WARNING: This Isn’t Your Modern Family

 I considered making this post about the banning of Travis Matthews’ 2012 film I Want Your Love to evaluate on a larger scope the overall climate of LGBT media content’s distribution, revealing why it’s so shunned and limited. But, that analysis is maybe a little too much to take on in a simple blog post. Let’s go off the assumption that it’s pretty bad. My friends hear me griping about it all the time, almost to the point of bitterness, so I’ll try to refrain from my usual diatribe. This film is great. I enjoyed it. The ban in Australia of all places, a relatively modern, major area is ridiculous. Yes, it’s explicit. But, even the word “explicit” has an unnecessary taboo meaning. I like that it’s explicit. Too often filmmakers shy away from depicting sex or do it in a sanitized, staged, and unrealistic way. My favorite is hearing someone who thinks he’s a movie critic because he‘s seen Wes Anderson or Darren Aronofsky or Wachowski films make the charge that certain sex scenes are gratuitous. Those “critics” usually come from a prudish place. All the more reason to explore sex in an artistic way to analyze these reservations. What I love about the film is that those scenes aren’t extraneous to the narrative. They are seemingly small but important moments for these characters – scenes that explore them psychologically and propel their lives to change. Travis Matthews could defend the necessity of these scenes in the film to the point of exhaustion, but that would be missing the point. People — straight, anyway — are afraid of gay sex. This ban is a clear indication in the huge double standard (i.e. the counterexamples of straight sex scenes just as explicit receiving an exemption). An exciting movement in queer cinema is happening right now – honest, realistic, and nuanced portrayals of modern gay lives — that won’t reach the audience it could. Lack of circulation and offensive official bans like this reinforce the conditioned wincing at real intimacy between gay people.

This ban is outright censorship. But, aren’t films like this tacitly censored to an extent even without an official block? Some comments have expressed dismay that Australians are denied this film. Those who want to see it and own a computer can see it though. And, even though I luckily don’t live somewhere it’s prohibited by law, I admittedly saw it from an online download. Louisville – a city in the shallow South that’s fairly progressive with an ample arts scene – didn’t screen it anywhere I knew of. And, if they did, it was probably somewhere small for one night only and wasn’t widely advertised. This film only circulates in the festivals, specifically queer/LGBT ones, a niche. For instance, I highly doubt Baxter or Village 8 would ever carry this even for a week given the production company and unrated status. The way the industry is set up is unofficial censorship.

Does this push the boundaries for straight audiences? I can‘t play coy by saying it won’t for many. I’ve recommended Weekend – a film I love so much – to most everyone I know, and gauging those reactions has been interesting. One friend I know said that it was definitely extreme in its sex scenes, not in a bad way, but compared to a movie like Brokeback Mountain or A Single Man. Well, I Want Your Love is a good deal more graphic. But, at the same time, the tone is subdued, a chamber piece about a quiet character going through a reevaluation of himself with his sexual identity, his place in the world, his artistic ambitions, and what his life has meant up until that point as he prepares for a life altering move. It may fall into navel gazing territory, but it’s allowed to b/c gay people can finally navel gaze on screen just as much as someone like Woody Allen does. It’s a beautiful, artful, and poignant piece. I shouldn’t have to say this, but feel the need to because I know people: Straights who are curious, you will absolutely need to go into it with the most open mind you’ve ever had viewing LGBT content, but I encourage it.

Gay Flicks

Straight people don’t care about gay stuff. At least this is the general impression I get. Yet, I have to be inundated with and am demanded to care about movies, TV shows, music, art work, and news with hetero-centric focus. It’s a double standard expressed by a character in my favorite movie last year. He makes the ironic and funny, yet true point that people will praise and welcome art work with images of war, violence, poverty, etc. but anything with gay sex, and it is immediately taboo and shunned. LGBT material has been placed in a small niche market in pretty much every media form. Especially as a writer and reader of fiction, my hope is for a transition where it will be accepted in to the main cadre of the respective format (i.e. a well written and layered book classified as gay literature will be seen as good literature in general, and accepted as such within the literary community.) With the buzz of Oscar season, recently I’ve been thinking more about the discrepancy and gap in movies. Straights can find themselves represented in film easily. The majority are made for you. If you give Brokeback Mountain as a counter-example, I will throttle you. It’s more difficult for us gays. They’re either these cheesy, campy romps often a nudge-and-wink parody of a mainstream non gay movie but with cheeky exploitative stereotypes or seedy underground films that are essentially softcore porn under the veil of being edgy (look no further than 90% of the selection in the Netflix Gay and Lesbian section, like this one or this one) The similarity between these two categories is awful acting, fake dialogue, and no real characters. The third category is the Hollywood movie pre-packaged for a safe portrayal to cater to heteros — don’t want to push their limits too much! — that is an opportunistic way for a straight actor to be lauded for playing gay while gay actors themselves struggle getting roles, and new actors in the biz are forced to remain closeted (think A Single Man and Milk, both of which I like but still take issue with). A number of great counter-examples are out there though. I watched a good deal of LGBT movies in the past year — many of which occupy the realm of the gay genre and haven’t gained much audience outside of gay people, which is why I feel the need to share my top 3 (note these are movies I saw for the first time last year, not necessarily with a 2011 release date but made within the last 10 years):

3. Strapped (2010) rating: 9/10 – Some may find this plot a little gimmicky and unrealistic, but it worked for me. If you suspend your disbelief enough, it may for you. A young gay hustler — don’t walk away yet!, I know you may be thinking “Again?!” or “Typical,” but I beg you to look past this routinely used character type — finds himself in an apartment complex after a trick. But, he can’t seem to find his way out, as the complex becomes almost maze-like. On his journey to find the exit, he encounters about 5 different types of gay men. I like the way this one is structured in arcs, each exchange a different act in itself. I also like how it plays on stereotypes but then breaks them by peeling back the layers to reveal authentic people.

2. Red Without Blue (2007) rating: 9/10, instant streaming on Netflix – An excellent documentary. I could’ve picked a great political one exploring aspects of the struggle for gay rights, because there are many out there, but I chose this one because of the personal quality of it. It’s about one family –specially two twins, Mark and Alex Farley. They grew up in the typical fake cookie-cutter nuclear family, but in the onset of their parents’ divorce, they both came out. The film explores their struggles: Mark’s depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, Alex’s identity as transgender in her transition to become Claire, the way their parents handle their sexuality, and the connection that both of them have to one another despite their recent decision to live apart. I also picked this one because it not only explores gay issues, but gender and identity overall.

1. Weekend (2011) rating: 10/10, instant streaming on Netflix – Real, raw, and honest, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is now my favorite LGBT film, and beyond that, my favorite movie period of 2011, and definitely my favorite love story in the past 5 years. The review over at Slate can probably do a better job outlining for you, but I’ll give you the basics if you don’t want to read the whole thing (also a bit of a spoiler alert in their review). It’s main character is Russell, an average, ordinary gay guy in Nottingham. Haigh’s aim was to depict gay culture in Nottingham specifically, so it has a regional flare, but this depiction will easily resonate with any gay community in a city. We’re put in to his POV immediately — please note this, Darren Aronofsky as an example of how to effectively follow your main character with a shaky cam shot without giving the unsettling feeling that we’re stalking them as viewers — as he goes to a gathering at his straight friends’ place (a sequence shot in a way that’s coated with the very real feeling of outsidership as a gay man). He leaves early and heads to a local gay club, where he meets Glen. What starts as a one night stand slowly becomes something more neither of them wants to admit. Glen is an artist and records Russell as part of a project he’s working on, the catalyst for a gradual weekend long exploration they go on with each other. Their conversations address the gay struggle in one of the most apt and contemporary ways I’ve seen. Glen is a bit of a radical who is angered by oppression and thinks gay marriage is conformist to heteronormative power structures, whereas Russell is shy, sweet, and is looking for a monogamous relationship eventually. I see myself and my outlook in both. It embraces the tropes of romance dramas in a self-aware way, but turns them on their head by breathing new life in to them within a gay love story. What is so refreshing about this movie is the intense attention to the specifics of character and what it’s like to connect with someone, whether gay or straight, providing a gleaming, novel view of what love can be. (Advice: may want to turn on subtitles at times. We’re dealing with British low talking mumblers, here)

I’m hoping with movies like Weekend, gay cinema is headed in a great new direction, and maybe it has to be the indie scene to break the barriers. In his recent Salon review of Keep the Lights On, an upcoming similar film which currently made the Sundance rounds, Andrew O’hehir predicts something comparable to New Queer Cinema of the early 90’s, except hopefully a turn away from that to something more expansive, something that resonates not just with the LGBT genre, but with open movie goers willing to experience another perspective than their own and discover the reason for the differences while identifying with the similaries of a shared human existence. And, in the end realize a good movie is a good movie. Also, if I can sit through Katherine Heigle trying to find a boyfriend while being a bridesmaid for the 34th time, Micky Rourk trying to date a stripper, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt going through a break up set to the tunes of The Smiths, or Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhal screw and sit around naked while she’s dying, you can sit through a gay sex scene.

Gay Accessories

I’ve decided I pretty much am the Disappointing Gay Best Friend (aka Tyler Coates). I even spent last night, Friday, ordering in pad thai and watching Netflix. Although, I didn’t have an overly enthusiastic straight best female friend egging me on to go to Connections (Louisville’s gay club) with her and pigeonholing me into a narrow cookie cutter caricature for her own amusement to fill some type of void in her life. Lizz (my roommate) was here, although she had a low key evening with some rented videos herself. Luckily, she doesn’t fit that bill. These videos have been making their way around the blogrolls. I’m a little late to jump on it here, as usual. There has also been a Salon article. Even though in an Advocate interview, Mikala Bierma, the “hag” of the video claims the intention was in no way a response to the Sassy Gay Friend series, I can’t help but see it as a contrast, along with many other commenters. I don’t really have any new insights or fresh material to expound on. These videos resonate with me as a gay man. I can’t count how many times I’ve been in social situations where women demand I fit this role, or think that I somehow will. The encounters range from subtle hints and comments to outright belligerence. Example:

Flashback to my senior year of college in good ole’ small town Murray, Kentucky. It was Halloween. As usual, I had grand ideas for a costume but then got lazy, and none of them ever materialized into a killer Oh-My-God-I-Love-Your-Costume stunner. I think that year I thought about being a Smurf instead of a Michael Holladay in a green flannel shirt and jeans. My friend Jessie and I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas and drank at a friend’s house. No big plans. However, we came back to her place, since her roommates were throwing a party. A good friend of mine was there, and some of her friends were visiting (I’m leaving out names here, just in case, in the off chance anyone involved in this event may actually stumble upon this blog, they won’t be embarrassed. I like to pretend my readership extends beyond my work friends and sister. Thanks, guys. Oh, and you better be reading this too, Alex!). Her friends were a couple from her home town. She introduced me to them. When the female half of the couple deduced I was gay, she flipped out. She bombarded me with hugs and kept saying, “I love this guy!” Throughout the night, she would come to my side, clutch her arm around mine, turn, and announce to anyone in earshot, “Look at us! We’re just like Will and Grace! You’re just like… what’s his name? Jack!? Or is it Will? I love this guy!” In a conversation with her boyfriend, he spoke of nothing else but how cool he was with gay people. Gee, thanks. I gathered that he was doing this to comfort himself, because I could detect a level of threat he felt about his girlfriend hugging and kissing all over another man. These people were from Chicago, not a small town in Kentucky or Indiana. My good friend graciously apologized to me, and of course I take no offense from her, told her so, and I said that I understood. I’m not sure that I do, though. Maybe a part of me does.

I said I didn’t have much more to contribute to the conversation of the sassy and fierce gay stereotype and “fag hags,” but I do have some thoughts. I think it’s interesting how these videos portray a distinct stereotype, not in the gay man, but in the “fag hag.” Some hardcore feminists tend to criticize the misogyny of gay men, but this unintentionally explores underlying homophobic attitudes women can have toward gay men when they think they’re being accepting. I don’t blame them, because they are inculcated with limited ideas of gay men from the media. See Will and Grace and the exhausted triteness it’s built around. That’s not to say that female supporters of gay rights should go unappreciated. The gay rights movement owes a great deal to women. Straight female advocates help bring gay men into the mainstream. However, I question the consequences this has had, and they’re demonstrated in these two video series. In his Salon article from a few years ago on the subject, Thomas Rogers notes how gay visibility in the 90’s and early 2000 in the media directly links to a strong female presence: “It was no coincidence that the first wave of gay male TV characters shared most of their screen time with straight women — it made us palatable to mainstream America.” He then quotes Justine Pimlott, director of the documentary “Fag Hags: Women Who Love Gay Men,” in which she explains, “‘It was celebrating the feminine side of gay men, not about going into the bar scene,’ says Pimlott. ‘It disarmed their potential threat.'” I’ve always felt we must move beyond this safe celibate image in the mainstream. I also like how he addresses the marked difference between genuine friendships gay men have with women and the expectations of women who know nothing about gay culture, women who claim they’re just dying to go to Connections for the first time with you and then cringe two hours later when two men are kissing on MTV. There was my good friend at that party, and then there was her friend who embarrassed me, and mostly herself. We are not Lady Gaga’s pretty pink poodle accessories, or any woman’s for that matter.

I would be remiss not sharing that many of my good friends — some of my best friends — are women. This isn’t because I can help them pick out curtains or go scarf shopping with them or help them with their make up, none of which any woman would want me to do, believe me. It’s not much different from the reasons I’m friends with straight men. I don’t consider anyone my “hag.” I consider them friends who are people I share a connection with, and I know they regard me the same way.

Music Labels



The cover of the compilation album

 ”This is the gayest song of the year,” is what one commentator wrote about the above song accompanying the video. If you don’t know, it’s “Dancing On My Own” from Robyn’s Body Talk — a series of 3 EPs she put out in 2010. If anyone hasn’t checked it out yet, I highly suggest he or she does. Of course you remember Robyn, the classic 90’s singer. Okay, she had one strong hit — “Show Me Love.” Is it coming back? Yeah, I barely recalled her too. I do remember that song all over the radio in the later part of the 90’s, but it’s one of those songs I could easily pinpoint but couldn’t tell anyone the details of what album it was from or even who the artist was for that matter. With this killer comeback, I’m glad I know who she is now. Since buying the compilation album at Ear X-tacy I’ve been listening to it more than occasionally. It’s addicting and has been deemed one of the best of last year by many critics.

Gayest song of the year
What does this even mean? Obviously on first read it could be a criticism. You know, the infantile eighth grade slur that “gay” means “stupid” or “lame.” No, the posts are pretty much a lovefest for Robyn, so I’m assuming this person meant it as a compliment. Or is it pointing to the aesthetic of the musical style? Ever since my three week love affair with Body Talk I’ve been contemplating what “gay music” is exactly. Robyn’s style is electronic dance, so is that what it is? Music you can dance to that would likely be played in a gay club? I don’t hear anyone pegging Tiesto as an artist with a gay appeal. So, do gender politics play into it? Is the artist typically female? This notion is pretty base, but I’ll admit both are accurate to a point. Gay culture has embraced dance music from female artists since the early days when the bars were illegal and run by the mob. So, does that mean “gay music” is what the majority of gay people listen to? I listen to Iron and Wine. Are they a gay band? I’ll stop with this incessant questioning, because I think their rhetorical nature and point has been made, and the answers are fairly obvious. Then again, I don’t think I’ve come to any definitive conclusions and have used this paragraph as a sounding board. What I’ve perhaps gathered is that the answer to its opening questioning isn’t easily answered, and maybe doesn’t have one specific resolution.


Cover art for “Hold It Against Me,” Britney’s latest

Judy Garland. Madonna. Britney Spears. Lady Gaga. These are only some of the mainstream artists pegged as being integral in gay culture, and looking at what they all have in common, it’s easy to decipher the reason. I can only speak from my own experience. I’m about to relay some pretty embarrassing personal history and guilty pleasures, though I hate that phrase. Growing up, I was obsessed with Britney Spears. Part of it stuck. For instance, I get excited when I hear she’s putting out a new album, and my level of thrill with the release of her new song is no exception. No shame. I’ve attempted to analyze why she appealed to me so much. Don’t blame me. She was my generation’s Madonna. I recorded her appearances on TV, learned her dance moves, spent time on fan sites. In psychoanalyzing my young teenage self, this unhealthy interest was appropriate. At a time when I couldn’t express the sexuality I wanted to, a sexuality pegged as feminine, she did it for me in her performances and lyrics. She exuded a sexuality that appealed to men, which is what I wanted to do but couldn’t. It was an escape of sorts. I think this is typical of young boys trying to cope with same-sex feelings. We found someone else to identify with. And, if anyone questioned it, we could explain it away by claiming that we were sexually attracted to this female singer, and that’s even partly true. Identify. That’s the key word, and what these artists have in common. The way Judy Garland’s personal struggles easily mirror struggles gay people go through in the feeling of not being good enough and shamed by one’s body and sexuality. The way Madonna shed repression by sexually inverting religious iconography. The way Britney Spears is a victim of horrendous slut-shaming by the media. The way Gaga celebrates those considered “weird” or “abnormal” with a careless attitude to negative judgment.



The one and only

Then, the actual music itself should be put up for analysis, as I’ve only alluded to ways of identification in these artists’ personal lives and reaction to their commercial persona. In the history of gay culture, mainstream songs by female artists were anthems and played at gay clubs as early as The Stonewall Inn, because of the way the lyrics can have a double meaning to highlight the gay experience of unrequited love, loneliness, trying to find inner strength on one’s own, or trying to express sexual confidence. This identification with lyrical content was the case in the early gay movement with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Dionne Warwick, and the same is true now with Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Robyn. “Dancing On My Own” is about unrequited love in a crowd, and in the video’s case on an energetic dance floor. In the irony of loneliness while being surrounded by people, I could clearly see why someone would call this “the gayest song of the year.”



Who can resist Judy?

 I’m pleased at the critical reception of Robyn’s Body Talk and hope it will work to shatter the notion that electropop is something superficial and trivial. What’s deemed “gay music” has been dismissed as such. It’s feminine, so it’s lesser. This idea speaks to the larger way of how our culture seeks to gender everything, even music, so only females or gay men are allowed to listen to certain artists, and if someone outside of these categories does, they are immediately questioned. Yet, my identity as gay male is never questioned because I like Yonder Mountain String Band, Sufjan Stevens, Minus the Bear, Nirvana, Lucero, and the list could go on. The gendering of music is no different to how gendered our society is, and is a microcosm of it. Despite that I know multiple “masculine” men who enjoy Lady Gaga, heteronormative and restrictive comments like Lady Gaga is “the complete opposite masculinity” still pervade. And male artists are expected to project a certain air also. One of my favorite male singers is Jared Gorbel from The Honorary Title, because his voice is so unique and passionate, yet the reaction he’s gotten from a few of my friends is that his voice is too “emo.” I feel like this is a reaction to a male singer whose voice radiates strong emotion, and stereotypically men aren’t supposed to display outward emotional responses. When a singer like Christina Aguilera sings with passion and breaks it down, she’s praised for her voice, because this is how women are supposed to sing. When a singer like Jared Gorbel breaks a song down with emotion, he’s being whiny. These double standards are why with Robyn, it’s a delight to see an album classified as “gay” getting such positive welcome from people who wouldn’t ordinarily. It’s an album that breaks down barriers. Although, reading the comments of different reactions to Britney’s new “Hold It Against Me,” in a sea of slut-shaming and misogyny, it’s evident not much will change any time soon, at least until our culture gets over its oppressive gender complex. And, we all know how well that’s going. Still, I like to think the latest offering from Body Talk is one small step forward. Thanks for this, Robyn.

Representation

Apparently Glee had a “very special” and “heart-wrenching” episode this past week. I wasn’t going to write about it, because I don’t care too much about the show, but with the number of blogs I’ve read opening it up for discussion in a boom of comments and with my interest in gay representation in stories as both a gay man and lover of fiction writing, I feel compelled to weigh in. I didn’t see the episode. I can’t stand Glee after giving it many shots last year. Its status as a sing-a-long for adults aside, it tends to be a pretty heavily male-centric show and leaves its characters in the respective pigeonholes set up for them. I wouldn’t have that much of a problem, since most shows on TV tend to do this, especially teen dramas, but many of its viewers claim the show is breaking new barriers for acceptance and tolerance. The creator himself even has this high opinion of his own show. I’m sorry, but simply depicting minorities on TV isn’t groundbreaking if they merely fit into the molds made for them. It’s just not. These depictions are actually an affront to these minority groups.

To those of you who didn’t see the episode, Kurt, the token gay teen, gets bullied by a football player, who turns out to be gay himself, and at the end brashly kisses Kurt. At least this is what I understand by what I’ve read about it. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Of course I’m glad when TV shows portray gay characters and their struggles. We need it. I don’t have any problem with Glee including such a story line, especially with all the bouts of recent homophobia found in the news. I take issue with how it has been perceived by certain bloggers and the commentators. This isn’t nearly as revolutionary as these “gleeks” are claiming. Gay kissing on TV isn’t anything new, and the barriers have already been broken. I remember seeing it in the shows I watched growing up. The first primetime male to male kiss aired on Dawson’s Creek in its third season finale – the episode entitled “True Love” – with Jack and his love interest of the season. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Willow and Tara’s first kiss in its fifth season in the episode “The Body,” and the two shared many others on the show after that. And I loved the way BTVS did it too. The episode is innovative, not because of the kiss, but because of the realistic, severe, and jarring way it was shot along with the subject matter. The episode is so focused on the death of Buffy’s mom, and Joss Whedon throws it in casually. In the season five episode commentary, he said he wanted the first kiss not to be such a big deal in the primary spotlight but something natural and common. The two show affection to each other with a kiss for mutual solace in the wake of grief, similar to many other scenes with straight couples doing the same. It wasn’t forced but expected of how their characters would be reacting in the scene. The WB wanted Whedon to take it out, but he refused and threatened to cease production of the show if it wouldn’t air with the kiss included.
Cut to about ten years later with this past week’s episode of Glee. My main beef with the show is how every character is an exaggerated cast type, and the closeted gay football player is no exception. Sure, on Dawson’s Creek, Jack played football, but he was already out, and I would hardly classify the treatment of his character as steeped in stereotypes. Gay fiction has transcended the “coming out” story, and now the aim must be to depict gays and lesbians like any character would be with their sexuality as a non-issue. The difficulty is perhaps balancing this with the necessity to convey the reality of the internal conflict gays and lesbians do go through in our culture, a balancing act done pretty well with Jack’s character, and impressive that it was on a teenage soap opera. After the first few seasons included story lines about his coming out, the show went on to provide arcs in which he had multiple romantic interests just like his verbose peers which is more than I can say for how Kurt fits into the acceptable and safe “celibate” but “flamboyant” image of the gay male. What real progress has been made here? If Glee is as diverse and progressive as some allege, as Ryan Murphy himself alleges, it would’ve had a male-male kiss already, and should’ve taken a cue from its predecessors to not base it on gross stereotypes.
Willow and Tara in “The Body” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, aired 02/27/2001
   Jack and Ethan in “True Love” from Dawson’s Creek, aired 05/24/2000