Years ago, I wrote a commentary for Advocate.com that was intensely personal, created in a time of personal crisis. I had just received a review copy of the It Gets Better book, and because of my state of mind, recent experiences, and past traumas, it sent me reeling. The gist of my commentary was that the happy ending promised by the It Gets Better campaign ignores one very ugly reality–that while it gives young LGBT people hope that treatment by everyday straight people gets better as they enter the real world of adulthood (it does, in my experience), when gay men enter the culture of the adult gay community, they are expected to conform to idealized expectations and flourish, or else they very likely will suffer equal or greater alienation by their own. The trouble with the happy ending promised by It Gets Better is that the “it” in question is only half of the picture. For many of us, the other “it”–not mainstream society, but gay society–is a ruthless wilderness that demands good genes, a hardcore gym membership, and absolute conformity to physical, behavioral, and political standards. These standards are so well established that they don’t even warrant delineating.
To reveal all the personal feelings I revealed left me feeling exposed at a level I never would have imagined. I had written quite a bit for Advocate.com and a number of other outlets–including a number of interviews with high-profile celebrities–and I had attracted a few Twitter followers and Facebook friend requests as a result. But when “The Trouble with Happy Endings” was published, within hours, literally hundreds of people contacted me through those outlets as well as through lengthy personal emails thanking me for being forthright and for saying something that’s infrequently addressed within the gay community. I have a number of Facebook friends to this day as a direct result of the commentary–because we all need friends, and real friends within the gay community are hard to come by. And once again, a person whom I do not know and in fact never have met somehow found my phone number and called me in response to more recent comments on Facebook–and in this case, the person, while not a celebrity, is someone of the utmost importance to me because he represents the invisible gay man who no one (least of all other gay men) want to acknowledge exists. I’ll explain what I mean at the end of this story.
“The Trouble with Happy Endings” was published four and a half years ago. Over time, I’ve come to accept myself and my flaws more (in large part because I recently discovered that chronic Lyme disease has been the cause of my gradual and life-changing physical deterioration over the past many years–that’s another story, but part is relevant to this commentary); however, others have not. And as a person who blurts out what many feel should be kept inside, I’ll say this: I resent it.
I really resent aspects of our community, and at this very moment, I am absolutely fuming. Let me tell you why. Whether you agree or not, think I must be a loser or not, I ask that you read this thoroughly because the gay community is making huge strides in the civil rights arena, but is at the same time being turned into something ugly and reprehensible because of its own actions.
Apparently, I follow RuPaul’s Drag Race on Facebook. I don’t remember clicking “like,” but I do like the show–a lot. The male version of RuPaul on the show serves as a mentor, and consistently throughout the years has proven to be kind, wise, and supportive–a genuine remnant of an older, more self-supporting LGBT community. RuPaul actually once told a contestant, “I’m not going to steer you in the wrong direction–not for some damned TV show.” In the world of entertainment, a producer refusing to ruin one person’s rights in the name of ratings is blasphemy.
So the other day, RuPaul’s Drag Race posted this on Facebook: “Attention all you shady ladies: “After a long night of hooking, don’t let the trade mop your goods,” linking to an article published on the LGBT entertainment website New Now Next, a property of Logo, the LGBT-centric media company. Logo promises “a mix of original and acquired entertainment that’s outrageous, smart, and inclusive.” The article title alone is vulgar and offensive, not to mention being obvious salacious click bait: “My Ugly Grindr Hook-Up Stole My TV!” But the article itself is what has, once again, sent me reeling and questioning my affiliation with the so-called gay community–and because of my admitted personal sensitivities, it even made me question whether RuPaul’s onscreen persona as a supportive member of the community may in fact be a facade, which saddens me. My repeated requests for him or his staff to remove the post on Facebook and Twitter went unrecognized. I can’t say I am heartbroken, exactly, but I am disappointed.
The New Now Next article, complemented by a shirtless photo of the youthful Grindr patron it describes, tells the story of “Eric,” a young gay man who, drunk with friends and a roommate and a roommate’s one-night stand, decide to convene an alcohol-fueled group sex party.
“After trolling through a few profiles we decided to invite a few boys over and see who would come. We started by only messaging guys that were solid 10’s. After not much success–and a few drinks in–we started lowering our standards a little and stared messaging drunk 9.5 out 10’s (or in reality they were sober 7’s).”
Having lowered his standards, Eric ended up inviting someone over who normally would not have been good enough (lookswise–and in the LGBT world that also means not good enough, period) for him—and when the person showed up at the door, Eric and company let him in despite his appearance, and then they did what, they seem to believe, any thinking adult would do—they locked themselves in Eric’s bedroom until the monster went away. When they emerged, the vile, disgusting creature had gone…and took their wall-mounted television set with him.
That’s the story—that’s all there is to it. Part cautionary tale to Grindr users to secure their televisions, part showcase for Eric’s shirtless selfie.
What is so upsetting to me about the article? It’s not that Eric’s TV was stolen, that’s for damned sure. It is, in small part, that Eric represents not one or two but the vast majority of gay men I have met in Washington, D.C. Yes, it made me physically nauseated to once again be confronted with the reality of how gay men view one another, behave toward one another, and devalue one another. I’ve existed in this world believing that I, as a human being, am more than my appearance, and that has made it difficult to cope with the reality that, in the gay world, you’re not even a human being if you don’t look like a model. The mean girls of the gay community have assured me that that is the case–despite saying otherwise, all of the doing reveals that this is an inarguable truth. Your worth is measured by how your shirtless photos compare with those tiled on apps like Grindr and Scruff, and which appear in every ad that appears on every gay website or throughout the pages of any gay magazine—and that had better be the full checklist of Grindr-endorsed attributes: young and Caucasian with less than 5% body fat—anything else is enough to scare all others back into the closet—or at least into the bedroom—and be locked out forever.
It’s enough to make someone want to steal a television. Or physically attack someone. We should be glad that only a television was stolen, although, if I am being honest, I hope that Eric’s karma gets his ass kicked as a result of his behavior. It would be a valuable twist of face for self-anointed “perfect 10” Eric to emerge from some accident somehow disfigured, only to find that his stock had suddenly plummeted to Great Depression depths, finding all his former friends locked in their bedrooms, hidden under sheets from his contagious hideousness.
But this Eric creature is only part of my problem. My real problem is that an LGBT-specific media outlet selected and published that story. I want to break the process down for you from the perspective of a lifelong editor and writer.
Both writing and editing—not to mention publishing—involve a great number of decisions and judgment calls that are, generally speaking, invisible to readers. In this case, the writer of the story, Even Ross Katz, is also managing editor of the outlet/publication, according to his byline–this means he made most of the decisions, including identifying this as a relevant story and framing it the way he did. A short catalog of the decisions he would have had to make:
- He determined that this story is something that would be of interest to readers; otherwise, it never would have been written. His readers are members of the LGBT community. If LGBT readers are interested in Eric’s story as “entertainment” (Logo’s mission), then one can assume that LGBT readers are horrible, soulless human beings.
- He interviewed “Eric” and selected which of Eric’s quotes to thread throughout the story. Those that he chose, in my opinion, are vulgar and offensive to the highest degree. He described an unknown person as ugly; this amounts to nothing less than cyber bullying. Cyber bullying has been the cause of countless suicides. If a writer gave me a story presented in such a way, I would respond with eight words: “What the fuck are you thinking? Absolutely not.” If the excuse is that the word choice was meant to drive commerce, then we have abandoned all ethical standards of writing–journalism or entertainment, this is plainly irresponsible. Cruel, even.
- He relayed the story casually, almost as if we know Eric. I suspect most gay men know Eric, as he is a prototype of the unspoken “It Gets Far Worse” counterpoint to the It Gets Better campaign.
- He relayed the story straightforwardly, without much personal commentary or context, other than summing it up with “The lesson here is simple: Don’t leave your evening’s trade unattended.” We may assume that this summation suggests that the article is meant to be a joke of sorts, that it’s not to be taken seriously; yet, it is written as a straightforward account of Eric’s experience, almost like a police report, as reported by the vilest and most shameless of human beings. If the attempt was somehow satirical or otherwise humorous, it fails, and the editor’s judgment needs to be questioned.
- Again, he assigned the story its tabloid title, or approved that title; he chose the word “ugly,” which even Eric doesn’t use in his own account. Considering this, and against all odds, this editor and writer may actually be a worse human being than Eric himself. Does he realize that he is broadcasting an attack on an individual human being using a corporate entertainment website as his platform? Does Logo care? Clearly not; I’ve written them, and the article remains.
- He missed every opportunity for any kind of useful commentary, to parlay Eric’s story into anything of any value. In fact, even accepting the inherently cruel nature of the story as a given, the story really could have been a cautionary tale about being careful who you meet online. At least then it would seem to serve some sort of purpose, which then would have prevented reader comments such as “this is news because?” by “jakeb.”
It’s not news. It is one man’s self-reported experience, full of superficial judgment and condemnation for another human being based exclusively on his appearance, and it contains nothing of any worth. So what would occasion any editor or publisher to publish writing that has no inherent worth? When the editors and publishers regard the story as entertaining—funny, amusing, relatable to readers.
This gives me such a deep feeling of sorrow that I could almost call it grief. I am grieving for the gay community that I expected to grow into. I had a very rough youth, as so many of us do, because of my sexuality, because of my appearance, and for other reasons, and in my young mind—long before there was an It Gets Better campaign—I thought, “if I survive this, if I can just survive long enough to make it out of high school, I know there’s a community of people out there like me who have been treated like trash by other people and who will understand not only what I’ve been through, but that I have value as a human being.” In my mind, that community was going to be the gay community. In reality, I feel that I’ve been accepted by everyone except the gay community.
Granted, I live in Washington, D.C., a city where every aspect of waking life (and many dreams) are built upon pretense, acquisition, self-promotion, and appearances. It’s a magnet for people who value valuables, not people. My experience with the District’s gay population is that Eric has a huge number of clones—self-appointed “10s” who abound with gay pride. But their pride is not my pride.
I don’t care—I honestly, truly do not give a damn—if anyone wants to have alcohol- and drug-fueled orgies. It’s not my thing, but it doesn’t affect my life. Based exclusively on responses I got to my 2011 commentary and to the responses to Eric’s epically failed hedonistic night of terror, I am inclined to believe that there is a small subset of the gay population—where, I have no idea—among which we do not exist solely to look hot, fuck, rank, and acquire. All of those qualities—superficial interests, reckless behaviors, materialism—are commonly held gay stereotypes, and here is where I’m going to be so blunt as to risk offending the entire gay population: People like Eric—the majority of gay men I’ve known—make it impossible for me not to agree with people like Michele Bachmann, when she says that the “homosexual lifestyle” is dangerous, corrupt, and less than human.
Everything about it makes me sick. I don’t want to think this way—but who are we as a community when an article like this, and everyday outlooks like these, are commonplace and regarded as amusing trifles?
Do we have any idea where we’ve come from? Have we learned no lessons along the way?
Those of us who would have clung to the It Gets Better campaign in our youths—we would have done so because we were marginalized and verbally and physically battered. “Bully” is not strong enough a word; inhumane abuses against human beings continue to drive teens to suicide. Predictably, the abused grow up to abuse and do self-harm. That’s what’s happening here.
Does anyone remember the AIDS crisis—at all? The popular idea today that PREP makes people superhuman and invulnerable to disease notwithstanding, how about a little humanity? How about some compassion for other people and seeing them as people of inherent value—not as either white or “not my type,” not as ripped or fat? This is particularly personal for me because, as mentioned above, I have Lyme disease and at age 37, my body has been ravaged. I took to my bed for years, having no idea what was wrong with me and suspecting that I may have multiple sclerosis. I couldn’t get out of bed. Besides a few chat buddies with whom I don’t interact in real life, not a single gay person was there for me—only my straight family and friends. My skin, too, has been damaged severely by a Lyme coinfection called bartonella, which has left marks that look like stretch marks all over my body—meaning that I likely have little hope of ever being attractive again to another gay man. I’ve accepted that part of it; I’m getting older, anyway, and most men gay and straight alike have no interest in anything over 25, 30 tops. But that isn’t an excuse to be indecent to one another.
It’s a sick and sad reality, but the AIDS crisis can be credited with great gains for the gay community; people supported one another and cared for one another, even when the other was sick or dying. Even when they didn’t–gasp–look pretty and youthful. No one hid under bedsheets behind locked doors from someone who dared not to look like an America’s Next Top Model contestant. The 80s-90s AIDS crisis also humanized gay men to mainstream culture; although there was a lot of homophobic backlash, overall, people had compassion for those who succumbed to the plague that seemed to unfairly target this group of people, and out of that crisis came an acknowledgment of the existence of homosexuality—something that was generally unspoken of before then. Those conversations led to a realization that we are, when it comes down to it, just people, not freaks and not monsters.
Are we monsters?
I don’t know. I really don’t know anymore. The story of Eric upsets me. Eric is a loathsome, cowardly creature, and I’m sure his topless picture, Cupid’s bow lips, and bright, clear young eyes attract him a lot of 10s on Grindr. He’s a monster to me, but age and experience are making it easier for me to altogether dismiss the Erics of the world because people’s natures can’t be changed.
But editorial direction can change. Cultures can change. There is no reason that LGBT media should be promoting people like Eric. Aside from ad sales—which is what it’s all about, yes, yes, I know, this is the United States of Monsa…no, America, after all—there’s no reason that every single story and product marketed toward gay men should feature an idealized mostly naked body, and yet that’s what we get. I feel edged out of this culture, and I feel, if I am being honest, that that is the intended result. I don’t feel as if I am welcome among you, the gay men who set trends and who excel in being inhumane to one another. I feel even more alone than I did in high school in many ways, because the community into which I had invested so much hope for “it” to get better has turned out to be just another trap set to make me a butt of my own life’s joke.
Are we proud of being a collective of monsters? Is that gay pride today? Court jesters dressed in bare muscle and skin instead of harlequin tights?
Many people will say no. Four years after I first wrote about this, I have to say that I’ve seen the “mean girls” quality of the gay male community only become more prevalent, and more mainstream. A massive loss of soul.
Earlier in this story, I mentioned a call I received in response to some of the comments–thoughts similar to what I’ve written here–that I posted to Facebook and on the New Now Next website. The call came through an old Google Voice account that I didn’t even know is still longer active, and it came from an anonymous phone number, so I didn’t answer. Here’s the voice mail the caller left, in a tenuous, quivering voice that I’ve heard come from my own mouth during the most desperate moments of my life.
“Hi, um, Mr. Conner. This is the ugly guy that stole the TV, and I just want to thank you for the comments that you wrote on the [Facebook] wall. They really did mean a lot. It’s actually quite uncanny how you hit the nail…hit the hammer or the nail or…whatever. I’m just…with everything that’s happened. Um, I just wanted to clarify that I didn’t steal the TV; I just took it and put it in the trash because I wanted to spite them. And I really wish I could come out with it, but obviously there are legal repercussions…but I really appreciate that there are people like you that see the entire picture as it should be and not as it’s portrayed. And I hope that you keep writing and do what you do because that’s a source of inspiration to younger gay men and women, and hopefully something good will come out of it, and hopefully…yep, that’s all I wanted to say. Bye.”
That message motivated me to write this. I understand many people will think, “but, actually, he did steal the TV.” OK, yes, that’s true and accurate–but don’t let this point get by you: this was not a premeditated or drug-fueled burglary or a theft; it was a case of someone who was humiliated to such an extreme extent that he resorted to theft and vandalism as an expression of rage and, I would argue, self-hatred. The way he was treated was entirely dehumanizing and an adolescent-level assault, which LGBT men and women of a certain age should be able to relate to from our pasts, and not our presents–it’s not child’s play; it’s psychologically damaging. It’s unacceptable, sickening.
Important: Had this man been sent away respectfully, he would have been hurt, potentially even scarred from the humiliation, but he wouldn’t have resorted to a criminal act. The humiliation is the same sort of humiliation that drives LGBT–both young and older–to end their own lives. And the unspoken second chapter of “It Gets Better” is that, sadly for many of us, an unaccepting, looksist, ageist, and dehumanized and dehumanizing gay community make “it” worse–much worse. Because many of us survived once, only to be thrown back into the lion’s den, except now it’s full of musclebound gay male stereotypes who destroy through exclusivity and rejection.
That an LGBT “entertainment” media site presented “Eric’s” story as it did–reporting one young man’s words without considering any context, social implications, or the other person’s case, is alarming. It’s a kind of propaganda that should have no place in a marginalized community, or among any decent human beings. So that makes me wonder, and it makes me ask: are we monsters? Is that who we want to be? Is that the successful evolution of a community from once being tight knit and self-supportive because of external oppressive forces to being exclusionary, vicious, cruel, competitive, and completely vapid?
I don’t know the “ugly” guy who called me, but I know that I’ve been made to feel like him many times over. It’s a terrible feeling. The worst, actually. Despite indescribably severe nerve pain and joint pain from Lyme disease, despite agonizing “suicide headaches,” despite it all, the emotional pain of being treated as less than human because of how you look and being given no opportunity to express who you are is what has made me at times want my life to end.
When other people are made to feel that way, I am of course more sensible and objective–and to the “ugly” guy, if you read this, trust me, whether you look like Ryan Phillippe or Quasimodo, you will never be as ugly as “Eric” or the masses of mindlessly body-obsessed men who are his carbon copy, and you’ll never be as ugly at heart as an editor or publisher who thinks there is any value in or excuse for publishing such trash on a national platform. It amounts to the same kind of cyberbullying LGBT organizations such as the Trevor Project, It Gets Better, GLAAD, HRC (at this point, I can’t use the word “community” anymore) give so much lip service to. It’s sickening, and sad, and it has absolutely nothing to do with you. I’m sorry you stole the television (yes, you committed a theft, despite motivation–and despite my opinion that “Eric” deserved it) because you compromised your integrity as a result of being dehumanized by another gay man. I’m sorry about it–you’ll regret that incident probably forever. I can’t say you weren’t justified, though, because with humiliation being arguably the most powerful human emotion, you were provoked into reacting according to your fear and adrenaline and pure pain–the basest level. That you said in your message you want to confess shows that you have a conscience. Thank God for that, because people with consciences are a rare breed among our kind.
There’s a lesson in it for everyone. This story is not a tragedy because this time it didn’t end in the loss of a life. And more than that, it shows that many–hello, Eric–have lost their souls as a result of buying into the obsessive need to conform to physical gay ideals. That’s aspect of the story is a tragedy. Once upon a time, I was proud to be gay, because “gay pride” meant “proud of people like me who don’t live lies, who are good enough.” Being a horrible human being is not good enough. It’s not. And the mass assimilation of gay men toward only seeing and touching one another, never hearing, understanding, thinking, or supporting one another, is horrible.
One last time. What does gay pride mean today? What are we proud of? I am deeply, deeply sad to write that I can’t find a single point of gay pride anymore because I don’t see a gay community anymore; I see cliques of people who assign themselves to a subclass of gay and either fit the mold or don’t. I see people judged exclusively by their appearances–their very worth and value as human beings judged based on this. Are we to be proud of legislative gains, of reclassifications as human beings with human rights by law in written documents–all while we only recognize one another as either fresh meat or foul meat beyond its expiration date?
What does gay pride mean to you? Does it have anything to do with respect or love, or is it just about fitting in? This culture is at a tipping point of integration, and the answers to these questions will determine how we ultimately define ourselves and how others view us. When corrupt, hateful politicians proclaim that gay people are less than human, I should be screaming as loud as I can that they are wrong…and then there’s Eric and his clones, and then there’s LGBT entertainment outlets, all of which promote a limited, cruel, and inhumane attitude toward our own kind, and I have to sit back and wonder. I’m looking for souls out here. I see a lot of soulful words coming out of the communications departments of LGBT organizations that regularly petition me for contributions, but I never see soulful actions among gay men. It seems we’ve souled out.
Note: I pitched this commentary to a number of LGBT media outlets; most pitches went unanswered. One told me that it is too long to publish–understandable–and also that there are business considerations that prohibit this from being published. Those business considerations, I have to assume, have to do with editorial restrictions determined by advertising revenue from sponsoring companies that are named in this article. It’s business. I get it. This was the motivation for this blog. Whether it goes entirely unread, I believe that valid points should have a space in which to be made, and that those who control the dollars should not always control our abilities to voice our experiences and thoughts.