Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Gay Acting" and the Hypocrisy of Pointing It Out

So, is Marcus Bachmann gay? There’s a lot of speculation out there that the husband of presidential candidate and Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann is as queer as a three dollar bill. And, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest it may be so.

But how can we tell?

Well, he has devoted his entire life and career to “curing” people from being gay. This gives me pause. We are often driven to do things in our lives because of who we are and what we experience. Someone whose sister died of cancer in childhood might find their life’s work focused on curing cancer. People who have perfect pitch often become musicians. And I know quite a few psychologists – not one of them would ever claim that they were completely sane.

So, Marcus Bachmann’s life work would suggest an inordinate fascination with gay people. On the surface, it looks like he doth protest too much.

Then there’s the way he walks and talks. Jon Stewart did an hysterical segment on July 13’s “The Daily Show,” pointing out that Dr. Bachmann “dances and sounds not only gay, but center square gay” – referring to the flamingly hilarious Paul Lynde on “Hollywood Squares.”

I totally agree. Marcus Bachmann does sound and look gay.

But wait a minute. Are we supposed to judge whether or not people are gay because of how they look and sound?

Kristen Chenoweth doesn’t seem to think so. A year ago, Chenoweth was one of the loudest voices in an outcry against Newsweek columnist Ramin Setoodeh, who posited that Sean Hayes was too gay to successfully pull off the macho lead in the musical “Promises, Promises” (in which Chenoweth co-starred with Hayes).

Said Setoodeh, who is himself gay: “Hayes is among Hollywood’s best verbal slapstickers, but his sexual orientation is part of who he is, and also part of his charm.”

Chenoweth called this “horrendously homophobic,” “small minded” and “bigoted, among other things. She was joined by “Glee” producer Ryan Murphy, and a host of gay and lesbian rights groups.

I did question Setoodeh’s column a bit, but not for the reasons Chenoweth did. I think Setoodeh didn’t find his point – he needed a better editor than the one Newsweek had to offer him. And he strayed off into the “knowing people are gay beforehand” arena, which came out as a convoluted attack on our relentless pop cultural need to know people’s personal lives, which Aaron Sorkin also blamed.

I also wondered why Setoodeh cared whether a man came off as gay or straight when he was appearing  in a musical.

But it seemed to me what Setoodeh was saying is that Hayes wasn’t a good enough actor in “Promises, Promises” to convince us that he was who his character was supposed to be. And Jon Stewart is saying that Marcus Bachmann isn’t a good enough actor, either.

So, where are the outraged voices? Why isn’t there an outcry about Stewart and a host of other pundits insinuating or outright speculating that Marcus Bachmann is gay?

I get that Dr. Bachmann’s hypocrisy makes him an easy mark. I get that both he and his wife are dangerous. I get that they’re hurting gay kids, and that this kind of “treatment” is often what leads to suicide. But what I don’t get is our own hypocrisy, making it OK to stereotype someone we don’t like, but not OK to stereotype someone we do like. This was exactly Setoodeh’s point: sometimes people do fit stereotypes, and it’s often the first thing people notice when they see or interact with them.

What disturbs me about this is that the reaction against the idea that we can tell if someone is gay smacks of homophobia.  Is it bad to look and sound and act gay? Is that why we’re so gleeful about pointing at Marcus Bachmann, because it’s a weakness? And will that same weakness hurt actors who also look and sound gay? Does it hurt non-actors in their everyday lives?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then our obligation is to break through the prejudice, not stop the behavior – or excoriate people who point out the behavior and ask why it’s considered bad.

Setoodeh, in his Newsweek article, also mentioned Jonathan Groff, the openly gay actor who plays Rachel’s sometime boyfriend Jesse St. James in “Glee.” Groff intrigues me.

I first noticed him when the girls and I were watching the “Run Joey Run” episode of “Glee,” in which Rachel’s three love interests stalk down the school hallway while singing. As Groff was stalking toward the camera, I thought – and said out loud – “He’s gay.”

“No,” the girls answered. “He’s not. He’s Rachel’s boyfriend.”

“Yes,” I said, “but the actor is gay.”

At that point, I had never heard of Jonathan Groff and certainly didn’t know he was openly gay. And I started thinking that his acting gay was a choice, that perhaps, in one of the patented “Glee” plot twists, Jesse was going to end up with Kurt by the end of the season.

Jump forward a year. I’m watching Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” about the trial of Mary Surrat in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. At one point, the character of Louis Weichmann testifies against Surrat. The character was part of the group that included John Wilkes Booth, but he was apart from the group. He didn’t really fit in. That’s the background we’re given. I didn’t recognize the actor, and totally believed everything he was playing. But I also saw something else. In the midst of the scene, it dawned on me that they were making subtle insinuations that the character was gay. “Wow,” I thought, “there’s an interesting twist. Too bad the gay guy has to be the traitor. But it certainly gives us insight into how ostracized he might have felt, and his motivations for testifying against people who may have treated him badly.”

Then the credits ran, and I realized that Weichmann was played by Jonathan Groff.

Now, was Groff playing those subtle insinuations in both “Glee” and “The Conspirator” in order to give the characters more depth? Or is he not able to leave his essential gayness behind him when he steps on screen?

My point is, I don’t really care. I think it’s interesting that Groff brings those subtleties with him, intended or not. He’s a phenomenally gifted actor. Why shouldn’t a high school kid who loves to sing be not quite in touch with his sexuality? What’s wrong with having that undercurrent? How many of us had that undercurrent when we were in high school? Why should a man in a courtroom drama always be straight? By playing these characters Groff is, in a way, mainstreaming the characteristics we associate with being obviously gay – characteristics that we associate with Marcus Bachmann.
The more we see these characteristics portrayed in every day life on screen, the more people will accept these characteristics as part of real life. And that will take us steps beyond the Marcus Bachmanns of the world. But we can’t pretend the characteristics don’t exist. And we can’t pretend that acting gay is not, in our society, seen as a negative.

So let’s make up our minds. I’m for pointing out that Marcus Bachmann looks like a big ol’ fat queer. A dangerous, deluded, and rather sad big ol’ fat queer. But I’m also for pointing out that sometimes gay people who do good things act gay. Can you imagine how dull life would be without that?

Here are some great stories about Bachmann, and the issue of calling him gay:
Gawker “Marcus Bachman’s Big Gay Mess”
The Daily Beast“Marcus Bachman’s Gay Cure” by Michelle Goldberg
Politicol News“Is Marcus Bachmann Gay?”“Dear Liberals, Stop Calling Marcus Bachmann Gay”“Dan Savage, Bully”

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