Tuesday, August 31 1999, 8:02 PM
Since the '69 Stonewall riots, gays and lesbians have been quot;allowed" to "come out" into mainstream culture — provided they do it on the silver screen.
Recent movies such as Philadelphia (1993), Bound (1996), and The Edge of Seventeen (1999) have dared to make gays and lesbians — even those with full-blown AIDS — into mainstream pop heroes. Who didn't root for the ailing Tom Hanks as he fought the law firm who fired him? And who could watch coldly as pouty-lipped Jennifer Tilly purred her way into Gina Gershon's bed, then convinced her to take the mob to the cleaners? And every home with a TV set — whether it was tuned to the episode or not — knew when Ellen De Generes's character was coming out on the self-titled TV show. America laughed and applauded, and De Generes's partner, Anne Heche, actually saw her movie career (based on straight roles) blossom.
Unfortunately, the picture take on a different, more tragic hue when we look more closely at the everyday streets. In the real world, same-sex desire is still read as a perverse and pathological difference by many. Hatred and fear of the "other" continue to flare every day. In late-February 1999, the National Front splinter groups Combat 18 and White Wolves both claimed responsibility for bombing the Admiral Duncan, a well-known gay and lesbian pub. Three people died and dozens were critically injured.
In the U.S., during this very same month — only four months after the nation first heard that two Wyoming homophobes hog-tied openly gay Matthew Shepard and left him to die on a fence — Steven Mullins and Charles Butler confessed to bludgeoning to death and burning the body of thirty-nine-year-old textile worker Billy Jack Gaither. The New York Times's David Firestone reported that Mullins was "known around town for wearing Ku Klux Klan T-shirts" and keeping his head shaved. In this same article, Mr. Firestone described Gaither's "double" existence: He was a quiet person ready to lend a hand to others in his laid-back, Southern crossroad community; but what incensed Mullins and Butler was Gaither's life behind closed doors. When Gaither's closeted same-sex desire became visible, Mullins and Butler supposedly saw him frequenting gay bars in the nearby Atlanta metropole, and considered him a threat to this largely white, heterosexual community. Hmm, and what were Mullins and Butler doing scoping out these bars anyway?
It would seem that in spite of all the steps forward, homosexuality is only acceptable if pathologized — associated with images of AIDS and/or as effemenized masculinity — kept completely in the closet, and/or kept in the realm of fiction (movies etc.). It becomes most threatening when simply normalized. Gaither was simply enacting that coupling convention: going to single bars to meet an other single the hopes of finding romance.
Of course those who want to normalize same-sex desire fall very short from the many who continue to violently fear gays and lesbians. For example, at the web site "www.godhatesfags.com" an anonymous writer responded to Gaither's murder with the following editorial: "WBC will not allow the homosexual lobby to use this dead fag — Billy Jack Gaither — as a poster boy for sodomite propaganda to get pro-gay laws passed and to recruit other youth to their disease-ridden, soul-damning, life-destroying, nation-dooming lifestyle."
We have yet to see the results of the trial of Butler and Mullins. The New York Times writes that Steven Mullins's lawyer has now mounted a defense that, the reporter writes, "says the murder was provoked by an 'unwelcome homosexual advance.' [The defendants] 'weren't going out looking for a target or a gay person [. . .] There was a triggering mechanism that started it'" (July 23, A24). The defendant's tapping into this all-pervasive homophobic rhetoric might convince the jury to incarcerate Mullins and Butler on a lesser crime.
Recently, the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, James Hormel, was appointed (after much pulling of GOP-senate hair, needless to say). Gays and lesbians are beginning to be recognized in the political arena. Unfortunately, however, given the violence that comes out around non-normative desire and sexuality, we need something more than political tokenization and the fetishization? of gay/lesbian fantasyscapes if we're really going to bring equality off the silver screen and into our living rooms.
Frederick Aldama is a member of the Bad Subjects collective.