The other night I tweeted what I thought was an innocent joke: “I’ve met some interesting heterosexual men, but they’re certainly not the norm.” It came from an actual thought I’ve had — that I’m glad I’m gay because I’d make such a boring straight guy. But it was also designed to be ironic, the kind of sweeping generalization someone might make about a minority group. The difference, of course, being that heterosexual men are far from the minority.
And while I think most people got the joke — or at least, the spirit in which it was intended — I ended up having a rather ugly debate that resulted in a mutual unfollowing of someone I’ve known on Twitter for years. I rolled my eyes at his claims of anti-straight bigotry, as I always do when someone brings up the concept of heterophobia. (Or misandry. Or anti-white racism.) When another friend asked if it would be OK for him to make the same joke about gay people, I wanted to shake him: Can’t you see the difference?
If I tell an anti-straight joke (and I’d still argue that’s not what I was doing), I’m obviously being ironic. Because while I’m sure there are at least some people out there who legitimately hate heterosexuals for being breeders, the vast majority of society promotes heterosexuality as the ideal. There’s an enormous difference between making fun of a marginalized group and making fun of the dominant group in power.
But let me put it in different, blunter terms: When you tell a gay joke, I worry you’re going to beat the shit out of me. However irrational that sounds to you, it’s the reality I live with. This is the nature of privilege. Straight people don’t live with the fear of being bashed — they can hear a joke about straight people and not worry that it’s the precursor to violence. Gay people, who have a long history of persecution, do not have that same privilege. There is always a threat there, whether or not it’s realistic.
When I tweeted that joke, were you really worried I hated straight people? Were you worried I would ever act on it? Because that’s my fear when I read or hear a joke about gays. How do I know you’re not actually hateful? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Even if you consider all jokes to be harmless, you have to understand the different weight they carry. A joke about straight people is easily shrugged off; a joke about gay people brings up an actual history of persecution and violence.
I’m gay, but I’m also white and male, so my understanding of privilege is limited. Here is what I will say about privilege on a larger scale: it is a difficult concept to grasp. That’s why, if someone from a marginalized group tells you that a joke makes him or her uncomfortable, you take his or her word for it.
Let’s take the example of rape jokes, a popular topic of late (and always, really). If you’re a man, you are in a position of privilege: you don’t know what it’s like to live with the fear of rape the way a woman does. (Which is not to say that men can’t be victims of rape, or that all women live in fear.) Every time someone tells a rape joke, it brings to mind the horrifying statistics about rape, and a culture that too often condones it — if a woman feels scared or angry, it’s because she has reason to. From my position of privilege, I can only understand that on an intellectual level. This is the best explanation I can offer.
It might seem like I’ve gone off on a tangent, but this goes back to my defense of that silly tweet and my confusion over the backlash. I have no problem making straight white men a target for my humor, and if that bothers anyone, I’d love to know why. Taken as a whole, straight men are not victimized. Therefore it’s not a double standard for me to say jokes about straight guys are OK while jokes about gay guys are not. For the same reason, I find the “I make fun of everyone equally!” argument to be a load of shit. Everyone is not treated equal by society.
Before you debate me on any of this, please think about your own privilege. Try to understand where you’re coming from, and where I am. Unless you’re willing to accept that life is easier for you if you’re white or straight or male or some combination, we’re never going to see eye to eye. I am doing my best to be anti-racist and feminist, and I know I’m still lacking. I also know that I have had it easier than many others. Admitting privilege is not weakness — it’s an essential starting point to the conversation.
One final note: Don’t even think about bringing censorship into this. You won’t find mention of it anywhere else in this post, because it’s not something I’m advocating. Say whatever you want about whomever you want, and deal with the consequences. That’s free speech.