I started writing this post in May last year and then left it as a draft, but partly because (with all the travel) this place has become a bit what-I-did-at-the-weekend-ish of late, (i.e. lacking my usual abstract musings/navel gazing) and partly because it's on a topic that keeps coming up for me, I thought I'd revisit what I'd written, add to it and post it. Appologies if I get a bit soap-boxy in places, and for using even more footnotes than usual.
Over the last year or so one way and another I've given a fair bit of thought to my sexual orientation and how that impacts (or doesn't) on my day to day existence, and on my future. On one hand I've been watching my two siblings forge happy conventional relationships for themselves, and finding myself part of a steadily growing family without really having a sense of how my role in that family might develop as it grows, or if/how my own relationships might someday contribute to that growth*. On another I've just enjoyed a six month long holiday, (afforded in part by a non-conventional lifestyle) exploring new places, and along the way exploring who I am.
Surrounded as I am by thinkers and (in many cases) fellow misfits in one sense or another, it's a topic that gets a fair bit of discussion, especially when something raises the issue to the surface. One such discursive catalyst was that gay cowboy movie
which everyone got thoroughly sick of hearing about soon after it hit the cinema and which has since disappeared quietly into celuloid history. At the time I read lots of things about how groundbreaking it was for all sorts of reasons that barely seemed current, let alone 'groundbreaking' to me. I also read a lot about how brave the actors were for... acting. Again that seemed like nonsense to me, but at the same time, the film struck me pretty hard emotionally when I watched it in the cinema. Even seeing it again on the back of an aeroplane headrest a few weeks ago, it left me with a vague feeling of having encountered a social sea-change of sorts.
When it was released some people lambasted the movie for presenting modern gay men with an outdated, negative, hopeless model for our relationships: the idea being that the characters could have made a life together elsewhere, and that endlessly presenting gay relationships as tragic failures is a form of oppression. They are admittedly frustrating characters because there's a potential there (it wouldn't be a love story if there weren't) but does a love story need to have a happy ending to be a positive social phenomenon? Coming at it from a creative/critical perspective I can't see how a happy ending version of that story could have been anywhere near as powerful or moving. Sure they could have moved to 'the city' and had a life together and Maupin
and others have proven there's some milage in stories about gay society... thing is though these two characters weren't
gay, they were just a couple of homosexual men.
That disticntion (if you can grasp it) is what I think made the film timely, and is also (I think) at the core of one of the most interesting developments in terms of sexuality and identity now. 'gayness' is gradually becoming mainstream: the whole counterculture idenity that homosexual men in the C20th built up around themselves is beginning to be woven into the fabric of mainstream popular culture**. That's great for what it is, but it doesn't really do a whole lot for those of us who are just homosexual - Personally I've no truck with "gay culture" - it's a fun place to visit now and then, but it offers me nothing with which to identify in terms of who I am myself. I'm none of the things a that make a gay man, except that I'm ardently homosexual - that's my sexuality, and for what it's worth I'm proud of it, but it's only
my sexuality, it isn't my identity.
Getting back to the film, Jack and Ennis could have upped sticks from their rural existence and lived out a happy life somewhere more accepting, but especially in the early second half of the C20th (with events like the Stonewall riots
shaping the burgeoning contemporary gay culture,) that would have meant adopting an identity that was not
their own - an identity based narrowly on just their sexuality rather than who they were in a wider sense.
Don't get me wrong here: I think that that shift among many gay men and women in the 1960s and 70s from hiding, to confronting social inequality by open and defiant difference was hugely important. I also recognise that it's in large part why I enjoy many of the rights and freedoms I do today. I also think that the time for defiant difference has passed now, and that little is left to be gained by homosexuals defining ourselves by what makes us different. The "gay community" today (at its worst) serves only as a license for us to treat each other appallingly. Little if anything of the supportive inclusive aspects of a "community" remains. That in itself is perhaps the biggest sign that it's time for something else.
By writing a story/making a film now about the pressures of an unaccepting society and how it ultimately destroys two lives by outlawing their love, in a sense Proulx/Lee are each underlining that acceptance of that loud attention grabbing C20th "gay culture" is not enough, that it misses the point which is that many (most?) homosexuals aren't actually gay! Increasingly examples of "normal"*** homosexual and bisexual characters are cropping up in the media and the idea that sexuality governs any aspect of character beyond those directly relating to sex, is starting to be challenged. The optimist in me sees a growing recognition in the mainstream that exactly that gay culture which has been steadily gaining acceptance is not what really needs to be accepted.
Briefly coming back to the movie, (by way of bringing this rambling post to a close before it sprawls into a fully fledged essay) by not having the two characters fold and adopt the available (albeit it difficult) gay identities which would have allowed them to live as a couple, the film highlights that gay culture doesn't necesarily represent homosexuals, being instead just a response to the repression of the sexual orientation/sexual identity which it purports to represent. Arguably (now it has served its social purpose) it's even just another form of repression... but maybe that's a whole other post. For myself back in the real world I'm just going to have to keep puzzling out as an individual how the assorted aspects of who I am fit with the world as I find it... and of course hope that I
don't end up in a long term relationship with a shirt. ;)
* By which I mean my reasonably well documented failure to date to form a lasting adult romantic relationship. I'm not talking about the thorny issue of gay parenting, just wondering if/how a partner (should I ever find one) would fit into the family. My family would be friendly and welcoming I know, but the last person I was seriously interested in voiced reservations of his own about ever feeling like part of someone else's family and that angle wasn't one I'd considered before
** in my experience in Europe at least, but also in the more civilised parts of North America and the wider western world. Also throughout this post I'm using media portrayal as an imperfect measure of social climates - and yes I realise that's a flawed approach but this isn't science, it's just me thinking aloud
*** That is normal as opposed to stylised and/or stereotyped. For example characters like Jack Harkness or David Fisher whose (non-standard) sexuality is presented as an incidental aspect of who they are, rather than as their primary character trait. Meanwhile characters like Daffyd Thomas emerge (though usually more subtly like Ken the steward on Pacific Air flight 121) showing neatly how little "gay" as a character trait has to do with actual sexuality - Daffyd for example being "the only gay in the village" while also patently not homosexual