When I was in high school, I was confused about my sexuality — and that’s an understatement. I knew that I was attracted to girls, but I also knew that I was attracted to other guys. Since then I’ve reached the conclusion that I’m bisexual, which is to say that I’m attracted to people of both sexes and I’m open to eventually falling in love with someone of either sex. Because I was uncertain at the time, I chose to keep my confusion largely to myself. In the parlance of gay culture, I was in the closet.
That didn’t stop my peers at my Catholic high school from picking up on my sexual ambiguity. Maybe it was because I was quieter than most of the other guys. Maybe it was because I was as awkward around the quarterback of the football team as I was around the head cheerleader. Maybe it was because I didn’t play any sports and I was more likely to be a girl’s best friend than her boyfriend.
Whatever tipped them off, the kids I went to school with thought I was gay, and they — especially the other guys — let me know it. They bullied and humiliated me. They made fun of me behind my back and right in front of me, using the colorful pejoratives that most are familiar with. For most of my freshman year I hid in the second floor boys’ restroom instead of going to the cafeteria for lunch. When I thought about signing up for the wrestling team during my sophomore year, one of the wrestlers caught wind of it and advised one of my friends that I wasn’t cut out to wrestle and implied that I was only thinking about joining the team to check out the other guys in the locker room and maybe cop a feel on the mat. I never signed up for the wrestling team.
This isn’t meant to be some personal sob story. Things eventually improved for me in high school, as things in high school often do. By my junior year the upperclassmen who had bullied me had graduated and the neanderthals in my own class had moved on to bullying underclassmen. At the end of my junior year some strange reversal occurred and I was elected student council vice president for the following year. As a senior, in addition to serving on student council, I was the editor of the school newspaper.
I know I was one of the lucky ones. I have mostly fond memories of my last two years in high school and the bullying I endured the first two years never got physical. Unlike a lot of other gay boys in high school, I never had to suffer the humiliation of black eyes and bloody noses, or worse. I only had to fear the next slur; I didn’t have to fear for my safety.
This is the context in which I see Adam Lambert’s raunchy and controversial performance at the American Music Awards. I’m not one for censorship and I acknowledge his point that it’s the parent’s responsibility to monitor what his or her child sees on television, not the performer’s. I also acknowledge the counterpoint others have made, that the awards were broadcast live during primetime and nobody anticipated that his performance would be so outrageous.
I would also point out to Mr. Lambert that if he wants to claim the freedom to sexualize his performances as much as he wants, he also needs to acknowledge a network’s freedom to cancel his appearances as Good Morning America subsequently did. He might also want to think about the freedom of consumers to take a pass on spending their money to support an egotistical performer who is mediocre at best and the cultural trash that he produces and calls art.
But really, when I think about Adam Lambert, when I see him chosen as one of Barbara Walters’ most fascinating people — I don’t think about the philosophical or political implications of his performance or the controversy that followed it. I think about the boy somewhere in America who is spending his lunch period hiding in a restroom. I think about the boy somewhere in America who is waiting to hear the next slur tossed in his direction, and I think even more about the boy somewhere in America who is watching out to see where the next shove or punch in the face might come from. I really think about the boy somewhere in America who might have to endure much worse.
I’m worried about something I’m calling the Adam Lambert Effect. It’s based on the premise that cultural images have an impact, that television, movies, music, etc., make a real cultural difference. In other words, I’m worried that the image of Adam Lambert groping, kissing, and simulating oral sex with his male dancers reinforces negative stereotypes about gay men. It might reinforce, for example, the stereotype that gay men are hypersexualized. This stereotype may be the most significant contributing factor in homophobia. Straight men who dislike and fear gay men often do so because they believe that gay men are looking at them as sex objects, fantasizing about having sex with them, and may hit on them.
What impact does seeing a gay man on stage during primetime in a hypersexualized performance have on straight men who are already operating under the influence of gay stereotypes? And let’s not forget that this is not just any gay man. This is young Adam Lambert, who to straight young men in high school probably looks a lot like the gay young men in their gym classes, at their lunch tables, and on their school buses.
During his interview with Barbara Walters last night, Mr. Lambert restated that he has no regrets about his American Music Awards performance. Of course he doesn’t. At the most, he might sell a few less albums and a few of his television performances might be cancelled until everyone moves on and forgets. He doesn’t have to live with the real consequences of the cultural image he chose to display or the stereotype that image reinforces.
I’ll leave it to others to decide whether or not Mr. Lambert owes the American public an apology for the unexpected lewdness of a primetime performance that children may have seen. For my part, I would much rather see Mr. Lambert apologize to the gay young men of America. His reckless performance and his arrogant refusal to apologize for its impropriety will make their lives even more difficult than they already are.
The gay young men in our schools are the ones who are going to have to live with the real cultural consequences of Adam Lambert’s actions, and he owes them an apology for subjecting their lives to the fallout of the Adam Lambert Effect.