The Insidious “Tolerance” of ‘My Husband’s Not Gay’

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In an online petition, over 125,000 people have begged TLC not to air their hour-long special about women married to gay men in the Salt Lake City Mormon community, which was set to air last night. Despite the protests, it did air last night. People initially worried that this one-time special was actually a backdoor pilot, and that, and if it got attention, it’d lead to a whole series.

My Husband’s Not Gay (yes, that’s what it’s called, and in the opening credits the “Not” sweeps into the title a little late for comedic value) received a great deal more attention than it ever would have had people not anticipated its offensiveness, and had GLAAD and Change.org not published condemnations of what was perceived to be advocacy for — or perhaps simply positive representation of — reparative therapy. TLC provoked, we took the provocation, and here we are.

Oddly, My Husband’s Not Gay’s offenses are a little less blatant — though no less insidious — than these organizations assumed. For the liberal viewer, it reads as a sad case of expertly brainwashed suppression. And although the show itself presents no moral agenda, for the conservative or confused viewer, it can read as a testimony to the happy possibility, as one character puts it, “of choosing an alternative to an alternative lifestyle.” Of course, for the most part, reality television does not wish to moralize, or even to present interesting moral questions to its audiences. Rather, it takes people who, themselves, might be caught in a moral quandary and monetizes them.

For producers, it doesn’t really matter what the people at the center of these shows represent or believe in, so long as they say the darnedest things. Such programs thrive on characters’ candor in vocalizing their delusions, their unaware openness to becoming figureheads of an American Absurd: “I didn’t know a girl could be with a guy who’s attracted to men.” “I experience same sex attraction — SSA, not gay.” “I was frustrated when he’d look at a guy in a sneaky way, so finally I said just go ahead and do it.” My Husband’s Not Gay’s husbands and wives hold hands while discussing the fact that the husband craves dick, acknowledges the dick craving, can joke about the dick craving, but ultimately doesn’t act on the dick craving. They’re in it together.

The question is in what capacity the audience is “in it” — its amorality becomes rather an easy target for the viewers’ projections. As a gay liberal viewer, it’s hard to see the production itself as anti-gay — or even as proposing a “healthy” alternative to gayness — as I’m aware that reality TV feeds off of subjects it thinks we’ll find somewhat troublesome. The fact that so many of these shows follow characters who might be a) homophobic or b) generally conservative doesn’t at all prove that reality TV has, itself, a conservative agenda. Again, if its only agenda is money, and if it’s proving that it can make money by making something of a cruel, condescending carnival act out of Red America, then it’s hard to not see the airing of such a show as proof of us watching a series of very sad delusions. If there’s a reality show about you, the suggestion is usually that the rest of the world wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.

When I watched this show, I felt that, in these men’s and women’ assertions that they were happy and that they were overcoming a struggle together, I was seeing the unfolding of a series of personal tragedies, magnified by the fact that these people whose lives are based on repression and delusion were now being exploited for the transparency of these delusions by reality television. There’s no way I could have watched this and thought, “Yes, what am I doing with my gay life? I want THAT.”

But that’s the dangerousness of the amorality of reality TV. I have to remember the kid who might watch who’s still uncertain about the “morality” of gayness — who could think it might be a good idea to pursue a repressive route and who, in seeing this show, could even see it as functional, and strive to achieve the same delusions seen here. What I see as tragic and condescending on the parts of reality TV producers, others could see as a heroization, a solution. Especially given the characters’ language of “tolerance,” despite their decision not to participate in, er, gay activities, and especially in the fact that the show isn’t about reparative therapy, but rather an openness to one’s “gay desires,” so long as it’s coupled with a firm resistance to fulfilling them. Indeed, their language about homosexual tendencies is oddly polite. You’ll hear no epithets, or even disparaging remarks here. No one here is presented as a bully or a villain — unless, of course, you see them as bullies and villains to themselves.

Creepily, the discourse about sexuality in the show is aligned with progressive ways of viewing sexuality. For instance, many in queer communities are angered by the positivistic “Born This Way” approach to sexuality — because regardless of whether or not there are a certain set of genes that predetermine a person’s preferences, socially we shouldn’t have to defend said preferences with science (especially because that scientific defense could simply, if such a gene existed, be eradicated through eugenics). Instead, the idea should be that even if gayness were a choice, we should get to a point where society shouldn’t take issue with choosing it. My Husband’s Not Gay’s characters use the excuse of sexual fluidity to reassure themselves that, despite their desires to have sex with men, there’s no binary, man. So they can choose a straight relationship for the purpose of being good, procreative Mormons. With the mere assertion that while some people like men and choose to identify as gay, these characters like men and simply choose not to identify as gay, the dialogue suggests a false openness and tolerance.

The characters have become comfortable with their “SSA” status — so comfortable that they’re actually vocally self-congratulatory. In their group of “SSA” guy friends, they have a rating system. They rate men on a danger scale of 1 to 4 — a 4 meaning they’d be most likely to want to cheat on their wives with that man. By jocularly enacting the rating system, they congratulate themselves both on their ability to lust after men and to resist that lust. They’re even comfortable with fulfilling gay stereotypes. They joke about their love of showtunes, their ineptitude with sports, their unimpeachable desire for dick: “A weiner dog — that’s the kind of dog you should get.” They discuss the hotness of a waiter in a tight shirt (who seems to have clearly been planted by the producers) with their wives at dinner; the embracing of the culture, mannerisms and even the spoken desires of men who are brave enough to love men, coupled with the dogmatic rejection of the act itself, is especially harmful. These men live under the false freedom of getting to imitate an identity in which they’d actually be comfortable without fully experiencing or understanding it.

This would make a haunting, crushing documentary. But like every other reality show, all My Husband’s Not Gay is doing is thrusting a subculture producers have deemed ridiculous enough to be profitable under a fast, cheap lens, setting it to alternately uplifting and dramatizing piano music, ignoring GLAAD, then showing it to the world. It’s not that these people don’t deserve representation — for theirs is a strange story revealing the deluded lives we’ll lead to appease our Gods. But reality TV, as the paradigmatically mindless pastime, doesn’t wish to, or have the time to, get into the seriousness underlying these peoples’ experiences.

For every Mormon man who vocally discusses his attraction to men in order to move on to lead a normative existence, there’s a Mormon kid who might bravely come out as “gay, not SSA”, and who might be subjected to bigotry: getting excommunicated from the Church and ostracized by his families. This is the other story that My Husband’s Not Gay isn’t interested in showing. It won’t present actual tragedy, because it wishes to be amorally lighthearted. For that reason, depending on your own ideas about gayness, it can either be seen as a carnivalesque exploitation of a sad fact about being gay in religious cultures, or it can be seen as a propagandistic advocacy for the possibility for “same sex attracted” men leading normative lifestyles. Either way, it’s ugly.