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.

Pulling Back the Curtain

This past Saturday, I was finally able to marry the man I’ve been with through eight years and (some not insignificant legal) change. It’s been a long time coming, and it was a lot of wonderful things. My husband (!) designed a crazy-spectacular steampunk wedding with what shouldn’t have been nearly a large enough budget, and melted my heart in all the right ways. He knows that, and if he doesn’t, then I’ve got work to do, but that’s marriage, right?

Wonderful, too, were all the people who worked their effing butts off driving U-hauls or carting set pieces or tying strings for lanterns or, honestly, showing up and being there. Every little bit helped and mattered and there aren’t enough letters on the keyboard to express my thanks.

I’m not going to spend more time gushing about the awesome, though, because let’s be honest: that just winds up sounding like bragging, anyway. I’m not here to make everyone who wasn’t there jealous that they couldn’t be. Quite the opposite.

For several personal reasons that I’m not going into (this post may be a lot more open about my personal life than others, but I’m still a private person), when the legal window opened in Florida, we wound up with a short timetable for planning and pulling off a wedding. If we had any hope of getting anyone at all there, we had to invite quite quickly. But because of the same restrictions that meant we were rushing out invites, our guest list had to be painfully short.

There are a lot of people in the world we love, and whom we know love us. Extended family members and friends whom we knew would be ecstatic for us, the sight of whom would make us ecstatic. And we couldn’t have them all.

Back when I taught, we used to talk about how a heavily-edited paper was “bleeding” from the red pen. Our invitation list felt a lot less metaphorical in its bleeding. You can’t see it, but every name we crossed off to make it possible to have our wedding at all was like slicing off our fingertips. Some people understood and some people didn’t. I think more of the former than the latter, but I’m not a telepath, so I suppose I’m just guessing.

Whether it’s people you couldn’t invite or people who couldn’t attend for schedule or financial reasons or — because we’re human — people who couldn’t be there because they’ve passed, no matter how long you can make your guest list, there will always be someone missing.

We had oh so many of all those folks. That they weren’t lined up in chairs back further than the horizon ached just below our chests and stung the corner of our eyes.

But we saw and felt at least a bit of them in loaned props and set pieces, in original creations crafted with amazing talent and skill, in vendors we only found from recommended phone numbers and names they let us drop. They were there from the remnants of their strong hugs when we ran into each other out in the world. They lingered in every verbal or virtual “congratulations.”

That wedding wasn’t just three months in the offing. Or even eight years.

You helped make it happen if we ever met you. From every small or large interaction, good or bad, that eventually steered the two of us together, kept the two of us together. If you think this is about you, it is. You’re why and how this happened.

And we can’t thank you enough.

Selling Women Online

It’s probably incredibly understated to say that I’m really not an American Football guy. I’m not much of a traditional sports fan in general. So I definitely don’t follow much of the media surrounding sports, either. It was only via Rebecca Eisenberg on Upworthy that I ran across Katie Nolan’s recent discussion of the place of women in sports and sports media:

It’s worth a watch, and a lot of thinking and talking and thumbs ups. Then I Googled Nolan to see what responses might be out there to her piece, and I found myself fairly disheartened by the headlines:

 photo GoogleSearch_zpseec26c23.png

I mean, you have to get to the third article in the list before the headline is about the primary content of the video, and not “Don’t boycott the NFL!” which, you know, seems to spectacularly miss the point.

I was wholly prepared to start taking people to task for headlines which so clearly buried the lead in something that looked like nothing so much as corporate shilling. Except that clicking through, I saw that both of those articles pretty evenly move from the “no boycott” into the larger commentary on women in sports / sports media.

And then I realized my Google search is ordered by “relevance,” which in Google terms largely relates to how many people link to / click links to the articles in question. A realization which was, honestly, even more depressing.

Because that means those first two articles got more attention than any of the others with headlines that directly address the feminist concerns of the video. While I’m not especially keen on manipulative headlines that feed web hits, it’s an even more sobering realization that, apparently, the very mention of feminism and/or sexism in relation to sports media is a whole lot less interesting than “This lady says it’s okay to keep watching our sports!”

Which pretty much makes Nolan’s point for her, I think. When you have to sideline the very topic of sidelining women, the double-secret probation becomes rather painfully clear.

And yes, that’s exactly why I titled this blog post the way that I did.

Non-Binary Digital Debates

I have to give a lot of thumbs up to the points John Scalzi raises in his recent essay on the Amazon-Hachette public negotiation troubles. My favorite quote:

This is where many people decide to opine that the cost of eBooks should reflect the cost of production in some way that allows them to say that whatever price point they prefer is the naturally correct one. This is where I say: You know what, if you’ve ever paid more than twenty cents for a soda at a fast food restaurant, or have ever bought bottled water at a store, then I feel perfectly justified in considering your cost of production position vis a vis publishing as entirely hypocritical. Please stop making the cost of production argument for books and apparently nothing else in your daily consumer life. I think less of you when you do.

It’s one of the things at the heart of digital pricing: the specter of production costs, and the impact these sorts of arguments have on the perceived value of content itself. I won’t for one second pretend there’s not a discussion to be had about the value of content. It’s just that sometimes “lower production costs” winds up as a stand in for “this didn’t cost you anything to make,” which is both not true and tends to overshadow any other discussions.

Favorite sound bite notwithstanding, the biggest reason I’m linking Scalzi’s post when I’ve not really pointed at anything else I’ve seen on these sorts of negotiations is because the essay as a whole actually sounds like an opening for discussion. Just about everything else I see seems to declare that either the publisher or Amazon is Evil and Trying to Screw Us, and by comparison the other party is Totally On Our Side.

Scalzi rather directly makes the point that BOTH Amazon and any given publisher (1) are not evil, but (2) are on their own sides. If you want to have a debate about which position is best for authors and/or readers, I think that’s vitally important. The binary ideology here is a trap, and winds up shutting down real discussion in favor of one spin or another. That in turn retards real progress that helps the people at either end of the production chain, instead of just the corporations in the middle.

Said Inigo Montoya to Vezzini

I live in an area which is fairly unique in the way its community theatres run. Shows are on 5 to 6 days a week, sometimes putting on shows twice in the same day. Production staff who work at the local Equity houses likewise direct and design for the community set. There’s a much closer amount of crossover than I’ve ever experienced, at least. Which may be why there’s so much tension around the word “professional” hereabouts.

There has semi-recently been the start of a discussion about what “community theatre” means, so to steer clear of that particular murk, I’m going to be talking about volunteer actors and paid actors. It’s a cleaner line to draw, especially as regards where this is all going.

Back on the professional front, however: yes, absolutely professionalism is not limited to paid professionals. Volunteer performers still need to have respect for one another, still have to take pride in what they’re doing. There are noses and grindstones which need introduction. Anyone who wants to have a six week picnic would, in all cases, do best to find something other than theatre–community or otherwise–upon which to spend time. So, yes, “professional isn’t just paid.”

It is, however, willfully wrong-headed to believe and expect that volunteer actors make their show decisions the same way as someone who pays his or her bills through acting gigs. Professional (as the -ism) is not the same thing as professional (as the job).

It is professional (as the -ism) to avoid responding to directors’ casting rejections as insults. Rejection in this context isn’t personal: they don’t hate us, they just feel the show they want to make would benefit from a different choice. That’s the job. It’s not the director’s job to make everyone happy.

Mind you, it is only fair for directors to accept that the reverse is true: the responsibility of a volunteer performer is to choose shows and roles he or she finds fulfilling. It is not the onus of any given volunteer to ensure a director gets the cast he or she prefers. That’s not personal, either, and a volunteer’s choices are not stupid or wrongheaded just because they hamper a director’s desires. Nor, more importantly to my point, are those decisions necessarily going to align with the expectations of a professional (as the job).

It is professional (as the job) to accept good, paying gigs when they’re available, because this is one’s career. There are career path considerations to be made, of course: the prominence of the venue, of the role, of the production personnel, and a host of others I can’t begin to guess. But–again–you’re making them as part of the job.1

Volunteer actors don’t have to make those considerations. Or, at least, I don’t believe anyone should treat us as if we do. We are professional (as the -ism), not professional (as the job). The ONLY payment a volunteer actor receives are those ephemeral whatsits which drives us to be in a show. For some people, that’s solely the camaraderie of having a communal experience. For others, it’s the last bow. Or it’s the cathartic release of harsh emotions in a drama, the air of lightness and laughter from a wonderful comedic turn, the giddy moment when you hit that money note and everyone is listening. And any one of those things might simultaneously be something another volunteer actor wants to actively avoid.

I’m missing about as many reasons as there are people, as well as their various combinations, but the point is: our individual, ephemeral reasons are the sum total of our compensation. They are, without qualification, our reasons for being here. And because that is what we’ve decided we’re after (for whatever value of “that” we personally choose), because we have eschewed traditional payment or career pursuit but are nonetheless still here, the choices of professional (as the -ism) volunteers cannot and should not be judged using the same measures and gauges as one uses for professional (as the job) performers.

It’s all well and good to play this game of qualitative comparison between community and professional (as the job) theatre, but I think the real fracture between folks from one world and another is a far more fundamental paradigm shift. Comparing the choices of a volunteer performer to those of a working actor is comparing apples to Martian plutonium, folks.

“That’s the lead,” “That’s a big role,” “That’s a huge opportunity,” are the kinds of things you say to someone trying to make a living as an actor. They’re the kinds of things which should always hold influence in that context. But for volunteers, if that lead happens to be comedy relief when our personal pay scale requires drama, if it’s something we’ve done a hundred times before when our bottom line needs variety, outside our comfort zone when we act for comfort, if it’s older or younger than we want to feel, if it’s too many costume changes, not enough costume changes, difficult or easy music … for whatever reason it doesn’t trip our triggers, it doesn’t matter how “big” a role is, how “brilliant” the show is. It won’t be enough. It is impossible to pay us enough to do it because we aren’t getting paid money.2

Put in another context, I don’t often hear anyone clamoring that folks are uppity for not auditioning for a given show in the first place (my own heckling notwithstanding). Those just aren’t our shows, and that’s okay.

How is that qualitatively different from thinking that bloke in the corner who has one brilliant-but-short moment is more interesting than the whiny lead role whose actor gets the last bow?

So, yeah. It would be ever so lovely if we could start parsing our professional definitions for context. For some of us, it’s not a job. And there’s nothing wrong with that if only because, if it was a job for all of us, the community theatre personnel would be out of theirs.

1. None of this is meant to minimize a paid actor’s love of theatre, or the existence of dream roles and beloved shows. My point is, however, that a true, working actor can rarely ever make decisions without also taking far more concrete concerns into account.[back]
2. There’s a clear exception to be made for those folks — and there are more than a few in the area — who mix volunteer and paid gigs. I drew that very thick line between paycheck and no paycheck for a reason, though. Even those people will only volunteer for shows and roles which meet their volunteer pay scale. That they have a second job as an intermittent paid performer doesn’t negate the point here; rather, it makes it. You have to put them in another category of performer to get them into something that doesn’t meet their volunteer needs.[back]