Thursday, March 15, 2007

Gay vs. Cool

Aspazia has an interesting post on the utterance, "that's so gay." The context of her discussion is to question Vanessa, from Feministing's contention that uttering the phrase is an act of deliberate homophobia. Spaz does not contend it to be innocuous, but argues that the usage has become so standard and prevalent amongst younger speakers that the metaphor is now dead, that is, it simply means what it means now and does not conjure a reference to homosexuality at all in the mind of the ordinary speaker.

My inclination here is to split the difference and agree with Spaz that labeling the phrase as hate speech is too strong; those using the phrase are generally not acting with the explicit intention to vilify gays (it is, say, not like telling a homophobic joke designed to intimidate or demean gays), but are fully aware that the phrase denigrates behavior by associating it with homosexuals who are recognized as a social undesirables. The utterance does reinforce the status of gay men as inferior, but what I want to discuss is a second harm that comes from singling out the sort of behavior that tends to get smacked by this insult.

Gay, in this locution, stands opposed to cool. Now, the term cool is ambiguous. Three of its many meanings are (1) possessing significant social status -- those are the cool kids, (2) a stoic, disaffected stance towards life -- it's ok, be cool, and (3) something unexpectedly interesting -- wow, that's really cool. The first two are often coupled, that is, the in-crowd, those with the most social capital, generally adopt stances of alienation from their surroundings. This has led to what has become known as the tyranny of the cool. I've seen it at virtually every college and university I've taught at.

When I was at a different college teaching a mandatory ethics class a bunch of years back, I had just had one of those classes where trying to start a discussion was like riding a stationary bike -- you work and work and it just ain't going nowhere. Afterwards, a student comes up to me and asks a fantastic question. I look at her in amazement and tell her that she has an incredibly deep insight here and asked why she didn't just ask that question a couple minutes ago when I was trying so hard to spark conversation. In a moment of honesty that you don't often get from students, she confided that if she asked a question like that, she would be ostracized. I was stunned, but launched into pep talk mode -- it's YOUR education, don't let them keep you from it...if they try to stop you from being the smart strong young woman you are, fuck 'em, you show them who's calling the shots here... The next class, I asked a question and she immediately answered with a thoughtful response. I then saw her best friend, a real Heather, give her the hairy eyeball. Cool is enforced.

And if you violate the second sense of cool, your behavior is branded "so gay." This goes for reacting authentically even to something that is cool in the third sense. If you acknowledge that something is incredibly cool by expressing excitement, no matter how much that excitement is called for, bam, you're Any behavior that is engaged, intellectual, caring, authentic in any way or that makes any sort of contribution to the larger community is labeled as gay. Of course, gay is everything we want from our students. We ask questions that are designed to be provocative, but if they allow themselves to be provoked they get labelled as gay. Real men are tough, show no emotions, have ice water in their veins. Cool means never being affected by the world around you. In high school, I'll never forget one kid who was so cool he would never laugh. He would literally look at you with a straight face and simply say, "that's funny" in that same slow monotone that Clint Eastwood used for "are you feelin' lucky, punk." This had the effect of making everyone who actually laughed at the joke feel, yup, gay because they were failing to live up to his higher example of masculinity.

The irony, of course, is that those who were cool in the second sense were doing so in order to become or remain cool in the first sense, but much of what is cool in the first sense is a result of trendy fashion and much of that is appropriated directly from...wait for culture. Spaz takes great joy in explaining to frat boys with earrings and tight fitting Abercrombie and Fitch clothing that their incredible efforts not to seem gay actually makes them seem extremely gay, but of course, they are trying so hard to appear gay in order to avoid being gay -- not only in the metaphorical sense we are talking about, but they are even more dreadfully afraid of ever being thought to actually be homosexual. So they make themselves seem gay so as not to be confused for an actual gay.

The phrase "that's so gay" when used by these folks as a weapon of conformity is pernicious because it does keep gay men in a position at the bottom of the social pecking order, but also because it is used with the express intention to destroy passion. The term "gay" is used to make sure no one does anything, because if someone does something then everyone else -- including them -- may have to do something too and this is not only inconvenient, but threatens the social order in which they sit comfortably at the top. As long as those who are passionate -- and it can be passionate about anything, it doesn't matter what -- are tied to gay men and forced to reside at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy it will keep down the society's best, doubly so for those who are gay. Of course, the irony of it all is that those who are the coolest, think they got there through some sort of meritocracy.