I was watching a TV program called The Insider on BBC3 last night.
The basic premise is that five people compete for a coveted job (a bit like The Apprentice) by sharing a house for ten days not knowing that one of their number is actually their future boss observing them. At the end, she revealed herself and decided who had got the job.
Last night the four unsuspecting job applicants were competing for an internship with a fashion company. One of the four was a guy who had changed his career from construction to fashion retail. It wasn’t just that everything about him on the surface signalled that he was straight (and I use that term rather than heterosexual). He was pretty upfront about his sexual identity and seemed comfortable with it in the context of a career in fashion.
However, it became clear throughout the show that other participants read him as closeted gay man because of his interest in fashion. Although the show’s format isn’t great (you could write endlessly about the levels of manipulation involved) the ending was actually quite moving. He didn’t get the job, but the boss (after she revealed herself) broke down in tears and apologised for the assumptions that she had made about his sexual identity.
For me, it raised all sort of questions about the way that masculinities are policed. The fashion company involved saw themselves as a “family” with a lot of strong women in management as well as gay men. However, it raised questions about the kinds of identities expected of those gay men by those strong women which, to her credit, I think the boss acknowledged. There was also a curious meta-irony to this – that you had a woman passing herself off as something she wasn’t making quite stereotyped assumptions about a man for presenting himself for who he was. The other great irony was that when she had the final discussion with him it was all conducted in euphemisms, the language of the closet, but the open secret was heterosexuality not homosexuality.
Cory Booker is a well-educated, well-dressed, single, black American politician. At present, he is engaged in the run-up to Senate elections having been (for most observers) a successful Mayor of Newark (a deprived city in New Jersey with a large black population). However (just like the guy on The Insider) his competence seems of less interest to many observers than his sexuality. Put simply, for many observers on the left as well as on the right, a well-educated, single black man past a certain age must be a closeted homosexual.
I don’t know Cory Booker – I cannot give an opinion about his personal sexual identity apart from his personal statements (which position him as a straight man with progressive views of LGBTQQA+ politics). I certainly understand, from gay and bisexual black and mixed-race friends, why a man from one of those backgrounds might still remain circumspect about his sexuality. What interests me (as with The Insider) are, in a period where we are constantly bombarded with discourses of tolerance and change, the persistence of such limited roles for straight men to occupy in social contexts (the family, the workplace, education, politics, etc.). I’m not being naïve; I accept that those roles often privilege men who identify as straight, but it’s a two-edged sword.
If sexual politics has shifted then the closet has also shifted, but the way that it polices masculinities seems to me as powerful as ever. Straight, white, working-class men can’t be interested in fashion (have these people never watched Geordie Shores????); straight, black educated men can’t be single. By implication, this is just as limiting of trans, bisexual and gay men in terms of the social roles we are now allowed to openly occupy without considering issues of race, social mobility and education. The new closet, or closets, creates new insiders and new outsiders. The positioning of particular, straight, male identities as ambiguous (and disturbing to the point that it can elicit tears from a woman working in an ostensibly LGBT-friendly industry such as fashion) reveals why people should be so concerned to box a politician like Booker in on issues of sexuality rather than politics.