I was halfway through my scene when I heard a voice from the dark tell me to stop. I was 24 years old, on the stage of a professional theater, auditioning for A Chorus Line to play Greg, the Upper East Side dancer who affects a sophisticated demeanor to become his idealized self. I thought I had it in the bag. After all, I knew the character because I was the character. Aside from the fact that I could never afford rent in the Upper East Side, David was someone—like me—who felt out of place in the world they were born into and coped with being an outsider by hiding behind their insecurities. We both dealt with our alienation through sarcasm and a biting sense of humor. But having auditioned professionally for years, I didn’t think much of being stopped to make a correction. An audition is like a first date: It’s about compatibility as much as it is about talent.
“Could you not be so…” the director told me, gesticulating with his hands wildly as he searched for the word. “Just be a little less…”
“A little less what?” I asked, confused.
“You know, just not so…” he said as he made a wilting limp wrist gesture.
Now I finally got it. While I was auditioning to play a gay character, I’d done the one thing forbidden as a male-identifying actor: I expressed femininity without shame. The director barely hid his exasperation as my next attempt at the scene was only slightly less feminine. I knew as I left the room that I didn’t get the part, but I couldn’t verbalize exactly why I felt so humiliated.
This encounter came rushing back to me as I watched Fire Island, a queer reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice penned by queer comedian Joel Kim Booster . Much like its source material, Fire Island is a social satire featuring a close-knit family (modeled after the Bennetts, but in this case, a chosen family of five queer men and one lesbian) making their way through a community where money, status, and rock-hard abs are what matters most. Shortly after arriving, the group’s house mother Erin, played by Margaret Cho, lets them know she can no longer afford her house. That makes this their last trip together to Fire Island, the popular gay resort town that lends the film its title. As they reckon with the fading days of their queer youth, the film’s Elizabeth Bennett proxy, Noah (Booster), sets out to help his friend, Howie (Bowen Yang, playing the Jane stand-in) find love. Complications inevitably ensue.
While many of the details are different, the plot remains close to its source material: Fire Island’s gaggle of gays are outsiders in a rarefied society—due, in part, to the fact that the majority of them are people of color—but are determined to find love and make the most of their time together. But the most groundbreaking thing director Andrew Ahn accomplishes with the film is the way it breaks down typical stereotypes of queer male masculinity. Many things separate the haves from the have-nots in this movie, but degrees of femininity is not one of them. By celebrating femininity as a joyful, necessary part of queer life, it imagines a space where queer men are not policed for being their fabulous, flamboyant selves.
Fire Island wastes no time letting us know where it stands on the issue of gender presentation. Shortly after our travelers’ ferry arrives at the island, one particular shot sees the camera focusing in on the black-heeled boots of group member Keegan (Tomás Matos), who provides commentary and comic relief while attached at the hip to his best friend, Luke, played by Matt Rogers. As he parades around proudly in heels, crop tops, and skimpy swimsuits, no comment is ever made about the way Keegan dresses. The film simply allows him to be himself, without shaming him for it. There’s a great scene that highlights this distinction: Keegan and Luke—the Kitty and Lydia of this story, for those keeping track—loudly raid the fridge at a party, and their faux pas is not that they’re effeminate but that they're being tacky in a house full of strangers. They even bring cheese into the hot tub, and who does that?
Internalized homonegativity—the way gay people absorb societal shame regarding their sexuality—is notably absent throughout Fire Island. Instead, the movie boldly envisions a universe where the opposite is true: one in which effeminacy is powerful and buttoned-up masculinity makes you the odd man out. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, protagonist Noah and his friends play “Heads Up,” a cell phone game in which participants have to guess a word or phrase based upon clues their teammates feed them. Will (Conrad Ricamora, the Mr. Darcy of this story) is tasked with guessing Marisa Tomei and finds himself increasingly befuddled as the room feeds him enthusiastic imitations of her character from My Cousin Vinny: a brash New Yorker with enough hairspray to punch a hole in the ozone layer. He can’t come up with the answer, much to the chagrin of those around him. Will, who doesn’t understand queer culture and appears to have little interest in it, commits a social sin even graver than jacuzzi queso: He doesn’t know his gay icons.
By celebrating femininity as a joyful, necessary part of queer life, it imagines a space where queer men are not policed for being their fabulous, flamboyant selves.
Fire Island’s lack of femme-shaming is revolutionary when considering that Hollywood typically deploys effeminate gay men as an easy punchline. Examples are almost too numerous to name, although a small sampling includes Wedding Crashers, Think Like a Man, The Producers, Legally Blonde, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Sausage Party, Waiting for Guffman, and Revenge of the Nerds. Scary Movie finds Shawn Wayans portraying Ray, a closeted man in extreme denial about his sexuality even as he struts around in a crop top. (His name even rhymes with “gay,” get it?) The intended reaction is mockery and even revulsion: In Rush Hour 2, Jeremy Piven plays a flamboyant stylist who flirts with Chris Tucker’s LAPD detective, who is so repulsed by the very idea of a gay man touching him that he recoils in horror.
These characters are frequently demonized—Ray is revealed to be a serial killer in Scary Movie’s final reel—or overtly punished for their gender presentation. One particularly heinous example of the latter is the Mel Gibson–directed Braveheart, in which King Longshanks (Richard McGoohan) disposes of his son’s lover by throwing him out a window with no remorse. The curly haired paramour falls to his death, leading young Prince Edward (Peter Hanly) to attempt to stab his father, feebly, before being disarmed with a slap. LGBTQ advocacy groups like GLAAD protested the scene’s inclusion and yet the Academy Awards still rewarded Gibson with two Oscars.
Even attempts to bring greater humanity to a character often described by queer film scholars as the “sissy” have been met with mixed results. In The Birdcage, Albert (Nathan Lane) protests being treated by others as if he’s something to be ashamed of. “I know who I am,” he tells his longtime partner, Armand (Robin Williams), during a climactic scene in which Albert asserts his right to his femininity. “It’s taken me 20 years to get here.” And yet the film wants to have it both ways, deploying Albert as a human sight gag, perhaps most famously in a scene where he attempts to imitate John Wayne’s trademark walk and adds a bit too much flourish. While Sean Hayes brings real heart to his performance as Jack McFarland in Will and Grace, flamboyancy is essentially Jack’s entire character. The show rarely lets viewers see Jack as anything else, and he doesn’t get the same agency or depth as his more “straight acting” neighbor, the titular Will (Eric McCormack). Jack is just a sassy sidekick.
What hurts most about these messages is that they aren’t just a product of Hollywood. Just as that director showed me that I would only be employable if I were less myself, they are just another version of what I've been hearing my whole life: that I’m not deserving of love or worthy of a full life, just an object to be trotted out to the sound of a laugh track.
Watching the karaoke scene in Fire Island, I had hope that the society around me may finally be changing. In a particularly transcendent scene that fully embodies the film’s rendering of queer joy, Howie sings “Sometimes,” the 1999 single from pop legend Britney Spears, at karaoke with the help of back-up vocals from his friends. Every over-the-top leg bevel and imitation of Britney’s vocal runs is celebrated by a cheering audience that loves them because of how beautifully, wonderfully gay they are, not in spite of it. That moment represented all I ever wanted: to be celebrated for everything I am and everything I have to offer the world. I’m still searching for that validation, but for now, envisioning the possibility is enough.
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