When Graham Moore won the Oscar last night for Best Adapted Screenplay for his writing work on The Imitation Game, he tried—to his credit—to make a socially conscious and heartfelt acceptance speech. My Outward colleague June Thomas parsed Moore’s words quickly thereafter, praising his attempt to use the platform to say something meaningful about difference and acceptance, but raising a note of concern about the writer’s conflation of Alan Turing’s experience as a homosexual man in the mid-20th century with the more generalized plight of people society deems “weird.” During his speech, Moore—who confirmed to BuzzFeed early Monday morning that despite widespread assumption to the contrary, he does not identify as gay—revealed that his own vague adolescent weirdness and concomitant difficulties led him to the precipice of suicide when he was 16, and he offered his success as a sort of “It Gets Better” case study for teens who might feel like outsiders themselves.
Obviously, Moore’s general sentiment is a fine one—nobody is debating that—and any criticism of his delivery must of course be tempered by an allowance for the craziness of speaking from the Oscar stage. But those who are expressing discomfort with the speech are not wrong to find fault with Graham’s implied comparison between the experience of being gay in a still largely homophobic society (liberal Hollywood award shows notwithstanding) and standard teenage disaffection. Moreover, the number and intensity of incredulous dismissals of that response (see the comments on June’s post for a bracing sample) suggest that a lot of people don’t understand or reject the difference entirely. And so, without harping on Moore’s flustered speech too much, it’s worth taking a moment to explain the trouble with that equivalence more generally and to think about why gay people might be so sensitive to it—especially coming as it did from the straight writer of a film that desperately marketed itself to audiences and Academy voters as a gay political statement.
To start with the basics: Homosexuality is a fundamental identity that, despite the occasional “it’s a small part of me” talking point, deeply determines how one sees and is seen by the world. On the other hand, being “weird” or “different” presumably involves a set of interests or chosen behaviors (however deeply beloved) that distance one from the cultural mainstream in a more limited way. Put differently: Being a straight weirdo is, on balance, just not as totalizing or stressful a situation as being a gay person.
To be clear, this isn’t about playing a round of “Oppression Olympics.” It’s just being realistic about differences in kind. New York-based writer Kevin Joffré put it elegantly on Twitter Monday morning: “Being gay means more than ‘being weird.’ It means living as if you owe people an explanation for your feelings and your life. Your loved ones can be the biggest burdens in your life. You can be actively otherized every day of your life. That's what being gay means.” Others brought more snark to the critique—gay writer and comedian Guy Branum: “The primary purpose of the gay rights movement is to make it OK for straight white guys to talk about how they got picked on in high school”—but the point is the same. Bullying may suck for everyone, but being a Trekkie or socially awkward or straight edge or whatever just doesn’t have the same weight in that regard as being a sexual minority. For gays, the bully is the entire culture—a culture that often works its way insidiously inside your head—not just a stupid cool kid in third period.
This distinction is an important one to reiterate, because as being “against bullying” becomes a toothless cliché for celebrities to wear like borrowed jewelry, there’s a danger of erroneously leveling out all forms of bully-able difference. But homophobia—like racism and other forms of deeply ingrained prejudice—has a specific history and genealogy (tied largely to gender expectations) that requires us to deal with it in specific ways that demand more than a tepid embrace of “weirdness.” Indeed, thinking of homosexuality (or bisexuality or transgenderism) as weird is, in a way, precisely the problem. There’s nothing weird about these natural and normal ways of being human, and getting to a point where straight people understand that on a fundamental level should be the goal. But for that, we need a social justice strategy focused on correcting deep-seated structural inequality rather than one that merely encourages a “tolerance” of diversity.
Of course, Graham Moore cannot fix all of this single-handedly, so we shouldn’t be too hard on him or his speech. I will say, though, that glimpsing his working ideology provided some context to the Turing he chose to write. I was a fan of The Imitation Game when I saw it early last fall, and, despite learning more about some questionable historical choices the creative team made since then, I remain generally supportive of it. However, I always felt that though the film was “honest” about Turing being gay, something was lacking in how this version of him embodied that reality. And I don’t just mean in the coarse sense of man-on-man sex scenes; rather, I’m taking about gayness as a rich and influential core feature of Turing’s lived reality that would be a source of fear and pleasure, motivation and inspiration, insight and alienation. In other words, the way he, according to historians, actually experienced his sexuality—the way most of us do.
If Moore thinks gayness is just a “weird” aspect of a person, a small detail that just makes for a good story about struggling to “fit in,” then that clarifies for me why his Turing, despite being open about his sexual orientation, feels so thinly drawn in that regard. Moore—and the people who endorse the logic of his speech—just don’t get what being gay feels like. That doesn’t make The Imitation Game a bad film or Moore a bad straight person, but it does challenge us to resist comfortingly simplistic solutions to prejudice. Embracing individual weirdoes is easy and a matter of basic compassion; understanding the inherent prejudice of categorizing entirely normal varieties of human beings as “weird” is much harder.