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POPeration! Blog

What’s on the Surgeons’ Minds?

Blessed Be the Fruit

Eric Peterson

The Handmaid’s Taleis a bleak, depressing, and disturbing show. So why do I love it so much?

by Eric Peterson

When started our little podcast, the 2016 elections had just happened, and the idea was specifically not to discuss politics. We’d focus instead on pop culture; it’s something we love, and we thought it was important (for us, and for any eventual listeners) to occasionally focus on things that bring us joy, or at least irk us in ways that don’t feel monumental.

So I found myself in a quandary when planning out our fall schedule. Because it’s tough to avoid politics when your current pop culture obsession is a television show based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

 But her e-mails, amirite?

But her e-mails, amirite?

For those out of the loop (and without Hulu, the streaming service that produces the show), The Handmaid’s Talefirst appeared as Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel. It was a first-person account told from the point of view of a woman known only as Offred. You see, a group of Christian radicals has overthrown the United States, and replaced it with the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy wherein women are not permitted to work, read, or even speak out of turn. Because of unnamed environmental disasters, most woman are unable to conceive children; those that are still fertile are forced into chattel slavery, where they are ritually raped each month by their masters, in an attempt to create a next generation. People walk around greeting each other with creepy, state-mandated catchphrases like “Blessed be the fruit” and “May the Lord open.” Yeah, it’s cheery stuff.

The book was made into a film in 1990, starring the late Natasha Richardson as Offred and Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway as Fred and Serena Waterford, the powerful couple who keep her. In 2017, the novel became a mini-series in 10 episodes on Hulu, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford, Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy, Ann Dowd as the terrifying Aunt Lydia, Samira Wiley as Offred’s best friend Moira, Alexis Bledel as a rebellious handmaid, and Max Minghella as the Waterford’s chauffeur. The mini-series turned out to be such a hit that it was brought back in 2018 for a second season, taking the story beyond the plot originally outlined by Margaret Atwood (though presumably with her blessing, as she is a producer of both seasons). A third season is expected.

People seem to be divided into three camps when it comes to this show: 1) Those who don’t want to pay Hulu or Amazon for the ability to view it, 2) those who might very well appreciate what the show is doing, but can’t bring themselves to watch something so disturbing, and 3) those who are obsessed with it. Stacey is in that second group; I’m firmly ensconced in the third.

And yet, I understand where the first and second groups are coming from. There’s too much good television around anyway, and if dystopian nightmares aren’t your thing, I get it. Also, in today’s political climate, The Handmaid’s Taledoesn’t strike some as a form of escapism, but just the opposite. As citizens wrestle with the notion of a President with a fondness for authoritarianism and a Congress who has little desire to curtail that desire, Gilead is an unlikely place to choose to be.

Interestingly, when the series was being created, the showrunners, like most everyone else, expected the show to premiere while Hillary Clinton lived in the White House. Surely, in the age of our first female President, a show like this would feel something like science fiction. Instead, it feels more real all the time.

In fact, the show can be downright eerie in its prescience. When our national conversation turned to increased tensions between the US and Canada (seriously? Canada?), the ninth episode of Season 2 aired – in which the Waterfords went to Canada on a diplomatic trip, were rebuffed by the Canadian government for basically being awful humans. The following week, when every news program (except for Fox News, I’m sure) was obsessed with family separations at the US border, the tenth episode of the season aired, during which armed guards ripped Hannah, Offred’s child, from her mother’s arms. It was wrenching, doubly so because it was so … present-tense.

Even without the uncanny reminders of our lived reality, the show would still be disturbing. Women (and some men, particularly the gay ones) in this society are abused in ways both large and small, and most of it difficult to watch. And yet, I find the whole thing oddly inspiring. Because despite the horrors of Gilead, these characters still find a way to resist. Sometimes, resistance is simply holding onto their sanity by refusing to be the victim of gaslighting. Sometimes, it’s taking someone’s hand or forcing a smile out of them when they’re about to lose hope. And sometimes, resistance is banding together, sharing information, helping others escape, and overtly fighting the patriarchy. Sometimes, it kicks ass. And in these troubled times, it feels good to witness a little ass-kicking here and there.

Strike a 'Pose'

Eric Peterson

Over a quarter of a century after Paris burned, ball culture has finally made its way into popular culture.

by Eric Peterson

In 1991, as a young, closeted-even-to-myself college student, a group of friends and I visited The Magic Lantern Theatre, the only art-house cinema in Spokane, WA, to see a documentary that everyone had been talking about. It was a film called Paris is Burning, and it was about the drag balls in Harlem.

In it, black and brown gay men and trans women led hard lives, to be sure. But every weekend, they put their troubles away and walked the balls. They served up “realness,” they threw “shade,” and they vogued ferociously. I had never seen anything like it. I didn’t see myself reflected in these stories (nor did I particularly want to), but I liked them. 

It took almost three decades for stories like these to become fictionalized, but now we have FX Network’s Pose, a serialized ensemble about the black and brown gay men and trans women who defined much of LGBT culture back in the 1980’s.

 Mj Rodriguez as Blanca

Mj Rodriguez as Blanca

In the world of Pose, the dispossessed find families of their own, called Houses, led by Mothers who would adopt their Children and care for them in ways that their own mothers and fathers could not. The houses often live together, and Mothers can be strict, but also caring. The lucky ones find work behind counters and department stores or nail salons; others sell drugs or turn tricks. Many are slowly (then quickly) dying of AIDS, and Ronald Reagan has barely mentioned the word.

The eighties were a dark time for LGBT people, but even within that oppressed community, trans women ranked the lowest. At several points in the first season of Pose, trans characters remark that they can make just about anyone in the world, even their fellow queers, feel superior by comparison. And so, they created an environment where they were celebrated as goddesses: the balls.

When walking a ball, achieving “realness” was the ultimate goal. And while this often took the form of poor people looking at home in designer clothes and trans women “passing” to the best of their ability, the new series has accomplished its realness behind the scenes. The series boasts the most trans actresses in its regular cast than any series in television history, many episodes were written by trans memoirist and activist Janet Mock. The consulting producers feature several members of the Legendary House of Xtravaganza, featured prominently in Paris is Burning, as well as that film’s director, Jennie Livingston.

And yes, it feels like a soap opera sometimes. Ryan Murphy, who also brought us Glee, sometimes can’t resist a stirring-and-emotional-yet-completely-implausible speech every now and again, and some of the plot developments, particularly in the pilot episode, require a suspension of disbelief higher than these queens’ wigs.

And yet, the show also doesn’t shy away from many of the tough realities these characters lived through. Almost all have been cruelly rejected by their families of origin, the streets were dangerous, friends were few, and death – usually in the form of a virus with no cure – was far too familiar to these youngsters than it had any right to be.

Many of the performances are fantastic. Mj Rodriguez plays Blanca, a young trans woman who discovers that she is HIV-positive in the first episode, and decides that she might as well pursue her dreams as quickly as possible, and moves out of the House of Abundance to form her own. In every scene, she is as vulnerable or as fierce as the moment demands; at one point, a character describes Blanca as not being afraid to lead from the heart, and the same is true for Rodriguez. Indya Moore plays Angel, one of Blanca’s Children, who – in addition to occasional sex work – engages in an affair with a promising young businessman who works on Park Avenue for a certain real estate developer known for golden toilets. With her sad eyes and wild hair, Moore plays Angel like an explosion of big dreams and bad choices, and the results are complex and heartbreaking. Finally, there’s Tony winner Billy Porter as Pray Tell, the master of ceremonies of the ball, who frequently provides Blanca with a shoulder to cry on, but nurses his own tragedies as well. Pray Tell is the show’s embodiment of wisdom and kindness, but Porter never allows him to function merely as a symbol.

Not every performance reaches these heights, but as a firm believer in knowing our history, I urge people – especially queer people – to experience Posefor themselves. You might not see yourself reflected completely by these stories, nor will you particularly want to. But you’ll enjoy the trip down this glamorous but imperfect runway, and you’ll be ready for Season 2 in 2019.

All episodes of Pose are available on demand via the FXNow app. Paris Is Burning is available on YouTube.

Rub & Tug-of-War

Eric Peterson

Will this be the last time transgender stories are told this way?

by Eric Peterson

After years of Hollywood blithely casting cisgender actors to play trans roles, it’s possible we hit a turning point, thanks to a little movie with an awful title. Scarlett Johansson, star of Lost in Translationand the Avengersfilms, had been cast in Rub & Tug (I told you it was awful) as Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who was also a famous “crime kingpin” during the 1970’s. People were, to put it mildly, upset at this news. Not long after, Johansson announced that she would not play the role. The story went away, although the fate of the film without an A-list star in the leading role remains unclear.

 Johansson (L), Gill (R)

Johansson (L), Gill (R)

Had the film gone forward as planned, Johansson would not have been the first cisgender actor to play a transgender person. Actors who have won or been nominated for Oscars for playing trans characters include John Lithgow, Hilary Swank, Glenn Close, Jared Leto, and Eddie Redmayne. This sort of casting choice is nothing new, and until recently, it wasn’t very controversial.

But things change, and as the trans community gains more allies and greater visibility, they are continuing to advocate for themselves, and this includes rejecting the way they’ve often been represented in popular culture. And, predictably, with every call for change, there is an equal and opposite case to be made for the status quo.

Most of those who objected to Scarlett Johansson playing Tex Gill wanted a transgender actor to play the role instead. They pointed out, accurately, that there are many trans actors with lots of talent who face difficulty getting cast as anything but a trans character. Why, they argued, should Hollywood then take one of the few roles that a trans actor has any hope of playing, and hand it to an actress who is clearly not hurting for work?

Another argument in favor of casting trans actors in trans roles is that they’ll do a better job. While we’ve seen that a cisgender actor can certainly excel in a role like this, it stands to reason that much of their preparation will entail learning how to wear the clothes, carry themselves, raise or lower their voice, adopt a feminine walk or a masculine swagger – work that trans actors have been doing for some time. A trans actor playing a trans role can skip all that and do the work that really matters: Who is this character? What do they want? What’s in their way? And on and on. A trans actor is much less likely to be so bogged down in the physical details that mannerisms and vocal tics become the sum total of their performance.

The simplest, and probably best, argument from those who would like to see their favorite cisgender stars play trans roles is but that’s why they call it acting. Meryl Streep wasn’t a Polish Holocaust survivor, they’ll helpfully remind you, nor was Stockard Channing a teenager. Actors are supposed to act; they’re not supposed to play carbon copies of themselves.

And I don’t really have an argument to counter that, other than to say maybe it’s not about the actors. Sure, we can debate whether or not Scarlett Johansson is an awful person simply because she sought out a challenging role, but I’m less interested in that debate than I am about those of us who would eventually see that movie.

It’s important to remember that one of the chief hurdles facing trans people in the real world is that they’re often seen as gender imposters. A trans woman who simply needs to pee is viewed by many as a male stalker who wants to spy on women and girls in the ladies’ room. Trans men are often viewed simply as tomboys. In short, trans people are oppressed in a myriad of ways that all boil down to being accused of being a dishonest, untrustworthy, even dangerous fake.

This stereotype is not eased when a cisgender A-List celebrity adopts the mannerisms and look of the opposite gender to play a part in a movie. No matter how good Johansson’s performance might have been, audiences would probably not have forgotten that they were watching a woman with glued-on whiskers. And that knowledge doesn’t help trans men or women who are still fighting after the movie is over, primarily for the right to be seen for who they truly are.

I would love to see a film about Tex Gill get made; he led an interesting life, and it could be a good story. I’d prefer that the role go to a trans man (Johansson could play Cynthia, his girlfriend, and she could even get top billing if that’s what it takes to open a movie). But more than anything, the role needs to go to a man, trans or otherwise – Timothee Chalomet, perhaps? Tex Gill was a man. He deserves to be played by one.

(This essay was originally published in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, a newsmagazine for the LGBT & straight communities of Rehoboth Beach, DE.)

The Man on the Ten

Eric Peterson

by Eric Peterson

Recently, I went to a theatre and took a risk on a teeny-tiny show, a bit of fluff you’ve probably never heard of, a little musical called Hamilton, by a promising unknown named Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This adorable trifle just happened to pick up 11 Tony Awards in 2016, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. If you’ve wanted to see this show sometime in the past three years, you’ve probably already done so. So I’ll speak instead to those who haven’t seen it yet, either because you haven’t gotten around to it, or because, well…it scares you, a little.

I’ll admit that I walked into the show with muted expectations. Almost everyone I knew loved the show with such fervor, and I wondered if anything could live up to the hype. A few in my circle didn’t enjoy the show, mostly because of the hip-hop score; they reported finding it difficult to follow the story due to the rapid lyrics.

hamilton.jpg

On that first point, I’ll be succinct: Hamilton absolutely lives up to the hype. To that second point…I’ll give it a maybe. Unless you listen to a lot of hip-hop yourself, your ear might not be quick enough to pick up every rapid-fire lyric in the score. I certainly fall into that category myself, but I was lucky, in that I saw a Sunday matinee with surtitles for the hearing-impaired—or in my case, the hopelessly square. But I caught every word. I could read it if I didn’t catch it audibly, but it was there, and it was brilliant.

For the uninitiated, the things you probably already know about the show are that it’s largely told through rap and hip-hop, and that the cast largely features people of color playing famous founders of this country, who also happen to be famously white.

What you might not realize is that the score is also largely sung, and that the songs are beautiful. The funniest song in the show belongs to the villain (King George singing “You’ll Be Back” to the revolutionaries who have hurt his feelings by declaring their independence), and the most poignant goes to Hamilton’s wife (Eliza sings “Burn” as she torches his letters after a painful betrayal).

What’s important to know about the casting is that it’s not a gimmick. The reason this show is loved by so many, I believe, is that it reminds us that our founders weren’t just staid politicians. They were revolutionaries. It might seem obvious to describe men who led a Revolutionary War that way, but I wonder if the serious faces we see on our currency have allowed us to forget that these people were BADASS. They were powerless, and they took their power. They were dehumanized, and they seized their humanity. They were oppressed, so they laid claim to their own story and wrote their own rules.

And really—who better to embody those voices today than people of African, Latino, and Asian descent? And what better way to musically tell their story in the 21st century than through the sounds that currently provide the soundtrack of our streets? Hamilton is telling us our own origin story. But more importantly, it's reminding us of what’s possible. And today, that’s an important reminder indeed. Don’t let it frighten you. See it. Embrace it. And sit next to the surtitles if you have to. 

A longer version of this essay was previously published in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth.

Ain't Too Proud to Parade!

Eric Peterson

20180609_171341.jpg

by Stacey Fearheiley

There's still time, so...Happy Pride Month! I say this, because I mean it.
Interestingly enough, as a cis white girl, I’m really feeling it this year. I suppose it’s not too hard to understand why.

It’s like that Spartacus movie….”I am Spartacus.” “I am Spartacus.” “I am Spartacus.”  I am LGBTQ. I am an immigrant. I am black. I am Muslim. I am Mexican. That’s where I am right now.

And being all these things, if only as an ally, I am also really really scared and sad. I guess what would encompass all that would be, “I am an American.”  I’m not as proud of that as I used to be.

This year I went to the Capital Pride Parade in Washington, D.C. It was wonderful! And for a while…a short several hours…I was able to feel that pride in being in this country that I love so much.

I’ve been to the St. Patrick’s Day parade. (Fun with green and beer!)
I’ve been to the Cherry Blossom Parade. (So many blossoms, so little understanding of how to make them grow.)
I’ve been to numerous Labor Day and Independence Day parades (Or should they be called the March of the Political Candidates?).
Parades, in general, are fun. Especially when they are about purely American stuff–like freedom, celebrating the working man, and the idea that my vote matters.
But this year, at the Pride Parade, it felt different. It felt more. At this parade, I felt joy.

Now, I don’t bandy that word about very much.  It gets shouted and sung from the rooftops all throughout December and frankly, I rarely feel a bit of it.  It seems trite, hackneyed and tired.  So, understand, I use that word in its truest definition.

I stood there with my rainbow EVERYTHING, and waved my rainbow flag and bantered with other goers.  I watched as float after float,  and group after group marched by singing and dancing, throwing swag or high-fiving the sidelines.

My feet hurt, my arms were tired, the sun was hot, I was getting elbowed, and…it all didn’t matter.  I was aware of all that, but I didn’t want to leave.  Because in the midst of all the people, parade, discomfort, crowd and noise…everyone was happy.  There was this beautiful, probably rainbow-colored, bubble that seemed to encase us all…like Taco Tuesday in the Lego Movie.  It was surreal.  But it was joyful. That was the word.

And as I looked around at a crazy diverse crowd of people — all there to enjoy the moment and each other and to celebrate everyone’s right to parade –I felt like we were all Spartacus.  We were all Pride.  We were all Joyful.

Happy Pride, ya’ll.  Wish it could last all year.

The Golden Age of Binge-watching

Eric Peterson

There's such so much to watch these days. Is that a good thing?

by Eric Peterson

It’s 2018, and a question I’ve come to dread is, “Are you watching, such-and-such show on such-and-such network? You MUST.” Seriously. It’s almost as bad as, “Did you see what Donald Trump tweeted now?!”

And it’s not because my friends and acquaintances don’t have excellent taste. In years past, I appreciated their recommendations. And in all honesty, I still do – but at the same time, it’s frustrating. I barely have time to watch my shows; I can’t watch yours (and yours, and yours) as well. We are living in a time with so much good television; it's impossible to keep up.

TooMuchTV.jpg

But is it too much of a good thing? There are certainly some positives associated with lots of television options. For instance, I believe that one of the most important functions of art is to serve as a mirror. As a gay man, if I were still limited to three channels to provide me with entertainment options, I’d certainly still be waiting for Queer as FolkThe L WordTransamericaNoah’s ArcQueer Eye, or any number of television shows that allow me to see myself reflected in the popular culture. The same is undoubtedly true for people of color, and other non-dominant populations. And that’s great. And important. I believe that.

And, I think there’s something to be said for popular culture being … well, popular. And it’s just not anymore.

When the Roseanne revival premiered on ABC earlier this year, several friends asked if I’d be watching. I demurred; for many reasons, I am not a fan of Roseanne Barr (and no, her recent repugnance on her Twitter account did not surprise me at all). But even without me, the show was a huge hit. With 18 million people watching the premiere, it instantly became ABC’s most popular show. So okay, wow. 18 million people. That sounds like a lot.

But compare that to the finale of M*A*S*H (the most watched program of scripted television in American history).  In 1983, 125 million people watched that show, and the Roots finale drew 100 million viewers in 1977.

And sure, those were the highest rated television shows of all time, but even the original run of Roseanne got twice as many viewers on average throughout its fifth season in 1992 as it did for the lauded premiere of its revival in 2018.

As I write this, the biggest hit in scripted television last week was an episode of NCIS on CBS, with 12 million viewers. That’s less than one percent of that M*A*S*H finale, only a third of what Roseanne picked up in the 90’s, and the most-watched program in the entire country right now.

I don’t think it’s a question that we live in a very fractured culture these days. Our politics are moving farther away from the center and clustering around the extremes. People are retreating into their comfort zones, where they remain ever more separate from those who are different from them. As a result, our worlds are increasingly homogenous, unless you’re putting in a whole lot of effort to shake things up. And that’s a real problem. Not being exposed to people who look different and think differently increases the likelihood that we will fall victim to stereotype threat. It pushes us further to our corners, and makes life more dangerous for the marginalized and oppressed.

I’m well aware that our increased polarization is not the fault of lots of television networks pushing out lots of television shows. But I also believe that it isn’t helping. It used to be that we had more cultural markers to bring us together. There was a time when everyone knew what “Whatchoo talkin’ bout, Willis?” meant, and where it came from. Someone could say “Oh, Archie” in their best Jean Stapleton and you immediately got it. There was probably some value to be gained when all of us collectively experienced the shock and horror of the chicken turning into the baby during the finale of M*A*S*H (if you don’t know, I won’t tell you; I still need therapy).

I believe that those common experiences can bridge other kinds of differences. As shallow as it sounds, I believe that they bring us closer, and that the current cornucopia of options on broadcast, cable, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and all the others is only pushing us further apart. Perhaps only by inches, but it’s happening at a time when we really need to be moving in the other direction.

Sadly, I don’t have a solution for this problem. We have thousands of options, and they’re not going away. I’m certainly not going to get in between you and your RuPaul’s Drag Race, if that’s your thing; I wouldn’t dare. The only thing I can do is promise not to hold it against you if you don’t want to watch my latest discovery, as long as you don’t hold it against me if I don’t want to watch your favorite show, either.

This essay was originally published by Letters from CAMP Rehoboth.

Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum

Eric Peterson

by Eric Peterson

In 1986, when I was fifteen, I saw the film Cabaret for the first time. Before the year was over, I had probably watched that one movie at least forty times, and I've probably seen it forty times since. As one might expect, I can quote entire scenes from memory. Additionally, I seem to have memorized every note of the score, every dance step, every camera angle, every raised eyebrow.

I didn't know why I loved Cabaret so much. One might blame Brian, the character played by Michael York, the leading man in the film's seemingly heterosexual love story. He's gay. The first time I saw the film, the discovery of Brian's true sexuality hit me like a ton of bricks; I sat in my living room, mouth agape, literally unable to move. Even today, I'm taken aback when I hear Brian speaking his truth for the very first time.

So yes, although I'd remain in the closet for another ten years, there was likely some sort of unconscious recognition of myself there. But years later, I now know what truly drew me to insert this particular cassette into the VCR over, and over, and over...and her name was Liza.

Liza-Minnelli-in-Cabaret.jpg

Every gay man seems to have a diva of choice, and mine is and forever will be Liza Minnelli. In college, I wore out my copies of Live at Carnegie Hall and Liza with a "Z"; in the early 90s, I saw her live in concert three times. I'm telling you; every time this woman walks on stage, any stage, she is the hardest working woman in show business, and she is going to give you a show you'll never forget. I just adore her.

Logic would dictate that as a homosexual man, I would have chosen a different sort of person to worship. And by different I mean...I don't know, a man? Mel Gibson had chiseled features, a sculpted physique, and some semblance of sanity in the mid-1980s...why not Mel? Why not any number of handsome (male) matinee idols?

I know that I'm not alone among gay men when it comes to the diva thing. Few adore Liza Minnelli to the extent that I do, but whether you've chosen Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Cher, Joan Crawford, Bette Midler, Donna Summer, Bette Davis, Madonna, Diana Ross, Chita Rivera, or Christina Aguilera (or some combination of the above); many (if not most) gay men of all generations have pledged their devotion to one or more icons who speak to our collective soul.

Why do we love them so much? There are likely as many answers as there are divas to choose from, but they do share several things in common.

First of all, they love us as much as we love them. A true diva knows that she has struck gold when she wins the hearts, minds, and wallets of gay men everywhere. Compare us to other groups of fans, and we rank up there with Deadheads as the most loyal followers in America.

Also, they're really good at what they do. Whether it's singing, acting, dancing, looking fabulous, or reinventing their public persona every three years, there's a standard of quality that cannot be undermined. Taken as a group, the gay guys have always exuded exceptional taste.

But I have a theory about our beloved icons. I believe that gay men love these tough-as-nails, glamorous, gutsy broads because they validate our existence every time they teach us that you don't have to be masculine in order to be strong.

I'm fully aware that the stereotype of the mincing, effeminate gay man is just that: a stereotype. There are some gay men that fit that description, and there are also others, who are jocks, bookworms, bikers, preppies, cowboys, etc. But almost all of us have felt the sting of discrimination at some point in our lives; we've all been called names. Faggot. Homo. Plus a few others that are unprintable here. But it's not uncommon for gay men to be called simply: Girl. Pansy. Fairy. You can be as butch as you want to be, but there's no escaping that for many homophobes, you're as low as a man can get because you've made yourself a woman, and there can't be anything worse than that.

Enter the diva. She's undeniably female, and stronger than any man in her path. She's probably been criticized at some point for being somehow less than ladylike. Ball-breaker. Man-eater. If nothing else, she's a survivor, proving her strength not through attitude, but simply by standing back up every time life knocks her down. We don't simply enjoy these women; we need them. We need them to be tough, we need them to be fabulous, we need them to be unafraid.

And when the world is cold, we need them to belt it to the rafters, "What good is sitting all alone in your room? Come, hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret."

The Boy Who Loved

Eric Peterson

When I was a closeted high school student, most of my friends were girls. There was just something about the air of testosterone that surrounded most of the boys I went to school with that was unsettling. I was undoubtedly attracted to many of them, and that attraction was certainly covered with a thin but powerful veneer of paranoia, which made the attraction feel like repulsion – but in my conscious mind, I just couldn’t compete with all of that masculine energy. It scared me.

Recently, I found myself in New York on my own for a couple of days, in between a business trip and a planned excursion with friends. On a whim, I decided to indulge that inner child of mine, and I purchased tickets to the Broadway production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – a two-part theatrical sequel to the original seven-book saga. I couldn’t wait to re-enter J.K. Rowling’s world of witches and wizards, magic, and fantasy.

And I got all that I expected. Dementors, transfiguration, even floo powder – it was all there. What I also received, but didn’t necessarily expect, was a peek inside what my childhood might have looked had I met a gentler kind of boy to befriend.

While Harry Potter, now a 40-year old government official (he’s like the Attorney General of the Wizarding World) still earns his place as the titular character, much of the action belongs to his troubled son, Albus Severus Potter. Traveling to Hogwarts for the first time with his cousin, Rose Granger-Weasley, he is reminded that his parentage will make him instantly popular, and he could likely have his choice of friends. But inexplicably, he chooses to travel with the awkward and lonely Scorpius Malfoy – the son of his father’s childhood arch-enemy, Draco.

harry-potter-cursed-child-boys.jpg

You can’t help but feel for Albus at the opening of the play (NOTE: I wouldn’t dream of writing any spoilers here; any details I write about you’ll learn within the first 30 minutes of a seven-hour play – so read on, Potterheads!) – he never asked to be a part of a famous family, and he can’t help but feel as though he’s a disappointment. Despite his fervent wishes to the contrary, he is placed in the dreaded Slytherin house upon his arrival at school, and his choice of best friend is clearly not one that his father approves of. 

Scorpius comes with his own set of issues. First and most pressing, his mother is gravely ill. Second, his father is angry and distant. Third, his father might not even be his father – there are rumors floating about that his father is someone even worse than Draco Malfoy.

But in spite of everything, a relationship that grows between these two boys sparks, and then deepens, until each is the only person in the world that the other truly understands. I should note that the script (by Jack Thorne, based on a story by J.K. Rowling, Thorne, and director John Tiffany) makes it abundantly clear that both of these boys are romantically and sexually attracted to various girls in their orbit. And yet, Albus loves no one in the world as he loves Scorpius, and the feeling is returned. As the story winds through various moments of misunderstandings and physical separations, they miss each other with a sense of pain that is usually only reserved for romantic tales. Even the language used to describe them is romantic. At one point in the story, their mutual friend Delphi tells Scorpius, “You two – you belong together.”

Not all queer fans are happy with what they’re seeing on stage. Aja Romano wrote a blistering essay in the online magazine Vox called, “The Harry Potter universe still can’t translate its gay subtext into text. It’s a problem.” In it, she details the number of times that the series has disappointed its LGBT fans. Remus Lupin was a werewolf, a direct response to the bigotry faced by persons with AIDS, and Nymphadora Tonks was a punk witch who met every criteria of a soft butch; through the course of the books, they married and had a child. Professor Dumbledore was given an explicitly gay identity by Rowling – but not in the books themselves, where his sexual identity is best described as celibate (we’ll see what a young Dumbledore looks like later this year, when The Crimes of Grindelwald hits theatres). Now, we have these two boys, who share long embraces, get jealous when the other moons over a pretty girl, and miss each other desperately when they’re apart. It’s making some queer fans angry.

I took a slightly different view. I found myself exhilarated by the love story in front of me without needing to see them snogging. Perhaps, I wondered, Albus and Scorpius seem obviously gay to both straight and gay audiences alike because we’ve rarely, if ever seen, a friendship between boys that is at once platonic and this intense. Stories about intense bonds between women abound in our culture, particularly gay culture (see Steel MagnoliasBeaches9 to 5Thelma & Louise,Bridesmaids, and a hundred others). And what, I wondered, would happen if straight boys around the world had permission to love the other boys in their lives this much. It would have felt like magic to a boy like me.

This essay first appeared in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, a newsletter for the LGBT community and its allies in Rehoboth Beach, DE.

A Rose-Tinted Mirror

Eric Peterson

Pixar Studios probably didn't make Coco for me, exactly. But that's how I saw it.

by Eric Peterson

One of the perks of doing a lot of business travel is that I catch up on a lot of movies and TV shows. Recently, I decided to download Call Me By Your Name onto my iPad, and watch it on a flight from Washington to Dallas, TX. The scenes of two young men falling in love in the Italian countryside were gorgeous, for me … but let’s just say that for the sixty-ish, surely heterosexual, probably a Trump supporter, clearly uncomfortable woman next to me, the view was transformative – but probably not in the way she’d have liked.

So these days, just to get along with my fellow passengers on ever more cramped airplanes, I tend to save anything that might involve scenes of sex, violence, and other “mature” imagery for my hotel rooms. What I watch on the airplane has become decidedly more PG-rated. On the way back from Dallas, one of the free movies offered by the airline was the Disney-Pixar film Coco. Perfect for even the Trumpiest of the Trumpies, I thought. It might be about a movie about a young Mexican boy who crosses a border (between the land of the living and the afterlife), but at least it’s not likely to be too erotic or gory.

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First of all, let me just say that nobody warned me. For the last 10 minutes of the film, in my window seat on a sold-out flight, I was openly weeping. I don’t think I elicited any audible sobs, but with my headphones on, I can’t be sure. If you haven’t seen Coco, don’t judge. This little cartoon practically reaches into your tear ducts and turns the faucet on; I’m not sure I could really trust anyone who didn’t cry when watching it.

But after I had recovered myself, it occurred to me – that movie might have been gayer than Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer making out by the river. Not gay in any literal sense, of course – but this movie, aimed at children (but like all Pixar films, made with adults very much in mind), also told a story that I was entirely familiar with. The story centers on Miguel, a young man with dreams of being a musician. The problem is that, four generations earlier, his great-great-grandfather had the same dream. He abandoned his family to pursue a career in show business, and never came back. And so, Miguel’s family doesn’t listen to music. They shut their windows angrily, if music is playing outside. Early in the film, Miguel’s grandmother surprises Miguel talking with a mariachi in the town plaza and accuses the man of corrupting her grandson. Miguel has secretly taught himself to play the guitar in the attic of his family home, but his love of music is for him, a love that dare not speak its name, if you see where I’m headed with this.

The dramatic action of the movie really begins with a traditional coming out scene. Miguel, buoyed by a discovery concerning his great-great-grandfather’s true identity, musters the courage to tell his secret to his family – and is met with misunderstanding and scorn. Suddenly, Miguel’s predicament is clear: he cannot be his authentic self and remain a valued member of his family. He must make his own way.

One hopes that this is a predicament that young queer people experience less and less in this century than the last – and yet we know that it still happens. Conversion therapy centers still operate legally in many states, and even the most progressive parents can be momentarily stunned to learn that their child isn’t who they thought s/he was. Like it or not, this is still a story that a lot of queer people can see themselves in.

The rest of the film, without giving too much away, is about Miguel’s goal to eventually win back his family’s love on his own terms, with no conditions. Being a Disney film for children, I was almost positive he’d eventually succeed. But even when he predictably does so, the moment is so sincere and so vulnerable, it made this 47-year old gay man cry real tears on a crowded airplane, next to a man who looked like he would have been quite comfortable chewing on a piece of straw, the way they did in the Westerns my dad used to make me watch as a kid.

I’ll be traveling again soon, and once again must face the usual dilemma of what to watch while sitting next to a stranger. I suppose I could always just read a book, but I think I’m up to the challenge this time. There’s another cartoon I’ve had my eye on; this one is called Ferdinand, and it’s about a bull who, despite all outward appearances, would rather sit in the meadow and smell flowers than engage in more traditionally masculine activities like bullfighting. I’m sure that one won’t be gay at all.

This essay was also published in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth.

Sum, sum, Summertime Preview Time!

Eric Peterson

Smell that?  It's the smell of hopeful Summer Blockbusters in the offing.  This week Eric and Stacey watched and then judged some of the talked about movies coming to a theatre near you this summer!

Below is a way for you to judge for yourself if a: you want to see it based on the trailer; b: Eric and Stacey got it right re: whether or not these films are watchable.

#Summer2018Movies....could be fun.  Your POP surgeons definitely look forward to seeing how spot on they were about the hits and misses.

Give your thoughts.  What are YOU looking forward to?  What did they get wrong?

Don't forget to subscribe!

Infinity War---What I didn't know!!! (Ironically...no spoilers.)

Eric Peterson

infinity war.jpg

by Stacey Fearheiley

Was I the LAST person to know that the movie Avengers: Infinity War was a cliff hanger?  I didn't realize it until the LITERAL very end.

Yes, I felt stupid as my family members kept telling me that I should have been aware of it.  BUT I WASN'T....and I felt ill prepared.

I also forgot who was part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  And every time someone showed up, I'd have an "a-ha" moment.  I got tired of that.

Also, didn't remember how many infinity stones there were.  Apparently 6.  I always lost track of what stone was where with each Avengers movie I saw.

Hawkeye is married?  Vaguely remembered that....but still, kind of a surprise.

I don't care for Black Widow with blonde hair.

Did Stark and Pepper get engaged somewhere?  All they talked about was an upcoming wedding.  I didn't get a close up of her ring.

What grade, exactly, is Peter Parker in?  He looked a little old to be on a field trip...on a bus.

In the end, as I sat there absently tossing bits of popcorn in my mouth as the credits rolled, I asked my daughter how many more movies would be a part of the MCU.  She then asked,  "in which phase?"

Yeah....I didn't even know there were phases.  I guess you could say this movie taught me a lot.

BTW....the number of movies in ALL phases of the MCU = 81,263.

(Bet YOU didn't know that!)