Stereotypes are everywhere. They are embedded in our daily lives and communicated to us through various media forms. More often than not they go unnoticed and unexamined by the average man on the street and their social influence and power is often underestimated for the sheer force with which it is able to force us as human beings to shape our lives around the specific people we choose to socialize with, the specific ideals we choose to shape our identities around and the way we choose to classify the diverse population of the global community. According to Sheng Chung, in his essay Media Literacy Art Education: Deconstructing Gay and Lesbian Stereotypes in the Media, stereotyping is recognized as a cognitive process that allows human beings to process complex information more efficiently by providing them with a mental picture of the object or person being perceived (1). This mental picture is attributed specific preconditioned traits that have been fashioned out by the various institutions and facets of society that have immense influence in the larger communal consciousness. Chung astutely refers to stereotypes as “mental cookie cutters”; forcing a simple pattern on a complex mass (2).
Throughout history, nowhere has the power of stereotypes been more sustained than on the gay community. Through political organizations and legislature institution, homosexuals have been an isolated group for much of their history and it is this isolation from the corridors of influence that have made them vulnerable to becoming a group that is larger stereotyped against and defined by outside powers. Not only have gay stereotypes permeated the minds of many heterosexual people, but they have also permeated the minds of homosexual people as well. This leads to an internalization of externally manufactured stereotypes that the gay community has succumbed to subscribe to. This is detrimental to the gay community at large because stereotypes are used by the cultural elite in society in order to subordinate other groups in society that are seen as powerless minorities; this is done in order to make the elite maintain social and cultural control (Chung, 3).Not only does it afford the cultural elite control but subordination and stereotyping also justifies dehumanizing and discriminatory practices (3). We therefore are left with a homosexual community that is ill-treated by the larger heterosexual society and that also has internalized harmful thoughts and practices about and towards itself. It is therefore relevant to further investigate and reflect on this subtle interplay between external and internal stereotyping of homosexuals; to see if whether we can create some clarity on the matter and find connections that will aid in the deconstruction of the many harmful, denigrating stereotypes of homosexuals.
As Chung explains, the problem with society’s stereotypes about homosexuality comes from the fact that we live in a media generation that learns about minority groups like homosexuals from media representations of those minority groups and not from reliable, unbiased, educated sources (1). Chung points out that “… the discussion on homosexuality remains forbidden in many American political, religious and publicly-funded institutions of learning…(3)” This systematic isolation of homosexuals from these facets of society constricts the possible voice of influence the community could have in shaping its own identity and in educating the heterosexual community. The main problem with the media being the central public educator of homosexuality is that the media itself is not interested in exploring the depth and complexity of a homosexuals sexuality, but is rather interested in delving into its bank of stereotypes and presenting to the world its archetype of homosexuality in order to appease and meet the expectations of the broader heterosexual community. This is done because the media values the instrument of stereotyping in order to keep up with the fast-paced and value-driven business (Chung, 3). Stereotyping is so valued because of its inherent ability to be able to cognitively communicate patterns of human personality in short, succinct images that meets the preconditioned expectations of the target audience.
Television shows like Will and Grace and Queer as Folk depict a gay lifestyle that is overly erotic, obsessed with beauty and fashion and idolizes handsome, young men (Chung, 4). The stereotype that gay men are gender nonconformists and therefore act and think like women dates as far back to Freud’s “gender inversion theory;” which states that gay males are more similar to heterosexual females and lesbians are more similar to heterosexual males (Aaron Blashill, 2). Other representations of gay men include the HIV stereotype which is displayed in many films like For Colored Girls, Rent the Musical and Confessions of a Gambler. Though it has been decades since HIV was exclusively termed “the gay disease,” this stereotype still festers in the larger societal consciousness and causes many gay men to stay in the shadows hiding from themselves. This is not to say that HIV is not a big problem within the gay community itself, but it is to point out that whenever a media form like film or Television seeks to display a serious gay character, most times the theme of HIV will be somehow threaded into the story. Though HIV is an issue that needs to be addressed it is not the only aspect worth fleshing within a serious exploration of gay psyche or personality.
Research done by Adam Fingerhut and Letitia Peplau explored how social roles in society affected stereotypes of gay me. Their research discussed the prevalent stereotype of how gay men in society are seen as having more female personality traits and mannerisms; as well as taking on more female-dominated occupations (1). They also stated how previous research done on the topic of gay stereotypes assessed how college students in general regard the homosexual man as less masculine than the average heterosexual man (1). The bulk of research done on the gay stereotype supports the belief that heterosexuals group gay men into a single archetype, but in fact there exists other research (done by Clausell and Fiske) that supports the idea that heterosexuals do have a more developed stereotype of gay men that has within itself many subtypes. These subtypes identified include cross-dresser, leather/biker, feminine, flamboyant, activist, closeted, straight-acting, hyper-masculine, artistic, and body-conscious (2.). This research found that heterosexuals identified six out of the ten subtypes as having more masculine qualities than female qualities. This is a positive step in the right direction in bringing to the foreground of heterosexual consciousness the fact that the gay identity is layered and multi-faceted.
The research of Fingerhut and Peplau found that social roles in society also help shape the mental image of the gay person being perceived (4). What this means is that if a gay man were to have a social role in society that is orientated with masculinity (police man, lawyer, etc.) then that social role information would be involved in the process of impression formation to the extent that it causes the broader heterosexual community to view that gay man more masculine than the gay man that is a hair-dresser—an occupation related to femininity—(5). This is an important discovery to make, for it has within it the ability to breakdown the stereotype of “the typical gay male” that has been manufactured and fed to our hetero-centric culture for far too long. If the media can create gay characters with social roles or occupations that are related more to masculinity then they are taking a positive step towards deconstructing the typical gay stereotype that has been created and promulgated through the decades. This is not to say that the social roles of gay men who are involved in more feminine-orientated jobs is insignificant or negative as a whole to the gay identity, but it is to stress the important discovery of influence that existent gay men involved in “masculine” social roles can have on the gay identity. It is therefore essential that the media represent a more nuanced and layered gay identity to the heterosexual community. Fingerhut and Peplau also stress the importance to further investigate how “…the social status of gay men’s social roles interact with the perceived masculinity of those roles to affect prejudice and discrimination” (5). It is assumed that gay men involved in these social roles have a great opportunity to address much prejudice and discrimination.
The gay individual lives within a hetero-centric world that is driven by a hetero-centric culture that dichotomizes human sexual experience into two rigid forms: the feminine female and the masculine male ( Chung,4). This hetero-centric culture has created expected social behaviors attached to gender roles without acknowledging the complexity of human sexuality and how it lends itself to influence social behavior (Chung, 4). This leads to the feminine man and the masculine woman in society being ridiculed for being gender nonconformists and being immediately defined as homosexual (4.). This leads us to question the experience of gay young people who do not identity with the feminine gay man or the masculine lesbian woman. These gay young people are the same people who remain closeted for most of their lives because they have not found a gay identity that they are able to relate to; they cannot identify with the stereotypical characteristics of gay people that have been put up on a mock pedestal by the media and other institutions of sway .
Yet what about those gay young people who are so driven into isolation that they desperately seek an identity with which to belong to and a community that speaks the same language and goes through the same experiences as they do? There is a problem that exists here because the boundaries in which this community is allowed to express itself in has been externally defined through the heterosexual hegemony that exists in society. The gay youngster not only sees the typical gay, male stereotype portrayed in the media, but witnesses firsthand the typical gay stereotype being expressed within this community he so desperately wants to belong to. He (the gay youngster) has no other choice then but to conform himself to this typical gay stereotype in order to belong to this community, but in so doing he is unaware that he is in fact internalizing many stereotypes that have been manufactured and specifically selected for him by an external, heterosexual elite that wishes to forever dominate, dehumanize and generalize the homosexual experience. We are therefore left with a conundrum as to what is the genuine gay experience and identity? Is it the collection of gay subtypes and the equal expression and representation of all of them in our society? More importantly, do gay men play into the roles of leading overly promiscuous, erotic lives, idolizing fashion and beauty, having feminine mannerisms and characteristics and even (in the extreme sense) having HIV or do the roles play into the lives of homosexuals. Simply put, which comes first: the reality of the homosexual lifestyle or the societal template of homosexuality that the homosexual subconsciously fit himself into?
An interesting research paper written by Guy.A.Boysen and others (The Mental Health Stereotype about Gay Men: The Relation Between Gay Men’s Self-Stereotype and the Stereotypes about Heterosexual Woman and Lesbians) attempted to address this concept of self-stereotyping in the gay community as it is linked to the mental health of homosexuals. It is common knowledge that in the past homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder until 1973 where the American Psychiatric Association removed it from its list of mental diseases. Though this “mental disease” stereotype may still persist in its various mutated forms within our society, recent research into gay stereotypes does illustrate how the typical gay stereotype has evolved over changing social and political landscapes (Boysen et al. 3). The research paper consolidates what was stated before about self-stereotyping and how it is “…a cognitive tool that emerges as social situations demand protection of identity” (3). Simply by activating a self-stereotype the individual may consciously or subconsciously be forcing themselves to conform to that stereotype, whether it is a positive or negative one ( Boysen et al 3). Gay men are also known to have higher rates of anxiety, mood and substance-use disorders and it is possible that self-stereotyping may have a role to play in this fact (Boysen et al 3). Boysen and others conducted a survey on two-hundred-and-nine participants, eighty-nine of whom were gay and one-hundred-and-twenty-four of whom were heterosexual. This survey asked questions relating to stereotypes about mental health within the gay community. The result of this survey lead to the conclusion that indeed gay men do have self-stereotypes about themselves, which included symptoms of mood, personality, eating, substance and anxiety disorders (Boysen et al 13). What is also surprising about the results was that heterosexual participants gave answers that were consistent to the answers given by the gay participants; the only differences that emerged was that the heterosexual participants stressed the symptoms of “cross-dressing”, “feels like a woman” and “overly talkative” more than the gay participants did ( Boysen et al 13). What is important to note in this survey is the consistency between the external mental stereotypes of gay men and the self-stereotypes of gay men. This consistency suggests not only that these negative mental health stereotypes are widely endorsed but also that they have become internalized by gay people as well. Other unexpected symptoms that emerged as self-stereotypes held by gay men were that gay men engage in dangerous pleasurable activities and substance abuse (Boysen et al 27).
So what does this study mean for the larger gay community? It means that a community that has lived in the shadows for thousands of years needs to start to look at itself critically; especially in these modern times where homosexuality is within the public eye and is becoming a contentious political issue not only within the U.S but all around the world. This critical self-examination needs to address years of dehumanization through stereotyping which –as this paper has illustrated– become internalized by many homosexuals. To put it metaphorically, the extent of the rot needs to be deduced and the dead tissue needs to be removed meticulously. This dead tissue are the stereotypes that create barriers of fear and distrust between heterosexuals and homosexuals, the stereotypes that possibly influence young gay men into dangerous situations of substance abuse and promiscuity and the stereotypes that keep many gay men (old and young) within the closet because they cannot find a public gay archetype with which they can relate to and begin to form a public gay identity around. If we can remove these self-stereotypes, address more aggressively the external stereotypes and slowly but surely create an equal political and social environment for heterosexuals and homosexuals to coexist in, then we will begin to see not only a redefinition and renewed expression of the gay identity but also redefinitions of human sexuality and gender. This is what is at stake and this is why we must be weary of and honestly examine the stereotypes we keep in our back pockets, for they have more influence than we could ever imagine.
Stephanie Madon, et al. "The Mental Health Stereotype About Gay Men: The Relation Between Gay Men's Self-Stereotype And Stereotypes About Heterosexual Women And Lesbians." Journal Of Social & Clinical Psychology 30.4 (2011): 329-360. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.
Sheng Kuan, Chung. "Media Literacy Art Education: Deconstructing Lesbian And Gay Stereotypes In The Media." International Journal Of Art & Design Education 26.1 (2007): 98-107. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.
Fingerhut, Adam W., and Letitia Anne Peplau. "The Impact Of Social Roles On Stereotypes Of Gay Men." Sex Roles 55.3/4 (2006): 273-278. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.
Blashill, Aaron, and Kimberly Powlishta. "Gay Stereotypes: The Use Of Sexual Orientation As A Cue For Gender-Related Attributes." Sex Roles 61.11/12 (2009): 783-793. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.