Yeah, Queer Characters Are Also Just People

Please listen to anything but Macklemore while you read this.

Something that seems like it should be obvious but isn't treated as obvious at all is the fact that queer characters are people. As in real people, with hopes and dreams and crappy flaws in addition to their attributes. They can be treated as fully-fleshed out, fictional human beings!

But, on film and TV and in theater, most writers cart queer characters around with the fragility of an elephant transporting a Dale Chihuly glasswork.

I'll be up front with you. This idea doesn't have any timelier of a peg than say "bigotry existing," except maybe "Jenny's Wedding," which came out about a month ago. To be fair, I wanted to write about "Jenny's Wedding" at the end of July, but when I submitted my review of just the word "UGH" in caps 735 times, my editor was unreasonable and said we couldn't publish that.

[Editor's Note: Sorry, we just really could not publish that.]

So, I'm a little delayed, but stick with me because Katherine Heigl and Rory Gilmore getting married is fascinating enough to talk about four weeks later. Or it is hypothetically, but it wasn't in practice. Here, watch the trailer: 

One thing you may notice is that it looks like a rom-com with lesbians set to the instrumentalization of Mary Lambert's "She Keeps Me Warm." Another thing you might notice is that Katherine Heigl and Alexis Bledel do not kiss at any point. They do approximately twice in the film, but I've definitely had steamier moments with pieces of buffalo chicken pizza. Also, at least if "Jenny's Wedding" was just a vanilla rom-com it would be entertaining in the fluffy way of vanilla rom-coms. Instead, it's pretty much a PSA about coming out with no stakes. It's the kind of thing that would be important and moving in 1991, maybe. 

There have been major strides in LGBT representation over the past 30 years, but we still carry a lot of the preciousness required for the earliest stages of combatting homophobia. Monica Giordano, one of the awesome playwrights I interviewed out of the 2015 New York Fringe festival, made a great point about this.

"I think there was a time when we needed plays to show that non-heteronormative relationships were also full of love, that queer people are not evil, heartless people," she said. "Because of that, though, I think we’ve ended up almost idealizing queer relationships onstage, putting them on a pedestal, in which the participants in the love have one or two colors, in limited shades, with very few nuances, who make very limited mistakes." 

The real future of LGBT representation is allowing for nuance and refusing to make queerness the defining factor of character development. At the ATX Television Festival back in June, I spoke to Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, the creators of "Queer As Folk" and the very first movie about AIDs, "An Early Frost." Fifteen years after their groundbreaking Showtime drama, the two see normalization as the next step. 

"I think assimilation is the next phase,"Cowen said in reference to the portrayal of queer relationships in television, theater and cinema. "The transition of gay people from living in a gay community to living in the world, showing gay people as part of the fabric of the country, socially and politically. Instead of being a minority, instead of being a marginalized group, our place is now in the mainstream."

We still often treat gay characters as though they are taking up some exotic real estate, making it hard to shift plot points past the fact of their gayness. Truly good stories only come out of moving past that.

A great example is "Tangerine," which offers up a look at the lives of two trans sex workers, without some guilty obligation to be outwardly empowering. As Richard Lawson wrote in his review for Vanity Fair, "Instead of a leering stunt, 'Tangerine' is an intimate, funny, and surprisingly poignant portrait in miniature of a few fascinating American lives. Told with simplicity but deep empathy ... [it] refuses to judge, sensationalize, or do anything other than show lives as they may be, and perhaps are."

What we need, across film, TV and theater, is more complex explorations of characters who just happen to be queer. At best, not doing so is refusing complicated interesting characters. At worst, it is contributing to the other-ing of the LGBT community. Across all mediums, it's important that these characters and their relationships be as real and messy and complicated as straight ones.

Anyway, just as a start, you should probably think twice if your movie's soundtrack includes more than one rendition of a gay rights anthem sampled by Macklemore.

Middlebrow is a recap of the week in entertainment, celebrity and television news that provides a comprehensive look at the state of pop culture. From the rock bottom to highfalutin, Middlebrow is your accessible guidebook to the world of entertainment. Sign up to receive it in your inbox here.

Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca

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