Right now, this is all we know: Omar Mateen, a young man with a history of violent outbursts legally purchased two firearms and killed 49 men and women at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida. His father suggested that the event was rooted in his son’s virulent anti-gay beliefs, and possibly sparked by Mateen seeing two gay men showing affection for each other, or “two men kissing,” as per the reports. What exactly was different on this occasion I can’t imagine; southern Florida is one of the few queer-friendly places in the American South, and Orlando in particular has a thriving queer community–even local juggernaut Disney hosts a float in the annual Pride parade–so I have trouble believing the sight of two men locking lips was terribly uncommon for him. What we do know is that Mateen was raised and lived in an environment characterized by violence, anger, and bigotry, the same kind of toxic cocktail that defined Dylann Roof and other recent mass murderers.
That said, there is already much talk of Mateen’s motivations and background and this and that, and while I’m sure there’s much more to come, a lot of it already is worthless fear-mongering and short-sighted reactionary bullshit. I do not come here today to offer that, nor is this a dissertation on the need for greater gun controls (we do) or special protection from the Muslim hordes invading our shores (we don’t). I want to talk about queer representation. I want to talk about what it means, as a queer person, to be seen. I want to talk about the power of two men kissing.
It’s only been socially acceptable for a few decades to even have a movie about LGBT themes that didn’t depict homosexuality as either a broad comical stereotype to be laughed at or as something so taboo and perverse to exist only as subtext. Much of what’s considered “gay film,” from the Golden Age of Hollywood onward up until very recently, is full of unstated attraction told through performance and action, not at all overt; the rest is farcical comedies where gay men are outrageous dandies, swishing and mincing through every scene. Often, just the hint of a straight character being tagged with homosexual overtones was enough to elicit roars of laughter; gay panic is basically the entire plot of The Birdcage as well as its remake. Queer people were jokes, or didn’t exist openly at all–on film or in real life. One only has to remember the lives of closeted stars like Rock Hudson and Liberace and Cary Grant, dogged by scandal for the merest hint of deviation from the heteronormative, completely unable to live their lives openly for fear of public backlash.
The gay rights movement gained traction and power in the late 1960s and early 1970s after the Stonewall Riots showed that the LGBT community would stand united in their defense of civil and constitutional rights, rights that had been stripped away by local authorities all over the nation for no reason other than simple bigotry. Some of those bigoted laws still exist. The tide, however, was turning, and the explosion of glam rock would turn the nation on to sexually-atypical (for the time) artists like David Bowie, Elton John, and Freddie Mercury who weren’t afraid to subvert suburban ideals of gender conformity. In 1969, Midnight Cowboy featured a young Jon Voight as a gigolo who took gay and straight customers alike. In 1970, William Friedkin, underrated director of classic films like The French Connection and The Exorcist, released The Boys in the Band, one of the first wide-release dramas about openly gay men. From there, the American box office became more and more sexually-diverse, with films such as Cabaret, Dog Day Afternoon, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Cruising (another Friedkin film) running the gamut from high camp to serious awards season contenders. Public opinion was following at a similar pace; through the 70s and into the next millennium, approval for gay people and gay rights grew increasingly.
The representation of the queer community only continued to grow and normalize itself within artistic circles in the years to come. Once the mainstream became increasingly accepting of queer representation, the portrayals became more nuanced and prolific. In the 1990s, Tom Hanks would win an Oscar for his portrayal of a gay man living with HIV in Philadelphia. Will & Grace, a television show about a straight woman and her gay best friend, would top broadcast ratings for years. On Friends, a lesbian couple raising a child was treated as mundane and unremarkable. Major straight stars Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes would don drag for To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, while Hillary Swank would win an Oscar in Boys Don’t Cry for her portrayal in the biopic of murdered queer youth, Brandon Teena.
In the new century, twenty-three years after Rock Hudson shocked the world by dying from an AIDS-related illness, openly-gay Dustin Lance Black won an Academy Award for the staunchly pro-LGBT Milk, while Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain would make the line, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” part of the movie quote canon. Queer people of all kinds, emboldened by growing support within mainstream culture, are more successful than ever and more visible than ever. More importantly, we’re seeing the right kind of visibility; more and more, the days of gay minstrel shows and unspoken subtext are falling away to open and proud expressions of sexuality and identity. We have legitimate transgender superstars on TV now, such as Laverne Cox and Candis Cayne (*swoon*) (shuddup she’s amazing) with roles on network broadcast shows that aren’t wholly defined by their gender or sexuality.In so many ways, we’re seeing the good that comes from respectful and authentic representation. We’re seeing the paradigm shift in real-time on a scale never before witnessed. We no longer merely tolerate our LGBT brothers and sisters and nonbinary siblings, we accept them and embrace them and embolden them to keep pushing us forward and show us how great a country we can be. We have movies like The Danish Girl and Boy Meets Girl and Tangerine showing us facets of communities we maybe didn’t understand or know they even existed, showing us that, hey, queer people are much more like you than unlike you. The mainstream has to keep going in this direction, however, and we can’t be terrorized by violence or victimized by bigots into silence. We’re here, and we’re queer, and we’re already out, so we’re not going back in.
Most importantly, though, is what this increased visibility means for us. “Us,” being queer people. Straight people. Questioning people. Parents. Friends. Neighbors. Bosses. Regular schmoes at the bowling alley. The jerk who always fucks up your delivery order but is apologetic and nice so you tip him well anyway. Tina from work, you know, with the teeth. All of us. Increased visibility means more understanding. It means acceptance. It means education that separates hurtful stereotypes from facts. It means normalization. It means knowing that your coworker is gay is just another facet of their personality, not their defining trait. It means thinking it’s no big deal if that girl you kinda like from chemistry class is transgender. It means parents and families supporting and celebrating the diversity of their children instead of turning what should be their place of solace into a nightmare of judgment and shame. It means that instead of only being with my wife and kid at Christmas, I could also spend it with a mom and dad who were happy just to have a daughter that loved them.
It means shedding the culture of toxic assumptions that might have caused a young man to lash out and murder people because they represented something he hated. A hate that grows less and less the more LGBT people are seen, whether that’s on a screen or in the street, living and speaking out and yes, sometimes kissing.
This has been a heartache of a week, but I take so much solace in seeing the outpouring of love all around the country for the people in my community. It gets better. It’s already getting better. Keep demanding it. For you. For me. For us all. For love. Because eventually, love wins.