Homophobia In Twelfth Night At The National Theatre

Twelfth Night, it’s a Shakespeare rom-com classic: twins, ribaldry, much confusion and a bunch of marriages. The National Theatre very kindly shared their brilliant live version online, which I watched again last night. For the second time I was blown away by Tamsin Grieg’s show stopping performance as not Malvolio – the uptight steward – but Malvolia, the female version, who is tricked via a forged letter into believing that her mistress, Countess Olivia, loves her. Malvolia is over the moon, she even starts dancing in a fountain. “I thank my stars,” she shouts grimly, trying to smile, “I am happy.” She’s quick to don yellow, cross-gartered stockings (all things the Countess hates) and it’s not long before Olivia has her locked away only to be further bullied by her tormentors. Thus, thanks to the NT’s gender switch it transpires that the fate of a woman who loves another woman is…torture. Damn.

As Tamsin Grieg said in a recent interview, “I was very nervous of making Malvolio a woman and therefore a lesbian, considering what happens to the character in the play, which is monstrous.” And it’s true. For all Malvolia’s arrogance and her nastiness towards some of the other characters, her fate is one of torture at the hands of a bunch of sadistic homophobes. Grieg also said that, “Malvolia is a deeply wounded human being who becomes OCD and bullies the other people in the household in order to cope.” So we’re also seeing violence towards someone with a mental health condition. It’s no surprise that the play ends with a distraught Malvolia crying bitter tears in the rain swearing revenge on those who have bullied her, while most of the other characters are busily getting married. Damn.

As for the marriages, they need some explaining. Remember the twins – Viola and Sebastian. They were separated in a shipwreck, both thinking the other dead. Viola disguises herself as a man called Cesario and starts working for Duke Orsino who gets her to woe the love of his life Countess Olivia. Trouble is Olivia falls for Cesario/Viola while Viola/Cesario falls for Orsino, who keeps finding himself oddly attracted to Cesario/Viola. And then Sebastian turns up at the end and all manner of confusion/hilarity ensues. Olivia quickly marries Sebastian thinking he’s Cesario while Duke Orsino is over the moon to discover that Cesario is actually a woman, Viola, who he promptly marries. Even Sir Toby Belch and Maria get married (two of the characters instrumental in Malvolia’s torture). As for Antonio the friendly pirate who rescued and fell in love with Sebastian (they even share an early onstage kiss)…he’s left to watch Sebastian get married to Olivia. So it’s happy ends all round for the heterosexuals (who didn’t turn out to be queer after all, phew), while the people who openly love people of the same gender end up bullied and alone. Damn.

So I was left wondering if this was an appropriative queering of a classic by a group of well-meaning (but perhaps slightly ignorant) creative types or if it was a searing indictment of the ridiculousness that is heteronormativity and its associated rituals – I mean, Sebastian marries Olivia within five minutes of meeting her, which is incredibly problematic given she can’t consent to marry Sebastian because she thinks she’s marrying Cesario; Orsino is so utterly repressed he can’t let himself fall in love with a man, inappropriately persuing Olivia instead who has already made her disinterest clear. And there’s the brief scene at The Elephant, a queer-ish bar, with a drag performer who ends up getting punched by Sebastian, along with a number of the other patrons (a needless bit of queer bashing methinks). Not forgetting the queerphobic abuse that poor Malvolia suffers and it’s almost as if the moral of this production is that it’s shit being queer.

File:Johann Heinrich Ramberg - Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from "Twelfth Night," Act III, Scene iv - Google Art Project.jpg
Check out those yellow, cross-gartered stockings! By Johann Heinrich Ramberg

Queer Medicine

“Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”

This tweet from Alexander Leon recently went viral and is testimony to the many, many struggles queer people face in claiming their identities in the face of prejudice, ignorance and violence. He went on to say:

“It’s massive and existential and difficult. But I’m convinced that being confronted with the need for profound self-discovery so explicitly (and often early in life!) is a gift in disguise. We come out the other end wiser & truer to ourselves. Some cis/het people never get there.”

And that last sentence, “Some cis/het people never get there”, really stands out for me as many cis/het people never get the chance to profoundly explore their identities beyond the aggressive and shaming narratives of patriarchal heternormativity telling them the sort of lives they should be living, the sort of salaries they should be earning, houses they should be buying, gender roles they should be conforming to etc. Whereas, for the queers who make it through the many dark nights of their souls and experience this “profound self-discovery” the results really can be liberating as the bonds that bind us snap and we gain one of the greatest gifts, freedom. We may well still be alone, trying to make it in a world that isn’t ready for us, but our souls are a little less bound and much more free.

I call this queer medicine. It might be bitter to taste (and that’s not even the half of it) but the results are healing. And the irony is that as the heteronorm excludes, kills and ridicules us, queer medicine is an elixir anyone can take, whatever their sexualities and genders. Because we are all capable of profoundly discovering ourselves and that wisdom and truth on the other side of unconditioning is available to us all. Queer medicine does not discriminate, it’s for the taking for everyone, bottoms up.

 

The Trouble With Sex Education’s Eric, Part 2

Content note/trigger warning: sexual assault and rape.

There’s a scene in the final episode of Sex Education season 1 (spoilers) which sees Eric, a fabulous, black, gay and queer guy, in detention with Adam, who has been homophobically bullying Eric throughout the series. The bullying continues and Adam shoots mushed up bits of paper through a straw at Eric’s face. They then fight over a music stand and Adam violently shoves Eric. Eric shoves back. The shoving continues until Adam overpowers Eric and pushes him to the ground. Eric, in self-defence, spits in Adam’s face. Adam does it back, asking: “How do you like it?” Eric says, “I don’t” to which Adam replies, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” There’s a pause as the two look one another in the eye and Eric raises his head a fraction (a tiny fraction) and then Adam kisses him before going down on him. You can watch the scene here (but you probably don’t want to) and you can reread a blog post I wrote on this last year. My biggest concern is that we’re being led to believe that violence between men isn’t problematic and that the ending of a storyline of physical and psychological abuse with barely-consented-to sex is somehow a happy ending. As the series creator, Laurie Nunn, said, they were “telling a love story through bullying.”

I want to make it categorically clear that it is impossible to tell a love story through bullying. Bullying and any form of abuse is the opposite of love and if it results in sex the likelihood is that the sex involved is actually rape or sexual assault. Naturally, I was all for not bothering with series 2 given I’d felt so let down but after a number of friends started singing its praises I decided to watch some of the episodes. Regarding the Eric and Adam plotline, Adam has been shipped off to military school and Eric begins a relationship with the epic and loving Rahim who is kind, compassionate, loving and all the things someone might want in a partner. But. Adam returns and surprise, surprise, Eric starts to fall for him again. Otis, Eric’s best friend, has a go at Eric for wanting to return to Adam: “…this is about you being so self-hating that you’d let yourself fall for someone who literally treats you like shit.” But Eric fights back, defending Adam and saying that he’s changed. We do witness a little of this change as Adam struggles with a lack of friends and his bisexuality but as for how he treated Eric, while he claims to now realise that he treated him very badly he doesn’t ever say sorry. Come the final episode and Adam interrupts the school play and makes a grant gesture to Eric, asking to hold his hand. Eric consents. It’s not long before he dumps Rahim and Eric’s family are delighted because apparently being with an emotionally sensitive man who didn’t attack and abuse him was a bad thing but getting with one’s aggressor is to be celebrated.

There are many things that Sex Education gets right but I don’t think this storyline is one of them. It glamourises and romanticises abuse and violence between men encouraging us to champion the dysfunctional and previously violent relationship between Eric and Adam. The sexual assault of series 1 gets zilch reference precisely because we’re not supposed to see it as sexual assault (likewise in real life) and men attacking men and finding romance through bullying is supposed to be sexy and the stuff of happy endings. The issue is infantilised and treated as a will-they-won’t-they sort of tease rather than a nuanced story exploring shame, self-loathing, violence and sexual violence between men within and without the LGBTQ+ community.

Will Elsa Ever Be Gay?

Elsa’s journey to lesbianism has been a long one. It began in the subtext of the first movie (I mean, the metaphor speaks pretty loudly and Let It Go did become an LGBTQ+ anthem) and became a rallying call in the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend dating back to 2016. Over the years those at Disney regularly alluded to Elsa’s possible homosexuality without ever  committing to it in what is a classic case of queer baiting as the fans did the imaginative labour (and spent their rainbow dollars) while Disney never had to come out for LGBT+ equality and representation. Then an unknown female figure was spotted in the sequel’s trailer and we’d finally been given a glimpse of Elsa’s future girlfriend! Alas not, as it’s now been made clear Elsa isn’t going to fall in love with a woman (or a person of any gender for that matter).

“Like the first movie,” said Kiristen Anderson-Lopez, the film’s songwriter, “Elsa is not just defined by a romantic interest. There are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. That’s not a story that we wanted to tell at this point in time. What we really wanted to tell was if you have these powers, how do you grow and change and find your place in the world and find answers that haven’t been found before?” And Anderson-Lopez is right, there are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. But there are zero Disney movies that allow a protagonist to be defined by their romantic interest in someone of the same gender.

Furthermore, being defined by a same-gender romance doesn’t mean a character has to be reduced to a stereotype or trope. In fact, given how Elsa’s society treated her for having ice powers it wouldn’t be surprising if they shunned and shamed her for being gay, thus traumatising her and forcing her on a lone quest for healing and self-empowerment. Being Elsa and being fab she would find resilience in the face of hostility and liberation in the face of ignorance and if along the way she found love then, my God, she would deserve it and the audience would celebrate it. To clarify, the problem with reducing LGBTQ+ characters to their romantic interest has nothing to do with LGBTQ+ people or characters but everything to do with the ignorance, prejudice and lack of creativity of the heterosexuals who contribute to oppressive cultures of heteronormativy and benefit from its privileges and violent policing of binaries. Tokenism and stereotyping are perpetrated by oppressors, not the oppressed. In the wrong hands Elsa would be reduced to a trope but in the right ones she would be shown for the multi-faceted and brilliant gay character she could be in the face of a world of hostile bigotry and callous indifference. But something tells me that the courage and bravery so prevalent in the hearts of all queer people who have to fight simply to exist is not to be found in the offices of the billion-dollar company that is Disney. I guess I should just let it go.

The Children’s Fire

We were standing in the stone circle of Embercombe around a small, ceremonial fire called the Children’s Fire. Based on a Native American ceremony the fire burns for all those who stand around it and is a pledge that no act henceforth shall be done in harm of the next seven generations of children. Just imagine. Imagine a culture that looks so far into the future with such wisdom and care. It was a Sunday morning and most of us had only arrived on Friday afternoon. In the short space in between we had shared meals together, harvested apples and blackberries, cooked for one another, told stories under the stars, sung songs, swam in the lake and done lots of washing up. During the ceremony we were each given a small stick to place on the fire as an offering. It was my turn. I was nervous and my heart was beating fast. I stepped towards the flames and I said, “This is for the queer kids. The ones who make it, the ones who haven’t, and the ones who are on their way.” I placed the stick on the fire and returned to my place in the circle.

It might not seem like much but being openly queer has regularly been a challenge for me, especially in places where people don’t often talk about LGBTQIA+ stuff. I never know what people will think of me and what prejudices and assumptions they might have. It’s a risk and it’s one I took at the Children’s Fire. I’m glad I did because so many queer kids haven’t made it and still so many won’t make it. We need help. And despite my nerves I was not met with hostility or resentment and the friendly people I had known those few days remained just as friendly.

I long for the day when I can arrive in a beautiful, rewilding valley and all of me is known and welcome. I long for a queerer Valley of Embers. But I know this doesn’t happen by magic (even though magic will, of course, be involved) and I know I have to do the work to help make it happen. It’s work that involves having a thick skin, as there are times when I meet ignorance and prejudice, and an open heart, able to be kind to people and meet them where they’re at. And I have met so many people at Embercombe over the years and they are all amazing. They are generous, kind, fun and adventurous, and all have their own struggles and stories. It’s not for me to judge and I try not to but I know there is still work to be done because if the Children’s Fire truly burns for all children then it burns for the queer kids, each and every one of us. I love Embercombe. A piece of my soul is buried there. I hope one day you’ll come and visit.

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.

sea ocean sky wave atmosphere underwater blue hd blue water sea water crystal clear watermark under the sea big picture wind wave

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.