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Why Billy Crystal’s homophobic comments matter

Billy Crystal may be uncomfortable with my "lifestyle," but I'm uncomfortable with his homophobia.


Noah Michelson

Internet Culture

Posted on Jan 22, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 5:21 pm CDT

On Sunday, while promoting his new FX show, The Comedians, at a Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour panel, Billy Crystal was asked about playing a gay role on the ABC show Soap in the late ’70s and how television has changed since that time.

In his response, the comedian talked about being uncomfortable with how sexualized some shows have become and, in doing so, employed a few phrases like “a little too far for my tastes” and “shove it in our face” that always trip my homophobia sensors and make me want to protest by grabbing every man in sight by whatever appendage is handiest and dragging them into a studio to stage a gay sex telethon that will be broadcast into the living rooms of every family in the world.

Still, I wanted to give Crystal the benefit of the doubt and I initially went out of my way to find a way to excuse what he seemed to be saying. Maybe some kind of further context was missing? Maybe you had to be in the room to see his body language and hear the tone of his voice? Maybe he really wasn’t separating his displeasure with viewing gay sex scenes from his displeasure with viewing straight sex scenes?

However, it didn’t take long for Crystal to confirm my fears. In a follow up interview with Xfinity’s TV blog, the actor addressed his earlier comments, saying in part:

First of all, I don’t understand why there would be anything offensive that I said. When it gets too far either visually…now, that world exists because it does for the hetero world, it exists, and I don’t want to see that either. But when I feel it’s a cause, when I feel it’s ‘You’re going to like my lifestyle,’ no matter what it is, I’m going to have a problem and there were a couple of shows I went ‘I couldn’t watch that’ with somebody else. That’s fine. If whoever writes it or produces it…totally get it. It’s all about personal taste.

What supposedly began as an indictment of any kind of graphic sexual content on TV quickly revealed itself to be exactly what it is: homophobia.

That word is admittedly a scary one. Most civilized, sane people don’t want to be called homophobic. Most people don’t want to hear that they’ve done something or said something or thought something that could be construed as offensive to gay people—especially when they’re our friends and our allies. 

We’ve all been steeping in this kind of thinking from the moment we arrived on this planet—how could we not be homophobic? It doesn’t mean that you’re murdering gay people.

But, the fact of the matter is that we live in a homophobic society and it follows that most people—including many gay people—are going to fall victim to homophobic thoughts or feelings at some point, even if they don’t always recognize them as such. We’ve all been steeping in this kind of thinking from the moment we arrived on this planet—how could we not be homophobic? It doesn’t mean that you’re murdering gay people. It doesn’t mean you’re campaigning to take away gay people’s rights. It doesn’t even mean that you’re a homophobe. 

You can be the sweetest, kindest person and write checks to PFLAG and have six gay friends and two gay brothers and have officiated your workout partner’s gay wedding but if you believe that gay people simply trying to live their lives (on television or off) are pushing a “cause” or if you think we’re trying to force anyone to like our gay “lifestyle” (side note: we don’t use that word anymore, Billy), that’s homophobic.

You’re effectively saying that being gay isn’t normal and that our “lifestyle” is something you don’t want pushed on you. And that’s homophobic. Your feeling of being threatened—in whatever small, specific ways, by gay lives, experiences or expressions of affection and that—say it along with me—is homophobic.

As far as having a problem with anyone trying to push a “lifestyle,” I think we can all read between the lines there. Let’s not forget that one of the great things about being straight is that no one is ever going to accuse you of pushing your “lifestyle” on anyone else because your “lifestyle” is already the status quo. It’s everywhere! You don’t have to worry about your televised kisses or—sweet baby Jesus help us!—sex scenes being referred to as some kind of gratuitous political statement (or a “lifestyle”) because your kisses and—sweet baby Jesus help us!—sex scenes are fundamentally seen as normal and healthy. What other “lifestyles” could he be talking about? People in relationships with balloon animals? Vegans who refuse to stop wearing leather? Whatever they are, I’m willing to bet my 401k he isn’t talking about being straight as a “lifestyle.”

You can—and should!—call out homophobic thinking or statements when you encounter them, especially when it’s coming from celebrities who have very public platforms.

When I pointed out all of the above on my Facebook page on Monday, I was surprised to find some people—gay men, no less—challenging me. The responses ranged from “you can’t just say someone is being homophobic!” to “how does this impact you? who cares?”

But you can—and should!—call out homophobic thinking or statements when you encounter them, especially when it’s coming from celebrities who have very public platforms (and who should know better). And it impacts all of us. Not only do words have consequences and influence how we think about each other and ourselves, but a moment like this matters because it’s a barometer of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go when someone who (as far as I can tell) is an ally can make a statement like this and then not only defend it but lash out at those who question it. 

And that’s exactly what Crystal did later in his Xfinity interview when he addressed the fact that the gay journalist conducting the interview had been asked by others who attended the panel if he had found the comedian’s comments offensive:

We live in a very scary time in many ways. You can’t say this, you can’t say that, you can’t offend this group, that group. People come up to you and ask if you were offended. I don’t understand that. I understand it why everyone is watching out for the other person. That’s offensive to me.

What’s offensive to me is that Crystal would be offended by “everyone…watching out for the other person.” Isn’t that exactly what we’re supposed to be doing? Looking out for each other—especially our allies who often have access to platforms and visibility that many queer people still can only dream about?

Instead, when we speak up and say “Uh, did you really mean this? And if you did, we’ve got a bit of a problem,” we’re labeled touchy or uptight or as shit stirrers.

This isn’t about stirring the shit—this is about flushing it once and for all.

But that’s just the thing. Beneath all of the progress we’ve made, the shit—from disgust with our sex lives to frustration with our wanting to push our “cause” and “lifestyle”—still exists. We can pass all of the laws we want and we can give queer people all the same rights as non-queers, but if the fundamental feeling about us is still “Ew! Yuck! I don’t want to see that!” or “Stop shoving that in our faces!” I hardly call that progress.

I don’t hate Billy Crystal. I don’t think he’s a homophobe. I have a sense of humor. I’m not offended by any and everything that is said about queer people. But I do want and expect more from allies and when I hear something that I know is based on feelings that at their heart are untrue, unfair or just plain bullshit, I’m going to say something. And I think we all should. This isn’t about stirring the shit—this is about flushing it once and for all.

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via David Shankbone/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 22, 2015, 11:00 am CST