How Gay Men Use Culture to Navigate Identity, From Mildred Pierce to Jingle All the Way

Joan Crawford from Mildred Pierce and Arnold Swarzenagger from Jingle All the Way.
Joan Crawford from Mildred Pierce and Arnold Swarzenagger from Jingle All the Way.

Photo illustration by Slate. Film stills via Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox.

As a member of the Air Force before the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Brad went to great lengths to prevent his colleagues from finding out about his past. He’d been openly gay in high school, had relationships, and was out to his family and friends—but those experiences were literally a world away from his life as a forklift driver on a base in the Middle East.

The pressure to remain closeted was overwhelming, and so when the ban on open service was lifted, Brad didn’t just come out of the closet: He exploded onstage in high heels and a wig. He was deployed back in the United States at that point, serving in the military by day and transforming into a drag queen by night. He wondered if he’d be able to integrate these two sides of his life—and then, one night, his fellow service members appeared in the audience at his show to cheer for his Moulin Rouge–inspired performance.

Attempting to explain drag to them at work was one thing, he found; but showing them live onstage gave them a new understanding and appreciation, to the point that they nearly started a brawl one night when he lost a drag pageant.

Brad’s just one of the guests I’ve interviewed on my podcast, The Sewers of Paris, where each week I invite a gay man to answer the question: “What’s the entertainment that changed your life?” Some of my guests may be familiar—Dan Savage, Coco Peru, NPR reporter Sonari Glinton—and others are regular folks, from artists to cooks to lawyers to programmers. Recently I reached my 100th guest, and over the span of those episodes a portrait has emerged of the gay experience as told through the books, movies, music, and shows that shape our lives.

Among the stories shared week-to-week, one of the most frequent I hear is of not fitting in. There are an infinite number of ways to be an outsider—as a kid, Peaches Christ performer Joshua Grannell liked to hang out on the beach in full monster makeup, while artist Terry Blas was constantly torn between his Hispanic, Mormon, and gay identities. That feeling of difference is foundational to many personal queer narratives, so it’s no wonder we’re drawn to stories of people who don’t want to fit in.

Joshua Grannell’s life changed when he discovered the work of John Waters, becoming a filmmaker himself and eventually befriending his role model. Terry drew strength from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bjork, Tori Amos, and Lena Dunham are all frequently mentioned by Sewers of Paris guests, along with films like My Beautiful Laundrette, My So-Called Life, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These are artists and stories of outsiders who revel in the rejection of the mainstream. When queers express their appreciation for these works, it’s a signal of understanding: “I’m weird. You’re weird. We’ve both been there. We understand.”

Along with that feeling of difference comes heartbreak and pain. Many of my guests found themselves drawn to entertainment that provides reassurance that we’re not all alone, that life and love can be brutal but suffering fades and it’s worth it to make yourself vulnerable once again. Movies like Philadelphia, shows like Chess, and the more heartbreaking of Mariah Carey’s songs have all come up on the show. My guest Greg Bloch spoke of the opera Salome as a gateway into cathartic expressions of sadness—and of bonding with other gay opera obsessives.

On another episode, former E! host Steve Kmetko recalled his career hosting countless interviews and red carpet premieres, all the while suffering in a closet alongside a lifetime of baggage and guilt. Since childhood, he identified with Judy Garland’s sadness in Kansas; and after finally coming out in the Advocate, he found acceptance in Hollywood, his version of Oz.

Alongside the stories of difference and stories of pain, we also seek stories of people learning to be brave. Guests have cited Mildred Pierce, Julia Sugarbaker, Storm, and Eddie Izzard as heroes in very different worlds. On one episode Zach Stafford opened up about the anxiety he felt growing up bi-racial and decidedly un-stereotypically masculine; role models like Langston Hughes showed him that sometimes, imperfections can be a strength.

On another episode, Bill Phair reflected on the strength he drew from Judy Garland specials after 9/11 threw him into a deep sadness. Judy’s grace and strength lifted him out of his dark mood and filled him with optimism; he began impersonating her, then created a genius show called JudyCast where he could perform as his heroine. It gave him confidence and optimism he never knew he could have.

It’s impossible to talk about the entertainment that matters to gay men without addressing how camp and satire use queerness to make fun of the mainstream. Many of us use our otherness as a tool to pull back the curtain on just how silly the “normal” people are. Richard Day, who wrote for shows like Ellen and Arrested Development, told me, “Comedy is an outsider looking in, and you’re being told by the country ‘you should want this, but you can’t have it.’ The person that’s told that, whether it’s women or Jews or gays or blacks, anyone outside the sweet spot, develops a comic reaction … it’s half ‘fuck you’ and half ‘please I really do want in.’ ”

When we seek to expose the status quo, we find plenty of material: comedians like Lily Tomlin and Gilda Radner, shows like Desperate Housewives, plays like The Book of Mormon and The Birdcage.

My guest Wes Hurley produces a web series called Capitol Hill that is an aggressive drag-drenched pastiche of ’70s melodrama. What viewers might not know is that kitschy American melodrama is what sustained Wes in his childhood, when he was growing up terrified to be gay in Vladivostok, Russia, and dreaming of fleeing to the safety of the United States.

It’s safety, refuge, and companionship that seem to call the loudest to my guests. We crave stories that provide reassurance: It may seem impossible, it may seem like you’re all alone, but there are people out there like you, and love and relationships are waiting for you to find them.

Romances are of course popular topics: novels like Maurice, and movies like Weekend and Trick and Amelie. But entertainment has also helped my guests deepen relationships with family. Fabian Igiraneza grew up in Namibia, where he felt intense pressure to repress any side of himself that didn’t conform to tough masculine gender norms. He discovered that he could share American TV shows with strong female characters and sensitive boys—Alias, Glee, and Dawson’s Creek—with his family, using fictional characters to explain himself to his parents and ease his emergence from the closet.

It can be hard to find the words to express our lived experiences, which is why we turn to entertainment when we want to talk about being different, about heartbreak, about finding confidence, about mocking the mainstream, and about finding love. Occasionally, we’re fortunate enough to find entertainment that speaks to all of those experiences: Tales of the City, The Golden Girls, Little Shop of Horrors.

Whatever form it takes, culture can give us the images to understand our lives, and the words to express them.

As The Sewers of Paris enters triple-digit episodes, I’m delighted to discover new, surprising stories every week. Far from there being one single queer narrative, my conversations have shown just how endlessly unexpected the stories of gay men can be. (On a recent episode, José González explained how Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All the Way helped him connect with his father.)

There’s so much to love about being queer, and our ability to relate to each other through culture is a source of endless pleasure. Our experiences are varied, our backgrounds are diverse, we come from all families and religions and countries and classes. But it’s culture that connects us and helps us understand one another.