I’ve always been somewhere between irritated and offended by Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. Did it perpetuate offensive stereotypes: the clueless lives-like-a-pig badly groomed straight man and the flaming nobody makes it as pretty as a poof gay boy? And then there is that nagging feeling–as it is with all stereotypes, that both stereotypes are built on a grain of truth.
Regarding homosexuality, the world seems focused on two very queer questions.
The first question suggests that homosexuals differ from heterosexuals in no other way than the sex act. Are we just like everybody else, differing only in our choice of sex partner? Or does sexual orientation, like gender, cause us to think and feel differently in many ways other than just sexual attraction? And is this particularly obvious when it comes to the visual and performing arts? Is there, in fact, a Queer Eye?
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The second question, of course, is the raging controversy: nature vs. nurture?
But there is a third “elephant in the room” question that is mostly ignored; Are gay men generally more creative than everyone else or is this one big fat whopping stereotype?
The compelling implication of the creativity question is that if the answer is yes and we are generally more creative and more sensitive to our environment, than the first two questions make no sense–unless you actually believe that talent is a chosen and subsequently learned skill.
Does Bravo Television’s Queer Eye For The Straight Guy play to an offensive Jim Crow kind of stereotype or do queer men bring a greater sense of style and taste to the physical world?
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Do gay men naturally dominate the creative arts or are we simply more comfortable being out and loud in this more permissive and expressive environment? Have anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and homo-ologists built a house of cards on a very false premise? What is the queer eye? Is the queer eye born of and nurtured by the closet? Obviously, our sexual tastes coupled with the repressed and confined boundaries of the closet drive a much keener awareness and sensitivity to human behavior and the environment in general. Visual details from color to hand gestures become much more important to the queer boy than to the straight boy. And survival is the driving force. The wrong hand gesture in an ordinary school yard can earn you a bloody nose. A pink shirt in high school announces “fag” to some, “pride” to others.
During very early stages of childhood development, queer boys necessarily become superior observers, consummate actors and very creative creatures. Even within your own family, you catch on quickly to the fact that you are seeing the world through different eyes than almost everyone else around you. Many artists will tell you that pain and “experience” are the greatest muses–and who feels more pain and has more “life experience” than a queer?
img src=”http://rjr10036.typepad.com/proceed_at_your_own_risk/images/2007/12/31/survivor.jpg” align=”left” />Obviously, the same cannot be said for other minorities–persecuted or otherwise. We are unique in that we are born a minority even within our own ethnic, cultural or religious minorities. While any queer Jew or African American will tell you that he or she acquired useful survival tools as a Jew or African-American that apply to queer survival, the queer needed to take those survival tactics and strategies to an entirely new level not even remotely imagined by his or her immediate blood family.
So let us ask another obvious question. In order to survive, the queer must call upon inner resources and behavioral skills not even remotely part of the lives of most heterosexuals. Survival compels the queer to hone senses and sensitivities far beyond the needs of the average mainstream heterosexual. Is that the fuel behind enhanced creativity and sensitivity? Is that the origin of the Queer Eye?
So here we are circling back to nature vs nurture.
And the debate rages on. One prominent thinker attributes queer creativity to a form of impaired maturation. Another suggests that homosexuality forges a stronger relationship between mother and infant, which some science now suggests may be the evolutionary basis of art. Does the disproportionate number of gay men in the arts suggest an unusual and extraordinary capacity to speak the language of maternal love?
Are we retarded (but in a loving way)?
Internationally respected scientist, artist and author (The Naked Ape) Desmond Morris, who became a bestselling author by applying zoology to explain human behavior, has now utilized the same techniques to put forward an explanation for homosexuality.
In his latest book, The Naked Man, Morris theorizes that men are “made gay” because they retain infantile or juvenile characteristics into adulthood – a phenomenon known as neoteny. img src=”http://rjr10036.typepad.com/proceed_at_your_own_risk/images/2007/12/31/desmond_morris_2.jpg” align=”right” />
According to this theory, gay men also tend to be more inventive and creative than heterosexuals because they are more likely to retain the mental agility and playfulness of childhood. Intuitively, that sounds and feels “right”.
“Gays have in general made a disproportionately greater contribution to life than non-gays,” said Morris, who is also a noted artist. “The creative gay has very much advanced Planet Earth.”
“The playfulness of childhood is continued with certain people into adulthood. This is very much a positive. Adult playfulness means that certain people, often a fairly large proportion of them gay, are more inventive and curious than heterosexuals.”
This new Morris theory has been attacked by Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London. “It’s arts faculty science to say that gays are neotenous,” he said. “It’s a stupid idea. Where is the real evidence?”
Morris points to work done by Clive Bromhall, who produced some of his television programs. “Gays do infantile behavior in the extreme,” said Bromhall, who after gaining a PhD in zoology from Oxford, left academia to form a company making educational films.
Morris, who is 80 in January, long thought that absent fathers led to boys and young male adults becoming gay. “[It is] the dominant and ever-present mother theory,” he said. “But now I’m convinced that is wrong, and that it is neoteny which makes people gay. Gays are using what is reproductive or creatively constructive to non-reproductive ends. This is very much a positive.”
But his argument that gays are more creative than heterosexuals also has its flaws. Steve Jones said: “What of somebody like Pablo Picasso who was a hugely creative man and yet was obviously decidedly heterosexual?” Many other creative individuals such as Vivienne Westwood and Mary Quant, the fashion designers, are also clearly heterosexual.
Morris’ point is proved by gays like Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter and Oscar Wilde and TE Lawrence.
Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, agrees that many gays are unusually creative, although he suggests they are also characterized by being closely in touch with their emotions.
He added: “I would also think that being gay is very much a mix of genetic factors and hormonal influence in the womb. I don’t really know about this playfulness idea being carried from childhood to gay adulthood.”
Most commentators though, including Morris, Tatchell and Glenn Wilson – co-author of the book Born Gay, published in 2005 – believe that the so-called “gay gene” theory is discredited.
“I argued that sexual orientation is two-thirds prenatal and one-third environmental,” said Wilson, who works at London University’s Institute of Psychiatry. “I suppose the neoteny argument is not incompatible, but I haven’t heard it advanced before.
“I would also say that gays certainly tend to gravitate towards expressive or service occupations, but I have never heard or seen evidence that they are academically better.”
The Language of Maternal Love
The New York Times recently examined the relationship between art, the origins or evolution of art, and the mother-infant interaction. The theory is that the “potential space” or the “dyadic dance” between mother and infant forms the groundwork for the creative play of childhood and, ultimately, for the creative activities of adulthood.
Nothing in the article and subsequent related readings discussed the logical connection between the high percentage of gay men in the creative arts and how that might relate on some level to the nature of the mother-infant relationship of a gay child vs a straight child. But from a queer perspective, it is an irresistible discussion.
At a recent University of Michigan symposium on the evolutionary value of art and why we humans spend so much time at it, a University of Washington scholar, Ellen Dissanayake offered her sweeping thesis of the evolution of art.
By her reckoning, the artistic impulse is a human birthright, a trait so ancient, universal and persistent that it is almost surely innate. But while some researchers have suggested that our artiness arose accidentally, as a byproduct of large brains that evolved to solve problems and were easily bored, Ms. Dissanayake argues that the creative drive has all the earmarks of being an adaptation on its own. The making of art consumes enormous amounts of time and resources, she observed, an extravagance you wouldn’t expect of an evolutionary afterthought. Art also gives us pleasure, she said, and activities that feel good tend to be those that evolution deems too important to leave to chance.
What might that deep-seated purpose of art-making be? Geoffrey Miller and other theorists have proposed that art serves as a sexual display, a means of flaunting one’s talented palette of genes. Considering the heightened sexuality of an all male gay world, this theory would suggest that enhanced sexuality would logically translate into enhanced creativity.
But Ms. Dissanayake has other ideas. To contemporary Westerners, she said, art may seem detached from the real world, an elite stage on which proud peacocks and designated visionaries may well compete for high stakes. But among traditional cultures and throughout most of human history, she said, art has also been a profoundly communal affair, of harvest dances, religious pageants, quilting bees, the passionate town rivalries that gave us the spires of Chartres, Reims and Amiens.
Art, she and others have proposed, did not arise to spotlight the few, but rather to summon the many to come join the parade. Through singing, dancing, painting and story telling and otherwise engaging in what Ms. Dissanayake calls “artifying,” people can be quickly and ebulliently drawn together, and even strangers persuaded to treat one another as kin. Through the harmonic magic of art, the relative weakness of the individual can be traded up for the strength of the hive, cohered into a social unit ready to take on the world.
This theory suggests that gay man are more drawn to the creative and performing arts as a means of achieving acceptance, status and success.
As David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary theorist at Binghamton University, said, the only social elixir of comparable strength is religion, another impulse that spans cultures and time.
And in that theory, one could find the beginning of a new perspective on the war between religion and art and between religion and homosexuality. To cut to the chase: Competition on a grand pan-social and pan-cultural scale.
Ms. Dissanayake has published widely, and her books —the most recent one being “Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began” — are considered classics among Darwinian theorists and art historians alike.
Perhaps the most radical element of Ms. Dissanayake’s evolutionary framework is her idea about how art got its start. She suggests that many of the basic phonemes of art, the stylistic conventions and tonal patterns, the mental clay, staples and pauses with which even the loftiest creative works are constructed, can be traced back to the most primal of collusions — the intimate interplay between mother and child.
After studying hundreds of hours of interactions between infants and mothers from many different cultures, Ms. Dissanayake and her collaborators have identified universal operations that characterize the mother-infant bond. They are visual, gestural and vocal cues that arise spontaneously and unconsciously between mothers and infants, but that nevertheless abide by a formalized code: the calls and responses, the swooping bell tones of motherese, the widening of the eyes, the exaggerated smile, the repetitions and variations, the laughter of the baby met by the mother’s emphatic refrain. The rules of engagement have a pace and a set of expected responses, and should the rules be violated, the pitch prove too jarring, the delays between coos and head waggles too long or too short, mother or baby may grow fretful or bored.
To Ms. Dissanayake, the tightly choreographed rituals that bond mother and child look a lot like the techniques and constructs at the heart of much of our art. “These operations of ritualization, these affiliate signals between mother and infant, are aesthetic operations, too,” she said in an interview. “And aesthetic operations are what artists do. Knowingly or not, when you are choreographing a dance or composing a piece of music, you are formalizing, exaggerating, repeating, manipulating expectation and dynamically varying your theme. You are using the tools that mothers everywhere have used for hundreds of thousands of generations.”
In my view, there are only two certainties in this discussion. The first is that the human thing is a very complex question and the simple-minded and divisive answers posed by the religious right are simply as stupid as the belief that dinosaurs co-existed with man as recently as 6,000 years ago.
Secondly, a disproportionate percentage of mankind’s greatest creative achievements have been produced by gay men. Socrates, da Vinci, Alexander The Great, Michaelangelo, Tchaikovsky and Sondheim to name but a few. If this is due to a gay gene or some kind of nurturing divergence then these are clearly very good things and worth understanding and encouraging. Human civilization owes a great debt to the Queer Eye and if this be abomination, then I for one stand proud as such.