Friday, October 12, 2012

Aaron Schock (R-IL) May Have Been Beating Off Watching Ryan Debate But He Didn't Make Any National Coming Out Day Announcement


Which is more real to you?

There was a time when strangers would stop me in the street and say they had seen me in a movie or video, especially the Wilco film. I met someone who became a lifelong friend because he asked me for my autograph at a party after having seen me in a Ramones video. A couple months ago Brendan Toller came over and shot me for his upcoming film Danny Says. But the first time I ever saw my name in lights-- or on the screen in any case-- was for a second when the credits rolled on PBS after a showing of the 1984 film The Times of Harvey Milk, which won an Oscar as Best Documentary that year. I wasn't in the movie and I was shocked to see my name in the credits. It was there because the filmmaker had used some stills I had taken of Harvey over the years. I had been unable to bring myself to watch it-- too distraught-- for over a decade and had no idea my name was attached to it.

Harvey was an important person in my life when I first moved to the West Coast after having lived in Europe for nearly 7 years after college. I was penniless when I got to San Francisco but I had been teaching darkroom technique (as a form of meditation) at The Kosmos in Amsterdam and was eager to ditch a 9-5 job and work as a photographer. Harvey ran a camera shop right next door to my favorite record shop and hang out, Aquarius, on Castro Street. We got to know each other and he eventually staked me with the equipment I needed to set up my own darkroom. In return, I became the "official" photographer for his election campaigns. It was fun and, obviously, I had no idea Harvey would go on to become an icon for the LGBT community.

I'll never forget a day at the camera shop soon after he was finally elected Supervisor-- the first openly gay man in California to ever be elected to office. His victory was national news, even in Time and Newsweek and he was getting bagfuls of mail. He read me some of them, one from a high school kid in Kansas or Iowa or Nebraska... I can't recall, one of those traditional farm belt states. The kid just wanted to say thank you to Harvey for giving him hope, hope that he didn't have to kill himself. Harvey and I were both weeping when he read it. I'm weeping right now writing about it.

Sometimes I dismiss Out Magazine as not much more than some lightweight pabulum between endless fashion ads. But then they never fail to throw a bucket of cold water in my face and remind me why I still always like it when my copy arrives in the mail. The current issue features a cover-story, "Prime Time," that includes a time line of the history of gays on TV from which I learned that another friend and mentor, Norman Lear, put the first gay character on a TV sitcom ever, the 5th episode of All In The Family in 1971 when Philip Carey played a former pro football player. (For the historian among us, the full episode is embedded below.) The cover story is basically composed of half a dozen essays on "how the evolution was televised." One of them Gay TV and Me, by Daniel Mendelsohn, is something everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, should read. His premise is that his life might be very different today if boys were kissing on TV when he was growing up, the way they are, despite the ravings and rantings of the religious right, today. The first kiss on Glee was a watershed moment for him. He didn't whoop and cheer. He cried.
At the drop of a hat, I’d go into my satirical History of Gay Non-Kissing in Popular Culture spiel, lingering with special indignation on the climactic moment in Making Love did; in it, the sexy, bee-stung, motorcycle-racing gay rake played by Harry Hamlin finally puts the moves on a prim, “questioning” doctor (Michael Ontkean) by… hugging him.

Things had got better since then, of course, and there had been other gay kisses on TV and in movies before the Kurt-Blaine lip-lock that night. But there was something special about the Glee kiss, something that made it feel like a fulfillment. The high school milieu, for one thing: Most of us begin our long histories of desiring in our early teens, and the longings that impel us then, and the fantasies they create, haunt us long afterward, often for the rest of our lives.

In the case of people my age, born in the 1960s, teenagers in the 1970s, before the tectonic sociological shifts of the 1980s that finally put gay people and their issues front and center in American culture, those longings were, more often than not, frustrated and ashamed. The idea of finding true love-- mutual love-- in high school was, quite simply, unimaginable. When, in the fall of 1977, I finally confessed my feelings to the swimming star I’d been crushing on all through high school, he crisply informed me that he’d never speak a word to me again.

...It’s difficult today to convey how utterly isolated you felt as a gay child growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. This isn’t to say that it’s not still an ordeal for many: As we know, the bullying and terror and torment are just as prevalent in many places. But one crucial thing has changed. The gay teen today has grown up in a culture that has become pretty casual about representations of gay people—in movies, TV, music, literature, advertising. And then there’s the Internet: Access to information, discussion groups, and forums can at least give a gay youngster some notion of what being gay might be like and who’s actually out there.

Part of the torture of growing up gay 40 years ago, by contrast, was precisely that there was nothing out there that you could look at and say, “That’s me.” If you secretly liked other boys, you were pretty much convinced that you were the only boy in the world who had these feelings about other boys-- or that, if you weren’t, there was no way to make contact with them. The only place to see another gay boy was in the mirror.

And what little there was on TV and movie screens was pretty scary. When I was six or seven, I was allowed to stay up late on Wednesdays-- till 7:30, that is-- to watch my favorite show, Lost in Space, a sci-fi updating of The Swiss Family Robinson. Already at some dim level I was aware that I was far more interested in the handsome dark-haired copilot, Don, than I was in his beauteous blond love-interest, Judy; much less dimly, I was aware that there was something “wrong” with the show’s villain, the stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith. Pretty much every episode was generated by some conflict between the Robinsons, a space-age idealization of the all-American family, and the cowardly Dr. Smith. I couldn’t know it then, but Smith was being played as a queen: mincing, fussy, his vocabulary too high (“Oh the pain! The agony!”), his motivations too low. (In every confrontation with aliens, he’d either collaborate or flee.) Even at seven, I perceived that he was, somehow, “gay”-- this, even though I didn’t really know what gay was.

A few years later, when I was 12 or 13, I had a better idea about myself, and was fervently hoping that the available options, once I grew up, were going to be more like Don and less like Dr. Smith. But the picture in the early 1970s wasn’t a very hopeful one. As far as I knew, the only person who was clearly, identifiably gay on TV was Paul Lynde. We’d already grown to know him as Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. He was another of those crypto-homosexual characters from whom so many of us absorbed our first images of gayness: a mincing prankster in double-breasted plaid suits with exaggerated gestures and a hyena laugh. In Lynde’s case, you didn’t have to guess what his predilections were: As a perennial guest star on Hollywood Squares, Lynde could be startlingly open in his hints about his homosexuality. (Host, giving a clue: “You’re the world’s most popular fruit. What are you?” Lynde: “Humble.”) Slightly more sinister to me, then, was the constant basso continuo of-- I didn’t know the word then-- kink, the dark allusions that slithered and hissed just behind Lynde’s humor. When given the clue, “George Bernard Shaw once wrote, ‘It’s such a wonderful thing, what a crime to waste it on children.’ What is it?” Lynde replied, “A whipping.”

And yet even as I puzzled over the thought that being gay was somehow tied up with being someone who enjoyed pain, I was also learning from Lynde. The endless indulgence in double entendre, the resort to coded language: I understood, these could be useful tools in a world in which forthrightness was impossible. There was also a lesson learned, perhaps, from Uncle Arthur: You could survive in a treacherous world by being amusing, by being an entertainer. What you felt, you hid, or you encoded; what you said must be witty, and harmless.

By the mid-’90s, when I moved to New York City to write full-time, AIDS had made gay people more visible than ever before. But how? Not the least of the epidemic’s cultural effects was to politicize the question of how gay people were represented in pop culture. No one, needless to tell, was ever happy. If a gay character was the tiniest bit swishy, people would be up in arms denouncing “gay stereotypes”; if a gay character was “straight-acting,” people would be up in arms denouncing assimilation. Even after the most intense period of gay activism had subsided, the issues remained. For some, Will on Will & Grace was too square, not “gay enough”; but then, perhaps Jack was too gay. The central problem, it seemed to me, was that there can’t ever be an accurate representation of gay people on TV, for the very good reason that there isn’t a monolithic “gay person” to be represented.

But by then, when I was often writing about the arts and gay culture (primarily for this magazine, when it first started), it didn’t seem to matter very much. Whatever you thought about them, whether they seemed “realistic” or not, there was a huge smorgasbord of gay characters, from “straight-acting” types to queens to fey boys to jocks, and of gay story lines, on TV, in all sorts of shows: from dramas to sitcoms to cartoons. (Even Homer Simpson got kissed by a man.) That, to me, has always been the point: Like anyone else surfing during prime time, you can at least get some sense of what the options might be. And one of those options, now, if you’re a high school kid with a mad crush on another boy, is that you can let that other boy know how you feel, and that, instead of him turning away and never speaking to you again, he might just give you a kiss.

I can’t imagine, really, how things would have turned out had I been able to watch such a thing in 1975, when I was aching to see what two boys kissing might look like. But I’m sure I’d have felt less like a freak, less like what I secretly wanted was utterly impossible. Well: I was born a generation too early. I like to think that 40 years from now, when the gay kid of 2012 is watching his gay kids watching gays on TV, no one will be crying.

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At 9:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We must be about the same age - I was born 1961 into a conservative Midwestern Republican family. I was closeted as a defense mechanism, no one ever knew, but me of course. The gay bar in Appleton Wisconsin was within walking distance of my house but I was scared to even go near it, much less enter. Perhaps that is why I am alive today as AIDS hit America as I entered college so I was reading about the disease before I became sexually active at the "young" age of 27.

So thank you for this write up. Today's gay generation has no clue what life was like, and they take for granted that the world won't change again.

As a side note I left the Republican party for good after the 1992 Patrick Buchanan speech at the Republican National Convention where I sat there and listened to him declare war on me, and blame people like me for America's troubles, after I had devoted entire summers to the GOP. I ran in terror and haven't voted for a single Republican since. I never even considered the Log Cabin route, what a bunch of self loathers they are.

PS. your bot prevention mechanism really sucks. I had to click a dozen times before I could even read one the the numbers and then I couldn't read the letters to the left. Consider a more user friendly system in the future please.

At 6:24 AM, Anonymous me said...

Congratulations on surviving the 1980's. That was a bad time.

Today's gay generation has no clue what life was like, and they take for granted that the world won't change again.

I have often thought that about abortion rights. People don't appreciate what they have, because they don't know how hard it was to get, and how easily it can be lost.

The same is true for dozens of other features of modern life, like Social Security, or meat inspection, or sanitary water, or the right to vote.

I'm glad you left the scumpublican party. Sure, you should have known better in the first place, but hey, you were young.

About the captcha, I think the blog owners don't have much control over that. Anyway, it has to be tough, because spambots are getting more sophisticated all the time.


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