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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The Speechless Mentor

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Older generations are de facto role models for younger generations whether we like it or not. I certainly never longed to be a role model for anyone, which is probably one reason I very pointedly and rationally made the call decades ago to not have children. It is a decision I don’t regret to this day. Me, be someone’s papa? Are you kidding? I only just recently made peace with all my own insanities and let me tell you, that was a decades long, full-time job. For which I not only was unpaid but also had to pay – quite a lot. Read into that everything it implies. And doesn’t.

No, this Papa can not hear you

No, this Papa can not hear you

Still, what I never considered was that if one lives an even semi-decent life, which I believe I so far have, it is inevitable that one takes on a type of parenting and/or benevolent leader role to someone – and probably more than one someone – who is less experienced and probably younger than you are. This is the way of the world and is even predictable. Be it in your professional field, your social life, or – though hopefully not – in your romantic exploits – we will all eventually find ourselves suddenly thrust into the position of being a mentor, semi-oracle, or an older, wiser and more experienced something to someone when we least expect it.

For me this came full throttle when I became a college professor more than 10 years ago. Now let’s be honest here, there is something appealing about having people occasionally seeking you out for answers, especially if you’re someone who fancies their thoughts and opinions as something more than the stupidity that passes for wisdom these days. This is also doubly desirable to happen later in life when we all of a sudden find ourselves kicked out of the prime opinion-making demographic against our collective wills.

Nice try, Hipster Grandpa

Nice try, Hipster Grandpa

Still…when you’re up on the pedestal you must deliver the goods. That means you need to have a few answers, reasons or at least pseudo explanations and/or excuses in your area(s) of expertise.   And even non-expertise. Because once you become a true mentor to someone (and I suspect though can’t be totally sure it works this way when you’re a parent) it expands way beyond what you cop to know about and well into the issues of what may come up in the course of any particular day for those who are counting on you.

And that’s why I’m here to say that finally – after almost a lifetime of being a know-it-all – and more than a decade of being a sometime mentor and role model:

I’ve run out of answers.

For mass shootings.

For homophobia.

For racism.

For religious dogma.

For gun control.

For global warming.

For the rights and wrongs and lefts and centers of all of it.

Especially the Donald Trump of it – All.

Seriously. No really…seriously.

The realization finally took hold this week after 49 innocents of all ages were gunned down partying at a gay club in Orlando, FL. It was the type of place we gays in the 70s had always hoped for but, much like gay marriage, never quite imagined would come to be – a nightclub with a queer bent where gays, straights and those in between who were of all ages and races, would actually choose to congregate on a Saturday night to party together or just blow off some steam. A place that wasn’t limited to the rich and famous and didn’t have bouncers denying one entry because a bigger and better name was literally on the other line.

And preferably without these cheeseballs

And preferably without these cheeseballs

When word first came out that this unbalanced shooter fit a familiar profile – a disturbed American male in his 20s – I merely rolled my eyes in sad and disgusted submission. When the death roll rose to 49, setting a new US record, and I realized Pulse nightclub was the type of venue I’d visiting many times in my life, it was in horror.   Once I heard the marksman was a married, Middle-Eastern young man with a Grindr account who at the very least seems to have dabbled in gaydom, it became a cruel inexplicable plot point from a bad TV movie – that is if they were still making TV movies the way that they used. Nevertheless, you get what I mean.

Though perhaps you don’t. Because I’m not even sure I do any longer.

In any event, my Notes editor Holly suggested I blog immediately and she was right. Except, I couldn’t.   My mind was a blank. I said I wanted more info but found after XXX numbers of mass shootings blogs I didn’t have anything quite wise or even semi-not stupid to say.

Is this too simple? too complicated? sigh

Is this too simple? too complicated? sigh

Then more facts began to roll in, more absurd political statements from you-know-who mounted, talking heads blathered and people cried all over television. As usual, Pres. Obama spoke eloquently but reading between the lines he seemed to be to be tongue-tied and frustrated. (Note: Yes, I do believe it’s possible to speak well and yet underneath it all be tongue-tied). What more or new could be said, indeed.

It broke a bit when Sen. Chris Murphy filibustered the Senate several days ago and after 15 hours got a little bit done. The key world is little — as in wee. A promise there would be a vote on an assault weapons ban and a bill outlawing anyone on our terrorist watch lists from casually walking into a Wal-Mart and buying a firearm. Pres. Obama just several weeks ago lamented the latter point in a very public speech and with the same particularly frustrated tone.

Still, that was not what really put me over the edge.

What did it were the Facebook posts from some of my former students and mentees. Searching out social media, public forums, their friends, loved ones and even acquaintances and former teachers – they were looking for answers.

Even Mother Monster doesn't have the adequate words

Even Mother Monster doesn’t have the adequate words

Now contrary to what some may think from a film and TV writing professor, not all of my students are left leaning Bernie Sanders Democratic liberals. Yes, seriously.   And it is to those that I fear I don’t have adequate words because to those in particular I can’t fall back on the usual party lines.

A Republican alum of my classroom who reviles Trump and feels lost politically wanted to know if it was always like this. Another former student of color and Fox News watcher rightly equated the Muslim hate with any racial animus and couldn’t understand why his friends and cohorts couldn’t recognize this simple fact. A third – a straight white guy who is a raging liberal but doesn’t fit the profile of many of the rest of them because he married young and already has three kids – felt the same way towards the anti-LGBT patter, excoriating all the phonies out there on the right and left claiming to be a friend of the LGBTs when their previous actions indicate anything but – and often the exact opposite.

I tried to compose something comforting to each of them as good and competent friends, elders, and mentors try to do. And each time I failed.

Me, all week.

Me, all week.

How do I, a Democratic liberal, tell a young person who was raised to be a thinking person that this is a blip in history and through a generational lens what’s happening now is an anomaly? Do I really know that? And do I really believe it? When as a pre-teen I saw footage of Bobby Kennedy being shot and killed during a presidential campaign and I didn’t believe any of the excuses? These three and the many others out there are far more sophisticated than I was at the time so I know they wouldn’t believe any of this now.

What I do recall is appreciating the lack of sure-fire explanation. The truth is hard to hear but what’s worse to listen to is callow dishonesty. It makes all that’s happened even worse. Like trying to fill a large gaping hole with only your own teardrops.

So this is what I have to offer. The truth is it’s for each of us to make sense of these matters for us – through many sources and (non-violent) ways necessary – and act accordingly. But the key word in that sentence is ACT. In some way. Or some sort. It doesn’t have to be big but it can be. It needn’t be small but that in itself would be more than enough. Talking to people is a start. Phoning a representative. Demonstrating. Providing comfort to someone. Changing your behavior in whatever way seems fit in order to create something…dare I say it…more positive. Perhaps towards someone. Or maybe – to help your cause. Make a teeny, tiny first attempt. And don’t listen to the naysayers who will try to convince you nothing matters. That’s ridiculous. And historically untrue.

Never give up

Never give up

Meanwhile, I leave you with a poem a friend of mine posted on social media that sums up my feelings at the moment. It’s written by Maggie Smith. No, not Lady Grantham Dame Maggie Smith. No one can be THAT talented. This MS is a poet who wrote something off the top of her head about her feelings and awoke several days ago to see that it had suddenly gone viral. See, ya never know.

Good Bones

By Maggie Smith

 

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.

Pulse, composed and performed by Chris Ryan – a very talented former student making this place beautiful