Another Badly Drawn Gay: Love, Simon

I hate to be that blogger who comes for the friendly, gay-guy-next-door protagonist of cutesy Hollywood coming out film Love, Simon…but, fuck it, I’m gonna be that blogger. Not because the actor Nick Robinson doesn’t act his socks off as the lead role, Simon Spier, but because so much of the story and his characterisation is problematic. To catch you up on the plot, in case you missed it, Simon is gay but hasn’t told anyone, he starts up an anonymous online conversation with another gay guy called “Blue” and spends most of the film wondering who this other guy could be. En route to the reveal he dates his female best friend and really upsets her, behaves pretty questionably towards his other friends, chats with his parents a bit and, come the finale, discovers who Blue really is (then makes out with him on a Ferris wheel, cute right). In essence, it’s your classic coming out coming of age story as Simon is very worried about telling the world who he really is. He imagines it in all sorts of way, like in this fantasy, dance sequence…

What a lovely scene, right? Well, no. Because listen again to that penultimate line: “yeah, maybe not that gay.” Not that gay. What on earth is that supposed to mean? That there is spectrum of gayness and if you wear a grey t-shirt, dance quite badly and quietly have sex with your boyfriend off-screen then that’s fine. Whereas if you wear tight-fitting pink jeans, fly a rainbow flag and flounce with a limp wrist then that’s too much. Nope. There isn’t actually a spectrum of gayness but there is homophobia, lots of it, and it regularly gets internalised by gay men who grow up shamed, bullied and depressed. Simon will have experienced this homophobia and a drastic lack of support in claiming his identity and even if he never encounters verbalised or physicalised homophobia simply living in a heteronormative society will have crushed a part of his soul (I speak from experience). Hence, Simon worries about being that gay, when really I dream for him to be as flipping gay as he wants, but that’s too much for a mainstream Hollywood movie. This point is compounded when secondary character, Ethan, who is visibly queer, out, has dark skin, wears flamboyant clothing and is camp as Christmas gets bullied at school. Simon looks over and, rather than run to Ethan’s defence, instead turns to his friend and says: “I wish he wouldn’t make it so easy for them.” Oh, Simon, you have a lifetime of self-loathing to unravel and it ain’t going to get solved by kissing some guy at a funfair. In this instance, internalised homophobia is being turned on another gay man even though their shared sexuality could be a reason to bond and support one another. For more on Ethan and why he is the REAL hero of the film read this epic article by Naveen Kumar.

It concerns me that Love, Simon did so well as a movie. It won all sorts of prizes and accolades (and even got described as “groundbreaking”) even though its presentation of male homosexuality is so problematic. Which makes me wonder if the film is really for gay, white, cis men or actually just for straight people with less awareness and lower expectations. I mean, it got called the “queer Cinderella story of our time” but given my definition of queerness involves intersectionality and challenging heteronormativity, then Love, Simon is just kinda straight. And it’s a coming out story. Just that. We’ve had a gazillion coming out stories and they’re getting quite dull – I want to know how to live beyond coming out, when the people you’ve come out to have forgotten, or you have to come out again to new people, or how to make a long-term relationship work, or how to deal with having your identity regularly invalidated and/or threatened, and that moment when you realise heteronormativity and systemic homophobia is grinding your soul and community into dust (I speak from experience). I basically want to know what happens to Simon when all that internalised homophobia finally catches up with him (I bloody hope his straight friends are around to support him through that) and how he finds a happily ever after beyond.

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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.

 

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…

Does Watching Gilmore Girls Make U Homo?

This website is a WordPress one and as the administrator I get to check out the back end. There, I can look at how many people have (or haven’t) read my latest post, I can edit my draft posts and I can even discover what search terms people have used to find this site. I’m not quite sure how this works but I guess it has something to do with Google. Search terms that have been used include: “anal sex is disgusting”, “anal sex is for the selfish and self absorbed”, “princess fierce faggot”, “hufflepuff rebranding”, “tomato images”, “liam fox utter twat”, “you tube smack me on the bottom with a woman’s weekly” and the title of this post: does watching Gilmore Girls Make U Homo?

It’s an interesting question, not least because of the proposed correlation between sexuality and Gilmore Girls but the idea that watching something can make someone homosexual. For example, at what point would a heterosexual person (and I’m assuming a male or maybe a concerned partner, parent, Priest etc) become homosexual? Would watching one episode be enough or would it have to be a whole season or every single episode ever, including those awful new ones? And how would the process work? Would said heterosexual man suddenly find himself exclusively attracted to men or would it take a bit longer as he gradually starts to find his male mates hotter than his female ones? As you can see, there’s a lot going on in one simple question.

Clearly homophobia is something going on here as the implication is that being homo is bad (unless this straight person yearns to be gay and is trying to figure out a way of changing). There’s shame and repression going on here as men’s sexuality tends to be marked as rigid – straight or gay, with bisexual men either being confused or greedy – and a deviation from that rigidity, rather than being something exciting, is seen as shameful and negative, and regularly violently repressed. There’s misogyny going on here as the assumption is that for a man to watch a show with two female protagonists is so emasculating that it alters his sexuality, which is nearly as bad as being a woman. There’s the assumption that it’s easy to label sexuality, as if one can point at an occurrence, e.g. two men holding hands, and say “gay”. Or two lads drinking beer together and chatting about birds, “straight”. Or a guy watching Gilmore Girls, “homo”. Yet I think these acts of labelling tell us more about the finger pointer and the culture they live in than anyone’s sexuality and I think it’s worth exploring that culture and its labelling further. Now, here’s the closest I could find to a coming out story on Gilmore Girls.

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?

Queer Warriors & Fierce Allies

A group of thirty had gathered at Hawkwood College in Stroud, Gloucestershire, for two days of storytelling, workshops and community building. As part of this I offered to run my first ever Queer Warriors and Fierce Allies workshop. So, picture the scene: a sunny Monday afternoon in the library where ten of us had gathered; a mix of ages, genders, sexualities and nationalities. Some of the folks I knew well, friends of mine, and others I had only met that day. So I was nervous but I was ready.

For the next hour and a half we unpacked the various and varying definitions of the LGBTQIA+ acronym and I created a space for questions and, for want of a better word, ignorance. Because a lot of people want to be allies to/within the queer community but often lack the right education. And learning requires being able to ask questions, sometimes “silly” questions but important nevertheless. So a lot of questions were asked and I, with the group as a whole, tried to answer them. After this we met the Gender Unicorn and explored the differences between gender identity & expression, the sex we are assigned at birth, and physical & romantic attraction. Then we got to some writing and crafted our own Queer Warrior or Fierce Ally characters. We gave them names, genders, sexualities, gifts and fears. We confronted them with those fears and, when all seemed lost and they were on the verge of being overwhelmed by that which scared them, we gave them some help. Maybe in the form of another person or an animal or something else entirely, the point is that our characters could overcome their fears because they had help.

And that’s what I want. Help. If you’ve ready some of my previous posts you’ll know that, as a gay and queer man, I sometimes struggle with living in a heteronormative world. Sometimes I get angry or depressed and at other times I get defeated. But, to date, I have always got through these difficult times because I’m still here. I’ve done this because, yes, I am strong but also, and always, I have had help. Having been raised male and internalising a lot of those lessons I often struggled to ask for help, seeing it as weak and shameful. Even the notion of “admitting” defeat implies some sort of failure. And even the notion of being defeated implies life is a competition. But over the years I have challenged that shame and, slowly, become much better at asking for help. And that evening, empowered by my experience of the workshop, I announced to the whole group that I was gay, not something I’ve ever done before, and I read them a poem. Then later, a friend of mine did an amazing performance of a theatrical piece of hers and included a blessing for the queer community. The next day a new friend sat and talked with me about my experiences and told me about so many of the things he’s learned as a straight person keen to be an ally of the queer community. Then two more of my friends, who told a story of Jumping Mouse, finished the tale by calling the mouse he, she and they. And I came to realise that sometimes when I speak as a gay man people do listen and sometimes when I ask for help it arrives. And, for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Link and his trusty steed, Epona, from the Legend of Zelda