Living with Ambiguity

27 Mar

Most of the items that have appeared on this blog have been pretty straight-forward (forgive the semantics) – homophobia, sexism, racism, etc. We’ve seen lots of intersectionality of the various facets of identity, but few items have made me feel as ambiguous as the blog, “Born This Way!.

"Born This Way" Blog

The site is full of Reader’s Digest versions of queer-identifying individuals’ life histories, plus pictures, which tell the story of gay men and women who have “always known” they were “different”. According to the blog’s owner, Born This Way! is, “A photo/essay project for gay adults (of all genders) to submit childhood pictures and stories (roughly ages 2 to 12), reflecting memories & early beginnings of their innate LGBTQ selves. Nurture allows what nature endows. It’s their nature, their truth!”

Examples include:

  • Amanda from Colorado: “I made my Barbies kiss. And why not? Ken and Barbie could kiss! I loved to play in the dirt with trucks, and loved having dinosaur birthday parties.”
  • DC from Texas: “I was at my Grandmother’s house, and I grabbed her mop from the garage. Leaning it up against a chair, I began playing “beauty parlor” by braiding and combing that nasty, dirty mop head. This, while my brothers were outside playing in the dirt.”
  • Chad from Tennessee: “I knew I was different from a very young age. I had attractions to other boys, but thought something was wrong with me. Or the devil was making me think those thoughts. Being raised in a strong Southern Baptist family, I felt I was in constant sin, and kept the secret to myself. I prayed often to just take these thoughts away, because I knew I would disappoint my family if they knew I had them.”

This blog straddles an interesting line for me: is it a blessing or a curse? On one hand, this blog is a celebration of gay men and women in all their glory. It can provide a powerful sense of community for gay men and women who may have thought they were alone in their “early gayness.” Many of the people featured admit to having come from conservative or religious backgrounds, and so the blog seems to also serve deeply cathartic or therapeutic ends by allowing these people to share their secrets with others, and the world. Some of the posts also include (hilarious) self-deprecating humor, which points to an oft-underrated notion; in a world where we are faced with such systemic hate, judgment, fear, it is crucial for us to be able to laugh at ourselves. As Saul Alinsky says: without with critical skill, we’ll never make it out alive (Rules for Radicals, 1971).

Furthermore, the message of the blog is one of acceptance and authenticity. The tagline, “It’s their nature, their truth,” reinforces the fact that sexual orientation is genetically-based and fights the bigoted notion that gayness is a sin, a lie, shameful, or unnatural. The blog was created in January 2011 – 80 days ago – and has 483 posts (~ 6 posts per day). It has  been visited 2,109,729 times (~ 26,000 hits per day). It has been “liked” on Facebook 50,000 times, and was voted a “Best Google Blog” on About.com’s Readers’ Choice Awards. The blog has been featured on CNN and the sitcom Modern Family. The growth and popularity of the site are testaments to the interest it has sparked.

Yet I also wonder if the project is reinforcing our stereotypes about gay people. Although “some of the pix here feature gay boys with feminine traits, and some gay girls with masculine traits. And even more gay kids with NONE of those traits” (“BTW” Section), many of the posts fulfill social stereotypes about gay men and women. Many gay men are shown as having been – from age 3, 4, or 5 – flamboyant, feminine, heel cocked, knee swiveled, wrists limp, sensitive, etc. While these images certainly tell important stories, they may also “other” gay men by defining them through their femininity. This, in turns, informs our notions of masculinity, and reinforces our association between straight and strong, gay and weak.

Similarly, many of the gay women are presented (or rather, present themselves) as having been tomboys, aggressive, dressing boyish, playing with bugs, dykish, butch, uncomfortable in dresses, etc. By representing gay women as being “masculine,” the site reinforces societal notions of straight women being “feminine.” Because of the all-pervasiveness of the gender binary system, this gay woman/masculine – straight woman/feminine dichotomy implies its opposite: straight men should be masculine, and gay men should be feminine.

Furthermore, many testimonies claim that family and friends “knew all along,” suggesting that gayness has identifiable behavioral and personality characteristics. Does this create an “us vs. them” situation between LGBT and heterosexual folks? Does the site perpetuate our heterosexist, heteronormative attitudes by representing gay men and women as a homogenous group? In some ways, I say yes.

Despite the potential negative effects of the blog, the public reaction has been positive. This is based on the media coverage, the Facebook likes and Wall activity, its award, and general site growth. And, ultimately, I feel that the site is a positive thing in the world. It contradicts society’s negative notions about sexual orientation in general, while promoting positive ones – its innateness and authenticity. If it does perpetuate stereotypes, it does so to no greater extent than other mediums (e.g., movies, TV, etc.), and I would argue that the positive effects are far more profound due to the blog’s form and content.

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