Steve Grand’s ‘All-American Boy’ and the End of the Gay-Panic Defense
Once upon a time, you could get away with violence if it was brought on by ‘gay panic.’ Now legal moves to ban that defense—and a viral hit song about a gay crush that ends amicably—might signal the end of the era of straight retaliation.
Just in time for July Fourth, Steve Grand—a singer-songwriter who hopes to become the first gay male country icon—released his debut video on YouTube. “All-American Boy” is a paean to everything country: bonfires, whisky, pickup trucks, the American flag, skinny-dipping, and trying to make out with your best friend as soon as the girls are gone. In just a week it’s already racked up nearly a half million views on YouTube. Not bad for a 23-year-old kid from Chicago with no label, no agent, and no management.
Grand has the voice to make it, not to mention the face and the abs (especially the abs). But is country music ready for him? Who knows? Artists like k.d. lang and Chely Wright have proven that the world is ready for lesbian country singers, at least in a limited capacity; after all, neither of them is (or aspires to be) Miley Cyrus or Carrie Underwood. A true gay country star in his prime still seems as far away as a gay leading man. But even if Grand is just a sexy flash in the pan, the video for “All-American Boy” is still noteworthy.
In the video, we watch as Grand’s puppy-dog eyes stare longingly at his best friend across the campfire, in a pickup truck, and, finally, while splashing in the local swimming hole. As the music climaxes, he kisses his friend full on the mouth while they both tread water naked. For a long moment, everything is suspended as we wonder what will happen next. Is “All-American Boy” in the spirit of a “gay is good” mid-’90s independent film, where the rules of fantasy dictate that love can overcome all obstacles, even good-old-boy heterosexuality? Or are we about to watch the sort of brutal smackdown that’s all too common in both film and real life?
As it turns out, neither. The boy pulls away and returns to the party, as does Grand. The vibe between the two is unchanged. Sure, tomorrow at the rodeo there might be a few awkward moments, but you get the sense that that’s it. Grand gets to be disappointed without being disparaged, disowned, or disemboweled. And somehow, like nearly every living woman on earth, Grand’s love interest is able to handle a man’s unwanted advance without going ape shit and killing him. Astonishing, right?
The tradition of killing a man because he hits on you is so enshrined in our culture, it even has a name: the gay-panic defense (see: Matthew Shepard, Richard Barrett, Scott Amedure, etc., ad nauseum—very nauseum). “All-American Boy” is a sign that perhaps, just perhaps, the fragile flower of American masculinity has finally toughened the fuck up. Not that I don’t cherish my supposed ability to drive men crazy, but I’d like the crazy in question to be a little more metaphorical and a little less murder-y.
If there is a sea change in the making, it’s good news for straight guys as well as us predatory homosexuals. Just this June, the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section announced a proposal to urge the banning of the gay-panic defense in criminal proceedings, which will hopefully pass at its national meeting in August. The relevant text of the agenda for the meeting reads:
The Criminal Justice Section ... urges ... governments to take legislative action to curtail the availability and effectiveness of the “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses, which seek to partially or completely excuse crimes on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction.
In recent years, the gay-panic defense has rarely carried the day in court, making this move somewhat symbolic. But homophobes, consider this a warning: very soon, you may have one less excuse in your arsenal. (Or maybe not very soon, considering the state of Congress at the moment.)
This change isn’t happening in a vacuum. Just a decade ago, the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 would have been unimaginable, in large part due to arguments that same-sex marriage would, in some ineffable way, damage straight marriages—or perhaps the very institution of marriage itself, not to mention the family, masculinity, femininity, religion, America, puppies, and apple pie. Today one need only Google around for a few seconds to find any number of amusing essays about what a ridiculous idea this is, many of them written by straight, married people.
Of course, these changes are all well and good in paper and pixels, but the real test will come when the rubber hits the road, or in this case, when the boy hits on the boy. And it should be noted that while the bar association urges banning the “trans panic defense” as well, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program’s 2012 report, transgender people are 167 percent more likely to experience anti-LGBTQ hate violence than their gender-normative LGB counterparts. In fact, in 2012, 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were transgender. In many states, anti-transgender discrimination in housing, employment, and other matters is still legal. Though the ABA’s resolution is a step in the right direction, given the magnitude of the problem, it is tantamount to putting a Band-Aid on a flesh wound. The lack of transgender legal protections in this country should be criminal, and it seems depressingly unlikely that the vast apparatus of anti-anti-marriage campaigns will transform any time soon into a broader movement for social justice for all LGBTQ individuals.
But still, I can’t watch “All-American Boy” without smiling, even if the boy doesn’t get the boy in the end. Unrequited longing is the essence of youth. Indeed, without it, Taylor Swift would have no career, and Twilight would have no audience. “All-American Boy” welcomes gay boys into the club.