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Nov 20 2012

What on Earth is a ‘gay tax’?

[Correction: For some reason I replaced the actual name Morris with Brown in places. I have made the correction.]

Phillip Morris is a local columnist for the Plain Dealer who usually writes fairly boring boilerplate local interest stories. I usually read just the first paragraph before moving on. But a couple of days ago my attention was grabbed by the headline to his column that said ‘Rachel Maddow and the gay tax’.

If he wanted an attention grabber, he got it and so I read on and was even more astounded by the opening lines:

MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow is a big lesbian who looks like a man. She’s not an anchor babe and never will be.

As I read the rest of the piece, it seemed to me that his basic point was to complain about the unfairness in the way a TV news anchor in Cincinnati was treated. She was suspended for a couple of days for writing on her Facebook page that “Rachel Maddow is such an angry young man”. She later apologized. Brown says that her punishment amounted to a ‘gay tax on her free speech’.

Morris seemed to feel that the punishment was unjust because Maddow herself had told a British newspaper “I’m not a TV anchor babe. I’m a big lesbian who looks like a man” and so he wondered if that meant that he too could say such things about her and not be hauled over the coals for doing so, adding “That’s part of what’s become so confusing about the current state of public discourse. The rules on what one is allowed or not allowed to say aren’t always clear.”

Morris then piles on:

[A]nyone who pays attentions to the “Rachel Maddow Show” knows the hostess does looks like a man. Just as anyone who pays attention knows that there are times when, given the right topic, Maddow can work herself into one of her ideological frenzies where she resembles an angry young man.

Maddow has swagger and lots of it.

She’s also a big lesbian who looks like a man.

Am I allowed to say that?

Actually, in this case the answer is quite simple: I wouldn’t advise it, unless you don’t mind looking like a jerk.

It is a fairly simple rule that says that people can say some things about themselves that should not be said about them by others. For example, I can say, and have said, that I am not at all good looking, but it would be odd for someone else to publicly say that about me. If Morris began a column by saying, “That ugly Mano Singham wrote recently…” it would be quite weird. And the fact that I would agree with the description does not make it less weird.

What a person looks like should not matter in public discourse unless looks are obviously relevant. Androgynous looks are just another kind of look, except that they do not fit into cultural stereotypes. A biological man may look more closely like the cultural profile of how a woman looks and vice versa but so what?

But it is the case that when someone says that a man looks like a woman or a woman looks like a man, they are not merely talking about appearances in a value-neutral way by comparing them to cultural norms. They usually mean it derogatorily, that the person is unattractive or not a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’, whatever those terms might mean. And that is totally uncalled for.

For the record, I have seen Maddow numerous times on the internet and the thought never crossed my mind that she resembled the cultural stereotype of a man more than that of a woman. She struck me as being attractive, with an expressive, intelligent face, cheerful smile, and an engaging, if somewhat hyper, self-deprecatory manner, which is likely what led to the comments she made to the British newspaper about her looks.

I am not sure what Morris was thinking when he wrote that column. It seems remarkably obtuse to me. I urge you to read it and see if I am missing something.

28 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    You’re dead on here. We don’t even have to get into issues of context and privilege (which, if we do, make this guy look like even more of a douche). It’s just rude to say certain things about somebody, especially if you don’t know them very well, even if they would say the same thing about themselves.

    I actually had something very similar happen yesterday (although on a private level, not a public one) on Facebook, where I opened up about a possible character flaw, and this guy I barely know was like, “Yep, sounds like you really suck in that way.” Um, sorry, if you don’t know me, you’re not invited to say things like that. -1 Facebook friend, good riddance.

    Then you add in a heterosexual male saying his stuff about a gay woman, and it goes from run-of-the-mill “dickhead” territory into “bigoted asshole”. What a tool.

  2. 2
    brucegee1962

    Regarding the original comment, though, about a reporter who wass suspended for calling her an “angry young man” — I actually think he has a point that the punishment was over the top and harsh. It would have been better if he had made that point without making derogatory comments about her looks, but still, he’s right when he says “The rules on what one is allowed or not allowed to say aren’t always clear.”

    For one thing, in a lot of circles, being called an “angry young man” would be considered a compliment. It’s a societal type in our culture, almost a cartoon type like the “fat cat” or the “yuppie” or “tree hugger.” What was wrong with the Cincinnati anchor pointing out that this label is now one that transcends gender? Isn’t that, in a way, kind of a good thing?

  3. 3
    smhll

    For one thing, in a lot of circles, being called an “angry young man” would be considered a compliment. It’s a societal type in our culture, almost a cartoon type like the “fat cat” or the “yuppie” or “tree hugger.”

    IMO, purposely mis-gendering someone when you damn well know their gender is not a compliment. And it is especially problematic to mis-gender someone who isn’t heterosexual, because it plays off the hostile meme in our culture that suggests that homosexual women and men aren’t real women and men.

    What “circles” are you talking about, and do you have an example?

  4. 4
    psweet

    Mano, have you got some sort of problem with your site? I don’t see what the Rockford Files have to do with a gay tax, and the comments don’t seem to match up well, either.

  5. 5
    Mano Singham

    Sorry! What happened was that I was testing a new post and it ended up over-riding the original one! I have corrected it. Thanks for pointing it out.

  6. 6
    Pierce R. Butler

    If more men looked like Rachel Maddow, I might have to reconsider this heterosexuality habit…

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    I know quite a number of straight men who are unhappy with Maddow’s orientation. Then again, they are the kind of straight men who want more in a woman than a large bra size and a skull with an echo.

    As for whether the news anchor Brown mentions should have been suspended, I think it depends on the context. Was she posting to her personal account, or was it to her account as a local news anchor? If the later, then her comments were made as an employee, not as a private individual, and the station was justified in reprimanding her.

  8. 8
    dingojack

    Soooo – if Ms Maddow looked like some kind of ‘blonde, buxom, bombshell’ would that make her better or worse at what she does professionally?
    If her ‘look’ has no bearing on her profession, it has no bearing, it’s a mere ad hom. (and not a very polished one at that). [IMHO, naturally]
    Dingo

  9. 9
    Dunc

    She was suspended for a couple of days

    Wait, wait, wait… Suspended by whom? Her employer? Well, that’s a matter for internal disciplinary procedures then, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like the Thought Police or the local Commissar turned up and demanded that she be suspended, is it? She said something in public which her employer felt warranted disciplinary action.

    Now, you can certainly make the argument that employers should be disciplining their employees because of things they write on their personal facebook pages (I’m assuming it was her personal FB page), but that’s an entirely different argument. And, let’s be honest here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sort of people who might describe Rachel Maddow as a man making any arguments that employers should have less right to interfere in the lives of their employees.

  10. 10
    dingojack

    Or perhaps the Cincinnati News Anchor was making a cunning literary reference. (Somehow I doubt it).
    Dingo

  11. 11
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    I dunno. I always thought Rachel Maddow was attractive. She’s intelligent, outgoing, energetic, and most importantly, she can be funny as hell. She’s not busty or anything but that sort of thing isn’t nearly as important to me as it was when I was, you know, 14.

    It would never work, though, partly because I also like long hair and partly because I prefer partners that are actually attracted to me. Ah well.

  12. 12
    Jared A

    I agree with the points brought up by Mano and in the previous comments, but I think the most important aspect is the subtext. Maddow is using irony. It’s a common rhetorical device to make an explicitly self-deprecatory remark which has the effect of undermining itself. The hyperbole is to show that there is something wrong with the whole premise. Regardless of veracity it shouldn’t be something worth pointing out at all. Consequently, if some random person just repeats the original remark the subtext is lost and it can only be understood as non-ironic statement.

    So in other words: no, Mr. Brown, there is no double standard. The reason it is wrong when you say it is because context matters. What Maddow was implying is “Only an idiot would think it intelligent to say “x” about me” and then you went ahead and said “x” about her.

    Another thing. I’m confused. Who is Morris?

  13. 13
    maxdwolf

    Ditto. Though as a bisexual man I’d have to say that I’d be gayer than I am

  14. 14
    slc1

    This reminds me of some of the derogatory commentary on Nate Silver that was pointed out on several blogs prior to the election. Mr. Silver, who, like Maddow, is gay, was slimed as being effeminate by several conservative commentators, as if that had anything to do which his very accurate election predictions.

  15. 15
    psweet

    No worries — the whole thing makes a lot more sense now!

  16. 16
    Mano Singham

    AARGH! I swear I am losing my marbles. For some reason, I occasionally used the name Brown instead of his actual name of Morris. I have corrected it.

  17. 17
    Jared A

    Oh man, if only I had been paying attention to the original article (I did click through!) I wouldn’t have propagated the error…

  18. 18
    lamacher

    That’s right. It’s like some Persian satrap dismissing Alexander as a general because of his manifest bi-sexuality. There’s ignorant, and then there is stupid.

  19. 19
    bksea

    Jared A is dead-on here. Maddow was using irony to defend herself. The news anchor in Cincinnatti called her “an angry young man” to attack her. That is the difference.

  20. 20
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    Sadly that is all they got. They can’t say she’s wrong, so they have to get personal.

    Pathetic.

  21. 21
    baal

    double ditto (yeah, I know it’s not much of a comment but there aren’t that many places to at least semi-relevantly mention the existence of bi-men and I echo the sentiment).

  22. 22
    Argle Bargle

    This is my thought as well. Maddow is an intelligent, incisive political commentator who does her research and is not afraid to call a spade a bloody shovel. Since she’s rarely wrong about what she says, it’s easier to attack her instead of her commentary.

  23. 23
    brucecoppola

    I know quite a number of straight men who are unhappy with Maddow’s orientation…

    (raises hand)

  24. 24
    Nathaniel Frein

    What is interesting is that I have heard the term “gay tax”. But not as something imposed on straight people by those horrible gheys.

    When I heard the term, it was used to describe the higher costs of living incurred by gay people compared to their hetero counterparts, for example when they have to pay more for family insurance because they aren’t considered “married”.

  25. 25
    maudell

    I think you read correctly. The article is pathetic.

    However, it’s a great example of how some people don’t understand the meaning of free speech. It seems like they think free speech means not being told your comment is idiotic or not risking your job in the private sector for saying something offensive (in a free capitalist society).

    Interestingly, like all the “persecution complex” Christians, they don’t seem to realize that the group that used to be muted in this case are gay people themselves. Now they are slowly getting accepted, and don’t face as much social repercussion for calling b.s. where it is. It’s about time.

    But it’s true, you can say anything you want that will make you look like a jerk. You can’t stop people thinking you’re a jerk though.

  26. 26
    Winterwind

    Bah! Everyone knows there’s no such thing as bisexual. It’s just being greedy!

  27. 27
    Katie de Silva

    Hey Mano, we think you’re cute! Katie and Sano

  28. 28
    Angie Schmtit

    Phillip Morris is a total disgrace. A few years ago he wrote a column in which young black children were likened to wild dogs. That was the same damn week that he was named as a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer Prize committee really must have owed someone a favor.

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