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Stereotypes of the Gay Male Community in Philadelphia: A Cry for Change

Published onAug 10, 2022
Stereotypes of the Gay Male Community in Philadelphia: A Cry for Change

This chapter will explore three stereotypes about gay men from the film Philadelphia.1 The stereotypes include:

  1. Individuals with AIDS pose a threat to society.

  2. AIDS is a gay person’s disease.

  3. Gay men act/dress in a feminine manner.

Stereotype: Individuals with Aids pose a threat to society

In the film Philadelphia, there is a stereotype that individuals with AIDS pose a threat to society. This stereotype appears in multiple scenes in the film. For example, this occurs in the scene when Andrew is in the library, and a librarian brings him the case literature he has requested about discrimination suits pertaining to AIDS. As the librarian hands Andrew the document research, he notices a lesion on his forehead. He then quietly asks Andrew if he would be more comfortable in a private research room. He wants to isolate Andrew from the other researchers because he speculates Andrew has Aids, and he fears Andrew poses a threat to the rest of the people in the library. He asks the question in a low monotone voice because he does not want to bring attention to the topic. It is evident that the culture during this time discourages open conversation about AIDS. In addition, when the gentleman sitting near Andrew realizes what is occurring, he gets up and leaves because he fears being in close proximity to Andrew may expose him to AIDS. The people in the library are showing signs of fear and discomfort because they view Andrew as a potential danger to their health and to society. As a result, they practice prejudice avoidance.

This is a powerful scene because it highlights the misperceptions people have about individuals with AIDS. By allowing the protagonist to defend his ground and remain in the main area of the library, the screenwriter sends the message that individuals with Aids are tired of living in the shadows of others. In addition, when Andrew asks the librarian if it would make him more comfortable if he went to a private room, Andrew is trying to open the floor for open discussion about the topic of AIDS. He is tired of the stares and the prejudice he faces, and he wants the librarian to acknowledge his fears. This is important because stereotypes cannot be dispelled unless active conversation and education occurs about them. Through the discovery of truth and knowledge positive change can result.

An additional example of this stereotype occurs when Andrew initially goes to Joe Miller’s office for a consultation. Joe immediately recognizes that Andrew has AIDS, and he is taken back by the situation. He carefully observes everything Andrew touches because he considers Andrew’s condition a threat to him and his family. In addition, he even visits his doctor to ensure that Andrew’s presence in his office did not place him at risk for potentially contracting the disease.

This scene highlights the ignorance that Joe exhibits about the AIDS disease, and it portrays how this ignorance can fuel the negative stereotype that those with AIDS pose a danger to society. At this point in the film, Joe lacks the courage to overcome his fears about AIDS. He is consumed by trying to remember everything that Andrew touches instead of communicating with Andrew about the intricacies of his situation because he considers him a threat to him and his family. As a result, Joe subconsciously fails to acknowledge Andrew’s presence.

This film highlights the lack of knowledge individuals have about Aids, and how the fear of AIDS manifests itself in the form of discrimination. The film sends a powerful message that more education is needed about this disease in order to end the negative stereotypes and the dehumanization that those with AIDS face. It is a strong cry for everyone to seek knowledge about the disease and not to judge others based upon ignorance. Through these scenes, the viewers can appreciate that ignorance about the disease manifests itself in crude realities.

Stereotype: AIDS is a gay person’s disease

Additionally, in the film Philadelphia the stereotype exists that AIDS is a gay person’s disease. During the court trial, the defense attorney asks Andrew if he went to a theatre to have gay sex, and she implies that he contracted AIDS during gay sex. She insinuates that Andrew was reckless because he put his partner, Miguel, at risk as well. In addition, in a different scene, when the partners walk through a hallway to strategize their plans, one of the partners states that he wants information about all bars and deviant groups Andrew is associated with. He implies that Andrew’s gay acts/associations are what led to AIDS. By referring to the gay groups that Andrew associates with as being deviant, he infers that not conforming to “sexual norms” places individuals at a greater risk for contracting AIDS. Yet in addition, a third example of this occurs when Joe visits his doctor to get information about AIDS. The doctor assumes that Joe is asking for information because he engages in gay sex. As a result, he believes that Joe is keeping it a secret that he is gay, so he offers to test him for AIDS. In each of these scenes, the inference is made that AIDS is a disease that is primarily associated with gay behavior.

This stereotype creates the misconception for some that AIDS is only contracted by gay sexual activity. As a result, several negative connotations arise in the health arena. For example, if it is a widely held opinion that only gay people contract AIDS, then individuals who are not gay may pass on using protection during their sexual activities. They may believe they are immune to contracting AIDS because they are not gay, and this can lead to a more rapid spread of the disease. In addition, this can create the perception that only gay people need to be tested for AIDS. Joe’s doctor exemplifies this behavior when he tells Joe he does not care what he does in his private space. The association of AIDS primarily with gay individuals limits research and treatment for the greater population. In addition, if individuals believe the stereotype that AIDS is a gay person’s disease, they may go undiagnosed because they may tend to ignore the initial symptoms of AIDS. Furthermore, this stereotype shifts the blame for this disease to gay individuals, and as a result, this group is subjected to avoidant prejudice and negative treatment from others in society.

This stereotype is prominently displayed in the film to send a message that there is a lot of misinformation about AIDS in society. It is a plea for people to educate themselves about this disease and to acquire knowledge about its effects and how it is contracted. It is very easy to practice detachment from the disease by associating it to gays. However, this creates systemic prejudice towards a group of individuals by casting the blame upon them for contracting/spreading the disease. In the film, the characters are relatable to a wide range of individuals including parents, friends, partners, and professionals. They cross many sociological and economic barriers to send the message that AIDS can touch a variety of lives, and it does not discriminate. Hollywood is sending a message that society must tackle this disease head on. There is not one group that is responsible for AIDS. It exists in many diverse circles, and it can affect anyone.

Stereotype: Gay men act/dress in a feminine manner

Yet in addition, another stereotype that exists in the film Philadelphia is that gay men act/dress in a feminine way. This stereotype is portrayed in various scenes in the film. For example, when the attorney Joe Miller talks to his wife about gays, he mimics how they act by prancing around the room. He moves his hands in a feminine pristine fashion to imply that gay men exhibit feminine qualities. Furthermore, he states that he is a real man, and he implies that gays are not real men. The attorney’s fear of gays is evident, and he does not consider gay men individually but believes that they all collectively act/dress in the same fashion.

In an additional scene, Andrew is in a sauna with some of his colleagues. One of the men makes a sexist joke about women followed by a derogatory joke about gay males. When Andrew witnesses these misogynistic comments, anti-gay jokes, and derogatory comments, he decides to keep his gayness a secret. He does not want to subject himself to the ridicule he hears in the sauna, so he chooses to keep his sexual orientation private. Andrew is able to do this because he does not dress like a typical gay male, so no one readily suspects he is gay. Even though he wants to express his true identity, societal pressures compel him to keep it confined.

This stereotype negatively impacts the gay male community in several ways. For example, because this stereotype sets an image of how gay men should act in society, it strips them of the opportunity to have their own identity. In this regard, the stereotype takes away from their individuality and ability to act accordingly. In addition, if the expectation for gay men to dress, look, or act a certain way as determined by society, when a gay man deviates from these norms, he may subject himself to conflict. When individuals are not accepted by their society, they feel as though they do not belong and this compromises their mental state and sense of home.

The choice of Tom Hanks to play the role of Andrew helps dispel the myth/stereotype that gay men must act/dress a certain way. Tom Hank’s image in society is that of a masculine male, and his portrayal of Andrew reaffirms that gay men do not fit one description or have a certain set of attributes. As a result, when individuals first meet Andrew, they are not prejudiced towards him. They take the time to get to know him as an individual and appreciate that he is very similar to themselves. In addition, Andrew is a very likable character that advocates for justice. Through his character, the screenwriter promotes acceptance and highlights how judging individuals based upon stereotypes results in avoidance prejudice. Through this, individuals miss the opportunity to get to know other individuals that share common interests as themselves.

Several inferences can be drawn from these stereotypes about gay males. First of all, ignorance about AIDS can drive negative behavior. When individuals are ignorant about AIDS, their fear of the unknown may propel them to act in an irrational fashion. This may fuel systemic prejudice against a group of individuals who are blamed for the disease. In addition, it can be inferred that individuals who are gay oftentimes keep their orientation a secret to avoid being victimized by false perceptions. This compromises their identity and can impact their state of mental well being. Further, the stereotypes can portray that things are not always as they appear. Individuals should not be judged based upon an image, but who they are individually. Yet in addition, the stereotypes reveal that if individuals maintain an open mind they can find a common ground with others. Furthermore, these stereotypes can lead to the stigmatization of gay males. (For example, the stereotypes lead to Andrew’s stigmatization when those around him avoid contact because they are afraid they will contract AIDS). Ignorance about Aids fuels the stigmatization.

Hollywood is sending a clear message through this film. This film presents social commentary about AIDS, and how society as a whole misunderstands yet still judges individuals with AIDS. Hollywood attempts to highlight social stereotypes so that the audience can see firsthand the misperceptions and inaccuracies that exist about AIDS and gay males. In addition, through Tom Hanks, a “normal appearing” actor, Hollywood attempts to dispel the myths that gay men fit one persona. Ultimately, Hollywood is promoting acceptance and inclusion.

Even though the movie Philadelphia is praised by some and denounced by others, there is no argument that the film highlights the lack of education that exists about AIDS. In addition, it is evident in the film that more open discussions need to occur about AIDS. Ultimately, discussion drives positive change and progress.

About the Author

The author is a university student that is passionate about justice and social causes. She enjoys reading and watching movies. Philadelphia is one of her favorite movies and she thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to feature it in her chapter.

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