The British miniseries Brideshead Revisited (recently rereleased on DVD for its 25th anniversary) oozes homoeroticism. In the first few hours of the miniseries, artist Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) and Roman Catholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte (played by Anthony Edwards) sunbathe naked, share baths, sip champagne in the countryside and wrap around each other in Venice.
Though it’s certainly a romantic friendship, the miniseries is coy about showing us whether it’s sexual or not. That’s not because Brideshead Revisited is shy about homosexuality. There’s one character, Anthony Blanche, who is a 110 percent flamer, stuttering his way through fashionable restaurants, gay bars and dark corners. After being hazed on campus, Anthony rhapsodizes: “If you knew anything of sexual psychology, you would know that nothing could give me keener pleasure than to be m-m-m-manhandled by you meaty boys — ecstasy of the naughtiest kind.”
Anthony (played with unblinking camp by Nickolas Grace) is a big faggy caricature. But he’s also the only character in Brideshead Revisited who speaks the truth. While others are caught up in maintaining their facades or are muddled by notions of sin and status and who they really desire, Anthony cuts through the shit. He’s the only character who unapologetically does what he wants, says what he means. To other people he’s a joke, but he’s happier than everyone else.
After 10 year of not seeing each other, Anthony and Charles meet and go to a seedy gay bar for a drink. Anthony offhandedly sums up his old friend’s current situation: I know you’re having an affair, I know your art is fakery, I know you’re a fake. Anthony means no harm — there’s no judgment, if you can believe it — but Charles leaves in a rush, denying Anthony a goodbye embrace. Charles has no interest in anyone who can see through him.
Sorry for the long character sketch. But it was Anthony Blanche (and letter writer Tim Devlin) who got me thinking about the role of gay men in today’s “whatever” post-gay world.
By “gay men,” I don’t mean men who have sex with men (MSM) — the term frequently by AIDS service organizations — or queer or questioning men or bisexual men or trans men or men on the down-low or drag queens or ladyboys. Which isn’t to say that these other identities aren’t interesting. Actually, because so many of these other states of sexual being are emerging and evolving, they’re probably worthy of more attention than gayness in 2007.
Gay men, as a brand, are starting to seem a little tired. Nowadays when young Canadians discover their homosexual feelings they have much less to fear — loss of work, assault, taunts, rejection by family and friends, loneliness, childlessness. That’s great, but gives them much less reason to band themselves together under the banner of opera lovers, Pet Shop Boys fans or the like. Meanwhile, men who would have years ago considered themselves as gay are now dividing themselves into subgroups, describing themselves bears, SM players, artfags or, worse, merely married.
A man in 2007 can lack style, a love of divas, obsessive tidiness — and still be attracted to other men. But is this slovenly, nail-polish-wearing rap-lover still gay or is he a queer MSM with a soupçon of trans?
If he can see through the bullshit, call it as he sees it without worrying about what others think, I think he’s still gay. If his attraction to men continues to remind him that all human desires are up for grabs, are equally worthy of admiration and mockery, he’s following in the grand gay tradition of Anthony Blanche.
That’s the lasting contribution of gay men: our power to pursue our desires wholeheartedly in the full awareness that they might very likely be absurd in the eyes of others — or even in our own eyes. Yet we pursue them anyway.