“Queer Relationships Are Not Like Straight Relationships”

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For me, the saving grace of Bros was this statement made by Bobby Leiber (Billy Eichner’s character). We are different, even if Bros (riffing on When Harry Met Sally) undermines its own message by resolving the story (of two gay men professing their rejection of romance) with the romcom cliché happy ending. Fire Island, another recent queer romcom, also undermines its portrayal of ethnic, socioeconomic, and physical appearance (body fitness and traditional good looks) inequalities in the contemporary queer (here read “gay male”) community, by ending the film (riffing on Pride and Prejudice) with the romantic couple sharing a dance and a kiss. Somehow, as we know from Austin that even though they live on opposite coasts, they will find a way to make it work. Even knowing that in real life we are different, the movies cave to the pressures of literary trope and commercial need to strive for box office success. After all movies succeed when they are entertaining, Even when a film is intended to be didactic, to carry a message about society, politics, or economic realities, no one wants to be lectured. 

As Ruby Rich wrote, “The interplay between lived behavior and behavior as modeled in movies is complex.” Rich is the film scholar who coined the term New Queer Cinema, an avant-garde film movement that came and went in the 1990s. Today trans is the new queer. Before there was queer there was gay, a term reclaimed by gay liberation activists in the 1970s and used to include all same-sex desire and all gender divergence. “Queer” has taken over this function as “gay” has come to mean cisgender, mostly white gay men. (And GWM is now usually also code for middle-class.)

Fire Island lifts the curtain from some painful realities about racism and economics in the queer community. Set in Manhattan, Bros presents a rather sugar-coated version of queer history and community. Both films invite straight audiences to see us in our messiness, assuming they are interested enough in us to pay money to see us among ourselves. Ironically, New York City and Fire Island both continue to be safe havens away from heterosexual gaze. Even as sexual, gender, and racial diversity within the queer community is included in these love stories, there are no poor queers, and old queers appear as benign, desexualized Auntie Mames – Harvey Fierstein cameos as a bed-and-breakfast owner in Provincetown (another queer safe haven) in Bros and Margaret Cho cameos as the older lesbian den mother who relies on her Fire Island home ownership to draw younger queers into her benign power. Queer poverty is too depressing to contemplate. And everyone knows that gay, white, cisgender men are all at least comfortably middle-class. Both films gloss over the relative wealth necessary to vacation on Fire Island.

The continuing mainstreaming of queers in America owes much of its recent success to the integration of gay and lesbians on TV, from Ellen DeGeneres to Will and Grace. (At the time of this writing, DeGeneres had just retired and Will and Grace are ancient history.) Once again the boundary-pushing edginess of queer films has been replaced by the comfort of queers in the comfort of traditional genre films. In the market-driven commercial film world, queers (mostly gay white men) with money get options. And political and social defiance is replaced by homonormativity.

This goes a long way in explaining the origin of both films. Both films aim to be groundbreaking, both by portraying queer culture more honestly than queer films have done in the past and by confidently believing straight audiences are ready for this honesty. In our current post-covid world efforts are being made to bring audiences back into the movie houses. There is legitimate fear that covid may have brought about the collapse of brick-and-mortar cinemas. Hollywood was banking on the past sure-fire success of the romcom genre with Bros. When the movie theaters shut down, movies went to the new streaming format. Fire Island was released on Hulu, one of these new streaming services. 

Despite rave reviews from the critics (89% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes), Bros did not do well at the box office. One London-based reviewer dismissed it as “self-indulgent and fauxgressive.” (Another reviewer had praised the film for its “militancy.”) One conservative (now code for “far right”) reviewer used his review as a platform to attack Hollywood’s “far-left” “woke” culture for being out of touch with (homophobic) mainstream society, as well as most gay men. I suspect the film’s ultimate failure from this perspective is that none of the queers died in the final scene.

Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet and the documentary film made from it show how the tragic gay man or homicidal lesbian needed to die in the final scene. Only flighty, light-in-the-loafer pansies useful for their comic relief value got to live. Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), the first film to portray gay men sympathetically and released in 1919, played to packed cinema houses in Weimar Berlin.  The love story between a violinist and his student ultimately ends in a suicide. (Gay and lesbian German films have a longer history that Hollywood.)

 After Stonewall this began to change. Gay men and lesbians began to tell their own stories in their own voices. The pivotal moment in history when we began to find each other was in the aftermath of World War II, as grassroots gay historian Allan Bérubé documented in Coming Out Under Fire. This laid the ground for the creation of gay community. Gays and (to a much lesser degree) lesbians began appearing in films in a positive light. A new genre, the gay coming out story, began and usually portrayed romantic couplings. In films such (sanitized) romances took place outside of the context of gay community. Both Bros and Fire Island are noteworthy for being set in realistically portrayed queer communities. 

“Homosexual” became a social identity in the nineteenth century. In “Capitalism and Gay Identity” John D’Emilio explains how the rise of capitalism gave individuals relative autonomy to leave home and the support network of family, free to support themselves and live and work elsewhere. Parallel to this was the rise of the division between the public and private spheres. Individuals (mostly men) were able to construct a private life and a social network of their own choosing. Sex was separated from procreation. Individuals who performed same-sex acts, according to Michel Foucault, became medicalized – the act became the identity. Medical science provided an alibi to justify marginalizing these newly stigmatized individuals.

On the eve of Stonewall two very different groundbreaking films portraying homo-social relations made the box office. Midnight Cowboy follows Joe Buck (Jon Voight) a would-be hustler from Texas as his increasingly fruitless efforts to make money servicing women leads him to try his luck with gay men. He is taken under the wing of a two-bit con man, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) . The social taboo placed on overt homosexuality plays out in the homo-social love relationship between the two men. Ratso, the con artist, rejects identifying his love for Buck, castigating “fags” on numerous occasions. The film also serves as a snapshot of Manhattan and Times Square, in all its seedy glory in the 1960s. 

Around the same time the film version of Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, the first depiction of circle of gay friends (in New York City) was released. Many gay men denounced it for its unflattering portrayal of gay men as bitchy, self-loathing, alcoholic, sadomasochistic. The film remains mostly unstudied in academia due to its painful testament to internalized homophobia. And yet, it depicts another snapshot of gay life in Manhattan in the 1960s. It is also the first depiction of what is now beginning to be called queer kinship.

The rise of homophobia, the rejecting of homosexual men and women, caused queers to move to the anonymity and relative safety of large cities. This created the conditions for an actual community to come into being. Gay men and lesbians began to find each other and organized socially (bars for gay men seeking sexual encounters, lesbians in private social clubs or literary circles, according to John D’Emilio). This underground gay subculture flourished in the 1920s in Weimar Germany. In the US the process was accelerated following World War II. This set the stage for gays and lesbians to create “community,” on the model of ethnic identity. 

Unlike Hollywood where films had to pay for themselves through box office sales, during the 1970s, directors of the New German Cinema were given the freedom to make the films they wanted to. They were supported by the German government with no restraints placed on film content or need for commercial success. Three significant gay-themed films emerged – Rosa von Praunheim’s activity documentary Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation in der er lebt, Frank Ripploh’s autobiographical Taxi zum Klo, and gay enfant terrible auteur director Rainer Werner Faßbinder’s Faustrecht der Freiheit. Faßbinder’s In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year with 13 Moons) was a significant film about a transsexual.

After Stonewall the gay and lesbian subcultures also came out of the shadows as gay community. In current colloquial usage, any group of people can be grouped under this umbrella term. We speak of the African-American community, communities of color, rural communities, gated communities, the global community, and on and on. In sociological terms, community is defined by population, area (physical location), group identification (shared similarities), group sentiment (shared values), explicit shared goals, and permanence. The nascent gay community in America arose in the large cities, where there was enough density of population for there to be enough gays and lesbians in physical proximity to each other. Our community had shared political, social, and cultural goals. And we believed our neighborhoods – The Castro, the West Village, Boystown, the South End, Silverlake – were permanent.

As the gay community and gay and lesbian culture achieved stability, the project of recovering the gay past grew from grassroots efforts into a formally recognized academic discipline. Gay and lesbian literary studies transformed into queer literature, supported by a still-evolving queer theory. Documentary films, coming-out stories with happy endings, and more positive lesbian-themed films were produced. The AIDS epidemic and the rise of the internet had major effects on the LGBT community. And the first films addressing trans people as people rather than for their shock value to straight audiences appeared. Notable among the AIDS movies are Longtime CompanionsJeffrey, Angels in America (from the play), and The Normal Heart (from the play). Lesbian-themed films include But I’m a CheerleaderDesert HeartsGo Fish, and The Watermelon Woman. Trans-themed films include TransamericaBoys Don’t Cry, and The Crying Game. Perhaps the most influential documentary is Paris Is Burning, about a queer community of young queers of color and their drag shows. This was the first time queers of color, queer poverty, and their unique queer community were documented.

Asian-American communities have rarely been portrayed in American films. Eat a Bowl of Tea and The Joy Luck Club are the only ones that come to mind, that predate the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians. In this film a Chinese American professor goes to Singapore to attend the wedding of her husband’s best friend. She discovers that her boyfriend’s family is not just rich, but crazy rich. In spite of the film’s claims about its importance, for example the use of its Asian cast (like Bros’ all-queer cast) or characters not engaged in stereotypical professions, it has been criticized for whitewashing the ethnic diversity in Singapore, the city-state’s complex past, and the portrayal of Singapore as a hegemonic hyper-wealthy Chinese diaspora.

Cut to Fire Island, where two Asian American gay men pay a visit to the iconic gay resort. How their Asian-ness is received quickly dispels the utopian fantasy of Fire Island and lays bare many of the cruel realities of gay life – discrimination based on race, fitness, masculinity, economic privilege. Even as one of the characters, Noah, describes his and his friends as “literal trash,” comparing himself to the wealth and privilege of the ideal gay white male vacationer. He seems oblivious to his own relative privilege in being able to afford his vacation on Fire Island. The pressures to conform in the midst of this affluence is suggestive of nineteenth-century New York high society in The Age of Innocence. Noah calls himself a “class traitor” for having the requisite fitness which gives him access to sex. Looking for love they traverse the territory of false appearances and false assumptions of a Jane Austin novel. Deprived of the love and kinship they seek it is clear they feel like the outsiders that they are. The loneliness of feeling like an outsider when surrounded by queer community, yet failing to find one’s own tribe, is a very common experience rarely acknowledged by the queer community, let alone in queer films. 

In 1990 Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published, arguing that sex and gender are separate entities. As the focus on sex shifted to gender, a new trans activism has started to push back against the convergence politics of identity politics and the binary model (male/female, gay/straight, white/black, and now cis/trans). One of the first results of this shift was the revision of the history of the Stonewall riots. No one knows who threw the first brick (something Bobby Leiber points out in Bros), but Marsha P. Johnson, an African American self-identifying drag queen and transvestite (later labeled by trans activist Susan Stryker as a “gender nonconformist”), eventually emerged as the figurehead of Stonewall. (In the early years following the Stonewall riots a popular myth circulated. Gay icon Judy Garland’s funeral had happened only days before the riots. Gay men, overcome by their grief, channeled it into anger which they took out by rioting  in Sheridan Square where the Stonewall Inn is located.)

In the face of the current rapid expansion of binary mini-identities trans activist Kadji Amin has pointed out the weaknesses of the convergence politics of identity politics and proposes a politics of divergence. Amin argues for a new (trans) politics and discourse without gender identity. And  activist Jack Halberstam argues for trans liberation as central to the fight against the patriarchal system. The cutting-edge gay liberationist activism of the 1970s has now moved to the vanguard of trans activism in the 2020s. 

Diversity within the trope of romantic love between cisgender gay men (which arguably reached its sublime apotheosis in Brokeback Mountain) has been explored in recent films. Power of the Dog explores sublimated homosexual desire in a harrowing story of toxic masculinity. God’s Own Country, a seminal queer film, tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young English farmer finding love with a Romanian migrant worker. Call Me By Your Name portrays the awakening of gay desire between an American professor’s son and the doctoral student working with the professor over a summer in Lombardy. Another seminal movie, Moonlight follows a young African American man through three stages of his life on the margins of society, concluding with him reconnecting with the man he had carried a torch for. In Supernova an aging gay male couple take a final road trip as one partner is descending into Alzheimer’s dementia.

It is unclear to what degree non-binary gender fluidity may replace identity politics or how queer films will evolve. Numerous queer communities are yet to be portrayed in mainstream film – the leather community the bear community, the radical faerie community. In the face of physical gay communities disappearing, a recent comment made on Facebook asked, “If there are no leather bars, can I be a leatherman?”

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