Out has published a long rant from novelist and occasional Internet provocateur Bret Easton Ellis that covers at length the following subjects: Jason Collins, the former NBA player who came out as gay two weeks ago with a controversial Sports Illustrated cover story, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the organization’s annual media awards, openly gay actor Matt Bomer, a defense of AIDS jokes, and the phenomenon he calls “the Gay Man as the Magical Elf.” Strap in folks, because there’s a lot to parse in this nearly 3,500-word screed in which Ellis places himself at the heart of a great debate about the nature of today’s gay man — a topic on which the writer seems to play both sides.
First things first: Bret Easton Ellis has a lot of important things to say here. In response to Jason Collins, Ellis argues that the media brouhaha surrounding the athlete’s public coming out infantilized not just Collins but gay men worldwide. On the one hand, there’s the notion that Collins is a hero for being public about his sexual orientation; there have been plenty others (more conservative critics, of course) who seem to dispute Collins’ hero status. Ellis criticizes the conventional coming-out media narrative for being just as patronizing as it is empowering. “The straight and gay sanctimoniousness that says everyone gay needs to be canonized when coming out still makes some of us who are already out feel like we’re on the sidelines,” Ellis writes. “God help the gay man who comes out and doesn’t want to represent, who doesn’t want to teach, who doesn’t feel like part of the homogenized gay culture and rejects it. Where’s the gay dude who makes crude jokes about other gays in the media (as straight dudes do of each other constantly) or express their hopelessness in seeing Modern Family being rewarded for its depiction of gays, a show where a heterosexual plays the most simpering ka-ween on TV and Wins. Emmys. For. It?” (I’ll note here that after years of refusing to identify himself as gay or straight, Ellis finally self-identified as a gay man in a sentence buried in a Daily Beast op-ed about Kathryn Bigelow’s sexual allure and its relation to the acceptance of her directing abilities last year, and he has already started complaining that there aren’t enough people on TV that represent him.)
Already, Ellis is getting too touchy about the concept of the out gay man: not every gay man has to teach or represent anything. There is, of course, a great power (and responsibility, depending on whether you read Spider-Man) that comes with being a celebrity: it means people want to pay attention to you. This is something that Ellis knows firsthand; after all, he’s getting the chance to express his ideas about what it means to be openly gay to a very wide audience (even if it’s in Out, a magazine and website marketed to gay men of a very specific demographic). No one has any obligation to teach any lessons, and no one has any obligation to come out and put his or her sexual orientation on the public stage. It’s complicated, though, because the gay community wants gay actors to come out. The straight community does, too; outing is good for the tabloid press, after all. I think it’s fine if a famous person wants to keep their private life private, but one must have the expectation that being famous also means that many, many strangers will want to know more about you personally.
There’s a lot of good that comes out of Jason Collins’ Sports Illustrated cover; suddenly, Collins is a role model to a new group of people. (The same thing could be said for Luke Evans, who has moved backward into the closet as he has gained more Hollywood prominence.) That’s the stance that GLAAD wishes to focus on, and since Ellis finds it borderline repulsive, he quickly shifts to make GLAAD the target of his ire. Ellis recounts how he was disinvited to this year’s GLAAD Media Awards for his outspokenness (mostly on Twitter) about the state of gay culture. “GLAAD was at the red-hot center of creating The Gay Man as Magical Elf in the culture and often awarded the stereotypes parading around in embarrassing queer movies and degrading retro sitcoms as simply ‘gay positive’ because they were, um, gay, and conveniently disregarded the fact that there is a silent majority of gay men who actively loathe and resist the caricatures on display,” Ellis writes.
It’s true: GLAAD is incredibly humorless and insipid, and sometimes is so obviously demanding the attention of those who have never prioritized the interests of the LGBT community. (Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law, and Brett Ratner, who famously said “Rehearsing is for fags,” were both honored by GLAAD this year.) And while GLAAD typically favors the lowest common denominator of gay media (such as this full-page advertorial for Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal, which was recently canceled, along with pretty much every other network show that featured a gay character in a leading role), it regularly ignores the more thought-provoking, realistic depictions of the LGBT community in media.
Ellis continues, switching gears to play victim against the mainstream gay agenda of quashing any criticism of, well, the mainstream gay agenda. He defends his argument that Matt Bomer’s homosexuality should prevent him from playing the lead in the 50 Shades of Grey film (“A key exchange in the first section of the book is Anastasia’s open questioning of Christian’s sexuality and his insulted denials — with Bomer in the role it becomes a very META scene,” Ellis writes, proving that a 140-chararacter limit also limits the chances of making thoughtful, nuanced arguments about the role an actor’s sexuality plays in the believability of his performance), and then goes on to defend his use of AIDS humor. “The fact is that my HIV-positive gay friends make gallows jokes about HIV and AIDS all the time,” he says, in a very but-I-have-black-friends-so-I-can’t-be-racist sort of way, “which helps them remove any moralistic stigma surrounding the disease and the black humor is a coping mechanism.” While, sure, Ellis is allowed to tweet that Glee gives him “the hivs,” it’s one of those cases where just because you can doesn’t mean you should. (See also: a male stand-up comedian who makes a rape joke in which the butt of the joke is the rape victim. Ellis is doing the same thing here, even if he tries to analyze it otherwise. He’s still equating those who deal firsthand with HIV/AIDS with Glee, which is pretty unfortunate.)
While Ellis has a lot of valid points about those in power (a phrase that could certainly be surrounded by scare quotes) and how they determine what is moral and good within the LGBT community, he’s also sadly missing the larger picture. The rage on display here — a variety that is so commonly dubbed as “self-loathing,” which is a phrase for which I share Ellis’ disdain — reads like that of a 20-something gay man who is figuring out for the first time that even a minority community has a majority within it, and it’s tough to be marginalized by both the mainstream and the minority culture to which one belongs.
But that is what it means to be a part of the LGBT community: when Bret Easton Ellis puts the “homogenized” gay male community on blast, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that he is a part of that community, and one which has it a lot easier than, say, the transgender community or the various minority ethnic groups under the very wide, very diverse LGBT umbrella. He may be lamenting the loss of Happy Endings’ Max Blum, but he still needs to recognize that, while the canceled sitcom’s character was the least stereotypical gay man on television, he was still a gay white man. Little progress has been made to render visible the other people who make up the LGBT community. Ellis may be right that GLAAD is not necessarily the go-to organization to represent the larger community, but there are still groups within that community that are in dire need of teachers and role models, even if he has no personal interest in either position.