SOMETIMES YOU TALK ABOUT PRIDE
There’s a wordless moment in the original, British QUEER AS FOLK that always comes to mind when you think of that show.
You saw it back in the early 2000s, when gay romantic comedies cemented themselves as the emergent form of backlash against 90’s New Queer Cinema, similar to how the Spice Girls appeared right at the time the self-seriousness of grunge was on its way out. You were a lost, angry, confused young man when grunge and the New Queer Cinema appeared as existential lifelines, offering no solutions to your early-onset disillusionment, but comforting assurance that you weren’t the only one feeling it. So, when QAF appeared and generated much hand-wringing controversy over whether or not it was, in today’s parlance, “positive representation,” you knew that, even though the show was unavailable stateside, you had to see it. You ordered UK-region DVDs of the series and paid to have them converted so they could be viewed on a North American player, and you were introduced to Stuart Allen Jones, still the most mesmerizing gay character you’ve ever seen on television, stage or movie screen. Much more than a safely amusing, assembly-line bitch (see: his American QAF counterpart), Stuart was an unapologetic, sexually ferocious, brutally honest bastard, a strutting contradiction who made no attempt to disguise his contempt for what other gay men settle for, wielding his bullshit-busting dialogue like a machete. But in the moment that you recall most vividly, Stuart is silent. At the reception following the funeral of a guy Stuart knew who overdosed on drugs during a hookup -- with the trick who provided them leaving the scene in a sort of one-night-stand hit & run, never to claim responsibility -- Stuart takes his teenage plaything, Nathan, upstairs, shoves him down to his knees and skull-fucks him, both of them still wearing black suits and ties. The expression on Stuart’s face is a skin-crawling mix of smug satisfaction, bitter resignation, adrenalized sadism and undiluted rage. He knows Nathan will allow himself to get treated like this. He knows this temporary release of frustration won’t change anything. He knows he’ll do it again. At 26, you already understood all of those thoughts and emotions as if you’d written, directed and played the scene yourself.
June. West Hollywood, California. The beginning of Pride month. Both small businesses and giant corporations are dusting off their rainbow flags to paste in the windows or wave from the doorframes of their brick-and-mortar establishments, signaling loyalty to the LGBTQetc. community by inviting you to enter and purchase whatever product they’re selling (“You’re gay, we know it, buy our stuff”), an annual ritual you view with more and more skepticism and less and less interest as the years go on, your tenuous connection to the community in question already directly proportional to the amount of fucks you give about the obnoxious, commercialized parades, trash-strewn, overpriced “arts” festivals, and empty acknowledgements of left-leaning politicians that coincide with the beginning of summer, when the exhibitionists of your ostensible tribe walk the sunny streets in clothing that leaves little to any gay man’s prodigious visual imagination. You’ve been told by a friend that 3-inch shorts are the “thing” this season. You’re barely past the self-consciousness of the 5-inch shorts from two summers ago.
Neither these feelings nor the expression of them are new, either to you or the world at large, the rote “Pride Is The Worst” op-eds showing up now even on mainstream news sites. The bemoaning of What Pride Has Turned Into is so cliché, another friend of yours even snarked on social media about its predictable appearance. (“And now, here come…”) You recognize that the writers of those op-eds are only grinding an axe many have sharpened in the last 20 years, with as much effect now as then. Like superhero movies, Pride as it now exists will only go away when people stop buying a ticket. Based on the packed sidewalks you dodge every year on Pride Sunday (save 2020, cancelled, like everything else, for Covid), the line at this particular box office ain’t getting any smaller any time soon.
You suppose that the tediousness of Pride’s (literal) business as usual, the shallow celebration and the shallow complaints – neither of which, including your own, are of much consequence – should prove comforting, given that homo/trans/bi/queer has come a long way in the eyes of Middle America, at least in terms of visibility. Yet this tediousness also makes you realize that, after exiting the closet over 30 years ago, Gay has become something that never occurred to you it could back then: Boring.
From your vantage point, Gay, in 2022, is boring. Not the presence of homosexuality, which is compelling and unique as much as one’s eye color or what city one hails from, but capital-G Gay -- the loud, day-glo demonstrativeness of it all -- is a show that stopped entertaining you somewhere around age 35. Maybe 30. Like a television series that’s still on the air long past its relevance, novelty or even comfort-food qualities, Gay is something that, for you, buzzes in the background while you’re doing your taxes or folding your laundry, a workplace sitcom, a police procedural. You know the characters, their roles, and their relationships to each other too well for any of their current manifestations or permutations to feel remotely surprising. Singles bars and bathhouses became Grindr and Scruff. Disco became EDM. Transsexual became transgender. Nelly queen became non-binary. New vocabulary appeared; the setting, the players, and the fundamental arcs of each episode remain the same. (A reboot?)
This boredom, you realize, stems not from your age, but from the length of time you’ve lived as an openly gay man. Last year, when all the hotels and gay “resorts” in Palm Springs were booked solid, you took an Airbnb room in a self-proclaimed silver bear’s house for 3 days. You kept to yourself most of the time, but what you learned in your limited conversation with the host – a father of four hailing from a resolutely Trumpist clan -- is that he’d only been out of the closet for 10 years, and he was still having fun. He still participated in the gay cruises, the circuit parties, the Puerto Vallarta vacations and all their attendant drama with the excitement of a newly out 22-year-old. Gay was still unexplored territory to him, and you envied the innocence (if you can call a sex party he threw for a friend’s birthday “innocent”) with which he viewed the activities that announced one’s gayness to the world, activities you’d gladly pass up today for a solitary hike in Joshua Tree (and did that weekend) or a long, laugh-filled discussion with a fellow bad-movie lover about the insane brilliance of Sharon Stone’s performance in KING SOLOMON’S MINES (which you do frequently). FOMO is a fear you haven’t experienced for a long time. Somewhere along the way, you realized you’d done it all, twice. There’s nothing to miss out on. You haven’t missed a thing.
Your favorite gay novel – and 2nd favorite novel period – is Larry Kramer’s FAGGOTS, the book which warned you this might prove the case. You don’t know many gay men personally who have read it (a shame, since you’d make this required reading for all who identify with its title), but the ones who have tend to get stuck on the wild, almost surreal amount and type of sexual exploits included therein. You point out that it’s a satire. You argue that not much has changed from 1978 when the book was published to now, at least not that you can see: gay men still treat each other as validation providers, scratching posts or sexual toys. You saw yourself in Kramer’s protagonist Fred Lemish, a writer who, on one debauched weekend navigating the terrain from Manhattan to Fire Island, starts to consider that maybe what he’s really pursuing isn’t the next dick to suck or ass to fuck, but love, and the novel ends on a distinct “Now what?” note. You don’t consider yourself any smarter or more thoughtful than any other gay man on the planet, and you wonder if any others who have been out as long as you still feel more anxiety walking into a room full of gay men than they do walking into a predominately heterosexual one. You wonder if this will ever change. You wonder why you resent, fear and simultaneously long for your “brothers” the way you do, the way Fred Lemish did. You found all of those contradictory emotions in Mr. Kramer’s book, and you clung to his work like a note from the shrink telling you that no, my good man, you are not, in fact, crazy.
Your favorite novel – gay or otherwise – is the children’s book DEAR MR. HENSHAW by Beverly Cleary, who died in March 2021, less than a year after Larry Kramer. Your favorite because reading this book was the first time you identified with a character so much, you imagined someone must have followed you around with a hidden camera or drilled a hole in your skull and dumped its contents all over the page. Cleary’s protagonist, Leigh Botts, is a budding writer, the product of a “broken home,” the son of an unforgiving mother and an all-but-absent father. Leigh’s childhood is lonely. He is isolated by the things he notices in the world, things he can’t conceive other kids his age would notice. He is what adults call “precocious.” In your mind, Leigh also managed to end up skipping a grade and participating in Gifted & Talented programs while paradoxically sitting at the back of the room with his head down, trying to not draw attention to himself. Yet all he wants is for someone to see him. Based on your experience, you can read a future drunk in Leigh, the way his mind works, a mind you know all too well, a mind that seems out to destroy him with judgment, alienation and difference, a mind he wishes would shut up for even five fucking minutes. Two moments of beauty: 1) After winning Honorable Mention in a school writing contest (you described yourself as “Captain of the B-Team” longer than it was cute or humble to do so), he goes to a luncheon with a “real, live writer,” who refers to Leigh as an “author.” It’s the first moment where Leigh begins to consider who he is beyond his mother’s responsibility, his father’s obligation, or the quiet kid who sits alone in the cafeteria. 2) Leigh, walking alone in the woods, looks up to discover that the leaves he thought he saw on the trees in the sunset light are actually hundreds, thousands of Monarch butterflies. He stands in awe, taking in a forest of butterflies, an experience he couldn’t explain to anyone else and probably wouldn’t want to anyway. You don’t know if Leigh Botts was gay, but you told yourself he was. Still do. Since the first copy you bought from your middle school’s mail-order book club at age 10, no apartment you’ve ever lived in has been without a paperback of DEAR MR. HENSHAW sitting on a shelf. You wonder who Leigh is today, if he’s got a boyfriend, if he’s happy. You wonder if he looks at the forest surrounding him and still sees butterflies. You leave the book’s documentation of Leigh Botts’ young life knowing there is much more to come, much more ahead that he can’t yet imagine, and Cleary ends her chapter of Leigh’s story with what you still think is the greatest last line of any book, ever: “I felt sad and a whole lot better at the same time.”
Here are some Prides you remember: Your first in your hometown of Austin, Texas, wearing a collection of rainbow-colored metal rings around a dog-tag chain, which all of your peers seemed to do at the time. Your cutoff shorts were much shorter than the 5-inch ones you conceded two years ago, and you couldn’t have been less self-conscious about them. You cheered on the parade, you held your boyfriend’s hand in public, you absorbed an environment where, for once, you felt like you were on the same team as everyone else, or any team at all. The feeling was intoxicating. You’ve been chasing it ever since. And speaking of chasing intoxication, another memorable Pride (though the actual memories are a bit fuzzy) occurred your first year in Los Angeles, when you left your then-boyfriend at home to stay up all night worrying while you floated from Pride festival to house party to after-hours club (dancing briefly with Alan Cumming? Maybe?) on a cloud of alcohol, Ecstasy and self-centeredness, spilling out into the early-morning light on Santa Monica Boulevard knowing you were gonna have to be at work in a few short hours with what would undoubtedly be the worst hangover since the time a few short years before, when you came to, strapped to a gurney, getting charcoal shoved down your throat to pump your stomach via a tube that found its way there through your nasal cavity. Neither of those boyfriends are still around – one got married to someone else, one continues to blame you for ruining his life, and it doesn’t really matter which is which. You could list the emotions you felt on these occasions, but you’re not sure Proud would be one of them.
Another memorable Pride, albeit for bigger reasons than just your individual experience: the one that occurred the day after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. You’d bought a ticket to the festival that evening so you could see Carly Rae Jepsen perform songs from her album E-MO-TION, which singlehandedly provided distraction from the near-suicidal despair you experienced the whole second half of the previous year. (You know now that period was the beginning of a mid-life crisis that never really went away, just became more manageable, and E-MO-TION proved a welcome respite from the Fred Lemish feelings of “Now what?”) As headliner, Carly Rae was handed the unenviable task of performing a collection of tracks in which Joy is the most salient quality on a day when the whole country was mourning yet another mass shooting, yet another hate crime. No fretting on Carly Rae’s part was necessary: as you made your way through the festival, its participants acted as if nothing had happened at all. Familiar sounds of cocaine-sniffing echoed from the port-o-potties; shirtless studs showed off their assets to appreciative onlookers; gay men and their straight, female partners in crime stumbled around the grounds of West Hollywood Park high on Lord-knows-what (you don’t think it was Life). Troubling, but not unexpected. When your mother – per usual, her concern coming long after it would serve any purpose – expressed her fears of threats to your safety by attending Pride that day, you assured her that there were threats to your safety all day, every day since you were 5, just by your willingness to walk down any public street. The show must go on.
Your feelings about other gay men and your experiences with them are complicated. There were a few scattered years when you belonged to what could be considered a Gaggle of Gays, but you were always on the periphery, feeling more like a +1 to the member of the group with whom you actually felt you could get real, be honest, tell the truth. So much of what’s passed for communication or connection with other gay men in your life is performance, either by determining what you think they want to see, or by reactively embodying the opposite. Drunken, belligerent mess or head-nodding wallflower. Extremes. Polarities. You were never a center-of-attention type. You sat back and observed. You cringed at the ones who tried to act more sophisticated than they were, the ones who made racist or sexist jokes, the ones who turned everything into a sexual innuendo or announced with their actions that the only thing they had to offer the world was their bodies. You emulated these guys sometimes. And you exhaled with relief when you found the ones with whom you could retreat to the corner of a party and talk about stuff you felt mattered, or ponder head-scratchers like “Why are we so eager to embody to the most reductive stereotypes of ourselves?” You never got a satisfying answer, but you were grateful to find the others who asked the question.
The simple truth is this: You don’t dislike gay men. You dislike what gay men settle for. Thirty years ago, you thought, with anticipation and more than a little liberated excitement, that there would be more than this, more than just rainbow-colored mimicry of dynamics from mainstream society that never made anyone happy, certainly not your parents, least of all other gay people. Gay today is a pretense of tolerance, of diversity, of self-acceptance, of pride, the idea that if enough external changes occur or are talked about enough – a new, post-high-school-drama-club physique; legal gay marriage; increasing numbers of openly gay or trans celebrities; Moonlight; Drag Race; Pete Buttigieg – our internal demons are inherently exorcised as well. You suspect we are willfully missing the point.
You know you can’t be the only person today who notices these things, the only one who doesn’t buy the pitch, the only one who questions the assumptions – not to mention the values -- of the LGBTQetc. status quo. And maybe that’s your tribe. Not gay men – although some of them might be -- but the people who are asking the same questions you’ve asked in the last 30 years, the ones that led you from Austin to L.A. to New York and back to L.A. The ones that aren’t willing to settle for what they’ve already seen, or felt, or experienced, or for what somebody else told them is all they have a right to expect. The ones like Fred Lemish, like Leigh Botts, like Stuart Allen Jones, who complete their stories as delivered to you from their creators with a thousand-yard stare into the horizon, walking away from what never gave them a sense of peace, and embracing the unknown.
The ones who feel sad, and a whole lot better, at the same time.