I already said that watching the season opener of The Mandalorian was like astrally projecting back to my early-80s self. Most of it was just due to seeing exactly the kind of stories in a Star Wars expanded universe that I’d hoped to see as a pre-teen. But I also got a weird feeling of deja vu when I was distracted watching a scene, with a close-up of Timothy Olyphant’s character, because I noticed he had a hole for an earring.
I thought I’d stopped doing that years ago, but I guess it’s just a thing I’m going to keep doing forever.
I started looking for them when they were just on the tail end of being exotic. Straight guys were starting to wear them more often, but it was still the case that if you saw a man with an earring, he was most likely a pirate, a hippie, or a gay man.1Or ideally, all three. It would be at least a couple of decades before people would resort to mocking men of a certain age for having them, which is something that people do only because they’re dumb and stupid and jealous of how cool we look.
But back in the early 80s, they were still pretty gay. I started looking for them as reassurance that there were other gay men out there, and I wasn’t just some weird aberration. It became enough of a habit that I kept doing it even after they’d completely lost that connotation. I suspect that if I were part of one of those eye-tracking experiments, I’d learn that I still do it subconsciously.
Clearly there’s a message about the importance of media representation in there, but it’s not as simple or as feel-good as it might seem on the surface. I already knew that there were gay men in movies and TV, even if no one said it explicitly. But that didn’t do me any good, because I just thought, I’m not like that. I was looking for reassurance that I could still be normal. I wanted it to be something that wasn’t character-defining, but instead so subtle that most people wouldn’t even notice, and I could just put it on and take it off whenever I wanted. It would be several years — years after I’d already come out, in fact — before I’d really start to understand how backwards-thinking that is.
I feel like we’ve finally managed to move past late 80s/early 90s tokenism as a substitute for meaningful diversity. Even if you make the charitable assumption that it’s well-intentioned, it still depends on a list of who is and who isn’t included. And it didn’t do a lot for teenage me, who wasn’t looking forward to being expected to identify with the Sassy Gay Friend in romantic comedies. It also helped foster a really toxic mindset that runs counter to the entire notion of diversity: well, I may be gay, but I’m not, like, Paul Lynde gay.
Eventually, we’ll have a better understanding that actual diversity means celebrating diversity itself, not just any one group of people. Representation shouldn’t depend on being able to see people who are exactly like you; instead, it should remind you that our differences and our similarities should both be celebrated.
And while we’re all waiting to achieve that level of understanding, I guess I’ll still be here subconsciously looking for earholes to assure myself I’m not a weirdo. Because that’s not weird at all.
- 1Or ideally, all three.