Last week, I didn’t seem able to avoid the “shit [insert social group] people say” internet meme, which started with Grayson Sheppard’s “Shit girls say” and quickly got horribly specific and derivative (anyone for “Shit Liza Minnelli says”?). The original “Shit girls say” (performed by Grayson in drag) traded on stereotyped views about women, showing them asking themselves “did I lock the door?”, exclaiming “shut up!!!” on receipt of gossip, and shrieking with joy upon encountering actress Juliette Lewis. It’s well-observed and funny although not exactly challenging what it means to be female. Some of the later “Shit people say” clips have a more evolved social commentary aspect to them, in that they’ve critiqued the kind of careless thinking that happens when well-meaning members of a majority group hang out with people from minorities. A good example is “Shit straight girls say to lesbians”, which includes phrases like “that’s so gay…oh sorry.”, “so which one’s the man?”, “at the party tonight it’s not going to be all just lesbians is it?” etc.
One of my favourite/most hated things that “Shit straight people say to gay people” is “I don’t mind you being gay, but don’t shove it in my face” (it’s so deliciously Carry-on film, I can visualise Kenneth Williams flaring his nostrils whenever I hear it) and its many variations: “don’t shove it down my throat”, “don’t wave it under my nose” etc. A work colleague once said to me “I don’t care about what you get up to in the privacy of your home”. He was actually trying to be nice – it was in response to someone who was being openly homophobic, so I let it pass. But having my sexuality reduced to “what you get up to” stung a bit.
Ironically, one of the biggest proponents of “don’t shove your sexuality in my face/down my throat” is gay people, especially those who wish to justify not coming out at work or to their families. “My sexuality is my own private affair”, they cleverly reason. “If people ask me if I’m gay, then I’ll tell them.” (They’re often banking on the fact that most people will be too embarrassed to ask.) And then they come out with the killer argument “Straight people don’t ‘come out’ about being heterosexual. You don’t hear them saying ‘I’m straight’ do you? So why should I say ‘I’m gay.’?” It’s an argument based on equality, so it sounds right. Except, heterosexuals announce their heterosexuality all the time, in all sorts of subtle ways that often go unremarked upon. There are the visual announcements like the photo of the wife and kids on the desk. Or the casual reference to their boyfriend or girlfriend. For women, heterosexuality even gets signalled when they marry and go from “Miss” to “Mrs”. And expression of attraction is so much easier if it’s heterosexual. When I worked at a nursing home one summer, on the first day, one of the nurses, Michelle, cornered me in the bathroom and said “My friend Michelle (they were all called Michelle) fancies you.” I was struck by how relatively easy it was for straight people to talk about who they fancied. I, on the other hand, spent the whole summer unable to articulate how I felt about Simon – the only male nurse there. I was younger, less confident and didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as ‘the gay best friend’ to any of the Michelles. So I just stayed in the closet and didn’t shove it down anyone’s throat.
The media can get into trouble if it dares to shove gay sexuality down people’s throats. Last year, when the sci-fi series Torchwood showed scenes of Captain Jack Harkness in bed with another man, there were over 500 complaints to the BBC (the ‘story’ was covered by an especially pearl-clutching and sweaty Daily Mail who excitedly described the scene: ‘The men share a passionate kiss and the camera cuts to them cavorting in bed’). Typical complaints included “I am sure both myself and others are disgusted at last night’s show. Leave the gay scenes for the programmes more suited – not sci-fi.” And “The homosexual content is totally out of proportion and so we have decided not to watch any more.” The sex scenes occurred after the 9pm watershed and were fairly tame (no full frontal nudity). One fragile complainer described the scene as ‘gay porn’ (their definition of porn suggested they’d stepped out of a time machine located in the 1950s). Ironically, the same episode featured scenes of Captain Jack being violently killed again and again (he can’t die), yet nobody seemed to be too upset by that. Men kissing = disgusting. Men killing each other = fine.
I sometimes wonder about all of the times that I’ve had heterosexual sex waggled about under my nose by the media, how it’s so pervasive that it barely registers, and how frequently it’s just there for titillation value. In most cases, the cameras could just as easily imply the sex by cutting tastefully from the bed to curtains blowing in the wind, then show the next morning. Unless it really is porn, seeing the sex itself is rarely essential to the viewing experience.
Thankfully though, I think ‘don’t shove it in my face’ is one of those statements that’s going out of fashion. Five hundred complaints in a country of 60 million is hardly big news. And one of the better aspects of living on this cramped, damp little island is that generally people learn to rub along with each other. Even if that means rubbing their filthy sex lives in each other’s faces every now and then.