Making fun of “closet cases” only reinforces homophobia.
There’s a lot of division in the American left these days. In a time of political crisis like the one we face today, when every moment is an emergency and the difference between a good and a just-OK strategy may be life and death, it’s understandable that we so often find ourselves embroiled in passionate debates and even fights. But there are a few things that just about everyone seems to agree on: Samira and Lauren’s wedding ensembles will save the world, and Mike Pence is definitely super gay.
The vitriolically homophobic politician who gets busted in a hotel room with a 22-year-old Grindr hookup has become such a common joke in discussions of LGBTQ rights that it’s circled through being cliché back to being comical in its banality. It’s an easy, self-righteous insult, one that’s easy to convince ourselves is justifiable. After all, we’re not mocking him for our assumption that he is queer; we’re mocking him for hiding it. And Mike Pence certainly leaves himself open to lots of mockery, with his bizarre, misogynistic refusal to eat alone with women and his anachronistic belief that LGBTQ people can be “cured.” But making fun of him by calling him a “closet case” isn’t just lazy – it’s harmful.
To be clear, I mean that it’s harmful to LGBTQ people en masse, not that it’s harmful to Mike Pence. I totally don’t care about Mike Pence’s feelings. I do care, however, that describing homophobic politicians as closet cases or making sly references to “overcompensation” actually serves the function of excusing and upholding homophobia, which is not something queer people or our allies should be so gleeful about participating in.
First of all, Mike Pence doesn’t even deserve to be gay. Gay people are awesome, and speculating that Mike Pence could secretly be one is a compliment of which he is unworthy. Frankly, I’m pretty sure that liking dudes would require a propensity for human emotion and an ability to experience joy, or at least pleasure, that Mike Pence simply does not possess.
But more importantly, when we call homophobic politicians closet cases, we shift the blame for the marginalization LGBTQ people still face onto ourselves. The claim that self-hating gay people are keeping the community down is on a level with the idea that if women were just more confident at work, the wage gap would disappear overnight. Internalized homophobia is a symptom of an oppressive culture, not the cause of oppression. If every closeted LGBTQ person in the world came out tomorrow, guess what? Homophobia would still exist. The “closet case” rhetoric turns any discussion of LGBTQ rights into a game of “why are you hitting yourself?”
The problem with Mike Pence isn’t that he’s a self-hating gay man. In fact, the problem with Mike Pence isn’t even that he hates gay people. It’s that he exists in a cultural context where hating gay people is so unremarkable that Mike Pence could not only be a viable vice-presidential candidate, but the man who selected him as a running mate could get elected President. The problem with Mike Pence is the many, many people who supported his homophobia enough to put him in power.
And that isn’t a problem with gay people. That’s a problem with the vicious (if somewhat more covert than in previous generations) homophobia that pervades our society, enabled by straight people who either hate LGBTQ folks specifically, or just don’t care enough to push back against the hatred of their friends and families and colleagues. And it’s a problem with all the straight people who would never stand up and fight for LGBTQ people’s rights, but they’re certain they aren’t homophobic because homophobes are totally gay.
Mike Pence isn’t gay people’s fault. Homophobia isn’t gay people’s fault. Yes, there are LGBTQ people whose internalized homophobia and transphobia drives them to do harm to the rest of the community, but they are nowhere near the threat to our happiness and well-being that malevolent or indifferent straight people are. Pretending otherwise allows straight people to shirk their own responsibility for dismantling societal oppression, because they can simply laugh it off as a problem with “closet cases” that therefore has nothing to do with them.
And while we’re mocking public, powerful homophobes by calling them closeted, LGBTQ people who aren’t out within our own communities are learning that we consider them a punch line. They’re learning that we have no compassion for the many reasons a person might not choose to live publicly as queer or trans. They’re hearing that we think there’s something wrong with them. Who hears those jokes and imagines that if Mike Pence did have a press conference tomorrow and announce “It’s all true,” we’d welcome him with open arms? Who would want to come out in an environment where not being out already makes you fodder for attacks?
Again, this is not about protecting the delicate feelings of Mike Pence. Fuck Mike Pence’s feelings, and if by some coincidence all the speculation is true and he is indeed struggling to come to terms with his true sexual identity, then fuck his true sexual identity too. Fuck every aspect of Mike Pence as a person. But not because he’s closeted.
Making fun of “closet cases” only reinforces homophobia. It underscores the idea that being gay is shameful and should be hidden. It’s an excuse for straight people to make “ha ha, he’s gay!” jokes that uphold a heterosexist social structure, then turn around and claim that they’re allied with The Cause. I know the rationale is that “it’s only shameful because he’s ashamed of it” – that we’re mocking the secrecy, not the queerness – but we all know that’s splitting hairs. We’re still making fun of someone because we think he might be gay. That’s fucked up, dudes, and we can and should do better.
So make fun of Mike Pence all you want, but please come up with some more interesting and original jokes. Because when you turn queerness into the punchline, you’re… well, I was going to say you’re no better than Mike Pence, but that’s probably not true. You’re still way better than Mike Pence. But you’re not as much better than him as you could be, and isn’t that a goal worth striving for?
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).