BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 14:12 GMT, Monday, 28 September 2009 15:12 UK

Why lesbians are the butt of gay men's jokes

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Comedian Graham Norton has been warned by the BBC after making a lesbian joke on his television show. But it's not uncommon for gay men to make jokes about their female counterparts.

It started with a series of drawings of a woman in a jumpsuit.

Female couple in bed
Gay women are not as 'visible' as gay men

Norton was showing them to his guest Ruth Jones, co-writer of Gavin and Stacey, on The Graham Norton Show on BBC Two in March.

"I don't know why they've got some lesbian to be the model for this," he said. When challenged by Jones that she might not be a lesbian, Norton made a joke about her hair.

At the weekend, the BBC upheld a complaint and said Norton, an openly gay man, had "perpetuated an offensive stereotype".

There are few subjects off-limits for risque comedians like Norton, and many would probably view the comment as light-hearted.

But Lucy Masoud, a journalist on Love Girls, which describes itself as a fun website for gay girls, says, in robust terms, that Norton's remarks reflect a wider stereotype perpetuated by some gay men.

"On the gay scene, you do hear men - usually younger gay blokes or older queens - saying they can't stand lesbians, they are all this or that. They're butch, they're chicks with dicks, they're men with fannies.

I think it might be partly a case of sexism. Women are still judged on their looks and gay men - who stereotypically are supposed to have a more developed aesthetic awareness - consider themselves well placed to make comments about the beauty or otherwise of stereotypically 'ugly' lesbians
Jane Czyzselska
Editor, Diva magazine

"But spend five minutes in Soho [an area in London popular among gay people] and you'll see that the stereotype of a typical lesbian is nonsense."

It's an inexcusable attitude but it's human nature to want to feel superior, she says.

"If you're seen as being at the bottom of the pile, you want someone to be further below you. In theory, all minority groups should be fighting together. People experiencing racism should be fighting with gay people and disabled people for equality together."

Within the gay community, there is some antipathy both ways, she says, because some lesbians joke about gay men as promiscuous. She has overheard lesbians who have walked into a gay bar and said 'Watch out you don't get AIDS'.

"How do you respond to something as ignorant as that? It's hugely damaging. All this in-fighting means we are not fighting together for things that are important. People are so apathetic now.

"We can walk down the street in Soho holding hands and that's good enough for us. We're gay but not political and the fight is finished."

Different battles

Nick Maxwell, who works at Age Concern developing services for older LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) groups, says the kind of comments gay women are sometimes subjected to from gay men include suggestions they're fat, ugly, they hate men and they wear dungarees.

As a personal trainer who works within the gay community, I've never quite understood the gay and lesbian divide. It seems to be a culture we've grown up with, although it's got better in the 18 years that I've been on the scene. The lesbians were the ones that always pushed for change and maybe a lot of gay men aren't aware of that
Ryan Bull

"It creates an animosity and it's self-perpetuating because the men have their groups, the women have their groups, and they don't understand each other's concerns. Homophobia is massively under-reported yet we have it within our own community. It's all totally unacceptable and needs to be challenged, wherever it comes from."

It's difficult to get women involved in LGBT projects, he says, because as women they may already have been treated as second-class citizens, then derisory comments from men, particularly from men within their own community, reinforce that sense of exclusion.

The animosity, says Mr Maxwell, could also come from a sense that gay men have fought different battles - like being criminalised by the law and dealing with HIV - that lesbians have not faced, although lesbians have long been at the forefront of the successful campaign to change the law.

We're all working towards the same goals but because of the gender divide it can be easy for people to slip into an insular mindset
Peter Lloyd
Gay Times

Gay humour is often characterised by its cattiness. So should jokes be taken a little less seriously, given that many gay men and women work and socialise together without any problems?

This kind of humour is sometimes expressed by gay men but it's not a serious problem, says Peter Lloyd, news editor of Gay Times and Pink Paper. He thinks it's partly to do with ownership.

"When you have people that are part of a sub-group, there's a certain freedom of expression within that so it's much easier to make comedic references about other people within that community because it's much safer.

"So there's an element of this within the community but ultimately there's a shared level of understanding about our aims and objectives."

But it does have repercussions in perpetuating a lack of visibility of gay women in mainstream society and gay culture, he says.

"It's surprising that there can be sometimes a sense of polarity within the community."

It's good that media regulators are on to this, he adds, but they should be consistent and apply the same rigour to other broadcasters like Jonathan Ross and Chris Moyles, whose humour in the past has prompted accusations of homophobia.

A selection of your comments appears below.

I am a butch lesbian, and there's nothing wrong with that. Okay? Yes it's a stereotype that people think all lesbians look like me. But being gender variant or transgender isn't a "negative" stereotype. It's not "offensive" to look butch. It's not a horrible image. For decades it has been butch gay women and effeminate gay men, the queens, that have been OUT there fighting. I would appreciate it if the gays and lesbians that can blend in with the heterosexuals would stop trying to make those of us who are visible disappear.

AIDS transformed many dynamics including those between gay men and women. Lesbians came to the support of gay men when they were in trouble and previous sniping was abandoned. I don't think it's appropriate for a gay person of either gender to express disparaging remarks about anyone, let alone another gay person, especially on TV! On the hand, there is no need to turn a lame remark into a catclysm.
Mary, New York, NY

Everything is fodder for jokes. Even the humourless, sensitive souls who complain on behalf of themselves or others. Make jokes about everyone and everything, and don't favour anyone or anything because we as a species are apt to take ourselves rather more seriously than we merit. What is tragic is the insistence that humanity be divided up into arbitrary groups, and each of those arbitrary groups demand special treatment. Laugh at them all equally I say because we are all equally ridiculous when the mood takes us and we should have the wind knocked out of our sails as a matter of course. And anyway laughing is good for us.
Peter, San Vendemiano, Italy (ex UK)

All the comments posted seem to make it look like lesbians are over reacting and humourless about their sexuality, but this is about more than just an off-the-cuff negative comment. Lesbians are under-represented in the media and misunderstood in society, I believe more so than gay men. I do have a sense of humour about my sexuality, I'll joke with gay and straight friends, but derogatory is derogatory. We have to deal with snide comments enough, we shouldn't have to deal with our own community perpetuating the "dyke" image.
Bella, Bath

Gay men do make the odd joke about lesbians, but they make jokes about literally everyone, most particularly other gay men. Gay humour is often very, very robust, and close to the mark. When we meet lesbians, I've never seen any evidence of dislike or distrust, although in the bars and clubs there isn't a lot of mixing...!
Matt, London

As a gay man who has worked to advance gay and lesbian rights, I can tell you that when gay men and lesbians get together in a project or a work environment they usually achieve great things! We certainly need to respect one another as there are enough homophobes around without bitching our brothers and sisters! Naughty Graham; slapped wrists you daft queen! ;-)
Mike, Birmingham

This wouldn't be the first time Graham Norton has made jokes about lesbians that risk offence. He has often made some derisory comments about lesbians' attire or hairstyle that reflect tired old stereotypes. Shame on him.
Bianca Pevsner, London, UK

Cant see the problem, Gay men joke about themselves, their sexuality all the time on TV and they joke about others too and straight people joke about gays. Come on, let your hair down and stop being politically correct. Gay, lesbian or not, a little joke here and there is no problem.

Whilst I appreciate that certain minorities have been discriminated against in the recent past I fear that we risk going to far the other way. I do wish that everyone of every sexual orientation, religion, race and creed would be just a little more tolerant and less quick to claim to be insulted. Otherwise we risk society becoming much more ghettoised; with everyone retreating into their own little group and not being prepared to help each other
Mike Slater, Harlow, Essex

I find it amusing that this is news when both the gay and lesbian community make their derogatory comments about bisexuals almost constantly. Oddly this is not news but is to the people who experience such ignorance. Do you think there will ever be an article based on how the gay and lesbian community marginalise and stereotype many a bisexual? Seems to me there are only two communities always fighting for their rights within sexuality, isn't it high time the rest get the same treatment? Especially when you have LGBT centres where the L & G seem to be more prominent and the B & T are just put in to make it look like everyone is included in the same equality battle. Time to open the debate I think because it's about time other people had their rights listened to as well.
Amy, Edinburgh

Isn't "older queens" just as big a stereotype as anything Lucy Masoud is complaining about?
Ian Nesbitt, Durham

Surely Graham Norton's show reinforces all kinds of stereotypes just by starring Graham Norton?

Lesbians can look like any type of woman. And some sorts of men. Gay men can look like all sorts of men. And some sorts of women. So can straight men and women. But what is unforgivable to me as a gay man is not to have a sense of humour. I've no idea who this Lucy Masoud is but she has obviously had a humour bypass.
Boyd, London

As with all forms of media we have available to us, we do have the choice to not watch, not listen and not read. I used to know what to expect from shows with the likes of Graham Norton, Russel Brand and even Stephen Fry presenting them, hence why I watched them. Don't you? Anne Robinson is probably the worst culprit with her abuse of contestants, yet this is broadcast to the largest demographic of them all. If you can't handle it then switch off, turn the volume down or have an early night.
Gethin, Amsterdam

The only folk who are joked about, dismissively, without hesitation, by both the lesbian and gay communities are transgender people. There is an openly hostile attitude, sometimes disguised as humour, most evident in the lesbian crowd. Look for online references to "tranny(s)"; THIS is where the real ugly-side of humour in the GLBT communities shows itself. It's no joke - it's just bigotry.
Lauren D, Charleston, South Carolina, USA

What? Nick Maxwell's experiences are completely alien to mine. I see plenty of self-deprecating humour within gay culture, but don't recall gay men reinforcing negative lesbian stereotypes at all. That's the forté of my straight parents and certain straight "friends". Belittling celebrities and guests with snide remarks and reinforcing negative stereotypes is what Norton is all about (go watch CH4's 'So Graham Norton' re-runs if you don't believe me), so if the BBC is not allowed to show such "humour" then it's a mystery to me why they contracted him in the first place.
Fad, Staffordshire, UK

In the 70s in San Francisco, lesbians who worked politically with gay men were called "male identified" by other lesbians. My partner of 25 years is a national leader in GLBT civil rights activism and she experienced this first hand. The lesbian culture and the gay male culture are completely different cultures. It's interesting how we are supposed to be the same because we love same sex. My partner and I are rare in that we have many gay male friends. Most lesbians we know don't socialize with gay men and most gay men we know don't socialize with lesbians. I work professionally in HIV/AIDS with many gay men. The greatest misogyny I've ever experienced has always been from gay men. No surprise considering many gay men don't have that many lesbians in their lives.
Donna, Sacramento, California

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