Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

July 22 2016 5:30 PM

The Looking Finale Isn’t Good—But the Show Was Great for Gay Art

When Looking premiered back in 2014, you could say I found it politically troubling. Those issues faded somewhat in season two; but by then, I had decided that politics aside, the earnest tone and gauzy approach of director Andrew Haigh and writer Michael Lannan just weren’t for me. If you like misty shots of the San Francisco skyline and close-ups of Jonathan Groff’s variations on a pained smile, you may enjoy Looking: The Movie, the show’s feature-length finale airing Saturday on HBO. The film follows our hero Patrick during a visit to town for a wedding after a nine-month absence in Denver. Along the way, there’s copious dime-store wisdom on relationships and finding “something close to adulthood,” and plenty of moments where folks like Richie (Raúl Castillo) or a 22-year-old trick of Patrick’s named Jimmy (Michael Rosen) impregnate pauses with unbearably freighted clichés. The latter, on playing nicely with exes: “You have to bury your dead real good, you know? So they don’t come back and haunt you.” Jimmy, we’re meant to understand, has more going on than a great ass, which we watch Patrick devour in the film’s single—but truly great—sex scene.

Again, whether or not such lines make you groan at your screen is a matter of taste. But if there’s anything interesting about this film, it’s how self-aware it is about the division in reception, especially in terms of the ideological charges leveled against it by haters like me. I had to admire the writers for including—in a logic-vexing scene where Patrick attempts to “close a chapter” by having coffee with his philandering but somehow here morally superior old boss Kevin (Russell Tovey)—criticisms of the show in the guise of reviews of the pair’s failing smartphone app: “Stereotype, cliché-ridden dross,” and “What the fuck is the point?” And later, at a drunken post-nuptials party, there’s a nasty exchange between Patrick and Richie’s queer-blogger boyfriend, “leader of the gay thought police” Brady (Chris Perfetti), that made me LOL with its literal portrayal of the debate over gay representation that’s surrounded the series.

Brady: Is your femmephobia a joke?
Patrick: It’s OK, you can say it. It’s not like it’s the first time you’ve implied that I’m everything that’s wrong with the gay community. … I promise to read more of your articles and hope that one day I can finally learn how to be gay and be as perfectly adjusted as you!

Appreciate the clicks, pato.

On the point of marriage, the film deserves credit for attempting to explore many queer people’s ambivalence around taking part in such a conservative institution, even if the various positions are rather bluntly rendered. Points also for throwing something of a grappling hook to gay political history, with Patrick briefly acknowledging “all those people that came before us that actually had to struggle against something” and legendary activist Cleve Jones making a cameo during the wedding toasts to speak of the need to teach queer youth that “their lives do matter.” (Speaking of cameos, Tyne Daly’s turn as a City Hall marriage officiant provides the only eddy in a steady stream of “how to relationship” bromides that’s genuinely affecting.) Even these small gestures made this visit to Looking-land feel much more connected to the gay world I live in than it had before.

But overall, the stakes of the narrative remain too low to justify the reverence with which they’re treated. Aside from Patrick’s continuing to be a manipulative love tornado, Dom’s (Murray Bartlett) choice to focus on career over sex for a spell is presented as a major conflict point, and Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), who finds himself with steady job and a great relationship, actually says the words: “I’m not who I thought I’d be, and that’s tough for me to take.” In a story where apparently the bravest thing a person can do is move to another major city for another good job, this kind of hand-wringing is also tough to take.

Indeed, the only person whose life feels in any way worth exploring is Richie. We hear a snippet about his troubled relationship with his father, and Castillo’s superior acting skills make the character’s emotional travails feel more meaningful. As the film lost itself in Patrick’s puppy-dog eyes, I found myself wondering how the series might have turned out differently had it been told from Richie’s point-of-view, with Patrick as an occasional interruption and Agustín ideally appearing not at all. Who knows? Given that this film represents HBO’s no-hard-feelings farewell to the series, I doubt we’ll get to see a spin-off; but a show about the journeys of a handsome salon-truck owner is something I’d give a shot.

In any case, with Looking at an end, it’s worth asking what we found. Because precious few examples exist in the world, any art that seriously attempts to represent the gay experience will be asked to do an unfair amount of work, to meet the incommensurable expectations of an innumerable audience. For some, Looking was a gorgeous and subtle portrait of a specific collection of flawed humans by the bay. To others, all those moody hues were imbued with tropes too familiar and grating to ignore. And still others found it, well, boring. Haigh, Lannan, and company could never hope to satisfy us all.

In the final analysis, though, I’m glad the show existed. During Patrick and Brady’s catfight, galpal Doris (Lauren Weedman) chimes in with a helpful comment: “I love it when gays fight with other gays about being gays.” This seems intended as a blanket dismissal of criticisms like mine (and the rejoinders to them), but I actually think Doris is onto something. Anything that gets queer people thinking about our place in the larger culture, rather than just ambling passively through it, cannot be all bad. In fact, starting those fights could be seen as a kind of activism, a necessary spur to get us moving toward the queerer future—one with space enough for the Patricks and the Bradys—we’re all looking for.

Disclosure: Slate editor Julia Turner's husband works on the show.

When Looking premiered back in 2014, you could say I found it politically troubling. Those issues faded somewhat in season two; but by then, I had decided that, politics aside, the earnest tone and gauzy approach of director Andrew Haigh and writer Michael Lannan just wasn’t for me.
When Looking premiered back in 2014, you could say I found it politically troubling. Those issues faded somewhat in season two; but by then, I had decided that, politics aside, the earnest tone and gauzy approach of director Andrew Haigh and writer Michael Lannan just wasn’t for me.

July 21 2016 11:54 PM

Peter Thiel Says Trans Bathroom Access Is a Distraction

Peter Thiel, the openly gay PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who spent almost a decade plotting the destruction of Gawker for publishing the open secret of his sexual orientation in 2007, told the crowd at the Republican National Convention Thursday night that personal identity doesn’t matter all that much. Instead of worrying about protecting marginalized Americans from identity-based violence and discrimination, Thiel suggested, we should be focusing on the economy and getting to Mars.

Here’s the transcript:

When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares? Of course, every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I'm proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American. I don't pretend to agree with every plank in our party's platform, but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline. And nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.

Who cares! In the bathroom line, Thiel is referring to the ongoing battle over the right of transgender people to use gendered facilities that comport with their identities. A generous reading of his intent here, given his vocal libertarianism, is that the state shouldn’t be involved in policing where people pee. With this, trans folks and their supporters would generally agree. The trouble is, plenty of people, both in the government and on the street, are extremely interested in policing, often violently, bathroom use and many other private activities that are part of LGBTQ lives. Which is why nondiscrimination laws—like the one in Charlotte that North Carolina’s HB2 overruled—are so necessary. Until such protections are in place, “fake culture wars” are very real indeed.

Of course, all the arrogance of this statement really proves is that Thiel lives in a reality-disrupting cocoon of privilege. Only in the last few years could a white gay man like him feel secure enough in American society to think that identity-based discrimination isn’t a “real problem.” Luckily, most of the LGBTQ community isn’t so blind.


Bryan Lowder

July 21 2016 11:06 PM

Donald Trump Just Promised to Protect LGBTQ People—Don’t Believe Him

On Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump took a moment in his nomination acceptance speech to address an unlikely constituency: LGBTQ Americans. In a segment of the remarks focused on fighting ISIS and terrorism, Trump invoked the June 12 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, claiming that he would “protect” queer people from similar violence:

Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted LGBTQ community. No good. And we're going to stop it. As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology. Believe me! And I have to say as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you.

This statement, and the cheers in the room, are simply galling, not least because Trump’s party just approved a virulently anti-LGBTQ platform, including everything from overturning marriage equality to supporting dangerous "conversion therapy" and anti-trans bathroom laws. But it’s a rhetorical move Trump has been attempting since the days after the attack, when—after thanking supporters for “the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism”—he argued that queer people should support him, our true “friend,” over Hillary Clinton because she isn’t an Islamophobic racist.

I’ve explained at length why this logic is both fallacious and offensive, but it’s worth a quick revisit here, lest RNC viewers be tempted to give credit to Trump or his party for appearing to support LGBT people. For one thing, the large majority of the “wonderful Americans” slaughtered at Pulse were Latino, some undocumented. Trump has spent much of his campaign demeaning, threatening deportation to, and promising to build a wall against such people. Additionally, investigations have revealed that Omar Mateen was almost certainly not connected to any actual “Islamic terrorist” group; indeed, his invocation of ISIS during the attack appears to have been a gambit for attention more than a statement of genuine affiliation. And finally, the idea that a Republican president is going to protect LGBTQ people from “oppression” is, in a word, laughable. In fact, while homophobia in certain parts of Muslim culture is a real problem, queer Americans don't need to look to a “hateful foreign ideology” to find something to fear. We have more than enough homophobia and transphobia to deal with right here at home—much of it emanating from the white, straight, nominally Christian people who make up Trump’s base.

So yeah, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t put much stock in the idea of a President Trump as queer savior. It’s disgusting—if not surprising—that he’d exploit the memory of our murdered brothers and sisters to try and turn queer people against Muslims. But thankfully, the effort is doomed: LGBTQ people are familiar, painfully so, with what happens when a group of people are demonized as a threat to the safety of the nation. It’s not Muslims we need protecting from; it’s charismatic, prevaricating bigots like Trump.

July 21 2016 5:32 PM

Why Gay Parents Should Share Gay Culture With Their Children

Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy?Send your letter along to johnculhane@comcast.net.

Is gay culture dead or dying, as so many seem to think? Consider this:

On the 12-foot high, east wall of our kitchen sit nine symmetrically arranged, framed posters from old sheet music. Long-dead celebrities and utterly forgotten songs are the order of the day: Ever heard of  “Ritzi Mitzi,” “Little Girl,” or “Running Between the Rain-Drops” (where even the hyphen bespeaks the song’s ancient provenance)? Your eye will soon be drawn to the center square, where “Nevertheless” (from the musical Three Little Words) depicts a high-kicking Vera-Ellen dancing alongside a perfectly balanced Fred Astaire. Not since Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares has a center square been so gay.

David, my husband, had put these posters up some years ago, and I never thought much of them—until a recent conversation with some neighbors about how assimilated we were. Raising kids and hanging out in our West Philadelphia community with their parents, it seemed we had bored the gay away, settling comfortably into our comfortably progressive middle-class trappings. But then one of them said: “You have show tunes on your kitchen wall.” Until then, neither David nor I had really considered the seepage of our backgrounds—which are markedly different from each other’s—into our not-quite-post-gay lives. Once that sentence had been spoken, though, I started thinking about the small ways that our lives, and our parenting, have differed from those of our straight friends—because there really still is something we can call “gay culture.”

July 21 2016 8:30 AM

Watch the Powerful Transgender Ad That Will Air on Fox News When Trump Accepts the GOP Nomination

The commercials that play during coverage of the party conventions make a good case for the fast-forward button being the greatest invention since the TV remote control emerged from some genius’s head. Ads that run in this kind of programming typically tout shady products, iffy apps, and services that you hope you’ll never need to take advantage of. But on Thursday night, during Fox News’ primetime coverage of the Republican National Convention, right around the time when presidential nominee Donald Trump is expected to speak, a spot will run that could cause viewers to hit pause and maybe even rewind. Created by the Movement Advancement Project and funded by Fairness USA, the ad is intended to communicate the challenges transgender people face using public restrooms in the age of anti-trans bathroom bills.

The ad features a transgender woman from North Carolina, home of HB2, a rabidly anti-LGBTQ law that my colleague Mark Joseph Stern described as “vicious, shameful, and unconstitutional.” Among other nasty provisions, HB2 prohibits trans people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. This is such a barbarous restriction that it’s tough to imagine what it would feel like to be on the receiving end that message. The commercial attempts to convey exactly that.

July 20 2016 3:14 PM

Caitlyn Jenner Calls Out Her Fellow Republicans on Trans Issues, Bathroom Bills

Now we know how Caitlyn Jenner sounds when she’s talking to family. I’m not talking about Kardashians and Jenners—we’ve seen plenty of those interactions on her reality show, I Am Cait—but, rather, her fellow Republicans. Jenner isn’t part of the official program of the Republican National Convention, but she’s in Cleveland, and she made an appearance at Wednesday’s morning’s Big Tent Brunch, hosted by the American Unity Fund, a conservative pro-LGBTQ group.

In a 25-minute Q&A with American Unity Fund President Margaret Hoover, Jenner was impressively forthright, especially on the subject of anti-trans bathroom bills.

July 19 2016 6:17 PM

The Actions of One Person Cannot Derail the Trans Equality Movement

Last week, news broke that a transgender woman, Shauna Smith, had been charged with voyeurism at a Target in Ammon, Idaho. The details of the case are still sketchy, but available reporting alleges that she reached over a fitting room dividing wall with an iPhone to photograph or record a young woman who was trying on swimsuits. According to court documents, Smith explained to a detective that she made such recordings for the purposes of sexual gratification. Smith is currently being held in the Bonneville County Jail.

If you’ve been following the furor over trans people’s access to bathrooms, fitting rooms, and other gendered facilities consistent with their identities this year, the implications of this case—especially for those looking to deny such access—are easy to see. The apocalyptic event that anti-trans folks have been waving their hands about came to pass; the sexual assault boogeyman behind the “bathroom bills” in North Carolina and elsewhere became real. That it happened at a Target, whose trans-affirming company policy has been praised by advocates, is doubly unfortunate. And because Smith appears to truly identify as transgender (her roommate confirmed this to authorities), as opposed to being a cisgender activist looking to stir up trouble, one of the more effective arguments against bathroom legislation—that no such violations have never happened, even in states with nondiscrimination protections in place—has been severely weakened.


Or, at least, that’s one way to read it. Another is that since Smith was arrested and charged for a crime that is already illegal for everyone, the case only proves the legal system is working as intended. Indeed, any woman—trans or cis—who committed this act in this space would and should be subject to the same penalty, so using the incident as a bludgeon against trans folks in general makes little sense. Chase Strangio, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT and HIV Project and a contributor to Outward, echoed this view in an email. “There is no evidence that one could successfully use the existence of a non-discrimination law to somehow avoid arrest, prosecution, or conviction for conduct that would otherwise fall within the scope of a criminal prohibition,” he wrote, continuing:

We have seen time and time again that cisgender people engage in conduct in restrooms and other single-sex spaces that intrudes upon the privacy and safety of others, but we don't station police officers outside the restroom door, nor should we. As a society we have a collective responsibility to deal with the violence and harassment that occurs, but that responsibility does not mean regulating bathroom access in such a way that bars transgender people from public space.

No doubt this logic will fail to convince those deeply hostile to trans equality. But for individuals more open to challenging their fears and thinking through the issue, the case offers an opportunity for reflection. The best any of us can hope for as we move through the world is that the systems of law enforcement we have set up will be there to assist us when necessary. That’s exactly what happened here, just as it would have if the alleged perpetrator had been cisgender. In fact, the only reason this case might feel any different stems from the lingering, perhaps barely conscious, sense that trans women aren’t really women, and so Smith’s presence in the fitting room was somehow already transgressive. But we shouldn’t give in to that feeling. And once we dismiss it, it’s clear that discomfort with anything beyond the crime itself cannot help but be prejudiced.

After all, fair-minded people agree that blaming a group for the behavior of one member is at the core of prejudicial thinking; it has no place in a just culture, and it certainly cannot be a part of our legislative or judicial framework. As Strangio rightly puts it: “If transgender people will only be entitled to rights if the entire community is perfect, then we are not going to get very far, and that is certainly not how we extend rights under our legal paradigms. … Regardless of what happens with this Idaho case, I would hope that we have a more robust set of equality and justice principles than would crumble under the actions of a single individual.”

July 19 2016 1:08 PM

What Is a “Male Body”?

In November 2015, voters in Houston repealed that city’s human rights ordinance, known as HERO, after a relentless campaign by opponents claimed that the law would permit “men in women’s bathrooms.” The ordinance protected 15 classes of people— including transgender people— from discrimination when accessing public accommodations like hospitals, movie theatres, restaurants, and restrooms. Supporters of HERO ran a campaign that failed to effectively stand up for and defend transgender people and did not take on the insidious myth that protecting transgender people from discrimination opens the door to “men in women’s bathrooms.” As advocates for the transgender community, we failed in Houston.

We could have explained that protecting transgender people from discrimination does not increase public safety risks. We should have explained thatwhen a transgender woman uses a women’s restroom there are still zero men — biological or otherwise — in that restroom. This is straightforward:  Transgender women are women; transgender men are men.

We failed to do any of that.

July 14 2016 4:51 PM

Why Everyone Can’t Be Queer

In “When Everyone Can Be Queer, Is Anyone?” a piece that will run this weekend in the New York Times Magazine, journalist Jenna Wortham tackles the tricky meaning, history, and future of the word queer. (Full disclosure: We emailed about the topic while she was writing the article). The heart of her argument, from which the title of her piece is derived, is that “[t]he radical power of ‘queer’ always came from its inclusivity.” This very inclusivity, she argues, now threatens the meaning of the word, by making it so broad that anyone–including straight people—can take it on.

While I appreciate Wortham’s attempt to grapple with such a thorny subject, herfocus on inclusivity is a misreading of the fundamental nature of the word queer. I would argue that queer’s inclusivity is actually a byproduct of a much more salient and powerful aspect of the word: its focus on our culture’s sexual hierarchy.

July 14 2016 1:53 PM

Why Vacuous, Cowardly, Anti-Gay Mike Pence Is a Perfect VP Pick for Trump

Multiple media outlets reported on Thursday that Donald Trump has chosen Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to join his ticket in the vice president slot. Nationally, Pence is perhaps best known for signing into law a mean-spirited “religious liberty” bill targeting LGBTQ people—then revising the measure after its discriminatory purpose sparked coast-to-coast outcry. The religious liberty flap demonstrated that Pence is casually anti-gay, startlingly craven, and extraordinarily vacuous. All of these qualities make him the ideal choice for Trump’s vice president.

A refresher on Pence’s most infamous controversy: In March of 2015, the governor signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Law (known as RFRAs) sent to him by culture warriors in Indiana’s Republican-dominated legislature. He signed the bill in a private ceremony to which he invited a handful ofleading anti-LGBTQ activists. While the law largely mirrored the federal RFRA that President Bill Clinton signed in 1993, it differed in several key ways: First, it allowed a religious defense to be raised in a private cause of action, not just against the government; and second, it explicitly applied to for-profit businesses and corporations.