Swagger vs Swish in Luke Cage S2

For the most part, I’m not the person to be diving into the cultural explorations at play in Luke Cage‘s second season. Issues of colorism, black exceptionalism, and cultural tensions within the black community are all woven into a strong second season, but they’re also explorations a white dude shouldn’t be judging the success of.

One of the other themes of the season is a recurring motif on what it is to “be a man,” a theme which interacts (intentionally or un-) with the show’s decision to reveal and introduce gay men in the cast. On that score? I have Feelings.

Spoilers for season two follow. Fairly significant ones. If you prefer to watch the season un-spoiled, you can always bookmark this and come back later. The internet remembers everything, but you’ll only get a fresh watch once.

Back to it, then.

It’s not illogical for a story concerned with the amorphous concepts of manhood or masculinity to feature queer characters. To be sure, excluding them is a base level fail. I’m not sure, though, that the writers room at Luke Cage managed anything particularly next level, either. They got as far as “what about gay dudes,” but didn’t / couldn’t conceive of even the barest mention of trans and nonbinary characters. I’m not even sure how much they really thought on the subject of gay cis men, either.

Credit this much: we discover more than one man on the show has explored homosexuality. In a world where queer inclusion is usually limited to The Gay One, plurality is a plus.

Alfre Woodard’s Mariah reveals that her late husband was a gay man. She traded being his beard for the chance to change her name and her own circumstances. Of course, that revelation comes as part and parcel of a gut punch Mariah delivers to her daughter on her true parentage. In that context, what might have been an insight into the various ways in which we hide and negotiate our identities turns into not only was he not your father, but he was (gasp) gaaaaay.

While that particular reveal was frustrating for its context, it’s a blip compared to the other gay subplot of the season, when Theo Rossi’s Hernan “Shades” Alvarez and Thomas Q. Jones’ Darius “Comanche” Jones spend an evening standing watch for enemies, literally back to back. Their conversation is itself coded, but it becomes clear that Hernan and Darius weren’t just close friends, but in fact had an intimate relationship during their time in prison.

I found the scene itself powerful. Hernan repeatedly attempts to brush aside the past, claiming it was just a thing that happened. A thing, it’s nice to note, he thinks is not to be ashamed of, but also a thing bounded by time and place. It’s the past. It’s over. Darius refuses to take the outs Hernan gives him, however. For him, what happened there wasn’t an exception, it was a truth. And, for Darius if not for Hernan, it’s not something he’ll forget or abandon.

The conceit of the scene means that neither actor can look at the other, and yet their faces carry so much emotion and subtext. Whatever else I have to say abou the season, that scene really is an amazing piece of work.

And then in the next episode, Hernan murders Darius.

I can only assume that moment is meant to be as powerful as the night in the barber shop, standing guard. As Shades, Hernan has spent a season and a half murdering people without remorse in pursuit of his loyalty to various mob leaders. The ultimate show of his love and loyalty for Mariah, now, is that he’s wiling to murder a man he’s loved like no other man in his life when he finds out Darius is reporting to the police.

You shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t work like that for me.

It certainly doesn’t help that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is trotted back out more than once as the season concludes as a means of first enraging Hernan, and then, later, so that Hernan can compare the relationship to the Gay Until Graduation paradigm. Hernan only had those feelings for one man, and that man’s dead, so.

Let’s be clear: I think a lot of definitions when it comes to sexuality are unreasonably intractable. I don’t subscribe to the common wisdom, reflected in everything from pop culture to blood donation guidelines, that a single sexual encounter between two men Makes You Gay. I’m more than willing to concede that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is a thing he feels no need to recreate going forward.

What that leaves us with, however, is a season in which straight cis men learn to stand up for their morals, to take fatherly responsibility, to look for balance between rage and restraint, to compromise for the sake of their community. They fall from grace and rise to the occasion. When it comes to them, the show has a whole host of answers to its central question of “how to be a man.” The only gay men, however, are either dead or have renounced their identities. It’s a scenario suggesting that Luke Cage‘s answer to “how to be a man” when it comes to also being gay has a single answer: be buried.

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New Story: If Only Kissing Made It So

“If Only Kissing Made It So,” my story about boys kissing and possibly time travel, is live at Cast of Wonders today, narrated by Max Gladstone.

Yes, that Max Gladstone. To say this was a pleasant surprise would be whatever is more under than under in understatement. I’m just saying: the email listed the narrator, and then I did a few double takes and at least one “wait, for real?” I did not do a spit take, because I am professional and have composure. And also I wasn’t drinking anything.

Also also: Gladstone knocks it out of the damn park. So.

It’s appropriate to get an awesome surprise as this story finally makes its way in the world, since that’s what this story was.

I’ve talked before about my decade and change of writing nigh-on-nothing. “If Only Kissing Made It So” is the primary exception. Before I finally managed to drag myself back into the thick of things, I made a largely abortive attempt several years prior.

Attempt is probably a mischaracterization. It suggests there was a lot of maturity and willpower. The first draft of this story was more what happened when my story brain crossed its arms and refused to eat anything because oh my god that is so groooossss, and I told it dessert was available if it would just try one bite of everything on the plate.

I pretty much never go into a story without expectations for what it might be, but this time I did. I sat down, set a timer for twenty minutes each morning, and wrote whatever the hell came out. I think the first day or so wasn’t even narrative. I vaguely recall things like “what am I even doing this is stupid” and “you will never write anything else, no you shut up” on those pages. Eventually, after much eye rolling and sighing and assorted other protestations from my story brain that it hated all of this and I couldn’t make it change its mind, we got to “If I’d known Lucas Medina had rung the doorbell, I would have thrown on a good shirt.”

No, that isn’t the first line of the story now, but part of that is because I had no idea what the first line was, because I didn’t even know what the story was. Lucas showed up, and there was awkward interaction and trying to tamp down on crushing and then, eventually, story brain looked up and said oh wait, what if we did this. And I tried not to smile visibly when story brain started eating like macaroni and cheese wasn’t the only acceptable meal.

As I mentioned, this wasn’t the triumphant return to regular writing it sounds like. When I finished the first version of this story, I subbed it to exactly one market. When that editor failed to marvel at the wonders offered, story brain went to its room, slammed the door, and sulked for several more years while Lucas and Marty sat abandoned on my hard drive.

Though, obviously, we did eventually reach a day when story brain came back out to play. And when it did, and Submit All The Things Dammit brain joined in, “If Only Kissing Made It So” got to see daylight again, and now it’s made friends with the lovely folks over at Cast of Wonders.

So, if you haven’t already, it’s not too late. click on over and join the loop.

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.

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.

Sense8: Bedroom Backflip

I’m only about halfway through Sense8, the new Wachowski / Straczynski Netflix series, so I’m not going to say too terribly much about it yet. Since all the episodes are available, it seems a better idea for me to finish the binge and see how all the crazy-making does or does not hold together in the final analysis.

I am, however, thus far pleased that the show has done the thing that got me to buy in on How to Get Away with Murder. Namely, starting things off by making its LGBT characters the ones shouldering the bulk of the sexy time.

More than that, though, up until the middle of the series, the two LGBT couples are also doing the heavy romantic lifting. At series start, there’s only one heterosexual long-term pairing in the 8 leads, and that one isn’t what I’d call stable and supportive in the way the two gay pairings are.

This is changing as the show’s progressing, as well it should. I’m not interested in suddenly chastity-belting the straight characters as some kind of weird sexual payback for series past. It is, however, refreshing that the people we’re waiting to find love interests for are the straight people, when generally LGBT characters languish off to the side until after Tumblr has had a season or two to lament a lack of significant others through the time-tested use of animated GIFs.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say once I’ve seen it all, but that element, at least, was stand out enough that I thought it worth mentioning on its own.