Uptown Bourgeois is an art space for the creative works of freelance writer, editor, author, and content creator Jefferey Spivey.

'I Couldn't Tell You Were Gay' Is Not A Compliment



It happened on my way to the airport.

After a mostly wonderful 10-day stay in Mexico City, that was temporarily plagued by delayed adjustment to the altitude change and a nasty bout of lactose intolerance, I was on my way back to New York City.  I was unsuccessful in booking the same flight back as my fiancé, so I was making my return trip solo.  Though the language barrier wasn’t a real issue for me during the trip, traveling alone in a foreign country still gave me a bit of anxiety.  I was fortunate enough to have a taxi driver that spoke near-perfect English.  I knew there’d be no difficulty getting to my destination.  And the extra bonus of his extreme friendliness would make for a fun ride to the airport.

The driver asked how long I’d been in Mexico City and how many times I’d visited before.  You know, the standard small talk that taxi drivers ask.  Where ya from and where ya headed.  Then he started to make assumptions.  He asked if my office was located near the hotel.  Fortunately for me, this wasn’t a business trip.  But I was able to do the work I needed to complete from the hotel.  He then asked if I was married. Not yet, I replied.  It amazes me that total strangers feel comfortable diving into that conversation.  We continued on back and forth with generic questions and answers followed by some momentary pockets of silence.  I shared that I needed to improve my Spanish before my next trip back.  And he agreed because I’d need to speak better Spanish to pick up the señoritas.  Ha, he thinks I’m straight.  A couple more questions passed.  Then he asked if I’d had any table dances during my stay in the city.  I laughed it off.  The conversation kept weaving in and out of heterosexual relationship territory.  Vaguely misogynistic.  Largely assumed. 

I was preoccupied with the time and making it to the airport.  I didn’t have the emotional energy to engage this stranger about my sexuality.  I didn’t feel it was necessary to bring up that I was in Mexico City with my fiancé.  Or that the last time I dated a girl, I wasn’t even legally allowed to drink.  It just wasn’t his business.  But by not revealing this, by smiling, nodding, and laughing nervously, was I doing myself (and the greater gay community) a major disservice?  Should we always have our activist hat on, or is it okay to avoid this conversation when we feel it’s warranted?

It made me think of several times in my life when I was told ‘I couldn’t tell you were gay’.  I remember how this statement ignited a sense of pride within me.  As I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I felt proud of defying gay stereotypes.  I felt it was helpful for me and ultimately helped those around me get a better understanding of the gay community outside of caricatures they’d seen on TV. But what I was really doing was perpetuating those very stereotypes.  I was placing shame on those gay men that were feminine and flamboyant as though it was wrong.  As though the only way to really be accepted by society was to conform to ancient beliefs about manhood.  I was allowing people to place me and other gay men in a box.  And then I felt a giddy sense of joy when I defied expectation.  As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my skin and my truth, I see the problem with my old way of thinking.

Even with all the progress we’ve made around the human rights movement, the general public still doesn’t recognize that the gay community is multi-faceted. Gays come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of masculinity.  Society teaches us that there’s only one way to be a man and any person who dares to step outside of that confinement isn’t acceptable.  It’s a flawed way of thinking that surely spills over into other societal constructs.  The fact that a masculine gay man exists shouldn’t shock or impress anyone.  These men just exist.  Just like black people exist. Just like the sky is blue.  It’s just a fact. Accept it.

For many gay men, we grew up in a pre-Supreme Court marriage equality decision era.  Our youth and early adulthood was characterized by celebrating our sexuality with our friends and hiding our truth around others.  We worked tirelessly to assimilate and conform to social expectations.  And when we succeeded, we felt proud when we should’ve felt the exact opposite.

By not challenging this statement, ‘I couldn’t tell you were gay’, we’re allowing casual homophobia and prejudice to continue. It’s just as bad and infuriating as ‘you don’t act black’.  It assumes that an entire category of people are of one note.  And anyone that acts outside of that note is an anomaly.  We should all be allowed to be different.  To live beyond stereotype.  To avoid having our possibilities simplified by a limited set of standards and expectations.

The next time someone says that to you, if you’re in that position, challenge it.  Use it as an opportunity to encourage productive dialogue.  Educate that person.  Let them know that you are one of many men like you.  Don’t stay silent.  Don’t try to fit in.  I shouldn’t have laughed off the taxi driver.  You shouldn’t have to either.

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