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.