Examining Gender Roles of Gay Men and Lesbian Women

by Stacy Haerr

After living in Baker Hall West (dubbed OSU’s “Arts Dorm”), I’ve come in contact and become best friends with many people in the LGBTQ community. When people think of gay men and lesbian women, they stereotypically think of flamboyant, feminine men and butch, masculine women. While these stereotypes fit some gay men and lesbian women, many do not. Pop culture is also picking up on these less stereotypical gender/sexuality roles of the LGBTQ community, and these are showing up on television more and more. Because these roles are becoming more visible on television, viewers get to see and identify with these characters every week, more often than with movies or music videos, and this reveals that not all LGBTQ characters fit their stereotypical gender/sexuality roles.


Two Pictures of Neil Patrick Harris

Guess what? This is the same man. The first is Neil Patrick Harris’s straight, hypermasculine character Barney Stinson on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother. The second is Neil Patrick Harris in real life, accompanied by his partner and twins children, Harper and Gideon. A friend of mine recently attended a conference where the speaker remarked that he couldn’t believe Harris portrayed such a sex-crazed, masculine character so well because he was gay. Okay, this is not only offensive, but it is also completely idiotic. Essentially, this speaker is saying that Harris can’t even act like a man because of his sexuality. In the speaker’s mind, homosexual men are supposed to be flamboyant and fashionable and overall simply less of a man, and many people in America share this view. In his personal life, Harris might be this type of man, but Judith Butler hits the nail on the head when she says, “we occupy, reverse, resignify to the extent that the norm fails to determine us completely” (127). These two pictures show one man. One picture shows Harris with his lover and children; the second features a quote from the Barney Stinson, a character that flips Harris’s gay stereotypes on his head.  Harris is a perfect example of the kind of reversal of stereotypes that keeps his sexuality from defining him as a man and as an actor. In fact, it is possible that Harris portrays the stereotypical heterosexual male just as well as if not better than the rest of the actors in Hollywood… And that’s apparently saying something since, psst, heads up, he’s gay.

Heavy In Your Arms – Glee (Kurt/Dave)

It is one thing to be a gay actor playing a straight television character, but it is another for a gay character to pretend he is straight. This is a struggle that many real people face every day. This fan video follows Dave, a hypermasculine teenage character on Glee and his struggle between his heterosexual masculine role and his homosexuality. It is clear that Dave struggles between the two; he is a masculine football player, so he can’t be gay… right? He has to be a real man to play football and rule the school. However, Butler claims “This ‘being a man’ and this ‘being a woman’ are internally unstable affairs. They are always beset by ambivalence precisely because there is a cost in every identification” (126). His internal conflict over his sexual identity turns his world upside down. He believes that if he announces his homosexuality, he will lose the sports-playing, bullying, masculine identity that he so carefully crafted for himself. It doesn’t matter to him that he is homosexual, because he can keep denying it. But once the truth is revealed, it is possible that he will lose his identification as a man.

What Dave does not realize is that he doesn’t have to become a flashy, Prada-wearing openly gay man like Kurt. He can still love playing football, work out, and do many of the stereotypical heterosexual male things. However, he is right when he believes he will be publicly chastised, especially by his teammates as seen in the later part of the video. When Dave does come out on Glee, he faces “the loss of some other identification” (a heterosexual, masculine male) and “the forcible approximation of a norm [he] never chooses” (a homosexual, feminine male) (Butler 126).  Dave assumes that because of his sexuality, he will have to become a feminine man. But no matter whether he keeps his sexuality hidden or share it with people, he can still be a masculine man. His actions can be whatever he wants.

Adam Lambert – For Your Entertainment (AMA 2009)

However, homosexual men are still going to be labeled as feminine by the ignorant people of the world no matter how they act. Adam Lambert takes this label and twists it into a raunchy, provocative performance on the 2009 American Music Awards. Typically, most male rock artists use only female back up dancers, but Lambert includes many male dancers as well. At the time this aired on live television, Lambert had not announced that he was gay, which was part of the reason why this performance was so shocking to the public. bell hooks quotes Marilyn Frye in her article “is paris burning?”: “One of the things that persuades the straight world that gay men are not really men is the effeminacy of style of some gay men… which [is] associated in the popular mind with male homosexuality” (148). Lambert might have done a handful of effeminate things during his performance, like kissing a man, but he also spends the better part of his performance dominating both the men and the women on the stage. Usually dominance is associated with strong, powerful, heterosexual men while submission is for pretty much everyone else. So if Lambert is gay, why is he the one fulfilling the dominant male role? Because he refuses to let the stereotypes of gay men define him. It is likely that he realizes that his sexuality is only one component of who he is, and he wanted to share many aspects of himself with the viewers in this performance.

Orange Is the New Black – Piper and Alex Scenes 1

(This analysis specifically the section of this video 0:14-2:25.)

Until recently, most homosexual characters on television were stereotypical. This clip from “Orange Is the New Black” is excellent because displays two lesbians: Alex, the more stereotypical lesbian, a bit butch and fulfilling the masculine role in the relationship, and Piper, still demonstrating her femininity despite her homosexuality. The gaze plays a very important role in demonstrating the gender roles of both heterosexual and homosexual women in this clip. The beginning of this scene is specifically shot so Piper can dance around in her underwear trying to be sexy, but the audience doesn’t realize that she is dancing for another woman. Naturally, the viewers assume that Piper is dancing for her heterosexual fiancé Larry. She is embracing this feminine role of the sexy, scantily clad dancer. Once the camera angle reveals for whom Piper is dancing, the audience realizes her partner is Alex, a woman (who has a name that is stereotypically male, another interesting production detail that plays into the stereotypical lesbian gender role). The audience sees Alex just staring at Piper while she dances, and Alex is clearly indulging in scopophilia, which is usually a male pleasure (Mulvey 59). Just by watching her girlfriend dance, Alex is not only gaining erotic pleasure, but she finds a way to turn her gaze into a manipulative, controlling tool to get Piper to help her with her drug ring. This scene could have been in any other television show with Alex played by a man, and it could’ve been the exact same scene. However, because Alex is a woman, this scene both reinforces the butch, masculine lesbian role, but it also undermines this stereotype because Piper is still feminine and manipulable like any other heterosexual woman.

GLEE – Mine (Full Performance) (Official Music Video)

This clip poses an interesting oppositional reading of Taylor Swift’s “Mine.” Swift wrote the song as a tribute to one of her various crushes, but Santana uses this song to tell Brittany how much she loved her right before the couple broke up  (“Mine (song)”).  This clip takes a song written by a heterosexual woman about her male crush and flips it on its head when a lesbian character sings it to her girlfriend on Glee. Santana’s character in general because not only is she a lesbian, but she is also the stereotypical Latina sassy spitfire. Latinas are usually viewed as sexy and sex-crazed, but Santana’s sexuality takes the implied heterosexuality out of sex-crazed. In addition to this, she shows her vulnerable side, an aspect of her personality that most people don’t attribute to Latinas or lesbians. Marlon Riggs suggests that drag queens have “a desire, a very visceral need to be loved, as well as a sense of the abject loneliness of life where nobody loves you” (hooks 156). However, I think this applies to the entire LGBTQ community. These people have friends and allies, but many people, especially in America, think that homosexuals aren’t worth their love because of their sexuality. In this clip, Santana gets to be that vulnerable woman who just wants to be loved. This song is a thank you to Brittany for loving Santana the way she did, and it is clear that Santana’s heart is breaking because she has to break up with her lover. I’m sure that wasn’t the meaning that Taylor Swift implied when she wrote the song, but everyone can interpret a song differently. So the producers of Glee took a song with a heterosexual meaning, had a homosexual character sing it to her girlfriend, and created a beautiful, non-stereotypical moment.

Together, these five artifacts demonstrate the life of a member of the LGBTQ community. It starts at the end with Neil Patrick Harris, showing how successful he has become despite his sexuality. Then it flashes back to Dave’s struggle with his sexuality, including his initial ‘coming out of the closet’ and the difficulties that accompany that announcement. Then we see Adam Lambert, a man completely comfortable flaunting every aspect of his sexuality. Moving to Piper and Alex, we see a couple in the throes of love, and the playlist ends with Santana singing Taylor Swift before breaking up with her girlfriend.
So how do these clips and pictures make one playlist? They all feature gay men or lesbian women, but is that it?
Nope. These artifacts show that the stereotypical gender roles attributed to gay men and lesbian women don’t always apply.  Richard Dyer states “It is true that such identities are never really as comprehensive as they claim” (“Introduction” 3). A person’s sexuality does not have to define him/her, just like a person doesn’t have to be defined by race, gender, or class. The stereotypes attributed with a certain sexuality may apply to some people, but not others. Take a look at Adam Lambert. In some aspects, he fits the stereotypical effeminate homosexual stereotype; however, as I pointed out earlier, he clearly fulfills the strong, dominant role typically associated with heterosexual men. Another example: Piper is a lesbian, but she is still as feminine and sexy as any heterosexual woman.
Dyer later claims “the most important function of the stereotype [is] to maintain sharp boundary definitions, to define clearly where the pale ends and thus who is clearly within and who clearly beyond it” (“The Role of Stereotypes” 16). These lines are drawn to keep heterosexuals on a pedestal while demeaning homosexuals. These stigmas cause the identification with homosexuality incredibly challenging, because people, like Dave, don’t want to be seen as less of a man or less of a woman. Only recently have gay characters become common and gay actors become more visible in pop culture. These figures give the LGBTQ community stars with whom they can identify, which has made the process of coming out both easier and harder. People who wrestle with their sexuality can now find idols who have conquered the hurdle of coming out, but because these LGBTQ idols are so visible, the social stigmas and negative connotations of being homosexual are more harmful than ever.
Dyer smartly states “How we are seen determines in part how we are treated” (“Introduction” 1). No matter how much a person denies the gender stereotypes of sexuality, s/he will still be treated like an inferior by ignorant heterosexuals. However, a gay man or a lesbian woman can still embrace the heterosexual gender roles in the privacy of their own home, like Piper and Alex, or s/he can share those gender roles somewhere as public as television, like Neil Patrick Harris. While this public display of manhood/womanhood won’t necessarily change the minds of the most stubborn individuals, it can alter the thinking of the more open-minded.  The more minds that forget that lesbian women are supposed to be butch or that gay men are supposed to be effeminate, the more main stream this thought process will become, and the high amount of bullying that members LGBTQ community will be subjected to.
To sum up this up, a person’s sexuality does not give him/her a designated gender role. Gay men do not have to be feminine, and lesbian women do not have to be masculine. Everyone can embody whatever gender roles they please, because gender roles should be completely separate from sexuality. These five artifacts show that gay and lesbian gender role stereotypes are not always true, and they should not be labeled with such harmful stereotypes.

“Barney Stinson Quotes – 3.” AgentFunny. N.p, n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

Being part of something special, makes you special! . “GLEE – Mine (Full Performance) (Official Music Video).” YouTube. 24 July 2013. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

Butler, Judith. “Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion.” Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex” New York: Routledge, 1993. 81-98. Print.

Cliforever. “Adam Lambert – For Your Entertainment (AMA 2009).” YouTube. 29 Dec. 2009. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

Dyer, Richard. “Introduction.” The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. New York: Routledge, 1993. 1-5. Print.

—. “The role of stereotypes.” The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. New York: Routledge, 1993. 11-18. Print.

hooks, bell. “Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End, 1992. 145-56. Print.

Jocelyn. “Neil Patrick Harris and Family.” Photograph. In Case You Didn’t Know. N.p., 30 Dec. 2010. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

Lasplx. “Heavy In Your Arms – Glee (Kurt/Dave).” YouTube. 25 May 2011. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

“Mine (song).” Wikipedia. N.p, n.d.  Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Amelia Jones. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2010. 57-65.

SkylarGirl. “Orange Is the New Black – Piper and Alex Scenes 1.” Vimeo. 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

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