A number of years ago, when asked about his orientation, Broadway star Nathan Lane answered somewhat coyly, “Look, I’m 40, I’m single and I work in musical theatre – you do the math!”
Though math was my best subject in university, I find myself ill prepared for solving the innumerable formulae necessary for determining if someone is queer and if they will talk about it in the media. As arts editor, you need to know these things if you are going to tackle the more intriguing subject of whether there is any relationship between someone’s sexuality and their art.
The more established queer artists are easy, especially the ones whose work includes queer subjects or is shaped by queer politics. The problem comes with unfamiliar names, emerging artists or artists visiting from abroad. Unless Google turns up an article about how someone is a great big jiggling ‘mo, how can I tell?
Forget math, enter the oracle: the press release. Sexuality is usually left off press releases so that leaves me with augury or haruspicy. Reading someone’s sexuality into a press release is like finding meaning in the intestines of stereotypes, playing with tripe and tropes. A male visual artist has a show of knitted action figures and he once fronted a band called The Charles Nelson Reillys. Hmm…? A female poet uses the words butch, boygina and Angelina Jolie. Ah ha!
You can look for signifying words like gender, camp, experimentation, lilac or pantsuit, or scan for queer spellings like grrrl, bois, womyn or Barbra. Phrases like “family fun” and “ladies get in free” are highly suspect.
Why is it a woman who impersonates Anne Murray rates higher on the Kinsey scale than a woman who impersonates Bette Midler? Or take Toronto-based artist Sadko Hadzihasanovi´c and his erotic paintings of half-nude hunks (like Prince William in nothing but a Calvin Klein towel). No brainer, right? Wrongo.
Assumptions are treacherous. I don’t want to out people but I don’t want to in them, either.
Lots of local artists, the eager beavers who send in handcrafted messages and breathless e-mails, make the assumption that, since they’ve sent something to Xtra, then of course I’d recognize them as queer. They are surprised to learn that we get hundreds of press releases – for everything from tax seminars to tractor pulls.
Of course, many press releases are authored by publicists. Some have always understood the potentially complex relationship between artists and the queer media. Others don’t have a clue – like the ones pitching stories on any old piece of theatre because, well, the gays love theatre.
Not surprisingly, many folks will take press from anyone. There has been more than one instance where artists didn’t disabuse me of my mistaken impression they were homo – media sluts yes, but homo, no.
So I have to get on the phone. After eight years at this job, even I still cringe a little when I pop the ‘mo question. In some ways, it’s gotten harder. Often, the fresh-faced kids these days don’t see the point.
Rest assured, letting me know you’re queer doesn’t mean I’m going run a story that only says: You are a gay, gay, gay big fat gay. Sexuality is just a jumping off point. It’s the art I care about. An artist who is queer is easily identified – all it takes is one word. Queer art, however, is an infinite concept, and the more I do this job, the more expansive it gets. I love seeing how queer artists endlessly debate, directly or indirectly, what is this crazy thing called queer art.
When I interviewed for the job back before time began, I boasted that I’d slept with half the artists in town and was looking forward to sleeping with the other half. Which brings to mind an infamous Tallulah Bankhead anecdote. When asked by Dorothy Parker whether Montgomery Clift was gay, Bankhead replied in her characteristic drawl, “Well, daaarling, I really wouldn’t know. He never offered to suck my cock.” Failing that direct word-of-mouth knowledge, there’s nothing like a little note saying hi.