Roger Batson, black and openly gay, shops at T.J. Maxx, Wal-Mart and Marshall’s and looks for good deals on almost everything. Calvin Klein and Armani are not what he can afford. He drives an old car that he bought on e-Bay for $1,250 and not a Jaguar. And he is not flamboyant or effeminate, does not cross his legs and sits primly or flutters his eyelids when he sees an attractive guy.
But Batson and his lifestyle are not what the media represents about the LGBT community. Most often gay people are portrayed by the media as white, affluent and flamboyant, while lesbians are either sexy women or masculine women commonly referred to as butch lesbians.
“Stereotypes exist in real life, so stereotypes also exist in the media because they are easy reference points when writers need to immediately make the audience understand that this is a gay character,” said Damon Romine, entertainment media director, GLAAD. “Of course, stereotypes perpetuate more stereotypes, and the danger is that there is a risk that some people may come to believe that stereotypes represent all reality,”
Media stereotypes concern gay rights activists and LGBT people who think it results in prejudice and further isolate a community that is still struggling to get into the public forum.
“Stereotypes are there to oppress people. Gangsters, flaming gay guys, slutty women are common stereotypes. Designers use suggestive gay and lesbian images to sell their products. We are the second-largest spenders after the black community with a purchasing power of $600 billion a year and that’s what makes us attractive targets,” said Amit Taneja, assistant director of the Syracuse University LGBT Resource Center at 750 Ostrom Ave.
Some people say the real problem is that these images of gay people with lots of disposable income and a sense of style are far removed from reality. And though Batson said that some gay people are effeminate or rich, that’s not only what they are all about.
The under-representation of LGBT people of color on television or in advertisements is another issue that bothers Batson and Taneja, an Indian who migrated to Canada around 15 years ago.
“We have no role models and this is frustrating. People of color who are also part of the LGBT community don’t see themselves in the media. They have no positive images when they come out. Gay youth is very impressionable and this makes it difficult for them to come out and not see people like us out there,” said Batson, 28, who is also a graduate journalism student at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Romine said stereotypes worried him too when he was a kid.
“When I was growing up in the ’70s, there was a show on television called “Soap.” This show starred Billy Crystal as a gay man who sometimes dressed as a woman and considered having sex reassignment surgery,” he said. “The character was played as pretty campy and often as the butt of the joke. He was also the only gay character on television. The only one. So if you’re a kid who realizes he’s different and sees this as the only gay representation on television, you’re going to worry that this is what you have to look forward to as an adult.”
Some examples of common media stereotypes today are Jack on Will & Grace who is sassy and flamboyant, Adam, the quirky Filipino American on Half & Half, acid-tongued Neil in Twins, and the best friend Josh who is black on Emily’s Reasons Why Not.?
Adrea Jaehnig, director of LGBT Resource Center, thinks mainstream media simplifies the lives of LGBT people for a joke. It is problematic because it does not reflect the reality, she said.
“Either our lives are funny or they are tragic. It is an incredibly narrow perspective on LGBT people. The humanity is often overlooked and it is very scary because these can have psychological effect on people and lead to violence,” she said.
Andrew Augeri, coordinator of the LGBT center, feels that these negative and unrealistic portrayals are leading to people living a closeted life.
“This white image does not permit images of people of color, people of varying abilities, body types, etc. to have airtime. And that invisibility of people can prohibit or prolong the coming out process for someone who doesn’t see themselves represented in media outlets,” he said.
GLAAD estimates that LGBT people represent only around 2 percent of the characters on television. The 2005 report finds that faces on network scripted shows continue to be predominantly white at 76%. African Americans make up 14% of the characterizations, Latina/os 6%, Asian Pacific Islanders represent 3%, with less than 1% making up other ethnicities.
Besides, another issue that is a product of the media portrayal is the near invisibility of bisexual and transgender people on television or in advertisements, said Augeri.
“I think this affluent, white male easily taints the view of who queer people are, to the extent that the bisexual and transgender communities rarely get spotlights into the issues and voices important to their lives,” he said.
“One of the most interesting ironies of the LGBT media (because it does this as quickly as the mainstream media) is The Advocate. Its tagline is “the national gay and lesbian magazine” meaning bisexual and transgender people are not part of its reach despite countless articles on this segment of the community. There is a lot of progressive work to do to really understand who audiences are and what is “interesting” to people,” he added.
But Jaehnig is hopeful and sees limited visibility as a good sign that will lead to discussions in the public space and thus lead to awareness.
“Today you see LGBT people on television, there are articles regularly written on them. It is an interesting development. We have seen the effect of silence, we now have to see what effect dialogue has,” she said.
Brian Stout, president of OutRage, a campus-wide organization for LGBT people at Syracuse University, said it is just not the medium that contributes to stereotyping.
“It is one thing to put the image out there and another to buy into those images. I think that straight people need to recognize that all LGBT people are not what the media portrays. They need to rethink. Our lives are unfortunately not that glamorous. Everyone has multiple extensions to them,” he said.
Another image that most often affect relationships between straight men and gay people is that the latter are promiscuous and do not believe in committed relationships.
Anand K. Jain, a graduate student at Maxwell School, Syracuse University, said after he met Batson, he felt he had misjudged gay people.
“I would hang out with you Roger. I mean it,” he said to Batson at a common friend’s house.
Jain always thought that gay people were all about sex and he dreaded going to gay bars in case he got hit on by people there.
Joe Carpenter, editor of All For One, a LGBT newsletter, and former editor of The Pink Paper, said it is difficult to propose a solution to the issue of stereotyping.
“When I was younger, it (stereotyping) angered me. Now I have become immune to it,” he said. “But people should challenge these images when they see them. And gay people should go out and live their lives. This will show them as real people to others.”
Romine feels that things are changing for the better and there are shows where LGBT characters are shown as leading normal lives. And this is especially true of the cable television, he said.
“Cable and reality television continue to present more diverse and realistic portrayals of the LGBT community, as well as gay and lesbian people of color. These characters face real-life issues concerning our community, such as marriage, parenting, workplace discrimination and religion,” he said. “This leads to richer, more diverse representations – the kinds of images that help Americans understand and embrace their LGBT family members, friends and neighbors in a more meaningful way.”