Why Is "Gay in America" For Men Only?
Scott Pasfield's new book of portraits busts stereotypes and widens opportunities for gay men. Gay women wish it did the same for them.
Gay in America, a new book of portraits by New York City photographer Scott Pasfield, calls itself an "enlightening look into the variety of gay life in the United States" that reflects "the same beautiful diversity found in any sampling of our population." Gawker hailed the book as "a real picture of what today's gay world is like" in "all its butch, femme, urban, rural, single, coupled, smiling, and struggling richness."
So why are all the photos of dudes?
Gay in America features 140 faces from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They are famous and unknown, black and white, masculine and feminine, dolled up and dressed down, and posed with planes and tiaras. But none of them are women. In April, GLAAD posed the question [PDF]: "Why gay men?" Pasfield's response:
That goes back to shooting what I am, and what I know. I originally thought that I would like to try and shoot men and women from every state, but I really think that a woman, or a lesbian, has to go out and do that project, to make it as strong, to be one of them, as this project is for me and gay men.\n
Busting stereotypes and widening opportunities for gay men is an important goal. But this book is titled Gay in America—not Gay Men in America. Though Pasfied is clear that the project is by and for gay men, he also hopes to situate the book as a definitive resource for gays in general—and straight people, too. "I want the book to be an introduction to gay people," Pasfield told GLAAD. "I hope it is a spokesperson for the gay community." (Pasfield's PR rep declined to comment).
The contradiction speaks to the difficulty of navigating inequality as a gay man. While giving voice to a diverse group of gay men is a radical notion, delegating men to represent all genders is just more of the same. Queer activist Miriam Zoila Perez told me she identifies with the term gay "as an umbrella term" more closely than she does to "lesbian." But outsiders don't always see her as central to the gay community as men are. Perez pointed me to an online dictionary definition of "gay" that illustrates the divide: "a homosexual person, especially a male."
And gay life in America has often been perceived as "especially" male. As Americans began to identify as gay, gay men "may have been more publicly visible in the community, and more out in early generations of it," Perez says, while "lesbians weren't so much as mentioned in the public sphere." Asking gay women to make themselves visible with their own photographic collection, while well-meaning, doesn't address those structural inequalities that persist within the gay community today.
Of course, even a book that highlighted both gay men and women would only represent a corner of the queer universe, which include peoples of varying gender and sexual identities that don't necessarily fall into simple categories like male/female and gay/straight. "I don't know that any project would ever feel completely representative," Perez told me. But a little more transparency would be nice. "The title has an ambiguity. You expect to see yourself in there, and you're not."
Photo by KLHint, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.