Gay by Design, or a Lifestyle Choice?
RON GEREN, an actor in Los Angeles, commutes to auditions and jobs throughout Southern California in a sleek black Mazda MX-5 Miata convertible. But for a recent date with a woman, he rented a Cadillac Escalade because he was so used to friends saying his Miata is “gay.”
“Guys say, ‘Hey, that’s cute,’ ” Mr. Geren, 40, said, adding that the comments come from gay as well as straight men. “You have to fend off that perception.”
A few years ago, Meghan Daum, an op-ed contributor to The Los Angeles Times, wrote about a promising first date with a man that never led to a second one because, she later learned, the guy saw that she drove a Subaru Outback station wagon and concluded she must be a lesbian.
And when Joe LaMuraglia, the founder of Gaywheels.com, an informational site modeled on the likes of Autoweb.com, told his partner he wanted to buy a Mini Cooper convertible, the boyfriend joked that he would not be seen in it because the couple “would look like such a gay cliché,” Mr. LaMuraglia said.
Cars are no more straight or gay than cellphones, office chairs or weed whackers. But in recent years that truism has not stopped a perception among some motorists that certain cars can, in the right context, be statements about a driver’s sexual orientation.
At a time when car makers are marketing aggressively to gay consumers and mainstream culture has become more literate about stereotypically gay tastes through television shows like “Will & Grace” and “The L Word” (on which one of the main characters, Alice, drove a Mini Cooper), it may not be surprising that some people make such assumptions about motorists based on their cars.
Indeed, the extravagant displays of muscle car machismo and sensuous, high-design femininity on display this week at the New York International Auto Show at the Javits Center would seem to cry out for deconstruction along gender- and sexual-identity lines.
But to some people, such stereotyping is homophobia, pure and simple. A poll seeking to determine the most gay automobiles, conducted by a South African Web site, was a topic of heated interest last December on Gizmodo, the New York-based technology blog, where one reader wrote: “Since when are cars gay or straight? We’re really polling people’s prejudices here.”
Others, though, including gay theorists, say many gay motorists happily embrace certain cars as reflections of identity.
“People presume you want to throw off a stereotype,” said Judith Halberstam, a lesbian who is a professor of gender studies at the University of Southern California. She drives a black Mazda 3 hatchback that she considers “butch.” But, she said, “If you are a masculine woman, you might not feel bad about it, so you might become excited about knowing how to fix your pickup, or driving a ’68 Mustang.”
“Not all gays want to present an image that is normative,” she said.
Ramone Johnson is a gay journalist and former Saturn engineer who compiles an annual “Top 10 Gay Cars” list for About.com, which is owned by The New York Times Company. Mr. Johnson said that “traditionally we are used to being defined by others.” Driving a stylish car can be a way of “taking control back” and saying “this is who I am,” he said.
Mr. Johnson maintains that “soft lines” and a “vibrant personality” — say like those on a Volkswagen New Beetle — are typical attributes of a gay man’s car, and fashion-forward red gauges and other styling cues, for example, make the Pontiac G6 more of a gay car than its sibling, the Grand Am, because the features express a taste for freedom and fun.
Neither automobile manufacturers nor dealers compile statistics on the sexual orientation of buyers.
Frank Markus, who is gay and the technical director for Motor Trend magazine, said auto companies tend to associate gay consumers with higher disposable incomes since fewer have children (one reason many are free to opt for less practical cars, like two-seaters or convertibles, as well). Tellingly, when the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, pressured the Ford Motor Company to pull advertising from gay publications like The Advocate in 2005, the ads were for Land Rover and Jaguar, two high-end brands owned by Ford.
Subaru has been the most prominent company to embrace the gay market. As long ago as 2000, the automaker created advertising campaigns around Martina Navratilova, the gay tennis star, and also used a sales slogan that was a subtle gay-rights message: “It’s not a choice. It’s the way we’re built.” Little wonder that many lesbians refer to their Outbacks as “Lesbarus.”
Even General Motors recently began to include questions about sexual orientation on some internal market surveys, although data are not yet compiled, said Adam Bernard, who tracks the product strategies of G.M.’s competitors and who also coordinates an advocacy group for gay employees at the company called GM Plus. Since 2003, he said, the group has consulted with marketing executives at the company about increasing sales to gay consumers.
Lacking a precise portrait of its gay car buyers, the company still has taken increasing strides to break into this market, Mr. Bernard said, advertising its Cadillac, Saturn and Saab divisions in gay publications and Web sites like PlanetOut.com.
Company executives, he said, do not seem to feel skittish about losing market share among straight consumers if gay buyers suddenly seize on a particular model. “I don’t think internally we ever asked the question, ‘If we put Cadillac in The Advocate, are we going to lose straight Cadillac buyers?’ ”
“Frankly,” he added, “the money’s all the same color.”
Mr. Markus of Motor Trend said clichés about gay drivers tend to collapse on close inspection, like the gay man who is a “gym bunny” and gravitates toward Jeeps and convertibles “to show off his hot body.” But, he added, “If you could actually push a button and see what every gay person drives, it’s probably not too different from what the average person drives, but it might skew higher in price.”
On Gaywheels.com, one indicator of actual gay buying trends is the list of vehicles most frequently researched. As of last October, the Toyota Yaris, a $12,000 economy car, led that list, followed by the Toyota Camry, which was the No. 3-selling car in America last year.
It would be hard to find a more conventional automobile.