I don't know the first thing about Orange County. Never been there. But after three seasons of Laguna Beach, I have a good idea of what's out there — shirtless guys constantly surfing and bikini-clad girls getting pedicures with wild abandon. Teens go to prom and graduate but never actually attend school. And the most important concerns are whether some other girl is wearing your sundress and who the three hot guys in town aren't sleeping with. This doesn't represent the lives of typical Orange County teens. Hell, it probably doesn't even represent the lives of these Orange County teens. But it's all I know of Orange County.
Let's say for a minute, you're one of those folks who don't pick up the City Paper (alright, that's now a stretch). But let's also say you don't watch reruns of Will and Grace or Ugly Betty or anything on Bravo, and you skipped Brokeback Mountain. But without any of these mediums, where oh where will you learn more about gay people?
Some are lucky enough to know some gay people (or, more specifically, know that they know gay people), but even then, there's this perception that the gay people they know aren't representative of gays in general. I can't count how many times straight people have told me, "You're not like most gay people." Actually, I am. We all don't wear bright pink belly shirts and rhinestone sunglasses. Am I out? Yes. Am I flaming? Well, not until the third cocktail.
- Lindsey Lohan and the kids at Laguna Beach make for great tabloid fodder and terrific television, but they don't create stereotypes of straight people. But scandalous, toe-tapping sex stings and terrifically flamboyant fictional characters are all some straight people see of the gay community.
As for where else these everyday folks can frame their perceptions of gays and lesbians, they're left with the news. Last year, it seemed things couldn't get lower when congressional page-chaser and self-professed booze hound Mark Foley was caught soliciting young men just as "massage" lover and recreational drug user Pastor Ted Haggard was getting outed by his favorite gay hooker. Then there was Sen. Larry Craig's arrest this summer after he took a wide stand in an airport men's room, tapping his foot (to "Hello, Dolly!," no doubt), and then he reached under the stall to allegedly sex up an undercover cop.
"What was he looking to do?" my brother asked me a few weeks later.
I should have been shocked that he would even expect me to know what was going on in that bathroom just because I'm gay. It's like asking Norah Jones why Britney Spears can't lip sync. Why the hell would she know? I don't even like using public restrooms for what they're there for. The first crusty old arm to come under the partition is going to get stepped on, I can promise you.
The straight world has two options — they can ask their gay brothers, sisters, or hairdressers these terribly awkward questions, or they can just take for granted that that's just how we all act, straight and gay alike.
Straight people don't seem to be burdened by the PR problem. For every Lindsey Lohan, there's a Mother Teresa. For every Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, there's a Bill and Melinda Gates. Gay people don't get in the news unless their pants are around their ankles (more often literally than figuratively). We do have a stable of productive heroes to blunt the bad news, but when I mention Larry Kramer, straight people say "who?" And when I talk about Anderson Cooper, they scrunch their faces and say, "Is he even gay?"
You can't complain about the newsworthiness of the Craig, Foley, and Haggard stories. Reporting the homosexual aspect isn't negotiable — it's central to each story and highlights the hypocritical part that makes it news. The bad thing is that it's not central to every other positive story you read about gays and lesbians. Whether it's a cure for some cancer or a firefighter getting a cat out of a tree, the sexuality of all involved is assumed or ignored because it's generally not part of the story.
Let's imagine for a moment that the roles were reversed — that only a small percentage of the world was hetero and only a select sliver filled the news holes. We'd assume that every blonde(ish) woman hits the clubs flashing her beaver, that athletes notoriously kill their wives (alright, allegedly) and raid Las Vegas hotels to steal back old memorabilia, and that politicians snort coke and chase hookers.
Seattle-based sex columnist, alt-weekly editor, and gay dad Dan Savage takes this argument to new heights in posts on the paper's blog, slogthestranger.com. Savage's "Every Child Needs a Mother and a Father" series is packed with stories about parents microwaving babies or giving them drugs or feeding them to alligators in an effort to show that just because a child has a mommy and a daddy, he or she isn't necessarily in better hands.
Now, are there great straight parents out there? Sure, but sometimes a child might be better off with one parent or two gay parents.
When it comes to what people learn from the news and TV, it's not just the straight people who are taking notes. Back to my brother's question concerning Sen. Craig's restroom cruising. Unfortunately, I did know what was going on in that bathroom. Ironically, I knew because I'd seen it in a movie. That's how even us card-carrying gays learn our gay culture. Sometimes that's good (seeing positive, happy gay people) and sometimes that's bad (seeing bathroom trolls).
I was at a sort-of straight bar a few years ago when I noticed a guy staring me down from a few tables over. It went on for a while until he came up to me and asked, "Could you tell me where the bathroom is?" I was floored. This had to be the weirdest pick-up line ever. He all but walked past the restroom (in plain sight) to ask me where it was. Toe-tapping good times may work at airports and rest stops, but at bars we at least go with a "buy you a drink?" I pointed to the loo and spent weeks relaying the story to my friends with unending amusement. That is, until I was watching an old episode of Showtime's Queer as Folk, a very gay and very sexual drama that birthed The L Word. The main character, a man-whore named Brian Kinney, was leaving a boardroom when another man asked him, "Could you tell me where the bathroom is?" Cut to the restroom where Kinney and the man head for the stall and ... well, let's just say Larry Craig would be jealous.
While QAF is providing questioning fellows with pick-up lines, there are some cases where the medium just hasn't done enough. In the midst of the fight over gay marriage, TV news had finally begun showing positive stories about gays and lesbians. They weren't seeking public sex or massages from gay hookers. They were just looking for the same thing straight people have. But even then, a straight friend told me, "If only they wouldn't keep showing them kissing." She wasn't particularly disgusted, but she could see what we all could — that showing two guys kissing is still taboo because it's something that middle America hasn't really seen before.
And the final battle is winning those Joneses over. Until then, they'll keep watching the floor of their stall or quizzing their pastor about his stiff back. — Greg Hambrick