Earlier this year, the University added “gender identity and expression” to its nondiscrimination policy. During last spring’s campaign to add the phrase, student advocates emphasized that while it was designed to protect transgendered students and employees from unfair treatment, the elastic nature of the phrase “gender expression” allowed protection for any student whose behavior refused to conform to the “gender roles” so many Yalies love to hate.
Yet despite the official recognition, and the general perception that Yale is a haven of bliss for the politically correct, there are some bad habits students cannot seem to kick. For some reason, our definition of masculinity has gotten stuck in the 1950s, with a quick addendum to account for gay men in the “one in four” era. As a result of this, some male students experience discrimination every day, in a manner that is not malicious but nonetheless harmful. I am speaking, of course, of the “closet case” — that man whom everyone “knows” to be gay, despite everything he may say or do to the contrary, even if he has never kissed a boy.
Evidence used to marshal the case against the offender ranges from refusal to declare “Interested in Women” on Facebook to certain interests and personality traits. Men in a cappella groups, for example, often mention that defending their heterosexuality causes their friends to roll their eyes. Some words are off-limits: Any man can call a woman “hot,” apparently, but only a gay man would call her “beautiful.”
Like all dangerous stereotypes, this one has a basis in fact. It is true that many a cappella men are gay, and it is true that some men uncomfortable with their homosexuality will present themselves as straight as a defense mechanism. The broad and unquestioned assumption that those who believe a man to be gay always know best can, however, lead even the most heterosexual man to question himself, and many have mentioned that their status as closet cases casts them into self-doubt. Yale students will fight strenuously for the right to self-expression in other domains, but we seem to refuse to grant our friends the right to express their own sexual orientations in the ways they deem fit.
Some argue that there is no harm in taking an assertive stance toward closet cases, as no one who insists they are homosexual is doing so to insult them. It is certainly clear that Yale is a sufficiently enlightened community that homosexuality — in most circles, at least — is a completely acceptable alternative to heterosexuality. In fact, this alternative is so legitimate that students are all too eager to classify men who are sensitive and pay attention to tailoring as “too good to be straight.”
The problem is that homosexuality is here being defined as a set of stereotypes distinct from those already used to describe straight men. This cannot possibly be a good thing. In putting enough blind faith in stereotypes to judge someone based on adherence to one rather than on his actual behavior, gay men risk marginalizing themselves by having far less benevolent generalizations — such as ubiquitous AIDS infection — hurled at them in return.
Furthermore, in tying sartorial taste or word choice to sexual preference, we are limiting the scope of appropriate behavior for an individual. Really, this is no different from the hard-and-fast gender roles we so despise, with the added problem that these roles are impossible to subvert. If someone acts a certain way, he is straight; otherwise, he is gay. If the individual is not allowed any choice in the formation of his own identity, these stereotypes will never change to fit reality.
In our modern world, a woman can engage in any of a wide range of behaviors without having her femininity or sexuality called into question; women are still held to certain expectations, but most Yale students, at least, are highly conscious of these. Gender roles for men, on the other hand, have not been challenged in American society as a whole, nor, sadly, here at Yale. This omission has caused harm to some students at the hands or words of their peers. The amendment to the nondiscrimination policy offers the opportunity to change this — to think twice before we throw open a closet door that may well have nothing behind it. Give the closet cases a chance.
Dara Lind is a sophomore in Berkeley College.