GIVE ME A BREAK:TWO THINGS ARE exercising my patience at the moment: Sacha Baron Cohen's new film and the Leaving Cert. Both make me angry for the same reason.
What do the two have in common? Oppression, repression, stigmatisation, shame.
Baron Cohen – better known for his characters Borat and Ali G – makes fun of gay men in his new film, Brüno. He generated acres of publicity by shoving his bottom into Eminem’s face at an MTV movie awards ceremony last week. It now appears that Eminem was in on the “joke”, which simply added to the homophobic message being portrayed.
The TV coverage of the audience only showed laughter at the clown. It didn’t show what gay men in attendance may have felt. Brüno with his naked bottom and angel wings and blonde hair, portraying a caricature of the worst stereotype of gayness that non-gay people still believe. Narcissistic, self-indulgent, promiscuous.
That’s the stereotype. I’d have thought that Baron Cohen, being a Jew, would have known better. Because the gay stereotype is wrong. To be a gay man, as Barbara Windsor said over the weekend in a tribute to Danny La Rue, is to be courageous, to be who you are and to defend your friends. But not in Baron Cohen’s version of gayness. I haven’t seen his film and have no intention of doing so. It could, I fear, take gay rights back a few decades – as though things could get worse.
A survey in Northern Ireland last week found that nearly half of gay people, men and women, had been the victims of public abuse. This means that gay people live with the fear that they will be publicly punished and insulted and physically hurt for who they are. Many change their behaviour in order to avoid being branded as gay.
I wish we were different here in the so-called free Ireland. I wish we were different in New York, in Abu Dhabi, in China. I could be completely wrong here, because I’m not a gay man, but many of my gay male friends are fed up with the stereotypes. I don’t know a single one who hasn’t worried that his sexual orientation has been a barrier in the way other people see him. The bravest find a way to be themselves. To be joyously gay and alive. Commitment, love, joy in a partnership – that’s what my gay friends want. They work in all kinds of fields – politics, law, teaching. They’re quite unlikely to dress in angel wings and toss their bums in people’s faces.
Yet somehow, as I watched the laughing at the music awards ceremony, I got a shiver in my solar plexus that seeing gay men as clowns with out-of- control libidos has somehow become acceptable and that the gay rights movement may never have happened at all. I thought of Danny La Rue, a pioneer of different sexuality as he bravely used cross-dressing as a way to be gay. Those days are over.
La Rue’s style, parodied by Baron Cohen, is over. As the Northern Ireland survey showed, it’s as difficult to be a gay male today as it ever was. Today’s gay men are undercover most of the time, not dressing as women but trying to redefine what it is to be male in a society where manliness has a rigid definition.
So to the Leaving Cert, which has its own inplacable definition of intelligence. The Leaving Cert is about memorisation and regurgitation. It’s not about learning at all.
Both systems – the sexual system, where heterosexuality rules, and the education system, where being able to memorise and regurgitate is the definition of intelligence – are rigidly shame based. The shame is used as the psychological stick to beat people with, just like the leather was in the old days. Everyone being informed of their results in front of the rest of the class, as if their inability to comprehend is a sort of punishment. Teachers that inspire fear rather than a desire to learn by telling students that they are at fault, rather than passing on that quality and irresistible attraction of knowledge, history and passion for learning.
The Leaving Cert system suppresses individuality and we don’t seem to mind. We’re like the people laughing at Baron Cohen’s antics instead of standing up for gay rights. Our children have a right not just to learn, but to learn how to learn. Regurgitation of learning is a type of forced conformity, just as gay people are being told to conform and are punished if they don’t.
So that’s what Baron Cohen and our Leaving Cert system have in common: an intolerance of difference – difference in thinking, in learning, in ways of being. People who are good at conforming and playing it straight do well. People who are different will be made fun of.
What can you say to a kid who is different in learning or sexuality. Just close your ears to their feelings of rejection.