Depending on where and how you were looking, it was a terrific year for gay pop culture... or a rotten one. While representations of gay folk in media have never been more varied, they still aren't varied enough. They are still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly affluent, overwhelmingly male*. Below are some quick summaries of the conclusions that I've drawn from some of the gay-oriented pop culture I consumed this year. When thinking about this post and why these representations matter at all, I used these words from bell hooks's intro to Black Looks as my guide: "It is only as we collectively change the way we look at ourselves and the world that we can change how we are seen."
Please Like Me
Deemed "too gay" for mainstream TV in Australia, Please Like Me is extremely sharp and funny in handling the living contradiction that being gay is at once no big deal and the biggest deal. It's unfortunate that that concept is not "normal" enough for "regular" television.
Love Is Strange
It's possible to make a movie that's pointed regarding the limitations of tolerance even from the supposedly enlightened. Less possible is getting people to watch it. And even with Love Is Strange's unfairly small audience, it's still in the Top 3 highest-grossing LGBT films of the past five years.
[There was a video here]
To resonate, a show need only focus on a handful of gay men. They don't have to say anything particularly funny or unique or insightful or interesting over the course of a scene or several scenes in a row, as long as they are "normal" and an alternative to the flamboyance of RuPaul's Drag Race and things of that nature.
Whatever, I just hope Season 2 contains a subplot about PrEP. It's long overdue.
This movie about gay activists' solidarity with Welsh miners during the strikes of 1984-85 is sweet, though excessively earnest and, ultimately, crams in more issues than it has time to adequately explore. Still, it provides a nice model for finding common ground and applying your experience to helping people outside of your own immediate community to work toward a greater good. (Rose McGowan should see this if she hasn't already. She would love it.)
The Skeleton Twins
The Case Against 8
The Normal Heart
Goddamn, HBO is committed to telling gay stories. Even if they don't do it perfectly (Looking, The Case Against 8, the scene in The Normal Heart in which a single tear runs down Matt Bomer's face as he's getting fucked), their efforts are needed and appreciated.
The Imitation Game
There is plenty to be said about straight men's relationship to gay people and culture… and it's best said with the help of a gay man (James Franco co-directed this movie with Travis Mathews). But don't be surprised when that straight guy resumes hetero-supremacist bullshit, like when Franco ripped off Christopher Schulz's nude drawings of Seth Rogen because, as he said, "I felt like, oh here he is appropriating Seth's personality and his persona for his art to get attention for his art, and I thought, well, if anybody should paint Seth naked, it should be me, so I took his sketches and did paintings." Appropriation is a two-way straight if you're a straight guy who appropriated gay sex to get attention.
Top Five/The Interview
If unassisted by gays, though, we're all better off if straight guys don't even attempt to write gay characters. Eminem couldn't be more useless on the topic of gays, and yet opinions of them keep coming out of his mouth. He wishes he could quit them.
Dear White People
Despite what this list of white gay men suggests, there is room for queer people of color on screen. In the case of Dear White People's Lionel, multiple otherness (and his detachment from each ostensible group he belongs to) only made him more nuanced, more complicated, more human. It wasn't easy, though: DWP's director Justin Simien told me that Lionel's queerness "had to be subversively worked into the narrative because if the movie was a quote-unquote black gay movie, oh god. That's box office poison."
How To Get Away With Murder
Frank depictions of gay sex, even when they arrive with an explicitly expressed agenda, are not a liability, even on a network show. This show does things to my ass that makes my eyes water. Still, haters gonna hate.
Sam Smith/Perfume Genius
Music is the least gay-friendly arm of pop culture. Sam Smith is openly gay, but coy with the details (details like pronouns) at every turn. He is a global superstar. Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) is lyrically flamboyant ("No family is safe when I sashay") and has a healthy-sized cult following, particularly amongst fellow queers. "I had a lot of people telling me if I toned it down or dealt with more universal themes — which is code for being less gay — I would be more successful and have a wider fan base," Hadreas told the New York Times earlier this year. You can't argue with results, but you can find them incredibly depressing.
Gay-sex real talk, even in the exaggerated yet casual way that heterosexual sex is frequently discussed in hip-hop, is so uncommon that a song based on it is considered little more than novelty if it even ends up reaching a wider audience.
Cakes da Killa
An artist can be explicitly, openly, unapologetically, defiantly gay (from Cakes's "Oven Ready": "I wish a bitch would / But in hindsight I know a faggot wish he could / Do it like this get ya stick on wood / Talking cement when I'm bent over like / And if I said it take it literal / I was never too keen on subliminals") and he'll still get asked dumb questions like, "Is it directly penis that excites you the most?" from the straight dudes that respect his talent enough to help promote him.
thank you so much to @Letterman for inviting me to perform on his stage as a musician and not as a spectacle.
— Le1f ☥ (@LE1FNY) March 14, 2014
RuPaul's Drag Race
[There was a video here]
A decades-long history of public inclusiveness toward trans people and those on the outskirts of queerness, like the type that RuPaul has exhibited, isn't enough to win the good will of a vocal majority who takes exception to your irreverent vocabulary.
In the genre of news-hijacking, Brendan Jordan's gay-affected posing was exemplary. In the genre having something to say, Jordan's gay-affected posing was empty. "In today's culture, if you're gay, you become famous. That's basically how it works," is how one commenter interpreted the popularity of Jordan, and I understand how someone could make that mistake looking at Jordan. After his news clip went viral, Jordan appeared on various talk shows and was praised for being himself, even though at 15, it's virtually impossible for him to have a firm grasp on what being oneself even means. Granted, expecting a 15-year-old to have anything to say or a fully formed identity is too tall an order. I don't blame Jordan for attempting to extend his 15 seconds, I blame a culture that foolishly believes that because a kid did one funny thing in one video, he must be otherwise fascinating or meaningful. (I also blame Lady Gaga for perpetuating the idea that fame is an admirable goal, that to replicate her behavior is to assert one's individuality, that applause is a life force. Really, her fans are the fucking worst, and it's her fault.)
There is no place in the NFL for an openly gay man. After what Sam went through I understand why players stay closeted. This whole story is fucking depressing. 2015 should be better because it could barely be worse.
*Note that this post only focuses on gay men/male characters in pop culture because of both the dearth of queer women narratives and because I'm more equipped to comment on the effect of gay men/male characters given my focus and personal experience. Please feel free to add lessons gleaned from notable depictions of queer women in the comments below.