Here’s how it starts: you spend the first years searching for yourself on-screen, all the time, but you don’t even know what you’re looking for. What that even looks like. But you do know there’s a trailer in Kentucky, where you live. It’s got this heater that’s always broken and a television tucked under some quilts. There is cold. There is snow. It blankets everything in whiteness, indiscriminately. You watch movies, often: black movies, sometimes, or movies that you’d call black now. Sometimes, there are movies where men and women fall in love. Sometimes there’s a wedding or a shooting or some homologation of unruly relatives, hell-bent on corrupting the lives of your televised betrothed.
But, mostly, everything is white. And rich. These men and women always make it out of these films unscathed. There’s never any question, no doubt as to where they’re going, and you watch these films with your mother and your father and their friends, knees hunched up in the living room, behind ankles splayed on coffee tables.
Then one day it happens. You’re just lying there with your folks and some uncles, lazing through the mendacity of some mid-’90s rom-com when it blasts across your retinas: two men touching. Just for a blip. In jest, probably. Or maybe it’s the gesture of a touch—a touch implied. But, nevertheless, there is static in the room where there wasn’t before.
Somewhere behind you there is a cough. A scowl. A muffled curse.
And then, the men are gone, the air clears, and the moment passes.
The smiling couple returns (happy!). There’s a cheer when they reunite.
You don’t know it then, but you feel like something’s shifted.
(Even that early? Yes, that early.)
So this is what you decide love looks like.
It isn’t like you’d taken the time to do your research, but if you had, you’d have known know you were fucked (or not fucked) from the outset: the representation of queerness in American films—the only ones in your vicinity—was nil. The films and televised specials we’d later deem queer didn’t emerge as viable on-screen narratives in the States until the early ’80s. Of course there was 1972’s That Certain Summer, broadcast a few years after the Stonewall Riots, which was followed by 1985’s An Early Frost (about a gay lawyer with AIDS), and 1993’s And the Band Played On—but each of these works ended in despair, accommodating what the American public deemed the “acceptable” queer trajectory at the time.
Those onscreen depictions of queerness were restricted to a certain single strain of desirability: there are no people of color at the forefront, let alone anyone who looked like you. And in those works that donned queer characters without being explicitly queer, the range of their representation was circumspect: their gayness was so firmly tucked into wealth, or so thoroughly and irremediably without, that their queerness is treated as the result of their maladies, rather than a fact of their existence. Both experiences exist, obviously, but in these works there was no middle ground. Queerness was either so wildly privileged, or so parallel to pain, that the actual queerness was muted either way.
But eventually, you and your people move to the South. Your new spot’s got two stories. There’s this yard, with some trees. Many (most) of your neighbors are white; you see that people actually live like this, that it’s not just another thing from the television. Also, surprise: you discover that white folks aren’t always as kind as their ciphers on television. You skirt around new ways of interacting with them, ways where you’ll leave the tiniest indents you can, and one day you walk to a kid’s house for a party and his mother asks you to come in through the backyard, she doesn’t let you follow his other friends through the door.
So there’s a lot of new shit going on in your life! But perhaps only one thing that’s immediately relevant: you watch Beautiful Thing. Grab it from the Blockbuster. There are two boys on the box, a little in love with each other, and you’ve only been staring at it for twenty minutes when the attendant, a tall lady, asks if you’d like to give it a try. You tell her you’re not interested, not really, and she gives you this long look. Then she smiles. Tells you it’s great. Highly recommended. Plus, she’ll even give you a discount: she prints out a coupon, and you take it home for free. One of those acts of grace that doesn’t click in your dome until decades later.
At this point, you’re all but a latchkey kid, and once you’re home the very first thing you do is tune in. The film stars Glen Berry and Scott Neal. They’re two boys living in some London projects (you didn’t even know Britain had projects, at least not like the ones you’d seen, you’d thought it was all wands and mystery and incantations but it’s the beginning of your education and we’ll chalk this dumbness up to that). They’re also gay. It’s the first time you allow yourself to use that word, even if only abstractly, cryptically. By the middle of the movie, you notice something in these two white boys, and that something is yourself.
There, you say, pointing at the screen.
You trace your finger across it, following their movement across the frames.
Eventually, one boy asks the other if he thinks he’s queer, and his friend says, It doesn’t matter what I think, and you don’t know what to do with that information.
You replay it. Watch it again.
And then again.
And then again.
For the next few days, the next few weeks, you hold the scene in your chest like this bright, vibrant blue jay. The gag is, you feel lighter (a rare thing, for a chubby kid like you), and people pick up on it. Your Ma asks if you’ve got a girl or something. Your father asks if you’ve got a girl or something. The kids you’ve conned into keeping you company ask if you’ve got a girl or something.
You don’t say that you do, but you don’t rebuke their inquisitions, either. You at least know not to go and do that. Mostly, you grin, cheesing like it couldn’t be anything else.
Weeks later, you bring the film back to that Blockbuster. It’s wildly overdue, but the woman who loaned it to you is beaming. She asks if you enjoyed it. You study her face before asserting, It was aight.
That’s when she smiles. Asks if you’d like any recommendations. And you say, Whatever, a little too quickly, but beginning to cheese along all the same.
As Wesley Morris has noted, “the national terror of the black sexuality is central to the American blockbuster,” but the terror of black homosexuality is so terrifying, apparently, as to be unfilmable entirely.
It reminds you, often, of a joke you’ve heard at your old barbershop: who in the world has the hardest time at the auto shop? A black man. And more difficult than that? A black woman. And even more difficult than that? Two black queers, two faggots.
And then one month, years later, in high school, you’re outed! It’s a whole thing.
There are tears. Facebook’s involved. And you’ve read some books by then, some Baldwin and some Foster and the Kushner play and the Monette autobiography. They’re tucked under your mattress like porn. All of them bring you damn near to tears. And, all of a sudden, your very private identity has become very public, very quickly, like you’re in some half-fucked K-Drama, so that the rush of catching yourself somewhere, anywhere, dims. You’d rather not see yourself at all.
But even now, you relate everything back to the movies.
For example: let’s say, one night, you take a long drive with your father, who doesn’t ask you the thing that both of you are thinking, and that this silence is more potent than any form of dialogue you two could have, and it reminds you of this quiet moment in Tropical Malady, where nothing much happens at all, but everything is happening simultaneously.
Let’s say that, a few months later, you leave home for school in the city, which is another way of saying you leave home for three jobs, and you think of Maurice, and his navigation of a whole new world, entirely unfamiliar but familiar all the same.
Let’s say that, one night, you’re with this guy (you met in a course on Milton, you were assigned as partners for Paradise Lost, and of course your dumb ass hadn’t read your passages because you were out working the parking lots), and at some point in the night you wake up to find him watching Desert Hearts, crying fat tears into the pillow, and it’s another, what, forty-five minutes before you find yourself bawling beside him.
You tie these films back to your life: Mala Noche and Victim and La Cage Aux Folles. And even if you don’t necessarily see yourself (black, middle class-ish, heavy) in these stories, they become the ciphers through which you identify. They become points of reference in your grid. Because when you’re starving, you don’t skimp at whatever you’re offered: you eat. You make toasts out of tap water. You imagine it’s a banquet.
A few years later, someone will ask you why any of this matters. If you know these people—queer folks, gay folks, lesbian folks, trans folks, bi folks—exist in the world, then why bitch about their not being on wax? Why not simply acquiesce to their transparency, the way everyone else deals with their ghosts in our overarching narratives?
And it occurs to you that the worst thing you could do to this person in response, the most thorough device, would be to put them in your shoes.
But, before that, there’s the year that doesn’t feel like a year at all, because you find someone that’s looking for these narratives, too.
Of course the first date is a film. A re-screening of Happy Together. And this someone doesn’t nod off or close his eyes or shake his head at the silences. He watches. You find yourself bracing for a grimace, someone who groans at the pacing, but this guy is enraptured. Pointing out the details, nudging your elbow. As Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai break down in one another’s arms, you look at the face of the guy beside you, and it’s a face you’ll see from him many times in the future, but you don’t know that yet. It feels like a fucking glitch in the system.
But it becomes your thing. Together, you watch more queer movies. Queerer movies. You unfold yourselves into cinema. It’s how you chart the days. Over a pile of pizza boxes, or on a sofa, or through a tangle of knees, or atop hoodies in the backseat of a van, you and this guy watch La Vie D’Adele, you watch My Private Idaho, you watch Girlhood and My Beautiful Laundrette. One night, on this shitty sofa, you watch Weekend, just once, and then once again the morning afterwards, and it shifts your respective axes. Another day won’t pass where you don’t think about the film, and the indubitable conflagration of chance and geography. When you see Tom Cullen come out to Chris New, as a fly on the fourth wall, it feels like you’re observing an Olympic feat, the highest you’ve ever seen anyone leap. You’ll watch it for the rest of your time with this boy, and then, when he’s gone, you’ll watch it even more frequently afterwards. You’ll think about it with the partners that follow. You’ll think about it through first dates, new apartments. It is you and him or you and them but also Tom Cullen and Chris New on that mattress. You’ll think about the way the light played across the camera when you wake up in the morning, comparing and contrasting.
It occurs to you that, at its peak, this is what representation can do. Representation can wreak havoc. It chips through the stone.
Eventually, years later still, you find yourself taking to pubs. There’s one in particular that gets you. The whole joint’s intricately coiffed, with twenty-four-hour playback of glam videos circling the premises. The bartender you talk to most often is short and stocky, with a heavy accent, and one night after you’ve called out for a refajo, he gently cocks his head your way.
Mostly, you watch the videos above you. You are regaled with the images of women dancing across their screens. Destiny’s Child and Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears and k.d. lang. The ladies sway between strobes. They dodge the men dancing around them. And an admiration of their grace is a lingua franca between you and everyone else in the bar: you tap your feet to it. Every now and again, someone nods. They’ll raise their drink and you’ll raise yours in turn.
Once, you ask your bartender how they choose the videos that they do.
We know when we see them, he says. I recognize what I’m looking for when I find it.
Like porn, you say.
No, says your bartender. Like magnetism. We just watch it and we know.
You blink at the screen for a little longer before the bartender grabs the remote, switching the channel to a rugby match. It’s being played in Britain, although neither team is from there. The two of you sit with your cheeks in your palms, drinking, because this is a sort of queerness, too.
And then one day, you’re on a plane, the sort of transcontinental flight whose length has motherfuckers reaching for their Benadryl. You are headed to Ontario, from Tokyo, in order to connect to Houston, and the guy you’ve been plopped next to is sleepy, in a baby blue button down.
He’s young in the face. You glance at his hands for a better gauge. Turns out he’s spent the last two months visiting family in Hong Kong. Dude hasn’t seen them in fifteen years, so you ask him what that’s like, and he laughs, and says he doesn’t know yet. He says he’ll talk it over with his partner in Toronto.
Your neighbor says, He and I have been together for fifteen years—and when he says he, this guy braces, just a little, for your response.
You think: here is this man, traveling so far to return home. And here you are, returning home from so far away. You yourself left your own family to figure something out, and here is someone who’s done that and gotten his answer. This is what that looks like.
Eventually, you fall asleep beside your neighbor. You wake up drooling on his shoulder. When you apologize, embarrassed as fuck, he smiles and says he hopes you’d do the same thing for him. On his tablet, he’s watching Carol. You two watch the movie in silence, for a while, before he asks if you’d like to borrow an earphone.
At first, you politely decline. But then you change your mind.
An hour later, when your flight attendant passes through the aisle, handing you your sencha and this man his water, he whispers that he loves this movie, and although you barely hear him, the both of you smile way too wide.
Lately, there are so many mirrors. Right out in the open. There are the works of Xavier Dolan. There’s the gay boy from Riverdale, cruising through the forest. There’s the gay couple navigating life in and adjacent to law school in How to Get Away With Murder (one of whom is poz). There is a queer black woman on Black Lightning, a nurse who moonlights by tossing villains, throwing them at her feet. You talk about these characters with friends—straight friends—IRL, and not on message boards or through thrice-veiled allusions with strangers twice your age. It always shocks the hell out of you.
But, sometimes, shit comes full-circle.
One day, you’re sitting in the living room with your family—think the roomful of kin in Kentucky, all of them crowded around the screen—and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, two black dudes flash across the screen. It’s a clip from Moonlight, featuring Chiron and Kevin, and the two men aren’t touching, not really, and then all of a sudden they are. Although it isn’t really all of a sudden, because you knew that they would. Of course you’d know. But the point here is your family. You imagine them shifting behind you, making faces. CTRL + ALT + DELETE-ing the moment from their minds. Or maybe they’ll ask you about it. Or maybe they’ll think nothing of it. Maybe you’ll have to fume at their reaction, flip a chair, fly away. You are not entirely sure which of these outcomes is the worst.
But what actually happens is that your mother opens her mouth, and she says that the men on the screen remind her of an acquaintance’s son. A family friend notes the way the light plays across the two men’s faces. Your father says he’s heard about the film, that it’s something he’s been looking forward to seeing.
This moment couldn’t have been more than, what, ninety seconds altogether? And yet, it feels like an appropriate bookend. You wonder if that’s all it really is.
The audacity required to ask if we need another gay movie, if we need any more gay movies, transcends thinking altogether. It is a thoughtless question. You only ask it if you’ve seen yourself so ingrained into the culture, into the fabric of the world, that your absence from those seams is unthinkable. You only ask that question if you’ve never been repulsed by yourself, or the idea that anyone like you, anywhere, could be happy. You only ask that question if you don’t know what it means to feel like the only person on the planet.
In Black Deutschland, Darryl Pinckney’s novel about a gay black dude living in Berlin, the narrator touches on the elusiveness of that temporality:
“Successful people, people good at life, can look ahead: they’ve been ahead all their lives, even at summer camp. They knew the next school year was coming and their bodies were getting ready for it, while yours was just goofing off and drinking sugar. People can say live in the moment, but the moment was the only thing I was good at. I could make the moment last, stretch it out for days, years, my whole life.”
Queer cinema is, in a lot of ways, conjuring that moment. Stretching it. Expanding it. Dissecting the contours, freaking it, and then giving it back.
One day, eventually, you’ll sit in some theatre with your partner, in an advance screening of a comparatively big-budget film about queer boys. It will occur to you that this is a moment you could never have imagined, watching this homosexual coming-of-age story in a room made up almost entirely of queer folks. It is literally science fiction.
When they laugh, you laugh, and you all know what it is that you’re laughing at. There’s a sob in the crowd, and you all know why they’re sobbing. When the film ends with a kiss, there’s a cheer from both ends of the theatre, which is followed by applause. Not at the event, necessarily, but at the fact of its actual existence. Of all the shit it took to even get here.
Because, now, for what it’s worth, there are so many windows: You see yourself in Being 17, watching a young man transition from bully to friend to annoyance to lover. You see yourself in Esteros, floating on a fishing boat with an old flame with your past. You see yourself in this spa in Koreatown in Spa Night. You see yourself crossing the expanse of India with a childhood friend in Loev. You see yourself negotiating your sexuality in Mexico City in Cuatro Lunas. In God’s Own Country, you see yourself being given the gift of an embrace by a Hungarian worker, and you see his tenderness as he skins the coat of a lamb and places it on the back of the tiniest runt, and you look at this gesture, the same way you’ve looked at all of these gestures, and they do that thing to your chest that these things have never done, that thing you’ve heard these images could do, and it’s as John Birdsall noted: “watching Alec Secareanu’s character in God’s Own Country skin a dead lamb and make a cloak for a rejected runt, in order to coax acceptance from a ewe is the most hauntingly beautiful queer moment in cinema.”
When someone asks you which of these moments is your favorite, you’ll try to describe them all, simultaneously. But it is like trying to conduct an entire symphony with your tongue. The whole thing comes to you in spurts. Movement by movement. Note to note. A reel that shows you what it wants and nothing more than that. You look for the bits that make up your life. You try encompassing the whole thing in a single, slow-moving frame.
But you can’t. Sorry. What you say is that you’re still waiting for that one, that it always seems just around the corner.