Identity, stereotypes and the “importance” of the gay best friend

So, I discovered this wonderful TED talk from Michael Maksymowki, which totally struck a chord with me. He eloquently talks about how people are reduced to stereotypes and categorised and how that becomes the norm. “Oh you,know my friend Simon, he’s gay” you get my drift..

Anyway I wanted to share so please check it out.

Dealing with other people’s stereotypes of who they think you are!

Do you find that people want you, yes you to fit into a nice comfortable box, something that they can put a label on? If you step away from those parameters that have been given to you, isn’t it interesting to see how uncomfortable that can make people feel. When we enter the office or place of work we are immediately judged by those around us. Now this can be positive and negative and is generally based on individuals perceptions, experiences, prejudices, ignorance and life experience. To some extent we all do it, but some of us are aware of this and not all of us let it shape our opinions. I was raised to treat people as you find them, to be nice and open with people irrespective of background, race, disability, age, sexuality. Everyone has something great to offer – I truly believe that. So coming from that open mindset how does it feel when you feel like you are being judged, and assumptions are being made about you simply because of who you are?

There have been many times working in television that I have felt the need to place myself in the box that others perceive me to be in. As a gay man I’ve felt the need to be “on” at all times in the office. To be witty and outgoing whilst having immaculate hair and great dress sense, to provide support to everyone’s issues and woes. To be a shoulder to cry on with a superior knowledge of women’s fashions whilst at the same time remaining an enigma in terms of my own personal life. I was also meant to be sexually mute in the eyes of some colleagues and bosses. Like a harp playing eunuch in the court of queen Elizabeth the first I was there for entertainment. Now I may be exaggerating and it wasn’t always like that. It’s interesting though as gay, bi, lesbian or trans people we can shut a bit of ourselves down at work and not fully take part in the conversations that our straight colleagues are having. Maybe that relates to past experiences either in work or in school or day to day life. Sometimes it’s simply that people never ask. It’s very telling and I remember it on a number of occasions how people and bosses will ask straight colleagues if they are dating but never ask gay colleagues. Maybe that’s out of fear of outing people or maybe it’s their own uncomfortableness but I’ve seen it happen on a regular basis.

I had an old boss who would constantly refer to me as “different”, “Simon you are so different”. Different from whom I’d think but never ask. He also referred to me as being colourful, proud and out there and pretty much every 1950s style euphemism for gay. I’m surprised “light on my feet” wasn’t used, or maybe it was behind my back. What I came to realise though was that it was my very own security in my own skin and my lack of shame in who I was that seemed to annoy him. Surely as a gay man I should just blend into the background or be a source of amusement, heaven forbid I had real emotions and relationships just like everyone else. I think people like to categorise to make themselves feel more powerful. They are scared of seeing the similarities that everyone has, as with that they perceive their power is lost.

The “that’s so gay” comment about everything or about individuals is offensive. When you find it offensive you are seen as being a bit prudish, the type of person who can’t take a joke. When you do speak up it’s often followed with “but I like you” or “your not like other gays” or my favourite “I don’t see you as gay/black/Asian etc etc.. What people don’t realise (or maybe they do) when they make fun of someone who is of the same sexuality, race, age group, disability. They are blatantly saying that there is something wrong with being that. It’s establishing some hierarchy simply from the words that have been said. I had a discussion with a friend once that got quite heated as they were talking about how “gay” a particular reality TV star was, how they couldn’t watch him as he was so gay and how her husband was offended by him”. This was all said in a very matter of fact way as if I would agree or apologise for one of my kind to behave in such an appalling fashion. What they failed to realise was that he was an individual like him or don’t like him, but don’t use his sexuality and the term “so gay” to really mean inferior in your eyes.

Stereotyping whilst working in television is rife. My northern accent has often been find amusing to the home county ladies who lunch and Oxbridge toffs. The presumption is that I won’t be as intelligent or well educated so it always used to surprise them when I knew more than they thought and shock them when I knew more than them. The urge you have to fight is trying to change yourself to fit in. You need to remain to be authentic. Don’t be ashamed of the things you like, for me I like Hollyoaks, Pop music and chips and gravy but I also love theatre, classic literature and museums. People aren’t one dimensional so don’t automatically presume that they are. I have a friend who is very successful in Tv but when she started out she was told to take elocution lessons to rid her of her scouse accent. Her hoop earrings and causal attire she said was often met with looks that read as “is she going to rob me”. She’s hugely successful and has remained authentic.

I’ve heard tales and friends of talked about the racial stereotypes that have been thrown at them whilst working in TV. How they’ve felt a losing battle at times because they know people expect them to react according to a certain stereotype, ie angry black woman. So the urge then is to suppress opinions and feelings so people don’t just nod and think oh yes that’s because of…

It’s important in the work place to be aware of others prejudices and ignorances. Some will be more blatant than others some will be very subtle. Some in the other persons eyes might be well intentioned. I was showing people pictures from my friends Craig and Ryan’s weddings, and a colleague said, “oh Simon so many handsome men, you must have had a different one every night” This was followed by a concerned expression and a “I do worry about you I hope you are careful”. Now the people in the photos were my good friends, just friends but the idea that I’m a gay man who can scrub up quite decently well I must be promiscuous. Which I’m not. That’s the stereotype though isn’t and of course I should fit that mould.

If someone says something that makes you feel uncomfortable say it and say it as soon as. Take that person aside and say “I’m sure that was unintentional but that upset me”. Acknowledge it. I used to say at these times rather sarcastically probably whilst rolling my eyes “thank you for your casual homophobia, I really appreciate it”. Probably not the best approach but it did leave people speechless.

Make notes of when this language is used even if it’s not about you directly write it down. If it continues speak to a person you trust at work about it. Then if it continues speak to HR. You know what makes you uncomfortable don’t just dismiss it as banter or ignorance if it is making you upset.

Be self conscious as well, think about your language and the things you say. Something jokey and innocent in your head could be really offensive to some one. Talking about a person struggling with their weight on TV in a nasty manner in front of Mary who’s so self conscious about her size is going to have an impact on Mary. So think words are powerful use them wisely.

Remember to not let yourself feel inferior or to take those words to heart. You are perfect. Know it, own it, be it. And do it with dignity and a smile. Nothing pisses off angry bitter ignorant people than secure, content happy individuals. So go ahead kill them with kindness.