I’m standing in line in the Life-Saving-Monument-to-Human-Survival that is the Los Angeles LGBT center. It’s a long, slow moving line. My doctor has asked me to make a half hour appointment for later this month. There’s nothing wrong with me, she says, just that she’d like to look inside my colon, to make sure there isn’t any cancer brewing back there. All I need to do is make a doctors appointment and my inner self will be writ medium on a computer screen, for an audience of at least two, maybe more if there are interns present that day. I’m semi-dreading it, but I know myself, and I know that I’ll make stupid jokes the whole way through, as we sift through my colon together looking for fun little cancer polyps.
I make a mental note – ask the doctor later this month if I can have a digital video copy of my innards. I make a second mental note – if she asks me why I want the footage, I will, with a deadpan earnestness, tell her that it’s my anniversary, and wiggle my eyebrows at her.
I’m going to make a moment of it. I like her sense of humor.
I am distracted. While the LGBT center is an incredible facility – the largest of its kind in the world – it is also chronically understaffed. The lobby is always an interesting melange of business casual clean cut types, folks who look like maybe they work at Ralph’s, and other people who might be wearing last night’s club clothing. Today there is a man in a crimson robe, a matching velvet king’s crown, and a gold front tooth. With him is an attractive (transgender?) lady in a cocktail dress, fishnet stockings, and extremely high heels. All at 11:45am. Good, I think to myself. Everyone who needs penicillin, or an emergency Truvada, or just an ear exam, is going to get it today.
They always screen some sort of iconic gay film in the waiting room, volume super loud, and today it’s To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and Patrick Swayze prance and swish and sway. There’s a tenderness to most of the choices the actors make. The film doesn’t seem to be holding up entirely, but it isn’t terrible. Still, something nags at me. There’s something disingenuous going on. Somehow, the performances feel precious. Cloying, even.
Lately, I’ve been super critical of straight actors performing gay roles in LGBT stories. There’s a rarely mentioned unfairness, a particularly insidious nihilism – to the ease at which homosexuals themselves capitulate to the idea that their stories can and should be told to them by heterosexual actors. I could list so many reasons for this, not the least of which that most of us walk around in a sort of PTSD shock that the world has been able to incrementally allow into its political discussion the idea that that maybe we are owed a semblance of equality. But, in an environment where trans people are being kicked out of the military, and gays themselves lack employment protections, it seems like a far-away pipe dream to think we could ask Hollywood to stop handing over our stories to straight actors. And if we ourselves won’t act outraged when another gay role is handed to a straight actor, we certainly can’t expect our allies to.
Over the years I’ve had many occasions to engage other gay people with the idea that watching straight actors play homosexual is offensive. Most of the time gay people will agree, but it’s rare their agreement is vigorous or exuberant. It’s more likely to be a sigh or a nod, a silent resignation that yes, hypothetically, it would be nice to live in a world that had such consideration for our feelings, but no, we don’t live there, and what’s more, we might not even live near the general neighborhood. It’s the type of unfairness we all quietly, bitterly accept as immutable, just one of the ways the world tends to show its brutal side.
There is a need to feel normalized and accepted in this society straight people preside over, but when we go to the wellspring of pop culture to see ourselves reflected, the face that stares back is rarely even homosexual.
And yet, here we stand, firmly – in Trump’s America – where half of us simultaneously acknowledge that yes, the world is unfair, but we’d like to keep it that way if you don’t mind. In the new American order, you don’t have to dislike unfairness. There’s at least 50% of us celebrating unfairness with our proverbial dicks out. In this poisonous climate, watching straight men play homosexuals gets under my skin in a way I can’t quite describe. In North American DysTrumpia, it’s getting more and more difficult for me to hide my disdain for the trappings of hetero-supremacy.
The line is long. It’s not seeming to move at all. I can’t seem to connect with the movie. I can’t get past the idea that the men who get to have the honor of telling this story are so far removed from the struggle they portray as not to even know the moments when they don’t get the tone right, when their performance slips from tender and vivacious to parody, or stereotype. I think to myself how a straight man, playing a gay man, playing a drag queen, adds yet another layer of misogyny to drag. Or possibly it’s the same misogyny made more acute, more dire without the irony of an authentic homosexual perspective.
The movie doesn’t feel made for me, it feels made for people who would like to find a way to digest me.
An old man tugs on my elbow to ask why I’ve narrowed my eyes so much at the screen. I explain some of my feelings to him. Not eloquently, I just mutter something about how I’m disgusted to have a homosexual story spoon fed to me by the face of the oppressor. His face lights up for a brief moment. There’s a sharpness, a glint in his eye. He chuckles.
“When do you think people change?” he asks me, suddenly all pointed and sinister.
I shrug. Do they, I wonder?
“When they absolutely have to,” he spits, “And, not a second sooner. And that’s what people mean when they say ‘equality.’ They mean, when they get around to it.“
I pause to sip this spicy, bitter cider this man is serving, before replying. “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I wish there was some way for us to tell straight people ‘Thanks, we got this. You can stop trying to tell us our stories now.'”
The old man shakes his head, yes. But, a bit of the glint falls out of his eye. Now he seems wistful. He pats me on the side of my shoulder. Now he’s shaking his head, no. Whatever conspiratorial spell woven between us has passed. Reality seeps back. The secretary calls me forward and I make my appointment.
Later, in my car, I check my phone. One of my foster clients has texted me. She can’t meet today, but can we meet tomorrow at 3pm instead? I text back, yes, that’s fine. Suddenly, I have the afternoon free.
I pull out onto Sunset. There’s a Chevron station coming up and I’m suddenly reminded that I have a gas card in my glove box, from work. I billed 100% of my possible hours last month and they sent me a gas card in the mail.
Free gas, I think to myself as I’m filling up my tank. A full tank of free gas. Is there a more liberating feeling? I scan the parking lot. A handsome young dad type, well heeled, is filling up a newish-looking BMW sedan. I endow him with a story. He’s just come from a class as his luxury gym. He’ll duck into his office later today to attend a meeting, then head to a PTA conference with his wife, an expensive dinner, hopefully, to reward their child for good academic performance at school.
I wonder if he feels the same way as I do? If the aspartame empty calories of American privilege gnaws away at him? I wonder if he, himself, is doing the same calculations I’m doing right now. How much money do I have? What can I liquidate? How can I get myself away from here? Can I expect to have a reasonably comfortable situation if I remove myself? Where would I even go?
What use is this full tank of gas, I think to myself, if freedom is really only a feeling we get every week or ten days? If freedom is only the moment of filling up the tank, thinking of how far we could go if we wanted to, but then getting back into our cars, and driving right back to the system of responsibilities that fetter us here to this bloody spot of soil we carved out for ourselves on this beautiful, elegant, tragically scarred landscape? When do we get more than thirty seconds a week of feeling truly free? If this is privilege, how bad is the other? Does this handsome man with the BMW notice me staring at him and projecting all this onto him?
I get into my car, and turn it on. The tank is full. I could easily get all the way to San Francisco on this tank of gas. Further. I have enough ‘free’ gas on my card to get me into Canada. What’s more, I have a valid, current passport. I have enough resources to escape this American dystopia we have foisted upon ourselves. I can, within 20 hours – less than a day – escape the post-Obama white purgatory we are forcing the entire world to witness, to live through. At the very least, I could watch it from the outside.
If the handsome man in the BMW makes eye contact with me I’m going to ask him if he’d like to take a drive with me. When he asks, where, I will say Canada, who knows? Canada, then the world!
But he doesn’t make eye contact with me. He gets back into his BMW. The windows are down and his stereo is turned up. Aerosmith is blasting some straight song about some straight joy that straight people have in elevators. He drives up Laurel Canyon – up to his architectural house on Mulholland. Back to his kids. His wife. His future.
Of course he does, I say to myself as I ease the car into drive.
The world is made for him.