Gay Movies, West and East: In & out; Happy Together
Lippe, Richard, CineAction
Judging from the mainstream media, we have reached a post AIDS environment in North America and, according to some of its critics, our society has moved to a post-gay-and-lesbian mentality. In a fairly recent weekend edition of Toronto's most upscale newspaper, The Globe and Mail, `The Arts' section featured a headline proclaiming, "We're here. We're queer. You love it." (1) The article's author, Johanna Schneller, claims that in both television (e.g., Ellen) and film (e.g., My Best Friend's Wedding), positive images of lesbians and gays are seen and that there isn't any longer an overriding opposition to such depictions; she says, "Gains and losses often cancel each other out: one day some local television stations refuse to air an episode in which Ellen kisses a friend (or Roseanne kisses a lesbian, or females kiss on Star Trek) because of protests from conservative groups; the next day, because of protests by homosexuals, those shows are back on the air." Arguably, the notion that lesbians and gays are highly visible and accepted by the straight world is in big part due to Ellen DeGeneres' much- publicized coming out and by the openly gay Rupert Everett playing a major role as a gay character with romantic/hero connotations in the mainstream romantic comedy My Best Friend's Wedding starring Julia Roberts, whose image is very much associated with heterosexuality and female desirability. On the one hand, it is highly appealing to think that queers are being given a high profile in mass culture and these images are attractive and, with DeGeneres, that she has the potential to develop a lesbian character on her television show who can express homosexual desire. But the present success of actors such as DeGeneres and Everett has also led to concerns among members of the gay cultural community that what has been occurring the last several years is a gradual assimilating of lesbians and gays into mainstream society. This process has made sexual difference chic and therefore commercial but it also functions to promote the notion that homosexual and heterosexual identity experience is becoming interchangeable.
Interestingly, the issue of lesbian and gay assimilation into mass culture has also been aired recently in another of the city's mainstream newspapers, The Toronto Star. In an article entitled "The new degenerates" five of the most prominent gay members of Toronto's arts community, including ex-CineAction collective member Bryan Bruce (aka Bruce La Bruce), voiced their concern that homosexual identity as depicted in the mainstream media is boring, safe, and/or dictated by practical demands such as equal rights (2). Instead, they argue for the return of the concept of the gay artist as a person who challenges socio-cultural norms through his (or her) sexual/creative transgression.
The above-mentioned newspaper articles, of which I have offered very broad descriptions, express the current attitudes regarding homosexuals and the mainstream media. When compared, the articles offer contrasting positions that end up being mutually exclusive, while what is needed is a more balanced view. Given that homosexuals had been denied a formal existence in North American films for many years and, then, when censorship guidelines were relaxed in the 1960s, were presented in primarily negative roles as neurotic and sick people, it cannot be easily assumed that we now have a reverse problem, that is, homosexuals, as seen in films and on television, are too `normal' to be taken as representative of their real-life counterparts. It is of course legitimate to demand that homosexuals are depicted as people having sexual desires and emotional needs that are equal to those felt by heterosexuals and that we are given respect for our individual contributions to society, even if these contributions don't conform to heterosexual norms. And, in addition to being granted the right to openly live a sexual life, lesbians and gays should be able to share in the social, economic and legal benefits given to straight people. …