Post #10 - Looking Through Another Lens: Growing in Empathy

Here we are at last. One year, one day, and forty films later—well, okay, thirty films, since I was unable to obtain ten of the films on the list—we’ve made it to the end of our adventure in growing in empathy by watching the “Top 40 Gay Films from the 1970s On…”. With the exception of a couple of films—*cough* *cough* GBF and Sordid Lives *cough* *cough*—these have all been pretty good films. A few of them—The HoursPhilomenaMilkBoys Don’t CryEdge of SeventeenThe Wedding BanquetHedwig and the Angry ItchMy Beautiful Launderette, and Brokeback Mountain—are great films by any critical estimation.

If it matters, my favorite is probably The Wedding Banquet. Ang Lee makes such subtle films. Before you realize it, you’ve gotten to know each character in his films and their relationships to each other in depth. Then the smallest action or word passed between them takes on great meaning. His films aren’t “artsy” either. They’re popular entertainment enriched by his gentle, compassionate direction.

The film Lee is most famous for, and the film people immediately name when you tell them you’re watching the “Top 40 Gay Films from the 1970s On…,” Brokeback Mountain, is no exception to Lee’s graceful, gentle style. Among many, this film is denigrated as “that gay cowboy movie.” This is a particularly unjust designation, as the two cowboys at the center of the film, Jack and Ennis, don’t live in a world where “gay” is even a category in which they can locate themselves. “Gay” is a lifestyle, a culture, an identity marker as much as it is a description of sexuality. In the rodeo circuits, open ranges, and small Montana and Texas towns that Jack and Ennis frequent, gay identity isn’t an option. Their culture isn’t just heteronormative; it is exclusively heterosexual.

Their attraction to each other is as strange to them as a day without a sunrise. When they are apart, they live in a kind of sexual and emotional exile. When they are together, that exile becomes communal and psychological. Jack’s now famous invective against Ennis, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” is an expression of his longing to be home in the rest of his life. Ennis’ response gets much less attention, but it is as revelatory of how disconnected they feel from their own psyches, from everyone else in their lives, and from the places they live. He retorts, “Well, why don’t you? Why don’t you just let me be? It’s because of you, Jack, that I’m like this! I’m nothin’… I’m nowhere…” (emphasis mine). Brokeback Mountain, the place they retreat together, is then both a beautiful place - as their love is beautiful – and also a wilderness place – an exposed, dangerous place cut-off from civilization, a place where they have no identity, personal, communal, or otherwise.

The emotional antithesis to Brokeback Mountain’s exile is found in the second to last film in this series, Big EdenBig Edenchronicles all the wonderful things that happen when a gay New Yorker returns home for the first time to the Montana town where he grew up. Without ruining the story for you, let me just say this is an incredibly optimistic and happy film. Based on the films I’ve watched in this series, exile of the type we saw in Brokeback Mountain is a terrible and terribly common experience for gay persons. So, it would be unkind to call Big Eden a form of cinematic wish fulfillment. Rather, I think Big Eden can best be understood as a kind beatific vision. This is what paradise (ahem – “Eden”) would look like for gay persons: You can go home again, and all the people you have always been afraid would reject you because you are queer love you instead.

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I wish Big Eden was a reflection of reality. I know it’s not. I also wish it had been the final film I watched in this series. It would have been a hopeful way to end. Instead, the final film in this series, the film sitting way up on the top of the list, is William Friendkin’s 1970 ground-breaking film The Boys in the Band. The film depicts one afternoon and evening in the lives of eight gay men living in New York City and one heterosexual man who accidentally crashes the birthday party the gay men are having that evening. The film is based on a play, and while it is very talky and stagy, Friedkin knows how to position a camera in tight quarters to keep things interesting. The Boys in the Band is never boring.

It is depressing though. With two exceptions, the men all hate themselves to some degree. The lead character, Michael, exceptionally so, and he projects his self-hatred onto everyone else and forces them to reflect it back at him. This is the unhappiest birthday celebration I’ve ever witnessed. The tyranny of self-hatred and the need for self-love is the dual point of the film. At the very least, watching The Boys in the Band gave me a new appreciation for the term “gay pride.”


Okay. That brings me to the end of my film-watching for this series. What have I learned?

First of all, this series was framed as an effort to grow in empathy for gay persons. Have I done that? I’m not sure how to gauge empathy in the abstract. That is the first thing I can say I’ve learned – while I’ve certainly gained knowledge about some of the struggles facing the LGBQT community in our society in general, I also know that the only way I’ll truly know more about gay persons is to spend time with gay persons, not just watching movies about them. Empathy is sharing the feelings of another. If there is no “other,” there are no feelings to share.

Secondly, as I said, I have gained some knowledge about concerns common to gay persons, and I’d like to close this series by listing what I’ve observed as things I will now be aware of as I interact with gay persons in my life.

1. Is this person in exile? 

Are they forbidden, either explicitly or implicitly, from returning home because of their sexuality? How can I make them feel more welcome here with me and my family? If they can’t go home, how can I help them find a new home here?

2. How is this person marginalized because of their sexuality in their day-to-day life? 

Most prejudice is unconscious. What sorts of systemic and institutional prejudice does this person deal with every day? What can I do to make sure this person and other gay persons aren’t marginalized by the things I have control over? What kinds of conscious, direct prejudice have they encountered?

3. How have people who, like me, claim Jesus Christ as their God hurt this person? 

How has Christianity been a force for evil in this person’s life? What, if anything, can I do to make amends for the mistreatment this person may have experienced in the name of Christ? I do not believe Christ would want us to be unloving toward gay persons regardless of what we believe about the morality of non-heterosexuality. How can I be a graceful presence in this person’s life?

4. If they are an older gay man, how has AIDS impacted their life? 

What loss have they endured? According to The Foundation for AIDS Research, 529,113 people died because of AIDS between 1980 and 2004 in the United States. According to the CDC, half of all persons diagnosed with AIDS were homosexual men. 1.9 percent of the U.S. population self-identifies as gay (6,380,000 men). Do the math, and 1 in 25 gay men died of AIDS in the last thirty years. That’s a lot of communal grief to carry around. I should be aware of that.

5. What can I learn from this person about the resiliency of love? 

This person has almost certainly loved someone deeply, and cultural and personal forces likely assailed that love with a hatred I’ve never had to face because of my loves. What do LGBT people have to teach me about the sustaining power of love, the immortal good of love even and especially when it faces opposition?

There is probably more, but that’s a good place to start.

Thank you for following along as I’ve watched and written through these films. It’s always more fun to write when someone is reading. May we all continue to grow in empathy and love each other better every day of our lives.