Gay Like Me

I was in Tower Records recently looking for the Fifth Dimension's greatest hits as a birthday present for my mother. They had moved the oldies section since my previous visit to the store, and a nearby clerk, who had perhaps noticed that I was a bit disoriented, approached me and said, "Show tunes are upstairs."

He could hardly have provided less appropriate information. I don't like show tunes, and I wondered why he had assumed that I do.

"He thought you were gay," a friend offered when I related my experience, "and figured that you must like show tunes." I'll admit that this explanation had occurred to me, too, but it raised another question: Even if I were gay, why is it a given that I would like show tunes?

It wasn't the first time a stranger had decided I was gay. When I was in college, I was walking to class on a warm spring afternoon when a young woman I'd never seen before turned to me as we passed and spat out, "Faggot!" It caught me so off guard, I was certain I'd misunderstood her. "Was she talking to me?" I asked my classmate. "And what did she say?" "She called you a faggot," he answered, as baffled as I was. I didn't know then and don't know now what made her so certain that I was gay, but I was even more puzzled that she'd decided to lash out, to confront me in such an abusive fashion.

That was my initiation into the queer life. And many years later, I'm no less of a magnet for strangers' anti-gay venom. Since I've lived in New York City, on any number of occasions I've found myself embroiled in a disagreement. I stand up for myself after being cut off in a crosswalk by an impatient cabby, or shoved in a crowded subway by someone determined to impinge upon my already limited personal space -- only to have the aggressor let loose with the same hateful epithet I heard on the way to class all those years ago.

The fact that I'm not gay hardly matters in these instances. Something about my hair, my voice, my walk -- who knows? -- puts these people off, and they don't hesitate to let me know it. It's easier to hate someone after you've got him neatly packaged and labeled, so the cabbie who slathers me with the homosexual brush likely doesn't care that his assumption is incorrect. To him, someone who looks, talks, or walks the way I do must be a fag, and I guess that's just fine with me.

After all, there are positive aspects to gay stereotypes, too: Perhaps by assuming that I'm gay, that cabbie is also guessing that I'm fastidious in my personal hygiene, that I'm nimble on the dance floor, that I keep a tidy apartment. Since I am possessed of only one of those attributes -- although I do shower at least once a day, I'm not much of a dancer and my apartment usually has a ransacked look that suggests a recent burglary -- if strangers want to assign to me such admirable qualities, then what the heck!

Still, I'm not sure why it is -- in a time when even relatively unenlightened people have learned to at least hold their tongues -- that gay men are still considered fair game for such verbal and even physical assaults. Maybe it's the stereotype that gay men are all sissies -- that when push comes to shove, any straight man could handle a gay man in a fight.

That's patently ridiculous, of course. Though I am heterosexual, I'm also a fairly committed pacifist, and a resolute and unwavering coward, and therefore completely unschooled in the art of fisticuffs. I have no doubt that most men -- straight, gay, or undecided -- could use me to mop up the sidewalk if they so chose. That's really the only problem I have now with my status as an "honorary" gay man: the fear that one of these nights I'll be subject to a little "honorary" gay-bashing.

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