“Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy have the gay Internet abuzz,” reported Logo after the openly gay Olympians shared a kiss on stage at the GLAAD 2018 Media Awards, held in Los Angeles. Like many, I was impressed that Rippon and Kenworthy used the platform afforded to them by the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea to raise awareness of the Trump administration’s systematic attacks on LGBTQ people. Rippon, in particular, put Mike Pence in the crosshairs by vocally critiquing the Vice President’s anti-LGBTQ record. But since the games, the pair have been increasingly objectified by the (gay) media. Their bodies receive all the attention while their messages take a backseat.
That Rippon and Kenworthy have been portrayed this way is not surprising–they are, first and foremost, athletes–but why is their message not enough? Must social justice come with a side of sex appeal in order for (white cisgender) gay men to care? Rippon and Kenworthy’s OUT magazine cover, for example, depicts the pair in a romantic and intimate manner. They lean against each other, shirtless, with arms casually draped around one another. The cover identifies them as “American Idols,” quite literally linking sexual objectification and the status of “icon.” The cover does not explained why they are idols; these men are bodies to be admired and appraised first and activists second.
To be fair, I’m not blaming Rippon or Kenworthy for this phenomenon that is rampant within (gay) media. There is nothing wrong with looking good or expressing one’s sexuality. The problem comes when conforming to certain standards of appearance and desirability becomes a prerequisite for having a voice and representation within the LGBTQ community. The objectified way the media depicts Rippon and Kenworthy is the symptom of a much larger problem that does not begin or end with them alone.
Objectification is the process by which we reduce a person to an object–a thing–primarily for our own gratification and use. Objectification impacts us on a personal level through issues such as body image dissatisfaction, eating disorders, minority stress, low self-esteem, and other negative impacts on one’s mental health. It also impacts us on a societal level by contributing to systems of oppression such as misogyny, heterosexism, racism, ableism, and transphobia and by limiting our political efficacy, our ability to believe we can create change.
Gay men typically achieve “icon,” “role model,” or “influencer” status only if they fit certain standards of appearance, thereby making them dually marketable under capitalism: first through their image; second through their message. I use the above labels somewhat interchangeably to describe visible LGBTQ cultural figures who work, in some way, to create change and, through their example, inspire us to do the same. If we restrict who can achieve this status to a select few, then we effectively limit possibilities for change because that work is then defined by a limited range of perspectives and experiences. The rule is as follows: be “sexy” or “hot” or you will have little chance of gaining a following and being heard.
To help us understand why body norms and standards of appearance remain rigid within gay male communities, we can look to the work of pioneering sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman defines stigma as: “the phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute which is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute. Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.” Stigma, in other words, occurs when an individual with an “abnormal” attribute–such as being gay–is outcasted or positioned as socially “spoiled.” Goffman further argues that the stigmatized are expected to act in ways that manage their stigmas, to lessen the impact the stigma has on those who occupy the category of “normal.”
In the case of gay men, stigma management can take the form of attaining an idealized appearance to blunt the rejection associated with having a minority sexual orientation. Achieving a “normal” or desirable body allows one to access a semblance of normalcy, of acceptance. Cultivating a masculine body undercuts stereotypical associations between gay men and femininity–a devalued way of being in our culture. This type of stigma management was especially heightened during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s when the gay male community became increasingly identified with physical manifestations of illness and disease. The continued inflexibility of appearance norms within gay male communities evidences that, despite the progress of recent years, being gay remains a stigmatized and shameful identity, one that must be “managed.”
I asked a friend to brainstorm with me prominent gay men who have bodies outside the norm and are valued for their advocacy. He came up with television personality Ross Mathews, a recurring judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race who stood up to criticism from right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos. Other examples might include influencer Adam Eli, founder of the activist organization Voices 4; and Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, who also hosts the top-rated podcast Getting Curious. Even though Eli and Van Ness do not fit the masculine muscular ideal and are often feminine-of-center in their gender expression, they are both white cisgender men who fall within our cultural parameters of thinness. Both should be commended, however, for refusing to be “respectable”: to tone down their “queeniness” or their femininity.
That there are so few gay men in the media with diverse embodiments further demonstrates the point: When our role models come from such a limited pool, our activism accordingly becomes less inclusive and less effective. Take a recent example of this phenomenon: Brian Sims. Sims is a Democratic politician and openly-gay member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Gay men on Twitter love to comment on Sims’ “handsomeness,” though would they be less interested in what he has to say, particularly on LGBTQ issues, if he didn’t look a certain way?
And then there’s Antoni Porowski, Queer Eye’s “food and wine expert.” Porowski’s “brand” is obviously food–he has a paid partnership with grocery-chain Whole Foods and is slated to open a restaurant in New York City–but his body is frequently used as part of his promotion. He has, for example, a paid partnership with underwear-brand Hanes and models their merchandise on Instagram. Porowski’s cooking and his message of self-care and self-acceptance are insufficient; in addition to his food, his body is served as a visual feast for gay male viewers to consume. Porowski is certainly one of the most popular members of the “Fab 5,” among both fans and advertisers, because he exemplifies the quintessential “hot gay dude” who is handsome, toned, white, and neither too masculine nor too feminine.
The representation of Sims and Porowski are only two examples of a major problem within the gay community: lookism. The term “lookism” refers to the belief and practice of valuing those who conform to normative standards of appearance and attractiveness over those who do not. Those who embody this standard, furthermore, are regarded as inherently more good, capable, worthy, and human.
The objectification of gay male icons in the media also impacts our ability to act as agents of change in our daily lives, causing us to question whether our voices and opinions possess value if we do not conform to the norms perpetuated by (gay) media that are then mirrored and reinforced by the community. While the media sets standards, they also represents what the community wants to see. The community, however, has also been conditioned by the media to desire and seek out certain images or forms of entertainment.
I often question whether expressing my perspective is futile. I don’t look like queer men in the media, so will anyone even care what I have to say or take me seriously? If I looked differently, would I be heard? Nevertheless, I’m going to try. And I realize the self-doubt instilled in us by (gay) media is worse for those who have less privilege than I do. For more of us to be heard, we need a broad cultural shift that re-values difference: different identities, different bodies, different ideas.
Norms exist because we, in an effort to belong, conform to them. When we reenact a norm, we strengthen the notion that the norm represents reality and not simply a version of reality that serves those in power. When we question the norm–in our in-person interactions, on social media, or by speaking truth to those in power–we open the possibility of occupying the world in different ways. If we continue to reinforce the same standards, to objectify, to value and represent only a few, then we effectively limit our ability to make change.
Genuine change, for some within the community, is not desirable. It’s clear some (white cisgender able-bodied gay men) like being at the top of the hierarchy within the LGBTQ community. The most privileged members of the community–who often already have access to the rights and resources they most want–should not turn their backs those who are kept from achieving the same, namely working-class LGBTQ people, disabled LGBTQ people, and queer and transgender people of color. The best scenario is one in which everyone has a liveable life, even if that means some of us have less privilege than we do at present.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with a member of the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, Buffalo, New York’s first gay rights organization, founded in 1970. This elder of our community was not only a wealth of knowledge about the past, but had just as much to say about the present. If our standard is such that one can only be an icon or a role model if one can be made into an object of desire, then we are discounting the perspectives of many, especially our LGBTQ elders. If we select our change makers based on such a limited set of characteristics, then any changes made will primarily benefit those who also conform to that particular profile. Having a representable body should not be a prerequisite for having a voice worthy of being heard.
We need more than diverse representation in media. We need to decenter bodies–both our own and the bodies of others–as the source of our self-worth and the basis of our activism. A culture that elevates the most “normal” at the expense of the many is not one that is poised to create lasting change. There must first exist the possibility that our voices matter before we can raise them in the service of our vision.