Beach Rats: That Gay-Not-Gay Film

The realms of male sexuality are often violently policed. You’re either straight and fit in or you’re gay and will be ostrasised. There’s little space for exploration and straight men doing gay things will often get bullied and shunned for it or will come up with ingenious ways of avoiding having to be associated with gayness, yelling “no homo” is but one example. It is this space of confusion and prejudice that the film Beach Rats explores as 19 year-old Frankie navigates the boardwalks of Coney Island. Inspired by a selfie of a young topless guy in a baseball cap (yup, this film was based on a selfie) this film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2017 and won much critical praise. There is much to praise – plenty of epic writing, acting and filming, but it’s the central story I want to critique and the tropes used to tell it. Ultimately, I find this film as confused as its protagonist, and not in a good way.

Firstly, the writer-director Eliza Hittman has been very clear in numerous interviews that this is neither a coming out nor a coming of age film, she calls it “a coming of consciousness” story as Frankie tries to get to know himself. He does so by taking drugs with his mates and hanging out on the beach, getting a girlfriend, and using a gay hook-up site to get with older men. So the film is very much about Frankie’s sexuality but both Frankie and Hittman are adamant that he is not gay, as Frankie says: “I don’t really think of myself as gay”. He might think of himself as bisexual or heteroflexible or queer or just never desiring of attributing a label to his sexuality, or he might just be really confused. By Frankie being not-gay the film also becomes not-gay, seeking to explore that strange and violent world of toxic masculinity and male sexuality. This could make for a great and nuanced film but, sadly, Beach Rats is still overloaded with gay content and relies much too heavily on gay tropes to tell an all too familiar and cliché story. As for those tropes, here are a few (spoilers).

The high volume of topless, sweaty men. The film poster comprising of these topless, sweaty men. The lingering shots on Harris Dickinson’s face. The lingering shots on his six-pack and bum. The full frontal male nudity. The sex between men. The sex between younger and older men. The fact that depicting sex between younger and older men was considered taboo – even though for many guys it’s completely normal! The use of gay hook-up sites. The fact that depicting the use of hook-up sites was considered taboo even though it’s a completely normal way for guys to meet up. Straight (or perhaps not-gay) male characters mocking the gay hook-up sites. The same characters choking and punching a gay guy called Jeremy towards the end of the film and leaving him stranded on a beach. The fact we don’t know if Jeremy survives. That Jeremy is basically a disposable trope: a plot device with little character or characterisation who is a stepping-stone in Frankie’s unhappy and dangerous life. That violence towards gay men is used as a plot device and left uncontextualised and unresolved (this trope is so common it’s got a name – Bury Your Gays). The way women are often emotionally and sexually used by confused men without apology or adequate resolution for those female characters. That distraught mothers and girlfriends are means via which a troubled man can continue his journey of discovery.

It’s a long list and in isolation, many of these elements don’t have to be considered gay or a gay trope but put them together and I think Beach Bats manages to appropriate, fetishise, exoticise and capitalise on gay life without ever acknowledging it. The film yells one loud “no homo” while cashing in on the pink pound. Furthermore, so many of the above issues don’t just happen onscreen, they happen in real life. So many LGBT+ people are beaten up and killed, ostracised from society, and suffer, and I don’t enjoy seeing this reflected on the screen with little nuance and empathy. For me, a film like Beach Rats is the product of a predominantly heterosexual team trying (and failing) to tell a gay-not-gay story. It’s not that straight people can’t tell these stories and shouldn’t be allowed, it’s that they need to do their research and better express their allyship. This needs to happen off-screen as well. If we truly want to explore the world of male sexuality and create a world in which men can more wholesomely explore their sexualities then it’s “no homo” that needs to be buried, not gays.

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Is There A Cure For The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness?

There are a lot of bleak articles out there about the state of gay men in society. One that’s a particulary tough read is Michael Hobbes’ article titled The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness in HuffPost, March 2017. It is incredibly well researched and lays out bare what is often not discussed: why so many gay men are unhappy, alone and depressed. Rather than blaming gay men, as so many are want to do, it looks at external societal factors that cause huge harm such as prejudice, violence and shaming, as well as how these factors can become internalised as, for example, low self-esteem, shame and self-loathing. It explores the ways gay men respond to these factors such as becoming lost in addictions, living in denial and, most sadly of all, taking their own lives. It talks of the closet and how we’re not free of it even when we’re out and the effects of minority stress. For me, I find it both useful and overwhelming to be able to locate some of my own experiences in this bleak analysis and, as well as being better equipped to talk about the problem, I do desperately want to find solutions.

Often the solution can lie in the problem itself. Thus, an epidemic of loneliness might call for an abudance of connection. Furthermore, loneliness has various definitions including “sadness because one has no friends or company” and, when describing a place, “the quality of being unfrequented and remote; isolation.” So it seems if we are to ‘cure’ loneliness we need to connect with one another and do it regularly enough. Of course, how we connect is very important and while meeting on the dancefloor or via Grindr are important ways of connecting so there are many others. One place I love to connect is above Cafe Babka opposite the British Museum in London once a week on Sunday morning. There, a circle of gay men meet and, led by a facilitator, we meditate, we explore different aspects of our personalities and we grow skills for surviving and thriving in the world. This is the Remarkable Men Soulful Sundays Meetup event that is part of the larger organisation called The Quest, “an exceptional resource for gay men to explore and better understand the complexities, joys, challenges, frustrations, thinking and emotions involved with being a gay man in today’s world.”

This is just one of many ways to connect with other gay men. A quick google will reveal all sorts of other groups such as ones who like to go bouldering, row, play boardgames, have brunch and/or go to the movies. Of course, even getting to a group can be hard enough for so many different reasons – mental & physical health, dis/ability, nervousness, shame and a host of other factors. And these things need to be catered for and will be so long as we keep trying to connect. Grassroots community is a vital thread in the fabric of the LGBT+ community, especially as cuts and austerity imposed by successive Conservative governments have undermined the safety of civil society. So, yes, there is a cure for the epidemic of gay loneliness but it’s certainly no magic pill. It will take time, work and much effort, but it will be worth it.

Eradicating Ecocide With Polly Higgins

It was the autumn of 2010 and I was on a bus from London to Oxford for the Oxford Climate Forum. In my hand was a short article I’d cut out of the New Internationalist about barrister-turned-eco-warrior, Polly Higgins, who wanted to have the large-scale destruction of the environment – termed ecocide – recognised as the fifth crime against peace in the UN. In essence, she wanted to make it illegal to trash the planet. I thought it was an interesting idea but perhaps a little ambitious. Anyway, the bus got to Oxford and I got myself to the Oxford Union debating chamber and listened to quite a large array of older white men drone on about different aspects of climate change. Then in walks a woman with wondrous salt and pepper hair and a beautiful Scottish accent. I sat up straighter and listened to her describe a world without ecocide and how we can make it happen – it’s actually quite simple. Suffice to say by the end of Polly’s talk my curious scepticism had given way to excitable hope. After the talks I went up to her and thanked her for speaking and I said how great it was to have a woman talk at the event and she smiled and said thank you.

That was the first time I met Polly and it wouldn’t be the last. Later that year I’d head to the South Bank Centre to hear her talk again and I’d ask her to sign the copy of her book I’d bought. She wrote, “here’s to making it happen”, and I told her I’d like to help, so she wrote her email address in the book as well. This is a long story, too long for a post, but one thing led to another and I became her Campaign Director for half a year and, thanks to Polly, I was whisked away on a number of adventures. One highlight was being asked to attend a talk given by Vanessa Redgrave, which Polly couldn’t make. What I hadn’t been told was that after her talk I’d be asked to go up on stage and share a panel with her. My face paled, my armpits began to sweat, and for the next thirty minutes I had to pretend I was meant to be there.

There are so many stories I could share about Polly – about how lost I felt when I stopped working for her, about how our friendship would last through the years, about the time she leant me her dress at her Delightfully Decadent birthday party, about her endless kindness and enthusiasm. I loved Polly dearly and it broke my heart when she passed away on Easter Sunday this year from cancer. She was a legend in life and she will be one in death. But as I finish this post what I really want to share is how all those years ago when I was a 22 year-old fresh out of uni without much of a clue what was going to happen next, Polly gave me direction. She also gave me permission – permission to dream as big as possible and to change the world. And today, as I write scripts, stories and run workshops I still dream big and I still want to the change world. Because life is incredibly short and whilst I do understand there’s so much more to changing the world than dreams, I also know that for those of us with the privilege and the power to make a difference it’s a very good idea to dream as big as we can. I still want ecocide to be recognised as an international crime and thanks to Polly’s work and the ongoing work of her team we are that bit closer. So please sign up to become an Earth Protector and please keep dreaming big.

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I Think It Is Called Belonging

The Quest, think Queer As Folk meets Lord of the Rings, just ran for a week at the Arcola Theatre in East London. For six nights I got to watch a fabulous, queer troupe bring a range of characters and worlds to life. There was Fred, the bisexual teenager on his first Tinder date, whose past catches up with him, and Zemuel, of the mythic Valley of Embers, sent on a quest to banish the monster that haunts them. There were other characters too such as adoptive mothers, gossiping friends, a village Elder, a sarky waiter, a loving dad, teachers, a LOTR-disliking intersectional feminist, a best friend and a waterfall lover. The directing was fantastic and it was amazing to see my words brought to life on stage. And the audiences loved it. There was laughter, tears and many words of congratulations. Many people felt deeply moved by the stories of Fred and Zemuel, and they hit home for a lot of the team as well, as growing up queer in an oft hostile world means we are all faced with monsters. So, really, this was so much more than a play, it was its own quest, one for belonging.

Because that’s what I crave as a member of the queer community. I want to feel like I belong among people who care for me and care for our wider community. People who are spiritually, emotionally and physically nourished, and given a chance to heal the wounds of their past so they can live lives of greater freedom and face the difficulties of today. I want us also to be able to enjoy the many joys of our lives – such as making an ace piece of theatre. There is so much unbelonging in the world, for so many of us, and the queer community is hit by this unbelonging at a number of intersections. As the King of Brunei imposes the death penalty for gay people, so the fight for survival is still very much real. In Britain there will continue to be high rates of LGBT+ suicide, especially among young people, there will be LGBT+ homelessness, and a range of mental health problems exacerbated by societal prejudice and indifference. It’s a tough world to live in and the quest for Queertopia continues. A quest that straight and cisgendered folks need to join, so they can offer their power and allyship to their queer companions who will stand by them in return (and make ace pieces of theatre to boot).

So, thank you to the wondrous cast and crew of The Quest who helped prove that Queertopia can exist here on earth. While the play might be over I know we have all come away with pride and, hopefully, a little more of our soul – a sense that even though many of us might still struggle with belonging in this world, we can at least belong to ourselves more deeply and, hopefully, one another. Now in an act of unforgivable arrogance I will leave the last word to Zemuel, after they have vanquished their monster and returned to the villagers in the Valley of Embers, their new home…

“They are all there. A feeling wells inside of me, one I can barely name, but I think it is called belonging.”

The Valley of Embers – photo courtesy of …

Does The Quest For Queer Happiness Have A Destination?

Only two days now until the premiere of The Quest, a play I’ve written that parts mythic, part modern and follows the stories of Zemuel and Fred, both yearning to find home in an oft hostile world. It’s being put on as part of the Arcola Theatre’s Creative Disruption festival, which celebrates its many community theatre groups, including the Queer Collective, of which I am a part. Since January an ace group of queers have been tirelessly bringing the script to life with movement, voice, body and even sticks. The result is already beautiful and I can’t wait to see it on stage. You can too, get your tickets here!

Inspired originally by Matthew Todd’s great book, Straight Jacket, which outlines a number of problems the gay, male community is suffering from and how to face them. Whilst I was reading it I went off for an adventurous week in a rewilding Welsh valley. It was all very Legend of Zelda and whilst the people there with me were fabulous there was not much space for queerness. So the Queer Warrior character came to life to challenge this as well as the repetitive plot of the Zelda games – a young dude going off to rescue a Princess from a big monster, yawn. I wanted to be able to imagine an inherently queer fantastical world, one in which all LGBT+ folks can experience wholesome rites of passage as they step deeper into their identities. However, while I think it’s very important to be able to imagine these things I also know that I don’t live in such a world. All the problems outlined in Straight Jacket continue to exist, which is why The Quest is also set in London where shit happens and the characters have to deal with it.

So does the quest for queer happiness have a destination? I think so. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a place. I think it’s a state of mind and being that is hugely dependent on the places in which one finds oneself. For me it’s about cultivating self-love, pride and resilience in the face of self-loathing, shame and prejudice. It’s tough and all over the world LGBT+ folk are being persecuted simply for wanting to be themselves. Queertopia remains a distant dream but I still think it’s worth imagining these brilliant places where queer folk are happy and well nurtured whilst recognising the challenges we face in getting there. I do hope you’ll join us on The Quest.

Badly Drawn Gays: Colin Firth & Sex Education’s Eric

There’s a lot to celebrate about increasing diversity in TV shows and movies, particularly with regards the showing of more genders and sexualities. Studio execs know there’s an appetite out there, especially from younger audiences, and studio execs know there are bucks to be made. Sometimes this representation is done well and sometimes it’s done badly. So here’s a post about some badly drawn gays.

Firstly let’s take a look at Colin Firth in the Mamma Mia movies. In the first one it’s not 100% clear his character is actually gay. I mean, he’s one of the possible fathers having slept with Meryl Streep’s character during that fateful summer. Sounds pretty straight to me. But at the end of the movie he comes out…well, by coming out he says that Meryl Streep was the last woman he slept with and then meaningfully looks at another man. Later on when all the cast are dancing in a big fountain and kissing one another Colin’s seen dancing with said man. It’s vague, it’s unclear, it’s all 2008 was going to give us. Moving on to Mamma Mia 2 and now Firth’s a lonely businessman whose only proud achievement in life is his daughter. You’d hope that by the end of the film he’d finally have someone to hook up with like all the other characters including Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgård, Andy García and Cher. But no, he’s still single. He also seems pretty unimpressed with his younger self played by Harry Bright and what could be a nuanced point about shame and internalised homophobia gets blasted over with the cast’s rendition of Super Trouper. Having said all that, the movies get some great comic mileage out of Firth’s character because, hey, isn’t gay male loneliness and isolation absolutely fucking hilarious.

Meanwhile,  Sex Education’s Eric, played brilliantly by Ncuti Gatwa, is out, proud, and dealing with the shit you get for being gay. He blasts through tokenising plot devices and stereotypes and as this Junkee article makes clear, breaks through a lot of barriers regarding being black, Nigerian-Ghanaian, gay and queer. Furthermore, his plotline shows what happens after someone has come out and, often, has to keep coming out to reinforce and reclaim their identity, so often stolen from them. He also gets a nuanced and, ultimately, heart warming relationship with his Dad. But. It’s the bullying strand I want to pause on. Some douche named Adam spends most of the series threatening and harassing Eric. He even covers his Dad’s car in dog poo (yup, you guessed it, they’re gonna make out). Come the final episode of the series the two are in detention together and they start to argue. Things get physical and they fight with Adam pushing Eric to the floor and mounting him. They then spit in each others’ faces before pausing and then kissing. Adam goes down on Eric and gives him a blowjob. We don’t actually see this happen, instead we just see Eric’s eyes roll in what is presumably pleasure (whereas we have seen full-body sex scenes between straight couples and one female couple). Something not dissimilar happened in an episode of Skins yonks ago and it seems this gay-gets-with-their-bully trope is still going strong or as series creator Laurie Nunn put it, “telling a love story through bullying” (lovely). There are nuanced points here to be made about violence between men, men’s repression of their sexuality and the trauma they inflict on one another but those points don’t get made. Instead, no clear consent is given and we witness Eric be follated by the man who was just attacking him. As someone said to me the other day, “yeah, but it’s hot”, and that’s kinda worrying – that violence between men and sexual assault are being depicted as hot. Nevertheless, Eric is smitten only to see Adam shipped off to military school by his tyrannical father, leaving us with, you guessed it, more lonely gays. There are plenty more examples, in the meantime, here’s Cher.

Make Dumbledore Straight Again

I am all for people of any gender and sexuality creating fictional characters of any gender and sexuality. My only stipulation is that they do it well. A few years back I blogged on the trouble with a gay Dumbledore – namely that making him gay after the fact and most of the books are published and he’s dead anyway (spoilers) isn’t good enough. We get no sense of his struggle as a gay man in the wizarding world or maybe even his lack of a struggle because the wizarding world is so accepting of gay people (but likes to enslave house elves). We get no sense of how he relates to his own sexuality and how that manifests in his life. As I wrote in that previous blog, “ It’s the imaginations of straight people that are the limiting factor here not how people choose to express their sexuality, if they are even give a chance to.” But I’ll tell you something worse than retconning gayness into an otherwise straight character (because unless we’re told otherwise it just isn’t clear) is then robbing that character of their newfound gayness.

Fantastic Beasts 2 wasn’t fantastic and all Dumbledore got by way of a gay plot line was the fact that he and Grindelwald had an intense friendship, a bit like brothers but actually “more than brothers”…ok, so like twin brothers then? Meanwhile, Grindelwald is doing his best to become the Hitler of the wizarding world, so things aren’t so great for LGBT+ “representation” in the Potterverse. As the ace LGBT+ activist and vlogger Rowan Ellis describes this isn’t just queerbaiting (which is bad enough), it’s queercoding, whereby  fans are told about ensuing queerness and queerness is coded into the film but never made explicit – “they want to get the credit for representation without actually having it” (imagine being told Captain Marvel was going to be a black woman…). So for the homophobically inclined gayness is not there and for the queerly passionate it’s there-but-not-there and they have to do all the imaginative work for themselves unlike, say, the writer. The result, both groups buy cinema tickets.

Meanwhile, J.K. goes and reveals Dumbledore and Grindelwald did in fact have an “intense” and “passionate” relationship with sex in it. “But as happens in any relationship, gay or straight or whatever label we want to put on it, one never knows really what the other person is feeling…So I’m less interested in the sexual side—though I believe there is a sexual dimension to this relationship—than I am in the sense of the emotions they felt for each other, which ultimately is the most fascinating thing about all human relationships.” Two things I want to point out here: namely the erasure of sexual relations between men because who really wants to think about Dumbledore giving Grindelwald a good blowjob (turns out, lots of hilarious meme-makers); the swift movement from talking about a gay relationship to “any relationship” with “whatever label” – I can’t wait for the day my relationships with people of my own gender don’t get labelled but that day ain’t anytime soon. Then the director of Average Beasts 2 said: “This is a story about two men who loved each other, and ultimately have to fight each other. It’s a story for the 21st century.” I think the second part of the last sentence is true because the script was written in the 21st century but the rest isn’t – it can’t be a story if it gets no mention or action in the movie. There’s not even enough lip service given for it to constitute even the thinnest of plot points. So make Dumbledore straight again because queer fans deserve so much better and shouldn’t have to read between the lines which were never written, then hastily written after the event, then erased, thrown in the bin and so quietly alluded to no one heard. This isn’t representation and I just find it offensive and very, very sad when you consider this in the face of the persecution and suffering the LGBT+ community has faced and continues to face. Now here’s Rowan Ellis saying it better than I could…