Let's get one thing straight right from the beginning. You don't love "The Gays" and neither do I. And that's okay. Really, you can stop saying it now.
I don't keep careful notes (because I am a mess), but if I had to guess, I would say I've heard the term "I love the gays" approximately 372,789 times since I slipped out of the closet when I was 18. At first, it made me feel welcomed. Because being gay was a huge part of my identity at the time (I was basically a caricature), I thought that someone telling me how much they loved a group I was part of was nice, heart-warming even. Here was someone telling me that it didn't matter what my orientation was, that they loved all homosexuals regardless or race, creed, or ability. But as I've grown older, I've found the phrase less and less comforting and more and more grating. Why? Because it isn't possible to love all the people in one group, and because there's a specific stereotype one has in mind when they're talking about their love of the gays. It's not so much an "I'm down with your sexual orientation" as an "I love the homosexuals that I know who enjoy shopping and are fabulous on the dance floor, and if you are one of those types of people we will get along very well." Not so much a sign of acceptance as an assumption of who you are and what role you're expected to play.
In June, I saw NeNe Leakes perform in Cirque Du Soleil's Zumanity. While most of her lines were scripted, the last part of the show was an awkward meet-and-greet where NeNe, silk trailing behind her, slinked into the audience and talked to the people who had filled the auditorium to half-capacity to see her.
"Where are my gays at?" Nene screamed. "Where are my fabulous gays?" We all cheered (because tickets cost over $100 a pop), but the pickings were slim that night. NeNe made her way over to a man in a plaid shirt and referred to him as her fabulous gay, saying "you know I love a fabulous gay" over and over. The man in question was from Nebraska and had never met NeNe before. He was about as fabulous as a Swiffer mop (which, for the record, is my level of fabulousness and game recognizes game) and looked mildly frightened throughout, but now he was suddenly one of NeNe's gays. All she needed to know was his sexual orientation and now they were old friends. Awesome! Except not.
Growing up, I knew a few things about gay men, mostly learned from television: Most of them were fit, they were excellent dancers, they had excellent fashion sense and they kept their homes clean. While not inherently negative, none of these things apply to me. I haven't been to a gym in god knows how long, I can only do a shuffle-ball-step on the dance floor (that is embarrassing to both myself and the people around me), I wear the same outfit every day (people used to think I owned one black shirt and one pair of jeans, but SURPRISE: I have 15 black shirts!) and I can't clean to save my life. That's not because I'm not gay, it's because the only thing my sexual orientation says about me is that my romantic partners are male and that I am not generally attracted to women in a sexual way. And also: I hate shopping.
I can't tell you how many times I've disappointed someone by being the wrong type of gay (a phrase I have actually heard come out of someone's mouth hole) and not knowing the difference between a pashmina and an angora (one is a rabbit, right?) or having absolutely no knowledge of what Madonna is up to despite the fact that she is a gay icon. And I can't tell you how demoralizing it can be to be identified with by people you've just met only by your sexual orientation and the preconceived notions others have about it.
Before I go any further, I must point out that none of this ever happens in bad faith. No one has ever told me they love gays as a way to insult me (although people who identify as heterosexual have playfully called me a fag because "oh my god, I have gay friends! It's fine!") but as a way to connect with me. I appreciate wanting to build rapport, but I wonder how it would be taken if this same logic were applied the other way around. Wouldn't "oh my god, I love heterosexuals so much I literally can't even" be just the most ridiculous thing anyone has ever heard? Why? Because heterosexuals are not a homogenous group of people who can be defined by one label. So unless you're talking about how much you love the Gay family down the street (by which I will take it to mean you are talking about Sarah and Jennifer Gay and their lovely daughter Esmeralda Gay who's really named Ashley, but is going through a difficult phase), it's time to stop seeing all homosexuals as one group of people as well.
Here's the thing. Gays (or as I like to call them "The Gay" because it makes it sound more ridiculous and also somehow French, which I like) are an incredibly diverse group of people. Or groups of people. The point is that there's not one thing that defines all homosexuals besides the fact that they want to be romantically involved with someone of the same sex or gender. Therefore, there's no possible way that you could love all the gays because there's just so goddamn different varieties of us out there and some of us are awesome and some of us are not and some of us just like taking naps and playing Mario Kart 8 half-naked on Thursday evenings (holla at me). So you're either going to have to specify specifically which kind of gay you love (farts? No; Likes Glitter starring Mariah Carey ironically? yes) or just treat people as individuals instead of as part of a larger group. Because it's not politics we're talking about here, it's human connection.
And here's probably the most important part of the whole thing. Referring to a member of a minority group as if they represent all members of said group is dehumanizing. Shouting "I love gays" at someone you've just met signals that all the information you need to know about the person to make any judgment about them is their sexual orientation. Not only does this strip someone of their individuality, but, like any microaggression, it's hard to respond to. How do you even say "hey, that's great, but I don't represent the larger group I am identified with" without sounding like a dick? (It's basically impossible.) (Trust me. This is something I once tried to do at a Ruby Tuesday and it did not end well.) (Whatever, Ruby Tuesday sucks since they stopped serving honey butter.)
So maybe let's avoid this altogether by not connecting with people by claiming to love just one part of their identity. Start with something like "I love your shoes." Or, if you're talking to me "I love how you haven't shaved your work-at-home beard in three weeks. There's just something about that unwashed look that's really in right now."
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.