May 13, 2018

Not Wearing a Sign

"How dare you say that Tony Danza on Taxi was gay?  Or the guys in Orange County or Jaws?  Or Yogi Bear and Boo Boo?   You're reading too much into it!  The authors never intended that!"

I hear statements like this a dozen times a week.  If a character is not Wearing a Sign, not specifically stating "I am gay," he or she must be assumed heterosexual.  Fiction  is the last bastian where heterosexuals can breathe free, certain that they are alone in the world, that those pesky gay people do not exist.

I have news for them.

1. Fictional characters do not exist, period. They are words on a page or images on a screen.  We know absolutely nothing about them except what is contained in those images.  It is up to the viewer to flesh them out, to fill in the blanks, to imagine their inner states, their motivations, their desires -- and to imagine what happens during the vast sections of their lives NOT on the screen. If they fail to make an explicit statement about their sexual identity on screen, that doesn't mean that they must be automatically classified as heterosexual.

We viewers must figure it out for ourselves.

2.  We figure it out by looking for clues.   Does the character leer at a woman?  At a man?  Establish a strong opposite-sex relationship?  A strong same-sex relationship?

The main gay clues are:

Bonding (same-sex romance)

Domesticity (living together)

My hero (same sex rescues)

No girls/boys allowed (lack of heterosexual interest)

Beefcake (physical display)

If one or more of these clues are present, the character can be read as gay.

3. There's no single correct answer. It's not like figuring out the answer to a riddle. The images are always vague, ambiguous, and contradictory.  Is this male-male relationship intimate and passionate enough to qualify as a romance?  I may think it is; you may not.

It's ok for different people to "read" different things into the text.

4. The intentions of the actors, writers, and directors are irrelevant.  No matter what they were trying to convey about their characters, the images are still vague, ambiguous, and contradictory.  So we still have to figure it out for ourselves, and we may get answers different from what they had in mind.

It's ok to see things that the authors didn't intend.

5. Mass media assumes that gay children do not exist.  No producer, writer, or director has ever, to my knowledge, acknowledged that there might be gay children in the cast, in the audience, or among the characters.  There may be gay adults, but all children, without exception, are assumed heterosexual.

Therefore gay children are interlopers in an alien country.  Everything they see, everything they hear, everything they read is meant for someone else.

They have to grab what they can.

If they must distort the text, misread a character, see things that aren't even there, that's fine.

When it's a matter of survival, anything goes.


  1. In the audience? In VERY recent years, yes. By "recent years", I mean "2010s". Still not to the point of actually recognizing gay characters Wearing A Sign (and not just being asexual aliens or whatever), but when you have a boy saying "She's my favorite. If I was a girl, I'd marry her.", that's progress.

    FWIW, Mark Hamill's tweeted that Luke can be gay if you want him to be. Which is fine: Straight Luke scares me anyway.

    1. The point is that most viewers want all fictional characters to be heterosexual, and vehemently oppose any queer readings. For instance, when you see two guys together in a tv commercial and announce "They could be boyfriends," heterosexuals, and even some LGBT people, will say "Why can't they be straight friends?" They will refuse to identify any character as gay unless they have no choice.

    2. True, I was thinking about how different my generation was from yours. But we were already better at this than yours in 2004: You can already see about 1970 as the cutoff point in gay rights when all those states were Prop 8ing their way to a second Bush term. (Or even 1993, with "don't ask, don't tell".)

      At the same time, there are people objecting to an interracial couple in a cereal ad.


No comments that use abusive or vulgar language or point out that a character is Not Wearing a Sign.

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