When getting ready for my recent trip to Norway, I downloaded Cyd Zeigler’s recent book Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports. I was partially motivated by the quotes in this tweet, where Zeigler describes the main obstacle to to coming out not as homophobic language, but hyper heterosexism. That made a lot of sense to me, so I thought I’d check out the book and see what else he had to say.
There were a lot of interesting ideas and good thoughts in Fair Play, but the thing that struck me most was an omission. One chapter describes discomfort among straight athletes about sharing a locker room with a gay teammate. Zeigler writes:
Instead, these [straight] men are worried that their naked bodies will be simply seen by the eyes of a gay man. There’s an odd subconscious feeling by some straight men that if they’re “looked at” or “hit on” by gay men, being on the receiving end of that simple act somehow undermines their own heterosexuality and masculinity.
I read that paragraph and immediately thought: “Well, of course it makes straight men uncomfortable. They’ve never been perceived as a sexual object by someone who has equal ‘power’ to them. It’s new to them, but women know all about this.”
I read on, expecting Zeigler to make that point, but he didn’t! Instead, he attributed the discomfort of straight men entirely to internalized homophobia and fear of losing their “masculinity.”
On one hand, the book is written by a man, and so maybe I shouldn’t expect my perspective to occur to the writer and appear in the book. On the other - it still always surprises me when a perspective that seems so obvious to me - simply because I’m a woman! - is completely off the radar, because the person writing is a man. The blind spots of our privilege are indeed strong.
That’s part of the reason I follow at least a few black activists on Twitter, and on Monday, one of them gave me the language to describe my observation from this book. Brittany Packnett posted a string of tweets describing a recent vacation in Trinidad and Tobago and the utter freedom she felt there, away from the white gaze.
Gaze. That’s the word I had been looking for - straight men are not used to being on the receiving end of a sexually objectifying gaze, where gaze is defined as looking not just to look, but with power or expectation. Whereas women experience that…every day.
When Mad Max came out, my roommate read a lot of commentary and analysis of the cinematography and how it subverted the male gaze by placing women in the center of the frame, drawing attention to them as people, not sexual objects.
At the time, I didn’t quite get it. Male gaze? What? It sound like more sociological jargon that attempted to create indignity over something that didn’t really exist. But after reading Cyd’s book and Brittany’s tweets, and thinking about my own response to them, I get it. I’m not a straight man in a locker room and I’m not a black woman, but I get it. As much as I can, based on my experiences and the stories of other people, I get it. Gaze isn’t a physical, tangible object, but that makes it no less real or powerful to those subjected to it.
I have no solutions, only questions. Can you imagine a world
without that kind of gaze? Where everyone has laid down
rightprivilege to expect something based on
what they see?