Since May, our monthly adult sessions have focused on themes relating to the More Light Presbyterians Network as a part of the process of becoming a formally-recognized congregation that is open and affirming to the LGBTQIA+ community. In the last edition of the Church Mouse, I summarized our conversations about vocabulary, the concept of marriage, and some of the biblical texts that are used as a weapon.
In August, we looked at the history of the gay rights movement and the importance of representation in the media. We went through a timeline of some notable events in popular culture, including the first TV kiss between two women (1991), Freddie Mercury’s announcement that he had AIDS the day before he died of an AIDS-related illness (also 1991), the first ever TV ad to feature a same-sex couple (1994), Ellen DeGeneres’ public coming-out (1997), the first TV kiss between two men (2000), and the release of the film “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). Many of us were surprised at the dates of some of the events on the timeline, because we hadn’t been aware of them happening at the time. As a person who was only born in the 1980s, I think that I have a valid excuse for missing Freddie Mercury’s announcement, but I have never seen any of the television shows that apparently had landmark scenes, themes, or casting…and I didn’t watch “Brokeback Mountain” until almost a decade after its release.
I asked the room what fictional LGBTQIA+ characters we could name. Crickets metaphorically chirped. We couldn’t think of many. I asked whether people had openly out friends. A few of us answered in the affirmative, but most did not.
Next, we looked at a series of very depressing maps. We saw that technically, same-sex relationships were illegal in our own state of Michigan until a Supreme Court case in 2003. Michigan does not have any laws specifically addressing school bullying against LGBTQIA+ students. In Michigan, sexual orientation is not grounds for considering an assault to be a hate crime. There are no bans on conversion therapy for minors based on sexual orientation or gender identity in our state. There were two bits of good news, though. Both sexual orientation AND gender identity discrimination are prohibited in Michigan in both public AND private employment! Hurray! In Michigan, a new birth certificate can be issued to reflect the correct gender identity of a trans* person! Hurray!
I gave a very brief history of the events of the Stonewall Riots, a seminal moment in history that most of the room didn’t know much about (if anything). The Stonewall Inn was a drag bar in New York City that was owned by the Mafia and every week, a very large bribe was given to local police officers so that they would always get a heads up before a raid. It was illegal at the time for a man to wear more than three pieces of “women’s clothing” or vice versa. However, on the night of June 28, 1969, there was no warning given, and a police raid came around 1:00 in the morning, when there were about 200 patrons inside the bar. Police barred the exits to keep patrons from slipping away, but the officers were outnumbered and didn’t have enough space in their vehicles to transport so many people to the station. Some patrons weren’t arrested, but instead of going home quietly, on this night, they decided to stay. Patrol wagons started arriving, but the crowd started growing, and after officers shoved one patron and hit a lesbian woman on the head with a baton for complaining that her handcuffs were too tight, the crowd started to get restless and chaos broke out. The police officers barricaded themselves in The Stonewall Inn. More police arrived. Some protesters linked arms and started singing. Police rushed them with nightsticks. Eventually the crowd was cleared, but the next night, an even larger crowd gathered to protest what had happened. This protest is what birthed the gay rights movement and exactly one year later, on June 28, 1970, the first ever gay pride parades took place in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
I remember learning about a lot of riots and protests and new movements that came out of the 1960s, but I don’t ever remember seeing the Stonewall Riots in a textbook.
We closed by reading some responses that a few of my LGBTQIA+ friends gave in response to the question, “Why is Pride still relevant today, given how far we’ve come?” I’ll just share one answer here: “People sometimes ask why there’s no straight pride, but you don’t have to learn to be proud of something you were never shamed for.”
But there was still one lingering and frequently asked question that comes even from people who have no problem with same-sex marriage or even with welcoming LGBTQIA+ people into our lives…“But why do they have to get so…in your face about it at Pride?”
I’d been putting off answering this question because the answer that I would give is, well, not comfortable.
See, there’s a certain view of the world that most of us have, without thinking about it at all, and that view has been prioritized over other views for time immemorial. Most of the time, we aren’t trying to push other views out of the way, but by now, honestly, it’s just habit, and looking out a different “window” makes us uncomfortable, even if we can’t quite put our finger on why.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s incredible movie “Psycho,” for example, there is a scene in which Janet Leigh’s character flushes pieces of paper down a toilet. In all of cinematic history up until that moment, the flushing of a toilet had never been seen on film. In real life, this is a very common sight, but not on the silver screen. Most people would not have consciously thought, “Huh—that’s a thing that hasn’t been shown in a movie before,” though. It would just register in their minds as just slightly “off.” Somehow, something different, maybe even wrong, was going on. Hitchcock did this on purpose to add to the building suspense of the story.
And I would argue that when gay men (even middle-aged men!) in skimpy costumes (even made of leather!) dance at Pride (even if they aren’t conventionally attractive!), our minds register it as just slightly off, too.
For example, most of the movies that are made tell men’s stories. For that matter, the number of men working behind the camera (technically, as writers, as directors, as producers, etc) FAR outnumbers the women who work in the industry. And perhaps as a result, across all Western cinema, the top speaking roles are played by men, the most dialogue is given to male characters, most films have male protagonists, most speaking roles are given to men, the majority of named characters are men, and even the number of overall characters are mostly men. The statistics for all of these things are OVERWHELMINGLY male. Have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test? It asks whether a film has two female characters (both of whom have names) who speak to each other about something other than a man. Most movies cannot pass that test. In and of itself, that isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does make one wonder why we are so obsessed with telling men’s stories at the expense of women’s stories.
In fact, most of the media we consume is designed to be seen by men, generally white men, but presumably straight men. Think of the way we advertise burgers or beach vacations or bars or cologne or sports or music: with conventionally attractive young women. Even when products are marketed directly to women, the focus tends to be on how the product can make the woman more attractive (to men), rather than how effective the product actually is. Think, for example, of commercials where razors slide over perfectly smooth legs.
But back to my movie example, most movies are made for men and the exceptions for this rule are judged much more harshly. Every few years, a female-driven franchise is attacked for being a terrible example for young women (the “Twilight” saga comes to mind), but the mindless and gruesomely violent action movies targeted at teenage boys are brushed off without regard for the message they might send. In 1984, the film “Supergirl” was not very well received. “Eh,” said the industry. “Clearly we should never ever make another female superhero movie ever again. We have learned our lesson.” But thirteen years later, “Batman & Robin” did even worse. “Oops,” laughed the industry. “Some mistakes were made. Let’s try again with a better Batman. Silly us, casting George Clooney!” There has never been another Supergirl movie, but there sure have been a lot of Batman movies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, some of those Batman movies were excellent! But my point is that the film industry, backed by an enormous amount of money and power and influence, is willing to take risks in catering to the taste of straight men, but very hesitant to cater to women.
If you go to almost any parade, you will probably expect to see some cheerleaders (likely in short skirts), perhaps some beauty queens, maybe some young women dancing; at some parades, like Mardi Gras or Carnevale, those women might not be wearing much. I often worry about whether they’re wearing enough sunscreen. But I’m not surprised to see them there, because it fits perfectly into the worldview that is most often presented to me.
So when a Pride parade features a float of scantily clad men dancing…It’s not that “they” are getting in your face. It’s more that you have been conditioned to view the world through the male gaze: the visual preferences of a straight man. Looking outside of the male gaze can be unsettling. And if you’re weirded out…well, you aren’t the intended audience. Honestly, most of Western culture rubs heterosexuality in the faces of the LGBTQIA+ community. There is no escaping the male gaze or the assumption that all people are straight until proven otherwise.
And this is uncomfortable, because it reminds us that not all things are made for us personally,…because it’s so out of the ordinary,…because it’s very direct, rather than being veiled by innuendo, as it was for such a long time,…because it’s a visceral reminder that when we limit ourselves to a single standard worldview, we exclude a lot of people.
shalom and agape,
Rev Leia Rose Battaglia