You know what LGBTQ people need? More letters. We can unveil a new one each year, so we can have an ever-expanding panoply of sexual desires and love and feelings to be listed, celebrated, and acknowledged. Letters aren't just badges of pride, though. We can use them as warning beacons, and right now we need to be wary of a new sexual identity: straights posing as gays. SPAGs.
The last time we heard of SPAGs, we met the Pink Panthers: straight guys going to gay clubs to pick up/harass women—who were deliberately there to avoid them—before getting thrown out.
But gay clubs are dying, thanks to high rents, Grindr, and aforementioned SPAGs ruining the vibe. So instead we live online and click on memes and Tumblr to feel a sense of community. Now, the SPAGs have infiltrated the gay havens on our Facebook feeds, too. But don't worry! This time they're here to save us from homophobia.
Great, right? French artist and photographer Olivier Ciappa's new photo series, IMAGINARY COUPLES, is a sepia-tinged collection of images featuring loads of different families and couples in love. But while Ciappa says his images include "real gay families, straight ones, single parents, the disabled, people of different skin colors and origins, different religion, young couples, and old ones," he also smarms that "the celebrities who I shot are heterosexual."
So there's Desperate Housewives' Eva Longoria, the director of SPAG-gy AIDS drama Dallas Buyers' Club, Jean-Marc Vallee, singer Lara Fabian, and Sicario director Denis Villeneuve. What is really being proven here? That they're legit allies and advocates calling out bullshit when they see it and helping queer people tell and represent their own stories? Or that they're kind-hearted straight people sacrificing their precious reputations to try out gayness for the length of a photoshoot?
Ciappa's work may be well intentioned. He wants "to show that love is love." And, yeah, some of his photos of non-famous people—the old women cuddling, the guys showering together—are, at least, convincing.
But Eva Longoria? She looks half asleep in one image and is playing "sniff my fingers" in the other. As for the two directors—one is kissing the other on the head. At a time when men could do with all the affection they need, decreeing a little kiss and a cuddle between two straight guys as a "homo" act widens the gamut of behaviors that men can feel awkward about.
Some may be tempted to compare SPAG-ing to blackface. After all, here are people not in a marginalized minority pretending to be that minority for entertainment's sake. But blackface has historically been done by white performers employed to save the audience from the supposed horrors of interacting with black people. SPAG-ing, on the other hand, is being done transparently by straight celebrities trying to validate us queers by suggesting queer people are OK, because they're just like normal people! They look like us AND they feel love!
Being able to marry is a great endgame for the queers who battle their way through all the bullshit to find love and a home and a family willing to attend the wedding. Yet in projects such as IMAGINARY COUPLES, the ongoing movement for gay equality has been mistaken for the "love wins" euphoria of marriage equality. Queer people are most tolerated when neatly packaged into nuclear families or besotted couples.
It's cute to sell straight people cookie-cutter notions of the queer community as a group full of happy couples in love—but we're not always in love. Some of us are SLAGs. Some of us are too ugly to be loved. Some of us are so mentally unwell that we're not able to hold down a relationship. Some of my exes might say I'm all three. Some of us are lonely old queers having to closet ourselves in care homes, some of us are suicidal teenagers, and some of us have nowhere to live after our families chucked us out and the Conservatives in the UK, where I live, cut housing benefits for 18-to 21-year-olds.
If picture-perfect love is the only thing you love about us, then our longest battles are ahead. Olivier Ciappa and his SPAGs might think they're helping promote positive images of gay couples, but I'm not sure these are the kinds of images that need promoting.
Follow Sophie Wilkinson on Twitter.