By Paul Adler
The conceit of America as a great “melting pot”—an amalgam of distinct, uniquely wonderful cultures—has been used to characterize this country since the days of Ellis Island. But often, the idea of assimilation is rife with contention. We see the push and pull of cultures as they flirt with integration into the mainstream and are met with resistance both from the outside—from the popular majority who would consider themselves “normal” or “average” Americans (the obvious extreme of this is jingoism and xenophobia, from neo-Nazis and the KKK all the way up to our beloved GOP ticket frontrunner, Mr. Donald J. Trump)—and from the inside—the people within the culture who want to maintain and defend their customs by protesting when members of the majority appropriate or co-opt their cultural tenets.
In recent years, this latter group of people, those members of marginalized or minority cultures, have taken to calling out those members of the majority who would appropriate their customs, who would co-opt facets of these marginalized cultures not to pay homage, not as matters of respect, but as novelties—projecting onto these customs sideshow-like qualities, treating sacred objects as cheapened baubles, and snatching up facets of marginalized cultures that took hundreds of years to develop and cultivate. Salient and recent examples of this notion include the outrage of the Native American community at the commodification of tribal war bonnets, headdresses, and headbands by markedly tactless outlets like Urban Outfitters and white festival goers (Coachella being the most notable example); the continued sartorial co-opting of punk rock iconography—everyone from mega celebrities to the captain of your high school football team sporting Ramones, Clash, and CBGB tees; movie stars like Kate Hudson and Blake Lively decked out in carefully crafted calavera face paint and the ubiquity of sugar skull ink (disclosure: I have a sugar skull tattoo, as do my two best friends); and, like adding a smug, latter-day insult to a brutal, centuries-long injury, the appropriation of historically black culture, from hair to slang to fashion trends to personhood itself, by every echelon of America’s white citizenry from pedestrian to celebrity (I’m looking at you, Justin Bieber and Iggy Azalea).
While people (mostly young white people and celebrities) continue to co-opt pieces of these cultures—Native American, punk rock, Mexican, black—the cultures themselves, though subject to appropriation, have been and are persistently marginalized and often maligned. The assimilation and integration, or lack thereof, of these cultures into normative “American culture” has been historically fraught and dangerous for these groups. The Native American populace in the US was all but wiped out, much of the remnants relegated to third world-like reservations that are disgustingly out of place in the richest country on Earth. African Americans have been fighting for equality ever since they arrived here in chains, and, 400 years on, are still fighting for the very right to live. Punk culture became fragmented, some of its traits and styles being made mainstream, some thriving underground in an array of alternative scenes, and some disappearing altogether. As for Mexican culture, it couldn’t be stronger, though it’s still widely disparaged by bigots ranging from self-appointed border patrol militias to presidential candidates.
It is last on this timeline of assimilation and appropriation where we find LGBT+ culture. In the past three decades or so, queer culture has become an essential talking point in the national discourse and taken a key position in American society—first through newsworthy items like the AIDS epidemic and the Stonewall Riots, then more organically. And though, obviously, there have always been queer people, a queer culture, per se, didn’t really begin to coalesce until the mid-to-late 20th century. (Of note, here, should be the fact that homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973.) This culture—that started forming concurrent with the nation’s overarching sexual liberation in the late 60s and early 70s—has begun to see some viable integration into the mainstream. Often, LGBT+-focused entertainment, from "Modern Family," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," and "Will and Grace" to "Philadelphia," "Brokeback Mountain," and "Dallas Buyers Club," differentiates itself not because of the sexual orientation of the main characters but because it’s particularly evocative and wonderfully written. And from 80s hair metal (and 2000s emo) bands to so-called “metrosexual” men, effeminate styles have earned their place in traditionally masculine haberdashery. There was also that one Simpsons episode about Homer’s relationship with the gay community (it guest starred John Waters!).
Of course, like any other marginalized group trying to assimilate into American culture at large, the LGBT+ community has run into plenty of hatred, violence, prejudice, and general discrimination, largely from organized religion. However, steps are being made toward expanded civil rights. The legality of gay marriage has just this year been recognized by the Supreme Court—and additional legislative measures are being proposed to protect gays, transgender people, and other members of the LGBT+ community from discrimination and violence. But homophobia is still alive and well in this country, as demonstrated by the recent national furor over the refusal a certain county clerk from Kentucky to issue marriage certificates; that she was supported by a large portion of the Republican electoral ticket should dismay not only LGBT+ folks but anybody who believes in our government’s ability to enact, interpret, and enforce legislation.
Though the LGBT+ populace has encountered a great deal of ignorance and bigotry, it’s still inexorably assimilating into American culture. However, as with other marginalized groups who’ve endured this process, the queer community is also subject to appropriation and co-opting—especially when it comes to terminology and expression (the use of the f-word by those outside the community immediately comes to mind). Essentially, whenever a culture that's "alternative," previously marginalized, or beyond the bounds of what we consider socioculturally normative begins to be assimilated into the mainstream, so, too, is its vernacular, its lexicon of slang and idioms and colloquialisms integrated with a more normative, more "standardized" iteration of the language. This consistently happens with black culture, and now it’s happening with queer culture. Sometimes, this appropriation isn’t totally offensive; often, it’s innately tone-deaf and ignorant.
An astoundingly idiotic example of co-opting verbiage from the LGBT+ arena can be found in The Atlantic’s recent publication of a video entitled “Coming Out to Your Parents as Tattooed.” This video evinces how the use of the phrase “coming out” is highly problematic on several levels.
Primarily, the use of the phrase can be seen as creating an analogy between someone making public, or informing their family or close friends of, an inborn characteristic, an orientation about which they don't have a choice and someone telling their conservative parents they decided to get themselves tattooed.
The video’s caption explains:
By using the phrase “coming out” in this context, this video is essentially likening telling your parents you’re gay to telling them you finally got that sweet barbed wire armband you’ve wanted since you were, like, 15. Again: we’re essentially talking about finally opening up about the way you were born versus letting your folks know about some ink that, unless you're a Holocaust survivor or part of a tribal culture that holds tattooing as a rite of maturity, you absolutely chose to put on your body. Seems a tad ridiculous, no?
But if we parse this conceit out a little further, it becomes slightly more disturbing. We live in a world where, for someone who identifies as LGBT+, there's a danger inherent in coming out; there's an implied threat. There's the family that can disown you, the friends who can shun you—and yes, ostensibly (though not likely) that can occur when you "come out" as tattooed—but I'd venture to say people who "come out" as being inked rarely have to worry about total familial disownment, let alone conversion therapy or the risk of being bullied, assaulted, or beaten to death. In creating this analogy by appropriating the phrase “coming out,” this video makes light of that implicit danger and dishonors the memory of every LGBT+ individual whose lives have been taken by violent bigots. Back in April, The Huffington Post was already reporting LGBT+ murders so far this year had reached record numbers. I wonder how many people have ever been killed for having tattoos. I wonder what Matthew Shepard's mother—and the mothers and fathers of all gay Americans assaulted, maimed, or killed for their orientations—would think about the idea of "coming out" as tattooed as a real, challenging, and dangerous thing.
Of course, this extended analogy does offer a basic parallel: The Atlantic's video portrays this faux-"coming out" to conservative, occasionally religious, definitely close-minded individuals, which can be seen as somewhat similar to coming out to parents, friends, or family members who don't understand or accept any orientation outside of that which is heteronormative. And sure, there’s the matter of fear, but it’s hard to imagine the fear of telling your Christian parents about your new ink as remotely akin to the abject terror one must feel prior to coming out.
And that's where the similarities end. The video is twee, glib, and cloying; in one scene, Bianca Giaever—who made the video with NPR's This American Life and m ss ng p eces, an ad firm—portrays a choir jokingly singing about different scenarios of parents’ reactions to their tattooed child: acceptance, rejection, and “meh.”
This level of tone-deafness is remarkably uncharacteristic of The Atlantic, which is why holding them and other historically venerated media outlets accountable is hugely important: because they have to get it right. It’s normal to expect this sort of thing from The New York Post or Buzzfeed—though it’s still unacceptable. But The Atlantic is one of the standard-bearers for integral, articulate, well informed journalism.
And this time, they got it wrong by creating this preposterous, offensively ignorant analogy.
You come out as gay, as transgender, as queer, as any orientation on the spectrum of sexuality because this characteristic is something you were born with, something you cannot change, and the dissonance caused by your inability to reconcile your inherent nature with the perception of those around you drives you to take this tremendous and irrevocable step. You do not "come out" as having a bunch of shit tattooed on your body, permanent and "controversial" as this ink may be. To liken the two notions is beyond stupid and demonstrates the ignorance perpetuated by the improper, misunderstood appropriation of language.
In some way or another, most of us appropriate and co-opt things from other cultures we find either novel or genuinely meaningful and intriguing. But there’s a balance to be struck between purloining and respecting sociocultural traits and conventions.
For every person wearing a Native American headdress to an outdoor festival, there’s someone driving out to the reservations to make sure the occupants have potable water and the schools have up-to-date texts; for every person practicing yoga or watching a Bollywood flick, there’s someone studying the Bhagavad Gita; for every white kid throwing around black slang or listening to Iggy Azalea, there’s someone marching with the Black Lives Matter movement.
And the LGBT+ community is teeming with opportunities to help and be a part of the solution—perhaps if media outlets are so concerned with creating an analogy between the gay community and more mainstream culture, they can start with an old, simple truth connecting all of us: we struggle with our identities, and sometimes, we don’t need to come out to anyone but ourselves.
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