If you look back at your life to that period after childhood and before adulthood, chances are you have at least one movie (or song, or band, or TV show) that you would pinpoint as being definitive for you - something that spoke to the core of the person you were. Or at least, the person you suspected that you were becoming.
Our blog team will be doing a series of coming-of-age personal stories: the LGBTQ+ representation in media that shaped our identities, welcomed and inspired us. This is the first installment.
It's a powerful thing, when you're a teenager or young adult, to see some part of yourself amplified and played back to you. Especially for those of us who grew up queer and isolated, with a lack of representation and an absence of role models of people like us, art can be a hugely validating, magical experience.
Velvet Goldmine was that film for me. I was raised in the Middle East, within the evangelical Christian church. In other words, I grew up surrounded by people who believed very rigidly in binary gender roles and that homosexuality is a perversion. The consequence for being outed ranged from ostracization and social death to jail and actual death, depending on who you were (your level of privilege) and how far you chose to step out of line.
My family moved back to the United States when I was a preteen. We moved to the Central Valley, which I instantly recognized as being similarly rigid and repressive.
I remember watching a train go by with "God Hates Fags" spray-painted on the side of it. I remember listening to strangers shout "Dyke!" at one of the only girls at BHS who outwardly read as queer with short buzzed hair and body hair. It happened all the time, as she walked across campus between classes, and I never saw any adult notice, or care.
No one ever had to tell me to hide who I was as a teen. I could read the room and knew I wasn't welcome most places. That's how it feels when there's something about you that if other people find out, you're pretty sure they will reject you. Not because of something you did or said, but because of who you are. The world feels hostile.
Outside of the theater community, a de facto somewhat-safe queer space, I made sure to keep my head down. Being out and proud was something I knew was better saved for adulthood, when I would have the freedom to be less vulnerable. At least, that was the hope - that one day I'd grow up and get to choose to live my life openly somewhere else.
So when I watched Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine at 17, with it's explosion of color and music and defiant celebration of queer culture, I was enthralled. The film follows journalist Arthur (Christian Bale) who is writing an article on the life of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Myers), a glam rock star. Slade's career and relationships are retold in a series of flashbacks as Arthur interviews Slade's former wife Mandy (Toni Collette) and lover/fellow rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor).
While not an official biopic, the film is a loose retelling of David Bowie's career and Ziggy Stardust persona - where Bowie had Ziggy, Slade has Maxwell Demon as his alter-ego, an androgynous alien come to earth to shake up cultural norms and toy with the press while channeling Oscar Wilde. The excesses of the 1970's youth culture are vividly depicted against a manic soundtrack featuring Pulp, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, T. Rex and Steve Harley as well as covers of songs by Roxy Music and The Stooges by the in-film band, Venus in Furs.
I loved all of it, from the vibrant costumes to the abstract, theatrical narrative. But my favorite thing about the film was Brian Slade's complete refusal to apologize for being himself.
In the scene below, a teen Arthur watches rocker Brian Slade give a press conference. When journalists badger Slade about his marriage, sexuality and make-up, he shocks Britain by speaking frankly.
The way Arthur stands up in front of his parents and points at the screen, "That's me!" captures the feeling of wanting to be seen so perfectly. Of course, that didn't really happen. Instead he sits quietly, carefully gauging the disapproving reactions of his mother and father.
Slade smirks his way through the interview, alternatively provocative and coy. His answers about gender and sexuality are fluid and expansive. He goes toe to toe with the journalists, never missing a beat, refusing to let them corner him.
Journalist: What about your fans? Aren't they likely to get the wrong impression?
Slade: And which wrong impression is that?
Journalist: Well, you're a blinking fruit.
Slade: Well, thank you sir, and no. It doesn't concern me in the least. I should think that if people were to get the wrong impression of me, the one to which you so eloquently referred, it wouldn't be the wrong impression in the slightest. I mean, everybody knows most people are bisexual.
While I didn't necessarily believe that "most people are bisexual", I adored how he was throwing the intrusive questions from journalists back in their faces. They harp on his sexuality, so he makes them question theirs. It was a glorious inversion.
I, like Arthur, was captivated. It was the first time I'd seen someone acting that way: refusing to allow their sexuality to be a liability, breaking down gender norms - and winning.
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