Unapologetically Inaccurate

Freddy Mercury, as portrayed by Rami Malek, waves to the crowd during Queen’s triumphant, supposedly redemptive Live Aid performance

If you only read this blog, you wouldn’t have any clue what “The Aisle Seat” is because I didn’t ever say that I started writing a column for Anthropology News about film and culture and … stuff. It’s monthly for a year, and it’s enormously fun. The Captain Marvel piece was my second. My first was about Bohemian Rhapsody, which is such a problematic film. This is how it starts:

On Sunday, Rami Malek won an Academy Award for portraying Freddy Mercury in the extremely popular Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. In his speech, Malek made the case for the film’s progressive depiction of minorities: “We made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself. The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this.” Many people might quibble with this as “proof.” I doubt a film simply about a flamboyant queer Parsi would have reached the same audience as one about the front man of the band that recorded some of the world’s most iconic rock songs, including the one the movie is named after. And I doubt Queen would have been as successful in the 1970s and 1980s if Mercury hadn’t changed his name from Farrokh Bulsar, remained in the closet, and hidden his AIDS diagnosis until just before his death in 1991. (This may seem “unapologetic” of him, but I’d argue it isn’t a good thing.)

Read the rest here.

A tame Tom of Finland

I can’t remember the first time I saw one of the drawings by Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland. It’s as if they were already in my head, iconic of gayness and man-ness, when I came out in 1992. I’d been titillated by some of the drawings of superheroes in the comic books I loved as a teenager, but Tom of Finland’s work was wonderfully, deliciously pornographic to me. His work and that of his imitators did the same for men all over the world, thus its omnipresence. Those barrel chested, bubble butted, leather clad men smoking and showing off gargantuan packages in their jeans were everywhere, from murals in gay bars to illustrations in magazines to magnets on refrigerators. After I read up on him and saw the quite good documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy, it’s never been clear to me if he was just drawing the uniform, biker, military and leather fetishes of his audience or drawing his own kink fantasies and doing it so well that his audience developed their own. I think it’s a little of both: Tom of Finland helped create the visuals of modern gay desire.

To me this is the most interesting thing about Tom of Finland; it’s pretty much unexplored in the handsome, if slight new eponymous biopic directed by Dome Karukoski. The film does the requisite biographical duties and ties Tom’s artwork to the larger progression of gay visibility and gay rights since World War II.

The film begins with Touko gazing longingly at fellow soldiers in the Finnish army and tracks his mostly secret career as an erotic artist and gay man in 1950s and 1960s Finland and Germany to his fame among gay men particularly in the United States in the 1970s. He died in 1991, after AIDS led him to put condoms and safe sex messages in his art. The film equates, simplistically, the creation and possession of his artwork with homosexuality, as the discoveries of his drawings led to arrests, and he showed them to men as pictorial pickup lines. And the film does so tamely, showing very little during the brief sex scenes and when photographing the actual artwork. If you didn’t know how wonderfully explicit Tom of Finland’s art was, you wouldn’t know after seeing the film.

That said, the film is beautifully shot and impeccably acted, stylistically reminiscent of British historical biopics like Iris or The Imitation Game. Tall and angular Pekka Strang plays Tom/Touko as quietly controlled, with rare outbursts of joy or anger, giving us a perfect picture of the pre-Stonewall closet, when every affect had to be managed to avoid detection. Taisto Oksanen is excellent as Touko’s carefully closeted former army officer and friend, and Lauri Tilkanen is Touko’s beautiful longtime boyfriend, who his sister was in love with first. Jessica Grabowsky is his sister, deeply loving but also deeply in denial about her brother’s homosexuality, his real relationship with his roommate and his art. When she does finally see it, she calls it, more or less, smut. And it was smut, but it was gorgeous, hot, iconic, enormously influential smut.

Tom of Finland
Directed by Dome Karukoski
Written by Aleksi Bardy
Starring Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen and Jessica Grabowsky
Not rated
Opens at Landmark Ken Oct. 27

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

An essential document for our collective queer history

Marsha P. Johnson was at the Stonewall Inn when the police raided the bar June 28, 1969, and she helped start the riots that mark the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. She was a beloved fixture in Greenwich Village for 30 years; she co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, modeled for Warhol, protested with ACT-UP and performed cabaret in a troupe of drag queens. Born Malcolm Michaels, she arrived in the Village in 1963, started going to drag balls, and took on the name Marsha; she said the Johnson was taken from Howard Johnson’s and the P was for “Pay it no mind!” Hilarious, generous, rebellious and erratic, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. The circumstances of her death were extremely suspicious, but the New York police did little to investigate, even after her friends led a march to protest their inaction.

Twenty-five years later, the remarkable Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson tells much of Marsha’s story while it follows Victoria Cruz, a trans woman working at the Anti-Violence Project in New York, as she tries to reopen the case. Directed and co-written by David France, the film also examines, in almost as much detail, the life of Marsha’s close friend Sylvia Rivera, who was also at Stonewall and co-founded STAR while becoming a legendary gay and trans rights activist.

It’s not clear why France chose to change the title of the film from Sylvia and Marsha; when he was asked about it at Outfest this summer, he didn’t explain what happened. This somewhat confusing focus is my only qualm with the film, which like France’s Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, combines rarely scene archival footage with insightful, sometimes disturbing new interviews. While it doesn’t end with the gut-wrenching reveal that Plague did, Marsha’s power also comes from the intimacy of long sequences of domesticity that France and his team suture between old news footage and video of protests. One clip shows a Marsha giddily trying on dresses in the apartment she shared for decades with Randy Wicker, while another shows a middle-aged Sylvia yelling at police trying to tear down the homeless encampment where she was living.

Cruz’s narrative connects Marsha and Sylvia’s complicated life stories to a present that is in many ways much less hostile to trans women and but in more ways still deeply trans- and homophobic. She hits road block after brick wall, but like Marsha and Sylvia, Cruz is resilient and righteous, even if her personality and methods are much more subdued. There’s a great deal that is upsetting in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, from the daily physical and psychological violence to the injustice continuously perpetrated by the police. As importantly, there is also great inspiration in their heroic and brave determination.

Though their stories have been underemphasized when not being erased, trans women, especially trans women of color, were essential to Stonewall Riots and to the dynamic, messy, shockingly successful movement that came after. After Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall was rightly lambasted two years ago for focusing its story on a fictional middle-class white boy, I expressed hope that the film that would eventually become The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson would help correct the record. I think it does, becoming an essential document for our collective queer history.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Directed by David France
Written by David France and Mark Blane
Featuring Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Victoria Cruz
On Netflix

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

On the effects of cultural discourses of addiction

If you’re not one of my Facebook friends, you may not know what’s going on in my non-film-critic professional life. I’m an anthropologist, remember? So: I finished my dissertation on the effects of cultural discourses of addiction on meth-using HIV-positive men who have sex with men San Diego, received my doctorate in anthropology from UCSD in June of 2013, immediately started a post-doctoral fellowship focused on HIV prevention research at UCLA, am now finishing that, and, with luck, will be gainfully employed by someone fabulous before July. But, chances are, my readers do know that. Or not. Hard to know.

However, even if you do know that stuff, you probably haven’t had the opportunity to read my fabulous dissertation or, as I do when I get a copy of a friend’s dissertation, check to see if you’re in my acknowledgement section. I was told that it was going to be the most fun to write, and it was, since every other section involved deep thoughts. The acknowledgments just required memory and synonyms for “thanks.” After three pages1, however, I ran out of time and space, and I left a lot of people, places, and things off the list. So, an addendum was in order, but I’ll just footnote that, too, because the main reason for this post to talk about where the research went2.

And since you haven’t read my dissertation — and I doubt more than four people have actually read the whole thing — you probably don’t know exactly what I was doing all that time I lived in San Diego. It’s fabulous, but I don’t suggest you read it. Since I finished the thing, I’ve done a great deal of work on large chunks of it, transforming three of the chapters into articles. Those have all been published now, and now I’m going to give you the 411 on them3.

Survival Tactics and Strategies of Methamphetamine-Using HIV-Positive Men Who Have Sex with Men in San Diego,” PLOS ONE, September 30, 2005.

In this article, two ways that HIV-positive drug users survive under the supervision of law enforcement agencies, community health organizations, and social welfare offices are differentiated. First, strategies are long-ranging and often carefully planned, and they involve conscious utilization and manipulation of bureaucratic processes. Second, tactics are short-ranging and often haphazard, and they are used to survive on daily or weekly bases, with entrenched problems and structural solutions avoided or ignored. Data from three years of ethnographic fieldwork with 14 methamphetamine-using HIV-positive men who have sex with men in San Diego, California is used to expand upon these two categories, explaining the different, often ineffectual, ways these men accessed care, services, shelter, drugs, and companionship. This article also examines the policy implications of taking in consideration these different kinds of survival methods, arguing for intensive client-specific interventions when working with long-term addicts with multiple health problems.

Pride, Shame, and the Trouble with Trying to Be Normal,” Ethos, December, 2015.

Methamphetamine use and HIV are large and intertwined problems in American gay communities. This is particularly so in San Diego, California, where both meth and HIV have been endemic for three decades. Because meth use is associated with not just the spread of HIV and other STDs, but also with petty and violent crime, the public health and law enforcement agencies have responded with substantial, but often ineffective efforts at turning meth addicts into “normal,” “productive members of society.” In this article, I examine the effects of these processes on the subjectivities of 14 meth-using HIV+ men who have sex with men (MSM) who were the focus of person centered ethnographies I performed from 2009 to 2011. All of the participants in my study wanted to be normal, and what constituted normalcy was an American – in both the last 20th century neoliberal and “homonormative” ways – ideal of self-reliance, employment, health, marriage, and home-ownership. This desire for normalcy was not just the product of living in the United States at a particular historical moment, but also it was also influenced greatly by the men’s experiences with recovery programs, the prison system, and healthcare providers, all of which were trying to shape them into particular kinds of subjects, specifically addicts, either active or in recovery. They were taught to narrativize their addiction as moral and medical stories, and their stories tended to end with dreams of a normal future, a future free from pain, frustration, and the gaze of the apparatus. But in their struggle to make that future happen, their emotional options were limited by the anti-meth apparatus: those who failed felt profound shame, those who succeeded expressed great pride in their abilities, and those who hovered in the middle I describe as having “risky subjectivity,” the perpetual constructing and reconstructing, the perpetual struggling to become something else.

Framing Samuel See: The Moral Panic and “Double Epidemic” of Methamphetamines and HIV among Gay Men,” International Journal of Drug Policy, February, 2016.

After being arrested for violating a restraining order against his husband, on November 24, 2013, Yale professor Samuel See died while in lockup at the Union Avenue Detention Center in New Haven, Connecticut. The death received media attention around the world, with readers arguing online about whether See’s death was caused by police misconduct, as his friends and colleagues charged in interviews and during a well-publicised march and protest. When an autopsy revealed that he had died from a methamphetamine-induced heart attack, online commentary changed dramatically, with See’s many supporters rhetorically abandoning him and others describing him as a stereotype of the gay meth addict who deserved his fate. In this article, I argue that this shift in the interpretation and meaning of See’s death can be traced to the discursive structures left by the moral panic about crystal meth in the United States (1996–2008), which comprised within it a secondary moral panic about crystal meth in the gay community and its connection to the spread of HIV and a possible super-strain (2005–2008).

I’m currently revising a fourth piece for a collection of essays on syndemics.

My doctoral research led me to all sorts of places I never though I’d go. One of those places is the American corrections system, a bizarre and awful thing that is in desperate need of reform — and research. And my current work is with recently released HIV-positive MSM and transgender women who were incarcerated at the Los Angeles County Jail. But that’s another post.

Punditry, celebrity, and linguistics

In looking at the last three reviews that I’ve published and forgotten to post here, I realized they were all documentaries. Since I’m only getting published every two weeks now, I’m feeling less of a need to be focusing on what’s big right now and rather on what I think you should see that you probably haven’t heard about. Or that’s the idea anyway.

The Best of Enemies

People stay in their hermetically sealed ideological camps and hear only the echoes of themselves and the people they agree with, and when they interact with others, it is as if they are encountering an invading force of abjectly evil barbarians. Compromise, mutual understanding, and respect are almost nonexistent in our political discussions (and I am hardly innocent in this). Liberals blame Fox News, and conservatives blame the so-called “liberal media,” when neither of them are not just simply calling the other side degenerate idiots. Again, it’s a complicated process, but the fantastic new documentary he Best of Enemies makes the case that demon seed of this horrible situation can be traced to the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. [read the rest]


There were so many terrible things about Amy Winehouse’s death in 2011 at the age of 27. She was arguably the greatest singer of her generation, having produced two instantly classic albums, the jazz album Frank (2003) and the throwback soul album Back to Black (2006). Like those of entirely too many great rock stars who died at 27 – Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain – Winehouse’s death was an artistic tragedy for popular music and its fans. More importantly, it was horrifying, if unsurprising, for the family and friends who adored the magnetic, spectacular, deeply troubled Winehouse. Less importantly, but particularly troubling for me, was how the worst people in the world used Winehouse’s death to express their misogyny, pathological lack of empathy, and judgmental derision for addicts. She was troubled before she became famous, but the celebrity media, fed by its schadenfreude-infected consumers, turned her troubles into disasters and then gleefully covered them until they killed her. In the days after her death, I unfriended a couple dozen people on Facebook, the ones who called Winehouse a skank, a loser, a whore, and deserving of her end. I want them those people, and I want George Lopez, Jay Leno, and every other comedian who mocked Winehouse’s troubles, to see Asif Kapadia’s excellent and disturbing documentary about Winehouse’s life. [read the rest]

Do I Sound Gay

When I figured out that other people were figuring out I was gay, or maybe gay, or maybe just weird, say around the age of 14, I became hyper-vigilant about how I might be perceived by, well, everyone who was close enough to perceive me. Most of it was in my clothes (carefully disheveled instead of carefully dapper), my proclaimed interests (basketball not Bronski Beat), and my physical gestures (unlimp that wrist). When I heard my voice recorded on an answering machine, I was a little bit horrified. The long, dramatic “Hellohhhhh” and the Valley Girl inflection of “Call me?” I wasn’t even trying to be funny. Yes, there was some internalized homophobia, but I was more concerned about detection, about what would happen in my high school social circle if they correctly determined that I was gay. (It happened, and some of them behaved wretchedly.)

I modulated my vowels as best I could, dropped certain references and added others, and kept a watchful eye and ear. This was, of course, exhausting. It seemed to have worked, however. In a way. Before I started my review of David Thorpe’s insightful and excellent documentary about whether there is a gay “voice” Do I Sound Gay? I asked my Facebook friends just that question. Every single straight person who answered, including several I went to high school with, said I didn’t. Several of my gay friends, however, wrote that I speak in such a way that signals to other gay people that I’m gay, but that these signals, they claimed, are rarely picked up straight people. But, it also seems, if I’m excited, I’m really obviously gay. This is not surprising, since I’ve been known to belt “Yaaaaassssss!” in such moments. [read the rest]