Monday, November 24, 2008

Rant Warning! Homophobic Ads and Humor

A couple of weeks ago Ted Rybka, GLAAD Sports Desk Director wrote in the GLAAD blog about anti-gay humor at WEEI, a Boston Sports Talk radio station. You see, Boston is one of the finalists for the 2014 Gay Games. This announcement provoked WEEI to air a homophobic “promo” for the Gay Games. This, in turn, led to a gaggle of male listeners calling in to add their homophobic funnies to the conversation which the show hosts encouraged and also participated in. In a kind of adolescent way, cackling and hilarity ensued.

The actual fake promo is so stupid that it calls into question the IQ of the boys who found it so hilarious: hackneyed stereotypes about San Francisco and squealing gay men and sexual innuendos about men’s pole vaulting and women’s diving, for example. But then, judging from the web site, WEEI works hard to attract testosterone-poisoning sufferers who also appear to be stuck in some kind of middle school humor warp as well.

So, why even waste time blogging about this stupid stuff? Well, it raises several questions for me: How do we decide whether or not an ad is homophobic? Why is homophobia so funny to some people? When is a gay joke funny satire and when is it offensive? Why is that sports related advertising or advertising directed to male sports fans seem to rely so often on gay-related, often homophobic attempts at humor to sell stuff?

Two years ago the Super Bowl featured a Snickers commercial in which two men ended up kissing as they each chomped on separate ends of a Snickers bar. Several different endings of the commercial featured varying levels of violence as the two men completely freaked out over their accidental kiss. Much was also made of the NFL players’ sideline reactions to the ad which were featured on the Snickers web site.

More recently Nike pulled ads focused on a defensive player getting a face full of another player’s crotch as he plowed over him on the way to dunk the ball. Then there was the completely stupid Snickers ad featuring Mr. T shooting Snickers from a Gatling gun at a male race walker and screaming at him to get some nuts. This one was aired in Great Britain, not the U.S. I’ve blogged previously about all of these ads.

Now Doritos is getting into the act too. They have a preview of a transphobic and homophobic Super Bowl commercial on their web site and they want readers to give them feedback on it. Jock Talk over at Outsports is inviting readers to go the Doritos site and vote for the video. The consensus there is that the ad is funny. They also thought the Nike and Snickers ads were funny. I don’t agree.

Then there was the Onion satire about the gay race horse coming out which I blogged about just a few weeks ago. I thought that was clever and funny. It did not make me feel conflicted at all about laughing at it. It was not based on demeaning stereotypes of gay people and it did make its point about athletes’ coming out with humor.

I remember going to see the original La Cage Aux Folles movie in the 1980’s. I went to see the movie in a theatre packed with straight people who thought it was hilarious and it was funny, but I felt really uncomfortable because I felt like people in the audience were laughing AT the gay characters rather than the silliness that homophobia and moral pomposity promote. If I had been in a theatre packed with gay people laughing, I would have felt more comfortable laughing because I would have had more confidence that the laughter was not malicious or that the stereotypical gay characters would not be seen as silly and dehumanized. I wouldn’t worry that the audience would leave the movie with their homophobia confirmed at the same time that they got to feel “tolerant” because they went to a “gay” movie and enjoyed it. I wondered if they even got the pain and dignity I saw in Albin’s valiant, but futile attempts to “butch” it up for the moralistic parents of his son’s bride to be.

I am not comparing La Cage Aux Folles with any of these ads, don’t get me wrong. La Cage was not a homophobic film. To the contrary, it was a great French farce with wonderful gay characters. I am trying to make a point about what the audience brings to the movie or to the ad and also what the ad or the movie is counting on for its humor.

WEEI, Snickers, Nike and Doritos are counting on male homophobia and on audience stereotypes that gay athletes, lesbian athletes or trans people are A) disgusting, B) silly, C) not authentic (trans people), D) not athletic (in the case of gay men) E) obsessed with sex, F) legitimate targets of violence, or G) the cause of violent reactions if a straight man is perceived as gay.

I do not think this is funny. I don’t think the LGBT rights movement, especially in sport, is so far along that we don’t need to stand up and say “this is not acceptable.” We have yet to see an openly gay male professional athlete. Only a handful of lesbian professional athletes are out. Gay and lesbian athletes and coaches are still discriminated against in collegiate and high school sport. Male coaches and athletes still use anti-gay epithets to shame or taunt athletes. Parents of high school girls still ask college coaches if there are lesbians on the team. Negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation still a huge problem in women’s sports.

I worry about young sports fans listening to WEEI. What message do they get about playing on a team with gay teammates? What about young gay athletes struggling with whether or not to come out to their coaches and teammates? I think it is irresponsible for advertisements and radio stations to pander to the prejudices and fears of their audience in order to sell their products.

Why is homophobia so funny? Why does it sell? Here’s what I think – The audience targeted by these ads and programs (mostly male adolescents or men who act like adolescents), derive their sense of power and masculinity, not from an internal sense of confidence and comfort with who they are, but on assurances that they can find someone else, someone different from them, to put down. All women and gay men, people of color, transgender people, straight men who they perceive as soft are often the targets of their insecurities: “I am not gay, therefore I am OK.” “The louder I laugh at gay jokes, the straighter and more manly I feel.” How pathetic is that?

Pardon the lecture. I’m sick of these cheap attempts at humor at my expense and I don’t understand how other gay or lesbian people can give the people who are responsible for them a free pass.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

OUT Magazine's Out 100 List Falls Short

Out Magazine has named a list of “Out 100 Men and Women Who Made 2008 A Year to Remember. “ The list includes descriptions of honorees as well as some interesting photographs of each one. Most of the honorees are in arts, entertainment and fashion and most of them are white men. So the list ignores accomplished out LGBT people in many fields outside of this narrow focus as well as many women and people of color in all fields.

Diana Nyad is one of the 100, cited primarily for her accomplishments in journalism. Her photo is really cool too. However, many of us of a certain age also know Diana as an amazing athlete whose long distance swimming feats in the 1970’s defy the imagination. She still holds the record for a distance swim from Cuba to the US (102.5 miles!). Her athletic accomplishments were mentioned in passing, but it is primarily her journalistic career for which she is named to this list.

Two gay athletes are included in the list as a pair, rather than individually – Corey Benton and Jamal Brown – both out gay track athletes from Columbia and Dartmouth respectively. I think it is great that Corey and Jamal are honored by Out Magazine and they certainly deserve recognition, but I am wondering who the committee consulted with to identify athletes or coaches for the list.

Surely, in an Olympic year with several out lesbian or bi women athletes competing and medaling in Beijing they might have considered some of the American women for this honor. Lauren Lappin and Vickie Galindo (Silver medals in softball), Natasha Kai (Gold medal in soccer) would have been excellent choices. Shannon Miller, out lesbian coach of the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s ice hockey team, won the Frozen Four. She would also be a terrific choice. I plan to write to Out Magazine to encourage them to cast a broader net next year to honor more out LGBT people in athletes and to honor the accomplishments of more women and people of color.

The good thing is that my disappointment in the narrow focus of the Out Magazine list has prompted me to continue my own “Best of” list for 2008 (I did one for 2007) focusing on sports. Also, if you have a suggestion of someone to be honored, please let me know. Stay tuned

Monday, November 10, 2008

More From Michigan City

I’ve devoted two posts to the Michigan City, Indiana youth baseball coaches who were suspended for using anti-gay slurs and encouraging boys on the team to taunt one teammate with them as well. The park board then overturned the suspensions by a 2-2 vote. I’m not sure how they decided a tie constituted a reversal of the decision but they did. Now, according to this article, the vote to overturn the suspensions is being questioned by the City Council and the park board’s decision is being reviewed. It looks like there is a possibility that the overturn with be overturned. This all seems like good news to me.

However, even if the coaches are suspended again, I feel badly for the boys on the team, especially the one who was targeted by the anti-gay slurs from his teammates and coaches. I hope he has not lost his love of baseball over this or feels like he must now bully or taunt others to keep from being bullied again. I also feel sad about any of the boys who are gay or wonder if they might be or have gay family members or friends. What have they learned? For the rest of the team, it is a sad thing when young people learn that bullying or taunting of any kind is an acceptable way to act.

Nonetheless, thanks to the Michigan City Council for not letting the overturned suspensions stand without a thorough review.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Great Day for the USA, Except...

I could try to connect this post to sports by noting that Barack Obama played basketball yesterday as voters were going to the polls in unprecedented numbers to elect him the 44th President of the United States. But I won't even try. I just want say how proud I am to be an American today. I am so moved by the election of our first African-American president. I can only imagine what this is like for my African-American friends and colleagues to see something they never expected to see in their lifetime.

My feelings of excitement and joy, however, are tempered with great sadness that Proposition 8, the California initiative to ban same-sex marriage by amending the state constitution for the first time for the purpose of taking rights away from people, appears to be on its way to passage. As I write, the initiative is undecided, but 52% of the voters in California have cast their ballots for discrimination. Not a good sign. Similar initiatives passed in Arizona and Florida. So, it is a bittersweet victory today. One huge step forward. One disappointing step back.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Fearless Campus Tour Goes to ESPN

Jeff Sheng’s Fearless Campus Tour, a traveling photo exhibit of GLBT high school and collegiate athletes, appeared at ESPN headquarters a couple of weeks ago. Some of the athletes in the exhibit also participated in a panel sponsored by the GLAAD sports media project and editor, Ted Rybka. I know I’ve written about the Fearless Campus Tour before a few times, but I had to take note of this particular event. Hosting the Fearless Campus Tour is another example of how ESPN is taking the lead among sports media in addressing homophobia in sport.

ESPN is the premier sports network in the USA. They have featured several excellent segments on “Outside The Lines” about gay and lesbian athletes and ESPN reporter LZ Granderson, who is an out gay man, has been active on several educational panels about lesbian and gay athletes. Now ESPN has an GLBTA (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies) Employee Resource Group. The group is looking for ways to make ESPN more inclusive.

This video clip features some of the athletes in the Fearless photo exhibit who were also on the panel at ESPN talking about what it was like for them to participate in the event.