During “Real Time With Bill Maher” last Friday night, Maher made several references to Lindsey Graham’s sexuality that had many accusing the comedian of homophobia. The first joke was about Graham escaping from the women who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake in an elevator in the US Senate because, according to Maher, he was “familiar with the back door.”
Later during the show, Maher referenced Graham’s sexuality again while discussing Trump’s ability to make everyone around him behave as he does.
“The fact that Trump can either find people like him or make him … Lindsey Graham needs the stabilizing influence of his dead boyfriend.”
Glenn Greenwald, who is gay, took extreme exception to this, tweeting the following rebuke that set off a contentious debate over Maher’s perceived homophobia:
I'm still trying to understand when & why it became not just acceptable – but a legitimate craze – for some Democrats to use homosexuality as a tool of degradation against those they want to insult, but it's been going on for 2 years with no end in sight. Cowardly @HRC is silent: https://t.co/KeaPC3PhFb
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) September 29, 2018
I have gone after Greenwald over the years for many of his journalistic transgressions, but on this point, I completely understand where he is coming from, and why gay people might be sensitive about this. But it is worth considering the following.
First, Bill Maher is a comedian. That means his job is to provoke and push the boundaries of what we think is acceptable. The best comedians skirt very, very close to the edge of what we deem to be permissible, and Maher is no exception. Occasionally, he crosses that boundary, but this time it seems pretty clear to anyone who follows Maher that this was not the case.
“The problem is that it perpetuates the concept as an insult, especially among the people you use it against,” one person wrote in response to Greenwald’s tweet. “Besides, this isn’t the time to be making ad hominem attacks when there a lot of real discussion to be had.”
“A joke that uses homosexuality in a derogatory fashion is homophobic,” wrote another.
Superficially, this might appear to be the case, but Maher’s comedy is quite sophisticated and he pushes his audience to read between the lines.
Lindsey Graham has remained steadfastly opposed to gay marriage, supporting a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman (although he now believes it is a state’s right issue, comparing gay marriage to polygamy, and voting against allowing LGBT couples to adopt in the District of Columbia.
Graham maintains he is not gay, but his sexuality is basically an open secret in DC. He is not married, has never been linked to anyone publicly, and, well, let’s be honest, displays many telltale signs of being gay (the neatly coiffed hair and feminine voice, and so on).
In Graham’s world, these are not things to be proud of. Republicans believe homosexual men are inferior to heterosexual men, and Graham cannot ever come out and stay politically relevant.
“I sometimes wonder what uniform he puts on each morning when goes out to the field to play… and I’m not just talking about the partisan uniform,” said Mike Huckabee about Graham when he believed he wasn’t toeing the line sufficiently for Donald Trump.
Huckabee is no comedian, and his inference is clear — Graham might not be a real Republican because he may not be a real man.
Bill Maher has been a vociferous supporter of LGBT rights and gay marriage for decades. He has LGBT guests on his show, and goes after Republicans trying to suppress their rights. When he makes jokes about being gay, it is not because he believes being homosexual is bad — he is just making a joke. Maher does not believe having neatly coiffed hair of having an effeminate demeanor makes Graham less of a man or of a human being.
Part of the reason Maher goes after Republicans like Lindsey Graham is because they have attempted to block gay and LGBT rights at every step of the way and play to a crowd of bigoted supporters. Republicans like Lindsey Graham cater to voters who believe gays are undermining Christian values and destroying the nuclear family. For him to hide his sexuality and fight for a political movement that seeks to suppress it is cowardly, and Maher’s jokes about him reflect that.
Unfortunately, this seems to be yet another case of Glenn Greenwald directing their well intentioned anger against the wrong target. My late colleague Chez Pazienza wrote about this fury directed at Maher in the last essay he ever published.
“Every year or so, the usual suspects among the perpetually aggrieved left make the collective decision to pick up their torches and pitchforks and march up the Hollywood Hills to the gates of Bill Maher’s house. (I assume it’s in the Hollywood Hills; that sounds right.)” wrote Chez in regards to Maher’s decision to give Milo Yiannopolous a spot on his show.
“I’m speaking figuratively, of course, since what they really do is react to something “offensive” Maher has said or done on his show or during one of his live appearances by venting their spleens via way of a bunch of silly internet think pieces.”
To Chez, liberal rage at Maher was self defeating and one of the reasons the left is incapable of beating Republicans, who rarely go after their own so rabidly.
“To break it down in simple terms, because nobody knows how to assemble a circular firing squad like liberals: Bill Maher isn’t the enemy,” continued Chez.
“He’s a guy who uses his powerful forum to espouse views that generally further liberal causes. It’s one thing to criticize him for individual viewpoints you maybe have an issue with but another thing entirely to rant about how he’s some kind of monster because he doesn’t conform to whatever the hell you adamantly believe someone must to be a part of your very particular fold.”
Granted, Maher has certainly stepped over the line, most notably when he joked about being a “house nigger” on his show last year. It should be noted however, that this issue was largely forgiven because almost everyone knew the intent behind the joke. Maher is no racist, and he is no homophobe either.
Chez’s article was published over a year ago, and we’re here again assembling another circular firing squad for. The left must remember that Bill Maher really isn’t the enemy — he is a comedian who uses his power to fight against injustice and intolerance. In the era of Donald Trump and rising threat of fascism, the left really needs to pick better targets.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.