Ostentatious Identity: Owning LGBTQ Stories in Media
Last weekend Black Panther proved wrong almost everything everyone thought they knew about tentpole, blockbuster movies. Namely, that big budget films about black people don’t make any money. As of this writing the film has made over $500 million globally, and that’s before opening in China. This film will very likely make over a billion dollars, and may very well be a contender for the highest grossing film of all time. And...according to Hollywood wisdom, that’s not supposed to happen with black cinema. But, I think I know the answer. This is the product of what happens when a culture is finally allowed to tell their story, themselves, without interruption or silencing or equivocating. This is what happens when one’s identity is no longer stymied by polite society and allowed to be ostentatious.
Now let’s talk about gay folks...
JK Rowling and the Unwritten Diversity
Travel back in time with me, if you will, to October 2007. The film for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was in fully media blitz, and JK Rowling made an announcement that shocked the world: Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was gay. The admission came about when she was asked whether Dumbledore had ever fallen in love, and Rowling up and decided that not only had he, but he’d fallen for Gellert Grindelwald. She called it Dumbledore’s “great tragedy”.
It was the first of many post-publishing admissions Rowling gave over the years. Sometimes it would reveal the names of certain characters’ children or parents. Other times Rowling verged onto conveniently presenting diversity in the world of Hogwarts.
In 2015 when the stage production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” cast a black actress as Hermione, Rowling decided that she’d never confirmed race in the books. Many saw this as a wonderful example of acceptance of racial diversity into the Harry Potter universe.
In December 2014 she up and created a character from thin air in response to a fan tweet asking if there had been any Jewish students at Hogwarts. So, welcome to canon, Anthony Goldstein, a Ravenclaw.
(Edit: An industrious fact checker has informed me that Anthony Goldstein does, in fact, exist in the books. He’s mentioned briefly a handful of times beginning in the fifth book. While his faith is apparently never mentioned, we are supposed to infer that he is from his last name. My apologies for the inaccuracy.)
However, a recent reveal by the director of the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sequel has quite a lot of people wondering why we’ve been giving Rowling such credit for unwritten diversity. The new film is called The Crimes of Grindelwald (does that name sound familiar) and it stars heterosexual Jude Law as a young Dumbledore alongside an equally younger Grindelwald (played by noted abuser of women, Johnny Depp). When asked whether Albus Dumbledore, who was confirmed to be gay - specifically in love with the titular Grindelwald - would finally get to be portrayed as a gay man, heterosexual director David Yates stated “Not explicitly, but I think the fans are aware of that. He had a very intense relationship with Grindelwald when they were young men. They fell in love with each other’s ideas, and ideaology and each other.”
Fans were furious and upset and heartbroken that an assumed canonically gay hero of theirs would not finally be allowed an honest portrayal on screen. And...things started not feeling right about previous Big Reveals from Rowling.
Rowling, in one of her infamous Reveal Tweets, retorted that everyone needed to stop assuming what her long-term plans were for the character on screen.
LGBTQ folks are used to this treatment historically. In numerous forms of media, LGBTQ identity was assumed, but never outwardly addressed. From teen comedies to adult dramas to romantic comedies to television series of all stripes, the “sassy friend” or “effeminate male” character has been ubiquitous code for “See, fellow homosexuals, you exist, too!”
Xena gets a lot of credit for unwritten / assumed diversity from a fan base that, at the time, saw it as the first major lesbian relationship on a beloved television show by the main characters. Lucy Lawless said in interviews about her character’s relationship with Gabrielle that, in her eyes, they were “married”. But...again...this was never actually written or explicitly portrayed on the television show. However, the world is very different in 2018 than it was in the 90s and early 00s. Discrete hints at equality was all the LGBTQ community could expect.
But, from Rowling, something feels different. Rowling feels like one of the good ones. She highlights wonderful causes, supports equality in all forms, and wrote an epic saga that helped a generation of children realize that it is perfectly okay to not take everything you’re told from those in power as sacrosanct - which has been a convenient lesson these past few years. As a kid who was the same age as Harry Potter when Harry Potter was first released, 11, I have adored this series with a fervor unshared by almost any other singular work of fiction. And, I am uneasy about a few recent occurrences with Rowling and the Potterverse.
She openly embraced Johnny Depp after being proven to be an abuser of women, and emphatically welcomed him into her world despite massive worldwide protest. This level of privilege and cognitive dissonance has been painful for many fans of the series, especially survivors of abuse and women of all ages.
It needs to be explicitly stated: JK Rowling, for all the wonderful gift to the world that Harry Potter has been, did not write a Jewish character named Anthony Goldstein into any of the books of the series. She did not state that Hermione was black. And, no, she did not explicitly state in any way that Albus Dumbledore was gay anywhere in those books. And, when given the chance to portray him as such, chose not to. 2018 is different than 1995, when assumed queer characters like Xena could be acceptable forms of LGBTQ representation.
Will & Grace and the Sassy Gay Stereotype
It was the late 90s and Ellen Degeneres’ career was over after she came out and her show’s ratings plummeted. NBC was pitched a show by Max Mutchnik, a gay man, and David Kohan, a straight man. Their team has made several major television shows, and NBC was willing to take a chance on a pilot about a plucky redhead and her gay best friend. NBC was reticent about a gay comedy after Ellen’s show was canceled - her ratings were on track to make her show one of the biggest in television history - but were apparently convinced when Kohan and Mutchnik showed them the box office returns for the films The Birdcage and My Best Friend’s Wedding.
I find it interesting that NBC was considering the oeuvre of The Birdcage and My Best Friend’s Wedding when greenlighting the series. In both films, the gay characters are portrayed as sexless beings. They’re there to build up the straight character or provide comic relief. While the Birdcage gives some emotional complexity to the characters, it is still a farcical ‘who’s coming to dinner’ with gay men as the novelty.
Will & Grace’s first actor to be cast was Eric McCormack, the show’s Will Truman. McCormack is a heterosexual cisgender white man from Canada. I’m sure he had a lot in common with the struggle of being a gay man in America who was coming out during the AIDS crisis of the late 80s and early 90s. I’m not sure what, exactly, that could be, but I’m sure it’s there.
The role of Will Truman almost went to the actor John Barrowman, later becoming quite famous in his own right for roles on Doctor Who, Torchwood, and the Arrowverse. According to Barrowman, he lost out on the role because the producers informed him he played the role “too straight.” Barrowman, who has been with his husband since they met in 1993, has been an enthusiastic, real life, practicing homosexual for 50 years.
Will & Grace did a lot for LGBTQ folks in media. Namely, we were on tv. Explicitly. It was the first prime time television show in the United States to have openly gay lead characters. Its success opened the door for shows like Queer as Folk, The L Word, The Real O’Neills, Queer Eye, Modern Family, and Glee. Had the show been a complete flop, one could only guess as to how long it would have taken another network to take a chance on LGBTQ characters in leading roles.
In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden gave the series credit for educating the American people on gay issues and making strides towards equality. And, yes. America owes a lot to Will & Grace in the late 90s for inviting two young, attractive, fit, sassy gay white men into their homes for 10 years.
Retrospect has not been kind to Will & Grace. For a majority of the series, the characters of Will and Jack were gay in name only. The audience saw Jack as a combination of every effeminate gay stereotype, and Will was a strident emulation of the A gay - a class of mostly white gay men that have a lot of money, dress well, live extravagant lifestyles, and are here to share their existence with the women of the world. It wasn’t until the second season that the gay men...kissed any other gay men. However, the straight female lead spent almost the entire first season in a quagmire of dating woes.
An LA Times article from 1998 has been passed around for this quote, “[Will] approaches asexual. His gayness appearing to exist solely as a device to give him the moral authority to repeatedly ridicule the mincing manner of his bandana-wearing homosexual friend, Jack, without being labeled homophobic.” Many feel that Jack, contrarily, existed to be laughed at rather than laughed with due to his portrayal as a melodramatic femme, which was depicted as something Will and the gang had to endure. Also, other than gay men - mostly white - the show had little in the way of L_BTQ representation. For a show set in New York that is supposed to include 4 people with lively social lives, not seeing other people from under the rainbow umbrella pop up is glaring.
The show has experienced a revival, and I have been a boisterous supporter of it. In its first episode, it becomes the show we always needed it to be. It is explicitly political, explicitly gay, and strips the main characters of their sexlessness. The men kiss men. The men have sex with men. The characters stand up to conversion therapy and Donald Trump and a host of other issues. But, it killed the only person of color on the show who could be considered a main character almost immediately, and, if anything, its presence on television reminds us that it is still about a woman and her GBF (Gay Best Friend), which is a trope gay men of all kinds have been trying to shirk for decades.
Therein lies my issue with Will & Grace and other shows like it. It is about more than needing to be portrayed on screen. It is about needing to be portrayed on screen as a human being. Humans have sex. They stink. They make bad decisions. They are the centers of their own universe. They do not exist solely to be someone else’s friend. Just like black women are not here to be the comic relief for white people, gay men do not exist to tell women how to style their hair or select an outfit. Your hair stylist goes home and has a robust life of his own, complete with nights in bed with another man and his man penis.
Presenting LGBTQ characters as anything other than sexless stereotypes cannot be accomplished successfully until LGBTQ people are in charge of their own stories. In a quartet of leading actors, Will & Grace has one gay actor. The other three are straight. Sure, they’re wonderful allies, but they’re straight. And the lead male was chosen over a gay actor because of the affectations he put into the role to make him acceptably gay to the producers. He’s a straight man’s version of what a gay man is.
Black Panther and the Black Lens
Coming back to Black Panther. Critics and audiences have hailed it as being an iconic look at Afrofuturism, at what a black society might look like had it not been infiltrated by white people who wanted their resources and bodies. It is lauded for having complex, powerful women whose arcs are not dependent upon a man’s. It tells a story about blackness and race in America and pride in one’s identity that can only be told by the people who have experienced that racism, experienced being told by society not to be proud of their skin and features and heritage.
Lupita Nyong’o explained in an interview on the Daily Show how even the hair styling choices were a calculated attempt to showcase what it might look like if black people had not been told by colonizing white people that their kinks and texture were bad, that if they wanted to be accepted they would need chemicals and weaves and wigs. Of the named characters in the film, there are 2 white actors, and they are secondary to the infinitely more complex black characters, which is exactly how it should be in a film about a black superhero saving his people and kingdom from a usurper.
The film is written by black screenwriters Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. It is directed by black director Ryan Coogler. Many of its main cast is African, which is great when the characters happen to also be African. Its costume designer is a black woman who spent an immense amount of time researching African culture. And it is through this lens of authentically lived experience that this film was created. It is not a white man’s version of a black superhero movie.
Conventional Hollywood wisdom decided long ago that black people were relegated into a few camps: gang member, sassy black woman, angry black woman, sex object, or successful despite adversity. They existed to make white audiences laugh, make them afraid, turn them on, or feel sorry for them. It was few and far between that they were treated as fully realized human beings whose existence was not dependent on satisfying the needs of a white person. Hollywood also decided that they were not bankable.
Over $500 million dollars (and climbing) and innumerable broken records later, Hollywood appears to have been wrong.
Turns out, if you get white people to stop meddling, what black people create when they tell their own stories is an absolute masterpiece. Black Panther is a triumph of storytelling, a masterwork of the superhero genre, and a template for how movies about minorities should be made. The same can be said for the Disney/Pixar animated film Coco, whose Latinx ensemble created one of the most authentic portrayals of Hispanic culture to make it to the big screen.
The Glass Closet and the Privilege of Passing
LGBTQ people are underrepresented in media as a whole, with people of color, women, and transgender people suffering the brunt of the lack of representation. This isn’t because there aren’t LGBTQ people in the entertainment industry; it’s because actors, actresses, writers, directors, and studios treat out LGBTQ people differently than closeted LGBTQ people. A male presenting actor that evokes the stereotypical heterosexual ladykiller persona - ie typical Hollywood good looks, heteronormative affectations...a lack of a lisp - is kept in the closet by a team of studio executives, PR managers, and others out of the notion that if women know he’s gay they won’t want to fuck him. If they don’t want to fuck him, they won’t buy tickets to his movies, and they can’t make money off of him.
The glass closet is responsible for the careers of a number of Hollywood and media elites - some who are now out, long after it was socially acceptable to do so, and after their career and financial stability were established. Jodie Foster, Anderson Cooper, Colton Haynes, Queen Latifah, Ricky Martin, Sam Champion, Luke Evans, and more have all benefited from being acceptably straight passing and hiding out in a glass closet.
When it comes to acting awards, there has been approximately one out gay actor to win an Oscar. (I had to correct this sentence after I did a thorough internet search, as I was convinced zero was the number.) His name is John Gielgud, and he won a best supporting actor award in 1982 for the movie Arthur. And I’m sure we all remember the long, illustrious career Geilgood...sorry, Gielgud (I’ve never heard of him before and misspelled his name) had.
Funny story, there have been quite a lot of actors and actresses to win numerous acting awards for playing LGBTQ characters. Several noted heterosexuals have won an award for daring to play a tragic LGBTQ character, some are:
- Tom Hanks
- William Hurt
- Hilary Swank
- Charlize Theron
- Phillip Seymour Hoffman
- Nicole Kidman
- Sean Penn
- Natalie Portman
- Christopher Plummer
- Jared Leto
A few things to note.
Leto not only won for playing an LGBTQ character; he won for playing a transgender woman. Transgender women are almost completely absent from media representation with a handful of exceptions (If you’re a straight person, can you honestly tell me the name of a transgender actress who isn’t Laverne Cox without looking it up or asking someone?). And, when a powerful transgender woman role is presented, they chose a straight, cisgender, white guy.
Of the 10 people on that list, all 10 die horrible, tragic deaths. All of them.
There are no Sandra Bullock standout complex comedic roles up for an Oscar - despite Rupert Everett being long overdue for such an award. There are no dramatic award-winning roles that end with the LGBTQ person going on to live a thriving existence. There aren’t really any LGBTQ folks up for these awards, because out gay folks are simply not asked to play themselves in cinema.
When Emma Stone played an Asian woman in the 2015 film Aloha, critics destroyed it and it flopped. The director apologized, and Hollywood endeavored for more authenticity. There has been no such outcry when it comes to LGBTQ people playing LGBTQ characters in media. Directors don’t apologize when it turns out the lead actor of this year’s gay art house darling goes home to his heterosexual life. There’s a double standard that many trot out that goes something like, “but a gay man could play a straight role and you’d be okay with it?”. Because, you know, there are just exactly the same number of quality LGBTQ roles in film and television as there are quality heterosexual roles in film and television. Exactly the same number. The comparison totally makes sense.
I have become uneasy and less accepting than I used to be when it comes to cisgendered heterosexual people playing LGBTQ characters or telling LGBTQ stories. I have become uneasy and less accepting of supporting anyone who makes money off of living in a glass closet. From the Instagram model who stays silent during Pride month or posts not a word after a major LGBTQ tragedy such as the Pulse nightclub shooting (lest the world finds out that the guy he posts the occasional selfie with is actually his boyfriend and unfollows him because of the aforementioned ‘no longer wanting to fuck him’ thing), to the teen heartthrob who remains coy or outright lies about his dating life in an interview so as not to alienate his fanbase. I’m done with it. Being able to court LGBTQ eyeballs and LGBTQ dollars without actually needing to come out or explicitly ally yourself in a humanizing way with this very real, wholly disenfranchised community needs to end.
Inequity in Identity
I also have to sit with the concurrent reality that coming out is dangerous. I have to sit with the reality that coming out is easy when you’re a conventionally attractive, financially stable white man, but less so when you’re a person of color, a woman, or transgender. But...why is that?
Because the public has spent far more time getting comfortable with the Will Trumans and Modern Families and other stories about well-off gay white men. They have been conditioned, slowly, to accept gay whiteness, however sexless and stereotypical the portrayal. Amongst the vast landscape of LGBTQ identity, though, is a sea of color and gender and orientation and presentation that is in desperate need of that same representation, that same public conditioning and acceptance.
Trans identity, queer person of color identity, non-gender conforming identity, asexual/aromantic identity, bisexual identity, and even more kinds of identities that are still being named and understood. These are all valid, and all specific kinds of experiences that will never be felt or understood or bled for by an outsider. I will never understand what it is like to be a gay man of color, despite being married to one for 12 years. I will never understand what it’s like to look at my skin and my body type as secondary because the most prized and visible gay men are white and have a physically similar aesthetic. As such, it is not my place to write their stories or play their roles or direct their films.
It is my place to stand by them. To advocate for them. To respect them. To support them. To buy their independent movies in hopes that their indie success will lead to mainstream success. Plenty of mainstream actors, actresses, and movie makers owe their careers to LGBTQ cinema. (If you don’t believe me, look up the cast list for a tv series called Dante’s Cove and tell me if anyone looks familiar.) Vocal support is wonderful, but it is financial support that leads to lasting success.
It is my place to stand for them when they can’t stand for themselves and get out of the way when it is their time to speak.
But in order to do any of that, we need to make room for them in our culture, and that starts by demanding more from our media.
Casting LGBTQ People as LGBTQ Characters Shouldn’t be a Revolutionary Act
A big contender this awards season is Call Me by Your Name, a coming of age romance between two men. Both, of course, played by heterosexual white men. I am absolutely rooting for its financial and critical success, because I am hoping for the day when a major awards contender or blockbuster film about LGBTQ people is made by LGBTQ people.
I am hoping that the success of a film like Black Panther leads movie and television studios to realize that you can find success in telling the stories of minorities, by telling them as authentically as possible. By taking away the prizes for straight actors showing off their acting chops by daring to kiss a member of the same sex and giving them to LGBTQ people showing up and playing themselves, writing themselves, directing themselves.
I am so glad we have shows like Will & Grace on the air, but I want studios to stop pulling the ladder up behind their one diversity success. I want studios to cast out LGBTQ people in LGBTQ roles and put their money and marketing behind them the way they would other shows, or other shows about LGBTQ people played by cisgender heterosexuals. (Cough cough Transparent)
I do not believe for a moment that these roles are going to cisgender heterosexuals because there is a lack of LGBTQ talent out there. If Black Panther and Girls Trip and Coco and One Day at a Time taught us anything last year, it is that there is an ocean of talent in the world, and there is room enough for all of us.
Love and Lyte,