Not a “Gay” Movie

Editor’s Note: This story was first published in October of 2015. 

The first time I heard the clarification “This isn’t a gay movie,” I was watching an interview with Piper Perabo about the soon-to-be lesbian classic: Imagine Me And You. A delightful and campy rom-com that will live in the “Watch It Again” section of our collective Netflix accounts long after we are dead and buried.

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Before Imagine Me And You debuted in 2005, Brokeback Mountain stormed the theaters, forever changing the face of cinema here in the states. A sprawling film that focused on the love and hardships experienced by two gruff and manly cowboys, and dared you to call them less than masculine.

In her interview Piper Perabo said of IMAY, “This isn’t a gay movie, this is a love story,” and alluded to box office successor Brokeback Mountain by saying, “Our movie doesn’t have horses in it.”

I’m sorry…what? Watching the interview at 19 (still very much in the closet and entirely clueless) I remember thinking to myself, “Is there something innately gay about horses? Is that a thing?” No. It’s not a thing, and the tangent my brain took illustrates just how ludicrous a comment that was. I was so thrown by what she said that my brain struggled to make connections where there were none to be made.

 
Since then there have been a number of big budget films depicting LGBT experiences, like  Carol, Freeheld, and The Danish Girl among many others. It should not surprise me that I’ve already heard,“This isn’t a gay movie” more times than I care to hear for the rest of my life. What did surprise me was hearing Ellen DeGeneres say it when discussing Freeheld with Julianne Moore.

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I understand the reason to use this non-description when promoting a film, but I don’t like it. It’s about viewership, revenue, and it carries the weight of an apology; dismissive of the experiences depicted in the film, and placating prejudices real and perceived to ensure mass appeal. (Sidebar: I also find it cringe-worthy when actors and actresses see fit to remind their interviewers and the audience of their straightness when speaking about an LGBT character they portray. Like the entire world doesn’t obsessively stalk their Instagram and sometimes that of their spouse?).

Can you imagine if every year we took to the streets, decked out in our fanciest rainbow attire and started chanting: We’re Here! We’re Queer! I mean…kind of, some of the time we do gay things. But not always! We pay taxes just like you, stay up too late binge watching, wake up early to feed the dog. You can relate to that right? My lifestyle isn’t completely alienating to you.

I am in no way suggesting that these movies be plugged as Gay Movies. The reason I’m not suggesting that is because a movie, a novel, or a television show cannot be gay (notable exception: The L Word). A story, in any form of media, has to have more than one descriptor. You can have gay characters, but you know what? If their sexual orientation precedes them, if that is the first and only attribute given to a character, then you have failed as a writer to create a multidimensional reflection of the human condition. Can’t we instead, simply state: This movie/book/TV show is a love story about two women, and their uphill battle towards equality.

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When interviewers, actors, and directors take the mic to say “Don’t call it a gay movie,” they do this intentionally, but that is not to suggest they do it maliciously. They want to reassure would-be viewers who are still on the fence that everyone will be able to relate to these characters, regardless of how they identify. And, hey, if it gets the word out about great movies depicting the struggles faced by the LGBT community then that is a positive that I’m grateful for.

Don’t get me wrong: I want ticket sales for these films, and profits for the production companies, and glowing reviews for the stars and starlets who breathe life into these characters. Because media changes minds. But the reason I resent this language is because as a lesbian I don’t forgo the chance to watch or read a story on the grounds that the protagonist’s sexuality differs from mine. If I did I would have never read Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Awakening, Of Human Bondage, or Rebecca. I would have never watched Schindler’s List, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Ben Hur, Romeo and Juliet again people!

Will Carol or Freeheld one day top the list of movies you must watch before you croak? Too soon to tell. A story lives or dies based on how accurately it captures a moment in time, a feeling, the pain and joy of being human. A timeless tale will be watched, read, and retold dozens of times. Maybe that’s what irks me about reducing these movies to their simplest components before they can even be viewed. We have succeeded in hedging the conversation with what they are not before audiences have the chance to form their own opinions.

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We live in an exciting and progressive age. We live in a world where you can discuss your ongoing Orange Is The New Black binge with your straight cousins and co-workers. It is possible that we do the straight community a disservice in underestimating their ability to empathize, and by aggressively underplaying a stories themes to make it palatable.

After all, the LGBT community has been watching heteronormative storytelling since always and that is why fanfiction exists. It’s human nature to seek out a reflection of yourself, and even when we were without gay characters to imprint upon, we found a spark. We found something in those fictional people that spoke to us and then we created new stories within stories. My point is a character is not only gay, just like a character is not only straight, and a story is the sum of its parts. I want to believe that people can be trusted to know that.

The world is changing, and entertainment has greatly aided us in our struggle to tear down the walls of inequality. I think it’s time the language surrounding promotion and advertising reflect those cultural and political leaps.

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