As a queer person on the internet in the age of Trump, I’ve noticed something… interesting: Comedians really like to joke about Mike Pence being secretly gay. I’ll admit, the first time I saw someone say it, I laughed, thinking how crazy it would be for a man so openly homophobic to be sneaking around with other men. It’s a direct affront to his values! He’s only oppressing himself! Funny.
But then, I started to see the same jokes about Trump, particularly in response to his confusing dynamic with Putin. After seeing so many regurgitations of this same idea, the trend of making this particular type of joke has become increasingly cringe-inducing. These gags aimed at embarrassing conservatives rely on an “attack” on their sexuality—but instead of humiliating the person who is supposed to be the "butt" of the joke, it ends up making fun of gayness. The fact that so many of these jokes are made by liberal comedians, whose professed politics are LGBTQ+ inclusive, starkly contradicts their ideology and likely the ideology of the people who find them funny. And yet they still make the jokes, and we still laugh.
It’s probable that the comedians who make these jokes don’t actually mean for them to be homophobic. Often, people with privilege don’t realize that what they’re saying can have a negative impact on people who do not have the same social standing as them. Rhea Butcher, a queer comedian living and working in Los Angeles, says, “I think that we as white people think,
Oh I’m very woke, so I don’t mean it that way
.” But with regard to a joke about someone being closeted, those words and the action of repressing one's identity are actually steeped in an oppressive history. Queer people have long had to hide their identities in order to survive in a heteronormative world as a direct result of an imbalance of power which favors straightness. Homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, or ageist language—even if it was not the intention—evokes the imbalanced power structures within our culture. Says Butcher, “I think it’s very easy for white people—not just straight white dudes, but white people regardless of any other cultural signifier that person has—it’s very easy to forget that they’re not a neutral party to this.”
Another thing that is easy to forget is that everyone reading a tweet or sitting in an audience does not share the same mindset as the comedian. Cameron Esposito, another queer comedian and Butcher’s wife, says, “One thing that I have found true in my career is that stand-ups default the same way that we all default—even me, a queer person—into assuming the folks around us are straight.” With the dominant mindset being “straight until proven otherwise,” comedians joke about queerness as if everyone in the audience is also straight, and as if they have not actually dealt with oppression for their sexuality. When talking about the trend of these jokes in the industry as a whole (not any individual comedian), both Butcher and Esposito point out that being called “gay” or the “f” slur can be considered a collective experience. Yet for straight cisgendered people, being called those words is much different. “I understand that a cisgendered straight dude who got called a slur as a kid, I get that that would suck. But a lot of times it is communicated to a straight audience as if the people in the audience also were called that from a position of distance,” says Esposito, referencing the use of the “f” slur. “I think it really denies the fact that there are people in the audience who are called that word still because that’s what they actually are. And that it’s also a word… that is the last thing that people hear when they’re beaten to death. It’s really serious.” Jokes about queerness being made without considering the queer community are bound to be a problem.
When straight comedians make a joke about someone being closeted, too, this evokes a kind of experience that they have not had to deal with, and so personally do not understand. Being a closeted queer person is very difficult, and stems from identity repression and fear of acceptance in society. It is a direct response to the systemic oppression of gay people, which is still happening today even if it’s not as blatant as it once was. Butcher points out that the conservative politicians, that these jokes are typically hurled at, “are actively destroying the civil rights of this community on a daily basis, and to use homoeroticism as a weapon against them is weaponizing a community that is already weaponized in their daily life.” It also shifts the blame from the straight community to the queer community and forces them to be held accountable for the people making these jokes in the first place. By saying that Pence is homophobic because he is a closeted gay man, the joke actually places him in the community that he is actively discriminating against. This means the LGBTQ+ community becomes the responsible party, which is more work than is possible for us to deal with. “I think it’s hard for a marginalized community to bear the full burden of correcting a community that’s in power,” says Esposito. “He’s publicly identifying as straight, so that’s your guy.”
Another troubling instance of homophobic jokes which are so often used are jokes that mock a man for being a “bottom,” which implies not only that they are gay, but also that they are submissive. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that this type of joke plays into dominant gender roles. Assuming that a man has to be in power at all times in order to be masculine is simply untrue, but a widely held understanding of masculinity. Any attempt to diminish a man’s power and control is emasculating. What is lacking in these particular instances is a basic understanding of gay sexuality, and possibly even sexuality in general. If it is impossible for one to understand sex as an act in which everyone involved is in control, then maybe they are (even subconsciously) relying on a sexist definition of sex. “If you’re using a marginalized group of people to take down the oppressor that is marginalizing them, how much power is that actually wielding? Because ultimately, you’re laughing at gayness,” says Butcher. “You’re not really dismantling power, you’re actually reinforcing power dynamics that have existed for decades if not centuries.”
It’s not about being offensive, Esposito says, it’s about taking perspective into account. “I would love to separate this conversation from the idea of ‘people are offended,’ or, ‘I am taking offense.’ Because I think once we get into that zone… that’s very easy to write off.” The outrage culture that is fueled by the internet makes it difficult to engage with differing points of view because we are more quick to come to our own defense than we are to hear each other out. The word “offensive” is one that triggers this reaction, especially within comedy. Esposito says, “Comedy is subjective, some things are going to offend people all the time.” The difference here is that the identity being joked about is simultaneously accepted and discriminated against, depending on where you live or who you are. Gay people may be able to get married, but we might not be able to get a wedding cake and we might even get fired from our jobs. So, as Butcher points out, “we don’t want to be laughed at right now.”
The best way to stop these jokes from being used so often is, ultimately, for the people making them to take their audience and the queer community into consideration and to listen when we say that they're not funny. “I would think, as a comic, that you would want to get so good at comedy that nobody is an easy punchline,” Esposito says. “Wouldn’t you rather be at the forefront of changing the conversation? I mean, think about who we respect in our field. It’s the folks who were taking the next step.” Instead of falling back on a joke that is outdated and overused, it would be so much more powerful to riff on power in a way that did not imply an entire sexuality is based in power imbalance. The issue is not the comedians, however; it's about the culture that we all live in, in which these jokes are still considered funny to a large number of people. And to stop thinking this particular brand of humor is funny, a little perspective taking is involved. "You have to listen," says Butcher. "Especially if you're an ally, that means you're not part of the community you're tying yourself to."
Listening to marginalized communities means making an attempt to understand the history and context of the language being used. “I don’t want to be a wet blanket who’s jumping into my friend’s mentions and just scolding them all the time,” Butcher says of their complicated relationship with their peers. “I’m not policing language. I’m actually saying, ‘What do these words mean that you’re using?’” Actually understanding the history and culture of the LGBTQ+ community is vital in order to make a joke that doesn’t receive backlash from us. And of course, none of us are innocent of misunderstanding a culture we’re not a part of, which is why the comedians who make these homophobic jokes are not and should not be blacklisted from the industry. Time changes, cultures evolve, and what we once found funny becomes outdated. The best way to move our culture forward is to encourage open dialogue and understanding.
Ultimately, these jokes misunderstand what being gay actually is, and in doing so, they perpetuate a false sense of gayness. The issue with projecting homosexuality onto conservative men, or powerful men in general, is that instead of bashing their abuse of power, they are bashing the gay identity. “It’s about men wanting to exclude everyone else and control everything, and that’s not queerness,” Butcher says. “That’s privilege, that’s power, that’s dominance.”