Harnessing the Power of Gay-Vague Politics

Coincidences are curious. By Monday night, The New York Times Sunday Styles article, “Gay or Straight? Hard to Tell,” was the newspaper’s most e-mailed article, a sure sign that people are talking about the latest social trend, “gay vague.”

Fashionistas believe “many men have migrated to a middle ground where the cues traditionally used to pigeonhole sexual orientation—hair, clothing, voice, body language—are more and more ambiguous,” reported The Times.

A recent book published by Princeton University Press, “Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights,” recommends that heterosexuals adopt what amounts to “gay vague” behavior—what the authors call “ambiguation.”

Ian Ayres and Jennifer Gerarda Brown, who wrote “Straightforward,” urge straights to abandon the trappings of their heterosexual privilege in order to help the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, a tactic self-consciously derived from the changes in social norms ushered in by the African-American civil rights movement. Americans of European extraction, for example, are far less likely today than they would have been several decades ago to refer to themselves as white in settings such as personal ads. Ambiguation involves acts like a straight couple displaying a gay pride flag.

The book’s premise is that the LGBT community is a small percentage of the population and gay rights supporters need straight allies to win. But this basic truth has gained particular resonance today, as the religious right’s anti-gay program has turned increasingly strident. The LGBT community’s straight allies play a crucial role in areas like educational policy, such as advocating for gay-friendly books in school libraries, supporting gay-straight alliances in high schools and weighing in on issues like the right to wear a gay pride shirt on school grounds.

And, of course, straight support is crucial in winning referendums on marriage equality.

David Colman’s story in the Sunday Times takes the notion of ambiguation to a new level, essentially saying that men, including blockbuster celebrities like Brad Pitt, want to be stylish and don’t mind “looking gay” in the process. According to the fashion industry observers quoted in the article, the shift is notable.

“Straight men are more at ease flaunting a degree of muscle tone seldom seen outside of a Men’s Health cover shoot. And they are adopting looks—muscle shirts, fitted jeans, sandals and shoulder bags—that as recently as a year ago might have read as, well, gay.”

Straight men are apparently buying their own clothes in greater numbers, a job that used to be out-sourced to their female partners. Clearly, stylish men don’t worry about looking queer.

Urban men are comfortable with the idea that while some males like the opposite sex, others like both, and some only seek other males. A largely unheralded sexual revolution among youth in the 1990s has continued unabated into the new century. Ritch C. Savin-Williams, a professor of psychology at Cornell, estimates that only one or two percent of teenagers will identify as gay or lesbian, but between 10 and 20 percent of teenagers acknowledge romantic and sexual feelings or activities with members of the same sex. The teens Savin-Williams interviewed don’t consider such feelings to be particularly remarkable or abnormal.

The authors of “Straightforward” are not interested in personal behavior, accepting without question the dichotomy between homosexual and heterosexual. They seek to promote straight involvement in gay rights initiatives, some of which will be viewed as controversial. In order to end the Pentagon’s ban on gay and lesbian service members, for example, the authors propose, somewhat quixotically, a voluntary program called “inclusive commands” in which all the soldier agree that gays and lesbians joining the ranks will not undermine “unit cohesion,” the preservation of which is the strongest argument made by the ban’s proponents.

Ayres and Brown are on the right track. Indeed, many heterosexuals care about gay equality, a cadre of support of which the gay rights movement must avail itself.

“Straightforward” is filled with suggestions, including a pledge by straights to vacation only in states that adopt marriage equality; to teach their children that marriage is for people who love each other, without specifying spouses’ genders; and that when their sexuality is questioned, to allow any misperceptions to stand unchallenged.

In other instances, the author’s suggestions come across as too clever by half, such as advocating for legislation that requires private organizations, like the gay-excluding Boy Scouts, to clearly disclose to new members that it retains the right to discriminate.

The LGBT community’s heterosexual allies face a fundamental dilemma. As with many gays, they often live in gay-friendly environments, like New York City. They regard gay parenting and same-sex marriage as the norm and unless they come from conservative communities have little contact with anti-gay individuals. Consequently, gay allies are often not sensitive to the vulnerability of the LGBT community to attacks by the religious right. It is dangerous to dismiss gay enemies as kooks, when they form a significant wing of the majority party controlling the federal government.

Gays and lesbians need to make our friends understand that a powerful combination of political interests—most visibly in the Republican Party—view the legal codification of gay rights initiatives as sanctioning decadence. The power of the political right is at all-time high, and its cornerstone tactic of perniciously depicting homosexuality as a threat to national security, has stopped progress for the gay rights movement in Washington and made Red-State Democrats shy away from addressing gay rights issues.

“Staighforward” is a useful guide for leaders who want to mobilize rural and suburban support for equal rights, though the book fails to make clear that the LGBT community is doing battle with an organized political movement determined to turn back the clock on gay rights advances. The alliance with straights will have to be built on larger issues than those proposed by this useful handbook.

Gay leaders should develop the skills to tell the stories of our community—our achievements and the hurdles we continue to face—in order to demonstrate that gay rights are not hobbled merely by individual prejudice, but also by a persistent foe dedicated to halting the advance of basic human rights and dignity.