Saving Ryan’s Privates: ‘That’s so gay’ — The rhetoric behind homophobia

“That’s so gay.” It’s a statement we gays are starkly familiar with. I remember first hearing it in elementary school, when, before any sense of sexuality was on my horizon, I would be teased by my brother for choosing Barbies over toy soldiers. My boyfriends’ memories are equally clear. One clearly remembers the dinner party where his cousin called out his Birkenstocks for being “so gay.” Another friend recalls being mocked in eighth grade when he chose to write a biographical report on Madonna instead of, say, Neil Armstrong or Abraham Lincoln.

“That’s so gay,” they say. No matter when or where we hear them, and no matter to whom or what they are directed, these words always stick with us — because they are about us.

In practice, it’s a statement that’s unclear. Like a Wassily Kandinsky painting, it conjures up an array of images. When I think of some things that are gay, I think of: Tiffany lamps, June 26, 2015, the very essence of Cher.

But what comes to others’ minds? Men who wear crop tops? Men who wear Speedos at the Santa Monica State Beach? Men whose voices and expressions are reminiscent of Kourtney Kardashian? What about these things make them “so gay”? How can one tell — who is to tell?

I feel uneasy that gayness can be reduced to something like a single ear piercing or an obsession with “America’s Next Top Model,” but I have always been predisposed to unrest. To inhabit a queer body, I suspect, is to be born with a visceral sense of one’s own othering, to be innately attuned to the apprehensions lodged in the back of the mind.

“That’s so gay.” It’s a statement I still hear. I want to explain to you, and in the process to myself, why this statement can be so dangerous and so beautiful, how it can be an assault on queers, but also an applause to us. I want to show you why any fixed claim on gayness is impossible, but perhaps that will become apparent as I go along.

When one states that something is “so gay,” it is often leveled as an accusation. “He likes poetry?” boys in high school used to wonder about me with incredulity, as though poetry were something bizarre, unknown. They would respond to themselves by joking, “That’s so gay.”

But what’s so gay about poetry? That it is a nebulous art? That it can at times be suffused with melodrama? That any expression of emotion — poetry tends to be the target — is, in the masculinist view, inherently feminine, unmanly and hence non-straight? It is distinctly possible that, for these high school jocks, poetry was in fact something bizarre, unknown, yet their calling me gay intimated much more than a repulsion of poetry. It intimated a repulsion of my gayness. Of me.

When someone says that something is gay, it is often an attempt to align gayness with the deviant, the perverted, the other. I think back to some of the parties I’ve been to where a boy would try to get two girls to make out. If he was successful, I would always hear male bystanders and witnesses whisper about how “hot” it was.

Now, imagine that same party. Try to visualize two boys greeting each other with a peck on the cheek. You can almost hear the response: “That’s so gay,” a group of boys might chuckle, drowning the room with their bravado.

Why is it “hot” for girls to make out at a party, but “so gay” for boys to share so much as a brief embrace? Surely, the male desire to see girls hooking up is indicative of the heteronormative hegemonies at play in daily life, of the ease with which patriarchal cultures are willing to commodify (and make a spectacle of) female bodies.

On the other hand, repulsion toward male-to-male affection is evocative of something else: the pervasiveness of fragile (or toxic) masculinity, and its desire to render any level of intimacy between men as unnatural and immoral.

“That’s so gay.” It’s a statement with potential, though. When we gays say it, it can also be an act of reclamation. Like when my gay friends say, ‘Ryan, your pride shorts are so gay.’ Like when I instruct you, with irony, ‘Use my weak, little, gay body however you want.’ Like when you call me your ‘gay sex husband.’

Straight folks have often been the most offended by jokes at the expense of gay people. They have shot us their dirty glances, have communicated to us how they feel our humor buys in to the gross generalization of gay people (as obsessed with rainbows, as frail, as lewd — whatever you will).

Indeed, our humor is rooted in the gross generalization of gay people, but here is where it departs: When we gays joke about something being “gay,” we are laughing triumphantly at the essentialism of a statement like “That’s so gay.” Gayness, of course, cannot be encapsulated — it exists without boundaries.

Even as a gay man myself, I find it difficult to understand what it means for someone or something to be “so gay.” I know that whatever I feel or find to be gay can very well be construed differently by someone else but that, to me, is the beauty of gayness. There can be no definite statements about gayness — there can be only conversations and endless becomings.

Ryan Nhu is a sophomore majoring in English and law, history and culture. His column, “Saving Ryan’s Privates,” ran every other Wednesday.