Several videos from the ubiquitous “It Gets Better” project feature famous, “top” gays guaranteeing that a better life awaits all L’s, G’s, B’s and T’s if we hold our heads high. Pop star Adam Lambert advises not to give bullies “the power to affect you, [because] you’re letting them win.” Actor Neil Patrick Harris says, “you can act with strength, you can act with courage… stand tall…be proud.” And fashion designer Michael Kors assures us that if he wasn’t “different,” he couldn’t be, um, Michael Kors. While these statements are all extremely well-intentioned, they beg the question, “for whom does it get better”? (For pop stars with a security team to ward off haters? For exceedingly famous actors who are lauded for “acting straight” and conforming to gender stereotypes? For Michael Kors?)
Brendan Ayanbadejo holds rank as LGBT hero-of the-moment. His post-Super Bowl, interview with CNN’s Don Lemon showcased his well informed, well-spoken, worldliness, as he declared equality for all, regardless of sexuality or gender expression. Ayanbadejo’s advocacy touches down with more impact than many advocates who are gay themselves (including Lemon, who came out in 2010 and has been a strong advocate for the community ever since), and not just because of his NFL platform, his obvious intelligence, looks, and charisma, but because he’s authentically not gay. His very straightness sends the message, “You’re allowed to be different. Different from me, and different from each other”.
We need even more passionate battle cries in this vein, on behalf of those who are different from ourselves — in general, not just in the LGBT communities — especially for those who have less power than we do.
Now, I’m ambivalent about power, and therefore about top-down advocacy. But as much as it makes me cringe, I also recognize that I benefit from power, and that it’s so tangled up into our systems that to completely extricate ourselves would be impossible. Top-down advocacy seems to imply paternalism, a patronizing of the “weaker”, and one could argue that paternalism is an inherent problem when we rely on straight public figures for effective LGBT advocacy. But we can also see this advocacy as maternalism, or using power to be nurturing, a necessary process in child development and identity formation; we gain confidence to express ourselves freely, and form a sense of self that is separate from our parents though this process. But as a man planning to raise children with another man, these gender labels don’t really work either. In fact, let’s remove the “parental” dynamic from this equation altogether and simply call what Ayanbabadejo is doing social caretaking — authentically claiming a position of social power, attuning to the differences of those who are less powerful, and encouraging them to claim their equally authentic but distinctly different identities, and forms of expression.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if powerful LGBTers could inhabit this role of social caretaker“?, you might ask. Indeed. For example, great as it is that straight movie stars like Sean Penn, James Franco, Michael Douglas, and Matt Damon show the world that kissing other men, and inhabiting feminine clothes and gestures, really doesn’t make the sky fall, we would certainly benefit from more of the Jane Lynch’s, Sean Hayes’s, Wanda Sykes’s, Heather Matarazzo’s, Dennis O’Hares, and Chris Colfers in that hot seat.
The problem here is that of the LGBT figures in the limelight, the ones identified as heroes (in the vein of Mr. Ayanbadejo) and the ones we tend to attach ourselves to as such, are the conformers, ie. those who are “straight acting,” suggesting that it’s OK to be gay, as long as you act “straight”. (We should take a moment to consider novelist Christopher Rice’s observation about the conundrum of the term “straight acting,” that it “implies an ignorance of the mechanics of gay sex”). Public figures like Dan Savage and Rosie O’Donnell are (tragically) often considered to be too non-conforming (too “gay acting”?) though they have both made phenomenal contributions in the way of LGBT youth and families in particular. By contrast, consider what actor Neil Patrick Harris once told Out magaizne:
“The first face that empowered me was Danny Roberts from The Real World: New Orleans. I think before him I’d never seen anyone wear [homosexuality] so comfortably… I could look to him as a role model… He represented a way that I could behave and stand tall comfortably without being an overt advocate and without being someone hiding in the shadows. I liked that.”
For those unfamiliar with the stone age of reality TV, Danny Roberts was considered to be the most “All American”/”straight acting” gay cast member on The Real World as of 1999. (The show had featured approximately one gay character per season since 1991).
It’s wonderful to know that not all queer people are created equal (that some are highly sexual, and some are not, some are outspoken, and some are not, some conform to traditional gender stereotypes and and some do not), but when those who conform are the only ones offering us hope, hope begins to look pretty limiting, and therefore pretty grim.
Perhaps the time will come when a variety of queer people will be as highly influential as Brendan Ayanbadejo, and I hope it’s soon. The more people leading authentic lives — authentically negotiating between conformity, and nonconformity, power, and vulnerability, freedom and limitations — the more we’ll all feel entitled to do so in our own way. However, while people continue to bravely live their truth, we also need those on top, those holding the trophy of social power, to authentically reflect on their own identities, their own status, and to pave the way for those who are different from them to do the same. Like an attuned caretaker to one less powerful, this process provides safety and permission to be authentically separate but equal.