Not your grammy’s Grammys: in (partial) defense of Macklemore?

So, in case you were unaware or unconscious, last night was the Grammys.  Full disclosure, I didn’t watch the whole thing, because I don’t have a TV (not because I’m better than you, but because I’m poorer than you.)

Seattle rapper Macklemore, besides being my pasty Irish doppelganger (see photo), was awarded statues for best rap performance and best rap song, for “Thrift Shop,” best rap album for “The Heist” and best new artist.  Much has been written about Macklemore, both before the Grammys and after.

macklemore

Me or Macklemore?…you decide. P.S. It’s Macklemore

Many accuse him of cultural appropriation, a charge that rang especially true as he beat out black hip-hop artists in category after category, most notably Kendrick Lamar, the favorite for Best Rap Album.  As much as I would like to engage in this debate, I honestly feel that it is out of my depth.  I’m certainly not going to be one more white voice telling people of color about how they are supposed to feel about the appropriation of their cultures.  There are plenty of people who are better able to address this topic than me, and I hope you’ll understand that I’m going to leave it to them.

What I would like to talk about is the media attention around Macklemore as a voice for the gay community, and specifically his performance at the Grammys last night.  In case you missed it, click the screencap below:

The marriage ceremony starts at about the 3:00 mark, but I suggest you watch the whole thing.

The marriage ceremony starts at about the 3:00 mark, but I suggest you watch the whole thing.

First off, while I did not watch the entire awards show, I did watch Macklemore’s performance in its entirety.  Basically, he and the perpetually unnamed and openly lesbian Mary Lambert sang “Same Love,” Macklemore’s ode to same-sex marriage rights, which has been controversial, to put it lightly.

At the denouement of this performance, in a highly publicized moved, Queen Latifah (herself the subject of unceasing gay rumors) stepped out on stage and performed a mass wedding ceremony for 30 or so couples, some gay and some straight.  Then for some reason Madonna showed up and “sang” a few bars of “Open your heart to me,” which the cynic in me can only interpret as a plea to retain her “gay icon” status.”  (Sidenote, speaking of cultural appropriation, nice “pimp cane” and grill, Madge.)  But I digress.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t get choked up when I watched the clip.  I’d be lying if I said I don’t get choked up every time I hear that song.  As much as I identify with queer politics, I am also product of the culture, and I cling to the hope that I will someday also find societally-sanctioned loved (there, I said it!)

And I will openly admit to owning all of Macklemore’s albums.  Does that mean I’m 100% a fan of everything he does?  Not by a long shot.  But if I’ve gleaned one thing from the media coverage around the song, it’s that we have a lot more to talk about than just Macklemore.

Perhaps the biggest critique of this song is that Macklemore himself is not gay, and in the first verse of the song goes out of his way to make that very clear:

When I was in the third grade I thought that I was gay,
‘Cause I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight.
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face
She’s like “Ben you’ve loved girls since before pre-k, trippin’
Yeah, I guess she had a point, didn’t she?
Bunch of stereotypes all in my head.
I remember doing the math like, “Yeah, I’m good at little league”
A preconceived idea of what it all meant

Critics often want to view this as Macklemore clearly demarcating his heterosexuality in opposition to the gay people he’s rapping about.  And they’re not wrong.  But what they fail to take into account is that this is probably also 100% true.  I’m afraid that what happens when we focus on these lyrics is that we forget to address why the 10-year-old Macklemore would cry over the very thought of turning out gay, even as the nephew of a gay uncle.  This verse always hits home with me because I have a very vivid memory of coming home crying, after a particularly intense day of bullying, and having this EXACT conversation with my mother.

I was raised in an extremely supportive home, as it seems Macklemore was as well.  But no amount of your mother reassuring you that she’ll love you no matter what can completely block out the overt homophobia to which we are all exposed in our culture.  I like to think this is changing to some extent today, but both Macklemore and I grew up in a world without “Glee,” and without almost any examples of positive gay role models in mainstream culture.  And let us also not forget that in the 90’s, gay still meant AIDS, and AIDS still meant death.  I am gay, and I didn’t want to be gay.  I don’t think admitting to that makes me any less a supporter of human rights, and I don’t think it should for Macklemore either.  I don’t think allies should upstage the communities they support (discussed below), but I do think allies can’t be held to a higher standard than that to which we hold ourselves.  I can’t pretend to know what he was thinking when he wrote those lines.  All I know is that, were I asked to write this song, I might have started it the same way.  I think if we ask artists to be truthful, we can’t at the same time expect them to be flawless.

There is a reason this post is called a partial defense of Macklemore.  Among many critiques, I firmly believe that he should be asked to explain this.

Troubling tweets notwithstanding, there are still plenty of things left to critique about Macklemore and his Grammy performance.  First, he almost never makes any mention of Mary Lambert, the openly lesbian female voice on the song, and author of the hook that arguably makes the song memorable in the first place.  Due to the limitations of the Internet, I’m not sure if she was introduced at any point during the Grammys performance, but I’ve seen several performances of the song where her name is never mentioned.

This at best seems like an act of hubris on Macklemore’s part, but at worst it feels like an act of both lesbian and general queer erasure.  Macklemore has to have known that there would be controversy surrounding this song from the get-go.  No only does Ms. Lambert deserve to be recognized, it seems like such an easy gesture in the face of mounting accusations that Macklemore is attempting to speak for a community that isn’t his.

Secondly, while it is important to note that “Same Love” was written for a specific purpose (in support of the legalization of marriage equality in Washington state), the song is undeniably problematic.

As discussed in previous posts on this blog, the emphasis on marriage in the LGBTQ movement is controversial at best and damaging at worst.  Focusing on marriage as the sole gateway to rights reinforces patriarchal relationships between partners, as well as between couples and the state.  Additionally, it erases and invisibilizes the lived realities of poly and asexual people, as well as people who simply don’t want to get married.

But what I really don’t like about the song is the line “I can’t change even if I tried, even if I wanted to…”  For regular readers, it should come as no surprise that I think the immutability (or not) of sexuality is a moot point.  Arguing that our sexuality can’t be changed or is not a choice should not be our battle cry.  Shouldn’t we strive for a world in which that doesn’t matter?  Am I not allowed to choose what I do (and allow others to do) with my body and my heart?

All of these issues are things we’re not talking about as we rail against Macklemore for making what I sincerely believe has been a largely positive impact in the realm of mainstreaming gay rights.  Don’t get me wrong.  We should continue to have those conversations.  But I find it troubling that the antics of celebrities are creating the illusion that we’re having meaningful dialogue in this country.

When Miley Cyrus twerked, those of us who were interested talked about the cultural appropriation involved.  But most people just talked about Miley Cyrus, the way they were already talking about her (general schadenfreude with a dash of good ol’ fashioned slut shaming).   And I think a similar thing (minus the slut shaming) is happening with Macklemore.  We’re talking more about the fact that he’s a “bad ally” than we are about why a song like “Same Love” has to exist in the first place.  Why, in 2014, are same-sex marriages still so controversial that they are a ratings draw?  Why does the culture persist in ignoring songs about gay rights until they are sung by straight people?  Neither of these things is Mackelmore’s fault, although he has certainly benefitted.   Our sound-bite culture is starting a lot of conversations it’s not finishing.  So yes, let’s start the conversation with Macklemore, or Miley, or whoever it will be next week (my money is on the Biebs.)  But let’s make sure we don’t end it with them.

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Gays in the mist: why your “gaydar” is problematic

gaydar

Today, over drinks, I was talking with a friend about online dating.  I’m personally partial to online dating for two reasons. 1) Talking to strangers is hard and 2) it takes a lot of the guesswork out the equation for queer people.

As we have discussed here briefly before, public space is heterosexual by default.  We need look no further for evidence of this than rainbow flags and “safe space” stickers on queer (or queer friendly) businesses.  While these spaces are crucial for many queer people, their very existence serves to reinforce the unspoken heterosexuality of the un-marked spaces around them.

In the course of the conversation, my friend asked if I could “tell” when someone in a room was gay.  The short answer is, to some extent, I think that I can.  The idea of “gaydar” is pretty well entrenched in both gay culture and the mainstream at this point.  Regardless, I don’t think it’s so cut-and-dried.  I don’t think I can tell who every gay guy in the room is.  My response was something like “I think I can sometimes tell, but there are probably gay guys here that I wouldn’t guess were gay.”  Fortuitously, when I got home, I saw this video:

gaydarvidcap

Click to watch the full video

I really recommend you watch the whole thing.  I’ll wait.

So, that happened.  I honestly don’t even know where to start with this video.  First and foremost, I guess what bothers me about the whole “gaydar” debate is that I’m not really sure why it’s important to anyone who isn’t gay.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where hitting on the wrong person can get you killed, and I so don’t blame my queer family for wanting a leg up on the situation.  Why anybody who identifies as straight would want or need to know if stranger is gay, however, is beyond me.  It occurs to me that this is either:

a) an extension of our recent cultural obsession with the lives of total strangers
b) a way to reinforce one’s own hegemonic masculinity in comparison to a stranger
c) a justification for micro and macro aggressions against queer people or
d) all of the above

Nonetheless, it would appear that it is, for whatever, important to this blogger, Mark Miller, and his “professional straight man” guest to figure out exactly how and why he does, or does not, have gaydar.

We open on a charming on a charming rendition of “What, what, in the butt,” because nothing says “I’m still one of the guys” like satirizing a stigmatized sex act in which you most likely participate.

I think what most bothers me about this video is that it’s one more way in which my sexual identity gets to be all about straight white men.  Nothing’s ever about straight white men, so I’m glad they’re finally getting their day in the sun.  From the very beginning, it’s clear that Miller is either still really uncomfortable with his own identity (which is totally valid, and everybody gets to make that trip in their own time) or is specifically pandering to his straight best friend.  Instead of saying, “A year ago, I come out to my roommate about identifying as gay,” he says

“A year ago, he found out that I don’t like chicks”

Let’s just parse this out.  First, he “found out”?  Was there some sort of investigation?  Secondly, there are plenty of ways to express your gay identity that don’t involve the overt misogyny of referring to women as “chicks.”  Finally, “not liking chicks” doesn’t make you gay.  You also have to “like dudes.”

But don’t worry, the straight white man-splaining is just getting warmed up.  We’re then treated to Miller’s guest’s opinion that, until you’re close to a gay person

“…it’s like, it doesn’t really exist.  Like it exists but like, you don’t really notice it.”

You heard it here first, gays.  Until this one straight guy discovered a covert gay living in his very house, homosexuality itself did not exist.

That’s maybe not what irks me the most about this quote though.  Yes, it is ridiculous that this guy thinks because he’s not conscious of a group of people, they don’t exist.  What bothers me most is that, as any swishy former theater kid can tell you, straight identified men often have the best. gaydar. ever.  Nobody is better at picking up on non-hegemonic masculinity than a person whose entire identity as a “straight dude” depends on the existence of an other.  Straight masculinity as we know it today is entirely contingent on the existence and identification of men who do not conform to the ideal.

“DJ Donny D,” apparently not content with just ripping off hip-hop culture, then goes on to tell us the four characteristics that trigger his gaydar which, remember, 30 seconds ago Miller established that straight guys don’t have.  For those who didn’t make it through the whole video, allow me to enlighten you.  You too may spot a gay in your very midst.

1. Really clean-cut hair
2. Really in shape
3. Too small clothes (gripping of the arms)

and apparently the biggest giveaway

4. How they talk

It’s hard to know where to start here, because there’s just so much to say.  I just got my hair cut on Friday, and it didn’t even occur to me to assume that every. single. person. at the salon was gay.  How silly of me!

For those who watched the video, you’ll remember that the comment about being “really in shape” was made at the gym.  Apparently straight men are supposed to go to the gym but just be really bad it?

Donny, as I assume (but to be fair, do not know) his mother actually named him, uses his own “straight” clothes to talk about the tell-tale “gripping of the arms” that makes a T-shirt gay (unless it’s on Donny, I guess?)

Nonetheless, and according to Donny we’re all in agreement on this, we’re told that gays just talk gay.  In the outtakes, Miller gives the example of saying “That’s so Gucci.”  Uh-huh.

This video makes a few things abundantly clear.  A certain segment of gay culture, the kind of “hot gays” you see on TV with their six-packs, and brand-name clothes, fits perfectly within the consumerism of which our culture has become so enamored.  We see this at the very end of the video when DJ Jazzy Jeff tells us that

“I’m what they call metro, where you dress like you’re gay but you’re not gay.  You love women but you like to look good.”

No, Donny.  You don’t look “good” –by your own definition, you look “gay.”  You’d set off your own gaydar.  You’re just able to disguise your co-opting of “everything but the hard parts” of being gay as consumerism, a value held extremely dear by our culture.

Beyond this, though, the video drives home another, bigger point.  Gaydar is not actually about knowing who’s gay and who isn’t, as if we ever truly could.  Maybe for queer people, this is part of the idea.  But straight people, especially straight men, have no reason to know or care who’s gay.  They are, and we all are, policing masculinity.  Donny can’t know somebody is gay any more than I can.  What he can know is how much that person deviates from his own ideas of acceptable masculinity.  And as a straight guy, not only can he know, he must know.  Especially in an age where the performative lines between gay and straight are increasingly blurring, his very identity as a “straight dude” depends on his ability to point out the other.

Thank God his roommate gave him the chance.