what’s the fuss with gay nostalgia?
It’s cozy, it’s fun, but is it holding us back?
We are, you could say, in the middle of a gay renaissance. Will and Grace, Queer Eye; the absolute obsession with everything Call Me By Your Name, even the promised L-Word reboot. Everyone loves a bit of nostalgia, don’t they, looking back at simpler times, easier times, nicer times. But maybe this spate of culture that reimagines the queer past is actually a tiny bit problematic. Yes, yes, representation is brilliant and important — but does it leave us in a time warp, rather than allowing us to move forward?
Despite 2017 marking 50 years since the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales for men over 21 (it remained illegal in Scotland until 1980, and the age of consent didn’t drop to 16 until 2001 (side note: it was never illegal to be a lesbian because Queen Victoria, who signed the papers making sex between men illegal, didn’t believe that lesbians existed)). Gay, straight, polyamorous, asexual, homophobe, whatever the flavor of the person you share your sheets with, we can all agree that queer culture has shifted and blossomed — particularly in the last few years. Gay celebrities are practically ten a penny, sometimes they get married, sometimes they have kids. Sometimes they are just really fabulous, but either way they are just normal people living their lives: their sexual preference is no longer such a huge part of their identity, as society once insisted it had to be.
21 years ago Ellen wasn’t America’s most famous talk show host, but she was the star of her own eponymous sitcom. Episode after episode, the kooky book shop owner would fail to get a date with various different men, until finally, "The Puppy Episode" allowed Ellen to share with the audience what we already knew. After bragging to her friends about her sizzling night of shagging a man (which she fabricated for their benefit) she finally admits to her therapist (played by Oprah Winfrey) that she hates people making assumptions about her, that she wants to be with someone special. “Has there ever been someone special? What was his name?” she asks. “Susan,” is Ellen’s answer. The episode caused furore. Ellen lost her job, the show lost its advertisers; Laura Dern claimed she didn’t get any work for a year and a half after she played Susan in the episode.
And while 42 million people tuned in to see Ellen come to terms with her feelings for a woman, and realize that it’s OK, really what the show highlighted was how ingrained homophobia was in America in the 90s — a mood that also made its way over to the UK. While we had Brookside’s Beth Jordache smooch with Margaret on the patio several years before, plus Queer as Folk, we didn’t have any out lesbians in the public eye.
In the mid 90s I was a teenager, trying, as most do, to work myself out. Growing up in Edinburgh I was desperate for the gentle guidance of someone I could relate to, someone who was like me, but on TV. How are you supposed to understand what it is to be gay when the only lesbians in the media — like Carol and Susan on —frumpy and hated, the butt of the joke, or like in Will and Grace, fodder to make woodworking jokes about. Stereotypes make for an easy target.
Which is why it’s surprising that here we are in 2018, and I am drying my eyes at another show that took a stereotype and ran with it — Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. Although in 2018 it’s just Queer Eye, the premise is the same but this time it’s a little less camp. This time it takes Trump supporters, closeted homos, military men and, yes, makes over their flats, dresses them in something a bit nicer than jorts and a trucker cap, and shows them that, it’s ok to be in touch with themselves. The Fab Five are empathetic, and come with their own struggles, which they share candidly with their makeover subjects: “I’m not saying a conversation with one police officer and one gay guy is going to solve [our country’s] problems, but maybe it can open up eyes,” says one of the five, Karamo, in an episode.
There’s no single answer as to why studio execs thought it was time to bring Queer Eye and Will And Grace back. Who really knows why Christopher Bailey decided to celebrate his final show at Burberry with giant, bonkers floor-sweeping gay pride coats — maybe he was giving a new, younger, liberated generation of customers what they really wanted to see. Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful and touching film (had I seen it when I was 16 it would have no doubt changed my life).
It is brilliant that there is an increased openness and acceptance of queerness in culture. What is less fabulous though is that this is predominantly a diluted version of gayness; men are stylish, well groomed, witty. It allows for one version of being a gay man, the same version that it did back when these shows first aired, and back when CMBYN is set. The homophobia of earlier days is skirted over, the sparkly fun bits amplified. And lesbians are still severely lacking in visibility on mainstream TV and film. Lesbian relationships are often portrayed as steamy and sensual — a straight man’s fantasy, basically, or as a jokey, brown flannel shirt and flat shoe’d trope. There’s no normalcy, no, ‘two people who just live next door and eat pasta and have a dog and maybe a kid and just so happen to both be women’. Which is why I find it hard to watch shows like Will and Grace, or Friends, or Sex and the City now — their lack of diversity, of accepting that love isn’t just black or white, is jarring. Because, after all, as I learned as a teenager, and continue to learn now, there are many shades in the rainbow flag.