Every once in a while I getdepressed and think gay narratives are stuck in a rut — an endless recital of coming-out stories, a narrative whose only climax is self-acceptance and then a great falling off.
And then I read Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. The story of an astonishingly clever 18-year-old, it takes gayness for granted and explores all the complications that surround it. The hero isn’t so much closeted as socially conflicted. He knows he’s gay, he just doesn’t know what to do about it.
The only guy he’s interested in is blissfully unaware of him, and his social skills are, in any case, limited. Blessed with an over-quick mind, he rebuffs people with his intelligence. Like many another teen before him, he’s more advanced intellectually than he is socially or emotionally.
What I liked best about this story — aside from its tenderness, humour and perfectly pitched pathos — was its balanced focus. It never pretended it was about anything but a gay kid, and at the same time it didn’t over-emphasize his gayness. The kid is lonely, but his loneliness has very little to do with his sexuality. It’s all about who he is as a person — his age, his family, his personality, his particular stage of development. Which is to say, the barriers are particular and personal, the way they are with most of us.
Until very recently, gayness has been presented not just as a problem but as the problem. And while that’s true for most of us at one stage of our lives or another, at least until you come out and accept yourself, it’s misleading when applied to a life as a whole. And also as a theme, quite frankly, boring.
Some parts of the culture are still stuck at the earlier stage of development.
Just look at some of the films at this year’s Inside Out festival, items like Israel’s Eyes Wide Open or Peru/Columbia’s Undertow. They’re love stories, but what matters is not so much the relationship per se as its acceptance by the wider world.
As that acceptance grows more widespread, though, we’re starting to see more stories where it’s less us-versus-them and more all-about-us. Gradually, we’re learning to take gay for granted. Instead of being the end of the story — character comes out, all’s right with the world — it’s just the beginning.
Even mainstream TV seems to have settled into this groove.
Last fall, the female FBI agent on FlashForward, the one who looks like Scully, had a same-sex fling and it was just another zig in a wildly zagging plot. While over on the occasionally interesting medical drama Mercy, a warring gay couple showed up for no better reason it seemed than to show that relationships — even bickering, bitchy relationships – are worthwhile.
The trend is even more marked on a show like Modern Family, where the gay couple is so obviously just there. Accepted, integrated and appealing (or not) on the basis of personality alone.
Some people object to their supposed lack of physical affection. But this is exactly the sort of couple who are well past pawing each other in public. They’ve got a kid, they’re established, they know where they stand with each other. They’re dumpily, kvetchingly normal. And that’s why they’re important. Not interesting, but important, the necessary complement to the “sexual outlaws” so prevalent in early gay culture, and in many ways far more transgressive.
That goes ditto for the lesbian lovers in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. They’re not nearly as sexy, sensual or screwed up as the lovers in Cholodenko’s sensational earlier effort High Art. But these middle-aged, middle-class moms certainly make gay marriage seem as approachable and unthreatening as possible. It doesn’t make for great art, but it’s not bad propaganda. By making homos ho-hum, they let everyone relax and just take gayness for granted.
The down side of taking gay for granted is that gay can disappear, and become not just anodyne, as on Modern Family, but downright invisible. Take a flick like It Came From Kuchar, also from this year’s Inside Out. A brilliant, funny look at twin filmmakers, it was so hip to its subjects’ sexuality it almost obscured it. I enjoyed the film immensely and also wondered, What the heck do these guys get up to?
The upside of the whole trend (I hope) is that we’ll start to get more individualized portraits of gay people. I’ve spent a lifetime reading and watching stories of straight people and getting up to speed on their various passions and foibles, and I’m sure some of these themes are universal, but I’d still like to see how they play out in lives that are glaringly, obviously gay, yes, but relieved of the pressure to define or defend it.