A confession. I have long had an aversion to gay-themed plays, TV shows, movies, etc. I wasn’t born with it. I learned it. I learned it through what can only be called a series of cringes. I cringed at Philadelphia‘s well-intentioned hagiography of the “AIDS victim”; I cringed through Tony Kushner’s view of the plague as a post-script to the heroism of American communists; I winced at the eunuch, the sassy girlfriend, and the witty queen in Will And Grace; I had to look away as Ellen initially over-played her hand (understandably and totally forgivably, but still …). The US version of Queer as Folk was something I could not get out of my recoiling head for weeks – and I barely got through fifteen minutes of it. And please don’t ask me about Jeffrey. Please.
Maybe I should have sucked it up and celebrated each and every portrayal of gay people in any form – after so many decades and centuries of invisibility or minstrelsy. But, like many members of any minority group seeing themselves portrayed for the first time on screen, I felt betrayed when my own life wasn’t depicted, my worldview was ignored, my politics wasn’t acknowledged. In many ways this was utterly irrational. But it was emotionally real. When there are so few cultural expressions of your core identity, the few become weighted with far more cultural baggage than they can hope to uphold. In a fraught time – between liberation and mass extinction, between criminality and civil equality – it was hard to forgive anything that might be conceived as counter-productive or inaccurate or ideologized.
The same dynamic operated the other way on me, as well. When I rather naively became a gay public figure by answering “yes” to the question, “Are you gay?” after I became the editor of The New Republic at the crazy age of 27, the shoe was on the other foot. Suddenly I was supposed to represent all “virtually normal” gay men, because I was one of very, very few out people in the mainstream media in 1991. And boy did I not represent them. I never claimed to, of course, and said so explicitly; but that really didn’t matter. I was out there and not representative of many others. So I had to be knocked off my perch in a period of great exhilaration but also great personal pain. Looking back, the necessary madness of that period, its extraordinary range of sheer emotion as we fought not just for our dignity but for our very lives, seems clearer and more understandable now. But no less painful.
So when the opening scene of the new HBO series, Looking, shows a young gay man cruising for sex in a public park, I tensed up. But almost as quickly I realized that this was the most meta of the show’s moments (I’ve been able to watch all four of the first few episodes). As the dude starts to grope around, his cell phone goes off, the other guy’s hands are freezing on his cock, he tries to answer the phone, then drops it into a ditch. His friends – out for a lark to see if old gay culture still exists in San Francisco – were calling him; and they reunite to talk about the fun in exploring the old world of cruising. And so the circle is complete. Gay culture has evolved into a million-petaled flower, and the old petals are still in there, but ironized for many, if still urgent for others. Gay life in 2014 is … well, finally just life.
I loved the show. It is the first non-cringe-inducing, mass market portrayal of gay life in America since the civil rights movement took off. Well, the first since Weekend, the breakthrough movie of 2011:
For some reason, it wasn’t until Aaron reminded me last night that both Looking and Weekend are by the same Andrew Haigh that I put it all together.
Along with Michael Lannan, Haigh is the first director and writer to actually bring no apparent cultural or ideological baggage to the subject matter. There is no shame here and no shadow of shame. There is simply living – in its complexity, realism, and elusive truth. To get to this point – past being either for or against homosexuality – is a real achievement.
The emotional conflicts, the awkwardness of dating, the mixed feelings about some aspects of gay culture, the workaholism, the weed, the generational divides, the girlfriends and monogamish coupling, the weddings and the fetishes, the bears and the twinks: it’s all here, and served crisply as a well-mixed cocktail on the rocks. Sometimes, its realism becomes mere darkness as the show is filmed in weirdly dark tones. Sometimes there’s a false note: I’ve never heard anyone use the expression “Drug-Disease-Free” in speech, for example. It’s only ever used – with chilling HIV-phobic effect – on the web. And yes, this is not yet what I’d like to be able to watch: a convincing drama about gay men in, say, Houston or Atlanta, in 2014. And it doesn’t have the nuances and writerly quirks of Girls, even as it is close to it in realism (but not as much sex as in Girls). There are also a few frustratingly implausible plot developments and unpersuasive character developments that accumulate as the shows progress.
But I nonetheless recognized the reality of gay life now in this show. And not just mine – but intimations of countless others. The characters are not minstrels; and they are not eunuchs. They are for the first time recognizable human beings who happen to be gay. And that’s enough. Actually, it’s more than enough.
It’s an arrival.
Update: This post continued as a reader thread.