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.

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Making Up The Rules

I’ve been confused lately about what it is I actually want. And I mean in the way of my life and how I live it. I’m not really sure how I would categorize my lifestyle. I tend to shy away from anything too personal on this blog. I’m pretty selective about my online presence (No FB, remember, and a big yeah, right to tweets), out of fear that I’ll look back on it and regret divulging intimate details and feelings I had. I consider myself a private person. I suddenly feel the need to get a bit personal, though. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’ve been wrestling with these questions and conflicting feelings lately.

When I first came out — not the arduous process of self-acceptance that took years to gain, but the point at which I was comfortable to tell people close to me — I had this ideal of eventually finding the right guy to have a big gay wedding with, legal or not, and that would be that. I would be settled and happy. Of course, over time I got jaded, and my experiences and attempts at finding this chipped away at the ideal, even to the point that I stopped believing in romantic love. I still don’t to a certain extent. But, lately for some reason, I’m starting to gain back this vision for my life, though not with the same naivete as a teenager, and I wouldn’t call it an ideal anymore, but more like opening myself up to the possibility of settling down and sharing a life with someone. Companionship.

This troubles me. I can’t help but feel like one big sell out for it. I believe gay marriage will eventually be legalized on a national level in my lifetime, at least I hope. It won’t happen overnight or without activists willing to take a stand. Strides are being made. DADT was repealed, and Obama states the Justice Department will no longer defend DOMA. But then, people like John Boehner plan on digging their claws in the traditionalist dirt to counteract and spend huge amounts of money in a shitty economy in the process. It could be in a year, or it could be in another ten to twenty. Who knows? But as progress on marriage equality continues to slowly advance, I ask myself, even if it were legal, would I even want to get married? My go to answer is no, absolutely not. But as I stated in the preceding paragraph, my beliefs for my future are eroding somewhat. Some may claim this is typical of most people in my generation — sowing their wild oats in their early twenties and then reforming later and getting married with white picket fences and little ones to pass on your own emotional issues to. Some may tell me, it’s called growing up and being responsible. Thanks for the condescension, and for the gross generalizing. The issue I’m dealing with seems to be what many LGBT people are questioning now I imagine: Is getting gay married conforming to the heteronormative power structure that’s disgustingly oppressive or does it subvert it?

My answer is that it’s most likely a little bit of both. But, I’m here to tell you my experience as a gay man who is denied the option to get married on a federal level gives me a perspective on how deeply flawed the institution of marriage is in general. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve encountered many lovely married couples. I’m not criticizing anyone who is married or who wants to get married on any personal level. I just take issue with the massive importance that’s placed on it. I never understood why Christianist right wingers claim gay marriage will destroy the institution. If anything, wouldn’t allowing more types of people to enter into it fortify it? Logic would dictate people like me would be the “crusaders who are going to tear marriage apart.” Of course, this isn’t the case. I don’t care if people want to get married, I just question whether or not it’s for me. I’ll give my opinion of what I would like to see our country do with marriage. To me, marriage is a religious institution that should be separate from the government. Civil unions between consenting adults with equal benefits for all under the government would be my ideal. It goes without saying that there wouldn’t be restrictions based on gender, race, religion, etc. Churches could deny same sex couples marriage within them, bigoted as they are, because they are separate from the state. Those who are religious would be married in their church, and then their partnership would be recognized on a federal level as a civil union, along with all other partnerships under the government. Fat chance at this ever happening though. Whatever way it eventually happens, I can’t stress how important it is that gay unions be on a federal level. Marriages that occur in the six states, while they are wonderful in the course of gay rights, are not equal. All federal benefits are still denied (which I won’t explicate on here).

Maybe this re-evaluation and consideration of eventual marriage for myself could be from all the political debate on the issue or maybe it’s part of living where I do. Kentucky is traditionalist central, among the others. Louisville isn’t too much of an exception. People always say Louisville is where people grow up, move, and then come back to raise their families. I’m definitely generalizing, but people here tend to hold fairly traditional values. A woman in my office this week told me that I need to have kids soon, like within the next year, so my parents can enjoy grand kids. I mean, really? Why are marriage and kids the end all and be all? I’ve thought maybe I would get married eventually only if it was on a federal level, but then I recently read this, which re-affirmed my former skepticism. I like the point that, of course, marriage equality for same sex couples needs to happen, but for me, it’s mainly because of the principle, the way it’s discrimination, not necessarily because I plan on marrying. I’ve imagined what it would be like if I got married. It would be even more conflicting. What kind of a relationship would I want? Certainly not an imitation of straight couples. The main problem I have, among the others, but the one that really gives me an uneasy feeling is the implicit shackles of ownership of another person. I don’t want to be owned, and I would never want to own anyone else. But then alternately, I know I wouldn’t want something like an open relationship. Not because of morality, but because I know I wouldn’t be able to handle it emotionally. Many straight couples getting married have relationships that defy and challenge former traditions, especially with gender roles. Gay couples similarly forge new values and ways of living, but to me, more obstacles abound, because more is at stake. Straight couples don’t deal with the hurdles of prejudice or a political lens, and different gender boundaries are crossed. As a gay man, I’ve always felt I walk between two worlds of what’s masculine and what’s feminine. I identify with the boys’ club and groups of females while also being excluded from both, and really not fitting in to either. That issue would be a whole other post, but the point I’m trying to make is that self-identified LGBT people have more gender issues to contend with that resonate in the relationship. Whichever I decide, and I’m currently waiting on this Puritanical country to even give me the choice, I’m ready to make up my own rules and values as I go along.

The homophobia I’m increasingly surrounded with doesn’t help too much. It can get pretty disheartening and spirit breaking. The little slights and comments that don’t seemingly mean much act as the subtext for greater issues. Like when someone tells me my opinion as a man on something as frivolous as Sex and the City or buffalo wings doesn’t matter because I’m not a hetero man or when someone makes a cheesy one-liner directed at me when the concept of flame wars or hot dogs come up in conversation or when a grown man still uses one of those infantile phrases in which “gay” means “stupid” or “lame.” The prejudice I notice is becoming less and less subtle. I think there are more people like this lovely gentleman out there than some realize:

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.

Out of the Bubble

For the past year I’ve been in a book club. In fact, I’m the founder and coordinator of it. Many of my literary friends would find this hilarious; I find it hilarious given the amount of times book clubs were the source of jokes for me and these friends in my college days. The idea invokes a group of people sitting around in a touchy-feely circle talking about surface topics like what characters they liked or didn’t, how certain parts made them feel, or whether they like the book or not with no solid justification one way or the other, and very little, if any, discussion about topics of importance like structure of form, character complexity, narrative causality, sources of conflict, subtext, or line-by-line linguistic analysis of style to name a few. You know, topics with real literary significance. Is this snobbery? Yes, very much so. Am I a book snob? Again, yes, very much so. I started this club reluctantly at the proposal of a few friends, and as the only former English major in the mix, I was the logical choice for the role of organizer. Over the past year, my attitude has changed a bit. It’s been refreshing to speak in a setting about a book openly with no pressure or grade at stake. Most importantly, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to read books I wouldn’t have chosen for myself otherwise. Of course, I’ve liked some more than others.

The last meeting we had was this Monday. We read War Dances by Sherman Alexie, a collection of short stories and poems. As a whole, I admire Alexie’s blend of traditional structural form with experimentation, especially in a current literary community where everyone is pegged with being in either one camp or the other. As a lover of fiction, I was most eager for the short stories, and I want to comment on one specifically, “The Senator’s Son.” This one resonated with me the most. Book clubbers — at least my stereotypical perception of them referenced in the previous paragraph — tend to hate a book if they hate the characters. In this story, I hated all three central characters: a conservative senator vying for future presidency, his priveleged son, William, and William’s former best friend, Jeremy, a gay republican. While I know if these characters were real I most likely wouldn’t be able to stand them, I found this story, and them, powerful, because Alexie provides insight into perhaps why they are the way they are. Spoiler alert. William gay bashes Jeremy years after the latter came out to the former, which had dissolved their friendship. In a surprising reversal, I felt like William, the first person POV character, was more redeemable than Jeremy, who is essentially homophobic himself, maybe even more than William. Jeremy readily forgives William with no questions, claiming gay rights don’t matter, because far more pressing issues and problems exist in the world than who he has sex with. In the end, I realize he refuses to support his own rights, the ones that are the most immediate to him, because he is a man who has become so disillusioned and beaten down — both figuratively and literally in the case with William and also growing up with his father — by the homophobia in the world that his only defense mechanism is to comply to it by not standing up for himself. William ponders whether Jeremy’s act of forgiveness is an act of cowardice. I can’t help but agree, and I was taken aback that I felt this way — that forgiveness isn’t necessarily redemptive; it can be spineless.

This story is apt for what I’ve been rolling around in my head the past week given all the media coverage of the suicides caused by bullying. I’m shocked at how homophobic our society is. Sure, I’ve known it is. I’m not naive. I’ve experienced it first hand since quite a young age by enduring harassment similar to what these kids faced. Maybe the extent of our culture’s prejudice mind-set is becoming more real for me in these past two years out of college — a place where my sexuality was a non-issue with the people I surrounded myself with, especially being steeped in a creative writing program. Now that I’m out of the bubble, I notice just how latent our homophobia is. I’ve had people telling me these suicides in the news aren’t issues with being gay but are about bullying. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t almost every instance in the news over the past month a bully who is making derogatory remarks and harassing a kid because he or she was gay, or was perceived as being gay, or didn’t fit into any type of gender role deemed “normal”? People who make claims like these aren’t looking at the root cause of why their peers are bullying these kids in the first place. And, I wonder why now of all times the media decides to focus on these tradgedies, because they happen much more than the national news stations usually covered before. The suicide rate of gay teens far exceeds the number of straight teens. Maybe now that more people are paying attention to how harmful homophobia is, attitudes will change. In the past week, I’ve found the media covering more instances of violence, discrimination, and narrow-mindedness:

The Bronx gay bashing
A student-teacher fired for answering a student’s question about his marital status
Another suicide, provoked not by harassment at school, but by awful comments made at a community’s city council meeting
More bullying, and physical assault in school
– And, I would be remiss leaving out Carl Paladino

I could list more, but this is sufficient enough to give you an idea. Then again, I wouldn’t hold my breath that exposure will make a difference. These attitudes are pretty heavily engrained culturally. Over the past year, since integrating back into Louisville, I’ve been surprised at certain encounters I’ve had. Like certain “friends” making comments to me like, “Wow, do you have any masculinity left in you at all?” because I was holding a red drink I suppose this person deemed “girly,” or slights like, “It looks like we’ve got four women here,” even though there were three, and then continuing with, “and I’m including Michael.” I’m not trying to use this post to play the victim or to even insinuate at all that these encounters are on any level with the suicides, discrimination, or bashing I’ve cited above. I’m simply pointing to them as examples of how mannerisms and outlooks regarding sexual orientation and gender are so embedded in how people interact with one another that they become second nature, and by extention, these small, subtle attitudes yield the larger more horrific forms of violence and blatant prejudice. Despite the media coverage, I don’t see immediate change occurring any time soon. So, I can definitely understand Jeremy in that Sherman Alexie story. It would be easy to forgive people who are the cause of such direct violence and hatred, if that’s what would save yourself from it all.