LGBTay-Tay

When Taylor Swift gave a surprise performance of her new anti-hate song, You Need to Calm Down, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the modern LGTBTQ movement at the very place where it started – NYC’s Stonewall Inn – it made an impact.

After all, the 29 year-old singer/songwriter is one of the best-selling recording artists of all-time with over 50 million album sales and 150 million in single digital downloads.  She’s won 10 Grammys, was included in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters back in 2015 and has appeared three times in Time’s 100 most influential people, including 2019.

She’s a goddamn icon

Whether you are fan, frenemy, enemy or simply indifferent, it is undeniable that once Tay-Tay sets her sights on, or music to, a subject she carries an indefinable weight towards changing hearts and, more importantly, minds on said subject.

As a gay man of a certain age I do not take any support for granted, especially hers, and finally understand that each small and large gesture are essential building blocks forward.

A TS lyric like, shade never made anybody less gay in a song heard internationally more times than any of us likely ever will be, can’t move the needle alone.  Still, it can certainly be the single straw that breaks the back of hate in all sorts of different people for all sorts of different reasons.

YAY TAY TAY

At this point it might be worth remembering that it was on the day Judy Garland died that a group of trans people, gay men and drag queens stood up to police harassment en masse at the Stonewall Inn and birthed the modern gay liberation movement.

The fact that they rioted in the streets of Greenwich Village for several days, refusing to be targeted where they lived, did not happen just because a gay icon was gone, as the history books like to simplify.

However, it would not be overreach to write that when that final straw dropped on that specific day, a bunch of us were extremely pissed off, much more so than usual.  Just like you don’t throw a lit match onto a gas station or sass your Mom and Dad just after they’ve gotten home from a double shift at work. There are limits to what any of us will tolerate on a very bad day.

Even Joan has limits #nowirehangers

You can’t blame it on the sass or the match or the day or the shift.   It takes the combination of some or all of those elements (and more) to fuel the uncontrollable fire that was sure to come once all the kindling fell into place in exactly the right (or wrong) way.

It was in thinking about all of the above that it became undeniable that a week had just passed where all three of the new mainstream films and TV series I had just consumed for the first time centered specifically on members of the LGBTQ community.  This would have been unthinkable just two or three decades ago not because my tastes had changed but due to the fact that no one was making this much openly gay content back then for mass consumption.

Not even Charles Nelson Reilly was technically “out”

There was Halston, a feature length documentary on the gay designer of Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, Liza Minnelli’s sparkly stage outfits and just about some part of every trendy female fashionista’s wardrobe back in the 1970s.

Then scrolling on Netflix was Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story.  This was a hard look at the celebratory life and tragic death of young gay man credited as the greatest makeup artist who ever lived.  A guy who worked with every female supermodel of his era, including Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, and then segued to work with the likes of Cher, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, Gwyneth Paltrow and Andie McDowell.

The master at work

This was all before branching out to create best-selling books and makeup lines and

dedicating his own time and money to mentor other young, forgotten gay kids, many of whom came from the same small homophobic home towns he himself had grown up in.

Watching his adopted father’s account of how the young Kevin had to drop out of high school at the age of 15 after several of the school bullies tried to run him down with their truck was enough to make any viewer question if anything has really changed at all.

Of course, this would be foolish thinking since his very own path to international fame as a proudly out gay man occurred years after the Stonewall Riots and the rise of a very un-publicly gay designer like Halston.

and certainly after Keith Haring’s “Heritage of Pride” Logo from the 80s

It is on the wings of countless real life people that Kevin was able to rise just a little bit more and the memorable gay characters of contemporary fiction emerge.  That is why watching Netflix’s just released 10-part limited streaming series, Tales of the City, based on Armistead Maupin’s best-selling books of 1970s, 80s and beyond San Francisco, seems a perfect cultural bridge to a 2019 public, yet now somehow almost routine, LGBTQ ally like Taylor Swift.I can recall devouring those Tales novels when I first came out because it was the first time I saw the gay and straight worlds melded together into the one more integrated, albeit messier, world that I lived in.

BONUS Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis together again!

Sure, it was a somewhat idealized world but it spoke to my reality closer than anything I had come across up to that point, straight or gay.  Good as the early PBS miniseries (based on the first two books) was back in the early 1990s I can recall how disappointing it felt to have it viewed as both exotic and controversial when it was first broadcast during the AIDS era.   So much so that the PBS network declined to do any more movies/shows based on the next books, which were finally produced by Showtime but gained far less attention.

For those of us still around, and for so many others, it is therefore a partial triumph of both endurance and history that the gay-themed issues tackled in the latest Tales on Netflix are today barely controversial – only merely reflective of where the world is now.  Far more potent is how the middle-aged (Note: ahem) characters of my generation co-exist with the younger out(er) and proud(er) generation after them and how they all grapple with the full history of those left from the still older generation that came before either of them saw the light of day.

Kinda like the feeling I get when I see this guy out on the trail with his husband #PeteforAmerica

It is in this more full depiction of the many inroads and detours taken in the full path to get here that these newest Tales really soars.  This is done through expert performances from the likes of Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney and Ellen Page as trans, straight and gay/bisexual characters, respectively, of different ages whose many stylized stories not only naturally but casually intersect with a core truth of not only how it was but how we would want it to be.  Perhaps, in some ways, how it now is for all of us.  Or, well, more of us.

This new Tales miniseries is memory piece of today that is built on the past but exists clearly in the present as it consistently looks towards the future.  It is not unlike what Taylor Swift does when she comes fully out as a straight LGBTQ ally in 2019 and uses her celebrity and talents to boldly admonish all current and future homophobes in a fun but clearly commercial pop song pointedly entitled You Better Calm Down.

Taylor Swift – “You Need to Calm Down”

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When We Rise… and Rise and Rise

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There was a moment in this past week’s When We Rise – ABC’s 8-hour miniseries retelling the gay liberation movement through the personal and professional travails of four real life activists – where one realizes that it is only when the political becomes personal that a true activist is born. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – meaning it takes something awfully personal to happen to us before we muster up the energy to try and save the world.

8 hours well spent #chairreview

8 hours well spent #chairreview

Of course, no one can truly save a world, despite what politicians, billionaires or real estate moguls will tell you, and sometimes in the body of the same person. And moreover, that moment when it all clicks in and causes action is different for all of us.

A noteworthy screenwriter friend of mine named Anna Hamilton-Phelan once wrote a script on the women’s movement called The Big Click and it is only now – 25 plus years later – that I truly get what she was talking about. Oh sure, I’ve been politically active over the decades and understood the basic meaning of what she was saying. Who could argue with the idea that there are episodes in all of our lives when something goes from simply bothering us to pissing us off so royally that we are moved into action. Or from understanding in hindsight that unknowingly there were reasons ingrained in us from childhood that causes us to be passionate about an issue rather than merely just sympathetic towards it.

There are some parents in need of a medal for this gem #girlpower

There are some parents in need of a medal for this gem #girlpower

The gay heroes in When We Rise had many motivating factors but the commonality that clicked in for me was that at least one parent rejected them from an early age because of their sexual orientation and that these brave men and women had the strength to know that the problem was not with themselves and the temerity to devote their lives to enabling the world to see the truth. What this translates into was being a part of a movement to change the world even though, at its basic core, all they were really doing was standing up for freedom, equality and honesty.

This seems easy but it is anything but when the world at large, not to mention your close circle of friends and relatives, informs you in every way through words, deeds and general point of views, that you are wrong. As a gay person it is always chilling for me to revisit the outward hostility and rejection of gay people as any sort of normal through my lifetime by mainstream society.

When I was a boy in the sixties and a young teenager in the first part of the seventies, the notion of showing a same sex couple making love on a major network was as likely as, well….NOTHING. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone at the time who would have considered it a viable notion.

Well.. at least we had Charles

About as gay as it got on TV #thankyoucharles

Certainly no one in the early eighties could have imagined the full pandemic of AIDS or the experience of literally watching your friends and lovers drop dead all around you as the mainstream forces of government and religious institutions turned its back on you or leaned in with hateful condemnation and we told you so indifference.

Yet, like the leaders of civil rights and women’s liberation and so many other movements for social change these people remained undeterred, motivated in some part by the very injustices that they were consistently met with, and often from a very early age.

Horrific as the AIDS era was for our community (and others), I have always believed that without it the country never would realize so quickly that almost everyone in America knew and loved (or very much liked) a gay person. Compared to DEATH, or at least WATCHING DEATH, the onus of coming out began to feel almost laughable at some point.

Amen to that

#Reality

But then quite strangely and surreally this begat the slow opening of the door to what the majority of mainstream society now accepts as normal – gay marriage. How odd that our forbearers had to die in order to achieve it. And yet, when you look at the history of our progress towards racial equality – how obvious that this would be what it would take to achieve.

Of course, none of us should be fooled into thinking that as we progress we have achieved anything near equality in either of these areas – or many others. In the case of the LGBT community, there is currently an international brouhaha that the upcoming Disney release of the new Beauty and the Beast even features a gay character.

THE HORROR!

THE HORROR!

A movie theatre owner in Alabama pulled it from its schedule, publicly noting in a statement that: if I can’t sit through a movie with God or Jesus sitting by me then we have no business showing it.

This is followed by threats to Disney that Beauty might entirely be banned from Russia for essentially the same reason. A prominent lawmaker there has publicly called for its culture minister to screen it in advance and then bar it if he finds elements of propaganda of homosexuality. 

Never mind that the gay character in question is (and has always been) named LeFou, is merely a sidekick that has a crush on the male lead, Gaston, and that the gayest thing he reportedly does is dance a little too enthusiastically with a friend. When it comes to Disney the gay thing is still sacrosanct, in several if not many more corners.

I mean.... do we not remember Scar? #letsbereal

I mean…. do we not remember Scar? #letsbereal

Certainly a gay Disney character is not the most burning issue in LGBT freedoms but with our new administration rescinding an executive order to disallow transgender students from using the bathroom of their choice, and new religious freedom laws brewing nationally and in many statewide government offices to override other existing gay civil rights rulings in other related areas, any blanket normalcy of the community seems as far as it’s ever been.

Aside from being gay I’m also Jewish and the rise of anti-Semitic crimes of defacement and violence in the US is still in line with the ongoing history of persecution we Jews have endured through the centuries. Sure, it’s been a long time since 6 million or more of us died in Nazi concentration camps (or has it?) but as everyone in any minority group knows just when you think you and yours might be primarily safe is the very moment when you need to pay attention. And this does not necessarily mean solely watching out for members of one’s immediate minority group but to those in others, be they Black, Muslim, female (even though they, like those who voted for the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, ARE in the majority), Mexican and…(fill in accordingly).

Pretty much sums it up right now

Pretty much sums it up right now

I’d like to say members of my particular minority groups are already doing this (and perhaps they are) but the most recent evidence I can provide is this news story about two Muslim-American activists who raised more than $20,000 in over two hours in order to repair the massive damage done last month to more than 100 headstones in an historic Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.

“…Through this campaign, we hope to send a united message from the Jewish and Muslim communities that there is no place for this type of hate, desecration, and violence in America,” read the crowd-funding webpage started by Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi

The recognition that hateful actions towards ONE of us are hateful crimes towards ALL of us feels like 21st century activism. Ever personal, ever angry but rooted in problem-solving, progress and the united hope for a better future, along with the knowledge that, like it or not, it’s both an individual AND a group journey.