It’s hard to over-emphasize how formative cinema can be on a young, queer mind.
If you’re anything like me, you’d be just another queer kid who’s sad about being queer, bawling over some childhood trauma and contrasting social values you grew up with in the South, and...Yeah, you and my therapist know how it goes.
Queer kids find survival in the arts. In music, literature and especially (in my case) cinema, we often first find people like us. In my own formative years, I felt safest when sneaking in late night queer cinematic binges for those long days of mental turmoil. Whether through Netflix DVDs or mid-aughts internet forums, these stories and communities were formative in figuring out what the hell I was. Looking back, part of me wishes I hadn’t done it to myself.
Even after coming out, a peculiar trait held firm: I was never afraid to watch anything with queerness, but I’d be embarrassed by the resolutions of the films. If a (rare) happy ending took place, I’d fall into a cold sweat and shut off my viewing device in perplexing shame when it concluded. It felt like a terrible vice—one that didn’t translate to other films ending in a way where the queer character didn’t get the lover or anything they wanted. A lot of big gay tears felt right.
Maybe these movies were a little too formative for me. Queer cinema has come a long way from the forced homophobic tropes that used to rule. There always were cute little queers, defined entirely by a romantic pursuit (a straight-until-otherwise-noted hot person); inevitably, said cute little queer gets bullied, beaten and even outright killed. The world is so very cruel.
Nowadays, queer storylines have the privilege of being exotic—some isolated, romantic, European-esqe place far off from the mainstream (see: Call Me By Your Name, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Summer of ’85, Ammonite, Gods Own Country) sets the stage. Homophobic villains are so last decade. Now we get vacation destinations, a package deal with a summer of love leading to inevitable heartbreak. The forces of the cinematic universe say we can keep the queers alive so long as we keep them sad. The rug is always pulled out from under us, snatching away any chance for a full life onscreen.
Obviously this is a generalization that can’t logically fit an entire genre (and can we even agree that “queer” constitutes an entire genre?). But as the years rolls by, the effects of these storylines keep popping up when they’re least welcome and it somehow feels more appropriate to see myself tragically than to see myself fulfilled—my orientation being nothing but a dragging chain on life’s possibilities. It’s not that these films have poor intentions—they weren’t trying to get me mentally strained. Hell, most of them are great works of art—Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire leaves you reaching for the smelling salts as you try to recover—but I do have to ask: Why do queer filmmakers themselves have such trouble escaping the perception that our lives must be tragic, as if such a thing is the natural bend of the universe?
At the wrong age came the idea of an inevitable tragedy about my existence. Sudden unexplained forces lingered around corners, ready to snatch the joys of life away from me. If I fell in love, I prepared myself mentally for inevitable loss like cinema taught me to expect. Abandonment, anxiety, body image issues, and loneliness are things just scratching the surface of our mental states. We’re damn messes—cute, but still messes. And listen, I’m all for watching Timothée Chalamet cry in front of a fireplace for six minutes, but I’m also begging for more films like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together and Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman—three films portraying queerness in a way that’s non-tragic and where sexuality doesn’t define the crux of our problems.
That’s not to spoil anything, as it’s obvious from the get-go. But rather, they push a notion to which I wish I had access as a kid—that we can define ourselves beyond our romantic orientations, and that not every problem we have is related to that. In other words, we can get screwed up by things outside our sexuality, too. So, as filmmakers and as viewers, let’s look back to those moments when we were youthful and energetic and lacking back pain, when queer films were a safety net. We don’t need to reflex back in the other direction and make every queer film a happy-singing-animals world, but for God’s sake, we’ve got to let ourselves be painted with a broader brush.
Of course, we shouldn’t be dictating the kind of stories filmmakers tell. That defeats the point of art and stories specifically about queerness and our specific experiences matter deeply. But wouldn’t it be nice to see us doing more in our romantic odysseys? To see us on screen as something other than one-note sexual navigators or hopeless romantics? We don’t need to train ourselves to expect tragedy.
Remember, being queer is to be an other. No matter how much we preach assimilation, our life experiences have fundamental differences. We’re battling homophobia, transphobia and control over our own narratives. If you’re anything like me and you feel that tinge of embarrassment when a queer character finds joy, remember what you watched when you needed an escape. Those films are fine—but we can always do a little better.