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Gary Green

Monday, April 24, 2006 

Response to Jeff Whitty's Open Letter to Jay Leno

What follows is "An Open Letter to Jay Leno," written by Avenue Q creator Jeff Whitty, and posted yesterday at Queerty.com, and since picked up by several other blogs I read daily. Following Whitty's letter is my response, which I sent to him and to Queerty.com with a request for publication:

Dear Mr. Leno,

My name is Jeff Whitty. I live in New York City. I'm a playwright and the author of Avenue Q, which is a musical currently running on Broadway. I've been watching your show a bit, and I'd like to make an observation:

When you think of gay people, it's funny. They're funny folks. They wear leather. They like Judy Garland. They like disco music. They're sort of like Stepin Fetchit as channeled by Richard Simmons. Gay people, to you, are great material.

Mr. Leno, let me share with you my view of gay people:

When I think of gay people, I think of the gay news anchor who took a tire iron to the head several times when he was vacationing in St. Martin. I think of my friend who was visiting Hamburger Mary's, a gay restaurant in Las Vegas, when a bigot threw a smoke bomb filled with toxic chemicals into the restaurant, leaving the staff and gay clientele coughing, puking, and running in terror. I think of visiting my gay friends at their house in the country, sitting outside for dinner, and hearing, within hundreds of feet of where we sat, taunting voices yelling "Faggots!" I think of hugging my boyfriend goodbye for the day on 8th Avenue in Manhattan and being mocked and taunted by passing high school students.

When I think of gay people, I think of suicide. I think of a countless list of people who took their own lives because the world was so toxically hostile to them. Because of the deathly climate of the closet, we will never be able to count them. You think gay people are great material. I think of a silent holocaust that continues to this day. I think of a silent holocaust that is perpetuated by people like you, who seek to minimize us and make fun of us and who I suspect really, fundamentally wish we would just go away.

When I think of gay people, I think of a brave group that has made tremendous contributions to society, in arts, letters, science, philosophy, and politics. I think of some of the most hilarious people I know. I think of a group that has served as a cultural guardian for an ungrateful and ignorant America.

I think of a group of people who have undergone a brave act of inventing themselves. Every single out-of-the-closet gay person has had to say, "I am not part of mainstream society." Mr. Leno, that takes bigger balls than stepping out in front of TV-watching America every night. I daresay I suspect it takes bigger balls to come out of the closet than anything you have ever done in your life.

I know you know gay people, Mr. Leno. Are they just jokes to you, to be snickered at behind their backs? Despite the angry tenor of my letter, I suspect you're a better man than that. I don't bother writing letters to the "God Hates Fags" people, or Donald Wildmon, or the pope. But I think you can do better. I know it's The Tonight Show, not a White House press conference, but you reach a lot of people.

I caught your show when you had a tired mockery of Brokeback Mountain, involving something about a horse done up in what you consider a "gay" way. Man, that's dated. I turned the television off and felt pretty fucking depressed. And now I understand your gay-baiting jokes have continued.

Mr. Leno, I have a sense of humor. It's my livelihood. And being gay has many hilarious aspects to it—none of which, I suspect, you understand. I'm tired of people like you. When I think of gay people, I think of centuries of suffering. I think of really, really good people who've been gravely mistreated for a long time now.

You've got to cut it out, Jay.


Jeff Whitty

New York, N.Y.

Dear Mr. Whitty,

My name is Gary Green. I am a thirty-five year old television producer in Los Angeles, and a gay man. I have not seen your play, Avenue Q, but I have heard unanimously positive reviews from friends and relatives. You have been complimented by people in my world for your wit, sophistication, and thoughtfulness. I was therefore unpleasantly surprised to discover that your “Open Letter to Jay Leno” regarding the gay jokes in his monologues, displayed absolutely none of these traits.

In choosing to share your impressions of gay people, rather than pointing to celebrations of diversity and courage to be one’s own self, you immediately rushed to terrifying incidents of gay bashing, acts of intolerance, isolationism, and “centuries of suffering.” Your statement, “When I think of gay people, I think of suicide,” is one of the most insensitive remarks I have ever read.

Mister Whitty, when I think of gay people, the idea of suicide is far from my first thought. All kinds of people feel tortured for their differences, especially if those differences are exploited by larger social groups. I have never attempted to take my own life, but I know two people who have. Both of them were heterosexual.

When, six paragraphs into your letter, you finally attempt to highlight positive aspects of the gay world, you refer to gay people as “a cultural guardian for an ungrateful and ignorant America.” What exactly is this implying? Culture would disappear entirely in this society were it not for gay people? Only gay people who see your show are sophisticated enough to appreciate it?

You conclude that every out-of-the-closet gay person has had to make the realization that they are “not part of the mainstream society.” Mister Whitty, where exactly do you live? I became a part of the mainstream society the very second I realized that’s exactly what I already was. It’s a decision owned by every individual. It does take work to accept one’s self, but I am there, and millions of gay people in this world are there with me. If we are still supposed to think of ourselves as outsiders, please educate us.

Your call to arms against Jay Leno is laughable. Jay Leno is not looking to incite violence. Jay Leno does not back up his jokes with persuasive arguments to change thought. He’s an act, and not a very deep one at that.

Comedy is a matter of taste. Comedy is pain plus truth. Mister Whitty, don’t you realize that in comedy, some group or individual is always singled out to serve as the punch line? I enjoy occasionally being that “someone.” I laugh so often at the rest of the world, it deserves the right to zing me once in a while.

Jay Leno is probably the easiest target you could have picked. If you’re looking to take a well-known person to task, I suggest you re-aim your sights at former actor Kirk Cameron, who actively preaches against homosexuality and for conversion. You can visit his website, Wayofthemaster.com for more information.

And as a final suggestion, you may want to check out “I’ve Got a Secret,” on GSN, featuring four very-out panelists and a single straight host. You’ll see more gay jokes in thirty minutes than you will in an entire week of Leno. Yes, I’m one of the show’s producers so this could be seen as a shameless plug, but it’s also relevant to my argument. You see, “I’ve Got a Secret” airs at 11:30pm, exactly opposite “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Maybe if you were to change the channel, enjoy yourself, and become a regular viewer, it could solve both our problems.

I look forward to a response.


Gary Green

Oh Gary. This is a typical reaction from gays who have absolutely no worry in their pretty little heads that they're going to get the shit beaten out of them while walking home one night.
I don't think Jeff was saying that all gay people are beaten constantly and called Fag constantly and whatever else you read into his letter (not your fault, actually, since he focused heavily on the negative to get his point across).
I think his point was that in the US right now, you've got a President who goes on TV and tells the nation that gay people are trying to destroy marriage and it's the #1 priority of his administration (during an election year anyway) to stop them. Then, right after that, Jay Leno goes on TV and tells cheap, unfunny, tired fag jokes to reinforce that point. (a fag joke is any in which the punchline is something along the lines of "gay men have sex with each other - ewwww!" or, in the case of the example, a tired 70's-era gay stereotype). Jeff is encouraging Jay to do better. To do some gay jokes (see I've Got a Secret for gay jokes - any in which the subject is gay and the punchline is not "gay sex, ewwww" or "this is what all gay people are like"), and try to be creative instead of just regurgitating the same old crap.
Jeff is an entertainer who lives in a world in which he doesn't have to hide who he is. But in writing this letter, he had in his mind every smalltown queer who is afraid to even talk to someone for fear of letting on who he is. I'm sure you've felt that way at some point. Don't you remember? How would you have felt watching these same Leno jokes at that time in your life? Would you have laughed and said "Wow, I sure deserved that hilarious and original zinger!" or would you have wondered why Jay Leno hates you too?
Jeff wasn't speaking for you, Gary. He was speaking for everyone afraid to speak for themselves. And good for him for doing so.

Gary, your comments were a refreshing challenge to the cult of victimization endemic to mainstream Gay politics.

Mr. Whitty's open letter was motivated by legitimate anger over the continuing discrimination against gays and lesbians. However, I share your belief that his anger was misguided. Contrary to what individuals such as Cblur21 may assert, the enemy of the gay community is neither Jay Leno nor the sophomoric brand of mass media humor he represents.

As a gay man, I have experienced hatred and violence directed toward me because of my sexual orientation. I know hate speech, and I know it is not being propogated by Jay Leno. Mr. Leno may occasionally trade on a gay stereotype for a laugh, but humor is often founded on the use of generalizations to make a joke. It is true enough that there is a fine line between friendly humor and hostile mockery, but Mr. Leno never crosses over toward hatefulness. Moreover, Mr. Leno saves his truly biting humor for foes of gays and gay rights. For example, Mr. Whitty ignores the fact that Jay Leno has frequently used his stand-up routine to strongly criticise President Bush for his use of the gay marriage movement as a political wedge issue. Jay Leno is a commedian who makes a living poking good-natured fun at people, and sometimes the people he teases are gays, and this is not using humor as a weapon of hate speech.

Interestingly, Jay Leno's stereotypical gay jokes are quite a bit milder and kinder than the stereotypical gay jokes of celebrated "queer friendly" comedienne Margaret Cho who frequently performs outrageous caricatures of "queens" and "butch dykes" to the howling laughter of gay audiences. While I appreciate some of Ms. Cho's humor, and I admire her militant agitating for the gay rights movement, I question why she is given license to put on a gay ministrel show simply because she often performs for a predominately gay audience, especially since her number of television comedy specials and other appearances have moved her performance into the mainstream. And yes, I know she considers herself a bisexual, although she repeatedly states her bisexuality comes with strong reservations, and she strongly prefers sex with men. In any event, Ms. Cho gets laughs because she exagerates to comedic effect certain personalities and traits found in the gay community--she uses the effect device of observational humor. Mr. Leno (perhaps not as creatively) does the same, and so he will undoubtedly use current events to make humor, especially a cultural phenonmenon such as the film Brokeback Mountain.

Gary, you are right. At the end of the day, Mr. Whitty and others concerned about gay discrimination have so many truly worthy targets at which to direct their anger, and Jay Leno simply isn't one of them.

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