The Problem with Stereotypes


In her remarkable TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie commented that, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

As a gay man, or maybe just a man who is gay, I worry about stereotypes, the incompleteness of their single story. I loved Judy Garland, a legendary gay icon, long before I felt any stirrings of same sex desire. How was that possible?

Before I’d even given much thought to the fact that I might be “homosexual” (a much more likely and common label, rather than “gay,” when I was coming of age in the mid-1970’s), I adored all things related to Barbra Streisand.

Every weekend as a young boy, I spent hour after hour in the downtown main branch of the public library, scouring through newspaper clippings and old magazine articles and microfiche about the film The Wizard of Oz.

I joined “The International Wizard of Oz Club” when I was 12 years old.

Instead of studying English, Mathematics, or Geography, every night after dinner I pasted articles about the film in my leather-bound scrapbooks, or wrote reviews of the film for an imaginary newspaper, of which I was its sole writer, editor, and reader.

From my meagre weekly allowance, I purchased every LP that I could find about “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”: several editions of the film's 1939 soundtrack; storybook versions of the novel by L. Frank Baum; even “sing-alongs” with far less talented singers than the illustrious Ms. Garland.

Because the film was shown only once a year on television, and at some point I just could not bring myself to wait another long and dreary year before hearing every magical word and note, I recorded the entire film on my portable Panasonic cassette recorder, then listened to it each night as I drifted off to sleep, the recorder positioned just inches from my ear in bed. My two brothers lying feet away, needless to say, were not impressed.

But for years, “Over the Rainbow” lullaby’d me to sleep, especially after my eldest sister, Kriska, ran away from home. My heart had been broken into unmendable fragments. Listening to the tornado, or the munchkins, or even the Wicked Witch of the West, distracted me from my palpable grief.

The Wizard of Oz became such a focus in my young life that, years after coming of age, I often joked with friends that I wondered if I was gay because I loved The Wizard of Oz, or if I loved The Wizard of Oz because I was gay. I honestly didn’t know anymore. How was it possible that I loved both Barbra and Judy long before I knew that they were gay icons? Sometimes I think that if I’d known, I might have listened to AC/DC, like all the other boys in elementary school, just to see if it would have made a difference.

One of the problems with stereotyping myself as a gay man is, as pointed out by Adichie, it does not tell the complete picture. I love women, and have enjoyed being sexual with women. I cannot, in good faith, however, label myself as “bisexual.” If I am anything at all, the incomplete label of “gay” is likely what I am. At the same time, I do wonder if the very cultural oppression that I’ve encountered in my life against my homosexuality has also, ironically, helped reinforce my self-identifying as “gay.” To the degree by which I’ve felt myself, or at least my sexuality, oppressed, marginalized, or silenced, I have had to push back twice as hard, shout out twice as loud, in order not to let that part of me be killed. Today, as a 52 year old man, I really do think that my same sex desires are innate and healthy, that they make up all of who and what I am as a whole, sane, human being; but I do sometimes think about the fact that, had it not been for the kind of institutionalized homophobia and heteronormativity that I’ve run up against—from the Church and psychiatry, to be exact—I might have “turned out” more, well—not gay. Or maybe I would not have felt such a need to label myself at all, to prove the point of my homosexuality, and would have just enjoyed the freedom, which is my birthright, to explore my sexuality naturally. 

Oppression can kill, and surviving can sometimes mean killing something deep inside of us in order to help another part grow stronger—to survive at all. I have no regrets, but I don’t see the labels of “gay” and “straight” as telling a complete picture. Life is much more complicated, and far less stereotypical.