Stefano Gabbana has always been a PR car-crash; when he’s not busy downplaying sexual assault or denouncing gay adoption, the designer spends his time creating “mammy” earrings, “slave” sandals and sneakers emblazoned with the #aspirational mantra: “I’m thin and gorgeous!” His latest misstep came just last week, when he shared an Instagram post of a boring, plain black tee printed with the catchy slogan: “I’m Not Gay, I’m A Man.”
This statement is stupid. First of all, it’s weirdly ambiguous – so you don’t want to be labeled according to your sexuality, but you’re happy to wear the marker “man” with pride? Second of all – can you not be both? I’ve always comfortably identified as a gay man, but Gabbana seems to suggest that this identification is literally impossible. Do I have to choose? Is he not a gay man? Is everything we know a lie?
Although heavy-handed, the slogan seems to expand on comments Gabbana made a few weeks ago as part of an Italian TV interview, in which he said the word “gay” was “invented by those who need to label people I don’t want to be identified by my sexual choices.”
Again, there are problems with this statement. Being gay isn’t a sexual choice, nor is it a “lifestyle,” nor is it (at least in the 21st century) a pathology. Rimming is a choice. Being gay, however, is not.
He then expanded the scope of his statement, explaining that he had hoped, as a famous person, to spread “a new culture a culture no longer based on gay rights, but on human rights.” Gabbana finally said he didn’t feel like he wanted to be protected by gay associations because he had done nothing wrong, and that “we are human beings before being gay, heterosexual or bisexual.” These words are more nuanced than the clunky soundbite on that god-awful T-shirt, but there’s still something concerning about the designer being so desperate to distance himself from his sexuality.
We know that no experience is universal. We know that “gay” as a label can reduce us to one-dimensional stereotypes, caricatures. We also know that you can be gay but still be massively homophobic, racist, misogynistic or transphobic. Incidentally, Gabbana himself has proven this on numerous occasions.
But saying that we should live in a world free of labels is at best idealistic and at worst completely delusional. LGBTQ people around the world are still being killed, abused, disowned and persecuted for their sexuality. Even the term “gay” in the context we know it is reactionary; the term gained popularity after activist Frank Kameny reclaimed it, coining “gay is good” to rally against accusations that he was a pervert; a sexual deviant.
As queer people, our identities are politicized whether we like it or not. After all, we’re all raised and conditioned within a society that still feeds us messages: that heterosexuality is the default, that whiteness is universal and that men are more powerful. That’s precisely why we need these labels – for specificity, but also because we’re taught to be ashamed of them. There is no universal experience of being gay, but it’s a factor which colors the way we view the world – and the way the world views us.
It’s also worth pointing out that this “label-less utopia” bullshit is a pretty well-known defense for discrimination. How many racists have responded to criticism by stating they’re “color blind?” The reality is that any characteristic which differentiates us from the white, straight, heterosexual norm will at some point be weaponized against us – we can’t ignore that, and nor should we.
Then, there’s the recent rise of the “androphiles” – people who are attracted to “masculinity.” Not only is the term used by alt-right gays to disavow “gay culture” (Ariana Grande and Queer as Folk, apparently), it’s used as a fancy new term for ones we already know, like “femme-shaming” and “misogyny.” Plenty of us glorify masculinity while simultaneously shaming men that don’t fit that rigid definition in the process. Attracted to #masc men? That’s fine! But also, it’s a well-known fact that #masc4masc guys are the ones usually – not always – touting app profiles laden with slurs and actively assimilating with the damaging definitions of what a “man” should be. If labeling doesn’t help anyone, why does Gabbana still wear that label with pride?
In essence, we should read Gabbana’s T-shirt for what it is: internalized homophobia. It’s just another example of a man seeking to distance himself from a label because he attaches shame to it. Let me be clear – a world in which being gay doesn’t matter would be AMAZING. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been lazily stereotyped, reduced to nothing more than my sexuality and asked intrusive questions by drunk straight people in bars. I swear, sometimes before I go to sleep, I can hear the slurred words: “Are you a top or a bottom?” ringing in my ears. It’s bullshit.
But what we need to be doing is highlighting that stereotypes are lazy and that the LGBTQ community is diverse, multi-faceted, and more complex than gay caricatures could ever have us believe. What we don’t need to be doing is internalizing this linear, discriminatory thinking and attempting to disavow our own community. After all, gay people can be literally anything. Most surprisingly, as Gabbana himself has proven on numerous occasions, we can even be homophobic.