Part I. Queer in Film
International flights these days usually have seatback entertainment systems that allow you to watch movies to pass the time. Over the course of two trans-Atlantic flights last month, I watched eight movies, all of them for the first time. They were, in order: Star Wars: The Last Jedi; The Greatest Showman; The Shape of Water; Horrible Bosses 2; Love, Simon; Lady Bird; The Disaster Artist; and Moonrise Kingdom. I enjoyed them all!
I want to talk about two of these movies in particular, though: Love, Simon and Lady Bird. They’re both teen coming-of-age films; the former has been raved about by a lot of my friends on social media, and the latter was nominated for an Oscar.
People have reporting crying after watching Love, Simon, and most of my gay friends are thrilled by the representation we got on the big screen. That’s really valid, of course: it’s 2018, and Hollywood still has such a small selection of teen comedies with a queer protagonist. Most are indie films. Many have intensely dramatic or traumatic storylines, so they’re not really comedies. Very few have any leading roles that portray queer people of color. From any vantage point, this movie was sorely needed.
Love, Simon really does a good job of portraying a “normal” teen life; however, I use scare quotes because obviously everything is a little too polished, everyone is a little too beautiful, every scene a little too efficient. I’m a fan of the film and would definitely watch it again, but it’s clear that it follows a kind of formula for popular films that does not necessarily adhere to reality.
On the other hand, we have Lady Bird, another coming-of-age film about a teenager suffocating in Sacramento, where she feels like there is no culture and no escape from her family’s poverty. The protagonist isn’t queer, but as I watched, I felt really drawn to her story and her circumstance, because it felt eerily similar to my own adolescence. I grew up in a “boring” northern California city, and my upbringing was also heavily marked by organized religion (although unlike Lady Bird, I was 100% willingly involved in church life and academically motivated, not forced to go through the motions at a strict Catholic school).
I think that what made Lady Bird so relatable was the way it told its story through scenes and situations rather than a strictly sequential narrative. I find that I tend to enjoy films that do this more: think Wes Anderson or Hayao Miyazaki films that are heavy in characterization but light on plot, or films like Amélie, Moonlight, Boyhood, and even Forrest Gump. I’ll never find myself in Simon’s specific and weird blackmailed-Cyrano high school love polygon, but Lady Bird’s life circumstances will feel instantly familiar to a whole generation of Californian not-quite-city kids.
And that’s to say nothing of one very short but emotionally packed scene in which Lady Bird’s ex-boyfriend, whom she had discovered kissing another boy earlier, breaks down in tears while asking her not to tell anyone about his secret. Honestly, watching that almost brought me to tears, out of empathy and an acute personal understanding of the character’s situation. Nothing in the entirety of Love, Simon — not even Simon’s parents’ feel-good heart-to-hearts with their son — moved me the way that a good Christian boy’s realization of how close his perfect life was to crumbling away did, in less than ten seconds, to boot.
There’s a lot to be said for realism on screen. Sometimes you don’t need to go to the lengths of manufacturing a complex narrative to capture your audience; real life is dramatic enough. What’s clearest on my mind as I write this is the first episode of the second season of Queer Eye, the Netflix reboot of the popular “gay guys give makeovers” reality show.
Part II. Queer on TV
Queer Eye is all about spreading the love and doing so in multiple dimensions. The Fab Five, our proud gay protagonists, are of course the poster boys for acceptance of LGBTQ people in American society, but they also spend every episode talking about everything that’s beautiful about the bodies and personalities of people that generally come across as being losers. And they are always overflowing with love for every person they meet, from old white Trump supporters to a devout Christian family. You can see in every word and interaction a determination to be simultaneously the gayest versions of themselves and the friendliest, most compassionate, and least hateable people you could ever meet.
Yes, it’s a reality show and it — by ironic definition — has to stretch reality a little bit, but the story behind this season premiere was astoundingly raw and beautiful. In the episode, the Fab Five are assigned to help a zealous Christian woman in the small, conservative, and predominantly African-American town of Gay, Georgia (you can’t make this up) by cleaning up her house, helping construct her church’s community center, and gently buffering her reconciliation with her gay son.
You might think that the Fab Five would feel a little uncomfortable coming to a small Christian community. In fact, one of them, Bobby, has a really rough history with his own Christian community, one that he had loved and served all throughout childhood, until he came out of the closet and was swiftly kicked out. But Karamo grew up Christian and says that he has only felt love and acceptance from his community despite his sexuality, and Tan is a proud, gay Muslim from the UK. Within the group, there were a lot of different perspectives and backgrounds concerning religion and spirituality, and that was already a great starting point.
The real star of the episode, though, was the woman they helped to make over, Tammye. From the very beginning, she was full of love and acceptance for the Fab Five. She welcomed them into her home and into her church, and even though Bobby didn’t want to set foot inside of the church due to his past trauma, she smothered him with just as much affection1. Tammye explained to them that her gay son had recently moved back home and was feeling apprehensive about rejoining his childhood church because of the way he had been treated. In a truly moving scene, she told the story of how when her son first came out to her, she had not accepted him because of her conservative religious views. But after a few years, she had a change of heart and realized that to love her son no matter what was really what her belief in Jesus called her to do. So she sat down with her son and offered an apology for the way she had made her love conditional, and she asked for his forgiveness.
I don’t think I can describe very well using words how powerful this was to watch. On a personal level, I think it shook me because I thought about my own parents and realized that I have never had an open and honest conversation like that with them. I wouldn’t count on them ever apologizing for how they handled my coming out (I didn’t get kicked out of the house or anything, but it was very uncomfortable nonetheless), and I don’t feel like I actually need one, because I understand their views very well. But to see an example of what this kind of parent-child reconciliation could look like was poignant in a way that, again, I think no fictional narrative could come close to replicating.
But as most allies should know, it can’t just end with the apology. Near the end of the episode, Tammye gave words of exhortation and gratitude to each of the Fab Five in a heartfelt scene. It struck me as unusual that she would invoke words and a style that I only associate with religious blessings, and then I wondered why I thought that was unusual: if Christians really believe in the power of a spoken word blessing, why do we only reserve it for other Christians and not for every last person we meet?
Then, the episode closed with Tammye getting up on the pulpit at her church for the opening ceremony of the community center and delivering a forceful appeal for gay acceptance. She admonished her church for not loving unconditionally (what would Jesus do?), and she told them all about how proud she was of her gay son, while he was in the audience. I found myself in tears again.
This is what active reconciliation looks like. The straight, conservative church can’t just stop protesting against LGBTQ rights; that’s ceasing to harm but it does not heal. They can’t just say sorry for the way they have promoted discrimination for decades; that’s a first step, but it doesn’t require any effort or real sacrifice. To truly reconcile the LGBTQ community to the church, the church has to go out on a limb and fight for equality and rights hand-in-hand with LGBTQ activists. What Tammye did at her church was just a small example of what could be done nationwide — what must be done — in the name of Jesus.
Part III. Queer in Real Life
I guess that what this is all boiling down to is that the best queer stories you can find are probably going to be the ones that come from real life. By “best”, I mean the most influential, whether that’s because they are more heartwarming or heart-rending… it’s probably just because they are just more authentic. So by all means, please continue to support queer narratives in entertainment, and follow the works of queer writers and storytellers. But for every rom-com or reality TV show you consume, remember that there are LGBTQ people all around you who have compelling stories, and if they are willing to share them, it would be your privilege to listen.
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1I will note that despite Tammye’s best intentions, I don’t think it was fair for her to make Bobby revisit a site of trauma and expect him to get over years of pain in one week. But it also isn’t clear to me whether Bobby’s aversion to churches was really that deep-seated, or just a bit of “stunting” for some increased dramatic tension. This is reality television, after all.
Word of the Day: salad days, a Shakespearean phrase, refers to the days of one’s youth and relative inexperience. When it comes to coming-of-age films, there’s a lot of drama and comedy to be mined from the stories of one’s salad days.