It’s the fifth anniversary of the worst mass killing of queer people in U.S. history. Before the 49 victims of the Pulse massacre, the worst single event had been the UpStairs Lounge arson attack on June 24, 1973 in New Orleans.
I see that certain news sites and deplorables are once again trying to push the narrative that this event was a hate crime directed against queer people. I explained why they are wrong last year: Four years after the Pulse massacre and don’t feel the need to re-hash everything, other than to point out the the shooter’s own father was one of the people who thought the club had been picked because of how much his son hated queer people and that his son had ranted a lot the week before the shooting about how marriage equality was proof that American culture had embraced evil.
On this night five years ago, a lot of people were at Pulse celebrating Latinx Night as one of several Pride Month activities at the bar. They went out to have fun, to dance, to be with other queer people. To celebrate life. To celebrate Pride. To celebrate the concept that love is love.
Forty-nine of them never came home that night. I don’t personally know any of them, but when I am reminded of that night, I cry just as hard as a did when I was first reading news reports of the even the next morning. Because queer people are my tribe. Queer people are my community.
And the biggest fear I have had since realizing I was gay, is that some day a hater is going to kill me or someone I love because we’re queer.
Four years later, the Pulse massacre is still a gut punch.
A few years ago I wrote a blog post about, among other things, why white folks such as myself should amplify the voices of people of color when they talk about matters of concern to their communities: Queer Plus, or Intersectionality Isn’t Just a Noun — more adventures in dictionaries. So, when Lil Nas X released his new single, "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" along with its even more creative/compelling music video, I figured that since the them was about coming out as a gay man within the African-American community and reconciling the teachings of his childhood church with his lived reality, my job was not to pontificate, but share links. So a couple of weeks ago I linked to the video and to two articles about it in the Friday Five.
I thought the video spoke for itself, though the two articles did offer some context.
I thought my work here was done. Until this week when a news site I read just about every day posted an op-ed about how brilliantly Lil Nas X used the conservative outrage machine to make the video go viral before the single was available to stream or buy.
It started out with a fair assessment, but then things went pear-shaped. Nas and his fans and supporters crossed a line, you see. They (or rather we – I’m an unabashed fan) betrayed our religious neighbors because we failed to understand that those religious people sincerely believe that the devil is literally the source of evil in the world.
When I read that bit, I said "What the f–!" out loud, then re-read the entire paragraph to make sure I was following the guy’s point correctly. On the second reading I noticed another bit that had slipped past me. He notes that recently polling finds that 47% of Americans say that they belong to a church, synagoge, or mosque, and then later he asserts that those 47% of all Americans are the people offended by Lil Nas X’s latest video. But also, yes, he definitely said we were all being insensitive to the sincerely held beliefs of the most conservative religious people who took offense at the video.
Before I explain how bass-ackwards this i, in case you you haven’t seen the video, here is a summary. Young Lil Nas is portrayed in an idyllic field playing a guitar, when a huge sinister serpent whispers in his ear and leads Nas away. A group f blue-heaired drag queens admonish and scold Nas, and eventually he hops on a stipper pole, slides down into into Hell. Where he gives the Devil a lap dance, before stealing the devil’s horns, causing the devil to explode, and then Nas sits on the throne.
Nas, by the way, plays almost every character in the video.
So it’s one way of describing the journey of a queer man raised in a conservative religion. You start out just innocently being yourself. You become aware of desires you have that you have been told are wrong. You get bullied and or rejected by the community of faith. Eventually you realize your truth is stronger than the lies you were told. You embrace your true self. Unfortunately there will always be those who continue to believe the lies, and now they see you as the evil one.
The entire point of that metaphor in the video is that many of the haters believe that the devil is literal and the source of all evil. The entire point is that they tell us – again and again – that we are tools of that literal source of evil. It is part of the dehumanizing process. Queer people, in their minds, don’t deserve rights or respect or even the chance to live because we aren’t actually people, we are merely tools of the devil.
At no point in the writing of the song, the recording of the song, the filming of the video, nor in the writing of the poignant letter to his younger self that accompanies it, did Lil Nas X ever forgot that those bigot sincerely believe in the devil.
It’s not betrayal; it’s holding up a mirror and saying, "This is what you believe? Own it!"
And while we’re on the subject, not all of the Americans who belong to a church or another house of worship are anti-gay bigots and Biblical literalists. A whole lot of progressive, pro-queer straight people belong to and regularly attend church in this country. Not only that, a lot of out and proud queer people do, too.
Once again, a concern troll has looked at an act of self-defense from a bullied, oppressed survival of an abusive religion, and construed it as an unprovoked attack.
I’ve said many times that I’m not an ex-Christian because I just decided one day to give the church the finger. I’m an ex-Christian because the church I was raised in rejected me and actively drove me away. Long before I understood what was different about me, the church told me again and again that queers were abominations to the loathed and punished, spurned and ostracized. While out of the other side of their mouth, they claimed god’s love was unconditional and insisted that they were instruments of that love.
Then, as soon as they see us for who we are, the bullying and abuse begins. Unconditional love is only for people who conform to their beliefs. Now that is betrayal.
Calling their betrayal out, particularly of our childhood selves, is not a betrayal. It is a reckoning.
Statistics are seldom simple — or, a queer survivor unpacks survival, visibility, and feeling safe to be out
Last week I posted this story in the Friday Five: 5.6% of American adults say they are LGBTQ. Over half identify as bisexual – The number of LGBTQ Americans coming out and claiming their identity just keeps growing. Digging beyond the headline, a lot of people focused on the generational chart (pictured above): Millennials (folks born between 1981 and 1996) are about four-and-a-half times more likely to identify as queer than Boomers (folks born between 1946-1964), while Gen-Z (folks born after 1996) are nearly eight times more likely than Boomers to identify as something other than heterosexual.
The story was published early in the week and I kept seeing various hot takes on the results. I was a little surprised at just how many people were willing to leap to the conclusion that younger people are only saying that they are queer to be cool.This ignores several facts that would disproportionately reduce the number of queer people in those less-young generations responding to this survey. Not the least of which is that many of them are literally not alive to respond. Twitter user @mike_i_guess sums up much of what I’d like to say on the matter, though I would use the term “contemporaries” rather than peers:
“The lack of boomer LGBTQ+ people isn’t because it’s ‘more popular now.’ Many were murdered by they peers, died from government inaction during the AIDS crisis, committed suicide due to lack of social supports, or have had to live in the closet due to their peers’ cruelty.”
I want to unpack that a bit. We don’t really have statistics on hate crimes before the passage of the federal Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, and even then crimes against trans people (or those perceived to be trans) weren’t counted until the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2010 was signed into law. But queer people have been subject to bashings and murder for decades. The longer one lives, the more opportunities there are to fall victim to such crime.
It’s been known for a long time that queer people, particularly queer children and teens, are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight contemporaries, and the statistical analysis is that the disparity is entirely due to the stress of homophobic abuse and related issues. Preliminary studies show a slight decrease in those numbers for teens and children since about 2012, as growing acceptance of queer adults in society has given more of them hope of a happy future.
Then there are health care issues. Numerous studies show that queer people are more likely to experience interruptions in health care coverage, are less likely to be forthcoming with their health care providers, and less likely to receive the same quality of health care as their straight contemporaries. It’s a complicated result of both systemic and direct homophobia. Lots of people operate under the mistaken notions that bigotry only exists in a small number of people who actively hate others because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, et cetera, but it’s a lot more subtle than that.
For instance, let’s talk about the bit about interruptions in health care coverage. For years in the U.S. one’s health insurance (if you have it) is provided by your employer. Most people don’t get to choose their coverage, they have to take what’s offered by their employer. Which means if you get laid off or otherwise lose your job, your health coverage goes away. Queer people are disproportionately likely to be let go when a Reduction In Force hits a workplace. They are also less likely to get promotions and more likely to earn less than their straight co-workers who received similar job performance reviews and have similar experience. This is not because most managers are actively homophobic. It is a combination of a lot of unconscious processes.
For example, if a queer person doesn’t feel safe being out in the workplace, they will police themselves constantly to make sure they don’t let telling details of their personal life slip. While straight co-workers will be sharing stories about things they did with the children over the weekend, or a project they worked on with their spouse, or even issues with an ex-spouse or in-laws they don’t get along with, the closeted co-worker remains mum. The closeted working can’t talk about their partner freely or in detail. So they limit themselves to very vague generalities are just politely comment on the other person’s remarks. This is perceived as being unfriendly. Not sharing personal details after another person shares some of theirs is considered anti-social. So the closeted queer employee is perceived as being less of a team player, aloof, and so forth. This has a deleterious effect on every aspect of employment, including as mentioned above an increased likelihood of being one of the people let go if there are lay-offs.
Even more dangerous is the tendency of some health care professionals not to take as seriously symptoms reported by a queer person. I have a very personal example of this. In the very early 1990s I had a series of weird health events. It took over a year for my doctor and two specialists to figure out what the underlying problem was. Before that diagnosis, I had a number of incidents that required me going to an emergency room.
One time, I had been unable to keep any food down. Soon I was running a fever and it reach the point that even trying to sip plain wanter sent me running to the bathroom and left me curled up with horrible pain in my stomach after I threw up the water. Eventually, Ray (my now late-husband) convinced me to let him take me to the hospital.
We had one bit of good luck. As we were checking in, a nurse who just happened to be coming to the front to give the admin person some information related to another patient, noticed how bad I looked. She asked a couple of questions, then pinched my forearm, before telling the admin person, “He’s extremely dehydrated and need to be put on an IV right away.”
I was whisked off, put on an IV, had my vitals taken. Not long after another nurse came in and drew a bunch of blood, asked questions, and finished filling out the admission form. Some time later the initial nurse dropped by to say her shift was ending, but before she left she wanted to see for herself if the fluids they were pumping into me were helping. My fever was down, I felt a lot better, and apparently I looked a lot better.
Then we just waited. I don’t know how long I laid there. Ray got very impatient and went to ask when someone was going to check on us. I think I was on my third unit of fluid at that point. A doctor showed up, asked a bunch of questions, checked a few things, and told us they were still waiting for a couple of the blood tests to come in. Some time after that the doctor reappeared, alone with a nurse who changed out the fluid bag again. The doctor explained that the blood tests were inconclusive, but he suspected I had a rare form of ulcer that his caused by a particular kind of infection of the stomach lining, so he was prescribing some pills that would help with that. He said that as soon as I was rehydrated enough that I had to go to the bathroom, I’d been discharged. I should keep taking the pills for the rest of the weekend (it was a Saturday night), and see my regular doctor on Monday.
I fell asleep on the drive home. And pretty much slept through all of Sunday. I was able to keep broth, plain water, and tea down, so I thought the pills were helping.
The next morning, I left a message with my boss saying I was sick and hoping to see my doctor that day. I had just hung up and was going to look up my doctor’s phone number when the doctor’s office called us. They’d gotten the information from the hospital and my regular doctor was not happy. They wanted me to come right away, bring all of the paperwork the hospital had given me, “And if you haven’t taken any of those pills today, don’t take any more!”
My doctor wasn’t just unhappy, he was royally pissed. The pills I had been given had nothing to do with ulcers or infections of any kind. They were tranquilizers. Among the notes from the ER doctor was the phrase, “Gay male patient claims he doesn’t have AIDS.” His diagnosis was that I was probably just overreacting to “unremarkable symptoms.”
My doctor wanted to know why I had gone to that hospital instead of one that was much closer to my home (where he happened to be a resident, and would have been called as soon as I was admitted, instead of him finding it out when they pulled faxes off the machine Monday morning). I explained that my employer had recently changed our insurance plan and there was exactly one ER in the city that was considered in network. He explained that the particular hospital I had gone to had a number of doctors like this one guy who 1) assumed every gay male patient was infected with the virus that causes AIDS, and 2) there isn’t anything you can do for AIDS patients, anyway, so don’t waste a lot of time on them.
The blood tests that came back before they admitted me clearly indicated that in addition to the fever and other symptoms I did have some kind of serious infection. But the medicine prescribed wouldn’t treat any infections. Tests results that had come back after they let me go gave my doctor a good guess as to what kind of infection I did have, and he prescribed something that actually would work against. Then my doctor walked me through the process of filing a formal complaint. Which he was also doing.
The upshot was that I received a partial refund from the hospital of my out-of-pocket for the ER visit. My doctor pried a letter out of my insurance company saying that the hospital close to my house would be covered as in-network. But just to be sure, my doctor also got a letter from that hospital saying that if my insurance billed me as out-of-network they would cover the cost of the difference in out-of-pocket.
The initial incident happened in the city of Seattle, which most people think of as an extremely liberal city where virtually no one is homophobic. I was lucky that I had as my primary physician a guy who was ready to fight for his patients. Who know what would have happened if I hadn’t had him in my corner? And the doctor who sent me home with tranquilizers was simply appalled that anyone would think that he had allowed any sort of prejudice guide his decision to lie to me about his diagnosis and send me home with medicine that would just make sure I was too sleepy to do anything for a few days.
I bet to this day he would swear that he doesn’t have a homophobic bone in his body. Homophobia isn’t limited to people scream slurs while they beat you.The takeaway: for many reasons queers are less likely to get consistent, quality health care. They are disproportionately less likely to experience good health care outcomes. Therefore, more likely to die younger than their straight contemporaries. And that doesn’t even include the hundreds of thousands of queer men in the U.S. who died starting in 1979 due to the AIDS epidemic (which is still ongoing, but the availability of multi-drug anti-viral cocktails beginning in the mid-1990s have met it is no long a death sentence, even though there is still no cure).
Then there is the phenomenon of people so deeply afraid of being outed that even on an anonymous survey they will not identify as anything other than straight. Any reasonably friendly out gay man who has ever logged into a hookup app, a gay chat site, or similar forum will have many stories of getting hit up on by men who are married to women (usually with kids), and desperately want to have sex with other men, but only if you can be discreet and guarantee that no one will ever know. If you can get them to talk about it, they will admit that they have wanted to have sex with other men since they were teens (or even earlier), but have always been afraid to be out, and they are convinced that their lives will end if their wife and family ever found out they were anything but 100 percent straight.
I remember one particularly heart-wrenching conversation with a guy who felt he was super lucky precisely because his first (and only) child was a son, so that his super conservative and religious parents and in-laws were all happy, and he was able to just stop having sex with his wife at all after the arrival of the first baby. And significantly, his wife was perfectly happy that he supposedly hadn’t been interested in sex at all for the next about 30 years (at the time I talked to him). He had been having lots and lots and lots of sex for all those years—it was just furtive, downlow sex with other men. And I have little doubt that if he happened to be surveyed by Gallup, that without hesitation he would describe himself as straight
Now while I have met a few younger men like him, the vast majority of these downlow closet cases I run into online now are middle aged or older.
It’s more accurate to conclude from Gallup’s generational information that younger people currently feel less fear to admit their orientation. We hope that, going forward, they will also experience fewer of the issues that have caused earlier generations of queers to die before their time.
I need to get my other hosting issues sorted out and get a couple of my other sites back up on the web. But a conversation elseweb made me dig out this essay I wrote and first published 22 years ago and resurrect it on this blog. Homophobia is not a recent development in the sci fi community. But also neither is allyship, so:
(Originally published 18 June, 1999)
Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was one of America’s finest writers. He was one of the great figures of the Golden Age of science fiction. During his lifetime he produced over 200 stories, several novels, film and tv scripts (including two of the most famous episodes of the original “Star Trek” series), plays, and dozens of non-fiction reviews and essays. His many literary awards include the Hugo, the Nebula, and the International Fantasy Award.
Sturgeon wrote such great fiction because his philosophy was “Always ask the next question.” He even created a symbol or personal shorthand for “Ask the next question,” a capital “Q” with an arrow through it. He was never satisfied with conventional wisdom or pat answers.
And that tendency got him in big trouble in 1953, making him the central target of an intense “anti-homosexual blacklist” within the publishing community. Prior to the 1970s, it was virtually unheard of for gay men, lesbian, or bisexual characters to appear in any kind of fiction, and when they did, they were either vile villains or tragically flawed creatures who committed suicide before the end of the story. While many science fiction authors were questioning racial stereotypes or decrying McCarthy’s rabid anti-communism, they closed ranks with the rest of the status quo on the question of homosexuality.
Not Theodore Sturgeon. At the time a father of four and somewhat notorious womanizer, Sturgeon still couldn’t help but ask the next question. If racism was wrong, why not sexism and heterosexism? He wrote three short stories in quick succession. The first, “The Silken Swift” was a twist on the unicorn legend that questioned society’s definitions of purity and innocence, while making some comments about the role of women in most cultures. It caused a slight stir, but didn’t seem too far out. Then “The Sex Opposite” started showing up in editor’s mailboxes, in which Sturgeon posited a whole subspecies of humans who could change their gender at will, and whom engaged in long term relationships with members of all three sexes. This provoked a mild uproar, and many editors shied far away from it. Sturgeon started receiving unsolicited advice, some of it implied that people were assuming he was homosexual (because only a “pervert” would even think of portraying such relationships as possible, let alone successful and happy) and suggesting that he tone it down, for the sake of his career.
Which seemed to firm up Sturgeon’s resolve. He sat down at his typewriter and created “The World Well Lost” in which homosexual characters were not only portrayed as normal, well-adjusted people in the future, the story came right out and referred to the homophobic past has a horrible time. Fear and loathing of homosexuals was a sign of an immature society, the story said. This was too much for some people. The editor of the magazine Fantastic, Howard Browne, was so outraged by the tale, not only did he reject it, he immediately started phoning all the other editors he knew to organized a boycott of Sturgeon. Browne wasn’t satisfied with bullying other editors into agreeing never to publish anything from Sturgeon again. He and his cronies promised to completely ruin the career of anyone who dared publish “The World Well Lost” itself.
Ray Palmer was a feisty man who was editor of Universe Science Fiction, a small pulp sci-fi zine at the time. Perhaps it was because Mr. Palmer had suffered from disfiguring disability since childhood, and had little sympathy for bullies, but in any case, Palmer put “The World Well Lost” into a fast track to get it published right away. And he publicly dared Browne’s group to make good on their threat.
Browne’s coalition quickly crumbled, and the “Homosexual Blacklist” faded away before it had a chance to damage any other careers.
Sturgeon kept on asking the next question, never afraid to broach topics just because they were controversial. And Palmer enjoyed a long and successful career in publishing. Thanks to them, other writers in the fifties, sixties, and seventies could explore the subject of homosexuality in a more balanced and tolerant fashion. While it was true that, even into the late seventies, most readers, critics, and editors assumed that any author who wrote such a story was probably gay, bi, or lesbian themselves, it was because of two courageous heterosexual men, Sturgeon and Palmer, that those authors could give us those rare, early glimpses into a world where homophobia was neither common nor acceptable.
This pride month, remember to raise a toast to Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Palmer, two people who knew it was better to do the right thing than to be perceived as the right kind of people. Where ever their spirits are now, I’m sure they are still asking questions.
Rainbow Xmas 2020
(To the tune of ‘We Need a Little Christmas’ from the musical. Mame)
‘Cause we need a rainbow Christmas,
Right this very minute!
Egg nog by the fire,
With rum and brandy in it!
Yes we need a rainbow Christmas,
Right this very minute!
My lyrics may be getting slurry,
But Santa dear, we’re in a hurry!
So fling ’round the glitter!
Put up more twinkling lights than the whole Vegas strip!
No need for fruitcake,
I’ve got a great big platter of deliciousness, here!
Cause we’ve grown a little rounder,
Grown a little bolder,
Grown a little prouder,
Grown a little wiser,
And we need some loving kindness,
Even over FaceTime,
We need a rainbow Christmas now!
Fill every wine glass,
Then raise a toast to full lives, and each other and
Join in the laughter,
Because our joy can push through masks and distance guides each day!
‘Cause we need a rainbow Christmas,
Right this very minute!
Cocktails in the morning,
With brandied cherries in them!
And I need a toasty lover,
Snuggling by the fire,
I need a rainbow Christmas now!
Yes we need a rainbow Christmas now!
I love the movie. Spoiler warning: I can’t talk about why I think this movie is worthwhile without giving away a key part of the ending, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, go stream the movie now!
In case you aren’t familiar: the movie begins on October 31, 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, where the notorious (and elderly) Sanderson sisters, widely believed to be witches, have lured a young girl into their cottage. They brew a magic potion which they force the child to drink, and proceed to leech her life away, making themselves young again.
The girl’s older brother, Thackery Binx, tries to interrupt the ritual and save his sister, but he fails. He is transformed into a black cat by the sisters and cursed to live forever with his guilt.
The townspeople of Salem storm the cottage and find the dead body of the girl. The witches refuse to say what has happened to her brother. The witch sisters are sentenced to be hanged, but before they are executed, the eldest with, Winifred, casts a spell which she claims will allow them to rise from the grave again—one an All Hallow’s Eve with a full moon, if a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle.
Jump forward 300 years, and Max (who will be our protagonist) is a teen-ager unhappy that his parents have moved the family to Salem. Max has an encounter with a pair of local bullies, which doesn’t make him like the new home any better. He is also not fond of the town’s local folklore about the Sanderson sisters and witches in general. He is really unhappy when his parents saddle him with the job of taking his younger sister, Dani, trick-or-treating. But early in the evening they meet a classmate Max has a crush on, Allison.
Because Allison thinks that Max’s skepticism is a bit too cynical, and because Max is anxious to impress Allison, they wind up in the old Sanderson Cottage (which has been preserved as a museum). When Max announces he is going to light the so-called Black Flame Candle and prove that witches are myths, a black cat attempts to stop him. Max manages to light the candle, anyway and the witches rise from the dead.
What follows is horror-comedy romp with some elements of musical theatre thrown in. The black cat is the cursed Thackery (who answers to Binx for the rest of the movie), who has lurked around the cottage for 300 years trying to prevent anyone lighting that candle. He can speak to the three kids, though know one else apparently can understand him. The kids flee, unsuccessfully try to warn the adults that the witches are back. The witches, meanwhile, have perform their life-stealing ritual on some children before sunrise or they go back to being dead, so there is a bit of a race.
At several points the witches capture one or more of the kids. At at least two points the kids appear to defeat the witches. Along the one a long dead lover of two of the sisters is raised as a kind of zombie/revenant who assists the witches in chasing the kids.
Eventually there is a dramatic stand-off in a cemetery, and with a bit of cleverness, bravery, and self-sacrifice, evil is thwarted.
The three witches are played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Midler steals the show, because all of the show’s comedy and menace are built around her character. The director, Kenny Ortega, said in later interviews that he told the three of them to play it as over the top and campy as if they were drag queens, and it certainly worked.
I’ve seen reviews that Max doesn’t really have a character arc, and I don’t understand how people can be that blind. In the early part of the film, the bullies are absolutely correct that Max looks down his nose at what he sees as the provinciality of the Salem natives. And when Allison scoffs at his scoffing, it’s clear that she sees his skepticism as performative. He doesn’t believe because it isn’t cool to be credulous. Just as he pretends not to care about his younger sister because, again, it would be uncool to feel warmth or affection for his kid sister. By the end of the film, that pretense is gone, and he doesn’t just take a risk to save his little sister, but he gulps down the potion and forces the witches to kill him in her stead.
It’s not bravado or a clever trick. He doesn’t reveal afterward that he only pretended to swallow it. He swallows it, the witches perform the next part of the ritual. We see his life force literally being taken from him.
Once the witches are defeated, we also get a nice pair of parallel scenes, one in which Max and Dani share a moment, and then because Binx fulfilled his mission, we see a similar scene between his ghost and the spirt of his little sister, who has been waiting for him to join her in the afterlife for 300 years.
Unlike the last campy & spooky two movies I’ve written about, this one came out after I was well and truly out of the closet. So I felt freer to revel in the camp vibe and all it implied. A few times when I’ve found myself in conversation with other queer fans of the show discussing it, I’ve found out that a lot of them like to ask the question: so which Sanderson sister are you? For the record, Ray was definitely and enthusiastically a Sarah. I had to admit that I want to be Winifred, but I’m really a Mary.
The film is funny. It has many nice spooky moments. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try. Maybe it will cast a spell on you, too.
When the original Fright Night came out in August of 1985, I was in my mid-twenties and preparing to move to Seattle to finish my college degree. It was a time when I had virtually no disposable income, so I very seldom saw movies in the theatre. Combine that with the fact that horror movies often give me nightmares (and I’m a sleepwalker, so I would get up in a panic during the dream and find whoever I can in the house, shake them awake and frantically try to convince them there is a killer in the house), I did not see Fright Night that summer. One of my friends did go see it, and his description just convinced me even more that I shouldn’t see it.
Over a year later, I and some friends in Seattle were going to have a movie night. Which at that time involved us pooling some money to go to a video store and rent a both a video player and one or more movies, which we would take back (usually to Club Chaos, which was an apartment share by two of those friends that had an enormous living room) and watch while eating a bunch of junk food. It was often the case that only a subset of the gang would go get the movie, so you were never quite certain what we might be watching.
One of those nights Fright Night was in the mix. At least one of my friends who had seen it before assured me that it was more of a comedy like Ghostbusters than a scary slasher film like Nightmare on Elm Street, so I figured it would be fun.
In the opening minutes, it does indeed seem to be more of a cheesy romp than a serious horror picture… but that’s because the movie begins with a movie within the movie. A cheesy vampire film which are main character is watching on television. The protagonist of the film is Charley Brewster, a teen-ager who loves horror movies, and faithfully watching a weekly show hosted by an actor named Peter Vincent who used to star in a series of vampire hunter movies himself.
Charley lives with his mom in what seems to be a typical 80s movie suburb. And someone has recently moved into the empty house next door. Charley hears strange noises and even a scream coming from the old house, and becomes convinced that the new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge, is a vampire who is luring women to his home before feasting on their blood.
Charley’s best friend is “Evil Ed” who loves those horror movies even more than Charley does. But he doesn’t believe the neighbor is a vampire. Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, breaks up with him because of his obsession with the neighbor. And, of course, Charley’s mom and the police also all fail to believe him.
So Charley tracks down the actor, Peter Vincent (who hosts the aforementioned weekly horror show at one of the local stations, so lives in the same city), and tries to get him to help prove that the neighbor is a vampire. The actor doesn’t believe him either, and points out that he’s just an actor—the vampire hunter he played was fictitious.
Amy, meanwhile, has become concerned about Charley’s mental health, and she hires Vincent to pretend to test the neighbor and then prove to Charley that the neighbor isn’t a vampire. And so the actor (who thinks this is some easy money) puts on his costume and grabs his character’s equipment bag and visits the neighbor. In the course of the discussion, just as he’s leaving, Vincent pulls out his pocket mirror while getting something else out of the pocket, and realizes that Dandridge, standing behind him, has no reflection.While there had been a lot of humor in the movie at this point, and not much in the way of gore, the tone was paranoid rather than a laughfest. And that tension ramps up from this point, as the vampire starts stalking Charley, Charley’s mom, and Amy threatening to do terrible things if Charley keeps telling people about him.
This is also where we start getting more of the transformations and start seeing more of the death scenes explicitly.
Dandridge kills and turns Evil Ed and sends Ed to kill Peter Vincent and then Charley. The scene where Dandridge stalks and corners Evil Ed in what has to be the most labyrinthine alleys to ever appear in a movie, is remarkably chilling, even though we never see a hint of blood.
Ed doesn’t succeed in killing Vincent, who burns him with a cross and forces him to flee by leaping out of the apartment’s window. Ed beats Vincent to Charley’s house (Vincent is on his way to warn Charley), and they have a fight during which Evil Ed transforms into a wolf, but he still winds up impaled through the chest with a broken table leg.
Dandridge has, meanwhile, lured Amy to his house and has started the process of turning her into a vampire, trapping Charley in a room with her slumbering body so that she can feed on Charley when she rises. Vincent manages to help Charley escape, and then the two of them have a protracted fight with Dandridge, before eventually killing him and, since Dandridge died before Amy ever drank the blood of another, she reverts to human and all is well (or as well as it can be, given that a number of people have died on screen by this point).
The special effects are all practical effects, this is before the era of CGI, and some of them haven’t aged quite as well as others. Some of the creature effects looked cheesy even in 1986. I don’t think the effects are the reason this movie never gave me serious nightmares.
No, I think that’s because I spent a lot of the movie trying to decide if all the gay subtext was going to come out in the open. And also not feeling free to comment on any of said subtext because, while it is true that two of the people in that friend group were part of a very tiny number of friends who I had come out to only a few months before (though come out is a strong word, since it began with, “I think I’m gay” and quickly morphed into, “Or I’m bi—yeah, that’s it. Not completely gay after all!” which was so not true).
It was clear to me that Charley wasn’t into Amy or even the idea of making out with her as Amy was interested in him. There’s even a moment before Amy breaks up with him where she is angrily trying to get him to stop looking through the binoculars at the neighbor and come have sex with her, for goodness sake.
It was also clear that Evil Ed had the hots for Charley. I’m sorry, totally straight teen-age boys don’t joke about giving their male best friend hickeys and so forth as often as Evil Ed did.
The scene where Dandridge corners Ed in the alley and talks him into giving in without a fight is very much written and acted as a seduction. They never make it completely clear what the difference is, but just being killed by a vampire isn’t enough to make the corpse rise later as undead. The vampire has to choose to do it, and given how he talks Ed into surrendering, it seemed to imply that the other person’s consent was part of the situation. Though the later seduction of Amy seems to involve some sort of vampiric mesmerism, so maybe consent isn’t exactly the right word.
The movie ended with Charley and Amy back together, in Charley’s bedroom, where he looks out the window at the once again deserted house next door. He turns to Amy just as we see a pair of glowing red eyes appear in one of the windows of the house. And as the movie fades to black, the last line of dialogue is spoken in Evil Ed’s voice: “You’re so cool, Brewster!”
Vampires often are metaphors for sex, so it isn’t surprising that scenes where a male vampire is stalking a male victim will be homoerotic. But some of the earlier stuff between Evil Ed and Charley are a bit different.
Most of Fright Night isn’t played for laughs. My friend’s assurance that it wouldn’t be nightmare inducing wasn’t completely wrong… though I personally think that on a scale of Ghostbusters to Nightmare on Elm Street that Fright Night lands smack dab in the middle. It is one of the spooky movies that fairly regularly figures in my Halloween movie marathons, and I have to admit in no small part because I keep thinking how much better things would have gone if Ed had simply declared his love for Charley early on.
Just as I’m sure that the sequel wouldn’t have been the awful mess it was if Evil Ed had been the villain, as been planned. Alas, Stephen Geoffreys, who played Evil Ed, turned down the chance to be in the second movie in order to play the lead in another horror movie that flopped even worse than Fright Night part 2 did. Geoffreys appeared in a couple more movies that didn’t do well, then he spent the next dozen years or so appearing in gay porn films under a couple stage names. Since 2007 he’s been getting work in various horror and action films.
Anyway, with its 80s hair styles, sometimes cheesy effects, and the unresolved gay sub-text, Fright Night makes for a good popcorn movie, and not just at Halloween.
A few years later, one of the few disputes that I had with (at the time my soon-to-be-ex-wife) Julie while we were splitting assets was who would get to keep the VHS of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Of all the things to argue over it was one of the dumbest, I admit… I’m just happy that we got through all that and now, 29 years later, we’re good friends and can laugh together about such things.
As it happened, my first husband, Ray, loved the movie, and we owned it on VHS and upgraded to DVD before he died. And my husband Michael thinks the movie is funny and is more than willing to watch it with me about every other Halloween, so, yay!
But, let’s get to the actual movie. Outside of the movie, Elvira is a horror host (played by Peterson) who had a syndicated sci fi/fantasy/horror movie show on various cables for years. The movie proceeds on the conceit that Elvira is a real person, not just a character which Peterson plays, and when the local California station she appears on gets a new owner who sexually harasses her, she gets fired. But she isn’t upset because she’s about to open a show in Las Vegas… except her agent informs her that the show in Vegas will only go forward if she can put up $50,000 of the production cost.
Right after she says she doesn’t have that kind of money, a studio intern knocks on her dressing room door to tell her she has a telegram. According to the telegram, her Great-Aunt Morgana Talbot, has died and that Elvira is a named as a beneficiary in the will (“I didn’t know I had a good aunt, let alone a great one.”). So Elvira drives across country to the quaint town of Falwell, Massachusetts for the reading of the will.What follows is a parody of several old horror movies (and a few Lovecraft stories), but even more a parody of all those movies about small minded small town people being against outsiders, et cetera. While there is one scene that is a direct take-off on Flashdance, the majority of the movie is a retelling of Footloose with Elvira in the Kevin Bacon role.
And the movie is funny. I mean, Edie McClurg should have gotten an award for her hilarious turn as Chastity Pariah, hypocritical council member.
Elvira’s great-aunt doesn’t leave her any money, just her house, her book of “recipes”, and her pet poodle named Algonquin.
The kicker is that Morgana was a powerful witch, the book is actually a very old and potent grimoire, and the poodle is actually a familiar. Elvira spends much of the rest of the movie figuring this out, and slowly learning the Morgana’s brother, Vincent, is the evil warlock who killed Elvira’s mother, Divana, and that possession of the book is going to decide the balance of supernatural powers for the next century.
In between, Elvira tries to iniiate a romance with the very hunky but virginal owner of the local movie theatre, becomes a hero for the town’s teen-agers who wish the town was less backwards, and has various misadventures trying to use the mystical book. I know the movie is set in Massachusetts, but some of the more jokes in the sequence where she mistakes a potion to conjure a demon for a casserole recipe resonated extremely deeply with my southern Missouri/Oklahoma soul, okay?
Part of the meta of the movie is that Elvira, despite being played by a cisgendered woman, is essentially a drag queen. And while what little other queer subtext is very, very sub, that 80s drag queen/queer camp vibe is extremely strong in the movie. All of the villains are either defenders of the old Traditional Family Values notions or the even more ancient Toxic Masculinity tropes, while Elvira and her supporters are champions of Everyone Is Valid, and Being True To Your Self is More Important Than Pleasing Societal Expectations.
Which is very queer. So even though the vast majority of the sex and innuendo in the film is quite hetero, there is simultaneously an extremely strong non-hetero message being promulgated throughout.
At the time when the movie came out, I was still trying to pretend I was bisexual, which I very dysfunctionally saw as being half-heterosexual. I was trying to walk an extremely difficult tightrope. And this movie seemed to walk a similar tightrope… but when I re-watched it, I began seeing that the tightrope was as false as Chastity Pariah’s moral superiority.
Eventually, the camp sensibilities and the sex-positive subtext of this movie was one of the many examples that helped convince me to stop trying to compromise my true self.
And years later, it’s just an extremely funny movie to watch during Halloween season. And what more could you ask for?
Today is National Coming Out Day. If Ray were still alive, it would also be the day we’d be celebrating the twenty-seventh anniversary of our commitment ceremony (he promised to stay with me for the rest of his life, and he did). My (very-much alive) husband Michael and I don’t have any anniversaries that are close to this date, but this is the twenty-first National Coming Out Day we’ve lived together.
I’ve written many times about how important it is that queer people (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, nonbinary, trans, aromantic, genderfluid, two-spirit, questioning, intersex, and so no) be out if they safely can be. Studies show that being closeted has several deleterious effects on one’s mental and physical health. When you’re in the closet, you aren’t being yourself. You are pretending to be someone who others wouldn’t guess was part of the LGBT. When you’re in the closet you’re in a constant state of anxiety—the very real fear that if some people knew your secret, they would reject you, shun you, or maybe even physically assault you.
That takes a toll.
Studies have also shown that the more LGBT people that a straight person knows, the less likely they are to harbor bigoted beliefs toward the community. And queer young people who have out role models in their community are far less likely to attempt suicide.
So there are many, many good reasons to get out.
There are reasons to be wary of being out. For instance, 40% of homeless teens are homeless precisely because they have been kicked out or driven from their homes when their families found out they were queer. And there are bigots in every community who pose financial, social, and physical threats to queer people. So I understand why staying in the closet sometimes feels like the safer option.
But I have to say from personal experience, that not living with that constant burden of fear is such a relief. Now, the relief don’t always come right away, because sometimes the people closest to you — even those that you are absolutely certain will be okay with learning this about you — don’t react positively. When I came out, several friends and relatives I thought would at least be tolerant absolutely flipped out. Two that I was certain had just been waiting for me to admit it categorically denied that they had ever suspect at all — and one of them insisted that the mere fact that I thought they knew already was somehow proof that I had been brainwashed into thinking I was gay.
On the other hand, there were family members and friends who I had thought wouldn’t take it well who turned into my fiercest defenders against the other.
The sad fact is that you aren’t going to know who will stand by you until you come out.
But the flip side of that is, the ones who reject you? The ones who through the worst fit when you come out? They never loved you. No matter how much they insist that they did, the truth is that they didn’t love you, they loved the straight person they imagined you to be. And their rejection demonstrates that their love had always been conditional.
Coming out was scary. But once the initial difficulties blew over, I made an amazing discovery: since I was no longer expending all that energy pretending to be something I wasn’t and scared to death people would find out I was pretending, I had a whole lot more time and energy to spend on the things I love. And the more time I spent doing the things I love, the more new people who were ready to accept me for who I was came into my life.
If it is safe for you to come out, you should. You’ll find that standing proud in the opne, being true to yourself, is so much better than hiding in the dark!