The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The World of Iniquus - Action Adventure Romance

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Jokes Kill, So Does Disregard in Writing

For pride month, I wanted to feature comic books that blazed trails in representation for the LGBTQ community. Sadly, my memory of representation is much better than the factual material. So, pivot to movies! 



I quickly realized that for every Moonlight there are six I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry depictions. Which seems to be the most common treatment of LGBTQ folk—the joke. Some may say, “What’s the harm in that?”

There's not a more 70's movie poster.

Well, before James Burrows created Cheers, he directed an unfortunate little film called Partners. Make no mistake, 13-year-old me thought the movie was funny. It was certainly a step up from William Friedkin’s horrific Cruising or Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill. Yeah, both cases, low bar.

No. Just, no...

And no, there was no parental supervision in the 1980s.


Instead of murderous trans women (Dressed to Kill) or ultra-violent serial killers, (Cruising) Partners depicted gay men as jokes. The central conceit is Sgt Benson (Ryan O’Neal) is a straight cop working undercover in the gay community, to catch a killer. But the central theme is “oh, they’re so gay and he’s so straight and isn’t it all so funny?” 


The movie does make an attempt at humanizing gay men. After arresting a suspect only to find he’s just a man who thought he was going on a date, Benson stops fellow cops from hazing him. As the cops tease Benson about his partner, Kerwin, (John Hurt) a gay police officer recruited to legitimize Benson’s gay persona, Benson begins to see his part in the persecution of gay men.


And this was the “benign” representation of gay men, in 1982. Again, you may be saying, “What harm, what foul?”


In 1981, the New York Times released a report of an unknown form of cancer afflicting gay men just 9 months before Partners was released. The same month of the NYT report, Zoro, the Gay Blade was released. Did these movies cause the AIDs epidemic? Certainly not.       

Who thought this was a good idea?

 Harm is in the disregard—and that’s what Pride is about


The attitudes behind both films reflect the best-case scenario of national attitudes: casual disregard. The first national news feature addressing HIV/AIDs would only occur after movie star, Rock Hudson, died in 1985. Hudson’s death would be the catalyst for President Ronald Reagan to finally mention AIDs after four years of silence from the administration and tens-of-thousands of deaths.


But what about television?


Broadcast television did remarkable things in the 1970s and 80s. Movies of the week addressed everything from spousal abuse to addiction, eating disorders to homelessness, mental illness to child abuse. But even the most daring pioneers in television (more likely the network executives) stepped lightly around gay characters. That Certain Summer was the representation until the 1980s.

But which one was Dominicano?

However, before Burt and Ernie were established as an out couple, (seriously, I was 4 and I knew they were a couple) NBC broke HUGE ground with a gay lead in the pilot for Sidney Shorr: a Girl’s Best Friend. Sidney, (Tony Randall) is a gay man grieving the death of his partner who befriends and takes in a single mother. But when the show entered NBC’s regular Sunday-night schedule, it did so with a new title, Love, Sidney. Network execs also scrubbed all mention of Sidney’s sexuality and late partner.


If you think I omitted depictions of lesbian and trans folk, I promise you that I did not. But television sure did. There was a soap-opera character here, a third-string supporting character (on a mid-season replacement) there. But it would be 1991 before a lesbian/bi character would be a series lead.

Trans folk remain little more than gag or threat until Kimberly Pierce’s 1999 film,
Boys Don’t Cry, rubbed the nation's consciousness in its own bigotry. The story of Brandon Teena, (Hillary Swank) a trans man who was raped and murdered in 1991, Boys Don’t Cry changed perceptions. Some perceptions. Also in 1991, Paul Broussard was beaten to death in a gay-bashing attack in Houston. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was tortured and left tied to a fence in Wyoming, later dying from his wounds.


So, yeah, jokes kill. But entertainment can move people, from ignorance to light. It helps if the entertainment is entertaining.

Who gets it right?

This will save your life after Boys Don't Cry

Released in 1994, Stephen Elliot’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert brought the lives, dreams, and daily hassles of drag queens on the big screen. And suddenly drag queens weren’t so scary. The humor is not directed at any group, it is situational. As a result, audiences in North America, England, and France—while not understanding the Aussie-isms—all found something to laugh about.


The movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, and a whole new generation of entertainment descends from Priscilla. Mostly because it is brilliant and funny.


The best X-Men movie Fox Studios never made

Then there was Pose. In 2016, Ryan Murphy (et al) debuted a television series about the lives and plights of transwomen, gay men, and the straights who love them. Murphy (et al) tackled the AIDs epidemic and trans exploitation, gay teens and homelessness, addiction and persecution. The Pose folks did it all with a Victor Hugo vibe that would rival any Rush song. 

Tell me this isn't Xavier and Magnus, I'll wait.

Think of the children!

Which brings us back to comic books and my beloved X-Men. An allegory on race and racism, Marvel Comics has published the X-Men, (a group of super-powered teens at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters) in one form or another, since 1963. The team is composed of mutants, (a person born with a genetic composite that manifests physical, mental, or psychic abilities and/or characteristics) they are ostracized by humans.

In spinoff comic The New Mutants, (the X-Men junior members) issue #45, the team attends a high school dance and meets Larry Bodine. A mutant, Larry is terrified of threats he has received over his power and does his best to fit-in. Even telling a “mutie” joke that results in the team rejecting him.

Back home, Larry received a phone call and another threat. Unable to cope with his fear and loneliness, Larry takes his own life. 

While the writer, Chris Claremont, has never stated he wrote Larry as gay, the subtext registered with even 170-year-old me. Larry’s ability was to manipulate light and color waves into shapes—neither an offensive or defensive power. He used his ability as an artist, creating 3D works of art from light and color. Clearly, he craved friendship but even among kids from Xaviers’ School, around kids he would never see/meet again, he made no advance on any of the students, male or female. 

Larry, showed us all who he was and who we are.

Larry’s death hits everyone differently. His parents—who had no idea that Larry was a mutant or being bullied—are shocked. His classmates are split between apathy and disdain, some making jokes at his memorial. 

The kids from Xavier’s School are gutted with grief and regret. This should’ve been Larry’s community but he couldn’t even find sanctuary among them. They failed their own kind.

That story, “We Were Only Fooling,” hit me hard. This was years before Shepard, Broussard, and Teena were murdered. It was years before I had even gotten past the petty prejudices of my upbringing but that comic book made me think about the things I said and the jokes I told. 

Around the same time of that issue Claremont’s fellow creator, John Byrne, wanted to normalize a gay man in the super group he was writing, (Alpha Flight). Marvel management refused an outright (puns) declaration so Byrne, who was writing and drawing the title, worked in normalized scenes. 

When the group leader calls Jean-Paul Beaubier, a man in a Speedo answers the phone and calls Jean-Paul to the phone. In another issue, Jean-Paul’s sister teases him about the young, scantily clad men he surrounds himself with. 

It’s not much but it is a counter to over-the-top misrepresentations and that is what we can do as writers. 

Yep, conservative, CIS dude

Mike Grell is a legend. For several decades he wrote and drew some great comic books. He’s also a conservative who claimed clandestine service in Vietnam. You read Mike’s books for the art and the action and a pass-good story—not for progressive social commentary. 

But  in 1988, Grell resurrected The Green Arrow, a vigilante in the Detective Comics. Unnerved by attacks on gay men, (AIDs activist protests) Grell wanted to make a statement. 

When we meet Oliver, (Green Arrow) he is no longer rich, no longer powerful. Unsure of his value as an “adventurer,” against day-to-day injustice and inhumanity. He feels obsolete. 

Working at his girlfriend’s flower shop, Oliver is closing up when a couple arrives just before Oliver locks the door. The men are celebrating their 20th anniversary. One buys the other a single white rose. Once they leave, Oliver mocks them. 

Limp wrist, hip swish and all…

The men are attacked by streethoods and one is killed. Oliver is enraged. Then he is ashamed. Too late, Oliver sees his part, his attitude, his joke—in the killing. Oliver hunts down the hoods. He exacts justice but he cannot undo the damage. He can’t bring back the dead.

Yet, as Oliver’s perspective changes, so does the reader’s.

In the decades since Grell’s Long-Bow Hunters, Claremont’s X-Men, and Byrne’s Alpha Flight we have an abundance of LGBTQ characters in comics. Jean-Paul Baubier, (Northstar) is now married to a sports manager named Kyle. With his example, other Marvel heroes have come out. NBC News reports that for the first time ever lesbians representation in television series out pace gay male representation. 

Jean-Paul and Kyle on their wedding day.

Leslye Headland brought The Acolyte to Disney, she put EVERYONE out front. When Jecki Lon (Dafne Keen) asks why Mekneks instead of droids, series protagonist, Ohsa (Amandla Stenberg) flashes a smile at the young lady when Osha says that she’s more flexible than a droid. When Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae) boards his ship to go after the fugitive Osha he finds Jord (Charlie Barnett) shirtless and ironing his robe. The new knight all but faints in obvious ardor. A critic wrote that The Acolyte is the gayest Star Wars, yet. Headland replied, “great!”

Still more to do…

Across the country, transwomen are still being murdered with near-impunity. Police still under-investigate crimes against the LGBTQ community but especially the trans community. Drag queens are threatened for reading stories to children (accompanied by their parents) in libraries. 

This is our arena. We tell stories. We shape perceptions and we expand consciousness. Read some history, imagine what can be, and write a different story. 

(l-r) Brandon Teena, Paul Broussard, and Matthew Shepard

It’s what we do. We create better worlds and better people. We owe it to them.

I own none of the photos above. All are used for instructional/educational purposes, as covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.