"What a Waste":

Andrew Sullivan writes:

DEAR PRUDENCE: Slate's often diverting advice columnist answers a gay correspondent who's offended when someone finds out he's gay and says: "What a waste." Here's Prudence's reply:

Prudie believes you are misinterpreting the remark. Rather than implying that the gay person has "no sort of life of their own," Prudie finds it to mean, "You are GORGEOUS." (And it's the straight person's loss that you bat for the other team.) It is meant both as a compliment and a lighthearted statement. As you may have divined, Prudie has made this comment, herself, and always to a big smile in response.

Well, almost. The key way to figure this out is to reverse roles. If it emerges in conversation that a man is married to a woman, would he be offended if a gay guy were to say, "What a waste"? I think he would. Or am I wrong?

Here's my take: If a straight man is offended by a gay guy's saying "What a waste," I suspect that it's because the straight man is a bit put off by the idea of the gay guy being attracted to him. Remember that "what a waste" here would be shorthand for "what a waste that you [a man] are having sex with women, rather than having sex with men." The straight man isn't being insulted as such — there's nothing pejorative about the statement. Rather, he's being asked to confront a mental image that he may find (rightly or wrongly) somewhat disgusting.

Are gay men likewise disgusted by the mental image created by "what a waste that you [a man] are having sex with men, rather than having sex with women"? Do they think "sex with women, yuck, I wish I wasn't led to think about that"? If so, then I can see why they'd be offended, though again it's a "disgusted" sort of offense rather than an "insulted" sort.

But if not — if, for instance, gay men are more used to (and thus less bothered by) the mental image of men having sex with women, because it's more pervasive in society, than straight men are to the mental image of men having sex with men — then there doesn't seem anything much offensive about it. The question might or might not have a different answer for lesbians.

At the same time, it's not clear to me that "what a waste" is likely to be particularly charming -- even if not offensive -- in either context. Compliments on one's sex appeal are pleasant in part because one likes the idea of being appealing to people like the complimenter. Even if a straight woman is happily married, she likes to know that men find her attractive; even if a straight man is happily married, he likes to know that women find him attractive. But I suspect that many gay men aren't as interested in knowing that women think them to be hot (though I might be mistaken); it's just kind of pointless, so don't expect the gay man to be especially thrilled by such a compliment.

On the other hand, here's something we can all agree on: If a woman says to a man "what a waste," after being told that the man is straight, then the man isn't going to be thrilled.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Follow-Up on Gays and "What a Waste":
  2. "What a Waste":
Follow-Up on Gays and "What a Waste":

Reader Kieran Jadiker-Smith writes:

I am a gay man, and, on a few occasions, I've gotten the "what a waste" remark from straight women. I haven't found this offensive; generally it's said in a playful, joking manner, and is not meant all that seriously. I suppose if someone said it with wide-eyed seriousness, I would be a bit annoyed, but I've never encountered it in that context.

For the record, I do find the idea of my having sex with women quite disgusting. But somehow, when someone makes a joke like this, I don't feel compelled to conjure up some graphic and explicit image of heterosexual sex. I take it simply as someone saying, in a humorous way, that she finds me attractive.

It's possible to rationalize indignance at any kidding involving issues of identity, but I don't think it helps in a society where we increasingly expect people who are different from one another to get along and even be friendly with one another. I should also mention, at this point, that I am 20 years old and grew up in two highly diverse, cosmopolitan urban areas (Vancouver, BC and San Francisco) and my friends have always been a mix of races, religions, backgrounds, and, starting in high school, sexual orientations. In general — even in oh-so-PC San Francisco — I've found that people prefer being able to joke about these issues a little bit rather than walk on eggshells, afraid to say anything about them lest they give offense. I came out of the closet when I was 15, and I think the ability to joke about it — up to a point, anyway — helped ease tensions as friends and acquaintances (some of whom had never had a gay friend before!) adjusted to the idea.

This whole discussion — perhaps because it's that time of year — reminds me of an item you ran some time ago about whether Jewish people might take offense at being wished a merry Christmas. I, too, am Jewish. But, like you, I've chosen — sensibly, I think — to interpret "Merry Christmas" as something other than an act of hostility or a subtle suggestion that I should convert to Christianity. I very much doubt than many people — Christian or otherwise — intend it as such. I simply accept it as I think it's offered — as a wish for a happy holiday season, even if I'm not celebrating the holiday to which they specifically refer.

So, too, do I accept "what a waste" as it's intended — a lighthearted, joking compliment. I know this world is full of people who come pre-offended, but I don't think they — or people who cater to them — are really advancing the causes of respect, friendship, comity, civility, or tolerance.

For all the same reasons, I don't see a reason in the world straight men shouldn't adopt the same attitude if they hear the same thing from a gay man. The interpretation of context shouldn't be impaired by one's sexual orientation.

Well put, and I wish more people had this attitude. At the same time, since the purpose of "what a waste" seems to be a compliment, its users should realize that at least with some listeners — though not Mr. Jadiker-Smith — it may not be a very effective compliment.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Follow-Up on Gays and "What a Waste":
  2. "What a Waste":