Monday, October 21, 2013
Just finished watching Stephen Fry's “Out There,” a two-part BBC documentary. What it's about, exactly, varies situationally. Sometimes Fry says that it's about “being gay around the world,” and it is kind of about that. Sometimes he says it's about trying to understand homophobia. It's not really about that.
I'm sure that my reactions to this documentary are far from typical. The average viewer would probably find a lot of information here that they weren't already familiar with. It's presented in a way that is emotionally impactful, and I was quite happy to find that it almost never made me cringe. Unfortunately, its identity-crisis regarding what, exactly, it's trying to do prevents it from being able to really achieve either of its goals.
A documentary about being gay around the world would need to take us a little deeper than this does, and it would have to focus less on manifestations of homophobia and more on how gay culture differs, and how it is similar, in various cultures. Some discussion of persecution in Russia, and the dangers of being “out” in Uganda would definitely be apropos, but the focus of the documentary would have to lie in giving us a real view of what the gay scene looks like in Brazil and how that differs from the gay scene in Britain. Instead we get a couple of well-known British celebrities wheeled out to make the case for gay marriage and a glimpse of what Brazilian gays look like on Pride day, but we really get very little notion of how life actually looks within those cultures for the average person on a normal day. We would expect to find out about the problems of effeminophobia in hyper-masculinized gay subcultures, about the history of Muslim homoeroticism and its juxtaposition with the extreme homophobia of contemporary political Islam, about...well, ideally about something that I hadn't seen before. We would also get a more balanced picture in which the gay community was not presented as a universal victim-hero beset by the dark forces of homophobia on every side. Queer life would be presented in its fullness, not just its horrific worst contrasted with its airbrushed best.
The more interesting ambition of the documentary is, however, its promise to try to understand homophobia by speaking to those who are most blatantly and publicly homophobic. Stephen Fry is in many ways the perfect person to do this: he's famous enough to be able to get interviews with men like Milonov, he's publicly gay, and he has exceptional interview skills. Unfortunately, he's not quite able to put his feelings and prejudices aside enough to actually do the kind of listening that he claims to want to do. In reality, the best that he can manage in most of the interviews is some degree of basic civility. Now, I am not about to mount my high-horse on this one. My criticism is not of Stephen personally. If I'd just talked to a corrective rape victim, or to the mother of a boy who was tortured and killed in a homophobic attack, and I was sitting down to talk to someone who claimed that such incidents were made up by the gay community as a means of manipulating public opinion, I'm not sure that I would remain as polite as Fry does. There have been situations where I've encountered homophobia on a much, much more trivial scale and have totally lost my cool.
Exculpations aside, I was really excited by the prospect of what Stephen said he was trying to do, and I was disappointed with the results. The idea of a gay man making an honest attempt to get to the bottom of anti-gay sentiment around the world is really interesting. What we get instead is Stephen Fry on a soap-box. Now, it is Stephen Fry on that soap-box, so the soap-boxing is unusually well done, but it does include a lot of the usual anti-religious sentiment, dull appeals to progress, and rainbow-flag waving that tend to make pro-gay films unconvincing to people who aren't already pro-gay. Fry had the opportunity here to make a really powerful film that would deeply challenge cultural homophobia. If he had back-seated himself a little more, had let the data speak for itself and had given the audience more permission to draw their own conclusions it would have been really thought provoking. Unfortunately he just can't resist the temptation to ridicule and moralize.
An example: one of the questions that repeatedly arises is the conflict between gay rights and national identities. This is not a simple issue and it doesn't have pat answers. There are, for example, real reasons why the Western understanding of homosexuality is not compatible with some traditional African cultures, and simply trying to plug our values into those societies by brute cultural force is not a valid or sensible option. The issue of how to integrate queer experience with African values is complicated and requires sensitivity to the fact that Ugandans do not share Western individualistic mores, that this is a highly status-sensitive culture, and that the division between public and private life is constructed completely differently than it is in the US and UK. That doesn't mean that it's okay for Uganda to imprison or execute homosexuals or to wink at corrective rape, nor does it mean that gay men should have to go to secret underground clinics in order to receive care for HIV/AIDS, but Fry's approach, bludgeoning his opponents with Eurocentric narratives about “progress” while snidely deriding African Christianity as a product of cultural imperialism, is not okay either. I get that he's frustrated, but he's taking out his frustration in a way that will get kudos from the folks at home while leaving the Ugandans feeling that they've been misrepresented.
The documentary does cover a lot of really important ground, and a lot of it is covered in a way that is very impactful. It was really helpful to be able to see a Russian lesbian talking about how homophobic violence in Russia has actually played out in her life, to get a glimpse into the lives of India's transgender/transsexual Hijras, to learn that there is actually a guy in Hollywood who will teach young gay actors how to appear straight in order to get work. Raising awareness about the problems that homophobia creates for LGBTQ people around the world is a worthwhile venture, and the use of personal narratives in order to show that homophobic violence is real and that it impacts real people, not just numbers in a GLAAD pamphlet, is highly effective. I just wish that Fry would let us see for ourselves that these are courageous, resilient, sympathetic human beings without feeling the need to tell us so. Somehow having him spell it out makes it feel like propaganda and detracts from the eloquence of their testimonies.
Where it really falls flat, though, are the interviews with homophobic leaders. These have earned a lot of praise from folks who say that Stephen stands back and lets the leaders hang themselves. I think more accurately, he gently guides them into a trap and then allows his audience to enjoy the pleasure of watching them flap around in it. From the perspective of pure moralistic schadenfreude, they're very enjoyable: I mean, who hasn't had the thought that Joseph Nicolosi looks...well let's be nice and use Fry's word, “metrosexual.” And I admit, it really is fun to sit and watch the look on his face when Stephen points it out. But it's not a good kind of fun. It's that kind of pleasure that comes from self-righteous snark and it's exactly the kind of comment that is guaranteed to leave a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who is not already on-side with Stephen's message. The Nicolosi one is the most obvious, largely because the Nicolosi interview is the most calm and rational of the confrontations (presumably because Nicolosi is just a well-meaning quack, whereas a lot of Fry's interlocutors are would-be inquisitors), but there is at least one snide observation or flabbergasted statement of incredulity in almost every one of the interviews. It's manipulative and belies the claim that Fry is there to try to understand.
I think ultimately that Stephen really should have had more faith in the ability of noted homophobes to make themselves look like idiots without leading them on, and I think he should have had more faith in his audience's ability to see what's wrong with their arguments. Simply juxtaposing the accounts of victims with the accounts of their persecutors is often more than enough to make the truth ring clear. All of the framing, the needless interviews with celebrity gays, Stephen weeping with joy at the pride parade, the deconstructions where Fry comments on the interviews afterwards, and the band-standing in front of various LGBTQ groups, serves only to detract. It sends the message “This is a pro-gay propaganda film” and in doing so it guarantees that those who most need to think about these issues will simply dismiss it without thinking at all. I also think that if Fry had really tried to listen, had really and sincerely tried to understand where his opponents were coming from it could also have helped his gay audience to have a more coherent understanding of what drives homophobic culture. As it stands they're left with the same narrative they went in with: homophobes are stupid, ignorant orcs who hate without reason. That's not fair to either side, and it's certainly not going to do much to help forward dialogue, reconciliation, or an end to hate.