They might as well be four-letter words, right?
Well, I can think of a few four-letter definitions. How about lazy? Or, a trap? To me, those seem to fit stereotypes.
If stereotypes were shoes in the department store of life, most of them didn’t fit me. Oh, people tried to size me up to stereotypes. But, my size was a special order and rare to find in stores.
As a child, people attacked and questioned my Blackness.
And by people, I mean every human. My classmates, friends, and family members all had names for me.
Have I told you how my family had a black-and-white cocker spaniel named Oreo that I named? If you’ve seen the show Black-ish, oh, I’ve been that Black-ish.
I’ve learned stereotypes aren’t just labels people apply from the outside. Our own communities place and press stereotypes on us too. And, if the stereotypes don’t fit us, sometimes people are quick to quit us.
Before I came out as gay, I heard knocks at my door. Scratch that, it was more like banging.
In high school, my classmates teased me for my walk and talk. Friends of the family told my parents they thought I was gay. Even strangers on the street or in restaurants had snide comments for me.
Although I covered my orientation from myself and others, it wouldn’t hide. Even today, I’m not a gay man who can pass as straight. So, my orientation is always on my sleeve to see like cuff links. People see gay in my eyes even when I shut them.
But, in the summer of 2002, I embraced a new identity. I traded church pews for bar stools.
And, when I came out, people left.
My dad stopped talking to me for two years. My grandma launched a smear campaign against me. And, I had two friends unfriend me. They didn’t unfriend me on Facebook, they unfriended me on the Good Book.
My being gay was the first part of my identity I paid a major price.
The toll and my tab were excessive. My creditors cut me off and charged off my accounts. All of my checks bounced and my lenders foreclosed on me.
But being gay was a decisive purchase I owed to myself. And oh, did it cost me to be gay. Can you blame me if I wanted to get my money’s worth?
Because at some point you accept, own, and wear the hell out of it all.
So, once I got out, I took in every gay stereotype. My glossy lips had a lisp. My wrists were bent. My t-shirts were only right when tight. I did drugs from C to G, and sometimes T. My every hour was a happy one. And, I was grinding way before the gridlock of Grindr.
You could say, like starting a gas stove, my flame was hot and on high as it started. Sure, some of it was natural gas I had just discovered. But some of it was hot air that needed to dissipate.
If we examine stereotypes, we’d see they’re far more complex than we realize. Stereotypes have backstories and historical contexts.
They can be coping mechanisms and responses to stress. And, stereotypes can be engineered and manufactured by individuals, industries, communities, and society.
And let me tell you, the gay community has cookie cutters in stock and on hand. There are memos, form letters, and templates for distribution.
Some of my shape and style as a gay man came from my environment. I reflected what I was willing to see around me. Because, some stereotypes form from social isolation.
But, I chose to become a copycat.
My gay stereotypes were also a way for me to form and bond with my identity as a gay man. Yes, I’d say my stereotypical ways were comfort zones. I wore the uniform like camouflage and protective gear to fit in and blend.
I’d even say my stereotypes created solidarity. Because, with other gay people, stereotypes were convenient shortcuts to commonalities and connections.
As you’d expect, as a gay man, people made assumptions about me. They may stereotype me with a specific attitude and aesthetic. And sometimes, I took the easy way and accepted those stereotypes that shortchanged me.
And keep in mind, I’m a former choir boy. So, some of my traits also came out of defiance to a wrongheaded religion. As a gay man, I was free to roam the garden. So, I decided to try all the forbidden fruit around me and most of it was good.
With stereotypes, we can’t discount how rejection can typecast people.
When people are rejected or believed to be a certain way, sometimes they will give you what you expect.
Some stereotypes are made because of stigmas. It’s not that different from someone who says, “You think I’m — ? Oh, I’ll show you a real — — ”
It’s one thing for me to type for myself. It’s another thing for someone to type for me. No one should judge me for the way I type, or try to type for me.
Because, a recent study from Stanford University says “Stereotyping Makes People More Likely to Act Badly.”
The study suggests when people are devalued they may turn to all sorts of social deviance. That’s right, they may lie, cheat, backbite, be counterproductive, and even engage in illegal activities. I call it a righteous revenge, and it felt good to be bad.
I loved being a gay stereotype because that’s what I knew and had. It’s what I saw, it’s what society gave me, and it’s what I accepted. It all said “gay” to me and it made me happy.
For some, like me, stereotypes may be developmental. I tried out a few voices until I found and accepted my own. I’ve learned sometimes we go in and out of stereotypes.
But there’s no doubt, some of my stereotypical behaviors put me in peril. Stereotypes can turn into statistics for concern. Now, that may not be the case for others. Many people are just being themselves. That’s great, leave them be. A lot of what we call stereotypes are really just similarities.
Stereotypes are both simplistic and complicated. If they aren’t harmful, they need not be shameful.
But, if we have issues with stereotypes, if we question why people embrace and exhibit them, then we should look at society and not individuals alone.
Acceptance and diversity are keys to unlock ourselves.
If I had been accepted in all aspects of my identity, I don’t think I would’ve clung to gay stereotypes for security and survival. Some norms we accept out of necessity.
If I had found, or searched for, more diversity in the LGBTQ community, I may have found my right and real place sooner.
Acceptance and diversity free people to find themselves and be themselves.
I got acceptance and diversity now. And, I try to share those keys with as many people as I can. The keys are yours too, take them and share them.