Among the more common sights at Pride festivals — drag queens, go-go boys, maybe the occasional [lesbian] on a [motorcycle] — one thing most people didn’t expect to see at this year’s Los Angeles Pride was Channing Tatum and the cast of the upcoming male-stripper magnum opus Magic Mike XXL (in which Tatum plays Mike himself) shaking their fully-clothed moneymakers. The response from gay media and gay social media was predictably restrained and tasteful.
Just kidding. It was a “hot”, Buzzfeed-style event, with all the pointless superlatives, animated GIFs, and photo collages that entails. Here was a group of straight actors (and Matt Bomer) in rainbow scarves, dancing around for the enjoyment of queer audiences. It wasn’t long before people started using the word “ally” to describe this brave, selfless act of booty-shaking self-promotion.
If you do a Google search for “Channing Tatum gay”, after filtering out the results rumoring/wishing that Tatum was gay himself, the only thing you’ll find from 2015 is a press statement announcing that Tatum was going to the GLAAD Awards to present a trophy to Roland Emmerich for the amazing feat of being both gay and successful at the same time. Before 2015, you’ll find only interviews with gay media about the first Magic Mike film and quotes from Tatum defending 21 Jump Street co-star Jonah Hill after Hill was caught using the f-word (not that one… the other one). Hardly seems like the work of a dedicated “ally,” does it?
Then there’s the whole issue of the film he’s promoting. The first Magic Mike was, to put it bluntly, a heteronormative fantasy of epic proportions. There’s never a single man in the audience for the male strip shows, and the idea doesn’t even exist as subtext. The closest thing it has to a queer character is Olivia Munn as Mike’s bisexual fuckbuddy, and it’s heavily implied that she’s only bisexual when she’s drunk and thus irresponsible and reckless. But Tatum and the film were all over gay media when it came out. Why? Tatum shows off his butt, and if there’s one thing gay men love, it’s a straight man showing off his butt for them.
Singer-heartthrob Nick Jonas has also benefited from this queer-baiting effect. The former purity ring-wearing member of the Jonas Brothers took his pants off for some photo shoots and performed in a few gay bars, and suddenly he’s an “ally.” It was purely coincidental that this all happened right before his new album and new TV show was ready to come out. Admittedly, Jonas did play a closeted gay character on the show, so at least there was a little context to hang things on. Jonas has one up on Tatum, too: he’s currently the Grand Marshal for Pittsburgh Pride after pop-tart Iggy Azalea was booted from the position for some homophobic tweets she made five years ago. What Azalea had ever done to warrant the position in the first place is a mystery as deep as the mystery of why she’s even relevant in the first place.
It’s exceedingly easy for celebrities to pick up the title of “ally” these days, and it doesn’t take an effort on their part except for saying a few sweet words about us in interviews or in other highly sympathetic venues. The queer community often seems to mirror the reaction a teenage girl has on a crush: “He looked at us! He said our name! He must LOVE US!”
Even long-time allies who may have done great things in the past have succumed to what Michaelangelo Signorile calls “victory blindness,” a kind of well-intentioned apathy born from the recent strides in LGBT equality. Madonna, for instance, seems to limit her work to promote gay equality to promotional interviews and Instagram pictures. For people who grew up with a Madonna who did genuinely risky, bold, and even innovative things to promote gay rights and AIDS awareness, it seems sometimes less like a passionate position on equality and more like a quiet courting of gay dollars.
At a time when anti-queer forces are getting more and more extreme, allies need to do more than just say nice things about us in public and then just ask us to buy tickets to their movie or download their album. Marriage equality seems like it will soon be a very real thing, but there’s plenty of work left to do.
Too many states still make it legal to deny queer people housing, jobs and other services. Under the aegis of “religious liberty”, some states are even trying to make queer discrimination in all areas the law of the land. Any Republican that wants the presidential nomination in 2016 will have to court the most regressive, anti-queer groups in the country, the kind of groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center attaches the descriptor “hate” to.
This isn’t to say that Tatum or anyone else isn’t a genuine friend of the queer community. That isn’t to say that there isn’t at least a little bit of fun to be had to see Channing Tatum shamelessly shake his butt on a parade float. But appealing to the physical appetites of gay men does not an ally make.
It’s not entirely his fault, though. After all, we’re the ones playing pin-the-title-on-the-celebrity, and if all it takes to be labeled an “ally” is to show up in your underwear, why should anyone do more than that? At most, the cast of Magic Mike XXL are friends with benefits, but let’s be honest. We need commitment much more than we need fun.
(NOTE: This article has been edited since its publication.)