by Jeremy Martens
What is the right way to be gay man?
I believe and acknowledge that, for many, being gay is simply nothing more than who one is sexually attracted to. But I also strongly believe that any person who is not heterosexual must grapple with the question of how they will negotiate their sexual identity with their self-identity.
You may find the assumption that every gay man loves musical theatre is offensive because gay people are so much more than their love for Barbra Streisand—I completely agree (even though I love me some Babs). But in the act of denying this connection, you are acknowledging that it exists. No matter how hard you try to fight it, it is undeniable that society has a perception of how one should be a gay man.
Creating a realistic portrayal of any culture, especially a culture within the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) community, is extremely difficult for that reason. Looking took on that challenge by trying to—according to the series’ creators—“realistically represent” the lives of four members of the LGBTQIA community. Looking focuses on three people, who all identify as both homosexual and as male, looking for love and happiness in San Francisco.
You may be wondering what the issue is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for any show that I get to see Jonathan Groff shirtless. My problem with Looking is the use of the word “realistic” to describe the stories of three gay men looking for love. To say that Looking is a “realistic” representation of what it means to be gay, to me, is completely wrong.
Growing up gay in the suburbs of Chicago was pretty fucking confusing. I thought being gay was as simple as admitting to yourself, “I don’t like girls. I like boys.” and waiting for your letter of acceptance to the Gay Club in the mail. It wasn’t that easy.
I always saw gay men as supporting characters, as the “gay best friend”, the “gay uncle who is an interior designer with an excellent fashion taste”. This undoubtedly warped my perception of what it means to be gay. Once I began comparing myself to the guidelines put in my head of what it means to be “gay”, I felt like I was a pretty shitty gay person.
My whole life I never fit into the ‘straight man’ or ‘gay man’ box. Before I moved to a big city, that was all I knew existed. Living in Chicago, I learned I didn’t have to fit into one of those boxes. I learned about the countless subcultures within the LGBTQIA community and discovered the myriad of ways different queer people choose to express themselves. I learned that, in the LGBTQIA world, you can be whoever the fuck you want and be accepted.
The characters of Looking look for boyfriends. They go on dates. The dates go bad. They move in with their boyfriends. They cheat on their boyfriends. They break up. Oh, and they smoke weed. There is very little to the characters besides the fact that they are either in a relationship or they are looking for a boyfriend. While the characters are more than stereotypes, that doesn’t mean the show is interesting to watch. The writers of Looking spent so much time trying to portray a non-flamboyant gay man that they forgot to create characters that an audience can connect to, relate to, and be interested in.
The writers throw in three-ways, casual sex, Grindr hookups and cruising to spice up the dullness of the show. These are very common and acceptable sexual practices within the LGBTQIA community. However, because of the way the show is written, these practices are seen as strange, abnormal and wrong, compared to the picture of what the “normal gay man” does—looking for a boyfriend who he can spend the rest of his life with.
Looking is problematic because—just like Queer as Folk and Will & Grace told the world that gay men were effeminate sexually promiscuous drama queens—it paints a singular picture of gay men as pretty, fit, well-educated people whose lives are just like everyone else’s. Many gay kids may watch this show and feel that they do not fit into that mold. But what other outlets do they have to figure out what box they fit into?
I think that portraying gay men as psychologically complex people is a huge step forward for the representation of gay men. I understand that the writers may have chosen to portray gay men in this way to make the show palatable for more mainstream viewers. I realize this is one of the many baby steps that must be taken in order to have a more realistic portrayal of the LGBTQIA world in a mainstream medium.
But I think the LGBTQIA community sacrifices too much in order to be accepted by the masses. Looking is a failed opportunity to challenge the world’s perception of queer people, to educate young, confused queer kids, and, yet again, creates a false image of what it means to be gay.