Sep 14

“Bad Hair”: Growing Up Latino, Different, and Rejected

What will happen to Junior, I found myself worrying. Can’t everyone just let him be? Sheila O’Malley, reviewing Bad Hair on rogerebert.com

PELO MALO, aka Bad Hair, written and directed by Mariana Rondón, takes places in a housing project in Caracas. What’s the deal about “bad hair”? It’s that nine-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano) has the opposite of what he wants. He sets out to accomplish having straight, flattened out hair so he can look good for a school photo.

Mom Marta (Samantha Castillo), a widow who’s unemployed and who has a younger boy as well, struggles with Junior’s mission, which she associates with the possibility of him having gender and/or sexual orientation issues. His hair obsession isn’t the only clue she thinks she’s picking up.

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Marta reads Junior’s lack of interest in sports and obsession with his appearance as signs that he might be gay. Blaming herself for his supposed effeminacy, she drags him to a doctor, who pronounces him healthy but in need of male role models. Afterward, she forbids him to hang out with a friendly neighborhood teenager who runs a grocery stand.”

From the official film description: “The more Junior tries to look sharp and make his mother love him, the more she rejects him. His paternal grandmother [Nelly Ramos], a witness to this rejection, asks Marta to give her the boy so that he can look after her. Marta refuses and tries to correct her son’s obsession by ‘setting an example,’ a cruel moment which was meant to be a lesson. Junior finds himself cornered, face to face with a painful decision.”

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “Marta is unpredictable: she is rough and mean, indifferent and impatient, but on a dime she can suddenly turn tender and caring. Dealing with his mother is like tiptoeing through a landmine, and when she lashes out, Junior recoils, not understanding what he has done. Marta’s most horrible and unforgivable choice comes out of thinking it is what Junior needs.”

The DVD can be purchased via Amazon if not elsewhere. The trailer’s below:

In the U.S. a recent report (HRC website) indicates, “LGBT Latino youth are nearly as optimistic as their non-LGBT Latino peers about future life achievements. However, they feel much less hopeful than those peers about meeting those goals if they remain in their current communities…The most difficult problems facing LGBT Latino youth are related to negative responses to their LGBT identity. Concern about family acceptance is the top problem identified, and having their families accept and support them is a key change they wish for in their lives.”

Selected Film Reviews

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “Told in a slow and deliberate manner, with documentary-style realism, ‘Bad Hair’ is not conventional storytelling, but it is all the more effective because of that…Rondón has created a powerful and very human story about a young child’s growing sense of self, and his innocent and baffled reactions to adult resistance and cruelty.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “…an uncomfortably accurate depiction of a poignant mother-son power struggle in a fatherless family in which each knows how to get under the other’s skin. The instinctive and volatile characters in this hard little gem of a film have no awareness of the boundary issues so dear to the hearts of contemporary therapists. They have neither the time nor the money for the luxury of intervention. They need all their resources merely to survive.”

Jay Weissberg, Variety: “…(P)erformances are uniformly strong, from Lange’s Junior, struggling with his identity while yearning for his mother’s love, to Castillo’s Marta, wound up and lacking guidance yet unwilling to lower her guard.”

Jan 17

“Dallas Buyers Club”: Is It Worth Seeing? Scanning the Reviews

Dallas Buyers Club stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, among others. Is it worth seeing for the acting? The story? The “straight savior” angle? Or is the latter a turnoff?

The basic plot, from IMDB: “In 1985 Dallas, electrician and hustler Ron Woodroof works around the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they need after he is himself diagnosed with the disease.”

Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club was written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallick and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. According to Richard Corliss, Time, “Borten and Wallack based their script on hundreds of hours of interviews with Woodroof, then waited 20 years for the film to get made.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice, describes what happens after the “vocally homophobic antihero” (Peter Debruge, Variety) gets diagnosed:

Woodruff, a man with a job to do, enlists help from a number of acquaintances, usually by first taking advantage of them. They include his physician, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who’s dismayed when she learns Woodruff is breaking the rules but who later shifts to his side, and a fellow AIDS patient named Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual who, in a marvelous scene, manages to both charm and challenge the (at first) aggressively homophobic Woodruff. She beats the crap out of him in a card game played on his hospital bed; he refers to her as ‘Miss Man,’ an endearment wrapped around a jibe. They begin a business partnership that evolves into a friendship, bickering like the Honeymooners all the way.

Watch the trailer below:

The Main Performances

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com: “It’s all about the performances. McConaughey and Leto don’t just give voice to the disenfranchised of the 1980s, but all people suddenly faced with impossible challenges.”

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “McConaughey is the only reason to see Dallas Buyers Club, but he’s enough of a reason to see Dallas Buyers Club.”

David EdelsteinNew York Magazine: “It’s difficult to talk about the beauty of Leto’s performance, because he just, well, is. The transformation is so complete—­physically and vocally—that it’s hard to believe he could ever be anything else. Rayon (née Raymond) is high on being Rayon, to the point where you sometimes forget that he’s dying, too.”

Woodruff as the “Straight Savior”

Peter DebrugeVarietybelieves that making Woodruff the main character in this movie “ensure[s] that no matter how uncomfortable audiences are with HIV or so-called ‘alternative lifestyles,’ they will recognize Woodroof’s knee-jerk bigotry as uncool. And thus, the film manages to educate without ever feeling didactic, and to entertain in the face of what would, to any other character, seem like a grim life sentence.”

This sentiment is echoed by Rex Reed, New York Observer: “It’s the story of a lout who finds redemption through unexpected motivation, becoming an accidental activist in the process and learning a valuable lesson in humanity about how to help others after it’s too late to help himself.”

But Noel Murray, The Dissolve, voices a different view: “Ron Woodroof’s story is too good not to tell, but given that this isn’t just a dramatization of his story, but a dramatization of a key development in the history of combatting AIDS, it is somewhat disappointing that it comes from the perspective of a straight man, given that there were gay men running the same kind of underground markets elsewhere. I don’t want to hit that point too hard, because it isn’t Ron Woodroof’s fault that he was who he was when he did what he did.”

The AIDS Crisis

I think it’s well worth noting that Mark S. King of HIV Plus Magazine gives the film high praise for its gritty depiction of the truth of AIDS.

A river of infected blood runs through it. So too does practically every other bodily fluid, along with bruises that won’t heal and purple skin lesions and flakes of dry, reddened skin. And that’s kind of beautiful. Because that’s what AIDS looked like in 1985, and it’s been ages since we have fully remembered it…

I have never seen AIDS shown this way in a film. And of all the movie portrayals of the disease, from Parting Glances to I Love You Phillip Morris, nothing else has captured the ugly physicality of AIDS like Dallas Buyers Club. Even the tearful hospital-bed goodbyes in Longtime Companion seem overly romanticized by comparison…

Overall Reviews

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “Despite its clichéd elements, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is a fierce celebration of the unpredictable power that belongs to the outcast, the despised, the pariah. That’s not a story of the ‘80s, it’s a story of always.”

Bob Mondello, NPR: “Dallas Buyers Club is just about a selfish boor who arguably gets a pass in terms of posterity, because while looking out for No. 1, he paved the way for change for everyone else.”

Mark S. King, HIV Plus: “Nearly everyone in the story, patients and physicians alike, is a wretched outcast, damaged by drug addiction or homophobia or loneliness or their own destructive behaviors. No one is healed, no one fully conquers his or her demons, and no one gets out unscathed. The fact that the filmmakers make you root for every one of them is a testament to terrific storytelling and a vexing main character you grow to love and admire.”

Mar 27

“American Honor Killings” By David McConnell: Murders of Gay Men

A new nonfiction book by novelist David McConnell refers neither to “gay panic defense” nor “hate crimes,” widely used terms and concepts used for decades often to controversial effect—but to “honor killings.” In American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men McConnell provides case studies of men in the U.S. who’ve killed gay men. It seems that the motives behind these murders have been more complex than is implied when commonly used labels are assigned:

Beginning in 1999 and lasting until last year’s conviction of a youth in Queens, New York, the book shows how some murderers think they’re cleaning up society. Surprisingly, other killings feel almost preordained, not a matter of the victim’s personality or actions so much as a twisted display of a young man’s will to compete or dominate. We want to think these stories involve simple sexual conflict, either the killer’s internal struggle over his own identity or a fatally miscalculated proposition. They’re almost never that simple.

In an interview with Saeed Jones, BuzzFeed, McConnell further explains his preference for focusing on the perpetrators—versus on the supposed effect of the victims’ identities on the would-be murderers:

I’m not proposing that we start calling them ‘honor killings.’ I just want the focus to move away from the victims and onto the perpetrators because I think these crimes are something that comes out of them, out of their behavior, their obsessions, their fears, their sense of the world. It’s not the fault of anybody who’s hurt or attacked, whether it’s a class or an individual. And I think if we start calling them hate crimes or ‘gay panic,’ it absolves these guys, to some degree. Very often, panic or extreme emotion from any kind is absent from these murders. In many of the crimes I researched, the guy had a very intense reaction to homosexuality, but often it was crossed with anti-Semitism or a really vile kind of racism. In other words, it’s this generalized kind of hatred that’s [made them] lash out at anyone perceived to be weaker or a second-class citizen.

It may be important to note that when McConnell was conducting his extensive research, including visits and correspondence with the convicted murderers, he came out as gay to all of them; they were apparently able to deal with this. Interestingly, at least one of the killers is bisexual, and another, Darrell Madden, has come out as gay since being in prison.

Kirkus Reviews summarizes how the author perceives the Madden case:

While his conclusion may be questionable, McConnell convincingly shows how fluid terms like ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ can actually be. One such example is the case of Darrell Madden, a former homosexual porn star who became an anti-gay neo-Nazi and murdered a homosexual in 2007. This was one of five cases where young men, with homosexual pasts or fears, killed homosexuals, or suspected homosexuals, in crimes discussed as hate crimes. The author compares these to the Wyoming killing of Matthew Shepard or the murder of African-American James Byrd Jr. by white supremacists. ‘Hatred was a critical factor in these murders. It would be poisonous to pretend otherwise,’ he writes, but it is not the whole story. In McConnell’s opinion, a review of the perpetrators, victims and circumstances indicates more—’hatred often seems to exist prior to its having a clear object.’

McConnell further explains to Jerry Portwood of Out how he views the killers as a group:

…(T)hey did largely hate gay people, but it was born of ignorance more than anything. I think the sexuality came in as a method of access to the victims. They were going to kill somebody — they were so angry and wanted to kill a marginal figure in society — and the access they had was to gay men because that’s how they could ‘hook up’ that way.

Some Reviews of American Honor Killings

Library Journal: “Homophobia is not accepted as a mitigating circumstance in murder, but there is no doubt that men are still murdered for being gay. From Jon Schmitz (‘The Jenny Jones Killer’) to John Katehis (the teenage hustler who murdered radio personality George Weber), novelist McConnell . . . has compiled a number of these cases and looks into the culture of masculinity for clues to the dynamics behind these killings . . . with no clear answers, but some very intriguing questions, these vignettes of masculine pride and rage will appeal to those interested in gender politics and gay studies as well as true crime fans.”

Paul TeetorLA Weekly: “McConnell, who is gay, is convinced he has written a book that no straight man could have written, and he’s probably right. Navigating the depressing world of these horrific murders would discourage all but the most determined, passionate writers. Finding the humanity in these killers and the nuance in these most inhumane killings would challenge all but the most compassionate of writers.”

Christopher Bollen, Interview: “Whether the killers were spurred on by personal slights to their idea of manliness or a fanatical ideology, there is a sense of shattered psychologies that haunts both these pages and the larger American landscape. The eyes of many men in American Honor Killings are hard to look into, but this excellent book makes a case for doing so—even if what’s there is not so easy to define.”

Click on McConnell’s website for a schedule of upcoming readings and book events.

Mar 12

“That’s So Gay”: Is the Popular Phrase Sometimes Okay?

Many young users of the phrase “that’s so gay” deny being homophobic. And it turns out that some actually might not be, at least not very.

Indeed, saying “that’s so gay” has become so commonplace that such users might differentiate their own special definition of “gay” (synonymous with such various adjectives as stupid, hideous, effeminate, bad, etc.) from its other common meaning regarding sexual orientation. (Hardly anyone uses it anymore to mean merry.)

My point? Many who regularly call something “so gay” don’t quite comprehend the possible negative impact of it.

It’s probably happened to you, and it has happened to me. And when that young nongay male relative from whom I otherwise felt acceptance said about a movie rental choice “that’s so gay,” his (paraphrased) response to my reaction is what many young guys might now say: It’s not about you. I don’t mean it that way.

Although both girls and guys use these words, I can’t find any research specific to the former. There is some regarding male adolescents, though. British sociologist Mark McCormack reports in his 2012 The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys Are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality that it’s now commonplace for male teenagers to be comfortable with their own or others’ gayness and to not equate saying and hearing “that’s so gay” as homophobic.

The Independent says of McCormack’s work, “The real value of this book isn’t the way it rescues gay teens from victimhood, but in the revolution in masculinity it documents, about which many oldies are still in denial.” One of the oldies, that’s me.

From his blog post “The Complexity of ‘That’s So Gay‘”:

To be clear, I am not advocating for the use of the phrase ‘that’s so gay.’ One of the problems with it is that older generations will hear homophobia even where none is intended. Indeed, some of the LGBT students I spoke to felt uncomfortable with the phrase at the same time as they argued it did not connote homophobia. In The Declining Significance of Homophobia, I develop a new model for understanding this changing use of language, which highlights how the intent, effect, and environment within which words are used are vitally important in determining whether homophobia is present or not. And when doing this, it is crucial we listen to young people’s perspectives. When someone says ‘that’s so gay,’ we should also consider discussing with them why some people might find it offensive, the history of gay oppression and the value of empathy. By engaging with young people about this issue, we might even find that we learn something about their increasingly positive attitudes toward homosexuality.

Keep in mind, McCormack studied teens residing and going to school in Britain. To an interviewer writing in Salonhe states that “the U.S. is a decade behind the U.K. on this particular front.”

Why is that?, McCormack is asked. Well, it may very well have something to do with our “polarities.” On the one hand, we have such factors as the evangelical Christian movement and lingering stigma about AIDS being a gay disease; on the other, we see burgeoning anti-homophobia strategies and support.

One of the interesting things about the U.S. is that you now have over 5,000 gay-straight alliances, and we really don’t have them in the same way in the U.K. At some schools in the U.S., you’ve got active, powerful gay-straight alliances with out and proud gay kids, and then you’ve got other schools where that doesn’t happen and there’s quite a bit of homophobia. So there’s that issue again of there being polarities.

Again and again, on all kinds of contemporary issues, it’s all about our red/blue, black/white, either/or in the U.S., isn’t it? Truly, just as homophobia is and always has been a disease, so is our ongoing polarization.

Dec 24

“Ties That Bind” By Sarah Schulman: Familial Homophobia

Sarah Schulman is brilliant, vulnerable, and relentless. Ties That Bind should be required reading for every family—gay and straight. Ellen Bass, poet and author of The Courage to Heal

Prolific author Sarah Schulman‘s powerful 2009 book The Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences came out in paperback this year. It’s an emotionally and politically stirring book—and yes, one I’ve actually read—that’s especially relevant right now when many LGBT folks face holiday-related challenges.

So, what is this new term, familial homophobia? Schulman came up with it herself in order to describe the too-common phenomenon of gay people being “excluded from family love and approval” to various degrees, something she knows all too well from personal experience. From the book description: “With devastating examples, Schulman clarifies how abusive treatment of homosexuals at home enables abusive treatment of homosexuals in other relationships as well as in society at large.”

As expressed by Schulman to Dick Donahue, Publishers Weekly (2009), this phenomenon—that “(i)t is in the family that people are often first rewarded for being straight and punished for being gay”—permeates other cultural institutions as well. Whereas the gay press, for example, heaped praise on her book when it was released, she tells Donahue, “This interview is the very first engagement with a mainstream publication acknowledging that the book even exists. It’s a strange through-the-looking-glass experience, one that I have had all my life. It speaks volumes that work that LGBT people love and embrace is often ignored completely by mainstream institutions.”

A prime example of this relates directly to the above. Although interviewed for Publishers Weekly, she tells Curve Magazine that her book wasn’t actually reviewed by them—“which is crazy, because almost every book gets reviewed there.” Indeed, a Google search today finds no review ever done by PW.

Maybe the mainstream world simply can’t handle the following type of message:

Anything that creates homosexuality as inferior is pathological, is untrue and has negative consequences on people and on society. If your family is victimizing you or harassing you through shunning, exclusion, diminishment, you need to know that it’s not your personal problem. It’s not because of you, it’s not because of your family. It’s because you live in a culture that allows that to go on without any reaction.

Can therapy help? Well, Schulman devotes a whole chapter to “The Failure of Therapeutic Solutions.” She makes it clear that she has felt burned by therapy and that she’s far from the only one who’s had such experiences when trying to deal with familial homophobia.

Schulman notes that while many therapists advocate breaking away from one’s homophobic family, she’s more in favor of gay people fighting to maintain the connection while working to change the dynamic. “What is essentially wrong about the say-nothing-and-separate approach is that it allows the homophobes to own the family.”

June Thomas, Lambda Literary, sums up what Schulman wants from us all, gay and nongay:

…(S)he counsels intervention—observing familial homophobia and doing nothing is akin to passively watching physical abuse—and reconciliation through negotiation and due process. This may sound legalistic, but being heard is one of our most basic rights, and one that gay and lesbian people have repeatedly been deprived of.

Thus, as further explained by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore in Utne:

If your parents direct you not to bring your lover to a family reunion, it’s time for your sister to demand that your lover be included. If commercial publishers refuse to print lesbian work, straight best-selling authors should protest. Ties That Bind argues that this type of allegiance is far more important than gay access to problematic institutions like marriage.

In reviewing Ties That Bind, Andrew Ross, chair of the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at York University, states: “Schulman’s lucid dissection of the role that families play as incubators of homophobia could hardly be better. This [is] a truly indispensable book. It should blow away the hot air generated by the public debate about ‘family values.’”

Martin Duberman: “Sarah Schulman remains what she has been: a rare, fearless teller of unpleasant truths.”