Steven Colbert’s suggestion that Donald Trump’s mouth is suitable only to be “Valdimir Putin’s cock holster” (above video, about 11:30 in) has drawn a great deal of comment, both on its implications for free speech and how the issue (and coverage of it) have been manipulated by different political factions. Two issues which underlie a lot of the debate have not drawn such attention: whether his joke was in fact homophobic, and how an answer to that first question is best decided.
I doubt if Colbert himself is a homophobe, or if he intended to denigrate anyone but Trump when he told this joke. Nevertheless, it is understandable that he has drawn criticism, whatever the motivations of some of his critics. At the very least, he and his writers were very careless in letting this joke through.
The joke is making a point about Trump (that he is subservient to Putin) by assigning him a fictional sexual relationship with Putin. The conceit of the joke is that the fictional sexual relationship is a grossly exaggerated version of Trump’s perceived relation with Putin. In order to grasp that conceit, one must assume, at least for the purposes of the joke, that engaging in this kind of sexual relationship (i.e., performing fellatio on someone else) is grossly subservient behaviour.
This trope about gay men (and heterosexual women) has a long and disreputable history. If a similar joke had been told about a gay man, say Milo Yiannopoulos, I take it that it would have been obviously homophobic; likewise if it had been told about Hilary Clinton. In each case, the joke would have worked by presenting a stereotyped characterisation of the target’s sexuality which many people – rightly, I think – would find offensive.
It might be thought that a relevant difference is that Trump is not actually gay. This matters insofar as Trump himself could not claim to be have been the victim of a certain stereotype; rather, he was the target of a joke which made use of this stereotype. But that is the point: that the joke employed the stereotype meant that gay men were, so to speak, collateral damage.
There is another aspect to this debate which potentially has much father-reaching implications. I am not gay, but I can give my opinion on whether or not Colbert’s joke was homophobic. But is it not up to gay men (and perhaps women) to decide whether or not this joke is genuinely offensive? If a number of gay men were to say that they weren’t offended by the joke, or that no harm was done in any case, who am I to disagree?
One reason to take what they say seriously is that they are presumably better placed than me to know what gay men in general would think about this issue. Better placed, but not necessarily right; after all, it seems that different gay men had different views on the joke (as, for instance, Steven Thrasher acknowledged in his article). I am Irish, but I wouldn’t presume to know what all Irish people, or even the majority, felt about a certain joke simply because of my nationality.
There is something clearly amiss with a person who is not a member of a certain community presuming to know when members of that community should be offended, regardless of what they actually feel. In recent years we have become much more sensitive as a society to the importance of different social and culture perspectives when it comes to deciding what is or is not offensive. But there should also be a place for critical reflection from one’s own perspective, informed by views from other perspectives but not wholly dependent on them.