The Gay Punchline

Moonlight won the Academy Award for best picture, and aside from the bizarre way it happened, meaning the actual reading of the wrong envelope, it is big news. In its own right. By itself.

Plenty of people are talking about the importance of a movie with a gay central character winning best picture. It’s a conversation that is long overdue. Like almost every other instance where history is made in some field, it is often surprising to many people that history is, in fact, being made. We get so used to things as they are, and rarely consider a perspective that has not been given equal time, or really any time, in the public consciousness, that we are not even aware that another perspective exists.

This is one of the ways that racism, sexism, and bigotry persist. Through no malice that is intentional, it persists. People who are perfectly respectable, who mean well, allow the absence of equal representation to continue, because, well… it just doesn’t occur to them that things might be otherwise.

During the fight for same sex marriage, there was that one republican senator, from one of those southern states where they eat alligators, who said, “Why should I support gay marriage? I’m not gay, so I won’t have one.”

He wasn’t joking. He most likely was not even aware of the comedy inherent in his thoughtless comment. He simply didn’t stop to entertain the notion that perhaps it might be in his own interest to make some effort to understand the perspectives of all of his constituents. So that he may more accurately represent them. While doing his job.

It’s not that the world hates gay people. Not most of the world. Yes, there are certainly some who do, but most are just not aware that they exist. It is not something that crosses their minds. Which is exactly why it is important that a gay movie wins an Oscar for best picture.

The wonderful actor Riz Ahmed gave a speech in front of Parliment, yesterday, in which he made this same point about racial minorities. If they can see themselves up on the screen, then they feel as if they have validity in the minds of the general public. In fact, the general public may also realize they have validity. Something they may not have bothered to consider before. Not out of malice. Just out of a simple lack of awareness.

For myself, I take the Moonlight win in an additional direction. For many years, the gay characters in major motion pictures have either been killed off, or if they are allowed to live, are left with sad and miserable existences. That is not the case with Moonlight. Yes, he is repressed, and has not had sex with another man after the one experience on the beach in his youth, but the ending of the movie leaves him with hope. A gentle, surprisingly gentle, hope.

He may not live his whole life punishing himself for being what he is.

Think about some of the biggest movies, successful movies, that feature gay central characters. Can you name one that does not involve the gay character dying of AIDS? Or being killed off in some other way?

Brokeback Mountain. The one guy is beaten to death. The other left to torture himself in sad and lonely anguish.

A Single Man. On the verge of committing suicide. As he must. To punish himself. Then maybe not? Oh, surprise! Heart attack.

Four Weddings and a Funeral. Take a wild guess which character is featured in the funeral.

Those are just three quick examples, but there are many more that fit the pattern. Chances are, if you thought of a movie in which the gay man is depicted as happy and healthy, you were thinking of a comedy. Right?

Funny gays are fine. Funny gays are not a threat. We can all, every one of us, make peace with the funny gays. Who cares if we feel, as the bible instructs, that they will burn in eternal damnation for the sin of loving a person of the same gender? If they are funny up there on that screen, well then, they’re okay.

What bothers me the most about this is that, far too often, the character is funny because he is gay. That’s all. As if being gay is in itself the joke. It’s not that he is pointing out humorous things about being gay. Or poking fun at things that gay people do or say. Most of the time, the laugh comes simply from the idea of a person being gay.

How many times do we need to see the two straight guys caught in a moment in which it might appear, to an outside observer, that these two guys are gay? Hahaha! Get it? They look gay. What a laugh riot.

How many times do we discover that the character is gay, when we thought he was straight? Hahaha! Oh boy, we didn’t see that coming, because, you know, we all assumed he was a normal straight guy, when he is actually one of those gays.

How many actors voluntarily feed into the gay joke, by playing a happy campy gay? Not that there aren’t happy campy gays in the world, but why must they be represented so disproportionately up there on the big screen? Or for that matter, on television shows?

I don’t mean to take anything away from the talented actors who have found success playing those easy to love funny gays, but I do wonder if they cringed when reading the script for the first time. “Oh, great. Now I get to sashay and arch my eyebrow and personify every gay stereotype that is comfortable and acceptable and non-threatening and non-informative to the heterosexual white world.”

To anyone who belongs to a racial minority, I’m sure these observations are nothing new. For years and years, they have seen themselves depicted as cartoon characters. The servant. The comically angry Asian shop keeper (played by a white actor in makeup.) The terrorist.

To those people, we can now say that we understand their struggle. We as gay folk can now empathize on a level we have not been able to, before Moonlight took home the golden statue. Before we saw for ourselves that a gay character can live. That he can be depicted with compassion. That the actor playing him, that the three actors playing him, can be real and complex and free from the limited, uninformed expectations of a predominantly heterosexual audience.

That we do not have to be the punch line.



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