexuality has a frequency of 1 in 10, the fitness loss could be no more than 0.001 per cent, which is completely undetectable. A “common genetic disease” is a contradiction in terms, and homosexuality is three to four orders of magnitude more common than true genetic diseases such as Huntington’s disease.

All this seems eminently reasonable to me so far. I mean, clearly I’m no expert in evolutionary biology, so my opinion really counts for less than nothing. But on the other hand, as an engaged reader and a gay man I’ve at least got a legitimate interest in the subject and have found myself relatively compelled by the idea that if homosexual behaviour has a genetic component, that at least some of the genes that result in it must have some adaptive utility. The most commonly cited example is that perhaps a gene might exist that in an heterosexual adult provided a significant reproductive advantage of some kind – but which had the side effect of producing a certain proportion of children who were gay. As long as the cumulative effect was to mean that – on average – the familial line would produce more sexually productive offspring than a line which did not have the gene, then it would be clear that the genes that result in gay people had a reproductive advantage.

Of course while that theory has a certain compelling logic to it, it doesn’t (perhaps shouldn’t) have anything to say about what it means to be gay in this context. In other words – it makes no statement that homosexual behaviour is itself somehow useful or positive with regard to human behaviour, survival or evolution. Homosexual behaviour then, is not considered adaptively useful.

Now back to Joan Roughgarden’s piece (carrying on directly from what was written above):

Indeed, I challenge the presumption that homosexuality leads to any reduction in fitness whatever. Throughout history and across cultures, homoerotic attraction has not precluded heteroerotic attraction. And there is little evidence that people who feel homoerotic attraction have, as a group, any less Darwinian fitness than those who don’t. After all, many exclusively heterosexual people do not have offspring either. Even if those with homoerotic attraction did have marginally fewed children, they might make up for it by a better chance of survival – during wars, for example, when homoerotic bonds might lead soldiers to protect one another more vigorously.

So what then, is the adaptive significance of homosexuality? Homosexuality has many uses, much as the ability to speak does. Homosexual contact is a way to communicate pleasure. And I suggest that homosexuality is a social inclusionary trait – that is, it provides animals, including perhaps humans at times, with admission to social groups. It evolves, I suggest, whenever same-sex cooperation helps achieve an evolutionary successful life: to survive, find mates and protect one’s young from harm. This plays out in different ways in different sexes and species. Sometimes, as with bonobos, same-sex cooperation provides group security and access to food that females need to successfully rear their young. For others, such as male Savanna baboons and probably some whales, it provides the allies they need to survive conflicts so that they may later mate. But the unifying principle is the same – homosexuality cements relationships that are crucial for a successful life.

At which point, I’m afraid, I think my scepticism comes to the fore. It seems to me that any theory of homosexuality that operates in direct opposition to people’s experience of contemporary human sexuality seems to be at least flawed. While bonobo homosexuality might be seen to be useful in the creation of social inclusion, often exactly the opposite occurs in human society. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s classic book Between Men specifically talks about the continual need to disavow sexual components to male homosocial relationships (ie. male-on-male friendship / bonding relationships). We’re all familiar with this kind of experience – that the most common and most potent sources of anti-gay tirades are tightly-bound social groups of men. At the very least more is going on in those situations than simple homoeroticism bringing those men together to express solidarity and closeness. Even at our most open-minded, surely we have to state that in those circumstances, the fact that any vestigial or situational erotics have to be so vigorously denied makes it clear that there’s a distinction to be drawn between homoerotic behaviour, homosexual behaviour and homosexual identities that is much more complex than anything that Roughgarden supplies us with.

I will of course give her the benefit of the doubt in this case – the article is evidently a truncation of a body of work that no doubt includes a massive set of sample data from which to draw conclusions as well as the applied expertise of a lifetime of training. If I get the chance to read any more of her work, I will make sure that I do so vigorously. But in the meantime, I’m afraid I must remain interested but unconvinced.