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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Saving my outrage for the truly outrageous

One of the first things to greet me when I turned on my computer this morning was an e-mail from an acquaintance emblazoned with the all-caps subject line: TAKE ACTION ON THIS!!!!!!!!

Oh Lord! I thought. What's happened now? E-mails urging me to take action in all uppercase letters and followed by multiple exclamation points are usually reserved for announcing the latest outrage. The "outrage" in this case was not over some homophobic statement by the religious reich or some anti-gay political move by the BushCo administration. It was over CBS's late-night talkshow host David Letterman's "Top 10" list last night ... a "Top 10" list that, according to the e-mail's author, was "homophobic," "contained gay stereotypes," and was a general put-down of the new film "Brokeback Mountain." The e-mail went on to list links to contact CBS and the Letterman Show to express our outrage.

What the e-mail didn't have were any examples of the homophobia and stereotypes. So I did a quick search and found a web site devoted to Letterman's Top 10 lists. Here, in its entirety, is what Letterman said:

Top Ten Signs You're A Gay Cowboy
10. "Your saddle is Versace"
9. "Instead of 'Home On The Range', you sing 'It's Raining Men'"
8. "You enjoy ridin', ropin', and redecoratin'"
7. "Sold your livestock to buy tickets to 'Mamma Mia'"
6. "After watching reruns of 'Gunsmoke', you have to take a cold shower"
5. "Native Americans refer to you as 'Dances With Men'"
4. "You've been lassoed more times than most steers"
3. "You're wearing chaps, yet your 'ranch' is in Chelsea"
2. "Instead of a saloon you prefer a salon"
1. "You love riding, but you don't have a horse"

Ummmm ... okay ... I'm waiting for the outrage to hit. And waiting ... Still waiting.

Actually, while I'm waiting I'm having a hard time keeping from chuckling. If the worst stereotype Letterman can come up with is that, as gay cowboys, we'd want saddles from Versace, that's pretty tame. (And, I might add, sometimes devastatingly accurate considering how many "brand whores" there are out there sporting names like Tommy Hilfiger or Abercrombie and Fitch across their sculpted pecs.) So I strongly doubt that I'll be joining to angry chorus hurling invectives at Letterman.

Humor inhabits a curious gray area when it comes to determining whether the listener is offended or amused. The same joke can either be funny or offensive ... depending on who tells it. A lot of it is whether the person telling the joke is part of the group about which the joke is told. It's like the "insider/outside" type of language. Among LGBTs, some of us use the word "queer" as an inclusive term for the entire community. Granted, there are some in the community who don't care for the word, but in general it's accepted. But, to hear the same word come out of a straight person's mouth can raise our hackles. It's much the same thing as the use of "the N-word." Young urban blacks can use the term to refer to each other, but it's not acceptable to be uttered by a white person.

The "insider/outside" thing isn't as simple as it may appear on the surface. For the most part we can laugh about a group of gay men camping it up and calling each other "fag," but the same word spoken by Fred Phelps or waved around on his infamous "God Hates Fags" signs tends to become fighting words. In between these two extremes is where humor fits. Here it becomes less clear cut and more "in the eye of the beholder."

Remember the comedy series "In Living Color"? The series, produced by Keenen Ivory Wayans on Fox from 1990 to 1994, was a break-out hit that not only introduced American to urban humor, but launched the careers of folks like Damon Wayans and Jim Carrey. It featured a periodic segment called "Men on Film" in which two stereotypically gay men review films. Any film starring a woman would likely get a "Hated it!" review chanted in unison by Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, while movies starring hot guys would get "Two snaps up!" There was a lot of disagreement in the LGBT community whether the skits were offensive or not. Personally, I never found the "Men on Films" skits to be particularly offensive - especially considering that the characters seemed pretty mild when compared to the rest of the show. And, believe me, the humor on "In Living Color" spared no group.

Humor is a subjective thing. So often whether a joke is funny or offensive depends on more than just the words. Humor depends on the context of the joke and the past history of the speaker. For example, we tend to be much more lenient about Robin Williams doing a stereotypical imitation of a gay man because we know he has been supportive of the LGBT community in the past and his humor comes across as a lot more gentle than some of the comedians who lack Williams' "street cred" among the LGBT community. Compared to comedians like Sam Kinison who ranted about "some faggot in Africa fucked a monkey and now we have to wear rubbers" or Eddie Murphy who made a joke out of women who liked to hang out with gay guys and then "be kissin' on them and bringin' home nasty diseases," Williams' humor is benign and lacks the vicious edge of other comedians.

I don't doubt that my acquaintance really was offended by Letterman's Top 10 list last night. He's certainly welcome to send an angry letter to CBS. But considering how many things going on in the world that I find worthy of outrage, I think I'll pass on this crusade and save my outrage for other issues.