A Single Queer

It seems a long time ago when I wrote that post on being a single (gay) man. Back then I was busy trying to sail the seas of life when I got caught between a many-headed monster and a whirlpool. The former, the plethora of mental health problems facing gay men, and the latter, the sheer indifference towards those issues from mainstream, heteronormative society. Since then, let’s just say that the monster grabbed me in its many teeth, shook me about then flung me into the whirlpool. It was a bumpy ride and I had to hold my breath for a long time but, now, as I resurface, clinging to a bit of flotsam, I might not be able to see the sea for the waves but I am a stronger swimmer.

I think something that took me by surprise was the sheer magnitude of the problems facing the gay male community including high depression rates, high suicide rates, high levels of addiction, HIV stigma, hate crimes, prejudice, a lack of institutional support, toxic masculinity, homophobia, internalised homophobia, zilch to minimal education on sexual health, to name a few. Within this overwhelming array of problems I found my own experiences of depression, loneliness, anger, isolation and yearning. Never before had I been able to chart the co-ordinates of my unbelonging with such accuracy. It was a reckoning I never saw coming and it hurt.

Recovery was slow and involved rest, therapy, calling on family and friends for support and, better than ever before, being able to actually explain what was going on for me – having just learnt the hard way. I could finally name and explain my unbelonging. I could share its origins in my past and its continuation in my present. This allowed me to gain emotional and conceptual distance, which meant I could build a different relationship with my unbelonging rather than just get swept up in it. I spoke up for myself in a way I never had, claiming my space as a queer and gay person and man in the face of heteronormativity’s best efforts at exclusion. I could speak a word for queer suffering in the face of heterosexual privilege. I could own my pain without it owning me.

It’s been a long, old journey for me and it ain’t ending yet. I never asked to unbelong in this world quite like I do and no one ever prepared me to learn to live with the consequences. But now I know I can belong to me in ways I never have. And here I am, floating on a piece of flotsam that’s swift becoming a raft, trying my best to be me, a single queer. But not single as in unpartnered, single because there’s only one of me. And, yes, it’s regularly tough, and often people don’t learn the lessons I wish they would, but I’m tough too and learning so much more than I ever knew.

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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 ostracised. 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.

 

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…

No Homo

“I’m gonna take my shirt off, no homo…I’m gonna take my pants off too, no homo…I’m gonna give you a hand job, no homo.” It’s a little phrase, no homo, that does a lot of work. It’s like a get-out-of-jail-free card in Monopoly – it means you can do the arrestable deed but not get imprisoned for it. It means a straight guy can do a gay thing and still be straight. The list of these things are many and varied, from nudity around other straight men, masturabation, kissing, intercourse and aboslutely loads of things that gay men love doing together. Except the straight men doing it aren’t gay, right?

I’m currently reading the fascinating book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men by Jane Ward, which shines a queer theorist’s light on the bizzare world of heteronormative, racially motivated not-gay gay intimacy and sex. From hazing rituals in Frat Houses to initiation “ceremonies” in the military, all sorts of excuses are given as to why men do these things together – to become part of a fraternity (the gayer the dare, the tougher the bond), because there aren’t any women around, because the women who are around don’t have the sort of sex these guys want, because of childhood trauma, inverted Oedipal complexes, an adolescent phase that will be grown out of, by accident. There are all sorts of reasons but one that never comes up is that these men are gay. Heaven forefend that one of these straight guys might be gay – that’d be awful right, almost as bad as being a woman.

What Ward’s book makes clear is the amount of effort these men, and the people around them, put into maintaining the infrastructure of heteronormativity – that there are two genders (male and female), heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation and sex/marriage should be between people of opposite sex. Biological sex, sexuality, gender identitiy and gender roles are all mixed together to create the doctrine of the heteronorm. So, if you slip from that doctrine, and kiss your mate, you have to justify it somehow – “no homo” is a start or saying it was a dare or you were really drunk. As long as you can justify it within the rules there’s some wiggle room. But come out and say you prefer men to women, then you’re gay, and out you go. The heteronorm is a heavily bifurcated place built on rigid beliefs about the human. Some of these beliefs might stem from the Bible – that God created Eve from Adam’s rib, or biology – that penis = man and vagina = woman. When it comes to sexuality, well, Leviticus said a man should not lie with a man and some scientists say sexuality is in our DNA, so as long as I don’t have the gay gene I’m fine (I can even shag my mates, within reason!). Regardless of the veracity of either of these belief systems what’s clear is that there’s little space for fluidity – of desire, expression, identity and romance. Instead the heteronorm establishes its rigid, violent and patriarchal boundaries, and polices them with force, often by denigrating and abusing the “other” – e.g. gay, female and/or black. Thus, from the queer angle that Ward offers we can see no homo a little differently – instead of an expression of a man’s inherent straightness, he is actually expressing his desire to hold onto the idea that he’s inherently straight. But is he?

Mama Mia: Here We’re Straight Again

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike straight people. They’re fine. Lots of them are very nice and some have good senses of humour. I live next door to a straight person and they’re perfectly pleasant. I don’t disprove of the straight lifestyle either, I can think of much worse things like the meat industry and climate change. However, my thing is this: while I’m happy for straight people to do their straight thing I wish they could do it a little more privately. And that’s when Mama Mia: Here We Go Again really takes the biscuit because in a little under two hours I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cis, white straight people make out with each other. Kind of like heterosexual rabbits, of which I hear there are a few.

Before I go on I just want to make something clear, I am not a Mama Mia hater. No. ABBA and toned torsos really do it for me. I even cried at the end. Of course, I could mention that a decade after the original came out the representation of diversity on-screen besides a few seconds given to a woman in a wheelchair and the odd person of colour cropping up in the background is still pretty underwhelming as the ready-to-hand chorus of Grecian labourers return, serving an almost exclusively white cast of leads. I could mention the other racial and national stereotypes. I could also mention the underlying colonial messaging of the film as privileged and often incredibly wealthy white people strut around the globe doing whatever they want. But why mention these things as we’ve come to Mama Mia for a tuneful escape from the woes and intersectional prejudices of the world.

Anyway, back to heterosexuals. They are literally all over this film. Making out in boats, sheds, French hotels, Greek hotels, on plinths, off plinths, near plinths, in the sea, on dryland. Just about everywhere. I mean, I don’t mind hets doing these things but I wish they could spend more time doing them in the privacy of their bedrooms. Fortunately, it’s not all a song and dance about insecure straight people failing to have mature relationships and spending twenty odd years living repressed, unhappy lives, there is the odd strand of queerness. We’ve got Colin Firth, who very quietly (and not altogether explicitly) came out at the end of the last movie and got to hug a topless man in a fountain, who has made up for his lonely gay life by getting some cats and making lots of money. Unfortunately, the scenes where he examines his unhappiness and isolation at the hands of heteronormative patriarchy were left on the cutting room floor but he is given a moment to flirt with Omid Djalili and have a man-on-man Titanic moment with Stellan Skarsgård. Then there’s the woman-on-woman kiss between Lily James and Celia Imrie, playing the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. When James’ character breaks out into When I Kissed The Teacher (my new favourite ABBA song) Imrie’s character is all stern and awkward but after a brief kiss (which is obscured by James’ hair), Imrie throws off the shackles of her long black gown and mortar board and appears to be pretty thrilled with life. I think this can only be interpreted as her finally coming into herself as a queer woman. Of course, for many straight people, they may have missed these elements of the movie as, unlike with queers, they are not trained to keep their eyes peeled for the quanta of queerness on offer given they can just thrill in the deluge of straightness. But I’m sure in another ten years Amanda Seyfried’s daughter will grow up to be a raging queer. Can’t wait.

Thor: Hela Hath No Fury Like Cate Blanchett Scorned

When I was little I was always rooting for the baddies – Scar was just so much more fun than moralistic Mufasa and his arrogant son; Jafar was fab, even his facial expressions were more interesting than anything cocksure Aladdin did, and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is fab. In hindsight, I think it’s because these characters oozed rebellion and camp, giving two murderous fingers to all those endless cis, straight men who ruled their worlds awfully but called themselves Gods, Kings and heroes while they were at it. Twenty odd years later and nothing has changed – boy, did I want Cate Blanchett’s Hela, Goddess of Death, to skewer Thor, God of cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy and smash his home planet of Asgard into smithereens (spoilers). And she almost succeeded.

I went to the cinema for dramatic and colourful escapism and I got it – there were more rainbows in Thor: Ragnarok than in a well-lit museum of prisms and we got a fair few shots of Chris Hemsworth’s buff chest. Cate Blanchett’s arrival was epic – she crushed Thor’s hammer-penis-ego-extension thing with one hand. There was some funny bromance between Thor and the Hulk (tbh, Chris Hemsworth is really funny), Tom Hiddlestone grinned his way through one of Marvel’s only memorable villains – Loki, and Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, was an alcoholic, gambling warrioress who kicked butt on her own terms and answered to no man (until she suddenly changes her mind and acknowledges Thor as King at movie’s end). Of course, this is Hollywood and all the usual failings are there – why is there only one well-rounded female character in the group of male heroes, why not two or three (or y’know, the whole fucking group), and any trans or nonbinary heroes…nope. Why is the Grand Master of the bizarre planet of Sakaar a man, albeit a hilarious, exceptionally camp Jeff Goldblum? Why is Hela’s assistant a man? Why was the one scene that would confirm Valkyrie’s bisexuality cut? Why was Korg’s (a male warrior made from rocks) first love not mentioned, a first love who was a man? Why was Loki’s gender fluidity and probable pansexuality unmentioned? Of course, we know why and it’s going to be years before diversity triumphs over patriarchy.

But something I did enjoy was Cate Blanchett’s unashamed villainy. She is Thor and Loki’s elder sister and firstborn of idiot patriarch Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins). She reveals the sordid truth behind Asgard’s glory – that all the gold and treasure was gained through bloodshed and annihilation, with her being her father’s executioner (maybe an allusion to the US and its legacy of slavery and militaristic imperialism often papered over by photographable presidents…until Trump, who is just plain awful and too stupid to be considered a super villain). Yup, Odin trained his own daughter to be a psychopathic mass-murderer then banished her when her power grew more than his. So, whilst it’s hard to root for her genocidal intent I did get where she was coming from and struggled to see her out-witted by a group of men and a token Valkyrie (who doesn’t get an actual name beyond her race). But at least when Hela gets destroyed, Asgard, planet of sociopathic, patriarchal monarchy, goes with her. Unfortunately, the film still ends with Thor taking the throne because Hollywood isn’t ready to give up on white men running everything. But times are changing, incredibly slowly, and Raganarok – the death of the Gods in Norse mythology – isn’t over yet. The heroes of colour are amassing as are the female heroes and the queer ones – soon, cis, straight, white men will be the disposable, comedy sidekicks and we’ll get the rainbow warriors we deserve. Now here’s Jafar owning Genie, because even though that movie went straight to video it was still one of my favourites (although this was before I learned about post-colonialism and cultural appropriation).

G.B.F. And How To Educate Straight Folks The Funny Way

G.B.F. is just a fabulous movie: think Mean Girls meets a less offensive American Pie meets gay. It’s a classic high school tale with an LGBT twist as two gay friends, Tanner and Brent, struggle with coming out the closet. However, when Tanner is inadvertently outed by the exclusively heterosexual GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) he suddenly finds himself the centre of an awful lot of unwanted attention because it turns out everyone is dying to get a G.B.F – Gay Best Friend. Cue an abundance of brutal put-downs that only rival prom queens can dish out and a whole panoply of reactions to Brent’s gayness from the straight community.

These reactions include outright homophobia as the chief jock physically assaults Tanner and calls him a fag. There’s also religiously fuelled homophobia as one of the Mormon characters threatens him with eternal damnation. Then there are more subtle forms of discrimination in which Tanner is simultaneously lauded for his newly revealed homosexuality but objectified for it as well. Like the latest handbag many of the well-meaning but ignorant straight characters want to hang out with Tanner for the kudos it will bring them. However, what’s brilliant about this movie is that it doesn’t buy into obvious stereotypes as pretty much all the characters, even the ‘blond bimbo’ prom queen, are revealed to have multiple sides to their personalities that allow them to revel in the stereotype they are portrayed as whilst transcending it.

Because that’s the thing about stereotypes, they’re a bunch of characteristics that oppressors observe in an oppressed group, which are then turned into the defining features of that group. The oppressed group is then made to feel shame for possessing those features and stigmatised for doing so. So the oppressors get to have their stereotyping cake and eat it: they choose which traits to objectify a group with and then use them to reduce and victimise the oppressed. Not only is the gay guy who likes musicals and skinny jeans reduced to his penchant for those things he is then bullied for liking those things. It’s an endless cycle fuelled by ignorance and prejudice. But G.B.F. calls bullshit and revels in the skinny jeans and pop songs whilst also presenting the gay protagonists as brave, emotional and erratic people, i.e. as humans not just as tokenised extras. Yet it does take an awful long time for some of the straight characters to figure this out which is why this movie is perfect for those of all sexualities. For the straight folks out there who only know closets as the things clothes are put in see this movie as a fabulous and funny education in not objectifying LGBT people and valuing them as people. And for the queer folk out there know that one day the straights will catch up and whilst educating them can be a boring and relentless task it is much funnier when done with this movie.