The -private- photos of Marie Høeg & Bolette Berg

A friend this weekend directed my attention to the this tweet thread by Ann Louise Avery, in which Avery recounts the story of Marie Høeg and Bolette Berg. The two Norwegian photographers worked at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. I have been unable to stop thinking about these remarkable women since.

Høeg and Berg owned and operated a commercial photography studio. According to the Preus Museum, they took portraits, and photographed life and naval operations in their hometown, Horten, Norway. What marks the two today, however, is not the work sold to the public, but a series of glass negatives that were found in a barn in the 1980s that were marked “private.”

The private photos reveal a studio transformed from commercial portraits into a wonderland of queer photography, where Høeg and Berg played against norms of gender in delightful and subversive ways.

I have little more to add to the commentary on these images other than to say, I hope you spend some time with them, and revel in the powerful, playful world of Høeg and Berg.

 

 

 

The collection is at the Preus Museum in Horten.

 

A year of queer cinema

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I’ve been searching for a way to organize 2019 as a year dedicated to queer cinema. It hasn’t been easy to find a pre-existing catalogue of queer film art, other than a one-at-a-time search and find.

So, in the spirit of randomness, I’ve decided this list from Time Out London, called The 50 Best Gay Movies: The best in LGBT+ filmmaking, shall be the primary principle. It’s structured as a countdown of “the best” in queer filmmaking, but as I have no real interest in pitting art against art, I’m approaching it instead only as a collection of sign posts through the history of LGBTQ cinema. It’s neither comprehensive, nor dictating.

Anyway, please tell me what’s missing.

Here is Time Out’s list. I reorganized the films alphabetically because I mean it: art making is not a competition.

120 Beats Per Minute – 2017
All About My Mother – 1999
Bad Education – 2004
Beautiful Thing – 1996
Blue is the Warmest Color – 2013
Bound – 1996
Boys Don’t Cry – 1999
Brokeback Mountain – 2005
But I’m A Cheerleader – 1999
By Hook or By Crook – 2001
Call Me By Your Name – 2017
Death In Venice – 1971
Edward II – 1991
Fellini-Satyricon – 1969
Fox and His Friends – 1975
God’s Own Country – 2017
Happy Together – 1997
Heavenly Creatures – 1994
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – 2001
High Art – 1998
Longtime Companion – 1989
Ma Vie en Rose – 1997
Maurice – 1987
Midnight Cowboy – 1969
Moonlight – 2016
My Beautiful Laundrette – 1985
My Own Private Idaho – 1991
Orlando – 1992
Pariah – 2011
Paris Is Burning – 1990
Parting Glances – 1986
Pink Flamingos – 1972
Pink Narcissus – 1971
Pride – 2014
Scorpio Rising – 1964
Show Me Love – 1998
Stranger Inside – 2001
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert – 1994
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant  -1972
The Boys in the Band – 1970
The Children’s Hour – 1961
The Hours – 2002
The Kids Are All Right – 2010
The Killing of Sister George – 1968
The Terence Davies Trilogy – 1983
The Wizard of Oz – 1939
Theorem – 1968
Transamerica – 2005
Un Chang d’Amour – 1950
Weekend – 2011

Speech, Gender, Catcher.

Mary Beard wrote this in her brief, vigorous manifesto Women & Power:

“Public speech was a — if not the — defining attribute of maleness. Or, to quote a well known Roman slogan, the elite male citizen could be summed up as vir bonus dicendi peritus, ‘a good man, skilled in speaking.’ A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.”

Beard’s assessment of western art and history finds that speech, the act itself, is by default a male act. Silence, in public at least (but preferably in private too) makes a woman a woman.

Beard’s words, like every spark that enters my mind of late, penetrated slowly but persistently through my transitioning identity. This transition most notably occurs externally via my body; but of course everything else that is Leigh undergoes the transitioning process. Including my own memory.

And so reading Beard sent a ping into my hippocampus (thanks, Dr Christine Blasey Ford), which surfaced a long past memory of my own interaction with speech, and silence.

When I was a boy, specifically a teenage boy, I was one of those very common brand of boys that loved The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s book spoke to me and I have a copy, in my hands at this moment, that is worn, weathered, an annotated through and through. From ages sixteen to twenty, I read the book countless times, and marked the margins continuously. The memory evoked by Beard was this: my sophomore year of college I loaned my copy of Catcher to a friend, a private act that was to me as intimate as sharing a diary. She noted one annotation that stood out, and asked why I might think as I did and if I was, really, okay.

First, the passage. It’s towards the end of the book, when 16-year old Holden is spiraling nearly out of control, and is looking for dramatic exits from his life:

“What I’d do, I figured I’d go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I’d bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I’d be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody’d know me and I’d get a job. I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people’s cars. I didn’t care what kind of job it was though. Just so people didn’t know me and I didn’t know anybody. I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life. Everbody’d think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they’d leave me alone. They’d let me put gas and oil in their stupid cars, and they’d pay me a salary and all for it, and I’d build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life. I’d build it right near the woods, but not right in them, because I’d want it to be sunny as hell all the time. I’d cook all my own food, and later on, if I wanted to get married or something, I’d meet this beautiful girl that was also a deaf-mute and we’d get married. She’d come and live in my cabin with me and if she wanted to say anything to me, she’d have to write it on a goddam piece of paper, like everybody else. If we had any children, we’d hide them somewhere. We could buy them a lot of books and teach them how to read and write by ourselves.”

Reader, how does that passage strike you? This is the vision of a boy wanting to escape life. Does it strike you as depressive? Concerning? Holden’s story is that of expulsion to institutionalization after all, and this vision comes only pages before he will bottom out at the sight of some school graffiti, and end his whole story with this advice: “don’t ever tell anybody anything.”

I can’t account for how this fantasy is read by any other reader in the history of this too-often read book. But in the margins of my copy, it says this: img-1961.jpgThis is the life. Holden’s fantasy for escaping the world and its unbearable hypocrisies and failures is built entirely on the abandonment of speech. In silence, escape. Put in Beard’s terms, Holden views his liberation as an abandonment of his masculinity. Giving up the act of speech is giving up the embodiment of man-ness. How queer.

In my copy, on the previous page, there are also multiple colored underlinings of this sentence: “That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody.” Red, green, and blue lines underscore that one. No more stupid, useless conversations with anybody.

Beard’s book triggered in my memory the confusion my friend expressed to me when she read this marginalia. This is the life?, she said. Why?

I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t really know.

Later, in college and for about a year afterward, I told people, out loud, without irony, that I wanted to be a monk. I would take a vow of silence, and a vow of celibacy, and cloister myself for the rest of my life in some monastic community where I could work the land and read and write and drink whiskey (this fantasy was inspired in no small part by Thomas Merton). In this silent life, I would never again have to travel through the mundane world of conversations and small talk and performing normal interactive person-to-person engagement with the world.

Contemplation, instead, would be my life’s objective.

The motivation behind this impulse never seemed clear to me, but this remains an undeniable on-the-record part of my life: for years, I wanted to escape speech. I still, if that friend asked, couldn’t explain why.

But hindsight provides a lens. Queering my youth, my memory, I can’t help but wonder if what Beard is saying about speech and gender wasn’t incubating in my mind, permeating even as my behavior overcompensated in masculinity. Because even as I longed for silence, I spoke. Too often. I happily partook of my privilege in the classrooms and communities I inhabited. But I also sought a way out of it, permanently.

Anyway. I never took a vow of silence. Never abandoned speech. Instead I abandoned masculinity.

 

The Queerious Case of Severus Snape

Albus Dumbledore, J.K. Rowling has told the world, is gay. She didn’t include this information explicitly in her books, but laid some hints here and there, allowing Rowling to reveal, after the books were the biggest book phenomenon of all time blah blah, the true identity of Albus Percival Wolfric Brian Dumbledore.

That Dumbledore is gay is historic for queer representation. Kind of. I mean, the fact that he is gay but that he is not gay in the novels has always felt a bit like a copout. Metaphorical queer representation (think The X-Men, or, like, most of Harry Potter) has been wonderful and important in movement history. Literal representation, though, is qualitatively and quantitatively different. Rowling was able to tip-toe her way towards the line of having an actual gay man in her books, but didn’t, for whatever reason (no judgment here) go all the way.

So it goes. We’ll see what happens in Fantastic Beasts on that front, I guess.

As I think about the ways queerness extends into and beyond gender and sexual orientation, I’ve thought a lot about the one a character in the H.P. series who does embody literal queerness. And that is Professor Severus Snape. When it comes to representation of queer anti-heteronormativity, and explicit non-participation in straight life, no one comes close to Severus.

Think about it. Severus, as far as the books and films are concerned, never had a romantic relationship with anyone. He was an outcast in his youth, and in his adulthood  chose complete separation from the world. He has zero personal relationships. He has no friends, no partner; there’s never a mention of his feelings for anyone save his long murdered high school crush. The sum total of his emotional capacity appears to have been given to Lily, who rejects him for the ultra-hetero douche bag, the very man who led the bullying of Snape in school, James (the worst!) Potter.

The heteronormative system that dominates culture depends on only three necessary values. 1. Gender essentialism (males, females) 2. Marriage (straight marriage) and 3. reproduction (make babies). Of course, het-cis norm structures are vastly more complicated than this; their reach seemingly endless and unstoppable. They hold up patriarchal systems, governments, religions, and within these systems they find countless forms of exclusion and rejection for any individual that falls outside of the key hetero norms.

But, in my view, the whole goddamn system boils down to just those three values: Men and Women, Marriage, Babies. (Homonormativity, a more recent and complicated development of / for the LGBTQ community, participates in two of these three, and has some similar, yet not nearly as damaging, norms).

Snape values none of the core hetero norms. We have no inclination that Snape values emotional connection, let alone partnership, let alone marriage. We have no reason to believe he has ever had sex. The two primary relationships of his life are with Dumbledore, whom he doesn’t seem to like but has used to create a secret life, and Voldemort, with whom he makes a lifelong commitment, then breaks it while faking it.

He does not want, or even particularly value children (and he’s a teacher!). And yet, in his queerest act, he secretly devotes his life to the protection of the child created specifically as a result of his own rejection. Lily, the only person we know Snape cared for, ever in his whole fucking life, married his tormentor, gave birth to the one, only to be murdered by the same dark wizard that Snape had sworn allegiance too, which led Snape to embody such enormous guilt that gave his life for that same rejection-inspired child. That’s some anti-normative shit, that is.

I don’t know if I’m making the case, here. I don’t know if you’re convinced by Snape’s queerness, but for me, he represents one of the most explicitly anti-normative characters in fantasy. Every consequential decision Severus makes–and he makes many, as all individuals with a secret life must–represents the explicitly queer rejection of het-cis norms.

Young people’s literature needs more Snapes.

 

Andrea Gibson comes to town; I shall die (with squeals).

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Favorite tour shirt ever. @marylambertsing

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Tomorrow, Andrea Gibson, queer poet and object of my distant/lyric adoration, will be in Minneapolis on a release tour for their new book, Lord of the Butterflies. I’m attending this event, and will be happily releasing any restraints I may have placed over the 16 year-old girl currently emerging from my chest, who waits impatiently today for the chance to squeal with delight in their presence.

To be sure, the 16 year-old girl to which I’m referring, she is real. I love her, and she is me. Perhaps it’ve been better if a more age-appropriate girl emerged from the depth of my soul or tummy or wherever she was, but here I am regardless, enduring the slings and arrows of finally coming out as the genderqueer trans femme I didn’t even know I was waiting to be.

For much of my adult life, I was happily straight, happily married and in love, though carrying within me a potato sack of denial about what I did in fact know (I was not a hetero boy). That denial was released when I came out as gay; only to immediately confront something I did not know (I was not entirely a boy).

The comparison has been made by many LGBTQ folks, but in case you’re not reading the queer writers of the world, coming out as an adult is very like entering a second adolescence. In my case, coming out in my mid- (or late? is 36 mid or late?) thirties, I’ve found the emergent experience of second adolescence to be highly disorienting.

Great effort did it take me, getting from in the closet to out of the closet. First, just to myself, then to my first secret-keeper, then eventually to others, only to go back to the first person to come out again, this time with a more precise notion of my identity, with additional details culled from my therapist and shared with the unwarranted confidence of youth…it’s all very much like being in high school again.

I wonder not infrequently why this pubescent teenage mindset must set upon the newly queer folks of the world. I wonder how it relates to becoming the Responsible Queer Advocate I imagine myself being. I mean, I’m a parent. I love being a parent. Can I also be an emotional adolescent, prone to the common mistakes of 16 year-olds, throwing on-and-off identities like vintage skirts?

Obviously, the answer is yes. And the feeling, while admittedly taxing for the people around me, is also intoxicating. Just thinking about hearing Andrea Gibson tomorrow moves me. I hope that the piles of tears I’m waiting to shed provide me even a pittance of the emotional depth of the teenage heartbreaks this girl never got to feel. Intoxicate me now.

Boys, Erased

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Me at Fernbrook Elementary School, circa 1988-89

Heading out to see Boy, Erased today. Long overdue but its release has been weirdly limited in MSP and also, I’m busy. And lazy. Anyway, it got a wide release over the holiday weekend so off I go.

I read Garrard Conley’s memoir last year, and, while our personal stories have little in common, the markers of our lives are quite similar: queerness, gayness, religion, fear of parental rejection, actual parental rejection.

Conley was an Evangelical Christian when he was forced out of the closet in college, by the very person who sexually assaulted him. The son of a preacher and a faithful believer himself, the conservative religiousness of Conley’s community was used as a weapon to, well, attempt to erase him.

I, on the other hand, got close to the idea of coming out as a teenager. But confronted with the reality of

a: not knowing what the heck my deal was, and
b: having to come to out to my dad,

I  retreated. I’m talking a deep retreat, into the religious conservatism that was weaponized against Conley, and so many other LGBTQ young people. I became a Christian. A born-again Evangelical for the rest of high school; then, for about ten more years, just your run of the mill midwestern progressive mainliner.

Garrard’s faith, family, community, all tried to erase his queerness with the horrific programs of conversion therapy. I attempted to erase it myself, with evangelicalism.

It would be another twenty years before I figured out enough of my deal to come out (still mining the depths, but getting deeper daily). And the act, coming out, turned my world inside out even at 36 years old. Conley, at 19 or so, was pushed out, into the fire, and had his own resulting traumas. Which is just to reiterate the uncontroversial but crucial point, that the stories of LGBTQ folks finding their place in the American cultural and religious landscape are all unique, but many of the brands we’ve been burned with are the same.

More:
Listen to Radiolab’s podcast series on conversion therapy, UnErased.
Listen to Garrard Conley on Cameron Esposito’s show, Queery.