Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Urban legends concerning homosexuality

In recent years folklorists have spotlighted the phenomenon of the urban legend. Here is the archetypal example. An American couple from San Diego visited Tijuana. Spotting a tiny, emaciated dog on the street they took pity on the creature and brought it back home with them. The animal proved very affectionate, but it fell sick. The couple took it to the vet, who confirmed that the animal was indeed very sick—and was a Mexican sewer rat.

Typically these stories are bolstered by attestations of three or four degrees of separation. "The story must be true, because my wife’s cousin, who lives in Denver, got it from her next-door neighbor, a close friend of the San Diego couple."

Several of these legends concern homosexuality. One that dates back at least thirty years claims that Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors got married in San Francisco. This story began long before AIDS forced the revelation of Hudson’s homosexuality. Although Hudson and Nabors were friends, there is no truth the to the story itself. Apparently, it started as a party gag, in which the guests were invited to attend the "wedding."

In this case there is a smidgen of truth. One is reminded of the story about the composer Camille Saint-Saens who was asked if he was a homosexual. "Certainly not," he replied heatedly. "I am a pederast."

The Hudson-Nabors story created a pattern. A more recent version has it that a rabbi in Los Angeles married actor Keanu Reeves and producer David Geffen.

Many hold that J. Edgar Hoover, for many years director of the FBI, was a transvestite and that he was conducting a long-term affair with his assistant Clyde Tolson. Yet only one witness has attested that Hoover wore a dress, at one party. While both Hoover and Tolson were probably gay, it is unlikely that they were lovers. Rather they were probably two older "aunties," gay buddies who enjoyed cruising together and ogling hunky agents, but who did not sleep together.

An urban legend that has a surprising longevity is the claim that Saddam Hussein appeared in a gay porno film. Perhaps this was suggested by the similarity of the name Saddam to Sodom. It is amusing, but improbable.

Other stories concern fictional characters. The close relationship of Batman and Robin seems almost designed to fit such an interpretation, even though the comic strip and the subsequent television and movie series never supported it directly. Recently, one of the Teletubbies and Spongebob Squarepants have been alleged to be gay.

Some urban legends have to do with business firms, sometimes claiming that they are racist or even satanic. A fairly harmless example is the interpretation of the name GAP as "gay and proud." Supposedly, the gay founder of the firm wanted to make his sentiments known in this way.

The oldest urban legend of this type that I have been able to trace dates back to the thirteenth century, if not before. In a religious compilation known as The Golden Legend, Jacobus of Voragine (ca. 1230-1298) claimed that in order for Christ to incarnate the sodomites all had to die. Only in a world cleansed of this in could the baby Jesus appear. Accordingly, on the first Christmas Eve the Lord destroyed all the homosexuals.

This murderous legend enjoyed considerable popularity in Christian Europe until the early eighteenth century. Then it faded--but not entirely. Only last year a Greek Othodox priest pronounced that homosexual conduct was very dangerous. The proof was that the sodomites had to die on Christmas Eve.

The most insidious contemporary urban legend concerning gays is the gerbil hoax. Supposedly, gay men cut off the claws and teeth of gerbils and pleasure themselves by inserting the tiny creatures into their rectums. Typically, the claim is buttressed by the word of a "friend of a friend," say, a hospital employee who saw such a person in the emergency room. Sometimes this vicious rumor is applied to a particular person, say a television personality, which can threaten the career of the individual

While some gay urban legends are merely amusing, others are truly vicious. As these spread by word of mouth, little can be done to stop them. Let us hope that the gerbil hoax, for which no evidence has ever been found, is dying out.


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