When Humor Meets Homophobia
Whenever you write something humorous, there's always the chance that someone won't get the joke. This is especially true for news satire, which resembles 'serious' news in form if not fact. Some subjects, however, are more sensitive than others. Homophobia is one such subject, and it seems that almost nothing is too absurd to be taken seriously.
For my satirical web site, The Gay Black Jew, I wrote a story called "Gay Agenda Aims to Make Everyone Gay!" I thought that nobody could possibly believe the story was true. It was intended to show how ridiculous it is when conservative Christians/Republicans whine about the dangers of the so-called "gay agenda." However, for some readers, it wasn't ridiculous at all. One called my piece "More unsubstantiated fear mongering from hate-filled bigots" and two others made similar comments.
Apparently, I'm not alone in this area. Years ago The Onion ran a story with a similar headline about a homosexual recruitment drive nearing its goal; it was posted on homophobic web sites as fact. And Andy Borowitz once wrote a satire piece for Newsweek about a conservative group declaring that the Flintstones were "way too gay." Many readers took him seriously and responded with angry emails.
British guerilla comedian Sacha Baron Cohen once joined a line of cheerleaders at an Alabama-Mississippi football game in the character of Bruno, a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion reporter. He claimed that sixty thousand football fans chanted "faggot," threw things at him and threatened to kill him.
In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Cohen concluded that his experience showed that "it's almost as if homophobia is one of the last forms of prejudice that is really tolerated." Conservative author Ann Coulter recently provided a perfect example of this when she called presidential candidate John Edwards a "faggot." She expected tolerance, but she was wrong: three advertisers on her web site pulled their ads and the top three Republican presidential candidates denounced her remark.
Because homophobia is practically endorsed by many religions, it is socially accepted and even expected by many. This acceptance undoubtedly made Ann Coulter comfortable making her bigoted remark. And it is this acceptance that makes many pro-gay readers ultra-sensitive to satire that from a certain angle seems homophobic - but is actually the opposite.
I asked a gay friend of mine to read "Gay Agenda Aims to Make Everyone Gay!" and the comments it received. At the end of my story, President Bush issues a brief statement: "Gays and lesbians are no different than Al Qaeda. They must be defeated. If you have any gay friends or relatives, please report them to your local police."
I expected to highlight how homophobia was absurd and delusional. After my friend read the story and comments, he concluded, "The sad part is that a lot of it is something a Fundamentalist Christian might really say or think." It amazed me that what I considered to be completely unbelievable was actually close enough to the views of many Americans that it was taken seriously.
Andy Borowitz's piece was taken seriously by some for the same reason: it was close enough to the views of many Americans. Jerry Falwell, for instance, famously warned parents about the "gay agenda" of a British children's show called "The Teletubbies."
Sacha Baron Cohen's experience alone shows how pervasive homophobia is in American culture. Once the football fans started chanting "faggot," his bodyguard left the stadium. As he recounted to Terry Gross: "I carried on in character...it was actually quite exciting. At the time I get very invested in the character and kind of almost believe I am the character. So feeling like a gay guy taunting 60,000 bigots it felt actually very invigorating."
Yes, satire can be invigorating. My favorite comment on my gay agenda story: "This garbage could be written only by a completely delusional nut case." My response: my story could only be taken seriously by a completely delusional nut case. At least, I wish that were true.