By now, it seems trite to describe the practices of those engaging in #Resistance against Trump as merely problematic. After all, the mainstream movement, from its onset, has been characterized by a series of ever-evolving conspiracy theories relating to alleged Russian interference. Theories that have seemingly supplanted the need for a coherent, proactive policy agenda from leadership and range in believability from the simply implausible to what are best described as rejected scripts for Red Dawn 2. However, unfortunately, the #Resistance’s methods to prevent the normalization of Trump are not limited to delirious NeoMcCarthyism.
As anyone who has even casually occupied or perused anti-Trump spaces can attest, insults and jokes regarding Trump’s sexuality have become a preferred burn for those looking to roast 45. The Murals, protest signs, and Twitter posts that imply, or outright say, that Trump is gay, or engaging in sex acts with other men, have become a common sight. Often, the rabid Russophobia is also often folded into this narrative, forming the doubly scathing “Trump is gay for Putin” genre of quip.
Now, if an individual who had a cursory familiarity with the political culture of the United States was asked to hazard a guess as to which group was making jokes that implicated the LGBTQ community, their answer would likely be some analog of the Right Wing. Especially if they were told that the offenders, when confronted with the notion that this may be offensive, start griping about “Political Correctness” going too far. After all, the Alt-Right (Read: Nazis), and other Conservative subgroups, seem fixated on the sexual behaviors of others, specifically cuckolding, and using them as a method to delegitimize and emasculate individuals in the political arena.
However, what makes this trend all the more galling is the fact that it is originating from Liberals. Individuals whom, if asked, would most likely espouse their support for the LGBTQ community. Yet, despite this explicit support, they are not only comfortable perpetuating homophobic stereotypes but defiant in the face of any criticism from the LGBTQ community that these remarks could be considered legitimately offensive.
Rather, they argue that those criticizing them are being overly sensitive, do not understand the definition of homophobia, or are misinterpreting the intent or context of the joke (Is “heterosplaining” a term yet? It is now). Arguably, the only thing more abundant than the offensive symbolism and language are the excuses for why it is not actually offensive.
Now, the actions of random individuals on Twitter or at rallies would not warrant an article, as it is easy to find anomalous examples of people doing anything online. However, as indicated by Stephen Colbert’s “joke” on the Late Show, this trend now has the potential to become normalized. Therefore, it seems necessary to explain exactly why this is not okay, regardless of intention, and also why it probably will not stop.
…Not That There Is Anything Wrong With That
Singling out Colbert for his homophobic remark may seem unfair given the long list of prominent Liberals who have espoused more explicitly bigoted views. Naturally, Alec Baldwin springs to mind, another darling of the Liberal #Resistance due to his impersonations of Trump. However, people follow Colbert’s lead much more readily than that of Daniel and Stephen Baldwin’s brother.
He is more mainstream and his humor is not usually viewed as “edgy.” Therefore, Colbert’s statement, though milder, has the greater potential to normalize and popularize behavior that was largely limited to individuals online or at anti-Trump rallies. Furthermore, people have taken to defending Colbert’s statement with much more vigor than that of the others. Coming up with a range of excuses and explanations for why it was, and by extension the trend it follows is, not homophobic. Therefore, framing this criticism around his statements seems expedient.
First, and while this may seem churlish, what Colbert said was not even particularly clever or funny. Arguably, it was barely even a joke, since jokes have a certain structure from which they derive some of their humor. Colbert saying that the only thing Donald Trump’s mouth is good for is as a “cock holster” was just an insult that people found funny.
Accordingly, if we can agree it is a relatively straightforward statement, then that raises two questions: Why was it insulting and why was it funny? The first part of understanding that is realizing that the existence of this statement, and some of its humor, is predicated on the abundance of similar and more explicitly homophobic statements.
Specifically, it derives part of its humor from the fact that the statement was one the crowd has probably heard a thousand times before, assuming they exist in anti-Trump spaces. Colbert was not saying anything new or inherently clever, he was simply repeating and amplifying something that was already being said, and using his platform to give it extra legitimacy. Colbert’s statement fits neatly into that emergent trend that sees painting the President as gay, or engaging in sex acts with men, as a legitimate means of insulting him. A method of taking a shot at Trump’s machismo, his personal obsession with appearing masculine, in control, and dominant.
By adopting their rhetoric, Colbert signals that he is one of them and also occupies these spaces. So to the extent that its existence relies on that community’s actions, it cannot be divorced from the oftentimes more explicitly homophobic statements made by that community. This is especially true given that him using this rhetoric has the potential to validate homophobic language as a way to show solidarity with this community. Emboldening those who already practice it and convincing others to start. However, more broadly, the question becomes why are these jokes viewed as both a legitimate source of humor and method of insult in these spaces at all.
The answer is simple: culturally, our society is overwhelmingly heteronormative in its perceptions of what constitutes normal sexual activity. By nature of being socialized in it, we are all subject to that mode of thinking to various degrees. Generally, for these statements to be both humorous and insulting they must rely on the cultural context that sexual activity among men is taboo, weird, or abnormal.
Drawing on Colbert’s entire monologue as an example, the other insults relied on cute wordplay (calling him a Prick-tator) for their humor, this one merely relied on the fact that, culturally speaking, being sexual activity between men is still considered weird and therefore funny. This explanation gains more weight when engaging with the underlying intention of the joke.
Paved With Good Intentions
Dean Obeidallah, while commenting on the Colbert backlash, stated that it is the role of comedians to prevent “Trump from being normalized.” This statement was tweeted out by Joy Anne Reid, who requested that those who agreed to retweet it, which many did. Fair enough, comedy and satire have historically been powerful tools for those looking to resist and critique the state. However, this raises an important question: Why is saying that Trump engages in sex acts with other men a valid method to prevent his normalization?
Furthermore, considering its placement as the final insult, in a string of them, this implies that this particular statement is the best, and funniest, way to prevent his normalization. A fact that was validated by the studio audience’s raucous guffaws. This raises several more questions. Why is the biggest abnormality for a president, not that he is an authoritarian, a fascist, or a “Prick-tator,” as Colbert put it, but that he engages in sex acts with other men? How can you explain that this is culturally understood shorthand for deviance, except for the presence of homophobia? Why is the #Resistance’s equivalent of A Modest Proposal essentially just saying “Trump is a cocksucker”? However, this leads us to some of the disingenuous arguments that have been made in defense of this statement and others.
First, while some have argued that this joke could be made about Trump and a female head of state and still have the same intention and impact, that prospect seems dubious, even if we grant that it might still be as funny. Functionally, if the intent behind these statements are to make sure Trump is not normalized and is insulted, him performing oral sex on a woman simply would not suffice considering heterosexual sex is considered normal.
Another explanation that crops up frequently is that these statements are not meant to insinuate that he is actually gay, simply that he engages in sex acts with other men. Moreover, as these Olympic-level mental gymnasts explain it, the people who are making the accusation that this rhetoric is offensive are the real homophobic ones. This is because they are not open to the idea that a man can have sex with other men and not have that implicate their sexual identity.
This is an interesting point, but one that falls apart when considering cultural context and how sexuality is constructed as a social identity. It is certainly true that it varies wildly across cultures and times as to what actions or behaviors would lead to someone being labeled gay, and whether that is even a recognized social identity.
For example, in parts of Latin America the degree to which someone is considered gay, and therefore denigrated, is often related to position or role during sex. Male Vikings used to rape other men to establish their own masculinity and humiliate the victim. On certain islands in the Pacific, men ritualistically consume semen and do not have a conception that this behavior would be considered homosexual.
In the United States, the idea that a male is simply engaging in sex acts with other men but is not gay or bisexual, while rightfully contested, is simply not a widely recognized fact. Unarguably, the ability to self-define one’s sexuality as distinct from individual sex acts or partners is an important battle to fight. However, to pretend that this is the goal of these comments is ridiculous. Specifically, because for these insults to be successful in the intent expressed they must rely on the fact that that belief is not widely held.
At best, this leaves us with two options. The people making these statements are culturally incompetent, perhaps because they live in a Liberal bubble. Alternatively, they have no issue utilizing and weaponizing the underlying, implicit homophobia present within society to prove a point or accomplish a goal, even without personally being homophobic.
Furthermore, and worth special mention, is that these statements fit into that faux-Freudian analytical tradition that seeks to imply or state that all explicitly homophobic people are actually secretly gay. Here’s the thing, both Trump and Putin are, to various degrees, actively engaged in stripping away the rights of the LGBTQ community. Therefore, implying that they are both gay, and thus the LGBTQ community is responsible for its own oppression is quite offensive. However, in defense of the interpretation that it is not about his sexuality, or even generally engaging in sex acts with other men, some argue that it is the specific act that is the most important aspect.
Therefore the argument goes that it is the act performing oral sex on a man or, more generally, being penetrated, that is key to realizing how sick, and not homophobic, a burn this is. After all, the goal is not to prevent Trump’s normalization by insinuating that he is gay, but to insult and humiliate him through the symbolism of the specific act of penetration. It is meant to convey, sans commentary on his sexuality, that he is not as strong, masculine, or dominant as he portrays himself as, similar to the “tiny hands” jokes. To symbolize that he is not only close to the likes of Putin but he is submissive to him.
Fair enough. However, even if we utilize this interpretation, and pretend that the majority of people will interpret it this way, because how it will be generally interpreted is important, it is still problematic. It just replaces the homophobic implications with sexist ones.
I’m Not Perpetuating Homophobia, Just Gender Norms. Duh
The reason that it is sexist is because this interpretation of the joke draws its coherence from a biologically essentialist view of sexual activities. One that genders certain sex acts based on particular biological traits, and attaches inherent psychological and social characteristics to them. Specifically, that being penetrated is always both feminine and submissive, irrespective of other factors. It states that real men simply do not receive penetration. If they do, they are inherently less masculine, and therefore submissive. If you do not accept this to be true, the intention becomes lost again.
Furthermore, if we were to be more generous and go one step further, it still presents issues with perpetuating negative gender norms. For example, what is inherently emasculating about being submissive? Do real men always have to be strong and dominant and how does that relate to sexual activity? Why are you perpetuating toxic gender norms? We could engage with this forever, but truthfully, comedy is hard and the majority of people are simply not that clever or funny. Consequently, once they start using sexual activity as a vehicle to insult people, more often than not, they end up perpetuating negative stereotypes as opposed to critiquing or subverting them.
It is this fact that causes it to violate a central tenet of comedy, in that these statements punch down, in addition to punching up. While it is reasonable to say that these statements are intended to target Trump, as opposed to the LGBTQ community, it is infinitely less reasonable to suggest that these jokes, by nature of relying on stereotypes surrounding gay men, or sex acts between men, have no implications for the LGBTQ community.
This is because, functionally, they do not seek to subvert any stereotypes or tropes surrounding people who are gay or about gender in general. They simply weaponize the cultural stigmas associated with the LGBTQ community against an “acceptable” target, with little regard for the people who propagating these stereotype broadly impact outside of their specific circle. So the final question is, why is this viewed as acceptable by those practicing this behavior? However, understanding that requires accepting that this is part of a troubling pattern of behavior that exists within Liberal spaces.
Because once you dispense with the semantics and mental gymnastics, there are only two real reasons why this behavior is viewed as not socially problematic and they are not based in the particulars of the statements. The first reason is that the target makes it acceptable. In this specific case it is Trump, but really anyone who does not belong to the group is an acceptable object of scorn. The second reason is that when Liberals do it, it simply cannot be homophobic.
Excuses and Erasure
Despite the hashtag #FireColbert trending, several people simply want recognition that this behavior can be legitimately considered offensive and a promise to do better from all those practicing it. Instead of that mild bit of self-reflection and contrition, what we are seeing emerge is a familiar phenomenon: the active erasure of marginalized people from the conversation. Specifically, the erasing of those members who contest the dominance that Democrats and Liberals have over defining the threats facing the marginalized group, as well as the legitimate methods of addressing those threats. This set of circumstances should be familiar to anyone who recalls some of the uglier aspects of the Democratic Primary.
In an article that is as offensive as it is illustrative of this behavior, the Advocate defiantly claimed that the only ones criticizing Colbert are “Trump supporters”. A similar sentiment has appeared among liberal Twitter users, with at least one person genuinely labeling Leftists criticizing Colbert for the statement as an “anti-gay propaganda bot.” Given that this phenomenon keeps occurring, it bears explanation.
While there is certainly political motivation behind this erasure, given that practicing Neoliberal Identity Politics demands that the party have unilateral control over the social identity of marginalized people, there also exists an emotional and moral component. Practically speaking, Democrats, Liberals, and the #Resistance have certain qualities that they believe to be intrinsically true about the group, its morality, actions, and ideology, from which they derive positive emotions.
This self-perception is further cemented by the presence of an out-group, which has been positioned to act as their foil. Their sense of group identity is predicated on the belief that the Republicans are the Bad Guys, and they homogenize and stereotype as the party of Straight, White, Christian Males. The Conservatives are the racists, sexists, and homophobes. While Democrats are the good guys and the defenders of the marginalized. However, this is largely divorced from their own actions as, functionally, in politics and mainstream media, Democrats and Liberals hold dominance over these social identities.
They get to decide what the concerns of the LGBTQ community are and, by extension, what the definition of homophobia is and who can legitimately perpetrate it. This often leads to a situation where it is impossible to convince Democrats or Liberals of their own bigoted behavior as independent of their actions, because that does not fit within their perception of the group’s identity and they are the ones allowed to define it. This makes them resistant to such criticism, resulting in this behavior going largely unchecked in these spaces.
This is especially true if the target of this abuse is perceived to be outside of the group. While this piece is about homophobia, it could easily be about the rampant misogynist, anti-semitic, or racist language targeted against party outsiders like Susan Sarandon, Nina Turner, or Bernie Sanders.
Where this becomes especially troubling is when all opposition to that in-group is portrayed as belonging to a single out-group. In the case of the Democrats, this has lead to a scenario where all criticism of their actions, policies, or ideology is framed as coming from either Republicans or White males. This leads to the erasure of all marginalized people who are in opposition to the party or its positions, and the framing of all criticism as either partisan or a White Male vanity project, i.e. Bernie Bros.
Ultimately, this all raises the question that always bears repeating when dealing with those #resisting Trump. What exactly are you resisting? How are you fighting homophobics by using insults that rely on homophobia, even if we assume those stereotypes do not exist in your specific social circles, which they probably do?
The thing is, homophobia, racism, sexism, etc., are not simply defined as the explicit hatred against certain groups of people. They also refer to the underlying system of belief, which exists culturally, that these groups, and their members, have intrinsic and natural qualities. Thus, it is quite possible to engage in homophobic practices, to implicitly believe and spread those stereotypes, without explicitly hating the LGBTQ community. It is certainly not something that only Republicans or Conservatives are guilty of by nature of party affiliation or ideology. Nor is the spreading of these stereotypes harmless when Liberals do it, simply because they profess their personal belief in the rights of the LGBTQ community.
However, it seems as though this is just another example of individuals in the #Resistance who are keen to fight the problem, defining it by its most extreme manifestations, while simultaneously contributing to the systemic cause.