Tales of a wandering lesbian

I know that you are a voracious reader. But….doesn’t it get old to be constantly reading about heterosexual love in 99% of all the fiction out there? I know I read the occasional gay love scene with detached fascination, and realized that it must be the same for you, only in EVERY book.

Well spotted, Heather.

The short answer:  Yes, it gets old.  More than that, the lack of authentic GLBT stories in literature, movies, television and pop culture generally make it really difficult for GLBT people to identify with the images of our community.  The vacuum of positive images and role models can make us cling to the caricatures and clichés presented as our lives.

And that can be very defeating when, as a teenager, you are told that you will either be a spinster, a bull-dyke, or die a hideous death.

The long answer:

Earlier this week, a friend of mine posted about a piece of lesbian fiction that will be coming out this month.  In it, she referred back to a book called, “Sweat,” one of the author’s earlier works.  It was like reading about an old friend.  I flashed back to high school when my girlfriend and I would pull the book out from under my bed and read it hungrily, finding in it a sense of belonging.  A sense of understanding that we weren’t alone.  That we weren’t freaks.  That there were others like us:   softball players who liked girls.

There were also the tattered copies of Rita May Brown novels, and Martina Navratilova biographies.  Books that were legitimate enough to buy at second-hand book stores without completely freaking out the people I was shopping with.

I live in Portland now, where I can get my hands on any kind of lesbian-centered literature, history, or humor I want.  But it’s still not mainstream.  I have to look for it.  Like a book on Malaysian cooking.  It’s there, but it’s not something I run across.  It’s rare that I pick up a book from the bestseller rack and find that there’s a lesbian sub-plot.  (Who am I kidding, it’s rare that I pick up a book from the bestseller rack at all.)

And it’s not just in books that this is the case.  In movies, and in television; in any part of pop culture, the existence of a homo plot is out-of-the ordinary.  It’s something to comment on.  Take a look at the reaction to “Brokeback Mountain”.  From protests, to discussions of whether the roles would ruin the careers of the actors who took them, the movie was totally controversial, even though it had more nominations than any other movie at the academy awards that year.  Had it been a movie about a heterosexual relationship, it would have been no big deal.  But it was out-of -the-ordinary, because it was two men.

In the rare instances where gay sub-plots appear, I find myself, and a lot of other queer folks, clinging to them like lifelines.  Take ER.  I didn’t watch ER.  Until Kerry and Lopez got together.  It was tender, and passionate and beautiful.  In the time that they were together on the show, every conversation I had with another lesbian included a discussion of the program.

And how about Ellen?  And Rosie.  Even when they weren’t out, we were watching.  We were supporting.  We were waiting.  Waiting for the funny inside jokes that they might make.  Supporting them so that they might find the courage to give us the out-front role models and popular images that would make our existence more normal.  I still won’t shop at JCPenny, because they pulled their marketing dollars from the Ellen show when she kissed another woman on-air.  I remember the parental warning that flashed on the screen before the show and during every commercial break – a great black screen with stark white lettering, letting the country know that it was okay to protect their kids from the deviancy, the depravity of two women expressing physical love for each other.  From me.

Ellen’s show (the sit-com) didn’t last very long after she came out.  Neither did Rosie’s.  Yes, Rosie has gone off the deep end, and Ellen had that whole unfortunate Anne Heche thing.  But still.  ER went on just fine.  “Brokeback Mountain” was a run-away success.  “Boys Don’t Cry” won the Best Actress Oscar.

Anytime someone tells me about a “great” gay film, I ask them two things:  “Does anyone get brutally murdered?” and “is it a ‘dick saves the day’ movie?”  Because it’s usually one of the two.  I know it’s not terribly politically correct, but it’s the sad pattern that I’ve come to expect.  Either a tomboy is “saved” by a man who is able to see through her rough exterior, or a beautiful relationship between two gays is cut short by some horribly tragic event:  the “God hates fags” scenario.  These plot formulas allow for the mainstream  telling of realistic gay stories, followed by such brutality that it makes clear what happens to those who choose such a lifestyle.

For example:  ER:  After a lovingly treated depiction of a lesbian relationship, Lopez, who is a firefighter, dies on the job.  Boys Don’t Cry:  after I watched the main character raped and beaten to death, I made my mother promise me that she would never watch the movie.  Brokeback Mountain:  a beautiful movie that ends with the not-so-subtle insinuation that, after years of pining away for his one, true love, one of the characters is clubbed to death by his father with a tire iron.  Fried Green Tomatoes:  Marriage interrupts the love of two women, but it’s a violent one, so there’s an excuse for the women to love each other.  Until one of them dies a long, painful death.  Boys on the Side:  Bad relationship results in death of a husband, a beautiful, tortured love between two women, and the AIDS-related death of one of them.  Thelma and Louise (I know this isn’t overtly lesbian, but it’s emotionally lesbian, and follows the pattern):  Bad marriage, rape, revenge, dick saves the day (but it’s Brad Pitt, so it’s almost excusable), betrayal, and a flying leap off of a cliff.

There’s a great movie I’d recommend putting on your NetFlix queue:  The Celluloid Closet.  It’s seriously good and looks at the images of queer people in the movies, since the days of the silent film.

And then there’s Will & Grace.  For a long time I wouldn’t watch this show.  Because, although it showed gay people, front and center, it showed us a caricatures of ourselves.  It was okay to make super-gay jokes, so long as they came from a flaming, queeny man or his chemically-dependent fag hag.  Or in the form of a totally unhealthy co-dependent relationship.  For too long, the only way gay men have been able to be accepted on tv or in the movies is as super-effeminate portrayals of themselves.  They exist as the joke itself, non-threatening and clownlike.  I got over it and watch the show now.  But I still have a really hard time with the movie “The Bird Cage”.

So, yes, it’s frustrating that GLBT life isn’t often portrayed in books and movies and television, and even when it is, it’s not usually my life.  Or anything close to it.  It’s frustrating that, in college, I spent hours and hours looking through the foreign film sections of Blockbuster and Hollywood video trying to figure out if there were lesbian themes in the subtitled movies.  It’s frustrating that, growing up, what I thought it meant to be a lesbian was to be a leather-clad, buzz-cut butch, or a clandestine married woman who would get clubbed to death while suffering from cancer.

It’s hard enough to develop an image of yourself as a powerful, healthy individual.  When surrounded by images that reinforce only the negative, it can be incredibly defeating.

I remember being 16 and  telling my family I wanted to record the 1993 March on Washington because of its cultural and historical significance.  I crouched in front of the tv and marveled, chin in my hands.  They were probably able to write it off as part of my unnatural my love of C-SPAN.  I watched and rewatched that 6 hours of VHS footage, looking for images of myself in the performers and activists that filed across the stage.  Real people who looked nothing like the clichés I’d been clinging to.

Fortunately, we’re moving forward.  Ellen has a new show.  And she’s out all the time.  She makes gay jokes on American Idol.  Good ones.  Funny ones that are smart and challenging.  Adam Lambert got more votes than anyone else on the show.  Country music stars are coming out.  Our stories are being told more fully.  And that’s more than a luxury.  It’s more than nice to have a book to read at the beach.  It’s important if we are going to reverse things like teenage suicide in the gay community – something that’s 5 times more likely than for straight teens.

It’s important that the lifelines we’re clinging to are real.  And that they lead us to a place of empowerment.

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2 comments

1 Amanda { 05.19.10 at 9:46 am }

It’s funny Flick…I remember doing all of that. Anxiously waiting for the exceptionally subtle lesbian story line to unfold (or not) in any movie. Watching Rosie and Ellen for the equally subtle comments (remember Ellen on Rosie’s show…that was funny. Even watching their stand up for the subtle comments and just wishing they would be honest about it so that I could be honest about it and have a name for what I felt.

I remember watching a crappy movie called “Now and Then” that had Rosie in it. I remember watching and thinking, she’s a lesbian in this movie…finally someone I can relate to. I don’t even think I knew I was gay, but I was definitely drawn to the character. I was so happy. Until the stupid bastard movie makers decided they couldn’t have a lesbian character (a doctor no less) in a movie. So they changed her big scandal to living with a man. I was totally disappointed and frustrated. Until I learned that the character was supposed to be gay but the studio changed. I was outraged for other reasons, but at least happy that I could cling to the one gay characture. I am also continuously frustrated by the lack of positive gay stories. I enjoyed Will and Grace and I’m sad that we no longer have shows with major gay characters, regardless of their over the top portrayals. “The Celluloid Closet” is a good and I highly recommend it as well. It’ll open your eyes.

The fight continues. On a seperate note, my friend Kate is coming out with some new lesbian fiction next month. It sounds like a good one…and it takes place in Spokane, so it’ll hit close to home. It’s called “Rip Van Dyke”. Should be a good one.

2 Danika the Lesbrarian { 05.22.10 at 8:57 pm }

This is so true. People wonder why I want to read lesbian books and watch lesbian movies, but it’s because I’m constantly surrounded by straight media. You drown in it whether you are looking for it or not. So even if I only saw lesbian movies and only read lesbian books (which I don’t), I would still probably be getting more hetero images beamed into my brain.

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