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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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.

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?

A Single (Gay) Man

As a single, gay male looking for love I often find myself caught between a rock and a hard place or, to reference ancient Greek mythology, between Scylla and Charybdis, one a many-headed sea monster and the other a giant whirlpool. On the one hand, I’m dating in a straight world which makes it so much harder to find men. On the other hand, a lot of straight people just don’t seem to care that much about the plight of the gay man. For them, gay guys are either sexually promiscuous Grindr-using tropes or decorative, GBF types who have great fashion sense and are good at listening. So to find love I have to navigate a most tricky crossing, being both vulnerable and bullet proof at the same time – vulnerable because to get a guy I have to be open about the pain I feel due to my loneliness, and bullet proof, because the likelihood of wider, straight society actually understanding this pain and doing something about it is pretty slim.

I guess for much of my life I have been told that my love is secondary to that of heterosexual people. Hets get their childhood sweethearts, sex education, cultural traditions and ceremonies. Hets get the chance to bump into their next date at work, church, climbing club, bingo or even the f*cking supermarket. Hets get to muck up their relationships and then make the same mistakes all over again, often with multiple people in one year. Hets get to feel like they win when they lose, I just feel like a loser. I have also been told that my pain is secondary to that of heterosexual people because hets are allowed to feel all sorts of pain – big and little, whereas I’m supposed to be the shoulder heterosexuals get to cry on or just be a cute, sassy and funny trope. My pain is often a punchline. Heaven forefend that behind my cutting wit and fleek fashion sense there might be such a depth of pain: one comprised of all the usual human trials and tribulations, and queerphobia, and the legacies of the AIDS crisis, and the unique gay experience of toxic masculinity, and internalised homophobia, and having loved ones who are HIV positive because our education system is failing us, and discrimination, and being the butt of so many jokes. One also born of the loneliness and sadness of not truly belonging in the world into which I was born. And, no, the odd gay bar (probably about to get shut down and converted into luxury apartments) and a once-a-year Pride event is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

As a great friend of mine says: “Queerness is either funny and light and joyous and palatable to straight people. Or it’s tragic and awful in a way that makes straight people glad they’re not one of us. We’re not allowed our own unique pain. We’re not allowed to just struggle day-to-day in  a way that isn’t funny or glittery or tragic or newsworthy.” Well, consider this blog post a piece of my pain and I share it with you freely.  If you are straight it might change, a little, the way you see the world and maybe even inspire you to take action to support a queer person you know, or maybe even one/s you don’t  (and, yes, I know I have essentialised you based on your sexuality…it’s not very nice is it). If you are queer, you might hear an echo of your own pain. Perhaps. In the meantime, until Queertopia is built here on earth I will keep on sailing between a many-headed sea monster and a giant whirlpool, honouring and suffering a pain that is often ignored but is no longer a joke. Maybe somewhere on this voyage I will meet another man to journey with and if you are him, come find me on the high seas.

The Gay Novel Is Dead, Long Live The Gay Novel

I’m often late to the party and this holds true for Alan Hollinghurst’s proclamation that the gay novel is dead. He was at the Hay Festival a few months back (which in the world of news might as well be years ago) and said this of the gay novel: “I think as such it has had its day. It rose in the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties in response to these new opportunities and new challenges and the two big clarities — the one of liberation and the one of Aids — and there was an urgency, a novelty to the whole thing. In our culture at least those things are no longer the case. I observe that the gay novel is dissolving back into everything else and we are living increasingly in a culture where sexuality is not so strongly defined.” Late, as ever, I’ll offer my ten pink pounds on why the gay novel cannot dissolve and die.

Because the opposite of the gay novel is not the straight novel it’s the novel and in the “novel”, as in “life”, heterosexuality is taken for granted. Men fall in love with women and vice versa or maybe people don’t fall in love at all but whatever happens you can be sure that homosexuality won’t be visible or if it is it will be a joke, trope or tokenised. If a character’s sexuality isn’t referenced the assumption will be that they’re straight unless they’re some flaming stereotype. Homosexual characters will be defined by or reduced to their sexuality and not given sufficient agency to be human. Their storylines will end, if given sufficient pages to end, in some sort of tragedy, despair or loneliness. And that’s not good enough.

So, I want more gay novels, many more. Until the wounds of the AIDS crisis have healed. Until I see myself and so many others reflected in culture over and over again. Until culture has liberated itself so much that we have the option to let go, a little, of our strongly defined sexualities because the fight is won and not because we are exhausted and need some time to lie low. Until the “gay novel” is not forced to define itself by its sexuality because heterosexual people lack imagination and harbour prejudice. Until the “everything else” that the gay novel dissolves back into is as gay and queer as fuck. Then, and only then, can Hollinghurst give up on the day job. Although I hope he doesn’t because we will always need brilliant novels written by men who love men.

Cameron Calls For National Day of Heterophobia

In a surprising act of radicalism David Cameron has called for a National Day of Heterophobia (NDH) in the UK. “For too long the citizens of the UK have been oppressed by a heteronormative, homophobic patriarchy, and I want to be part of the movement that changes that,” said Cameron yesterday on his YouTube channel ‘Camz4Change’.

A Whitehall source claimed that after discussing the recent budget Cameron proposed the idea of the NDH to the Cabinet. The planned date will be 24th September to coincide with the release of Karma Chameleon back in 1983 (“That album was a big part of my youth,” explained Cameron). Reactions were overwhelmingly positive. “I’d put it on a par with invading Iraq,” said Home Secretary Theresa May. Meanwhile Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne also gave it his support, “I was once teased at boarding school for kissing a boy, so I think it’s time those nasty straights had a taste of their own medicine.”

Planned activities for the day include:

  • Shouting at straight couples in the street who are holding hands and/or expressing any act of affection.
  • Trolling known heterosexual celebrities and leaving comments on their websites and blogs that attack them for their sexual behaviour.
  • Prefixing all references to known heterosexual people with the word ‘straight’ – e.g. “this is my friend straight Alex”, “they’re a straight couple I know”. Using the term SBF – ‘Straight Best Friend’.
  • Using the term straight as a pejorative adjective – e.g. “that’s so straight.”
  • Using the term “straights” as a collective noun for heterosexual people.
  • Going to straight clubs and shouting heterophobic abuse at the clientele.
  • Regularly reminding heterosexual people that they are defined by their sexuality. “Oh, it’s because you’re straight.”
  • Generally making heterosexual people feel like an oppressed minority.
  • Forcing closeted straights out of the cupboard and shaming them.

Cameron’s suggestion has not gone entirely without criticism. “This is a democracy,” explained Harriet Harman, acting leader of the Labour Party, “An event like this needs to be voted on.” Cameron is yet to comment on whether or not a vote will be held at the Houses of Parliament but our Whitehall source implied that whatever the result of any vote Cameron would go ahead with what he wanted to do anyway.

David Cameron: an unlikely champion of equality.
David Cameron: an unlikely champion of equality.