Gay author questions benefits of LGBT visibility

A recent study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found the number of gay and bisexual characters on prime-time network TV is up slightly this season, but Dr. William C. Harris is probably in no hurry to break out the champagne.

The out author and associate professor and chair of English at Shippensburg University addresses the pitfalls of increased LGBT visibility in politics and media in his new book, “Queer Externalities: Hazardous Encounters in American Culture.”

Harris described his latest book as an “accessible, but also theoretically grounded, queer-studies discussion,” and said he was inspired to write the book by the media coverage the gay and lesbian culture receives.

“Initially, it was individual events like ‘Brokeback [Mountain]’ or ‘Queer Eye’ and the public debate they generated both in the mainstream and the gay press,” he said. “My ideas were generated by how I felt that those two pieces were being misperceived by the coverage and analysis. There was this euphoria over ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ I ended up taking more of a contrarian’s view.”

Part of Harris’ view argues that the “mainstreaming” of queer lives in politics, television and movies has just as many negative effects on LGBT individuals as it does positive.

“I think ‘Brokeback Mountain’ made a lot of people feel good,” he explained. “‘Milk’ is a historical piece, but with ‘Brokeback’ I read a review that said it was a sad story but they couldn’t imagine it ending any other way. I know it starts in the 1960s, but it felt like a lack of possibility. It was just the failure to discuss what’s being represented about gay life. The conversation wasn’t as full as it could have been.”

Not that Harris is saying gays and lesbians being active in the media and politics doesn’t have its merits. But he does think there’s too much rejoicing over visibility and not enough serious examination about what the terms of the representation are.

“The degree to which gays and lesbians are culturally versus politically accepted can vary widely over time, geography and issue by issue,” he said. “Being accepted one way, or in one moment, doesn’t guarantee being accepted in the other. And I think that goes both ways. Part of my argument in the book is that cultural acceptance does not of necessity translate into political clout. ‘Will & Grace’ doesn’t make for gay marriage, for example. But the failure to carry over can go the other way too: Political victories, which have been significant but also faced significant opposition and reverses, don’t necessarily mean cultural acceptance. I think this is something other minorities who have achieved political equality would understand quite well. Social and cultural equality can lag or be at odds with being ‘technically’ equal, equal under the law.”

Harris added that even in apparently tolerant environments, “heteronormativity” and homophobia can still rear their ugly heads, often unconsciously.

“Not that we should give up fighting the good fight against homophobia, but it has to be admitted that, despite how far we’ve come in many regards in public climate and the generational shift we keep hearing about, toward greater tolerance, homophobia still crops up in significant ways,” he said. “And it still wields some force. It still gets heard. And certainly we could argue that few people take it seriously. But it still is aiming for, if not reaching, some audience. And not dismissing it as just a few crackpots fails to get at the fact that outrageously, violently homophobic statements still get face time; are still, even if dismissed, framed as someone or some group’s beliefs even if we find the homophobic thread of their beliefs repulsive or ridiculous. My emphasis in the book isn’t just on the obvious instances of homophobia but also the subtler, heteronormative impulses to marginalize, which is why cultural artifacts from ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ and coverage of gay Republican scandals to queer young-adult novels deserve careful study and considered discussion.”

Harris will host a reading at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 15 at Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th St. For more information, call (215) 923-2960.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].