This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
As a gay man, there's nothing I love more than not being able to drive, pounding down city streets at breakneck speed, slurping on an iced coffee and blasting the music of Carly Rae Jepsen (who, lest we forget, threw the first brick at Stonewall).
If you’ve spent any time on the internet in the last few years, you’ve probably encountered these stereotypes – the latest additions to the pantheon of time-honoured classics like "gay men enjoy fashion, speaking with a lisp and paedophilia".
Although these memes are essentially frivolous, they do play an important role in how we see ourselves, particularly given how scarcely we are represented elsewhere. This is why I have taken it upon myself to tell you why your favourite jokes – the ones you thought were just a spot of harmless banter – are actually deeply problematic. The fun stops now.
Gay Men Can’t Drive
When I was 17, when most of my peers were learning to drive, I was too busy taking mephedrone and playing synth in a band with my female best friend – which is, however you look at it, pretty gay. I always knew I was going to live in a city when I was older, so learning to drive seemed like a waste of time. Never would I have to do anything so prosaic as ferrying my children to school or driving to my job in an out-of-town business park: I was destined for gayer things.
The migration of gay people from small towns to big cities, where driving often isn’t necessary, is pretty well documented, which makes this stereotype plausible. Although my upbringing was provincial in comparison to London, in the context of central Scotland I was practically a city slicker. However, Sean – a gay man who claims to be able to drive (a freak, an oddball… surely at least bisexual?) – suggests that my attitude is derived from townie privilege.
"Gays are supposed to escape from home – it's part of our whole narrative – and if you live in the sticks, that means escaping in the car. Not that I went cruising or anything, I just drove around listening to Kelly Clarkson with my gals, but it was still an escape from the trappings of heterosexual domesticity. And one I needed a full license for."
As well as this stereotype being related to urbanity, it’s perhaps gendered. In order to get the perspective of someone smarter than myself, I spoke to Pak Chiu, a queer academic who specialises in fashion psychology. I asked Pak whether driving has been coded as a masculine skill.
"It makes me think of Top Gear, which is all about cars, engines and power," he says. "I don’t like it, because it represents these old school masculine traits. It’s interesting that we’ve created this stereotype about ourselves… if it’s about rejecting a masculine skill, then that could be quite empowering."
Gay Men Walk Quickly
Thankfully there is one mode of transport at which we excel. I’m inclined to believe that all of the stereotypes which apply to me personally are true, or at least gesture towards a larger truth. The ones that don’t, on the other hand, are fatuous nonsense. This one does: whenever I'm out walking with someone else, they end up sweating, out of breath and begging me to slow down – a homophobic request which I flatly refuse. Sorry, gran!
The stereotype relates, again, to the idea of gay men as being urban. But does it suggest anxiety or confidence? Like lots of gay men, I grew up in a homophobic town where I often felt extremely visible; the hostile looks were sometimes imaginary, but others all too real. Now, one of the things I like most about living in a city is the sense of anonymity it affords. It’s not uncommon to hear people complaining of feeling invisible in London; for me, this has always been a relief. But even residual feelings of hyper-visibility might lead gay men to feel discomfort in public spaces… and walk quickly?
I spoke to Carl Bonner-Thompson, a human geographer at the University of Oxford, and asked him whether he thought this stereotype was a reflection of anxiety. "The idea of casually strolling through a city and taking it all in is a masculine privilege," Carl tells me. "Cities aren’t always safe for some people, and particular areas at particular times present danger, so maybe that’s where the idea comes from."
When I suggest to Carl that the stereotype could equally suggest confidence, he says: "Yes, it’s the idea that gay men are just good at being in cities: they are efficient, getting their iced coffee and working hard. And walking quickly through a city is an urban skill."
Gay Men Love Carly Rae Jepsen
Listen, I hate myself for being gay no more than a reasonable amount: I like Robyn, I’ve been to Heaven twice, and whenever "Piece of Me" comes on at a party I insert my own name into the line, "Oh my god, that Britney’s shameless!" – which is a real treat for everyone present. And yet… I do not understand the appeal of Carly Rae Jepsen.
Since the release of her 2015 album Emotion, the Canadian singer has become, if not quite a fully-fledged icon, then certainly a meme. But I’m sick of biting my tongue: I don’t get why gay men bang on about her so much and I don’t understand what, if anything, is queer about her music. It’s true that she once refused to perform at a Boy Scout jamboree in protest of their ban of gay Scouts and Scout leaders, which is worthy of respect, but is being a good ally enough to make you a gay icon if you don’t have the tunes to back it up?
"I can't speak on behalf of all gays," one Carly Rae Jepsen-loving friend tells me, "but the appeal for me is the nod to 1980s sweet-but-melancholy synth pop. It taps into a nostalgia that is prevalent among queer people."
I’m yet to be convinced: if I want nostalgic melancholy from my female recording artists, I’ll stick to Lana, Lykke or Lorde, thank you very much!
Gay Men Love Iced Coffee
This stereotype fascinates me the most because, on the surface, it’s so banal. As a gay man with an only moderate iced coffee intake, I also find it annoying: it makes me want to chase a power-walking gay down the street and smack the iced coffee from their smug, sophisticated hands. Why does it irritate me so much to be be told I enjoy a frozen beverage when I don’t (particularly)? Why do I crave recognition from these meme-merchants? I tell Carl how baffled I am by this stereotype and ask what he thinks.
"All food is gendered, and coffee is in a big way," he says. "Iced coffee is seen as a less masculine drink, which is also to do with the way it’s actually consumed – you sip it through a straw, which is seen as feminine." Having worked in hospitality for years, I can confirm this is true: the number of times I’ve offered a straight male customer a straw and been asked, "Do I look like a poof, mate?" is… considerable. But does Carl think this stereotype also relates to the idea of gay men as urban?
"An iced coffee really feels like an urban drink," he tells me. "It isn’t something you make at home. You associate it with having purchased it from a coffee shop, which again lends itself to the idea of the urban explorer."
The stereotype also suggests some degree of affluence. Although "coffee is middle class" is an absurd statement, being able to buy takeaway coffee so regularly it forms part of your identity does indicate at least some level of disposable income. "Yes," Carl says, "it’s another stereotype of white gay men that we all have lots of money and good jobs."
Sadly, I myself am a walking rejoinder to this fallacy.
As one final damning critique of the iced coffee stereotype, one bottom friend tells me, "I refuse to accept that a drink which makes you shit yourself can be considered part of gay culture."
Gays Can’t Sit Properly
Only after I’ve visited your dad.
Tops Are Masculine, Bottoms Are Feminine
Is this a new stereotype? No. Has it seen a resurgence through internet humour? Yes. Do I find it annoying despite it being a dynamic I end up perpetuating in each of my own relationships? I assert my right to remain silent, your honour!
Most of the jokes based on this stereotype could be ripped-off from a 1990s stand-up set about men being from Mars and women from Venus, but gay. They risk taking the most old-fashioned tropes of heterosexual relationships and making them normative for queer men. Tops are portrayed as cold, distant and reluctant to commit; sometimes they’re hapless like husbands in car insurance adverts. Bottoms, meanwhile, are depicted as savvier but needy and over-emotional: in other words, they embody stereotypes traditionally, and misogynistically, associated with straight women. Given the extent to which masculinity is still venerated in the gay community, I also wonder whether the idea that there’s a surfeit of tops out there who act exactly like straight men might be wishful thinking.
The stereotype obviously isn’t true (there are plenty of fem tops and masc bottoms), but does its popularity suggest we might want it to be? I ask Pak whether he thinks this gender binary is something we should be looking to leave behind. "For me, as a psychologist, it’s all about people’s wellbeing," he says. "It can be hard to feel as though you have to make a political statement all the time. Sometimes it’s OK to say to yourself, 'It’s fine if I’m looking for a masculine or feminine partner because it offers me something.' Besides, it’s a hard thing to change."
Carl agrees that the stereotype isn’t necessarily harmful, and suggests that the way it has been embraced could even be empowering – a form of reclamation similar to the use of the word "queer", which obviously began as a homophobic term. "You need to look at who’s making these jokes and who’s consuming them," he says. "If it’s people who are feminine or bottoms themselves, and they find it funny to laugh along with them, then that’s not necessarily having a negative impact."
Considering these stereotypes as a whole, the most cheering thing they have in common is the comfort they suggest with the idea of being perceived as feminine. After all, "gay men are feminine" is only an offensive stereotype if you consider femininity to be a bad thing.
But if gay men are characterised as urban, affluent and able-bodied (and, perhaps, by extension, white and cisgendered), we have to acknowledge how many people are excluded from the image presented. Although it’s true that many gay men live in cities, this lifestyle isn’t accessible to everyone. It’s a far harder transition to make if you don’t leave home to attend university, for instance. As annoying as it might be to have a stereotype applied to you accurately, feeling left out can be just as grating, perhaps even alienating.
Finally, I would ask that the next time you’re coming up with a light-hearted joke, please first ensure that it’s directly applicable to me – the one true representative of all gay men.