22 January 2010

Nobody's Queer In Big Eden

Big Eden

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of
Big Eden
The Best Gay Film Ever Made!

Earlier this year, I mailed the following letter to Judith Martin, the etiquette columnist known as Miss Manners:

Please make a public statement in support of respectful reference to LGBT Americans! I am a Gay Black man who lives in the Bible Belt, and I'm appalled by the derogatory nature of the language I increasingly see and hear in the media.

On a number of cable TV shows (MSNBC's "Keith Olbermann" is one example), I've heard LGBT people called "tr*nnies", "homos" and "f*ggots" in a "comic" manner. Popular sex columnist Dan Savage routinely peppers his columns and TV interviews with "f*g" and "f*ggot". NPR's "Talk Of The Nation" once gave comedian Scott Thompson several uncensored minutes of airtime to perform a song called "F*ggots On Parade."

The community radio hosts of a local Gay lifestyle and newsmagazine love to apply the word "queer" to everything Gay-related. Ironically, Gay media often contains the crudest language imaginable: I've seen magazine covers with lurid headlines ranging from Blood, Sweat And Queers to Roller Derby D*kes to Yeah! I'm A F*g. The last straw for me came when I went online to buy a family-friendly Gay film from amazon.com, and saw a product description describing the movie's characters as "bashful queers".

I've had conversations with a number of people about how offensive I find these labels. I could not get my message across to them. I was told that sexual slurs have been drained of their toxicity by popular usage, and they encouraged me to use them myself! One guy compared it to casual use of the n-word, and since I'm African-American, he took the infuriating liberty of using the n-word with me!

I've been attacked for supposedly being "politically correct." I've been ridiculed as "thin-skinned" and "immature". In the worst exchange I had, I was told: "You're nothing but a damned queer who thinks he's better than the rest." Of course, this came from someone identifying himself as "queer."

When LGBT Americans are forbidden the right to wed in thirty states; when we're banned from open service in the US military; when we're forbidden to join the Boy Scouts; when we can and often are excommunicated from church membership; when serious films about us still have trouble getting produced in Hollywood, and Gay actors remain closeted out of fear of stigmatization; when we still face imprisonment and/or execution in numerous countries; when LGBT children are still regularly bullied in school; and especially when hundreds of us are still assaulted and murdered in hate crime incidents, atrocities that are usually attended by screams of "f*ggot", "queer", "d*ke", etcetera, I hardly think the time is right to start normalizing hurtful, pejorative labels for sex and gender difference. I doubt the time will ever be right for that!

I regret that the polite terms used to refer to LGBT folk have origins either in popular slang (Gay) or clinical texts (Transsexual). I understand the desire for "umbrella terms" that simplify discussion of people like me. However, the ugly, ignorant slurs now gaining currency are unsuitable! "Queer" is not interchangeable with Gay. Hate speech still hurts! Why don't they understand?

I don't know if Miss Manners understood; I don't know if she ever read my letter.  However, ten years ago, a man named Thomas Bezucha understood perfectly. In 1999, Bezucha, a writer and director of independent films, decided to make a 1930s-style screwball comedy with Gay men as his main characters (his main inspiration was Bringing Up Baby, the Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant classic from 1938). He wanted to stay true to the original spirit of the genre, so he decided his film would have no nudity, no explicit sex, no excess of profanity-laced dialogue, and no dearth of older actors. What it would have was a rural setting and a bunch of stock characters: A matchmaker, a town busybody, a wisecracking boss, a hunky ex-boyfriend, a loving parent in fragile health, a gaggle of comical drug store cowboys, and a shy general store manager with a secret yen for the lead character.

Applying this formula to a story about same-gender romance was novel enough, but Thomas Bezucha went farther. He conceived and realized a Gay movie that largely avoids campiness, and that presents Gay identity as neither shocking nor controversial outside of an urban setting. He called his film Big Eden. Starring Louise Fletcher, Ayre Gross, George Coe and Eric Schweig, it was released in the early summer of the year 2000.

"Looking at the subject matter of recent Gay films," Bezucha said in an interview filmed for the DVD version of his movie, "the issues were (always) around sex! I wanted to explore issues of intimacy. I wanted to show that Gay people . . . have real, intimate relationships with family, with friends . . . show that we are (a) whole people. I'm not sure if Big Eden could possibly be a real place. It's just this fantasy I concocted. Big Eden to me is about posing a question: What if? What if any Gay man or Gay woman could live anywhere? What would that be like, if bigotry and (lack of) acceptance weren't a concern?" Later in the interview, he revealed that there was a political motivation behind making this film: "Big Eden (doesn't exist) now, but it's not that far off. (I wanted) to bring it closer."

The synopsis: Henry Hart, a successful artist, returns to his hometown in rural Montana to care for and ultimately bury his ailing grandfather, whom he affectionately calls "Sampa". Things get complicated when he learns that his high school crush, Dean Stewart, is also back in town. The two men try to rekindle an aborted love affair. However, Sampa's friend Grace Cornwell, an Earth Mother type and self-styled matchmaker, has different ideas about who Henry should settle down with. By the climax of the film, the whole town has joined forces to help Grace make the most unlikely love match imaginable.

"Big Eden, which made its local debut at last year's Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, is not quite like any midlife crisis Gay film we've seen before. What really sets it apart are the setting and the characters, who tend to forget their prejudices when they're dealing with people they care about. And the actors are just low-key enough to pull it off."

-John Hartl,
The Seattle Times, June 8, 2001

Big Eden had great difficulty finding a distributor. The Hollywood studios wouldn't touch it! They didn't believe a Gay film without nudity and sex could draw an audience. Much to their surprise, after Wolfe Video picked up distribution rights, Thomas Bezucha's folksy comedy swept up honors on the LGBT film festival circuit. It bagged audience and jury prizes in San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland, Miami, Toronto and even in Los Angeles, their own back yard! Rarely did the end credits run in a silent theater; standing ovations became routine. With stronger promotion and wider distribution, Big Eden might've broken big and become another mainstream phenomenon like John Waters' Hairspray; that was not to be, but it quickly developed a cult following that's still strong and growing ten years later.

While the film scored a modest commercial success, it proved to be artistically controversial. A number of LGBT film critics decried the Utopian vista of Big Eden. They all but demanded harsh realism in Gay-themed movies, as well as edgy sexual content, and were unable to let themselves go where Thomas Bezucha wanted to take them. Unfortunately, you could tell the Gay critics from the Straight ones by their tendency to toss sexual slurs into reviews! One of the most disrepectful was amazon.com's Bret Fetzer: in his pointedly back-of-the-hand recommendation, he sneered that the movie centers around "bashful queers" and "old coots in cowboy hats"(the derogatory tone of his review has since been modified).

Fetzer's ageism notwithstanding, for him to call Bezucha's Gay characters "queer" was cruel and cynical! It amounted to thumbing his nose at what the director was trying to achieve: A normalization of Gay people and Gay love within the most familiar of classic film settings, the American West. Toward that end, Bezucha not only cultivated a "Petticoat Junction" ambiance, he also loaded the soundtrack with vintage Country and Western tunes: "Don't Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes"(George Jones), "Welcome To My World"(Jim Reeves), "Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me"(originally recorded by Eddy Arnold and sung in the film by Louise Fletcher).

Big Eden fairly screams tradition and shamelessly embraces mainstream values. Nobody is "queer" there! Some folks couldn't handle the juxtaposition of "liberal" same-gender desire with "conservative" community values; no doubt they found the politics of Big Eden lacking in revolutionary vision. They must have been blind! Thomas Bezucha's daring approach to screwball comedy was more revolutionary by far than anything his critics could ever hope to achieve with their "reclaimed" pejoratives and preference for pessimistic, semi-pornographic Gay storylines! In fact, the premise of Big Eden is so progressive, it makes Brokeback Mountain look like a tepid remake of The Boys In The Band!

"In his well-crafted film, Bezucha imagines with humor and affection a community so perceptive, caring and enlightened that it's capable of quietly nudging everyone in the right direction. Bezucha also suggests that a man like Henry, while not conventionally handsome, can nonetheless be attractive to others, and that a Straight man can love a Gay man while not being sexually drawn to him. These notions are not so self-evident as they might seem, even in Gay-themed films. With this wonderful ensemble cast, Big Eden is a fine example of the cinema of possibilities."

-Kevin Thomas,
The Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2001

Veteran actress Nan Martin, who portrayed the scene-stealing Widow Thayer in Big Eden, put her finger on the film's greatest strength when she observed: "Many of the Gay and Lesbian films are divisive. They (make) the gap between the way (Gay and Straight) people think wider. This film, to me, was bringing that gap together. Three cheers for that!" Indeed!

Three cheers, too, for Thomas Bezucha, a director who challenged conventional ideas about what a Gay film can and should be. Big Eden anticipated the marriage equality era we live in today, and it's as perfect a match for it as Pike Dexter was for Henry Hart. Easily the best Gay film ever made, it deserves a big budget Hollywood remake . . . and just imagine what a fabulous Broadway musical it could be! Hopefully, its considerable entertainment potential will be fully realized someday.

"It will always be around, this movie, and people will discover it. There'll be new people seeing it all the time. It's not gonna get lost! It's one of those films that will become part of the lexicon of film history."

-Louise Fletcher, "Grace Cornwell" from
Big Eden

02 January 2010

Proving Me Right (Part One)

Barack Obama

I'm so glad that I didn't vote for Barack Obama last November! I can't even begin to tell you. Don't take that to mean I'm happy, though! I'm not happy, and I'm not gloating. There's no pleasure in being able to say I told you so!

From the first time I heard him in a presidential debate, I didn't simply trust the man! I wasn't impressed by his Colgate smile. I wasn't bowled over by his wry sense of humor. His personal charisma didn't do much for me. I thought his much-praised speaking ability was overrated. I didn't give a damn about his best-selling autobiography! I didn't drink his Kool-Aid. I don't like friggin' Kool-Aid! I never forgot, as many others did, that Candidate Obama was a politician. I viewed his rosy promises through that crystal-clear lens. Yet, after he was elected, I hoped against hope that my fears about him were misguided (see my November 2008 post titled "Proving Me Wrong").

I no longer have any hope to hope against. My fears have been realized! Where strong, moral leadership is concerned, Barack Obama gets a failing grade!

More and more, Progressive Americans are having their eyes opened to his deficiencies. Progressive LGBT Americans in particular have been opening their eyes. Frankly, we've had no choice in the matter! During his campaign, Barack Obama pledged to be a "fierce advocate" for equality. Before he even set foot in the White House, he betrayed that pledge! Now he's broken it so many times, I've lost count. The activists at gay.americablog.com have kept a tally of his betrayals. Let me share part of their list with you; it's pretty shocking, so you might want to sit down! Our current President is guilty of:

Asking a religious Right activist who claims to have been “cured” of his homosexuality (Donnie McClurkin) to headline campaign events in South Carolina; then letting the anti-Gay bigot spend half an hour on stage, haranguing Gays (sic) at the (campaign) event.

Refusing for months to interview with LGBT newspapers during the campaign, while his opponent did (so) repeatedly.

Inviting anti-Gay activist Rick Warren, who helped pass Prop 8 in California, to give the invocation at the Inaugural.

Abolishing the LGBT Outreach position (on) the Democratic National Committee and never re-instating it.

Refusing to re-establish the White House Office of LGBT Outreach and the White House LGBT Liaison (which was a Special Assistant to the President at one point).

Continuing to discharge two Gay service members a day, even though he could stop it immediately by issuing a stop-loss order.

Asking for a study on “whether” repealing DADT would hurt national security, rather than a study on how to repeal it, as promised.

Deleting his Gay Civil Rights promise from the White House Web site.

Changing his commitment to “repeal” Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to “changing DADT in a sensible manner.”

Repeatedly defending DOMA in court, even though he didn't have to.

Comparing Gay relationships to incest and pedophilia in a Justice Department brief.

Joking about Gay protesters (who were) upset about the DOMA brief.

Refusing to provide health care benefits to the partners of Gay (government) employees, and then claiming that DOMA precludes it, when it does not.

Refusing to meet with Gay legal groups to discuss how to provide such health benefits within the confines of DOMA.

Showing visible discomfort when asked about Gay Civil Rights.

Suggesting he won't get to (repealing) DADT, DOMA or ENDA until his second term, if ever.

Refusing to suspend implementation of anti-Gay laws like DADT and DOMA, while suspending laws that hurt other (groups).

Working against an amendment proposed by Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL) to defund Don't Ask, Don't Tell investigations.

Saying he won't repeal DADT until (the) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have finished.

Refusing to issue a statement specifically opposing anti-Gay ballot measures in Maine and Washington state.

Refusing to publicly endorse marriage equality for Gays (sic).

Refusing to this day to interview with the Gay press.

Refusing to apologize for any of these slights.

Do you smell something? I do, and it sure as sh*t ain't teen spirit! That stank coming off President Obama is deep-rooted heterosexism, no doubt cultivated by so-called Conservative, so-called Christian beliefs! Why else do you think he was tardy condemning Uganda's proposed death penalty for LGBT citizens (a transgression missing from this list)? Rick Warren actually beat him to the punch!

The odor from his marriage equality stance is especially pungent! For an op-ed dated 30 December 2009, The Advocate's Washington correspondent Kerry Eleveld notes:

In assessing the year in LGBT rights, what is most striking to me is the Obama administration’s unwillingness to engage on almost anything related to (same gender) relationship recognition. Time and again, the administration has had opportunities to lean into the subject, to nudge the nation a little closer to equality for same-sex couples, and it has repeatedly leaned back, seemingly hoping the subject would disappear into the ether . . . by and large, the administration has shown a reticence bordering on negligence for (mandating) full and equal treatment.

Why does this reticence surprise Ms. Eleveld? Has she forgotten Candidate Obama's stated opposition to marriage equality? Add her name to the long list of memory-challenged Gay voters! Yet she makes a valid point when she says:

The administration (falls) far short of advancing the Democratic ideals many progressives believed Barack Obama represented when they cast their vote for him. Obama campaigned on equality . . . while you can make the case that, as President, he is making pragmatic decisions . . . as a guard against letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, not allowing a Federal agency to provide health benefits to a (Lesbian) worker because of an ideology that willfully emphasizes DOMA . . . is essentially a form of reasoned discrimination.

Essentially? There's no need to qualify the statement. It's flat-out bigotry! The awful truth about President Obama's ideological bent is something most Progressives haven't fully grasped yet. How much longer will it take?

01 January 2010

Proving Me Right (Part Two)

Barack Obama

It's no accident that President Obama invited Bible bigots Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery to pray over his inaugural ceremony. Contrary to what you've heard, those invitations had nothing to do with political savvy! It should be obvious by now that President Obama shares those preachers' doctrinal disdain for Gay people! The cliché is valid: Birds of a feather do flock together. The feathers on Obama, Warren and Lowery look the same to me, and that's not all: When I look at them, I see a trio of vultures for whom LGBT Civil Rights are nothing but a form of carrion! Citizenship protections: It's what's for dinner, y'all!

In the past, I've written that support for Gay Rights should be, must be, a litmus test for leadership. I said if a politician is bad on equality issues, other aspects of his policy agenda will be bad, too. Obama has proven me right; just look at his actions in regard to the economy! Progressive journalist Naomi Klein, writing for The Huffington Post on 21 December 2009, laid out the evidence. She listed a trio of missed opportunities to reverse the downward economic slide that began under the Bush administration:

Blown Opportunity Number 1: The Stimulus Package
When Obama came to office, he had a free hand and a blank check to design a spending package to stimulate the economy. He could have used that power to fashion what many were calling a "Green New Deal": to build the best public transit systems and smart (power) grids in the world. Instead, he experimented disastrously with reaching across the aisle to Republicans, low-balling the size of the stimulus, and blowing much of it on tax cuts. Sure, he spent some money on weatherization, but public transit was inexplicably short-changed while highways that perpetuate car culture won big.

Blown Opportunity Number 2: The Auto Bailouts
Speaking of the car culture, when Obama took office he also found himself in charge of two of the Big Three automakers, and all of the emissions for which they are responsible. A visionary leader . . . would obviously have used that power to dramatically re-engineer the failing industry so that its factories could build the infrastructure of the Green economy the world desperately needs. Instead, Obama saw his role as uninspiring Down-sizer-in-Chief, leaving the fundamentals of the industry unchanged.

Blown Opportunity Number 3: The Bank Bailouts
Obama, it's worth remembering, also came to office with the big banks on their knees; it took real effort not to nationalize them. Once again, if Obama had dared to use the power that was handed to him by history, he could have mandated the banks to provide the loans for factories to be retro-fitted and new Green infrastructure to be built. Instead, he declared that the government shouldn't tell the failed banks how to run their businesses. Green businesses report that it's harder than ever to get a loan.

In a nutshell, then, George W. Bush's economic policies remain largely intact under the Obama administration. Guess what? So do George W. Bush's military policies, including troop surges and government contracts with war profiteers. So does funding of "faith-based" agencies that discriminate based on religious doctrine. So do "renditions", CIA abductions and transfers of war prisoners to countries that practice torture. So does Executive Branch eagerness to snuggle up with corporate lobbyists (officially a bipartisan habit now). So do those controversial "signing statements" Bush was so fond of, which exempt a President from adherence to new laws. Visit W. E. Messamore's Humble Libertarian website and Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!" archives to get the lowdown.

The future of national policies on health care and the environment is no big mystery: Obama won't change those much, either, unless he changes them to benefit corporate America! Disparaging talk about "fat cats" aside, he's a puppet for Wall Street! We've seen him parrot Bush's Chicken Little rhetoric in order to justify the bailouts. We've seen his do-nothing stance on global warming bring the World Climate Change Summit to a screeching halt! Now we see him capitulate to the "fat cats" on publicly-funded health care. If that mandatory private insurance buy-in he's touting (Senate Bill HR 3590) constitutes true reform, then grits ain't groceries, sh*t don't stink, and Dorothy Dandridge was really a man! America elected the "change" candidate? Is that what you expect me to believe? I'm not buying it, sugar!  What else are you selling today?

In private, I've taken to calling President Obama "Bush in Blackface"! The allusion to minstrel shows is quite deliberate. I believe he's putting on an act for the American people! When the performance is over, I predict we're all going to want our money back. I want mine back now!

Whatever happened to the knight in shining Liberal armor? The crusading Democrat who was going to stop the war, bring us universal health coverage, reverse global warming, and eradicate all forms of bigotry? Where is he? Was he just a mirage? Or could it be that while the Obama-worshiping multitudes were basking in their hero's limelight and applauding his glib speeches, they only saw and heard what they wanted to hear and see? Could it be they ignored the signs that he represented anything but change? That his rhetoric was overblown? That the only "fierce advocacy" he'd ever undertake was on behalf of the status quo?

Election Night 2008 turned out to be a fairy tale acted out in real life: The Emperor's New Clothes! A butt-naked monarch parading in public while foolish onlookers raved about his royal finery! Some of those onlookers are still acting like fools. I'm sick to death of Liberal TV pundits apologizing for President Obama, arguing that he's a work-in-progress. "He'll grow into the job," they promise. Dammit! They make me want to drive a fist through my television screen!  Do these jokers really hold our nation's highest office in such low regard?

I'm not an attorney, but I do have a bit of experience working in law offices. If I applied for a partner's position at a law firm and told the interviewer "l'll grow into the job", do you think I'd be hired? Hell, no! Nor should I be. Given the dearth of governing experience he had under his belt, Barack Obama shouldn't have been hired, either, not at this stage of his political career. Nominating him as the Democratic Party's presidential candidate was an irresponsible thing to do! Electing him was complete folly! A worthy Chief Executive must bring to the job all necessary qualifications for leadership: Wisdom, courage, strength, stamina, vigilance, resolve, resourcefulness, moral authority and sufficient experience. Gambling that a candidate will acquire these essential skills after he's elected President is nothing less than insane!

You know what else is insane? Voting for a presidential candidate because of his ethnic heritage. Yes, that's what all too many Americans did last November, and it's time somebody said so! The Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to Obama for the same stupid reason. For exhibiting such stupidity, it got the hard slap across the face it deserved: An acceptance speech justifying war! What a travesty! Nobel laureate Martin Luther King, Jr. must have spun 'round in his grave! Didn't Dr. King tell us to look at the content of a man's character, not the color of his skin? Four decades have passed since his tragic death, and humanity still refuses to take those words to heart.

To quote Bette Davis' famous line from the 1950 movie All About Eve: "Fasten your seat belts . . . it's going to be a bumpy night!" I'm afraid we're all in for a rough rollercoaster ride; Uncle Sam's red, white and blue posterior will be black and blue come 2012! That's not the worst of it, either: Oval office coddling of Wall Street, coupled with persistent high unemployment will pave a fast road out of Washington for Democrats. I foresee reactionary Republicans taking control of US government once again! President Obama is certainly setting the stage for it to happen: Any more security gaffes on his watch like that "underpants bomber" incident, and Sarah Palin can start shopping for her inaugural ball gown!

Remember his campaign slogan, "Yes, we can?" I heard a Right Wing tea bagger repeating it just the other day. It sure has acquired an ominous sound!