During this year’s Republican National Convention, the only out queer person to give a speech was Richard Grenell, the first openly gay person to hold a cabinet-level position when he was temporarily appointed Director of National Intelligence earlier this year. Though he was named a senior advisor for LGBTQ outreach just days before the convention kicked off in late August, Grenell’s address made no mention of his sexuality, or anyone’s for that matter. Some ambassador.
The omission was surprising—not because I think Republicans care about queer people whose identities aren’t made more palatable by their richness, whiteness, and maleness—but because the Trump administration has made a big show of its LGBTQ friendliness. In June, Republicans issued a giant press release trumpeting Donald Trump’s “unprecedented steps to protect the LGBTQ community,” to coincide with a Pride month that mostly existed in theory, as social distancing guidelines made parties and parades impossible. (At least members of the community picked up some of the congregational slack with protests, like the enormously attended Brooklyn March for Trans Lives in mid-June.) Any talk of Trump’s supposed boon to queer rights necessarily neglects his administration’s repeated attacks on trans people, and thus is disingenuous on its face—a point driven home by Cissie Graham Lynch, whose RNC speech misgendered trans kids and defended discrimination on grounds of religious conviction. As the daughter of the virulently anti-queer evangelical preacher Franklin Graham, one could make the argument that Lynch was if not born this way then born into this way. She apparently is the product of the kind of recruitment that her father has accused gay people of practicing.
After the initial irritation wore off, I realized that this year’s de-queered RNC came as something of a clarifying relief: They were no longer gumming up their message of intolerance with phony tolerance. They have resumed ignoring us. That’s not progress, but it’s not regression. It’s just the way it’s always been, laid bare.
To be queer and culturally aware is to live in a chronic state of disappointment—disappointed at what culture is lacking, disappointed at the scraps that hetero-owned and-operated culture throws at us. Gestures are marketed as substance; as if some blink-and-miss shot of Beauty and the Beast’s LeFou dancing with a man is enough to dignify my tendency to do the same. Given its legislative offenses and defenses, the Republican treatment of LGBTQ people, even in its gentlest form, is just an absurd, disingenuous extreme on an underwhelming continuum.
This is the kind of thing that can make a queer person feel small, and these matters are particularly sensitive during a time of social contraction. As the covid-19 pandemic has impeded our ability congregate en masse, it has constricted the presentation of queerness. (I don’t count Zoom as congregating, despite the persuasive arguments for doing so.) Quarantine hasn’t changed who we are, but it has affected how many of us live and how this essential part of ourselves plays out. As individuals, we’re more than the sum of an identity’s parts, but it’s hard not to notice how big of a hit that sum has taken.
This is why I’m thinking about Republicans and Beauty and the Beast and, oh while we’re at it, Luca Guadagnino’s intentionally half-stepping gay sex in Call Me By Your Name. When am I not thinking of that? It’s not that I need culture’s permission or even affirmation; I’m just taking stock in the face of loss. And the simple fact is that queer representation remains scarce, even after the considerable strides made in the past 20 years. Accurate, thorough, and compassionate representation of LGBTQ people has long been a white whale. It’s tempting to continue regarding it as such, out of habit and as long as it falls short of telegraphing fully lived-in experience. Never mind that it will inevitably do so given expression and art’s compressing nature.
The particular challenge with queer representation is summarizing an experience of people who, historically, didn’t fit in. There are certain commonalities in many a rarefied existence, but still, everyone fails to conform in their own way. Queerness tends to emphasize the intangibility of the enormity of the human experience, which is one reason why I think some queers have the opposite reflexive reaction and embrace all things LGBTQ+ indiscriminately: It helps organize chaos.
“Gay is good,” was pioneering queer activist Frank Kameny’s early liberation slogan for a reason: It’s simple. It’s easy to hold onto. We are reminded regularly of the tenuousness of our rights in the United States (to say nothing of the parts of the world where homosexuality can result in a death sentence), that at any moment they could be rescinded (look at the trans military ban and attacks on trans healthcare and prison protection, for example). Culture, specifically pop culture, fosters hope with its upward trajectory of representation and demonstrable progress. Things aren’t as good as they could or should be in terms of queer storytelling, but even a cursory glance at a screen will show you signs of improvement. “It gets better,” they say, and if you are thirsty for confirmation, well, look to the increasingly inclusive world of entertainment where the needle is moving, even if it’s not quite fast enough for many of us.
I’m not so cynical as to remain unmoved by this change. Pose is something of a platonic ideal for me, a show with real life-or-death stakes embedded in its storylines, the determination to convey via fiction certain emotional truths of the ’80s/’90s New York ballroom scene that are out of documentary’s reach, and a stunning soundtrack of club classics from the most golden of golden eras. It’s not a perfect show, but that its enormous charm compensates for its imperfections. What might be considered liabilities elsewhere—melodramatic tendencies, some broad performances, the occasionally outrageous plot turn—coalesce into a period-accurate soap for a demographic of queer people of color who were never afforded such a medium and while regarding the likes of Dynasty as a cultural touchstone. Here, representation is elevated from being much needed and satisfying in itself to a formal exercise, and an ingeniously apt one at that. What a great show. What an eternally relevant reminder that politicians, especially Republicans, never had queer people’s interests in mind, and in fact actively sought to discriminate against and eliminate them.
Adjacent but less effective is HBO Max’s Legendary, a contemporary ballroom competition coated in so much gloss that it practically slides off the screen. It’s cut so fast that at times it’s hard to even know what you’re looking at. The contestants’ backstories are refined to their emotional peaks so that they seem glib at best and video Hallmark cards at worst, and the judges’ American Idol-style punditry tends to be so vague as to do a total disservice to the brief blasts of performance art presented by the houses (ballroom legend Leiomy Maldonado the glaring exception in her ability to be simultaneously brief and spot-on). The production’s desire to entertain is so palpably frantic, it just leaves me feeling dizzy. I’m glad it exists, though. I don’t believe that representation is an end, but a means, and but nevertheless seeing the enduring cultural force of ballroom being acknowledged explicitly for what it is—not what white cis people have made it—is at satisfying conceptually, which is more than I can say for most televised talent competitions.
The Old Guard, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of the comic of the same name about a group of immortal mercenaries (somewhere between vampires and Wolverine), was led by Charlize Theron but also features Marwan Kenzari (you may remember him as Hot Jafar from the live-action Aladdin remake) and Luca Marinelli as a couple who’s been together for centuries (that’s millennia in gay years!). Unlike the shoehorned-in queerness that we’ve seen in various properties doing the very least to keep the representation police off their backs, Joe and Nicky’s romance is matter of fact and, in one memorable monologue, the fact of the matter:
Here, Hollywood’s scraps are substantial enough to function as a sensible meal.
Quarantine has been a pretty bookish time for me as well: Eric Cervini’s extensive history of the early gay rights movement, The Deviant’s War, helps elucidate, once and for all, sex’s crucial role as a motivating factor in the battle for queer equality and how much of the struggle is owed to the trans women of color pioneers who stood on the frontlines. Ross Slotten’s Plague Years is one doctor’s harrowing account of treating AIDS patients in the epidemic’s early days. Chasten Buttigieg’s I Have Something to Tell You doesn’t have much surprising to say and lacks some important perspective regarding the impact of outside opinion on the gay psyche that stretches on way beyond one’s early years, but I find the pageantry of Chasten and Pete Buttigieg endlessly fascinating from a narrative perspective, if not exactly admirable.
Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark is a lyrical novel about forbidden love in ’80s Poland. It gave me the reflexive rush that a good story of burgeoning love tends to impart, as well as the inspiration to reread James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which factors heavily into Jedrowski’s novel’s plot. Baldwin’s 1956 novel is bleak regarding the possibility of sustained love between two men but regardless of its sensibilities clashing with a world that is increasingly okay with gay, it remains an essential text for its sheer emotional eloquence. I think what hit me hardest is the section where David speaks of the kind of hate that love produces, a feeling that I relate to about as little as the Buttigiegs’ apparent thirst for power and acceptance, but that’s so well-rendered I can’t help but empathize:
The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni anymore. And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places?
With this fearful intimation there opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.
After all, part of the point of reading or watching is the privilege of getting to jump inside someone else’s head, which means to a certain degree, shedding your own. This is why I remain ambivalent about queer representation: As nice as it is to be recognized, it can be more intellectually satisfying to be presented with the foreign. I want to be seen but also surprised. And I want it all to drip with humanity, each scrap packed with blood and guts to refute ignorance and take back as much of the little space it is afforded as possible.
I realize this is a ridiculously tall order and my optimism for its potential fulfillment often leaves me disappointed. Besides books, I’ve found the most reliable source is European cinema: the casual attitudes toward nonmonogamy in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films, the graceful shuffling of the protagonist of Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo between his job as a teacher and his hobby as a public-sex enthusiast, the accessible polemic and galaxies of ideas about representation in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the intensely specific portrayal of kink and the complicated intricacies of power in Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy.
But my quest isn’t just some stuffy spelunking up the asses of auteurs to find “real art.” Some things you just feel. I was walking in Manhattan after a doctor’s appointment a few weeks ago listening to the Blessed Madonna’s DJ mix of Dua Lipa remixes, Club Future Nostalgia, and as TBM’s own revision of “Love Is Religion” blared its singalong chorus, it hit me that I was getting a gay-bar experience at a time when going into one is virtually impossible. I guess there are back yards and street seating, but it’s not the same—we know it’s not the same—and Club Future Nostalgia reminded me of a specific feeling that I didn’t even realize I had been missing. I don’t tend to seek out shouty modern pop songs, but this one felt weirdly like home to me.
I didn’t expect to be presented with a sense of missing connection so explicitly via a Dua Lipa vehicle. I previously regarded her as I did a lot of the contemporary pop that draws a rabid, youthful gay following (like Carly Rae Jepsen and Robyn): fine but not moving. I think this is a simple fact of taste, but if I’m being honest, there’s a little more there as well. I don’t like to think of myself as an elitist and there is plenty of unabashedly popular pop culture that I enjoy, but the Gen Xer in me makes me at least a little bit wary of anything that is hugely popular or evidently aims to be so. I had a deep mistrust of the mainstream instilled in me in the ’90s. I know that people want to belong, and I can trust that people like what they say they like, but queerness is at theoretical odds with conformity and when I see orthodoxy manifest in this group, it makes me leery. This is not a new phenomenon, but at least with queer icons of yesteryear like Donna Summer or Judy Garland or Madonna, there is a decided there there that I sometimes just can’t make out in the current crop, who often seem popular for the simple reason that they are popular.
Partying isn’t what it used to be in a pandemic, and for many, social media has become the primary community hub. This scares me because of how unpleasant the way people talk to each other online can be. Public dragging can be a sport, a fact made clearer as one group of illicitly congregated gay men after another has been held up and bashed on Twitter during these past few months. It started with the so-called “Meth gala,” when a group of apparently queer men gathered in a Brooklyn apartment in early May. That was not wise; uploading proof of it for the world to see and mock was less wise. The backlash was predictable, even warranted to a degree since we knew so little about the coronavirus then and maintaining a strict quarantine didn’t seem like that big of an ask just two months into the pandemic. But the response was outsized and toxic, landing me firmly on Team No One. Many more instances of this followed, up through Labor Day weekend’s “private island” debacle, when actor Daniel Newman posted a picture of a bunch of ab-sporting gay-looking guys with a caption clearly designed to get in front of whatever controversy would result in sharing such info: “Summer fun! (*private island all tested negative multiple times wear a mask.” At least some of the backlash resulted from Newman’s preceding tweet about the importance of having a diverse friend group, since the people in the picture appeared to be predominantly white, but the ire nonetheless had the tenor of a familiar tune.
A July 4 gathering of sweaty mask-less men on Fire Island provided more fodder for gay-on-gay Twitter outrage. Attendee Ty Mitchell, who writes and makes porn, described the experience in an essay published on Buzzfeed in August titled “To Survive A Pandemic, We Need To Make Room For Pleasure.” It was a bold piece with actual stakes that didn’t repeat some preordained script of good behavior. It courageously attempted to reveal the thinking behind participating in what many had apparently assumed was thoughtless hedonism. It was the sort of orthodoxy-shattering expression that the internet needs more, not less of, regardless of whether you agree with Mitchell (and for the record, I do—it’s very clear to me that our mental health falls to the wayside when we cut connections for the sake of our physical health). It was, if nothing else, interesting, and how many personal essays about identity issues in 2020 can you accurately say that about?
I thought it was sophisticated and, at the least, worth more space than some nasty Twitter comment with predictable contempt and questionable motivation (you know what they say about hurt people hurting people). This tendency among gay men to gleefully tear into our own in full view of the world makes me actually appreciate isolation, or at least the very tight interpersonal curation that the pandemic has necessitated. I realize the root of my argument here and that of the self-righteous gays who are habitually up in arms whenever one of us does anything that is less than upstanding is one and the same: I’m not like them. The paradox of being queer is that you aren’t like them, but at the same time, you are. Sometimes maintaining individual identity and belonging to the group are at odds. There is no resolution for this in our multitudes.
Depending on where you are—proximally and personally—the greater community’s presence can shrink or expand, but you’re still there in the middle, you-ing through it. When I talked to the Blessed Madonna about her Dua Lipa mix a few weeks ago, we shared stories of connecting with house music (particularly of the Top 40 variety, as there was an influx of such material in the ’90s) completely divorced from its club context. It continues to blow my mind that I knew I loved house music before I understood its gay roots and before I was ready to acknowledge mine. It somehow reached me and spoke directly to me in a way that superseded DNA and family culture. It chose me and kept me enraptured, a preteen listening to 12"s in my bedroom. And now I’m much older but much the same, working out to streams of 12"s in my living room, still hoping for a life that has not yet come to pass.