It was bound to happen. In July, officials in Provincetown, Massachusetts, had to hold a public meeting to discuss the rise, in their quaint, ultraliberal Cape Cod vacation village, of hate speech. According to news reports, police in the legendarily gay-friendly town got “numerous complaints“ during Independence Day weekend of venomous insults shouted on the street. At straight people.
Of course, no one is suggesting that getting called “breeder“ is in any way comparable to the very real violence and civil-rights challenges that gay people in this country face every day. But even as educated, enlightened segments of society are more on guard than ever against homophobia, showing how accepting they are with plenty of not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-it joshing (as when Lance Armstrong cracks anal-sex jokes on ESPN at the expense of his gay-for-pay friend Jake “Brokeback“ Gyllenhaal), there’s a new phenomenon lurking beneath the tranquil surface: heterophobia
The term heterophobia has actually existed in academia for a decade—it’s used to describe a certain kind of anti-male hyperfeminism. But the more recent usage of the word—meaning disdain for the heterosexual lifestyle—arguably was popularized by Eminem, who responded to accusations that he was anti-gay by rapping, “Homophobic? Nah, you’re just heterophobic,“ in his 2000 song “Criminal.“ As a real-world phenomenon, however, this particular notion of heterophobia is only now gaining steam, as pop culture increasingly depicts straight men as Neanderthals. Yes, the depictions are jokey, but they underscore a new polarization in which gay men are portrayed as arbiters of taste and straight men are seen as just sort of . . . unfortunate. Clueless. Lumbering.
And what’s remarkable is that this condescending point of view is being internalized by straight guys—they’re being stereotyped not only by gays but also by their own team. (Hello, Adam Ca-rolla!) Straight, in other words, is the new square. Straight guys are subconsciously embracing a kind of vulgar mediocrity—a wobbly drive down Minivan Lane in pleated khakis and a rumpled T-shirt. Call it the media-enabled Straight Guy Inferiority Complex.
There is no shortage of televised indoctrination that implies that gays have got it going on and straight men don’t. Shows like My Name Is Earl and The Office present the straight milieu as an aesthetically challenged dorkfest. And thanks to the openly (or apparently) gay lifestyle experts all over the dial, it’s become conventional wisdom that straight men are stylistically tone-deaf. Who would have ever guessed that five homos on a cable makeover show would not only appropriate the “Fab“ mantle from the Beatles but put heteros into the strangely subservient position of lapping up their style cues? Straight men have also been conditioned to strive for the prototypical “gay body“—the gym-sculpted, plucked, waxed, and otherwise ultra-groomed physique (which is, ironically, out of fashion among more and more gays).
The culture business has come to bank on the popular perception of gay males as the ultimate tastemakers. Joshua Rosenzweig, a spokesman for here!, a four-year-old premium-cable network targeted at gay viewers, says that marketers adore gay men because “traditionally we’ve been seen as being at the forefront of fashion, art, design, and technology—as trendsetters and early adopters.“ Companies selling everything from denim to vodka look at gay consumers as a test-marketing petri dish: If a product can be made to seem “hot“ with gay men, it can go mainstream and still retain an edge. Outside of, say, sports equipment, gay males often determine what straight males will eventually buy.
The phenomenon extends to the home, too. TV serves up endless gay-male home experts (crowding out the Bob Vila types). And consider the mythology of the Fabulous Gay Apartment. (Would a sitcom ever put a “Will“ in a My Name Is Earl–style dump?) Gays are known the world over for being gentrifiers: They colonize “transitional“ neighborhoods, such as the Marais in Paris, and make them hot. And those gays who get there first, before prices skyrocket, get more for their money than the Johnny- and Jane-come-latelies. “To watch it happen,“ says New York real-estate lawyer Jerry M. Feeney, “it’s more than a myth. It’s real.“ In Manhattan, gay men revived the West Village, then moved on to Chelsea, and are currently rehabbing Hell’s Kitchen.
Even within the bedrooms of their lesser homes, straight guys have to worry that they’re just not getting as much. Kenneth Hill, who co-writes the weekly “Straighten Out“ column for AOL with his hetero counterpart, Jeff Simmermon, says that “gay men can get laid in 15 minutes—30 minutes tops—if we really want to. Even ugly guys. There’s no comparison. When you talk to straights about it, they practically sink down in utter despair at the inequity. Look at men seeking men’ on Craigslist, any hour, any day. Then look at the straight section.“ Dan Renzi, a journalist and blogger (and former MTV Real World gay guy), believes that straight guys “are jealous that gay sex includes blow jobs by default.“ And Andrew Sullivan, the political and gay-issues commentator who blogs on Time.com, points out another reason straight guys think they’ve got it worse: “The most common gay envy I get from straight guys is simply that single gay guys can have sex and not expect to be called the next day.“
Poor straight guys! Conditioned for years to feel like they’re operating at a deficit in the arenas of taste and refinement—right on down to their very bodies and bedrooms. But let’s step back for a moment. Maybe the true antidote to heterophobia isn’t town-hall meetings in Provincetown but a closer look at all the gay hype. And who better to provide that than gays themselves?
For one thing, says Aaron Hicklin, the editor-in-chief of the gay monthly Out, “the sexual dynamic works both ways.“ The idea that “being gay equals lots of no-strings-attached sex is, for a certain kind of gay guy, undoubtedly true, but the downside is that gay relationships seem more vulnerable to sexual whim and mischief. I think as gay men get older, the availability of sex is less critical than being in a committed relationship. All the other things that make being gay seem attractive to straight guys—designer clothes, an eye for drapes, the expensive restaurants and vacations—are a lot less attractive if you don’t have someone to share them with.“
And if you really examine all that supposedly superior, more refined gay consumerism, the tastemaker/early-adopter premise is just as likely to implode. For one thing, gay men are the primary consumers of all that insufferable thumpa-thump dance music. (Who is propping up Cher’s career, anyway?) As for fashion, a quick stroll through neighborhoods like West Hollywood, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, and Chicago’s Boystown shows that gay guys are following rather than leading these days: The jeans-tee-and-cap combination is the straightest “gay look“ in years. If there’s anyone gay guys want to emulate in 2006, it’s a certain tattooed Detroit straight guy they were calling “homophobic“ in 2000. At the same time, Eminem’s bleached-blond pretty-boy look and pumped-up physique draw from the early-nineties gay playbook.
This who’s-really-copying-whom? question underscores how tired the whole gay-style-rules message has become—especially when you consider that the gay representatives that pop culture sets up to mandate fabulousness are just as clichéd as their supposedly aesthetically impaired counterparts. Sassy gays snapping and barking “Work it!“ at grateful straights might make for amusing TV, but the subtext, frankly, is kind of creepy. “The old media image,“ notes Los Angeles author and sociologist Peter Nardi, “was of the suicidal, depressed gay person. Now it’s the witty gay man. But Oscar Wilde was a witty gay man in the 19th century. It’s nothing new! Except today it’s almost a minstrel version of the witty gay man.“ And a witty gay man, at that, whose entire purpose is to advance a sort of pointedly posh, fleeting consumerism. Meanwhile, Nardi adds, “the car-mechanic version of the gay man is still too risky.“
A blue-collar gay guy would be too nuanced, too unexpected. With the exception of the occasional Oscar-bait sheep herder, there’s no casting call for that dude. Instead, the culture insists that straight and gay men alike submit to hackneyed, old-school Odd Couple role-playing. The straight “Oscar“ is made to feel like he’s dopey, tasteless, missing out; the gay “Felix“ is made to feel that he must be unrelentingly fashion-forward in all areas of life (even if he’d rather be parked on the couch in sweats himself). Both are stuck playing cartoon characters. And in the end, their homophobia and heterophobia make them perversely complementary shadowboxing partners—each lashing out at an enemy who’s not really there.