Big Gay Phonies
On Halston, Colton, Ellen and the Pretension Pitfall of Queerness
In our book on queer cultural history, we devoted a chapter to the runway portion of Drag Race and used it as a launching pad to discuss why queer people tend to have a different relationship with presentation than other people. Queerness, by its nature, is a form of self-presentation that comes with its own visual signifiers and semiotics. All queer people have to wrestle with those signifiers whether they want to or not. If you’re cisgender and come out as gay or lesbian, there’s a point at which you wonder whether you should present your identity in some specific visual way and whether you’re supposed to declare something about yourself. Are you butch or femme? Are you a daddy, a twink, or a bear? If you come out as non-binary, how much of that will you represent in your clothing, hair and style choices, if at all? If you come out as a trans woman, does that mean you adopt high heels, long hair and manicures? If you come out as a trans man, do you start working out more and growing a beard? Or do you simply look at these questions and decide they don’t apply to you?
All people make some sort of decision (or fall into some sort of pattern) about their self-presentation and what it says about them (country music fans or hip hop fans, nerds or jocks, goths or punks, liberals or conservatives), but queer people have to address this in a much more overt and deliberate way. A big reason for this is the coming-out process, which is an intensely emotional and potentially liberating experience of self-declaration that straight people don’t have to go through. Another contributor is the post-coming out process, where you leave behind your former closeted persona and attempt entry into a community of other queer people. Many queer people aren’t particularly entrenched in the queer community, but gay and bi people still have to look for sexual or romantic partners among other queer people, and trans and enby folks are still likely to turn to their respective communities for guidance and mentorship, regardless of whether their social lives or circles are predominately queer. There are probably other reasons why the process of coming out is characterized by being “in the closet,” which is the place where all our clothing is stored, but we think part of the reason the phrase has persisted is because it alludes to that very idea of how to present yourself to the world. From the ball scene to the gym scene, from the leather scene to the drag scene, queer people create a version of themselves and then try to visually represent that version to the world. These musings aren’t about style, however. They’ve been prompted by the idea of phoniness in queerdom and how it rises out of this same sense of self-declaration; an idea that we’ve been batting around thanks to a few very notable and delusional white gays who made the news recently.
Ryan Murphy’s biographical series on the life of legendary designer Halston dropped this week. We reviewed it and found it lacking in a lot of ways, not least of which was the refusal to explore just why the man was so pretentious, going so far as to adopt a phony accent that everyone knew was phony. In our podcast discussion on the show, we criticized the series for not doing a good enough job of tying his pretensions to his gayness. His ideas of elegance, wealth and precious artistry (“Orchids are part of my process!”) were inextricably bound up in his working class upbringing in Indiana and how that intersected with an artistically inclined little gay boy’s understanding that he needed to get away from his community of origin to be the person he was meant to be. Halston was pretentious and affected because he was gay and that very pretension was ultimately the reason for his fall and decline. Which isn’t to say that affectations and phoniness are part of being gay; just that it’s a personality pitfall that a lot of queer folks fall into, largely because of the idea that they can come out, declare the person that they are, and then dress that part, but also because so many queer people had to build lives away from the communities and families that knew them when they were closeted. When you set about the deliberate task of creating your new self (sometimes well into your adulthood) away from the people who knew you when, it’s very easy to fall into a trap of creating someone who is no more true to yourself than when you were in that closet.
Former Bachelor star Colton Underwood gave an interview to Variety this week after his highly public coming-out on Good Morning America last month. We’re going to try to be kind here, because it’s extremely common for newly out queer people to be a little … all over the map, let’s say. This is a highly emotional and probably intensely confusing time for him and we’d like to be supportive of that, but Jesus, he’s making it difficult. For one, it’s perfectly clear that he shouldn’t be doing this publicly at all, given the charges of stalking his ex-girlfriend or the revelation that his coming-out was prompted by a blackmail attempt after he was spotted at a “spa known for catering to gay clientele,” which we presume to mean some sort of gay bathhouse or other space where men go to have sexual experiences with other men. He rather preciously claims he was there “just to look,” and rather judgmentally notes that he never should have gone to such a place. Given how recent these stalking and blackmail events were in his life, he would be much better off staying in therapy and doing the work of making amends and becoming a healthier, more self-actualized person. But Colton, like so many reality TV stars, is addicted to attention, which means not only is he doing a round of high-visibility interviews on huge platforms, but he’s also turning his coming-out into a television show. Personally, we don’t care what the guy does with his life or whether he does it publicly or privately. We do, however, care when his clear high self-regard and privilege cause him to cast himself as the next gay savior.
When he was closeted, he allowed himself to be painted as the Christian virgin, standing up for virginity in an over-sexed world. Now that he’s out, he’s cast himself as the Christian hero who’s going to save gay kids through his masculinity. “I had never seen a football player that had made it to the NFL that had been gay, growing up Catholic,” he offered. “I’ve had hundreds of gay Christian men and women who are confused in their walk with Jesus say, ‘I felt closer to God when I came out.’” “If it just helps a few young men and women come out and be proud of themselves and understand that all parents aren’t going to be upset,” his father said regarding Colton’s upcoming reality series, “it can save lives.” In other words, the response to charges of stalking and being blackmailed after going to a bathhouse is to lean harder on the idea of his virginity, his masculinity, his Christian background and how all of those things, rather than being symbols of his privilege (or traps that kept him imprisoned), are tools for him to change the world and save lives. Again, we don’t want to be cruel here, but given his behavior leading up to his coming out (which was, he admits, done out of fear and under duress rather than as a moment of brave self-declaration), there’s simply no good reason for him to assume this mantle of life-saver and society-changer. He’s so clearly someone who needs time to work on himself, but he’s so bound up in the heroic purity image underlying his white Christian background and the attention that comes from leveraging that image that he’s attempting to make it his whole brand. The masculine white guy who’s going to redefine gayness and save kids’ lives; an image that’s a lot easier and more rewarding to project than the screwed up emotional mess with sexual hangups and self-destructive behavior.
Ellen DeGeneres also gave a few interviews this week, ostensibly to discuss her plans to end her talk show. Not surprisingly, she had a lot to say about the many stories that have come out accusing her of fostering a toxic work atmosphere for her employees. She denied having any knowledge of it, saying “And then for me to read in the press about a toxic work environment, when all I’ve ever heard from every guest that comes on the show is what a happy atmosphere this is and what a happy place this is.” Ellen, please. Is this pretension? Is this delusion? Or is it an abusive employer smartly using language to obscure her culpability? Of course her guests think her show is fun; that’s what all her employees – the people who are making these complaints – are there to do. She also gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter where she makes it clear (regardless of whether she’s aware of it) that she’s been trapped in an image that she finds suffocating: the “nice” lady. “Like, I can’t honk my horn at anybody,” she noted. “God forbid someone cuts me off. No, they got to look at me dancing. “ It’s kind of fascinating watching her struggle with both her public image and her self-image at the same time. “I don’t deserve this. I don’t need this. I know who I am. I’m a good person.” “I’m not a scary person. I’m really easy to talk to.” “My whole being is about making people happy.” It’s so easy to poke holes in these statements and view them as a very wealthy and powerful employer dismissing criticism from her underlings by pointing to her wealthy and powerful friends and saying “But they love me, so it can’t be true.”
Our point is not to call Ellen a bitch or even to claim that she’s delusional, but it’s impossible for us to read these quotes and not hear a woman who’s so bound up in a certain image of herself (the “nice lady”) that she not only can’t fathom that the criticisms are true, she refuses to believe they’re coming from a genuine place. She has called it an “orchestrated” campaign and suggested that it’s rooted in misogyny. But like Halston or Colton, her high self-regard is bound up in her queerness and rooted in her coming out. A huge part of the reason she adopted the “nice lady” image was because of the hurt she suffered (both personally and professionally) when she came out in the 1997 on the cover of Time. Five years after that setback, she launched her talk show, at a time when anti-gay bills and anti-gay marriage amendments were ricocheting all over the country and gaining popularity. It was a revelation at the time for middle America (the audience she needed to be successful) to see a happy, non-threatening, likeable queer woman on their TV screen – and she knew that. We have no doubt the allegations of cruelty shocked her and hurt her, given how much she thinks she has to project a certain image of kindness. It’s notable to us that her various interviews haven’t leaned on the usual “I’m a perfectionist and I run a tight ship, so people are going to be offended by that and try to paint me as a bitch” response to this sort of thing, which is how Oprah and Rosie O’Donnell both reacted to charges that they weren’t as nice behind the scenes as they are on screen. With Ellen, her responses are all about how nice she is, how easy she is to talk to and how much she disbelieves the accusations against her. She can’t be mean. She’s Ellen, for God’s sake.
We don’t doubt that Ellen will be fine, though. Unlike Halston, she’s too situationally aware and well-established to let this setback ruin her. Unlike Colton, she’s secure in her gayness and understands the dangers of trying to make herself into some sort of exemplar for the community. But like Halston and Colton, she is very clearly a gay person still struggling with how to present herself to the world and whether or not she can afford to be her true self after being so wedded to a certain public image for so long. Being publicly, famously queer is extremely difficult even now; even for popular, wealthy lesbians or masculine-acting Christian football players with perfect jawlines. But that doesn’t mean we can’t point out when public gays are being big phonies in a way that’s damaging themselves, but also damaging the very public they’re appealing to.
I Was Told There Would Be Cat Pictures
Twirlers, meet Miu Miu, the most ironically named cat in the world. We named her after the fashion brand because we thought she looked chic and had a demure air about her, but from the minute we put her in the cat carrier to take her home and for the next eleven years, this loudmouth pain in the ass has been howling every thought in her head out to the world. Never once has something so coquettish as a “miu” escaped her non-existent lips. She yells when she walks into a room or when she walks out of a room. She yells when you walk into the room or out of it. She sits down between us whenever we have a conversation and takes part the entire time, which has made recording podcasts over the years a rather tense experience. She yells if you pet her, she yells if she wants you to pet her. She yells when she wants food and she yells when she thinks we’re staying up too late or sleeping in too long. “How,” we’ve asked in exasperation a thousand times, “Did she fit so much personality into a brain the size of a walnut?” We’ve had to repeatedly tell guests “We swear, there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s not in pain, she’s not in distress, and she’s not mad. She just won’t shut the fuck up.”
God, we love her. Of course we’d have an opinionated cat.
[Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao, Tom & Lorenzo]