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"You Can Tell Just By Looking": And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People

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by Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, Michael Amico

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2014 Lambda Literary Award Finalist: LGBT Nonfiction

Breaks down the most commonly held misconceptions about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their lives
In “You Can Tell Just by Looking” three scholars and activists come together to unpack enduring, popular, and deeply held myths about


2014 Lambda Literary Award Finalist: LGBT Nonfiction

Breaks down the most commonly held misconceptions about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their lives
In “You Can Tell Just by Looking” three scholars and activists come together to unpack enduring, popular, and deeply held myths about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, culture, and life in America. Myths, such as “All Religions Condemn Homosexuality” and “Transgender People Are Mentally Ill,” have been used to justify discrimination and oppression of LGBT people. Others, such as “Homosexuals Are Born That Way,” have been embraced by LGBT communities and their allies. In discussing and dispelling these myths—including gay-positive ones—the authors challenge readers to question their own beliefs and to grapple with the complexities of what it means to be queer in the broadest social, political, and cultural sense.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 09/02/2013
This rigorous book addresses 21 beliefs about LGBT people held by those in and out of the LGBT community. Academics Bronski (A Queer History of the United States), Pellegrini (Performance Anxieties), and Amico have two goals: to “dispel harmful, often hostile myths, stereotypes, and false assumptions about LGBT people” and to “explain what myths do, how they work and move in the world.” The authors examine terminology (“transgender,” “bisexual,” “LGBT”), statistics, research past and present, and cultural phenomena, to show how the American public frames, processes, and accepts or rejects the presence of LGBT individuals and communities through the construction of these foundational myths. What emerges is a disturbing picture of the ways in which research, language, and media are contorted to suit pro- or anti-LGBT agendas. As the authors note, “Our culture is pretty terrible at talking about sex and sexual pleasure,” and it flattens “the messiness of reality” through unexamined myth. This powerful book demands that we look more closely at the ways we move in and structure our society, and asks vital questions that will steer the culture toward justice and equality. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"This powerful book demands that we look more closely at the ways we move in and structure our society, and asks vital questions that will steer the culture toward justice and equality." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"This groundbreaking book is rich in smart, stirring, and forthright examinations of myths, negative and positive, and clarifying examples, and holds to scholarly standards while compellingly and revealingly addressing the curiosity and concerns of mainstream readers." —Booklist

“One of the most complete sourcebooks about science, sociology and LGBT life out there.” —PopMatters

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Myth 7


Award-winning and openly lesbian actress Cynthia Nixon landed herself in hot water—twice. Her missteps? Nixon, best known for playing brainy and neurotic Miranda on Sex in the City, stated, in her acceptance of GLAAD’s Vito Russo Award in March 2010, “I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.” LGBT advocates objected to the implication that homosexuality was a choice. In a January 2012 interview with the New York Times, Nixon unapologetically stood her ground: “For me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.” Nixon’s words went viral.
Since the Stonewall riots in 1969, LGB activists have encouraged gay people to come out and speak the truth about their lives. Why were activists so angry with Nixon for boldly telling her own truth? What political, and personal, nerve had she inadvertently struck?
In the past decade, the argument that homosexuals are born that way has become a major talking point used by LGB advocates to argue for equal rights. Nixon’s declaration, “For me, it’s a choice,” strayed from this carefully crafted political and legal script. Worse, it could be heard as reinforcing the antigay message of some conservative political groups. These groups, in their own public relations strategy, describe homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” or “behavior-based identity.” If being gay is a “choice,” it supposedly does not merit the civil rights protections extended to racial minorities and women.
But “born that way” is more than a sound bite in a public relations war. Many LGB people describe their sexual identities as in- born, an immutable part of who they are. Some others, like Nixon, claim they choose to be gay. This may be particularly true for lesbians. In the late 1970s, some feminists believed lesbianism was a chosen political and sexual identity. These “political lesbians” did not necessarily have sex with, or even sexually desire, women. Most self-declared lesbians decidedly do desire and have sex with other women (see myth 13, “Lesbians Do Not Have Real Sex”).
Still other LGB people would say their sexuality is both chosen and unchosen. They may not have chosen their same-sex desires, but they do choose to act on them and come out as L, G, or B. Other LGB people would say they do not care how or why they came to be gay—they are gay and it is fine. LGB people, like straight people, have all sorts of ways of answering the question, “Why are you the way you are?”

Sexuality, or the life of desire, asks profound questions about relating to others in the world we share. The intricacies of sexual desire, especially whom we desire, have been understood as an important key to who we are since “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” were invented as distinct identities in the mid-­nineteenth century. Yet in the contemporary United States—because heterosexuality is presumed to be the natural, default position—all the pressure is on LGB people to explain their desires and justify their existence. This has meant that LGB people’s explanations for who and why they are acquire disproportionately large moral, legal, and personal significance. 

What is the connection between whether or not LGB people are born gay and whether they should be protected from discrimination? If LGB people are born that way, and cannot change who they are, it would be unjust to discriminate against them. Alternately, if homosexuality is a choice, then society is not required to extend equal protections to LGB people as a group. This latter argument implies that homosexuality is not just a choice, but a bad choice. Ironically, the gay-­affirming, born-­that-­way argument may imply this as well. Defending homosexuality on the grounds that LGB people are born that way and just can’t help it could bolster the idea that there is something wrong with being L, G, or B.

This discussion raises several issues that need to be addressed. When it comes to the moral question of how to treat other people in everyday interactions, it does not matter what causes homosexuality. There is nothing wrong with same-­sex desire or LGB lives. 

Second, LGB people deserve equal protection under the law. As a simple matter of fairness and legal precedent, it does not matter whether homosexuality is “immutable.” This is not a legal requirement for granting equal rights. 

Finally, it is simply not true that heterosexuality is the way everyone naturally is. We know from studies that a large number of heterosexually identified people have had same-­sex sexual relations at some point in their lives (see myth 2, “About 10 Percent of People Are Gay or Lesbian”). Heterosexuality does not occupy a moral high ground of naturalness. It is also as much in need of explanation as homosexuality.

Meet the Author

Michael Bronski (Cambridge, Massachusetts) has written extensively on LGBT issues for four decades. He is the author of several award-winning books, including most recently A Queer History of the United States. He is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.

Ann Pellegrini (New York, New York) is professor of performance studies and religious studies at New York University, where she also directs NYU’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. She has written extensively about religion, sexuality, and US public life. Her publications include Performance Anxieties and the coauthored book Love the Sin.
Michael Amico (New Haven, Connecticut) is a PhD candidate in American studies at Yale University, and is writing a history of the love between two men in the Civil War. He has written for LGBT youth publications, such as Young Gay America, and provided political analysis for the Boston Phoenix and other venues.

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"You Can Tell Just By Looking": And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
jimnook More than 1 year ago
A punchy motto for this informative and provocative exploration of LGBT myths might be, Get real! "'You Can Tell Just By Looking' And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People" explores a wide range of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans myths, both pernicious and affirmative, including how they have evolved, and what they mean for people's lives today. It also highlights the effectiveness of combining empirical "reality-based" evidence along with our personal experiences. The authors -- Michael Bronski (Dartmouth, Harvard), Ann Pellegrini (New York University), and Michael Amico (Yale) -- bring a formidable background to this book, drawing on both their community involvement and academic achievements. They deftly employ the social sciences, history, literature, mainstream culture, religion and more, to separate fantasy from LGBT people's actual lives. The book scrutinizes a host of LGBT myths, in its 21 concise and clearly-written chapters. It's geared for a general audience, who will find a wealth of factual information, nuanced analyses, and goads to discussion. Not to mention some witty eclecticism. To take one example, the introduction's first page encompasses an overview of the book's themes, by way of gay history, in the guise of Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde's fair-weather boyfriend), pop culture via Lady Gaga, and straight allies who can even be found in the NFL with linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. It also pairs up Douglas's famous quotation about homosexuality as "the love that dare not speak its name," with the latter day quip that it's now, thankfully, "the love that won't shut up." You may be wondering, What's so bad about myths? Like pollen in August, they're everywhere. As the authors point out in the introduction, myths, however appealing and ingrained, also have a pernicious side. They unthinkingly uphold the status quo to the detriment of social progress; erase the real differences -- and sometimes similarities -- between people; project uncomfortable issues onto an out group such as LGBT people; and stop rational discussion since 'everybody knows that [fill in the blank].' As the authors write, myths "cannot explain away underlying anxieties; they actually feed on them," and yet they help us "negotiate the messiness of personal and cultural histories that shape how we live and understand our lives. In this way, all myths express some kind of truth." Some people fear splitting open myths, seeing the endeavor as anarchic; but this book shows us that in fact the process can be liberating, helping us come closer to our authentic selves and each other. Not all of the myths examined in the book are antigay; some dearly held progay beliefs are also dissected. Part V looks at the reality behind such wishful thinking as: increased media visibility makes LGBT people more accepted (so you can just sit back and relax), anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws "automatically" protect LGBT people and, perhaps most troubling of all, just getting tested for HIV "magically" helps prevent its spread. A major strength of the book is that the authors don't just toss out reality-based data to dispel myths. They look at why, and show us how, the myths took hold in the first place, and what basic needs they pretend to fill. Take sex. Wouldn't it be tidy if sexual orientation or gender could fit in a little box? As if. Statistically, it turns out that "straight" society reveals even more confusion and nervousness about sexuality than, on average, LGBTs. Part of that is our biological nature, all tangled up with cultural myths and our personal doubts. The authors strip away distortions from both anti- and pro-LGBT advocates, including self-proclaimed scientific researchers, some of whom bend findings to fit their particular agenda. They prove no less "objective" than, say, the self-defined heterosexual guy who gets off on erotic lesbian videos, but who then gives a resounding "Ditto!" to "Myth 13: Lesbians Do Not Have Real Sex," all the while knowing, first-hand, that there are many forms of sexual connection besides face-to-face male into female, but he'd rather brag to his macho BFFs about his "scores" than look at the (fascinatingly) complex dynamics of desire (myth-based self-deception is as tortured, and stereotype-laced, as this sentence, you betcha). Speaking of hetero- and other orientations, a key chapter is "Myth 2: About 10 Percent of People Are Gay or Lesbian," that looks at the contradictory ways in which LGBT people are classified and counted. Factoring in bisexuality, including temporary bisexual "phases," the actual percentage can swing anywhere from around 3% of the population to 50% or 60% or higher. The Kinsey Scale, still going strong after 65 years, runs from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual), with most people falling in between those two rare extremes. Getting even a numerical grip on sexual orientation can be hard, but then, what about sex is easy? OK, guffaws (revealing, aren't they?) over, let's continue. Our team of intrepid myth-busters covers an almost full range of LGBT issues and experiences in this brief book. I suspect that most readers will have their own nominees for additional topics to be covered; mine are the military, and class. However, the authors do touch on those themes, in the context of other matters. Throughout, the book judiciously cross-reference topics, even with those that get their own chapters, such as lesbianism, bisexuality and race. One essential thread concerns the most vulnerable LGBT population, young people, as we see in "Myth 4: Sexual Abuse Causes Homosexuality," "Myth 8: LGBT Parents Are Bad for Children," "Myth 16: There's No Such Thing as a Gay or Trans Child," and "Myth 18: Coming Out Today Is Easier Than Ever Before." Marriage equality is in the news daily, and this book contains the single best overview I've read anywhere. The authors succinctly cover all aspects, from its history to society-wide implications, in "Myth 9: Same-Sex Marriage Harms Traditional Marriage." Also outstanding was the discussion of what's shaping up as the new #1 anti-LGBT battlefront, so-called "religious freedom," parsed in "Myth 11: Gay Rights Infringe on Religious Liberty." As the authors clarify, religious freedom entails both a separation or "disestablishment" of church and state, that our Constitution guarantees (the reality is more jumbled), as well as the free exercise of religion for all. Homophobic religions (but as the authors point out, many religions are staunch LGBT allies) want the legal right to have their way with LGBTs, being able to fire them or deny services or disintegrate their families, all in the name of their narrow sectarian "morality." In the inclusive sense, "You Can Tell Just By Looking" argues that "Religious freedom, far from being the opposite of 'gay rights,' forms a necessary ground for LGBT equality and freedom. How people arrange their intimate relations and their gender identities involves important moral decision-making." Amen. Every reader will have their own unique response to this book, but here's one way that it helped me. Until recently, I had not understood the dimensions of trans experience. Fortunately, I've now had the opportunity to meet and listen to several transpeople; and this book further deepened my understanding by providing context, as in "Myth 3: All Transgender People Have Sex-Reassignment Surgery," "Myth 6: Transgender People Are Mentally Ill," and "Myth 15: Transgender People Are Gay." In additional chapters, trans and intersex people are integrated within other LGB issues and experiences. While in 2013 fewer than half of the states have LGB antidiscrimination laws, I learned that only 17 provide trans-inclusive "gender expression." And while we can all cheer the end of the dysfunctional "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy for LGBs, it's not widely known that the T was left off. Specifically, trans and intersex military personnel were excluded from reform, and are still vulnerable. Those injustices now have a gut level impact, as I get a fuller sense of transpeople's lives and issues, primarily from getting to know individuals but also, synergistically, from background information, including what's in this book. As engaging as "You Can Tell Just By Looking" can be for the individual reader, it comes even more fully alive when it's discussed with as diverse a group of people as possible. I was fortunate to see the book in action at an event, moderated by co-author Michael Amico at Yale, that inspired a lively, at times heated, discussion with a large audience. In fact, the book would be ideal for any discussion group, from any point on the political or religious spectrum, conservative to progressive. Its insights are guaranteed to stir up debate, especially when participants compare their personal experiences with the book's investigations. The authors' use of social science methodology is rewarding, but neuroscience could also help map what makes individuals, and hence society, tick. Neuroscience explores the physical brain and nervous system, and how they affect the mind, including our thoughts, myths and behaviors. It's a rapidly growing field, but to engage a wide audience, that doesn't wield scalpels or MRIs, it needs a book as clear and compelling as "You Can Tell Just By Looking," such as Michael Shermer's popular "The Believing Brain: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths." Quibbles aside, this book is an exceptional achievement, illuminating and inspiring. "You Can Tell Just By Looking" shows us why, and how, to strip away mythic deceptions, using a combination of empirical analysis and our own lives. This book can help us understand our culture more fully, and maybe even -- through our evolving experience and engagement -- make this a better world, really.