I’m still uncertain whether or not reality shows have done a disservice to the queer community. Sure, it’s great to see lesbians on The Amazing Race and transsexual Alexis Arquette participating alongside Florence Henderson (aka Mrs Brady) on Big Brother, but I can’t help but wonder whether shows like American and Canadian Idol don’t exploit all those effeminate gay men in an unequal manner.
Gays who can sing well tend to transcend their gayness. Gays who walk on stage with their lispy, off-key tributes to Britney and Christina and Mariah don’t have that protection and, consequently, their sexuality gets tied into the audience’s ridicule. It’s almost as if the audience revels in the fact that these guys don’t realize that their male voice can’t sing as high as their female idols. Unlike Benny Hill or Flip Wilson or even Eddie Murphy where the cross dressing and gender bending can hide under the guise of a fictional character, the Idol competitions leave contestants exposed. It’s hard to hide from reality.
On the rare occasion that a male contestant does have the falsetto to actually sing like a power-diva, he gets ridiculed for singing like a woman.
This doesn’t seem to be as much of a challenge for female contestants, though. True, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a full-on butch compete in one of these contests. Still, the out lesbian on an earlier season of America’s Next Top Model, or a woman who can sing in low ranges, or a woman who looks androgynous in a pretty way, tends to have these aspects celebrated. Femmes and handsome ladies can pass, butches need not apply — though something tells me they’re so turned off by the pageantry that many wouldn’t bother to participate. Or is it that producers never let the butches on camera? Hmmm, I’ll need to consider that further.
For many years I’ve found myself protective of the obviously gay contestants. Some folks may argue that the fact that I can identify with queenish characteristics signifies some internalized homophobia and that I might be projecting the discomfort of my own effeminate qualities onto the contestants. I think it’s more about knowing, first hand, the repercussions of letting gayness slip unchecked into speech and manner. At this time in my life, I’ve learned to use these attributes as a positive. Seventeen-year-olds from small towns may not always have had the opportunity to discover themselves yet.
It wasn’t until I started to go through old clips from all the Idol incarnations on YouTube that I realized just how much ridicule and hatred gets thrust onto the gay male contestants — or contestants who may be perceived as gay. Apart from the hate-filled graffiti on bathroom stall walls, I’ve never seen so many homophobic comments. Contestants aren’t just branded as bad singers, they’re “faggots who can’t sing.”
While I love how reality television affirms that gay folks exist in all walks of life and gives visibility when for so many years we were erased and invisible, I still harbour some uneasiness about being invited to the party simply as a butt of the joke. Does anyone else out there share my belief? I’d love to know what you think.