Joan Rivers And Gay Boundaries

Posted on November 4, 2014 at 12:45 AM

By Dennis Stone

"Out" editor Aaron Hicklin was in Iceland when the word came that Joan Rivers had died. In his "Editor's Letter" in the most recent issue he says this about the legendary comedian:  "Rivers was brash, loud, crude, and gleefully offensive. She was also a perpetual outsider. Gay men, by and large, loved her because she was so scrupulously anti-establishment, and because she had no boundaries. None. But mostly we loved her because she knew how to laugh at herself."

There are two problems with that assessment. First, a lot of gay men and gay media sites didn't like her all that much - and it was precisely because she DID have no boundaries. And so they were periodically offended by things she said. "How dare she say that" was the tone of much of the commentary on gay sites after she would say something that went past THEIR boundaries. She could make fun of the establishment and conservatives and celebrities. That was the proper way to have no boundaries. But since she truly did have no boundaries, sometimes she'd step on THEIR sensitive toes, offend THEIR sense of what was acceptable.  

Second, the ethos described by Hicklin - "scrupulously anti-establishment," being an outsider, laughing at oneself - has been rigorously abandoned by large segments of the modern gay community, especially those in the public eye such as activists, gay media sites, and the people who comment on those sites. They have themselves created a very real establishment of their own, with rules and assumed sets of "proper" ways to think and see the world. That's where the concept of taking away someone's "gay card" comes from. You either think the appropriate thoughts, have the acceptable interests and viewpoints, or we won't accept you. We'll take your gay card away.

I love Harvey Fierstein, but he's representative of those who would enforce a "one world view" of being gay. I recall him being on a news show prior to the Moscow Olympics. A woman guest before him had expressed - rather intelligently, in my opinion - a viewpoint that a boycott would not be a good idea. Fierstein professed himself sickened that a gay person could hold such a view. There was obviously only one acceptable viewpoint on that issue. Larry Kramer has tried to tell the gay community - in very harsh terms - how they should live their lives and regulate their community. 

This intolerance, this imposition  of boundaries, is perhaps most apparent when it comes to politics. We must all be liberals, we must all be pro-life, we must all be against guns, etc. I hasten to add that I am a lifelong progressive, pro choice and a member of NARAL, and passionately in favor of tough gun control. But these issues - and many others, from taxation to social welfare - really don't have one absolute "right" answer. Our opinions are just that - opinions. There are extremely intelligent people who can and do make logical, cogent arguments contrary to my own opinions. Those people aren't evil, they're not stupid, and it's simply wrong to demonize them or dismiss them without serious consideration. There are at least as many people on my side of the political divide as on the other side who give no actual thought to their viewpoints, who never expose themselves to alternate arguments. 

Joan Rivers ability to laugh at herself has been lost for many of us. About a year ago I wrote a lengthy article about the Comedy Central Roast of James Franco, which many observers found to be homophobic. Oh no, jokes about gay people!  They can't do that!  Make fun all you want of conservatives and religious people and the Kardashians. But you can't make fun of US!  Hmmm....I think we'd be a lot better off if we could follow Joan Rivers' lead and learn to laugh at ourselves. We take ourselves WAY too seriously.

To sum up, let's accept differences of opinion and alternate ways of looking at gay issues. On second thought, no, let's not just accept those differences, let's celebrate them. There is not one right way to be gay. There is not one right way to look at Alec Baldwin, or the issue of boycotts, or "Ender's Game," or politics, or religion, or Stephen Jimenez' book on Matthew Shepard, and on and on. In being anti-establishment let's not build our own repressive establishment. In celebrating our outsider status let's not make outsiders of those who don't conform to our rules of how to be a proper gay. In tearing down society's boundaries let's not build boundaries of our own. And for God's sake, let's be able to laugh at ourselves.

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