For gay men, attraction to other men is defined by the nature of our sexuality. Being a part of a community of same-sex attraction doesn’t limit that attraction only to men who share that orientation.
Therefore, it’s unsurprising that straight male celebrities, Hollywood, and even gay media sexualize heterosexual men in ways that pander to gay men. An act known as queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting takes the attractiveness of cisgender heterosexual men, including their masculinity, and dangles it in front of gay audiences like big rainbow carrots. These acts indulging gay men’s sexual desires are viewed as displays of allyship. They are gestures meant to show tolerance of our cultural landscape.
Being a marginalized group of people, seeing men who don’t identify the way that we do mimic our sexuality without shame, but instead with coy interest is meant to be comforting. And because we are often categorized as perverse and deviant, it can feel affirming to have people from outside our community explore some adjacent homosexuality every once in awhile.
Earlier this year, the Golden Globes had a comedic opening with its host Jimmy Fallon. When it came time to spoof La La Land, they made Fallon’s love interest Justin Timberlake, and millions of viewers laughed as two men dancing lovingly together amongst the stars. Now, while this kind of queerbaiting is homophobicas it implies homosexuality is inherently worthy of derisionit is part of a, hopefully, dying tactic.
The thing that many cishet men who engage in queerbaiting fail to realize is that it is a display of marked privilege. Straight men, celebrity or not, who engage in it are able to walk right up to the line where, in their opinion, homosexuality is cute, funny or garners them attention and easily retreat back to their cishet life without taking on any of the dangers.
The comfort cishet men have with this “will they or won’t they?” culture is that gay rights and tolerance are moving at exceptional speed. That’s not to say that homophobia does not exist, but that in just a few generations we’ve watched sexuality and the exploration of it hurdle quickly toward normalization. We’ve moved, in many ways, away from a society where a misplaced glance could cost people their lives to one where now, in many instances, it’s colored like a badge of honor.
The society we live in still focuses heavily on heteronormative constructs and, because of this, we give cishet men the power to leverage our sexuality any way they want to. We’ve been allowing straight people the right to co-opt our identities because they feel entitled to a performative sense of how we navigate the world. They’re allowed to cherry pick what benefits they can at the expense of gay people who are still denied some very basic human rights.
In other minority groups, like the black and latinx communities, seeing people from outside that culture pandering towards them or performatively partaking in their traditions as a sign of allyship is often viewed as disrespectful. Black and latinx communities are wary of others adopting our culture and telling our stories with good reason. Our cultures have been appropriated, whitewashed, and misrepresented by majority cultures for ages.
However, so many gay men eat these lackluster signs of allyship up and, because of that, our LGBTQ media outlets and Hollywood keep using them. By playing to what can be presumed as gay men’s desire for proximity to their heterosexual counterparts and some desperate masculine wish fulfillment, straight men have been able to profit off of our sexuality in the most superficial wayby merely existing. Celebrities like Nick Jonas have profited off of their queerbaiting so much so that Nick was on the cover of OUT magazine’s Pride month issue in 2016. Something unimaginable both then and now.
This queerbait culture readily translates into why the queer stories that get the most recognition within our community, Hollywood, and general society are the ones that are told through straight actors. Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, Dallas Buyers Club, and Milk all feature straight male actors in both the lead and supporting roles of a queer narrative.
Straight men playing gay roles strips the opportunity from gay actors to tell stories they have a personal experience with. And thanks to a neoliberal culture that prizes normalization over individual identity, it is inappropriate for gay men to make heavy weather over the issue. Cishet men are lauded for having sacrificed for their craft, and the LGBTQ community is expected to be grateful for that sacrifice like it’s still 1996. It doesn’t benefit us, it only erases our agency.
The majority of the men who find themselves in these roles aren’t true LGBTQ allies. They take their Oscar and the attention, and they run. This isn’t allyship, it’s people courting the gay culture without digging into the fight. At best, it’s a performative gesture to seem sympathetic to our lives and the dangers that gay men face. At worst, it’s harnessing our identity for box office gains and professional accolades while turning a blind eye to our daily struggles.
Walking half a mile in a gay man’s shoes and then running back to where you started is not allyship. It’s exploitation. We as an LGBTQ community not only deserve better, we should feel comfortable demanding it.
We should not sit by or express gratitude to these men for stepping in and being “brave enough” to profit (both financially and professionally) off of our community’s pain at some perceived lost to their personal dignity while giving us nothing in return.
It is an affront to our own.