Your New Boyfriend Is an Asshole, and You Know It: a Fable

Here’s the thing: your friends warned you when you started dating this new guy that he was bad news. They told you stories about the stuff he’d done to mutual friends. They told you the kinds of things he was saying about them. But he promised he was going to take care of you and give you nice things and how important you were to him. So you told your friends they just didn’t understand. He had a different sense of humor. He was a little blunt, sure, but they were blowing everything out of proportion.

You continued to believe it when he went to court to force the Sanchez family to tear down the pool they always let you use so he could build that eyesore of a fence between you. When he blew off taking Gran to her heart transplant surgical consult because his friend Josh needed to have a corn removed. RSVP’d “no” with a Bible verse to both Lance and Henry’s wedding *and* little Hannah Goldman’s bat mitzvah.

You told Fatima she was totally over-reacting when he made that comment about wanting her to take a few laps around the block before coming in so she wouldn’t stink up the place. And while you and he were the only ones who knew where Celia and her son moved, there’s no way he told her abusive ex how to find her — even if her ex is an investor in the firm.

Yes, out of town clients got wasted when they came over, but it’s not *his* fault they retaliated against the Johnsons’ noise complaint by vandalizing their house.

No, you aren’t your new boyfriend. And he may be sweet as all get out when you’re alone. But at this point, it’s time to stop pretending you don’t understand why the Johnsons turned their noses up at your basket of apology muffins. Why the Sanchez family won’t answer the door even though their cars are in the drive. Why Lance and Henry returned your wedding gift and they and the Goldmans and Celia and Fatima aren’t returning your calls. You know why, just like you know why Gran gets a “tone” when you use unpaid time off to take her to the doctor.

A World Built on Top of Ours: Finding Queerness in Midnight Special

I recently had the chance to watch Midnight Special, which applies an indie film filter to the “child with mysterious powers” spec-fic staple. That’s more dismissive of the movie than I mean to be, but effective shorthand, since I’m less interested in the overt text of the piece than I am with what I find around its edges and in the spaces between it.

So we’re all up to speed, the short version of the plot goes like this: Roy (Michael Shannon) is attempting to get his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) out of the reach of the cult which raised them both — and which has currently built a religion around Alton’s otherworldly abilities. To do this, he enlists the aid of his childhood friend — and Texas state trooper — Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and eventually Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), moving cross country at night (and blacking out windows during the day) to avoid overloading Alton’s light-sensitive powers.

Before we go much further: I’m not convinced this is a film trying to interrogate its source materials so much as present them with a different aesthetic. However, because that aesthetic involves saying half of what you need to say, of meaningful stares and thoughtful silences, it nevertheless feeds directly into my Subtext Engine.

The obvious queer angle I could take would be turning Alton’s super powers into a metaphor for queerness, but Alton seems a clear stand in for a different Other. And an important one, though I’m reticent to delve too deeply, as there are folks far better equipped to comment on how well or poorly the film does it. Nevertheless, Alton’s abilities had a much more obvious resonance for me: he suffers intense sensory issues, issues which his caregivers argue repeatedly about how to manage, and (possibly most importantly), Alton doesn’t “get better” until he’s allowed to be involved himself, until someone listens to him about what he needs. It sounds almost beat for beat like the struggle people on the autism spectrum face daily.

Rather than in Alton and his powers, then, I found queerness in the more mundane elements at play. Namely, in Roy and Lucas. In point of fact, for much of the opening of the film, I kept trying to parse whether or not Roy and Lucas were a couple. It wasn’t until the mid-film appearance of Sarah, when Lucas finally drops exposition about how he joined this little caper, that I was certain they weren’t. And even then, well, intended or not, the film is riddled with elements that still play queer to me.

Lucas, we learn in the aforementioned infodump, was a close childhood friend of Roy’s. They were “real close for a long time. Until his parents moved him out to The Ranch.” The Ranch being the film’s name for the cult compound Roy et al are currently fleeing. Word choice is important, here: it isn’t that Roy’s family moved out there and he had to go with them, they moved Roy out there. It plays like nothing so much as a conversion therapy narrative.

Lucas makes it clear the two have had little or no contact since the move, but years later, when the life of his child is on the line, Roy goes first to Lucas. He doesn’t call, doesn’t test the waters to see how much or little he might be able to trust Lucas. He just shows up on his doorstep. And here’s the thing: Lucas isn’t the only person Roy can go to. The pair make multiple stops on their journey, getting help from at least one other former cult member besides Sarah. Roy had options. What he chose, though, was Lucas. There’s an intimate trust there which is profound given the stakes, and whatever past these two had with each other was enough to tell Roy he could count on Lucas to be worth that trust.

Then, too, there’s those meaningful, silent looks that this kind of film is known for: where a character looks at an object or a tableau and we’re meant to read what they’re thinking from the way they consider it. Lucas has more than one of those, several of them at the sight of Roy and Sarah and Alton altogether. He even expresses his regret at one point, telling Sarah that the three of them “would have made a nice family” if there had “been a way out of this.” It isn’t much of a stretch to attach a second meaning to what roadblock “this” represents.

And when it comes to the way out, when the film reaches its climax and the group has to separate to get Alton where he’s going, Lucas — who has always been the muscle, the one with the gun, the defense training, the physical endurance to shrug off shotgun impacts — stays with Roy, not Alton, for a final, rousing chase. Not to drive the car, mind you. Roy’s doing that. Not to shoot at the military; Alton’s made clear that the military has orders only to fire if fired upon. Nevertheless, he’s at Roy’s side.

He’s there to see Alton’s “world built on top of ours” with Roy, and when it’s all said and done and he’s under interrogation by the government, who are none to happy with his responses, he has only one story to tell “because it’s the truth.”

This is obviously a lot of me building a secondary story out of spaces and looks and inference. Sure, great, you might think, we can add it to a Buzzfeed list of wacky fan theories next to the secret origin of Jesse from Toy Story. But certainly there are numerous films where no one has to lay out arguments for a queer presence. Surely we’ve moved past the point where we have to decode film to find its underlying queerness, where writers sneak in subtext by lying to the male lead about intent and writing around it.

Except sometimes maybe we still do. Because there are still young people who grow up in small or large towns, whose communities don’t like talking about this kind of thing. Young people who, if they get too close, if they insist on telling a story because it’s the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes the establishment, wind up shipped off for re-programming. People who have to live their lives at night, who have to worry about what they say and who they say it to because doing the wrong thing in the harsh light of day still risks destroying everything. Maybe people from states that continue to actively debate their rights.

Maybe for those people, we still need to build a world on top of the one that everyone else sees. A world with people like them. Because, as Alton says, “They watch us. They’ve been watching us for a very long time.”

Gay Per Saying: Penguin, Iceman, and Queer Discovery

A few months back, I went on a little bit of a Twitter rant about the monoculture that’s grown up around what a gay narrative is. At the time, I was railing against Robin Lord Taylor’s assertion that his Penguin wasn’t “gay per se” because the character didn’t recognize a gay sexual attraction until his late twenties.

Twitter was enough spleen venting for me at the time, but recent responses to the new Iceman comic over at Marvel have brought the whole thing bubbling back up for me. In a turn which should surprise no one, the usual suspects are railing against the notion that an adult Bobby Drake is “suddenly” gay. Because it’s the usual suspects, I want to bat them aside and ignore them, but I keep coming back to Robin Lord Taylor, a gay man, supporting a very similar narrative about queerness:

Honestly, I feel that part of the reason why I don’t like to say that Oswald is gay per se in the sense that I’m a gay man, I’ve known I was gay my entire life, and for someone at the age of 28, 29, or however old he is to just suddenly question his sexualization wasn’t something I totally understood.

The “gay per se” is fine, because despite hard lines drawn in conservative social settings, there’s plenty of sexuality that falls between homosexual and heterosexual. If The Penguin acted to reverse erasure for bisexuality, pansexuality, demi-sexuality, sapiosexuality, all of that would be wonderful. That, however, isn’t where Taylor’s coming from.

No, Penguin isn’t “gay per se” because, ostensibly, the character hasn’t experienced this kind of attraction in his youth, like Robin Lord Taylor and many other gay people do.

That? Is a problem.

The Closet Isn’t the Only Room In My House

The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t much of a sexual being at all until my late 20s. When I started feeling sexual attraction, it was toward men. What the majority of people hear when I tell them that is that I was in the closet until my late 20s, but that’s not accurate. It’s the easiest story for them to tell, however, because that’s the one they always hear. A large swath of queer people will tell you that they always knew. I can’t count the number of gay men who tell some variation on, “When I was six I saw the neighbor with his shirt off and it was all over for me.”

It’s a prevalent story. It’s a valid story. It’s an important story, the closet, because we need to acknowledge the pain and despair of people who know who they are but choose to hide that because of societal pressures and fears, who may never come out, or who make tragic choices to escape lives of repression. I don’t want to minimize that narrative in any way. I just want to make the point that it’s not the only one.

When I say I wasn’t attracted to men until my late 20s, that’s not a euphemism. I don’t mean that I wasn’t comfortable approaching men until my late 20s, or that that I was afraid to acknowledge my attraction to men until my late 20s. I mean exactly what I’m saying: my queerness wasn’t a tangible part of me until then. The only thing shut behind my closet door was my winter coat.

Some Doors Are Riskier to Open

I get it, I really do. A large part of the queer rights movement is predicated on the notion Gaga anthemed: we do not choose queerness, but are born this way. The logic follows, then, that if queerness is inborn, it should also always be there, right? Drooling over a TV idol shortly after being able to form complete sentences is primal reinforcement of that. Beards and girlfriends from Canada allow for late-stage gay reveals without robbing people of the core reality of their sexuality.

Saying that people may not discover a queer identity until later in life risks opening a door. If queerness can appear late in life, then the same logic as above can insist that queerness may be quashed at a later point, as well. Enter torturous “conversion therapy” and other such nonsense.

Tract Housing Isn’t the Only Kind

If people were robots, I might agree with the logic of the above constructions. If who we are happened to be nothing more than a string of indelible code with predictable responses, then sure, everyone’s queerness would express the same way, at the same time, and follow the same patterns.

I don’t subscribe to that. I’m a gay man. I’m queer. My queerness is a part of me. The fact that I didn’t discover it, that it didn’t let itself be known to me until later in life, doesn’t make it less integral to who I am or less innate a part of me.

It doesn’t fit the more commonly expressed narrative, and by doing so it makes the wider arguments about that narrative trickier to navigate, but that doesn’t make my narrative any less real or deserving to be told.

I’m Out of Housing Metaphors: Fuck Structural Restriction, Anyway

It comes down to this: sometimes it just takes a neighbor washing his car or a ring of keys to make a person’s identity clear. Sometimes it takes encountering the time-displaced, alternate younger version of your mutant super-hero self. The thing that makes stories different and unique is that people are different and unique. So down with the universal closet and monoculture, and up and outward with queer narratives that celebrate their own variety over homogeneity. That’s half the point of diversity, of decolonization, of intersectionality: if you think you know how “these stories” go, you just haven’t read enough of them yet.

Apparently It Isn’t Woolf They’re Actually Afraid Of

I’m still reeling a bit about a recent decision by the estate of Edward Albee re: a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

According to sources, the estate of the late playwright, Edward Albee, demanded that a theatre company in Oregon, The Complete Works Project, who was producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, fire the black actor playing the role of “Nick” and be replaced by a white actor or they would rescind the rights to the show.

I don’t know which wrongheaded defense to tackle first, not least of all because of the conflation of multiple arguments. So how about I break the arguments apart first, since my answers to some of them are different than my answers to others:

1) The Rights of the Albee Estate

I’m seeing defenses of this which cast this argument as one about the legal rights of the Albee estate. They assert the rights attached to production of the work, assert the law, and so completely miss the point that it’s no longer a point, but rather a round blunt object.

No one, including the theatre which complained about the decision, claims the Albee estate isn’t invested with the legal power to exert its rights.

Rather, people are following the standard trajectory of free speech: the Albee estate is fully entitled to make fucked up, racist decisions. And everyone else, likewise, is fully entitled to call out just how fucked up and racist those decisions are. You would think that anyone running the estate of a man whose work is rife with people calling each other to the mat might be able to recognize that pattern outside of a three act structure.

2) The Importance of Authorial Intent

As a writer, obviously I have a soft spot for authorial intent. When I write something, I’m attempting to evoke some range of emotions and thoughts in my audience.

However, I’m also well aware that what I want as a writer and what the audience of my work will take away from it aren’t the same thing. If it’s co-opted by a group whose ideology I find abhorrent, and if that co-opting happens in clear breach of my copyright, I have legal recourse to remove it from their use. I can’t, however, control what they think about my work, what they take away from it. The only art which isn’t a conversation is art which has no audience in the first place.

This is especially true in collaborative arts. Yes, the playwright is important. I’d go so far as to say they’re essential. They are not, however, the only aspect of their art. Again, unless a playwright is writing work which they never want to see performed, the nature of their work is to be adapted and interpreted through the lens of those other artists (actors, directors, designers) who attach themselves to it.

And unlike, say, film or television, live theatre is in constant intepretive flux. Hell, something as small as an actor’s mood on a given night can drastically shift a performance. Live theatre is at its core alive. That means it changes, it grows. If it doesn’t, it no longer serves a purpose.

Shakespeare wrote all of his work to be performed by exclusively male casts. He wouldn’t, at the time he wrote his plays, have even conceived of a performance where his female Ophelia was actually played by a woman. Nor would he, for that matter, have imagined the panoply of temporal and environmental backgrounds future theatres might use as the setting for his stories. Last I heard, however, no one’s spending much time grousing that Shakespeare’s intent has been bastardized by contemporary artists bringing new and different influences to bear.

Rather, the response by many is to praise Shakespeare for providing a template which continues to resonate and inspire, which ebbs and flows in a way that allows it to remain relevant, rather than proving itself a hidebound cultural dinosaur.

3) The Slippery Slope

Otherwise known as “Good God! Next you’ll say you want women playing men” and … probably?

Look. I am just the wrong audience for this kind of thing because I’m not seeing the problem here. Aside from my previous point re: Shakespeare, honestly, even if your show is explicitly “about” men, I still can’t think of a lot of instances where there isn’t something interesting an artist might bring to the work through variable gender casting, not least of all interrogating the notion of Man.

Also, let’s be honest, there are still painfully few acting roles for women with the same richness and variety as exist for men. Ditto actors of color and other marginalized identities. If it takes women in traditionally male roles and ethnic minorities in traditionally white roles for audiences and playwrights (or their estates) to stop making lazy, default cultural narrative choices about what constitutes a character of a given gender expression or a character of color or a character of disability or a character of a given sexuality or, or, or? Then I say re-cast the hell out of that shit.

4) “Historical Accuracy”

I’m sorry. I can’t even write that phrase without the scare quotes.

It took me a hot minute after entering “African-American professors 1962” in Google to have third party verification of what I shouldn’t have to prove to reasonably well-educated people: not only did African-American professors in the US exist in mixed race settings, but they’d been around for over a century already:

1849: Charles L. Reason is named professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin and French at New York Central College in McGrawville, New York. He appears to be the first African American to teach at a mixed race institution of higher education in the U.S.

That Albee couldn’t conceive of a scenario in the 1960s where such a character could exist without hopelessly straining credulity says a metric ton more about institutional erasure and the success of privileged narratives than it does about verifiable historical reality.

That those caring for Albee’s estate continue to be unable to imagine such a scenario in 2017, especially in a play where every other damn thing the characters say has two or three meanings and / or is elaborate fiction meant to stymie genuine interaction — where the primary actors go so far as to invent people who don’t actually exist but apparently it’s too difficult for the rights holder to imagine people who do — borders on intellectual failure of the sort that, come to think of it, deserves Albee-style disdain and mockery.

A Drop of Gay Goes Further, Apparently

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant the other day about Mass Effect: Adromeda and gay male romance. Not about the restricted choices, since I realize that isn’t new. I’d already read a bunch of the romance guides and seen that, if I wanted to have me some boys macking on each other, I’d have a narrow range of options.

But since I’d read those guides, which all said basically the same thing, I felt okay with the restrictions. Both of the male options for a male Ryder were, I kept reading, casual romance hookups that you could choose to commit to or not. So, hey, I could sample the wares for maximum boy kisses.

(I see you judging me. Look, if you can run around crunching numbers to optimize your combat prowess, the least you can do is let me optimize my sexytime prowess, too.)

I tried to stick to the bare bones info on the romances: where to find them, how to make sure you didn’t accidentally shut them down. I steered clear of full video walkthroughs because it’s no fun if you know how the first date’s already gonna go, right?

For exactly that reason, I should also probably pause here and say: romance spoilers for several characters in ME:A, especially Gil and Reyes.

Okay. You’ve been warned.

So I jumped on in. Spent entirely too long making sure my male Ryder looked like he could charm a few pants off (side note: some day a character creator won’t woefully disappoint me with its facial hair options). Flirted all over the place. As expected, most of the male characters politely brushed me off, but, you know, don’t put a heart icon conversation option on the dialogue wheel if you don’t want me to at least give it the old college try.

The first guy who returned my interest was, as the guides had told me, engineer Gil. And he’s a fun flirt. Nothing much was happening beyond that, but I was assured by every list out there that Gil had a “casual romance” option on offer.

Then I started flirting with the other MM available option, Reyes, who was also receptive, but unlike Gil, we went out, got drunk, made out, and then got a nice slow pan away from us that I could easily fill in with the story of how we had ourselves a thoroughly good time in other ways, as well.

But, dude, Gil was still just flirting. And I’d been flirting with him for so long. When did his face sucking option show up? I broke down and went looking for a video walkthrough. Then I went looking for another, because that couldn’t be right. And another. Then I did some creative swearing.

Here’s why: after flirting with Gil at every opportunity, there comes a point where Gil asks Ryder to meet his best friend. Right before Ryder meets her, Gil asks if they’re just friends, or if Ryder is “his guy.” At this point, friends, Ryder hasn’t even kissed Gil. I know that because at this “so are we dating or not?” juncture, male Ryder gets the option to say exactly that: woah, dude, we haven’t even kissed, what are you talking about?

If you take that option, Ryder can get a kiss. Then, you decide if you’re together forever or not. And that, dear hearts, is what constitutes Gil’s “casual romance.”

headdesk

To be clear, this isn’t especially about Bioware’s choices in this case. What leaves me so red faced is how every damn site is totally on board with classifying this (*flails at monitor and scowls*) as a casual romance.

You could try to argue with me that flirting constitutes casual, but here’s the thing: remember, above, how everyone offered me at least one flirt option? If flirting = casual romance, then all those other NPCs are also casual romances for a male Ryder: the straight men and gay women are only casual, the rest are casual you can commit to.

Except that isn’t the case. Every guide or walkthrough has no problem taking the straight male and gay female NPCs out of the list of options for a male Ryder, and vice versa. And so long as one of the people in the pair is a woman, no one writing these things is confused about the fact that, if I can’t do more than flirt and maybe steal a kiss before being faced with deciding the fate of a relationship, then your romantic partner isn’t any kind of casual.

Yet when the participants are two men, stray innuendo is somehow of a piece with zero G sex with an alien woman.

Is it the romantic equivalent of people perceiving gender parity when a group is only 30% female? Certainly it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been told there were gay characters all over the place in my entertainment media when they’re still in most cases a single instance (or pair) in a much larger cast.

Then, too, for reasons I can never wrap my head around, the barest suggestion of MM romantic interaction seems to equate to sex in the minds of some people. It’s the reason kids’ books where two men kiss wind up the subject of protests. We can see men and women, or maybe even two women, kissing without “going there,” but if this recent experience is any any indication, apparently the barest suggestion that two men might be into each other somehow releases a flood of every homosexual act ever in the memory centers of the human mind.

Which: do better, people.

On My Being, Political

It is once again the time of year when people in my social media feeds start posting about Not Removing Friends Over Politics. I’ll paraphrase here, but given the content is pretty much of a piece, I’m all right boiling it down to variations on one or more of these:

Friends are more important than simple politics.

We have to be able to have intellectual discussions about political issues.

If you ‘unfriend’ people, you’re choosing to cut off thought in favor of emotion.

The problem with all of these is that they insist on characterizing “politics” as an emotionless, intellectual debate. If it’s political, it’s just an idea, after all. Except that in this case the ‘idea’ up for debate is the actual humanity of another person.

I’m not sure if this “politics is ideas” thing is intentional gaslighting or a profound lack of understanding, but it’s infuriating in either case. If it’s the latter, I have serious concerns for the posters’ ability to navigate the world, since apparently they think people are severing ties over things like interstate highway routes and the taxes on a fresh strawberry. Which means they’re completely missing the part where people’s RIGHT TO EXIST is up for debate. In which case: yes. We need to be talking to those precious little flowers, because there is a whole lot of reality that’s not getting in.

In the former case, however, someone is well aware that one side of the debate is “I exist and deserve the same level of humanity as everyone else,” and the other is “It makes me uncomfortable if you exist, so could you maybe stop doing that?” I mean, yes, one side is existential, but the others side is an actual person. Saying that someone who is already fighting madly to gain or retain their humanity must also put up with having that humanity turned into something to be puzzled over like it’s choosing which Jenga piece to pull is just gross.

Trust me, I wish that the very fact of my gay existence weren’t political, but right now it is. People are debating whether I deserve service, whether I deserve employment, whether I deserve to marry, raise children, inherit. For a lot of people of marginalized identities, politics isn’t something they get to choose to enter or exit. Everyday interactions, from going to work to just holding hands, bring their very self up for scrutiny such that daring to draw breath becomes a political act.

Look, I absolutely agree that, in the case when the marginalized have the emotional energy to engage, that engagement is invaluable. However, it is also profoundly unfair to insist that people who are already assaulted by the world must engage, and must engage in all venues and on all platforms, and must engage with the same emotional distance that someone whose humanity is a given has the luxury of maintaining. That kind of insistence, whether willfully or ignorantly blind to the reality of the imbalance at work, winds up being just another abuse. It’s one more damn thing someone who’s struggling to survive has to worry about before they try to scrounge up the resources to actually enter the fray.

And anyone who’s standing around making pronouncements about understanding ought to make sure they understand that first and foremost.

Suddenly Free Fiction

Mike Allen has posted five stories from Clockwork Phoenix 5 online for free. Including my own contribution to the volume: “The Wind at His Back.”

I’ve already talked about this story, so I’ll keep things short. Set in what I’ve been calling the Tallverse – a weird western world where tall tales and folklore are real – this is the story of Benito Aguilar, small town sheriff and former tornado wrangler who just wants to live a simple, happy life with his husband Casey. It’s a story about living with your past, about the strength of acceptance and community. It also has tween giants and snakes that put themselves back together and magic fruit trees and storms with souls.

And now, you can read it start to finish all for free. So if you’ve got a second, click on through and take a look.