Sunday, March 28, 2010

Anti-anti-gay talk?

There have been classes that I loved teaching despite the students in them. I have clung desperately to my own interest in the material to carry me to the calm and gentle waters of the semester’s end – or at least dumped me on its sands. In such situations, StraightMan and I have come home and told each other: “If only the students would get out of the way of my teaching…”

Sometimes, however, the stars and the planets align: This semester, I am teaching a class on linguistic anthropology. This is the class that I spend all of my time obsessively preparing because I’m lovin’ it.

The students in linguistic anthropology seem to like to talk about talk. They also have a lot to say. I think this is in no small part due to the fact that they want, even need, meaningful opportunities to reflect on the importance of ordinary behaviors – which is part of “popularizing” anthropology.

Last Friday, we talked about the use of the phrase: “No homo.”

Students in my class explained that “no homo” becomes attached to guys’ comments, like compliments, to each other. As in: “Nice shirt.” A pause. Then: “No homo.”

The Wiki on “no homo”
traces the origins of this phrase to hip hop music, in which “it parenthetically asserts that the (male) speaker is not a man who has sex with men, whether identified as gay or otherwise, after an utterance that might give that impression.”

Wikipedia also notes: “A parallel term is ‘pause’, which has the same meaning and is often used by Jay-Z, among others.”

Is this just a joke, as some students in my class claimed? Or is it an example either of undisguised gay bashing or of homophobia veiled as humor, as other students suggested?

Both the phrase itself and the extent to which it apparently is used were news to me. I still recoil when I hear students say "that's so gay," which I recall from my own high school days. So, as a college professor today, I have been surprised to hear "that's so gay" used so blithely and so often. (For the sake of being able to situate me, you could call me a Gen Xer.) I remember, in college, having a gay friend call to my attention how thoughtless and careless it was for me to use "that's so gay" as a way to say "that's so stupid."

A generous reading of the use of phrases like “no homo” and “that’s so gay” among college students today is that it is “ironic” – that is, it can be just a joke or it can be an intentional and in-your-face playing on expectations and pushing of boundaries. In this reading, “no homo” is not quite the same as gays and lesbians reclaiming “queer” for themselves, but it shares a certain sensibility, especially when we take seriously the language ideology of hip hop, from which “no homo” has been adopted, as a form of “speaking truth to power.” If opinion polls can be trusted to tell us something about what people think and believe, and if support for gay marriage can be read as some kind of marker of at least recognizing the rights and humanity of gays and lesbians, then my students belong to the generation of Americans who could make a claim for being “post-hate.” I can see the possibility, then, that my students could argue that “no homo” is anti-anti-gay.


During the discussion, I suggested comparisons between the use of “no homo” and Mock Spanish, which I discussed in an earlier post. If “no homo” is intended to be just a joke, then like Mock Spanish, “getting it” depends on what linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill called “instant, unreflecting access to a cultural model” that carries a “negative residue of meaning.” In this case, getting the joke means accessing a cultural model of gay men - and accessing a cultural model of gay men also means accessing cultural models about gender, sex, and sexuality more generally.

This discussion of “no homo” emerged from consideration of Deborah Cameron’s “Performing Gender Identity: Young Men’s Talk and the Construction of Heterosexual Masculinity” (1997), which describes Cameron’s re-reading of a male college student’s paper about “men’s talk.” My students agreed with Cameron that “gay” talk (like “no homo” or “that’s so gay”) is not uncommon in conversations among male college students.

The talk is not so much about “actual” gays or gayness, but guys (i.e., other male college students) “being gay” – or in Cameron’s words, “failing to measure up to the group’s standards of masculinity or femininity.” For example, she considers why a group of male college students described another individual as “being gay” based on their observation of his continual “hitting on” a particular woman – whom they also evaluated in extremely uncomplimentary terms. “I think this is because the deviance indicated for this group by the term ‘ gay’ is not so much sexual deviance,” Cameron writes, “as gender deviance.”

So, another reading of “no homo” is this: When male college students remark on a nice shirt or a new haircut or so on, their own understanding of why they then might add, “No homo,” is not necessarily that they are disavowing their comments as “hitting on” other guys – that is, they do not fear being misrecognized as “actually” gay. Instead, they are calling attention to the fact that they know, as guys, that they are not supposed to care or notice, let alone comment upon, shirts and haircuts. In general, caring, noticing, and commenting are not masculine behaviors.

In addition, I think it is telling that the examples that my students used were compliments about shirts and haircuts, which are seen as particularly “gay” concerns.

"Gay" talk, then, is not only about gay men in "actuality," but about sex and sexuality more generally. That is, the use of "no homo" seems to be about talk that might be charged with the possibility of sexual meaning. It is not just that men today are not supposed to care or notice physical appearance or attractiveness in other men, but that they also are not supposed to comment on women's shirts, haircuts, and so on - lest they themselves become labeled as lecherous and / or their compliments become construed as harassment.

Of course, uttering "no homo" also allows "actual" lechery and harassment to continue, but masquerading as sarcasm, even wit - and the joke is on the person who apparently does not have enough of a sense of humor to laugh at it.

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