Gay-bashing is the comedian's last respectable joke

Bob Somerby

February 05, 1993|By Bob Somerby

PEOPLE around President Clinton are saying he is surprised by the intensity of feeling these past weeks over his proposal to allow gays and lesbians in the military.

This can mean only one thing: Bill Clinton has been isolated. He has never visited a comedy club.

have earned my living in these laugh dens over the past decade. As one of those few Americans whose paying job is getting people to laugh, I've been surprised -- and disappointed -- by how easily we laugh at stereotypical gay-bashing.

It doesn't have to be funny. It doesn't have to be clever. God knows it can't be insightful. But just get on the stage, mince in the accepted manner, bend your wrist a couple of times. Magic will occur. You, too, can be a stand-up comedian!

It is a common observation among comedians of various points of view that prejudice against gays is the last fully acceptable prejudice in our society. Race-baiting humor is virtually nonexistent, except in certain unreconstructed outposts in the South. Unfortunately, jokes targeting women are widespread, but these days they must be slyly packaged to disguise the intent.

But with jokes against gays, I can assure the president, the nightclub comedian can't go wrong. Though individuals out there may object, I've never seen an audience seriously rebel against gay jokes. Nor should this come as a surprise, given our society's widespread ridiculing of gays.

For surely no one can reach adulthood in America without wide exposure to anti-gay messages. We start hearing them as soon as we're old enough to think. They're passed on to teen-agers by gym teachers in locker rooms immemorial. They suffuse television sit-coms and movies.

It isn't surprising that people raised in this culture, including the jocks who run the military, should develop a set of phobias about gay people -- a set of phobias few of them have been forced to examine seriously. If we do come to see that our culture's attitude toward gays is a deep-seated prejudice, we may better understand the current debate.

Those 10 million to 20 million gays and lesbians in our society are, among other things, taxpayers. To steal a phrase from Ross Perot, they are the owners of the nation's army and of its Congress. They pay the salaries of Colin Powell and Sam Nunn. If we start thinking of gays and lesbians as actual people -- not as stereotypes of the comedy club and gym -- perhaps we will recall how strongly the presumption must run, in a democratic culture, against excluding citizens from the very institutions they work to pay for.

What disturbs me in the discussion of General Powell is not the fact that he feels there may be problems in allowing gays in the military. It is his responsibility to say so and to outline his concerns.

ut I have never heard from General Powell the slightest hint of interest in solving the problems he sees. I've not heard any concern that millions of gays who help pay his salary should be excluded from the institution he is hired to lead (and which they go to work every day to support).

In his brilliant 1952 novel, "The Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison helped Americans realize prejudice against another minority, blacks. General Powell's failure to consider gay people's most obvious concerns is the classic expression of unrealized prejudice.

The silly targeting of gays by American comedians is the expression of a widespread prejudice. Because Americans are basically decent and caring; because they have always, if grudgingly, moved to include rather than to ostracize; because our social history has nudged us toward a broader understanding of our commonness rather than our accidental differences, I have no doubt that this prejudice, too, eventually will crumble.

But the path of wisdom is hard to traverse. And if President Clinton should jog to a comedy club on the wrong night, he may get a better idea of how rocky the path can be.

Bob Somerby, a college roommate of Vice President Gore, writes from Baltimore.

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