Blood and Guts in High School: The Will & Grace YearsBy Matt P. / Sunday, August 30th, 2009
Eighth grade was a tough year for me. I was 13 years old in 1998, in an oppressive yet typical American middle school where “pack of wolves” could accurately describe the student body. I was a big-eyed late-bloomer who enjoyed class more than recess and was irrepressibly talkative. Quickly, I became a focal-point of abuse for my male peers, most of whom were bigger than me, had girlfriends and some of these guys were even shaving.
It was also the year Matthew Shepard was murdered, and the news felt personal. His death coincided with my realization that I was gay. Though I was still in the closet, bullies at my school gleefully pointed out that Matthew Shepard and I shared a first name. They taunted me as they poked fun at Shepard’s story, making clear that even murder is fair game for expressing disdain for homosexuality.
These components merged into a complex moment, historically and personally. Yet none would have the profound impact of a seemingly inane historical occurrence of 1998: Will & Grace first aired on NBC.
My parents disapproved of most TV shows as “trash TV” (not because they were prudish or conservative, but because they thought TV was too commercial) so Will & Grace was off my radar. But the show would smash and transform the gay experience, at least from the perspective of a still-closeted young person who had negligible contact with a broader LGBT community.
Young people are sponges for culture, and American culture finally offered a model for straight people to relate to homosexuality besides pitying AIDS victims or throwing chunks of pencil eraser at the faggot on the bus.
The very first person I came out to (not counting people I knew only over the Internet) was my friend Beth, who would eventually become a pariah for getting pregnant senior year of high school and refusing to go the normal route of transferring schools, instead tucking her bulging tummy behind the desks as if it was no news. We were still sophomores when I told her I was gay — by email since I couldnâ€™t muster the words in person — and confirmed it for her the next day outside the school cafeteria. The first thing she noted about my confession was its relationship to Will & Grace.
“You’re the Will kind of gay,” she told me, and hugged me warmly. “You’re not like Jack, because I can hardly tell you’re gay at all.”
The second thing she told me was that I had nothing to be ashamed of, that she was really really excited to have a gay friend. She’d wanted one for a while, she explained.
That would be a theme of my new friendships after that year. Most of my guy friends began awkwardly avoiding me after I came out, but girls swarmed in. My reputation as the annoyingly-brainy-guy was replaced by a social archetype they could define. I distinctly remember a comment from one of my younger sister’s friends: “I used to think you were totally weird, but if you’re just gay, that’s actually pretty cool.” Those conversations were usually followed by, “do you want to go to a mall sometime?” Or even better, “do you have a boyfriend? No? You should meet the other gay guy I know…”
A lot of queer boys of my generation had the same experience meeting young girls or women eager to know us, who we called our fag hags as we learned the language and stepped into the role. Our friendship went from social liability to social asset as young girls realized we looked good on them and didn’t hurt their popularity. Beyond that, we were friends that neither competed with them nor objectified them: we were safe.
It certainly wasn’t always good. When I came out, I was immediately transformed from “my best friendâ€ to “my best gay friend.” I went from the funny, strange guy at school to “the gay guy at school,” and most annoyingly — an experience perhaps only known to guys with very common first names — from Matt to “gay Matt” as a way of distinguishing me from all the other Matts someone knew.
Girls I had barely met would approach to say they supported gay marriage or thought gay boys were just the coolest, that their parents or friends may be homophobic but they think gay guys are sexy and wish they could date one.
Most gay guys were willing to put up with that kind of situation because it was extraordinarily better than the world that seemed likely before Will & Grace made gay friends cool. At least fag hags gave us positive attention. We entered into a kind of celebrity, as the capstone of every public school theater clique. Who were we to act ungrateful for that? It might have been uncomfortable at times, but we rolled with the punches and tried to get our female cohorts to help us find boyfriends, in a world where it wasn’t safe to tell a random cute guy you were gay or interested.
Every gay guy I met back then was in a similar situation. We put up with tokenization as we put up with our friends’ homophobic boyfriends who were still invited to come along on outings, along with a lot of ignorance.
My girl friends consistently underestimated the hostility and danger gay adolescents faced in white American culture, assuming everyone felt the same way they did. One poignant experience was a jarring wakeup call, after a friend from a different high school brought me to a get-together of college-aged and high school boys she knew. I let my guard down, assuming my friend made sure they were all gay-friendly. She made some offhand comment about a guy I liked and I went along, and whispers must’ve moved quickly through the group because within three minutes I was cornered and booted from the party by three ominous-looking guys in blue and white school letter jackets. My friend came outside with me, and a few minutes later she got a call from her contact at the party asking why the hell she was hanging out with a fag.
I felt sick to my stomach about it, and my friend was righteously indignant on my behalf, saying she certainly wouldn’t hang out with those guys again. But when I asked her why she hadn’t made sure the party was safe, she got defensive.
“God Matt,” she said, “that was a totally isolated incident. You’re so paranoid.”
With a few more drinks in them, the guys who threw me out of the party might have done more than just see me out, so I knew I was anything but paranoid. Incidentally, my friend did hang out with the homophobic guys again — within a few weeks she was fucking one of them — and with time I got the sense that her self-declaration as my ally was only as firm as having a gay friend made her look cool. We lost touch. Such is life.
Will & Grace has been off the air for three years, and despite its best intentions it already seems an antiquated and stereotypical portrayal of gay life. We are not all camp and materialistic, and are not all joined at the hip through some sexually-tense pseudomarriage to a loveless urban straight girl.
We are not all dashingly good-looking, and there are not two archetypes for gay guys, the flamer and the hot one. I was vaguely uncomfortable with the show when I started paying attention to it, as I was vaguely uncomfortable with being referred to as “my gay best friend” by girls who begged to hang out with me. But with time and maturity, I learned to identify the problems better.
Ultimately I see Will & Grace as a positive moment in queer history, especially for its impact on pop culture. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Gay-Straight Alliances were popping up in high schools across the country within a couple years of Will & Grace’s first airing. The program paved the way, in the future, for better representations of queer people in the media.
Pop culture is a way of reaching young people; it’s also a window into social acceptance. It would be a lie to say I harbored ill feelings toward my old friend Beth; I’m grateful that the first person I came out to responded positively, even if her only preparation for the moment was coached by a network TV show. She did her best to support me with the tools she had as a naive 15-year-old.
The era of Will & Grace represents a late stage of the final tokenization and misunderstanding that many oppressed groups go through right as they move into social acceptance. I have no doubt that white, non-disabled Americans routinely underestimate the racism their black friends endure or the stigmatization their disabled friends face, even when these friends, being human, cannot fully and perfectly explain the experience in ways that everyone can understand.
It opens up a conversation mainstream society is famously uncomfortable with: you aren’t a member of a hate group but may still have prejudice. Just because you see yourself as tolerant doesn’t mean your attitudes don’t make life more complicated for somebody. We can always do better.
I still hang on to some of my old friends from high school; some of them are like family to me. My occasional annoyance with having often been the token fag shouldn’t be interpreted as condemnation of those who stuck by me, nor a suggestion that every one of my friends or women in general were blatant stereotypers.
Indeed some of them advocated passionately for their queer guy friends so I could be sure that I wasn’t the only one saying it’s not OK to shove me around. They put themselves on the line when they didn’t have to — it’s something we should all aspire to do. But the old high school friends I still call friends today tend to be the ones who reacted the least enthusiastically when I came out, who neither pulled at nor pushed against the information. They were the ones who gave me the space to be me, without appraisal or ambition. They are the true allies, who got it right when all kinds of messages were telling them to get it wrong. I would never take them for granted.
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