On outsiders crossing the wrong lines

…or an alternate explanation as to why Phil Robertson got into trouble.

There are lines in the world that don’t appear on any map. You will not find them in a travel book or a website, but they exist as ways of dividing otherwise comfortably homogenous areas, and if you cross them they can cause you harm.

The first time I can recall crossing one of these lines as an adult was just after I moved down to LA.  My roommate and I decided to got clothes shopping at a store called International Male. For those that don’t know, IM started as a clothing catalog. For all I know there’s still one today. At the time I first noticed it, I thought IM was just a catalog for trendy men. It was only later, when I visited the store in West Hollywood, that I realized there was something more to the store. Perhaps is the was unusually large number of good-looking young men on the streets, perhaps it was the absence of women in the store, but I think what clued me in the most was the giant billboard featuring two attractive men and advertising a gay cruise line. I had one of those, “I think we’re not in Kansas anymore”, moments, and did my best to act cool.

See I grew up in a smaller, more midwestern town. A town where you could openly call someone a faggot, and never be mistaken by your meaning. Nor would anyone stop you because you weren’t being political correct. This is because that was how the town’s social structure worked. There were no jack-booted thugs (presumably with red necks) wandering around making sure everyone was sufficiently homophobic. You didn’t need that. All you had to do was pay attention to those around you, and mimic how they acted. And in that town, at that time, being gay was an insult. In other words, it was politically correct to be homophobic.

And yet in parts of Los Angeles, only a few hundred miles south of Clovis, calling someone a faggot would earn you stares, and social rebuke. Everyone spoke the same language as they did in Clovis, wore (for the most part) the same clothes, but judging by the billboards it was such a different town that it might as well be another country. Just like in Clovis, there were no jack-booted things (presumably in pink satin with shirts reading “fag” on the front) wandering around keeping the PC standards in place. There were just people with slightly differing expectations of social intercourse.

And that the important point here. The lines were drawn by the people. It was the people who chose what was acceptable and what wasn’t. And it was the people who enforced these unwritten rules. There were no signs, there was no way to tell, except by close observation, but there were some places where “faggot” was an insult, and other places were it was only used for irony.

So yeah, for those that don’t know, there are places in the US that have been staked out by homosexuals. Again, they don’t rove the block in well-appointed gangs, but they do enforce their own community standards, and if you happen to cross those standards you can expect to get in trouble.

Which leads me to Phil Robertson, the guy from the show Duck Dynasty. Much ink has been spilled lately over his words in an interview, and his subsequent firing, and rehiring. I don’t have a lot to add to any of what has been said except to say, “so what?” I disagree with his expressed opinion, but I’m also old enough to understand that there and many people who feel the way he does. As a gay friend of mine said, “my skin is thick enough for the Phil Robertson’s of the world.” Indeed, it is.

But in the brouhaha over this incident, I’ve also read a lot about the gays taking over, and making everything PC. I don’t see that either. I think there’s another explanation, a simpler one. One which has the benefit of being easier to prove.

Much like that part of West Hollywood I mentioned, earlier, the city of LA has its own moral code. And while there are places which are exceptions to this rule, most of LA frowns upon homophobia. This goes double for what they call in this town “The Industry”, which is short for the entertainment industry. There’s a reason for this, and it shouldn’t be a surprise for any one near my age.

We all grew up with that special guy in high school who maybe liked musicals a little too much, hung around the drama club, or spoke in a high voice. Or maybe it was that gal who was a bit large for her size and excelled at sports, or wore here hair a little too short. We all knew people like this. You can’t escape this experience in high school. The point is not that these people exist, but what happened to them after high school. You see, a lot of them left their home towns, and moved to the big city. LA, NY, SF, and the like. Places where they would feel more at home, where they’d fit in. Places where knowing all the words to every Rodgers and Hart musical made you a star, not someone to be scorned.

And when these self same people moved to the big city, they needed to get jobs, because, well all those fancy close and trendy haircuts aren’t cheap. Amiright? And have you ever priced a good interior designer? OMG!

So where I work, meaning advertising for The Industry, probably one quarter to one third of the men I work with are gay. Maybe one quarter of the women are as well. Not enough to organize into squads in pink jack-boots, but enough that calling someone a faggot could very easily cost you your job, and would certainly earn you rebuke. Again, this may not be your social standards, but they are mine. They’re not enforced by thugs, but they are enforced all the same.

And this is where I think Phil Robertson caught so much hell. From what I can tell, Phil was merely expressing his own social values, values that honestly come from the place that he lives. Unfortunately for Phil, he doesn’t just work where he lives. A large percent of the people who work to make his show a success live in towns like mine, with social rules like mine. And this, I think, is where the people at A&E got mad. Phil had crossed one of their lines, crossed the unwritten contract that says, “that shalt not act the bigot, unless its against conservative politicians.” In short, he was an outsider who crossed the wrong line, and said faggot when he should have said, Republican.

This, I believe, is an easy mistake to make. Phil can rightly believe his show is an invention of his social structure, and not that of Hollywood’s or New York’s. After all, it is almost entirely shot on location, isn’t it? Except…except, its not just a show from his duck hunting swamps. Its also a show that is edited, advertised, sold, and distributed by people living in gay friendly cities. Moreover, I think Phil should know this too.

Perhaps he does. Perhaps Phil was just doing the red-neck version of using controversy to increase his value right when it was time to renegotiate his salary with the network. Personally, I hope this is the case. I would rather think of Phil Robertson as being calculating and shrewd than your garden variety bigot. But whatever he thinks, I doubt he’ll cross this line again. Or as the old adage goes, “Don’t shit where you eat.” Phil may work in the swamps of Louisiana, but his paycheck comes from an office in New York. And the odds are very likely that his paycheck was cut, ironically, by a faggot.

And that, I think, is the best irony of all.