Queer Classics: “Moonlight” (2016)

After waiting impatiently for several weeks for Moonlight to make its way to Syracuse, it finally arrived, and I have to say:  this is one hell of a film. Though it was not what I expected, that does not mean that I didn’t enjoy it. Indeed, it’s probably the best film that I’ve seen this year (as cliché as that sounds).

A meditative and aesthetically sophisticated film such as this one is notoriously difficult to summarize in terms of plot, but in broad strokes it is a coming-of-age story told in three parts. Each segment of the film opens with a simple word:  Little, Chiron, Black, each representing a stage in the main character’s evolution. Throughout, he has to contend with the broken relationships that characterize his life, from his drug-addled mother Paula to his love interest and childhood companion Kevin. Throughout, he seems to struggle with a profound sense of alienation and isolation from the world around him, though he does experience brief moments of genuine human warmth, particularly when he meets Teresa and Juan (Janelle Monáe and the inimitable Mahershala Ali, respectively), who provide him some measure of stability and genuine human caring.

This is a profoundly intimate film, both in terms of its narrative–which remains wedded to Chiron’s perspective throughout–but also in terms of its cinematography. The camera remains sometimes perilously close to its principals, wedding us to their perspective in a sometimes physically unsettling intimacy. It’s not so much that the spectator necessarily feels that they are necessarily there; instead, it’s a feeling of being physically connected to the characters.

Thus, it is precisely this visceral closeness that allows us as viewers to get a sense of how important touch is to Chiron’s sense of himself. It is through his body that Chiron manages to escape his profound sense of loneliness and alienation. The film also pays particular attention to fluid, and there are two scenes in which semen plays a prominent role, and each time the camera pays attention to the contact between the body and the fluid, a surprisingly sensuous (and not prurient) attention to the powerfully erotic pleasures of the flesh.

It is through his body that Chiron–chronically silent and taciturn–manages to express himself. Indeed, it is precisely touch that gives him his one truly meaningful and intense connection with another person, when he and Kevin share an erotic experience on the beach. Unfortunately, the flip side of that dynamic is that Kevin is later manipulated by schoolyard bullies into beating up his erstwhile friend, a bitter experience that deeply scars both young men. However, there is no question that it is Chiron who bears the deepest psychological wounds, scarred both by his friend’s betrayal and by his mother’s obvious homophobia.

As Black, he appears muscle-bound and gruff, and the film makes it clear that this emphasis on increasing his bodily mass and strength are his responses to his troubling youth and to the impotence he felt throughout those formative years. Tormented by those around him for his perceived queerness, he has turned to using his body as a shield against a world that seems determined to crush and beat the “softness” out of him. The camera lingers on his musculature and on his mannerisms, demonstrating again and again that the formerly shy and meek youth who finally broke when betrayed by his friend has transformed into a hardscrabble drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta. Beneath that, though, one can still see glimmers of Little and of Chiron, a yearning for the intimate human connection that he has all-too-infrequently found in his life.

Though the film is, for the most part, deliberately paced, it is punctuated by moments of emotional release and satisfaction, as when Chiron takes a chair and brutally attacks the bully who incited Kevin’s act of violence. It is an intensely satisfying moment (as evidenced by the woman beside me in the theater, who cheered quite loudly at that particular moment). These moments, like their more tender counterparts, enable a feeling of bodily empathy with Chiron, allowing us to experience a similar moment of embodied empowerment, a reclamation of agency that has been consistently denied him.

The performances, of course, are the emotional heart of the film. As any good student of film knows, casting can either make or break even the most well-written of films, and in this case the actors are uniformly excellent. Though it is easy to despise Chiron’s mother Paula for her by turns brutal and manipulative treatment of her only child, Naomie Harris brings a certain tragic pathos to the role, imbuing the character with alternately frantic energy and depthless despair. While she is not the main focus of the narrative, she does nevertheless show her own development as a character, moving from an absent-minded if loving mother to a gradually more abusive and manipulative drug addict. However, even she is not beyond redemption, and the scene in which Black finally has the chance to offer his mother forgiveness is one of the most wrenching in the film.

The three actors who portray Chiron each deserve accolades, for each brings something distinct to the table, allowing us to see the shifts in his perspective as he grows up. Alex Hibbert, who plays Little, is that oh-so-rare gem, a child actor who has genuine depth and complexity. For his part, Ashton Sanders (who plays Chiron’s teenaged self) brings a certain tortured reserve to a youth plagued by his own personal demons, his fledgling desires, and the aimlessly malevolent taunts of many of his classmates.

It is Trevante Rhodes, however, who really steals the show as Black, Chiron’s final iteration. This is, in many ways, the most inscrutable and mysterious of the character’s iterations and for that reason it is the most compelling. All of Chiron’s past traumas seem to roil beneath the surface of clenched exterior. As we learn during his reunion and rapprochement with Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland, who brings a certain frantic, almost desperate, energy to the character), no man (nor anyone else) has touched him since their erotic encounter on the beach. Black is a man who has struggled, and never quite succeeded, in finding a place in an unfeeling world. His eventual physical reunion with Kevin, in which he at last finds physical connection, is a powerful affirmation of his journey to fulfillment.

Moonlight remains a haunting film precisely because it is so piercing in its glimpse into Chiron’s psyche. Growing up a queer of color in America remains a struggle for many, and it is especially acute for men, for whom the burdens of traditional masculinity are sometimes almost too much to bear. Indeed, the screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney has spoken eloquently on those burdens, and his acute sensibilities for the particular struggles faced by black men have found their way into the script and the characters that inhabit this world.

What strikes me the most about the queerness of this film, however, is how unspoken it remains. It writhes beneath the surface of the narrative, a key component of Chiron’s identity, yet one which he rarely explicitly expresses. It emerges in some of the most unlikely moments, as when he has his erotic encounter with Kevin, and when he later dreams about him before their fateful reunion that concludes the film. It is a poignant reminder of how queerness–tender, beautiful, sensuous–can provide meaningful connection and intimacy in even the bleakest and most unfriendly of worlds.

Book Review: “The Sorcerer’s Daughter” (Terry Brooks)

Though I finished Terry Brooks’s most recent book some time ago, I’ve just now got around to writing my review of it. This book, The Sorcerer’s Daughter, focuses on two parallel plots:  one traces the adventure of Leofur, the daughter of the malevolent sorcerer Arcannen, as she attempts to rescue her friend Chrysallin. The other, unsurprisingly, follows Paxon Leah as he attempts to save a Druid delegation pursued by Federation soldiers.

There is much to love about this rather slim, briskly paced novel. Most of the characters are ones that we have met in the previous two novels, but it was quite refreshing to see both Chrysallin and Leofur get their own narrative arcs. Brooks has always excelled at blending together firm characterization with well-laid plots, and The Sorcerer’s Daughter is no exception.

I have been reading Brooks’s work for over twenty years, and even now I’m still astounded at his marvelous ability to conjure spaces and places that are truly, viscerally terrifying. The Murk Sink, the lair of a particularly nasty witch, is one such place. Full of monstrous creatures whose size dwarfs anything that we’ve seen in quite some time (Mr. Teeth is a particularly terrifying creation, precisely because he is such an unpredictable and deadly leviathan). Though this world may be our future, it is a terrifying future, one filled with creatures the likes of which we cannot, at this moment, imagine.

All of this reinforces the sense that the world of the Four Lands continues to exist in an unstable relationship between chaos and order. On the one hand, the possibility of a rapprochement between the Druids and their allies on the one hand and the Federation on the other implies that this world might at last find a measure of peace. On the other, forces such as the sorcerer Arcannen continue to pose a threat to this order, the dark lure of chaos always lurking just around the corner.

What interested me most about the novel, however, was its remarkable queerness. I mean this not only in reference to the same-sex couple that appears (albeit briefly) in the novel, but also to Imric Cort’s experience as a shapeshifter. To me, at least, the inner turmoil that Cort repeatedly faces was the emotional heart of this novel, as he struggles with the sense that he is not who he should be, that he always has to keep a part of himself hidden from the rest of the world. Any queer person (by which I mean LGBTQIA+) knows this experience well. We live in a heteronormative world, and we are always conscious that the way we are exists as the flip side of everything that culture tells is “normal.” In this novel, Brooks manages to capture this sense and while Cort is, strictly speaking, “straight,” his experience is certainly not. Just as importantly, his relationship with Leofur does not “cure” him of his shapeshifting tendency; instead, she is an anchor that allows him to be who he is without guilt or self-hatred. It really is a stunningly beautiful relationship that Brooks has crafted here, perhaps one of the most emotionally resonant and complex that he has ever created.

If I have one complaint about Brooks’s latest outing, it’s that I wish there were more of it. In this concluding novel of this informal trilogy he has given us a satisfactory conclusion to a number of the ongoing trials of Paxon, but the ending is bittersweet. I actually find it rather refreshing that Brooks avoided the easier path of a happy romantic ending for his hero, opting instead to show us that, sometimes, life does not quite end up as we would like it to. Instead, we must sometimes rely on our friends to see us through those dark points in our life.

All in all, I would say that The Sorcerer’s Daughter nicely sets the stage for the epic showdown that seems to be looming in the near future. Now that we know, per Brooks’s own words, that the chronological end of Shannara is near, we can get a clearer sense of the final trajectory. Perhaps, finally, the people of the Four Lands may find some level of harmony and peaceful coexistence.

But then again, perhaps not.

Only time will tell.

Weekly Rant: Being Queer as a Political Act

I’ve spent the last week struggling with the events of Orlando. Not since I was a teenager and fully realized the import of Matthew Shepard’s death have I felt this way:  angry, terrified, and deeply, ineffably sad. How is it possible, I find myself wondering, that in 2016 I should still feel like my life as a queer person is somehow worth less than my straight friends? How is possible, I ask myself, that a group of young queer folks could be gunned down in cold blood in a gay bar? How?

However, in the days since, I’ve become increasingly convinced that if the massacre has done anything, it has ruthlessly torn away the myth that we are living in the golden age of assimilation, when we have all been thoroughly incorporated into the fabric of American society. We queer folks have made some tremendous advances in the last year, and we shouldn’t forget that. However, if we had believed that the legalization of same-sex marriage was the apex of our political struggles, the events of a week have ago have put the lie to that myth. We may have gained some legal power, but we are still systematically marginalized.

One can see this in the way that the mainstream media has already co-opted what is most certainly a queer tragedy and spun it neatly into already-existing discourses surrounding terrorism and gun control. The issue for is not that these aren’t important and pressing issues; it’s that the importance of this event for LGBT+ folk gets subsumed into a set of issues that mainstream American political culture is infinitely more invested in and feels comfortable discussing. Furthermore, it just highlights, again, that we as a culture seem utterly incapable of thinking about the ways in which different issues intersect. Oh, the pundits and thinkers pays lip service to this sort of intersectional thinking, but then they immediately retreat into their comfort zones. If you want to hear substantive and meaningful discussion about what this event has meant for queer people, and especially queer people of color, then you should check out a program like Code Switch (a great podcast in its own right, I might add), which recently released an episode focusing on the intersection of race and queerness in the aftermath of Orlando.

This event has also reinforced for me the necessity of collective spaces of queer mourning. As an academic and someone who spends a great deal of their time thinking through the complexities of these sorts of issues, I understand the impulse to seek out explanations, to find some way of making sense of what has transpired. At the same time, I think we queer and feminist scholars do ourselves a grave disservice if we retreat too quickly into the academic and the cerebral. Instead, I strongl believe would do better to truly engage with our feelings and affects. These are our queer brothers and sisters that were slain in that night, and acting as if the incident is a mind puzzle to be unlocked does little either for us as mourners or for those who lost their lives.

Just as importantly, this has also reinforced my long-standing philosophy that being queer (a designation I utilize to include all variants encompassed by the LGBT+ communities) is, in itself, a political act. The legalization of same-sex marriage a year ago suggested that, after years of agitating, the assimilationist wing of the movement had at last emerged triumphant. HRC and others like them might have been excused for believing that they had succeeded in their (laudable if somewhat limited) mission of integrating queer folk into the fabric of mainstream society and politics. Now, however, we know that these efforts were in their origin always limited. If we want to make this world a safer place for queer folk, we must consistently, every single day, work against the systems of normality and exclusion that have made this event possible.

If you think that being gay is just being part of your identity like eye or hair color, I can only say, without equivocation, that you are wrong. Look around you, and you will see that your life, your love, and your family matters less than our straight fellows. One need only look at the recent wave of “religious freedom” and “bathroom” bills spreading like a poison through state legislatures to understand that the LGBT+ community is under direct and vitriolic attack from the American Right. If we do not stand up for ourselves, if we do not denounce the infuriating hypocrisy of those who send their “thoughts and prayers” with one hand while propagating hate-filled legislation with the other, then we will be swept into the dustbin of oblivion.

The battle lines are drawn, my friends, and the time has come to decide which side we are going to take. On one side are those who will stop at nothing to ensure that their vision of “morality” and “ethics” is forced onto the rest of us. Religious zealotry has taken many forms in 20th and 21st Century America, and we must do everything in our collective power to ensure that it is does not have any more of a chance to spread its noxious poison into our political and cultural institutions. The American Left has been negligent in the last 30 years as these groups have exerted an influence far exceeding their actual relevance, and that must come to an end.

On the other, however, are those who remain invested in making this a safer and more just world. This isn’t just a matter of who you love–it is far more complicated and urgent than that. There is a war against our very identities currently underway. To ignore this fact would be to perpetrate a grave injustice against those 49 innocents who lost their lives in an Orlando gay club (and don’t get me started on the way in which some members of the media insist on referring to as a generic nightclub). If we want to survive, we have to fight.

And we have to–WE WILL–win.

QSA #2: How Not to Be a Tool on Grindr (Part 1?)

Hello, darlings. As is my wont, I am here to share some thoughts on Grindr, that app that is at once so repugnant and yet so utterly compelling. In the spirit of my last musing on this subject, I want to offer a few words of advice on how to behave appropriately on Grindr. Here, then, are a few rules to keep in mind as you venture into the world of one of the most popular hookup apps.

Rule #1–Don’t be Needy. I get it; you’re probably on Grindr because you’re lonely and want to reach out to another human body. That’s totally okay. However, if someone doesn’t respond right away, or if they don’t agree to a date right away, DON’T CONTINUE TO HARASS THEM ABOUT IT. I understand the temptation, believe me I do, but it’s because I understand it that I can say without equivocation that it is the surest thing to drive other guys away. (By the way, this whole thing about being needy also applies if you happen to get into a relationship. Learn the boundaries that are acceptable. Your life will be a lot happier. Trust me).

Rule #2–Don’t be Desperate. This may seem like the same thing as Rule #1, but it’s slightly different. Again, if the presumed aim of being on Grindr is to get laid, or at least to attract someone, you definitely don’t want to appear desperate. You may be in the digital world, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t sense that desperation in the ways in which you comport yourself. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to be an ice queen; it does, however, mean that you have to learn the balance between showing interest and not leaping at every guy that messages you. It’s a hard skill to master (and even I am still working on it), but it’s well worth mastering. I guarantee it will help you to be more desirable, and it will give you more confidence in yourself and your self-worth as well.

Rule #3–Don’t be a Nuisance. Again, this is somewhat similar to the preceding two rules, but there is a certain point at which your persistence becomes irritating. If someone doesn’t respond to you, even if you’ve been messaging for a while, be patient. And if they still don’t respond, then maybe you should take a hint. There’s something to be said for the long-lost arts of patience and subtlety, and I really do think that men respond much better to those than they do pestering and badgering. Remember that not everyone is glued to their phone 24/7 (I know that’s hard to believe), so be patient. Sometimes a good thing really is worth waiting for and even if that one guy you really like doesn’t respond, just remember that there are many other fish in the sea.

So, there you have it. More words of advice for Grindr. It’s a hard world out there (<<see what I did?), but if you really think about what you’re doing on Grindr (and other hookup apps), the experience can be genuinely pleasurable for all the parties.

Happy grinding!

Why Do Gay Men Love Abs?

If you’ve ever spent a minute on the popular gay hookup app Grindr, you know it’s no secret that gay men love abs.  Scores of shirtless pics jockey for position any time you open the app, each one trying to outdo the others in terms of the amount of abdominal definition on offer. And a casual perusal of any gay porn studio will show a similar fixation, with both studios and stars jockeying to outdo one another with their conspicuous display of their abdominal fortitude.

Gay men, clearly, love abs, and they love men who have them. They are, in fact, one of the hottest commodities in the dating and hookup scenes.  The question is, though, why?

I’ve given this matter a lot of thought, and while I’m always a little cautious about generalizations about gay men, I also think that there are some deeply-rooted reasons why we seem to have a particular penchant (I might even so far as to say an obsession) with both procuring abs and sleeping with/dating a guy who also has them.  At least part of the desire, I suggest, has to do with the area of the body in question.  The stomach, as we all know, is the focal point for questions about health and wellness, not only in terms of fat (it’s the part of the body that often shows it the most, certainly in men), but also in terms of actual food consumption.

Just as importantly, however, to have a stomach that is soft rather than hard speaks to one’s inability to control one’s appetite, and the ability to control one’s bodily appetites has long been associated with the masculine, as opposed to the feminine, which is characterized, as much as by anything else, by an inability to bring those desires under control, to regulate them and channel them appropriately.  To be anything other than ripped and defined, then, is to become unmasculine, to become perhaps the most dreaded thing in contemporary gay male culture:  the feminine. To be soft and feminine is to take a headlong tumble into the world of the gay abject, subject to the ridicule and cruel dismissal of hook-up culture (which is not, as a rule, known for its compassion).

There’s no question that gay men have long had a vexed and often contradictory relationship with masculinity.  It is at once the thing that we desire and the thing that we want to be. There is no object more desired in the world of gay dating than the hot, muscled, masculine top. One need only look at the many hook-up profiles proclaiming something along the lines of “no fats, no femmes” to get a sense of how vitriolic and jaded gay hook-ups (and, if we’re being honest, gay dating) can be in the world of Grindr and other similar apps.

This isn’t to say that any of this always operates on a conscious level (though it does certainly do so at times).  While many gay men make no secret of the their abhorrence for the feminine, many more, I think, have probably so internalized the demands of our culture at large that it becomes almost second nature to disavow any traces of the feminine or the soft.  To be either is to abrogate any claim to be an object of desire (David Halperin has an excellent discussion of this issue in his book How to Be Gay) and, perhaps just as importantly, to slip into those pernicious stereotypes of flaming queens and limp-wristed fruits that were used by mainstream culture to pathologize gay men for much of the 20th Century.

Having a hard, chiseled body, then, becomes a way of proving oneself to the wider world, a means of proving that you have escaped from the chains of those old stereotypes and reached into a new day, when gay men can have all of the attributes (and privileges) of their straight brethren. And to top it all of, by having that body you also become the commodity that everyone is after, and that brings with it its own particular form of power.

The most frightening thing about this whole situation is that even I, with my critical apparatus honed by years in an English graduate program and immersion in queer and feminist theory, still fall prey to the perniciousness of this body ideology.  I constantly scrutinize my own belly, desperately seeking that first set of signs that my abs have finally begun to develop.  It’s not enough, I’ve found, simply to be thin (though a thin and lithe body has its own attractions). You have to be able to show that you’ve put in the time and the effort (and the discipline) to make your body truly splendid and powerful.

In order to truly become the object and the subject of desire that I want to be, my body should (so my indoctrinated self tells me), fall into the molds prescribed by the culture of which I am a part. It really is a daily struggle to start loving my body for what it is, even while wanting to make it better. And it is also a struggle to make better mean healthier, rather than simply look better. Yes, it is nice to have that outward show of having accomplished a fitness goal, but not at the price of losing one’s sense of intrinsic self-worth.

Of course, this isn’t to say that working out and watching what you eat isn’t good. They absolutely are, and we should do both more. It’s just that we should also be aware of the cultural baggage that always accrues around the body, and we shouldn’t let ourselves become so enamoured of a particular body type that we begin to exclude and pathologize those who don’t fall into those very restrictive modes and models. If we can begin to think outside of that scope, I firmly believe that we will all be the happier for it. Now that’s a goal I can get behind.

Can a Queer Feminist Enjoy Tolkien?

The short answer to the question leading this post is…yes. The long, and more complete, answer, requires quite a bit of explanation. In order to do so, I’ve decided to address each half of the descriptor (queer feminist) separately, while offering some concluding remarks that bring them together.

As a queer man, I am always profoundly moved by the intense personal and physical relationships that emerge between the various male characters. Of course, the most notable such interaction is between Frodo and Sam. Truly, the relationship between them is one of the richest and most textured to be found in all of 20th Century literature (and much more so than most straightforwardly “queer” male literature, with some notable exceptions such as Maurice and Brokeback Mountain). Theirs is a relationship forged in the harshest of conditions, and it engenders a particular form of tenderness, both physical and emotional, that especially resonates with we  men who feel desire (again, both physical and emotional) for other men.

Now, I’m almost 100% certain that Tolkien, devout Catholic that he was, did not intend these relationships to be understood as in any way sexual, and I’m not really sure that I, irreverent queer reader that I am, see them that way either (though I know there are many who do). However, I respond to them in a way that is more raw and intensely emotional than mere friendship typically allows. In other words, I pick up on those elements in the text that resonate most strongly with my own experiences and encounters with the world. The queerness, then, is a latent possibility within the text, even if the author did not necessarily intend for it to exist. As the great cultural theorist and scholar Alex Doty pointed out, texts don’t have to be intentionally queer for audiences to pick up on and read them as such.

As a feminist, things are a bit murkier. There are, it is true, remarkably few women of any stature within The Lord of the Rings, though there are many more in The Silmarillion. Of all the women that appear, however, the two that most conspicuously embody what we might call “strength” are Galadriel and Eowyn.

Are these female figures somewhat marginal to the narrative? Perhaps, but I think that reading mostly misses the point. Galadriel, we know, is easily one of the most powerful Elves remaining in Middle-earth (the fact that he is entrusted with one of the three Elven Rings of Power is but one of the many pieces of evidence suggesting this). It is significant, I think, that she bears Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, and that it is through her power that Lothlorien remains unsullied and that, at the last, it is Galadriel who brings about the final dissolution of Dol Guldur and its dungeons and pits.

Yet, for my money, it is Eowyn who most clearly stands out to me as Tolkien’s most masterful female creation. Unlike Galadriel, she does not have native, supernatural power. Instead, she is a woman born into a culture that typically prizes male valour and martial ability. While she obviously possesses these things,she remains bound in a culture that can best be described as benevolently patriarchal. For all that she possesses formidable intellectual ability and skill with arms, the world in which she lives does not explicitly value these when they are found in the body of a woman.

Eowyn’s greatest tragedy, however, is the fact that she finds herself bound to the aging and frail Theoden. Tolkien has an uncannily adept eye for identifying, and portraying, the intensely contradictory feelings such a woman must experience. She clearly loves her uncle and is willing to take care of him, yet she also finds her deepest desires–to be a warrior–frustrated by her familial duties. In a turn of fortune, Tolkien ensures that it is Eowyn, rather than any of the more traditional male heroes, who brings about the death of the Witch-king of Angmar, easily one of the most powerful and menacing of the villains in the Third Age.  At last, Eowyn is vindicated, her name enshrined among the great heroes of Tolkien’s mythology.

So what about a person, like myself, who specifically identifies as a queer feminist, both in terms of politics and in terms of scholarship? For all of its flaws, Tolkien’s legendarium (including but not limited to The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) display a remarkable complexity in the ways in which it articulates issues of gender and sexuality. Somehow, Tolkien manages to bring to bear the high spirit of European antiquity with the concerns of modernity to craft a tale that can be appealing to even the most contrarian and radical of readers.

Mourning, Melancholy, and “Paris is Burning”

I recently taught Jennie Livingston’s famous documentary Paris is Burning to a group of undergraduates.  As I was watching the film, a number of realizations struck me at once:  most of my students were not born when the film was released, let alone shot (1990 and the 1980s, respectively); the particular iteration of the subculture brought to life in the documentary has faded into history; many of the participants are also no longer with us.  These realizations, commonsensical as they may seem, struck me with a particularly intense force, evoking a profound sense of melancholy that has haunted me frequently of late as I have begun to think about the ways in which contemporary gay politics, and gay culture more generally, seems determined to forget the eras that preceded the present.

In some ways, such deliberate amnesia is completely understandable.  It’s no secret that the 20th Century was, in many ways, incredibly homophobic, and LGBT people lived precarious lives, with the threat of death and violence never far away.  Indeed, part of what makes Paris is Burning such a powerful and evocative film is that it manages to capture that, showing us a world in which parody and irony are a means of coping with a world that cares little for the lives of the poor, people of colour, or LGBT folks (or, gasp, someone who occupies all three positions simultaneously).  The death of Venus Xtravaganza, briefly yet viscerally alluded to in the film, serves as a potent reminder of just how fragile queer life was (and remains).  The film continually asks:  how do you cope with life, knowing that it can be snuffed out at any moment?  That question is just as pertinent, and just as difficult to answer, now as it was then.

Though I am, by most standards, a fairly young ga-y man, I’ve always felt a peculiar affinity to the generations that preceded me.  Unlike so many young LGBT people, I do not see my elders as hold-overs from the bad old days before we had gay marriage and gay people all over television, from the relatively asexual Cam and Mitch of Modern Family to the hyper-sexual Connor of How to Get Away with Murder (which, I’m sad to say, is the implicit if not always stated position adopted by all too many in the younger generation).  Perhaps this is a result of my own social position as a queer person originally from Appalachia, which has lagged behind the coasts in terms of queer acceptance.  Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that my undergraduate queer experience was shaped by several older homos who still had a foot in that older world.

It also has to do, however, with my own sort of melancholic temperament, which helps explain why films such as Paris is Burning and even a more recent film such as The Normal Heart strike such a chord with me.  There is something profoundly affective about these types of films, that provide us a glimpse into a world forever gone, yet which they allow us to touch, even if just for a brief time.  Films set or filmed in the 1980s in particular always carry this sense of mourning and melancholy for me; I can’t help but remember the generation that came of age during the height of the AIDS pandemic, when I was just a child and had no true consciousness of the scale of the conflict.  Films like Paris is Burning allow me, as a younger gay man, to gain at least a temporary access to the world that preceded mine, even as it reminds me that that world has forever vanished.

Watching this film, I am powerfully reminded of the dangers of forgetfulness that perpetually haunt us.  When I hear comments like those recently made by Russell Tovey about his gratitude about not being effeminate, I can’t help but think that part of what makes his comments possible is a terrible bout of amnesia that keeps him, and others like him, from remembering the key roles played (and still played) by “effeminate” gay men.  Let’s not forget that the riots at Stonewall were started by drag queens who had had enough of the bullshit, and that it has long been the more “effeminate” gay mean leading the charge in terms of challenging patriarchy and homophobia (which almost always work in tandem).  Watching Paris is Burning is, for me at least (and I hope for others), a way of both remembering and mourning the queer past.  Rather than strenuously disavowing the melancholia that such mourning inevitably brings with it, I think that perhaps it would do us all a collective good to embrace this side of ourselves, to experience the uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, aspects of our past so that we can truly grasp the nature of our present, and the possibilities of our future.

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review: “Pink Cupcakes”

The Agony and the Ecstasy

After finally getting the chance to watch last week’s episode of American Horror Story, I have to admit that I was a little worried.  The infamous clown was dead, the townspeople seemed to have finally accepted the freaks, and all seemed right with the world.  And then tonight’s episode happened, and all of my worries when out the window.

There was something intensely agonizing and pleasurable about tonight’s episode, and I don’t mean the former in a pejorative sense.  Instead, I mean to suggest that this episode of AHS:  Freak Show fully utilized the conventions of the horror genre to their fullest extent, drawing us as viewers into both the beauty and the brutality of male violence.  A large part of this, of course, has to do with the camera’s fetishizing of Dandy’s body as he goes about his exercise regimen and carefully and excruciatingly carves his physique into the ultimate killing machine (noting all the while that he is the epitome of America, well-sculpted and violent).  Indeed, that is part of what makes his character so terrifying; he is indeed the epitome of what dominant mid-century ideology believed America to be (and that many conservatives still want it to be).  He exposes the rottenness, the deviance, and the violence that we as a culture have sought so hard to suppress, and that is what gives his appearances that delicate yet overwhelming frisson.

Naturally, the fact that Matt Bomer was cast as the hustler with a painter’s spirit (who, incidentally, has apparently been carrying on an affair with the repressed homosexual Dell) that Dandy ultimately murders heightens our sense of mingled pleasure and dread as we know what is coming.  The exposure of Bomer’s well-crafted physique, as well as the mingled grace and frenzy that characterizes his death, interweave to generate the mingled senses of ecstasy and horror we are invited to feel at his death.  There is a certain measure of quasi-sexual release of at last having him meet his awaited doom (since we in the audience know that Dandy has chosen him to be his next victim, having already found the courage to do away with Dora).  In my view, there is a decidedly queer sensibility motivating these scenes, ranging from the costumes–Dandy is quite fussy about his appearance–and the prolonged nature of the victim’s death (he even appears to still be alive as Dandy is dismembering him).  I am also reminded of two films that also fetishize and aestheticize exquisite male beauty engaged in or falling victim to frenzied violence:  Fight Club and American Psycho.  Like those films, it remains unclear just how critical AHS is of this type of violence, though it certainly seems to subtly suggest that the repressive regime that forced gay men to live subcultural lives rendered them vulnerable to exactly the types of violence that Dandy indulges in (which in itself may be a manifestation of his repressed homosexuality).

Of course, Elsa remains one of the series’ most stunningly crafted creations, and Lange perfectly captures the obvious state of delusion that has well and truly laid claim to what bit of a grasp on reality she possessed.  Whatever goodwill she might have earned from us as viewers has been thoroughly squandered by her irrational and cruel jealousy of the twins  That, however, does not make her any less fascinating and compelling as a character, though we are clearly invited to be ambivalent about her (and to take pleasure in our own ambivalence).  As always, Lange keeps us poised at the delicate balance of revulsion and sympathy.

fAll in all, tonight’s episode was one of the most ecstatically horrific that the series as a whole has yet produced.  Having taken care of so many of its storylines, however, I am left wondering exactly how they are going to fill up the remainder of the season.  Are we simply going to continue seeing Dandy make his delusionally happy way along the absolute oblivion?  It remains to be seen, of course, but hopefully this episode is the beginning of something grand (guignol)Lastly, it is worth noting this episode’s cunning critique of the medium of television, most notably Elsa’s line that she would rather be boiled in oil than be on television.  Television, she says, represents the death of culture and the dampening of the dreams made possible by the cinema.  It is a striking scene, in no small part because we seem to be living in a media age in which it is television, more than film, that has managed to express our cultural dreams and nightmares.  In the age of the blockbuster and the franchise, can we really say that film expresses our cultural dreams?  It’s a sly bit of ironic hypocrisy on the series’ part, but perfectly in keeping with its continued emphasis on the power of film (to note but two examples, Elsa’s obsession with Marlene Dietrich and Paul the human seal’s note that it was film that led him to believe in the myth of the American dream).  Who would have thought that a TV series would evoke nostalgia for a bygone age of luminous quality cinema?

All in all, tonight’s episode was one of the most ecstatically horrific that the series as a whole has yet produced.  Having taken care of so many of its storylines, however, I am left wondering exactly how they are going to fill up the remainder of the season.  Are we simply going to continue seeing Dandy make his delusionally happy way along the absolute oblivion?  It remains to be seen, of course, but hopefully this episode is the beginning of something grand (guignol).

Why We Still Need Queer Communities

The other day, while going for my run around the neighborhood, I decided on a whim to go down a side street I had not explored before.  While running, I happened to notice a rainbow flag hanging outside the back of a home.  Curious, I ran by the front to see if there were any other signs of queerness and, to my delight and surprise, there were several other homes with rainbow flags flying proudly.

Now, I had known for some time that I supposedly live in Syracuse’s “gayborhood” of Hawley Green, but until that day I had not seen many signs of queerness.  As I continued my run, I felt an astonishingly powerful feeling of peace and calm—and even a little joy—settle over me.  I was, I felt, somewhere I belonged.  It was a unique feeling for, while I have lived in queer houses in undergrad (often dubbed “The Big Gay House”), I had never known what it was like to live in a truly gay neighborhood.

I’m sure that you’re probably wondering why I’m spending so much time rambling on about my run (and probably thinking that I sound like one of those pretentious fitness nuts who always prattle on about their most recent physical accomplishment).  Well, it’s because of what that incident brought home to me, namely the continuing importance of queer enclaves in urban places.  Now that marriage equality has taken the nation by storm and we can finally see ourselves portrayed at least somewhat sympathetically in the mainstream media, it might seem as if the bad old days of oppression are over and we can live our lives thoroughly integrated into mainstream society and neighborhoods.

But is that really the case?

If nothing else, the recent brutal beating of two gay men in Philadelphia reminds us of just how precarious queer life still is in these United States.  For all that we have gained, there are still places and spaces where we are not welcome and where we are most definitely in danger.  And, unfortunately, sometimes those spaces are the streets that we walk down at night, holding hands and attempting to take advantage of the fact that we have become, so we are told, just like everyone else.

The fact remains, however, that we are not, in many ways, just like everyone else.  There are still a lot of very narrow-minded people in this country, and many of them, unfortunately also tend to be quite violent in their condemnation of what they see as a threat (to their religious faith, to their masculinity, take your pick).  Often, far too often, they lash out in violence like what occurred in Philadelphia.  Or that happened 14 years ago in rural Wyoming to a young man named Matthew Shepard.

Sure, we have gained a lot in the last 12 years.  As an adolescent and even as a college student, I would never have dreamt that we would have made it this far, that I would no longer have to scour the television for even a tantalizing glimpse of queer people.  Nor would I have dreamt that I could find other men like me with the ease of an app on an iPhone.

And yet, as scholars such as my own idol David Halperin have noted, this hookup culture (so easily facilitated by apps such as Grindr) has in many ways supplanted and rendered obsolete the old ways of forming queer communities.  After all, why bother forming your own neighborhood if you can find others like you (or, as an extension, exclude others not like you) on the dating app of your choice?  There’s no need for community when everyone is simply an individual, interacting with other individuals.

So, in my view, there is still a need for spaces that are specifically queer, where we can explore what it means to be queer in this brave new world of marriage equality.  We still need gayborhoods in which homes and families proudly fly the rainbow flag, serving as beacons of encouragement and peace to those young people still struggling to find themselves.  We still need spaces where we can proudly say, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

Gay Assimilation and the Burden of Being Queerly Different

Recently, during a meeting of a queer studies reading group, I engaged in a spirited debate with a colleague about the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation.  He was not convinced that assimilation poses the dangers that many queer scholars such as Jack Halberstam and David Halperin have argued that it does.  Another colleague, one whom I know to be tremendously affirming of queer lifestyles, worried that it was unfair to expect her queer friends to continue to shoulder the burden of being different, wondering if it would perhaps be easier if, indeed, they were allowed to assimilate peacefully into the mainstream fabric of American culture.

While I respect these points of view and can even understand where they come from, I want to argue against them, and vociferously so.  In my view, the mainstream of American queers has not only resulted in a perilous amnesia about the queer past, but also a vehement disavowal of everything that once made queer life so vibrant, messy, and exciting.  As the great Michel Foucault reminded us so long ago, repression tends to beget the very instances and behaviours it seeks to repress.  Thus, it is almost as if, now that the tools of repression have begun to lose their edge and queer life has become for many much less overtly perilous, there is no longer an implied imperative to live queer life as if it may end in the next moment.  Without repression, it would seem, there is no longer an imperative to live and resist queerly.

The other danger that I believe exists in the very marrow of assimilation is the denial of the acceptability of any difference, even among those who ostensibly share one’s sexual orientation.  The same-sex marriage movement continues to organize its rhetorics around an implied “other,” the sexual deviant, the non-monogamous and sexually promiscuous homosexual that must be disavowed in order for same-sex marriage to gain much-needed credibility and acceptability among the straight, white, middle-class citizens who continue to be the arbiters of public cultural and political taste.  When queer people, especially queer couples, proudly announce that they are just like everyone else, what they really mean is that they are buying into the system of monogamy and all of the trappings that go with it, while simultaneously disavowing the acceptability of those who do not.  Even queers, it seems, create their own hierarchies of acceptability.

Of course, perhaps the most pernicious effect of assimilation is the ways in which it manages to convince its adherents to buy so completely into the logic of neo-liberalism and late capitalism.  If only, the logic goes, gay people can become consumers and participants in patriarchal capitalism–settle down, raise children, work hard, buy goods and services–then they will be fully accepted into the fabric of American society and all will be well.  Of course, the things that make American society so deeply divided, rampant and systemic racial and economic inequality among them, remain crucially un-examined and de-emphasized, precisely because those are nodes of crisis where the logics of of neo-liberalism that undergird assimilation are most clearly laid bare and made susceptible to critique.

All of this is not to argue that queer life was somehow better under the former repressive regime.  Certainly, there have been many gains that we should not give up, especially the ones that make queer life infinitely safer than it was even when I was growing up a decade and a half ago.  Even I, cranky radical queer that I am, would not give away the hard-earned legal gains that have made steps toward seeing queer people become equal citizens under the law (though the questionable status of the law itself is worthy of its own blog post).  However, I do want to argue that we should not so easily give up the practices of queer life–resistance to normativity, sexual, economic, racial, and gendered–that so many queers throughout the last century have developed.  Being accounted as “just the same” as everyone else is, in the end, just another form of oppression, however affirming it may appear.  Rather than seeing difference and resistance as a burden that only some have to bear, perhaps it is time that we see it as an opportunity in which we can all share.