You Can Tell Just By Looking

Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, Michael Amico

Beacon Press — 2013 / 208 pages / multiple print and e-book formats — paperback $16.00 retail ISBN: 978-080704245-8.

IN BRIEF: This informative and fun book exposes myths about LGBTQ people.


A punchy motto for this well-researched 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 negative and affirmative, including how they have evolved, and what they mean for people’s lives today.

The authors — Michael Bronski (Dartmouth, Harvard, author of A Queer History of the United States), 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 also shows the effectiveness, both in this book’s appoach and for our own lives, of combining “reality-based” scientific evidence along with our personal experiences. The book is 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 “Bosie” 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, they’re everywhere.

But 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 [insert stereotype].’ At their worst, the hateful myths probed in this book can promote baseless anti-LGBT laws, and even incite people to violence. 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.”

Not all of the myths here 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. 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 agendas. 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. Clearly, getting even a numerical grip on sexual orientation can be hard.

Our team of intrepid myth-busters covers an almost full range of LGBT issues and experiences in this brief book. But some readers will have their own nominees for additional cases; mine are the military, and class. However, the authors do touch on those themes, in the context of other matters. In fact, the book judiciously cross-reference topics throughout, even with those that get their own chapters, such as lesbianism, bisexuality, and race. Another 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 faiths (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, deny services, or disintegrate their families. 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.

One way that that the book helped me was in understanding the many dimensions of trans experience, with “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 out. 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” is for the individual reader, it comes even more fully alive when discussed with a diverse group. I was fortunate to experience this first-hand, when co-author Michael Amico moderated a lively, at times heated, discussion at Yale with a large audience. This 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. Ideally, there would be an online forum focused on this title, where people could share their impressions and personal histories, and exchange views. Since the book is clearly a snapshot of attitudes today, such forum postings also might be useful in preparing future editions, to reflect the constantly evolving LGBT experience. If such a forum appears, I will prominently link to it on this page. In the words of E.M. Forster’s Maurice, “One oughtn’t to keep secrets, or they get worse. One ought to talk, talk, talk.”

As strongly as I like this mythoclastic book, there is a single fingernails-rasping-a-blackboard moment that seems self-contradictory. But perhaps it points towards a larger theory of knowledge issue — attention discussion groups! — for debate. In the last paragraph of “Myth 7: Homosexuals Are Born That Way” the authors seem to descend from bracing inquiry to defeatism, all with the single word “ultimately:”

To ask what causes homosexuality is to try to understand how we, as humans, learn to grapple with a world of ultimately unanswerable mysteries — including the mystery of our own desire. This mystery entangles us in other vital questions: how our feelings and relationships come to have the meanings they do. How community results from these actions. And how we come to survive and live productively within it all.

Why “ultimately” instead of “currently”? While I applaud the book’s essential intent, summarized in the above quotation, it’s shocking to hear the authors slam the door on us humans ever being able to solve the “mystery” not only of desire, but of how that connects the individual and culture. Surely every mystery has a solution, even if we can’t see it yet, or are only beginning to understand what it might be. The authors’ use of social science methodology is rewarding, but neuroscience could additionally be used to 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 fMRIs, 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.

From “ultimate” mysteries to a tiny nagging one: Why does this book cover precisely 21 myths? Had to know! Turns out that Beacon Press publishes additional “…And 20 Other Myths about…” titles on various social issues. Mystery solved. But a more vexing question is why the authors didn’t make room for chapters — certainly each reader will have their own nominations in this regard — on two prominent LGBT myth-magnets: the military and class.

The military’s mandatory-silence DADT policy against LGB servicemembers could provide a salutary example of what happens when a once-threatening antigay myth (‘Gays are simultaneously nelly little cowards but also terrifying super-predators from whom no soldier, let alone unit cohesion, is safe!”) is busted by empirical evidence, and finally repealed with no adverse effects. Happily, unlike the other 21 myths in this book, the military one is no longer on active duty; although it would be instructive to learn how it’s morphed, among the ranks, since DADT’s 2011 demise.

A key omission in the book, and this came up in the audience discussion mentioned above, is class; specifically, the myth that “All gays are rich, and that’s why they have so much power even though they’re just a tiny fringe group that everybody hates.” I have actually overheard people muttering that accusation, at local supermarkets and department stores. Busting the ‘rich gays’ myth is of fundamental importance, especially since class conflict is on the rise in these fraught economic times, and LGBTs are perennial scapegoats. The reality is that LGBT people, like all Americans, are found throughout the entire socioeconomic spectrum that crisscrosses income, employment, education, race, ethnicity, geography, and more. And each of those divisions impact LGBT lives in unique ways. For example, most people in this country are working class, but what is unique about how LGBT members see themselves and find other LGBT people, express who they are among a largely heterosexual and sometimes hostile population, participate in religions or not, respond to particular forms of entertainment, create families, grow old? It’s important for the divisive anti-LGBT cudgel of the Class Myth to be exposed, not just to benefit LGBT people but everyone. Ideally, that could help bring our nation a bit closer together, letting more of us understand, and celebrate the reality that LGBT people are everywhere, in every walk of life, an integral part of these United States. To paraphrase Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass, we “contain multitudes.”

Quibbles aside, this book is an exceptional achievement, illuminating and inspiring.

Some people fear splitting open myths, seeing the endeavor as anarchic. But this book shows that the process of shedding myths — getting real — can be liberating, helping us come closer to our authentic selves and each other, pointing the way towards a more inclusive future.

Highly recommended.

LGBTQ+ Literature
Jim’s Book Reviews / LGBTQ+ Literature

Reviewed October 1, 2013 / Updated February 27, 2022

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