It was 2006, and I’d flown back from college at American University in D.C. to my hometown in rural Ohio where, even there, the air was thick with praise for Brokeback Mountain. Its name came floating over the scraping of forks on plates one evening, and an amiable woman turned to me, eager to brandish her liberalism to the friend of Dorothy seated next to her: “Ah, it was just so heartbreaking and romantic. I didn’t even notice they were gay!”
I smiled awkwardly, but I, like, had some questions. What exactly did she think went down in that tent up there on Brokeback? And if she’d missed that on a popcorn run, had she drifted off for the two hours or so where Jack and Ennis endured an implacable onslaught of contempt, disgust, and violence—entirely because they were gay?
Only later did I grasp her implication. To her eyes, they were just two cowboys who loved each other and had sex. They weren’t gay at all, for gay meant something freighted with all sorts of mannerisms, styles of dress, vocal inflections, camouflaging tactics—a battery of cultural knowledge in how to be gay.
For a generation steeped in decoding the celluloid closet, queer characters had always lurked menacingly on the silver screen, exquisitely exemplified in Addison DeWitt’s suave viciousness and Eve Harrington’s ruthless backstabbing in Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. What queer characters emphatically and paradoxically did not do was experience intimacy or its carnal consummation—though, of course, part of the thrill and horror was knowing that they did do just that, beyond the fringes of on-screen representation.
If my dinner companion’s gay-blindness struck me as rather precious, it also signaled a willingness for straight audiences to grapple with gayness as something not just signaled but acted on with bodies and genitals. From here, I thought to myself, queer cinema could now take on the project of suturing queer desire back together with the queer culture from which it had been severed. It would, in terms of queer aesthetics, get better.
Jump forward to this year, which saw the release of the first teen romantic comedy from a mainstream Hollywood studio featuring a gay lead character. Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon has set off an avalanche of critical praise and earned global box-office receipts in excess of $50 million, signaling a new chapter of queer acceptance. Its success follows hard on a wave of other celebrated queer films, including Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, which, after a maelstrom of onstage confusion, garnered the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Gone unnoticed amidst this flurry of jubilation has been, against my post-Brokeback hopes a dozen years ago, the accelerating erasure of queer culture from gay movies: a sort of amnesia that makes queerness blithely complicit in its own extinction. I realize this argument might be hard to follow, particularly amidst our post-Obergefell triumphalism, so it’s worth looking more closely into how queer films fell into a bad romance with straight validation.
When I speak of gay culture, I mean, in a nutshell, a sensibility that is ironically detached, feisty, fastidious, snobbish, brittle, armored by flamboyance, and armed with deflationary quips. (If Gen Z needs a primer, nab some tickets to the Broadway revival of Boys in the Band.) All these qualities, to put it abstractly, erect an exterior. Cultural gayness is not content with essence—with the status quo of “how things just are”—but seeks to sculpt, order, and form whether through strokes of paint on canvas, the chic cut of a dress, or the hard physicality of shredded abs. The notion of receding into the ordinary and adjusting to normality is anathema to queerness because it is fundamentally a sensibility of dissident theatricality. And these ways of exteriorizing the self hang together as the codes of a distinct subculture that has been meticulously cultivated, curated, and transmitted across generations—an heirloom of stylizations.
Recent queer films, I’m suggesting, eradicate this culturally transmitted queer sensibility, and they do so in a number of ways.
One strategy—and Love, Simon is a particularly egregious example of its execution—is to focus on the adolescent closet, which is by definition sequestered from and fearful toward gay culture. Coming out narratives track queer people’s resistance to queer life, as the closeted character recoils from the tainted future that they feel inexorably drawn to. They ultimately get there (in most cases), but the narrative gets effectively truncated prior to the onset of their acculturation into queerness. In a tragic extension of this structure, Moonlight entombs even Chiron’s adulthood in the confines of the closet.
At its best, the closet-busting narrative opens into some sort of vague liberation. At its worse—and Love, Simon is, seriously, the worst—it sets the queer character on a pedestal (here, literally a Ferris wheel) for a clamoring straight crowd to pass judgment: You aren’t really different, not really queer; you’re normal, just like us. Come down from there, so your white, affluent, nuclear family can embrace the same you. Cue the self-congratulatory straight cheers!
Where cultural queerness cannot be set off onto a deferred horizon, it can instead be circumvented by placing the action in a hypermasculine frontier space of nature. Take Francis Lee’s British drama God’s Own Country, set in the pastoral landscape of a crumbling Yorkshire sheep farm. Johnny, who is to inherit the business, occasionally steals away for rough, impersonal shags, where the implied squalor of these acts get paralleled by the shit and filth of the farm stable. The sloppy rawness of it all inoculates his masculinity from any hint of queerness. Under the influence of Gheorghe, a Romanian migrant worker, Johnny develops from something like an indiscriminately sperm-spewing animal into an emotionally expressive monogamous partner, but it’s a civilizing process spontaneously spawned out of nature rather than culture—Adam and Steve, as it were, remaining in Eden instead of migrating to Fire Island.
Call Me by Your Name takes up a slight variation on this strategy, which is to place the action in a secluded idyll (much as The Wound confines queerness to the remote context of an initiation ritual). Here, it’s not raw nature but pure desire that does the queer-washing. The chateau is a self-enclosed dream world where lust spontaneously erupts and just as quickly dissipates without a cultural trace. (The queer couple that briefly impinges on Elio and Oliver’s villa comes across as a ludicrous and intrusive presence, promptly expelled.) When the Italian summer draws to a close, Oliver rejoins the normal world and seamlessly resumes a relationship with his straight fiancé. Elio, meanwhile, finds solace in a lecture from his sage heterosexual patriarch, construed as the sole repository of wisdom.
When queerness can’t be got around, there is the bluntest of solutions: Beat the shit out of it. Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats takes this route. A 19-year-old drug dealer living in a cramped Brooklyn home near Coney Island’s boardwalk, Johnny (another one!) cruises gay websites at night to hook up with men. His climactic act of aggression is meant to read as a cautionary tale of masculinity, exacerbated by internalized homophobia, run amok. But Hittman’s lens trains on Johnny’s succulent, glistening body with an obsessive hunger, daring the viewer to lust with abandon—and vicariously succumb to the same awful retribution. The message: Queers reconciled to their queerness in effect earn their own obliteration. As when Stanley Kowalski brutalizes Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire—or for that matter, when Franck calls out to plaintively to his impending murderer in Stranger by the Lake—the audience is primed to savor the violent catharsis, to enjoy the deserved eradication of queerness.
No doubt it sounds like I’m positing something like a massive conspiracy for queer cultural suicide or diagnosing an outbreak of latent homophobia come home to roost. Let me be clear: I’m not proposing anything so organized. Nonetheless, queer self-erasure has become the dominant gesture of queer films, and it’s not, it turns out, so difficult to trace the causes.
Today’s version of queer politics is, put succinctly, relentlessly nice. Its agenda demands indiscriminate affirmation of everyone camped out under the queer umbrella. Drunk on rah-rah inclusivity, it aims to smash hierarchy and envisions an adolescent utopia springing from the death of the school bully.
But the problem is this: The zeal to achieve a bleached-out ideal of niceness corrodes and dissolves the dissident thrust of queerness. The pungent, searing witticisms of Oscar Wilde—“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”—that so long defined queerness as a critical aesthetic cannot survive the test of universal affirmation that leaves no one discomfited. Part of what hamstrings Love, Simon into nauseating blandness is its wholesale message of affirmation: You’re perfect just the way you are, however you are. Ew.
And to achieve maximum acceptance—so goes the story—queers must finally be allowed to slip loose of stereotypes, which reduce irreducibly complex people to risible caricatures: the lisping queen, the bull-dyke, the Tina-smoking twink. Never mind that donning drag personae, flitting between exaggerated types, is central to defining queer sensibility. Worse, in practice the urge to smash stereotypes leads to the erasure of anything that might render queerness recognizable as such, which finally erases queerness into invisibility. At a minimum, might we now acknowledge that the hyper-real authenticity of Andrew Haigh’s The Weekend and Looking grew tedious on account of their characters’ (unique!) banality?
Apart from all this, maybe the most potent force effacing gay culture is an understandable, if still covert, impulse to jettison the trauma of the queer legacy. AIDS, pink triangles, police intimidation, parental rejection, religious animus: These inheritances prove heavy crosses to bear, especially given the temptation to start again with a clean slate of radical self-invention. But to put it bluntly, doing so capitulates to the exterminating gesture that for so long sought to bludgeon queerness into nonexistence.
So where does this leave us? I’m not out to torch queer celluloid. At their best, gay films amplify queer culture through oblique citations, creating a rich genealogy of cultural resources that can be endlessly subverted, retrofitted, and reinvented. I think of Geoffrey Sax’s Christopher and His Kind, which fuses the Weimar cabaret scene of 1930s Berlin with the palimpsest of its subsequent artistic iterations—including, of course, the divine decadence of Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles. Similarly, Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats plays on queer culture through allusive callbacks to queer film scenes specifically about amnesia—including the raining cereal from Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. These references aren’t just fanboy genuflections; they extend a riveting contentious debate about what it means to be stylized and dissident as queer.
I’d better be clear: I’m not grousing about ingratitude, and I’m certainly not calling for obsequious veneration of queer forebears. In fact, part of the genius of Robin Campillo’s riveting French film BPM is the way it dramatizes an internal subcultural rebellion, born of necessity during the AIDS crisis, against the cautious respectability politics of the preceding generation. This is precisely my point: Queerness is honed on its insurrections from complacency.
No one should be surprised that risk-averse movie studios would latch onto queer subject matter and repackage it for straight audiences as a self-validating festival of liberal tolerance. More troubling, it seems to me, has been the disturbing alacrity with which queer audiences have succumbed to the seduction on offer, complacently surrendering to the unctuous security of straight acceptance. An authentically queer sensibility is at its best in staging mutinies against the status quo, and if the best that mainstream gay films can muster is sanctimonious chiding to be normal and nice, it may be time for queerness to bite back.
Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.