First published in Out UK
Unlike most boys, I had no interest in games or sports of any kind. A shy, rather solitary lad, I preferred the utopian dictatorship of my own imagination. But at the age of five, my imagination discovered an accomplice: the movies. I had seen a movie or two before then. My mother dragged me along to see what I later realized was a reissue of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. When it was shown on TV a few years later, I identified the film by the climactic showdown between James Stewart and Raymond Burr (those flashbulbs and the cast on Stewart's leg were hard to forget). But it wasn't until I turned five that I wanted to see a particular movie. During a lunch break from kindergarten, I saw the poster for Hercules framed in the outer lobby of a neighborhood theater. The colorful artwork showed muscleman actor Steve Reeves in a proud stance, his wrists chained to pillars.
Why did the poster appeal to me? The answer could be sexual. After all, that was a cute skirt Hercules was wearing. The area concealed by the skirt would be of enormous interest to me as I matured, but that was still in the future. As a five-year-old interested in sucking nothing more than the straw in my milk shake, sex was not a concern. The movie poster simply made me aware of worlds other than my own.
If life wasn't exciting, the movies could take me anywhere: the gladiator days of ancient Rome; the old West; space; the underwater laboratory of Dr. No, and most tantalizing of all, bedrooms where people engaged in activities more strenuous and exciting than sleep. At the time, I had little reason to think that I wouldn't one day act out a love scene like the ones pairing Doris Day and Rock Hudson, but as adolescence approached, I began to realize that I wouldn't even want to.
And, yes, it was in the movies that I became aware of the love that dare not speak its name. In 1970, I was still too young to see the X-rated Fellini Satyricon, but old enough to read a review of the film, then head to the dictionary to look up the word "homosexuality." When a scantily clad Judy Pace taunted a policeman by calling him a "fag" in the same year's Cotton Comes to Harlem, I suspected the word was connected to the earlier word, and, sure enough, the dictionary confirmed my hunch.
I didn't know then that those words applied to me, but by 1971 when Play Misty For Me was released, I knew they did. It was in that film that I first saw a character that I could consciously identify as a homosexual. His name was J.J, and as he flitted about with a long scarf around his neck, it was obvious why the character played by Donna Mills would crash at his pad while pondering her romantic future. J.J. was one of the girls at heart. He even chose his home because it was "convenient for the fleet." Of course, Play Misty for Me was a murder mystery about a male disc jockey stalked by a female fan, so the queen swished in only to be the butt of a few fag jokes.
"Why don't you go cruise for some sailors?" Clint Eastwood's macho DJ tells J.J.
"Oh please, don't mention seafood," J.J. sniffs as Donna Mills tilts her shaggy-haired head back and laughs.
Of course, the late Vito Russo's brilliant The Celluloid Closet showed that sissies had long been popular in the movies, appearing as early as film itself. The major difference in the seventies was that there was no longer any need to be coy about their sex lives (yes, they did have them) or to shy away from the F word (fag).
The fairy in Play Misty for Me was not alone on screen in the year of my homosexual awakening. The word "fag" is uttered twice in The Anderson Tapes, once by Dyan Cannon to describe a designer who lives in her apartment building, and again by a desk clerk trying to describe Martin Balsam's antiques dealer to the latter's secretary ("That's him!" she says). That year's James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever, featured a pair of queer assassins who walked off hand in hand after performing a hit. And in The Love Machine, pretty boy TV anchorman John Phillip Law dallied with both sexes, but as Dyan Cannon would taunt after bringing him out of the closet, it was a case of "girls for the name, boys for the game."
Also in 1971, the then omnipresent Cannon would share the sheets (off-camera) with another woman in Doctor's Wives, which showed that Hollywood could also exploit lesbians on occasion. But lesbians didn't guarantee the giggles the way a gay guy did. The gay guys were amusing to straight audiences, and how could they not be? They were more than gay. They were fags: lisping, limp-wristed, swishing, swaying, colorfully attired fags.
They were presented as hairdressers, decorators, antique dealers, dress designers, and fashion photographers. Their primary function was to be humiliated for laughs.
In 1967's Warning Shot, Joan Collins, who as Alexis on TV's Dynasty would be a role model for many drag queens, tells a fashion photographer who suggests she should photograph cows instead of models that he would surely prefer bulls. The female models he is photographing giggle with delight at his expense.
Rarely, gay characters would take the lead. In 1970's Staircase, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton play a butch and his queen, but the film used the characters and their homosexuality as a gimmick. The ads didn't say "See macho actors play queer," but it might as well have.
Later, more intelligent mainstream films like Making Love also used gay sexuality as a selling point, but in the final decade of the 20th century, there have been enough good, ambitious films about gay life to make "gay cinema" a true genre no longer exclusive with porn. The most important distinction of these films is that they portray us as people who are different from heterosexuals in only one respect: we are attracted to, and mate with, members of our own sex. Yes, some of us are sissies who flutter, coo, and dress in drag, and some of us are athletically inclined masculine studs, but no matter our dress, we are simply people. We have parents and siblings, friends of both sexes, work in a variety of professions, and want simply to live our lives as fully as possible.
As a gay man, I continue to celebrate and appreciate the fags in the movies of my youth. Sure, they were stereotypes, offensive to some, but they at least let me know my homosexuality was not an isolated occurrence. But I appreciate the gay guys and lesbians of today's queer cinema too. They let the straight world know that we are here and that most of us are indistinguishable from their neighbours, friends, co-workers, and family members. In fact, we are their neighbours, friends, co-workers, and family members. Whereas gays were once depicted only in black and white (or should it be pink and lavender?), there are now shades of gray. Others now have the opportunity to see us as clearly as we see ourselves.
© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks. All rights reserved.