Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats” is unquestionably a potent piece of filmmaking.
After a glowing debut at Sundance early this year, it has claimed awards at numerous film festivals, including the prize for Outstanding Screenwriting in a U.S. Feature at Los Angeles’ own Outfest. Now receiving wider release in movie theaters across the country, it continues to garner impressive reviews as it cements its status as the latest darling of indie LGBT cinema.
It’s also at the center of a blooming controversy which threatens to undermine that status.
A gritty, slice-of life drama, the movie documents a fateful summer in the life of Frankie, a closeted South Brooklyn teen who finds escape from his joyless life through anonymous online hookups with older guys he meets online. As the narrative follows his efforts to mask his secret by posturing with hooligan friends and pursuing a romance with a neighborhood girl, it creates an astute portrait of internalized homophobia and the cultural pressure that breeds it.
The critical acclaim is not unwarranted.
Anchored by a breathtaking performance from the beautiful Harris Dickinson (an English actor, though you would never know it from his flawless depiction of a young Brooklyn “bro”), Hittman’s movie is sexy, haunting, and impressionistic. It flows through a series of incidents and encounters with dreamlike detachment; its 16mm cinematography (by Hélène Louvart) creates a sense of disjointed aimlessness with hand-held camerawork, and oppresses our senses with the frequent use of extreme close-ups. The overall effect is to keep us as completely “in the moment” as the film’s protagonist as he floats blithely along towards the inevitable collision of his two worlds.
It doesn’t all work as well as Hittman wants it to. There are stretches when the movie’s meandering pace feels like a test of patience; its narrative is occasionally obscured by its impressionistic visual style; and one has to wonder why, in a film about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality, so much more screen time is devoted to his relationship with a would-be girlfriend than it is to his encounters with other males (no offense to the lovely Madeline Weinstein, who gives a luminous performance as the girl in question).
Ultimately, though, “Beach Rats” wields a cumulative power that grows out of its scattered moments of truth, leaving us with a clear picture of a young man disconnected from his sense of self by his own determination to be what he thinks the world expects him to be. Frankie’s compartmentalization of his sexual identity is less about shame than it is about living up to a role in which he sees himself cast by his community. It’s okay for him to have sex with men, as long as he keeps it separate from his “real life.” Thanks to Ellis’ subtly illuminating performance, it’s clear that his most truthful and authentic self comes to the surface when he is with his clandestine “tricks” – which makes it all the more devastating to watch him betray that self through the actions he takes to hide it.
The film’s insightful observations about such homophobic rationalization- made all the more impressive by the fact that “Beach Rats” is written and directed by a straight woman – are well worth the sometimes slow and rocky journey it takes to reach them, and would normally be reason enough to give it a hearty endorsement.
Unfortunately, ethical questions about the source of its content make such an endorsement problematic.
Though Hittman has stated in numerous interviews that her screenplay for “Beach Rats” was influenced solely by her own memories of growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood depicted in the film, the circumstances leading up to the story’s climax are suspiciously close to those of a real-life incident.
In 2006, a black gay man named Michael Sandy arranged a meeting online with a teen named John Fox. When he arrived, he saw four young men instead of only one and decided to leave; soon afterward, however, he contacted Fox again and arranged to meet him alone for sex. Lured to Plumb Beach, a remote location off the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, he was ambushed by Fox and three of his friends – Anthony Fortunato, Ilya Shurov, and Gary Timmins – who planned to steal the marijuana he had promised to bring along. Sandy fled onto the Parkway, pursued by Fox and Shurov. The latter shoved him into the path of a moving vehicle, which struck and killed him. All four teens were later convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime.
The events which transpire in Hittman’s movie do not play out exactly the same way; there is no overt depiction of a killing, although the outcome is deliberately ambiguous. Nevertheless, the specifics leading up to them – along with numerous other factual parallels that are woven into the film’s entire structure – are so similar to the highly publicized case as to raise the eyebrows of New Yorkers who remember it.
The climactic scene was even filmed, in part, at the same location where the real-life incident took place.
One detail which is glaringly different, however, is the fact that Michael Sandy’s equivalent character in “Beach Rat” is a white man. It is this factor that has drawn the most objection, particularly in light of a cultural climate in which acute awareness has developed to the “whitewashing” of the stories told in our popular entertainment and the subject of race in general.
For her part, Eliza Hittman has repeatedly insisted that her film was drawn from her own experience and observations; when pressed by Duncan Osborn, a reporter from New York’s Gay City News at an August 27 Lincoln Center screening of “Beach Rats,” she refused to answer questions about the issue – though she clarified in a written statement two days later that she was familiar with the Sandy case (while still maintaining she had not intended to depict it in her film).
It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to draw inspiration from factual events, of course, nor is it unusual for them to change the details to suit the needs of their story.
To do so invites ethical debate about the responsibility of an artist to truth, and opens the door to controversies which may deflect attention from the work itself; but such conversation in itself can often be a pathway to wider awareness, and allows for the airing of grievances from affected parties.
To deny having done so shuts down that discourse; it casts a shadow over the film in question, tainting its integrity no matter the quality of the work or the nobility of the intentions behind it. It also begs the question of “why?”
For the moment, at least, Hittman is steadfast in her denial.
Whether or not we can take her at her word is a matter of personal choice.
Featured Local Savings
Queerceañera: Celebrating LAtinx Heritage Month
Queerceañera is an inclusive take on the coming-of-age quinceañera tradition throughout Latin America and the United States
LOS ANGELES – Get Ready, LA! This September, the Center will host its inaugural Latinx Heritage Month commemoration with Queerceañera (queer-seh for short), an inclusive take on the coming-of-age quinceañera tradition throughout Latin America and the United States.
Hosted by RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 15 alum, Salina EsTitties, our Queerce is a cultural summit and community cotillion rooted in accessibility and unbridled celebration; quinceañeras are often regarded as out-of-reach status symbols, and our event breaks the gender norms and structures of said celebrations. Both vibrant and bold, Queerce will spotlight LA’s richly diverse queer, Latinx diasporic experiences.
RuPaul’s Drag Race México host Valentina will be honored at the event, kicking off a year-long ambassadorship with the Center to uplift and support outreach within the Latinx community. She will sit down for a keynote conversation with Mexican-Native American entertainer, Miss Benny. The duo will be honored for their trailblazing work in entertainment as breakout, culture-shifting nonbinary and trans artists, respectively.
● 5:30PM – Doors + Bars Open
● 6:00—7:15PM – Quince-style cocktail reception and a mixer in our courtyard, and then guests will be escorted into our Renberg Theatre.
● 7:15—8:30PM – Emceed by celebrity host Salina EsTitties, the stage program will consist of show stopping performances, special honoree presentation and keynote conversations with influential figures from the LAtinx community.
● 8:30—10:30PM – Tiempo de Vals — the post-program offers more cocktails and surprise live performance elements in the courtyard for guests to enjoy before dancing into the evening.
ASL provided for the program. Event venue is wheelchair accessible.
Date and time
Friday, September 29 · 5:30 – 10:30pm PDT
The Village at Ed Gould Plaza1125 N McCadden Place Los Angeles, CA 90038
More event + special guest announcements coming soon!
Declared an Icon, John Waters gets Hollywood Walk of Fame Star
His first words as he ascended the podium for the Walk of Fame honor: “Here I am…closer to the gutter than ever”
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – Today, the famed Hollywood Walk of Fame became a little more rainbow than it had been before. With gilded star etchings depicting icons on every corner, the powers that be dedicated September 18th to a man who arguably helped thrust LGBTQ visibility into a culture that was probably not ready at the time to receive it. The modern-day fascists amongst us might even call him a “groomer.”
We call him John Waters.
Waters first arrived in Hollywood in 1970. He parked at Hollywood & Vine and received his first bit of Los Angeles recognition.
He got a jaywalking ticket.
Outspoken and brash, Waters introduced outsider culture and heralded gay and transgender visibility into American cinema when the Stonewall uprising was still a very recent memory. His 1972 film Pink Flamingos was brazenly transgender affirming. It powerfully and glamorously flew in the faces of audiences while trans people only faced marginalization and were stigmatized in the Nixon Viet Nam and Watergate era.
His film Hairspray was first a cult favorite and in later iterations, a hit Broadway musical, and a second mainstream hit movie. It featured LGBTQ characters and a leading character in drag. Waters has also written several LGBTQ themed books including Shock Value and Role Models.
Part of the charm of John Waters is his knack for not taking himself, or any of us, too seriously. His first words as he ascended the podium for the Walk of Fame honor: “Here I am…closer to the gutter than ever!”
“I hope the most desperate showbiz rejects walk over me here and feel some sort of respect and strength,” he said later paying tribute to his greatest inspirations: the underdogs.
Waters dedicated his star to his parents. Pat and John Waters, who had been horrified by his earliest films, but encouraged him to pursue Hollywood none-the-less. “What else could I do?” he mused.
All in all, Waters was “astonished” over the tribute. He thanked Outfest for sponsoring the event and for thinking he was “gay enough to receive it.”
Ever the director, and thinking ahead, he took a moment to make a recommendation for whom he thinks should be Hollywood Boulevard’s next star recipient:
Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin summed up John Waters this way: “John Waters is a national treasure, a unique and original voice in American cinema. His films are subversive, hilarious, and thought-provoking, and they have helped to change the way we think about outsider culture and LGBTQ+ representation.”
Now Waters has his day, and his star, immortalized forever on the famous Hollywood path. We can only hope his effect on American culture, where the “outsider” can stand tall, proves to be as solid.
John Waters Walk of Fame Ceremony:
Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.
He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including The Los Angeles Blade, The Washington Blade, Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more.
He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.
He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] .
Despite Hollywood strikes, a number of queer films, TV shows coming in fall
‘Rustin,’ ‘Nyad’ among season’s highlights
We’re not going to lie: the prospects for our fall entertainment (and beyond) are looking grimmer than usual, thanks to the strikes that have Hollywood’s writers and actors off the job for an indefinite chunk of the future. Sure, there are lots of titles that were in the can and ready to go before the talent walked off the set, but with no certain end date in sight and a union-mandated ban on participation in publicity efforts, much of the ready-to-go content remains in release-date limbo, while prospects for new material being produced anytime soon are pretty much nil.
Even so, we’ve managed to put together a solid list of titles that are officially on the slate for this autumn, and we think it will give you more than enough to look forward to while we all wait for the entertainment industry to cobble together some kind of mutually acceptable agreement that will allow it to get back to work.
The list, by release date, is below.
Cassandro, Sept. 15 (Theaters)/Sept. 22 (Prime Video)
Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, long a queer fan favorite thanks to his roles in films like “Y tu mamá también” and “Bad Education,” stars as the real-life Saúl Armendáriz, a gay amateur wrestler from El Paso who reinvents himself as the flamboyant title character and rises to international stardom as the “Liberace of Lucha Libre” – turning both the macho wrestling world and his own life upside down in the process. Acquired by Amazon even before its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Festival, this wild-and-wooly biopic was directed by Roger Ross Williams, who became the first African-American director to win an Oscar for his 2009 short film “Music by Prudence,” and it has all the earmarks of a “must-see.” Also starring Roberta Colindrez, Perla de la Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, and Raúl Castillo, with special appearances from El Hijo del Santo and Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio (aka Bad Bunny, for those who didn’t know).
Sex Education, Season 4, Sept. 21 (Netflix)
The cast of this runaway UK hit has come a long way since the series debuted in 2019, with the imminent debut of breakout star Ncuti Gatwa as the new titular Time Lord of the venerable cult sci-fi series “Dr. Who” and his appearance, alongside co-stars Emma Mackey and Connor Swindells, in Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster hit “Barbie,” but that’s not enough to keep the whole student body from reuniting for a final season as they join fellow headliners Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson to wrap up the deliciously scandalous storylines that have made this good-natured dramedy about life and sexual discovery in a rural English secondary school a favorite for queer and straight audiences alike. Besides taking us along with its irresistible cast of misfits on a new set of adventures, it features “Schitt’s Creek” star and co-creator Dan Levy in special appearance as a new character – but even without that extra icing on the cake, we would have been ready to click “watch now” the second this one drops. If you’re already a fan, you don’t need our endorsement to bring you on board; if you’re not, we advise you to do a catch-up binge on seasons 1-3 in time to join the rest of us as we enjoy the final batch of episodes from this refreshing, queer-embracing, sex-positive slice of saucy absurdity.
American Horror Story: Delicate, Sept. 21 (FX/Hulu)
The 12th season of Ryan Murphy’s now-venerable and uncompromisingly queer horror anthology series has been, like the preceding installments, shrouded in mystery – though the inclusion of reality star Kim Kardashian in a starring capacity has garnered much publicity, and not a little controversy, due to skepticism about her acting chops. Despite these misgivings, it’s still probably one of the most anticipated entries on this list, the return of a queer fan favorite that – while it may have a reputation for uneven quality, haphazard storytelling, and fizzling out before it reaches the end – continues to draw the kind of audience numbers that has made it a tentpole autumn TV staple for a dozen years and counting. Sure, it’s a guilty pleasure, but we all have our share of those, and when they come in as slick and stylish a package as this elegantly garish and unapologetically campy pulp culture stalwart, who can resist? Also starring series veteran Emma Roberts, with fellow alums Zachary Quinto, Billie Lourd, Denis O’Hare, and Leslie Grossman also coming to the table, as well as Golden Globe winner Michaela Jaé Rodriguez and newcomer to the Murphy fold Matt Czuchry (“Gilmore Girls,” “The Good Wife”).
Dicks: The Musical, Oct. 6 limited/Oct. 20 wide (Theaters)
Comedy legend Larry Charles (“Seinfeld,” “Borat”) directed this outrageously titled and absurdly satirical farce, adapted by screenwriters and co-stars Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp from a stage production they created as members of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. The pair star as two self-obsessed, conspicuously heterosexual businessmen and very close friends who discover they are also long-lost identical twins, sparking a “riotously funny and depraved” plot to reunite their eccentric divorced parents (Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally). Also starring Megan Thee Stallion and Bowen Yang (as God, no less), and teasing the kind of campy, transgressive vibe that marks all the true classics of underground queer cinema, the press for this one touts it as “a queer, hard-R musical comedy which may very well additionally be a future midnight-movie classic.” Frankly, that’s more than enough to earn it a place on our not-to-be-missed list.
Eismayer, Oct. 6 (Theaters/Oct. 10 Digital)
Fans of queer foreign movies can look forward to this Austrian entry, an award-winner at Venice and other prestigious film festivals, from director David Wagner. Gerhard Liebmann stars in the title role, a legendary real-life drill instructor in the Austrian Armed Forces; renowned for his brutal toughness and his uber-macho image, he leads a double life of anonymous sexual encounters with men behind his wife’s back, but when an openly gay new recruit (Luka Dimić) challenges both his authority and his rigid ideas about masculinity, he finds himself drawn into a relationship that will leave “his closeted existence shaken to the core.” A boot camp drama that challenges toxic traditional conceptions of what it means to “be a man” – especially one that is based on a true story – is always welcome, and this one comes with a substantial amount of praise to recommend it. Also starring Julia Koschitz and Anton Noori, it might not be “feel-good” entertainment, but the buzz says it’s worth seeking out for anyone with a taste for raw and uncompromising cinema.
The Matthew Shepard Story: An American Hate Crime, Oct. 9 (ID Discovery)
Just in time for the 25th anniversary of his death, Investigation Discovery premieres a new documentary honoring Matthew Shepard’s life and legacy, featuring interviews from Matthew’s friends and allies, as well as local journalists and community members, and commentary from key celebrity voices deeply affected by Matthew’s tragic story, including Rosie O’Donnell, Andrew Rannells and Adam Lambert. Considered one of the worst anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in American history, Matthew’s shocking murder captured America’s attention and became a turning point in the fight for queer rights, jump-starting a long-overdue conversation about the discrimination, danger, and violence that many LGBTQ Americans face – especially in rural communities – every day, and if we’re being honest, there’s been no shortage of documentaries about it. Even so, this one, which benefits from the perspective granted by time and also casts attention on the progress society has made toward queer acceptance (as well as the work that still need to be done), promises to offer the kind of scope that gives it a relevance beyond simply lamenting the unjust cruelty perpetrated against a young gay man who – like all martyrs – became an unwilling touchstone in the eternal fight against bigotry, bullying, and brutality fueled by hate.
Candela, Oct. 10 (Digital)
Another international offering with a somewhat more exotic premise, this festival-acclaimed thriller co-produced by France and the Dominican Republic is set in the city of Santo Domingo, where the fates of three strangers – a privileged young high society woman, a lonely and alcoholic police lieutenant, and a charismatic cabaret drag performer – are entwined by the death of a young poet and drug dealer on the eve of an advancing hurricane. Directed by Andrés Farías Cintrón and touted as “a Caribbean pop movie,” it’s been noted by advance reviewers for its stunning imagery and visual style, its offbeat and captivating characters, and an “edge-of-your seat” suspenseful plot full of meticulously-crafted twists and turns. Starring Cesar Domínguez, Félix Germán, Sarah Jorge León, Ruth Emeterio, Frank Perozo, Yamile Scheker, and Katherine Montes, you won’t find this one at your local multiplex, but it should be well worth the handful of clicks it takes to queue it up on your VOD platform of choice.
Anatomy of a Fall, Oct. 13 (Theaters)
French filmmaker Justine Triet’s (“Sibyl”) latest film was entered as a competitor for the Queer Palm at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, but it ended up taking the festival’s top prize, the prestigious Palme d’Or. Publicized as “a Hitchcockian procedural,” it centers on a German writer (Sandra Hüller) accused of murdering her French husband, who must prove her innocence at trial with only the testimony of her blind son – the sole witness – to back up her claims. Hüller’s performance has won raves, and the film was a hit when it went to general release this summer in its native France (only “Barbie” topped it at the box office); as for details about the nature of the movie’s queer relevance, you’ll have to find out the details firsthand, because advance press on this side of the Atlantic has remained scrupulously spoiler-free, though Triet has revealed that she drew inspiration from the case of Amanda Knox, who was notoriously accused of murdering her roommate during a trip to Italy. Our verdict is that it will be worth the effort.
Nyad, Oct. 20 (Theaters/Nov. 5 Netflix)
Billed as “a remarkable true story of tenacity, friendship and the triumph of the human spirit,” this high-profile biopic stars four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening as marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who, three decades after exchanging the life of a world-class athlete for a prominent career as a sports journalist, becomes obsessed with becoming the first person to complete the 110-mile journey from Cuba to Florida – known as as the “Mount Everest” of swims – without a shark cage. The screenplay by Julia Cox is adapted from Nyad’s own memoir (“Find a Way”), two Oscar-winning documentarians (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, responsible for the popular and acclaimed “Free Solo”) make their narrative film debut at the helm, and Bening is joined onscreen by two-time Oscar-winner Jodie Foster as her best friend and coach. What else could anyone ask for in a strong, inspirational piece of lesbian-themed filmmaking? Count us in.
Rustin, Nov. 3 (Theaters/Nov. 17 Netflix)
Probably the most high-profile piece of queer filmmaking of the upcoming season is this biopic about the gay Black architect of 1963’s world-changing March on Washington, Bayard Rustin. Starring Emmy-winner Colman Comingo in the title role and helmed by five-time Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe, this ambitious fictionalized portrait of an extraordinary, history-making queer hero shines a long overdue spotlight on a man who, alongside giants like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Ella Baker, dreamed of a better world and inspired a movement by marching. Notably, it also comes from Higher Ground, a production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama, and its August premiere at the Telluride Film Festival resulted in a 100% (so far) approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics who were there to see it. Besides the powerfully charismatic Domingo, the film features an all-star cast including Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey, Michael Potts, and special appearances from Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald.
Season’s best new books offer something for every taste
History, YA, horror and more on tap
Shorter days, cooler temps, and longer nights can send you skittering inside, right? Don’t forget to bring one of these great books with you when you settle in for the fall.
Releasing in September, look for “Between the Head and the Hands” by James Chaarani, a novel about a young Muslim man whose family turns him away for being gay, and the teacher who takes him in (ECW Press, Sept. 10). Also reach for “Cleat Cute: A Novel,” by Meryl Wilsner (St. Martin’s Griffin, Sept. 19), a fun YA novel of soccer, competition, and playing hard (to get).
You may want something light and fun for now, so find “The Out Side: Trans and Nonbinary Comics,” compiled by The Kao, Min Christiansen, and Daniel Daneman (Andrews McMeel Publishing). It’s a collection of comics by nonbinary and trans artists, and you can find it Sept. 26.
The serious romantic will want to find “Daddies of a Different Kind: Sex and Romance Between Older and Younger Gay Men” by Tony Silva (NYU Press), a book about new possibilities in love; it’s available Sept. 12. Historians will want “Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City” by Elyssa Maxx Goodman (Hanover Square Press, Sept. 12); and “Queer Blues: The Hidden Figures of Early Blues Music” by Darryl W. Bullock (Omnibus Press, Sept. 14).
In October, you’ll want to find “Blackouts: A Novel” by Justin Torres (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a somewhat-fantasy novel about a dying man who passes a powerful book on to his caretaker. Look for it Oct. 10. Also on Oct. 10, grab “Love at 350º” by Lisa Peers (Dial Press Trade Paperback), a novel about love at a chance meeting at a baking-show contest and “The Christmas Swap: A Novel” by Talia Samuels (Alcove Press), a holiday rom-com.
You’re just warming up for the fall. Look for “Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date” by Ashley Herring Blake (Berkley, Oct. 24) and “Let Me Out,” a queer horror novel by Emmett Nahil and George Williams (Oni Press, Oct. 3).
Nonfiction lovers will want to find “Dis… Miss Gender?” by Anne Bray (MIT Press, Oct. 24), a wide, long look at gender and fluidity; “Friends of Dorothy: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Icons” by Anthony Uzarowski and Alejandro Mogollo Diez (Imagine, Oct. 10); and “300,000 Kisses: Tales of Queer Love from the Ancient World” by Sean Hewitt and Luke Edward Hall (Clarkson Potter, Oct. 10).
For November, look for “Underburn: A Novel” by Bill Gaythwaite (Delphinium), a layered novel about Hollywood, family, and second chances. It comes out Nov. 14. For something you can really sink your teeth into, find “The Bars are Ours: Histories and Cultures of Gay Bars in America, 1960 and After” by Lucas Hilderbrand (Duke University Press, Nov 21). It’s a huge look at the spaces that played strong roles in LGBTQ history.
And if you’re looking for yourself or for a special gift in December, check out “Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects” by David Evans Frantz, Christina Linden, and Chris E. Vargas. It’s an arty coffee table book from Hirmer Publishers of Munich. You can find it Dec. 20. Also look for “Second Chances in New Port Stephen: A Novel” by T.J. Alexander (Atria / Emily Bestler, Dec. 5) and if all else fails, ask for or give a gift certificate.
Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation
At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion
I didn’t really start listening to rap until my college years. Like many queer Black children who grow up in the closet, shielded by puritanical Christianity from the beauty of a diverse world, I longed to be myself. But the affirming references I could pull from — in moments of solitude away from the wrath and disdain of family and friends — were in theater and pop music.
The soundtrack to my teenage years was an endless playlist of pop divas like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, whose lyrics encouraged me to sashay my hips anytime I strutted through a long stretch of corridor.
I was also obsessed with the consuming presence of powerful singers like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and the hypnosis that was Chaka Khan. My childhood, an extrapolation of Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays spent in church groups, choir practices, and worship services, necessitated that I be a fan of throaty, from-the-stomach singing. But something about the way these artists presented themselves warmed my queer little heart. LaBelle wore avant garde geometric hairdos paired with heavily shoulder-padded blazers. Houston loved an elegant slender gown. And Khan? It was the voluminous red mane that gently caressed her lower back for me.
Listening to rap music in college was a political experience. My sociology classes politicized me and so it was only natural that I listened to rap music that expressed trauma, joy, and hope in the Black experience. However, I felt disconnected from the music because of a dearth of queer representation in the genre.
Nevertheless, groups like Outkast felt nostalgic. While delivering hedonistic lyrics at lightning speed, André 3000 — one half of the rap duo — mesmerized with his sleek, shoulder-length silk pressed hair and colorful, flowing shirts and trousers — a style that could be translated as “gender-bending.” Despite the patriarchal presentation rampant in rap and Hip-Hop, André 30000 represented to me, a kind of rebellious self-expression that I so badly wanted to emulate but couldn’t because of the psychological confines of my conservative upbringing.
My discovery of Outkast was also sobering because it was a stark reminder of how queerness is also often used as an aesthetic in Hip-Hop while actual queer people are shunned, rebuked, and mocked. Queer people in Hip-Hop are like backstage wingmen, crucial to the development of the show but never important enough to make a curtain call.
As Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years since its inception in New York City, I am filled with joy because it’s been half a century of Black people owning their narratives and driving the culture. But it’s fair to ask: At whose expense?
A viral 2020 video shows rapper Boosie BadAzz, famed for hits like “Set It Off” and “Wipe Me Down,” rebuking NBA star Dwayne Wade and award-winning actress Gabrielle Union-Wade for publicly supporting their then-12-year-old daughter after she came out as transgender.
“Don’t cut his dick off, bro,” said BadAzz with furrowed eyebrows and a gaze that kept turning away from the camera, revealing his tarnished diamond studs. “Don’t dress him as a woman dawg, he’s 12 years. He’s not up there yet.”
The responses from both Wade and Union-Wade were a mixture of swift, sarcastically light-hearted, and hopeful.
“Sorry Boosie,” Union-Wade said to an audience during a live podcast appearance at Live Talks Los Angeles. “He’s so preoccupied, it’s almost like, ‘thou doth protest too much, Little Boos.’ You’ve got a lot of dick on your mind.”
Wade also appeared on an episode of podcast, “I AM ATHLETE,” and looked directly into the camera.
“Boosie, all the people who got something to say, J-Boogie who just came out with [something] recently, all the people who got something to say about my kids,” he said. “I thank you because you’re allowing the conversation to keep going forward because you know what? You might not have the answers today, I might not have the answers, but we’re growing from all these conversations.”
This exchange between the Wades and BadAzz highlights the complicated relationship between Black LGBTQ individuals and allies and the greater Hip-Hop and rap genres and communities. While Black queer aesthetics have long informed self-expression in Hip-Hop, rappers have disparaged queerness through song lyrics and in interviews, or online rants like BadAzz, outside the recording studio.
And despite LGBTQ rappers like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lil Nas X, and Saucy Santana achieving mainstream success, much work lies ahead to heal the trauma that persists from Hip-Hop’s history of patriarchy and homophobia.
“‘Progression’ will always be relative and subjective based on one’s positionality,” said Dr. Melvin Williams said in an email. Williams is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University. “Hip-hop has traditionally been in conversation with queer and non-normative sexualities and included LGBTQ+ people in the shaping of its cultural signifiers behind the scenes as choreographers, songwriters, make-up artists, set designers, and other roles stereotypically attributed to queer culture.”
“Although Hip-Hop incorporates queerness in their ethos, ideas, and trends, it does not privilege the prospect of an out LGBTQ+ rapper. Such reservations position LGBTQ+ people as mere labor in Hip-Hop’s behind-the-scenes cultivation, but not as rap performers in its mainstream distribution,” he added.
This is especially true for Queen Latifah and DaBrat who existed in the genre for decades but didn’t publicly come out until 2021. Still, both faced backlash from the Black community for daring to challenge gender roles and expectations.
Lil Nas X also faced backlash for his music video “Montero” with satanic references, including one in which he slides down a pole and gives a character representing the devil a lap dance. Conservatives such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem accused him of trying to scandalize children.
“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am,” Nas X said in a note that accompanied “Montero.” The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
Regardless, “Montero” debuted atop the Billboard 100.
In an article published in “Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society,” scholar C. Riley Snorton posited that celebrating queer visibility in mainstream media could be a problem as this kind of praise relies on artists presenting in acceptable forms of gender and sexuality expression and encourages representation that is “read alongside…perceptions of Hip-Hop as a site of Black misogyny and homophobia.”
In the case of Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 prior to the release of his album “Channel Orange,” his reception was warmer than most queer Hip-Hop artists because his style of music is singing, as opposed to rapping. Because of this, his music was viewed more as R’n’B or pop.
“Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He’s a singer. It’s acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don’t know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine,” rapper Snoop Dogg told the Guardian in 2013. “It’s like a football team. You can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, man, I like you.’ You know, that’s going to be tough.”
So what’s the solution for queer people in Hip-Hop? Digital media.
Williams, the Pace University professor, says that being divorced from record labels allows queer artists to be independent and distribute their music globally on their own terms.
“We witnessed this fact with artists such as Azealia Banks, Cakes Da Killa, Fly Young Red, Kevin Abstract, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, and Saucy Santana, as well as legacy LGBTQ Hip-Hop acts like Big Freeda, DeepDickCollective, and Le1f,” he said. “The music industry has experienced an increasingly mobilized market due to the rise of digital media, social networking platforms, and streaming services.”
“More importantly, Black queer Hip-Hop artists are historicizing LGBTQ+ contributions and perspectives in documentaries, films, news specials, public forums, and podcasts. Ultimately, queer people engaging in Hip-Hop is a revolutionary act, and it remains vital for LGBTQ+ Hip-Hoppers to highlight their cultural contributions and share their histories,” he added.
(Hip-Hop pioneers Public Enemy and Ice-T will headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop, free concerts at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in D.C. on Oct. 6 and 7.)
Lil Nas X Toronto Film Festival appearance delayed by bomb threat
The 48th Toronto International Film Festival had opened on September 7th and runs till September 17th, 2023
TORONTO, Canada – The widely anticipated global premiere of the documentary “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was forced to be delayed after homophobic bomb threat festival organizers said.
The 48th Toronto International Film Festival which opened on September 7 and runs till September 17, was briefly delayed Saturday night after a threat was made according to a TIFF spokesman. Variety reported:
The gala screening was scheduled for a 10 p.m. start at Roy Thomson Hall, one of TIFF’s premier venues. The documentary’s co-directors Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel and editor Andrew Morrow arrived on the red carpet first, posing with fans that lined the entryway. But as their subject, pop superstar Lil Nas X, pulled up in his car to join them, organizers were informed that a bomb threat had been called in and the artist was told to hold, sources told Variety. The threat specifically targeted the rapper for being a Black queer artist, one source added.
In statements to Variety and other media outlets Saturday after the incident, the TIFF spokesperson said:
“Earlier this evening, we were made aware by the Toronto Police Service of an investigation in the vicinity of the red carpet for the ‘Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero’ screening. Our standard security measures remained in place during this time and the screening commenced with a slight delay. To our knowledge, this was a general threat and not directed at the film or the artist.”
A spokesperson for Toronto Police on Sunday said: “Yesterday, at the TIFF, a passerby uttered a threat towards private security,” “Out of an abundance of caution, the Toronto Police and the private security swept the scene and cleared within 20 minutes. The threat was general and did not target any one person.”
'Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero' Review: A Concert Film Captures the Scrappy Grandeur of Lil Nas X Onstage and Reveals Who He Is https://t.co/dqrEOa7boa— Variety (@Variety) September 10, 2023
LIL NAS X: LONG LIVE MONTERO at TIFF 2023 | Q&A with Lil Nas X:
‘Funny Girl’ at 55: still ‘gorgeous’
Pay attention to the love and craftsmanship that William Wyler put in
It’s a paradox that the Hollywood system, which spent decades erasing anything that seemed remotely “queer” from its product, could also be responsible for one of the most essential movies in the queer film canon – but it was.
It could be considered even more remarkable this could have happened with a movie utterly devoid of explicit (or even implied) queer content – and still, it did.
Of course, the movie we’re talking about – “Funny Girl,” which celebrates the 55th anniversary of its release on Sept. 19 – did feature Barbra Streisand, but while the multi-hyphenate megastar may have had her share of queer fans before the film was made, it was her stunning big screen reprisal of the Broadway role she had originated that was arguably responsible for turning her into a queer icon in the first place.
Revisiting the film today, it’s impossible not to recognize the absolute, world-shifting power of Streisand’s performance. In playing real-life Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice onstage she had found the perfect match of performer to material; like Brice, she was a talented “ugly duckling” with Jewish immigrant roots and a determination to achieve her dreams, and the obvious parallels in their backgrounds — combined with her remarkable gifts as a singer and actress, of course — brought enough authority and authenticity to her performance to literally make her an overnight Broadway sensation. In translating that performance to the screen four years later, she became a superstar, already well on her way toward a groundbreaking future as one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry.
Still, a generation of gay men didn’t embrace Streisand, or her debut screen performance, simply because she seemed almost supernaturally talented, nor did they do so out of solidarity with a feminist cause; as with most queer cultural touchstones of generations past, “Funny Girl” became iconic to the gay community not so much because of what it (or its star) presented on the surface, but because of an unmistakably universal subtext about the struggle of being an outsider in a world that devalues going against the grain. The experience of Fanny Brice, as an “unbeautiful” performer in a sea of classically lovely showgirls, was – in the mind’s eye, at least – not too far removed from that of countless queer people who yearned to shine without having to pretend to be something else; combined with the unstoppable force of Streisand’s charisma, her story became not just relatable, but empowering. Already well-accustomed to identifying vicariously through “straight” narratives in the movies, gay men could easily make the leap to seeing themselves reflected in this one, and thanks in no small part to the irrepressible persona of its leading lady, they liked what they saw.
There are other elements that strike queer chords, too, such as the undeniable appeal of the movie’s plot, a show-biz melodrama about a doomed backstage love affair that bears only marginal similarities to the real-life story of Brice’s relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein; he’s a suave “bad boy,” and their attraction simmers with the kind of “forbidden” chemistry that comes when we feel the spark of passion with somebody we’re not supposed to. That makes it irresistible, of course, and it doesn’t hurt that Arnstein is played by the impossibly attractive Omar Sharif, who had already embodied a subtextual queer romance onscreen opposite Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Besides that, the story’s theatrical setting naturally evokes rumination on the challenge of making “the show go on” even when our private worlds are falling apart, which had perhaps even more resonance with gay people accustomed to “keeping up appearances” in their closeted lives in 1968 than it does today.
But all these threads can be found in countless movies, going back to the earliest days of the art form, and though some of them may have earned a place on the list of queer-favorite classics, few are held up as high as this one – and while the Streisand magic is part of the reason why, it was the man behind the camera who captured it on film.
By the time he directed “Funny Girl,” William Wyler was a Hollywood legend. He rose to prominence making westerns in the silent era and went on to hone his mastery of filmcraft in a career that covered almost every genre; he had helmed three Oscar-winning Best Pictures, earned eleven nominations for Best Director, and was renowned for his ability to coax career-topping performances from his actors. Indeed, many of them won or were nominated for their own Oscars for appearing in his films – including Audrey Hepburn, who won for her film debut, his 1953 rom-com “Roman Holiday.” What he hadn’t done, yet, was make a musical – and though hearing loss made him doubt his ability to direct one, he recognized Streisand’s raw potential and was excited by the chance to guide another talented performer to stardom. He took the job.
The decades of accumulated experience he brought to it are evident in every frame of the film. The imagery is artfully shot, flawlessly composed, and endlessly beautiful to look at; awash in a mix of soft pastels and vivid pop colors, it seamlessly merges old Hollywood with new, blending long-practiced styles and techniques with the intuitive vibrance of contemporary filmmaking – something particularly notable in the handling of the musical numbers, which vary from the elaborately stagebound Busby Berkely-inspired Ziegfeld Follies numbers to the expansively cinematic (and still-breathtaking) helicopter shot of Streisand singing on a moving train in “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Perhaps more important than any of his visual stylings, his instincts for character-driven storytelling allow him to combine the nostalgia of the golden age with the more permissive sophistication that had begun to dominate movies as the old studio system faded into the past – something that Streisand, exuding a more candid combination of vulnerability and sensuality than the screen stars of Wyler’s heyday were allowed, helped to make thrillingly palpable.
It was a fortuitous moment for both director and star, who – both noted for their obsessive perfectionism – reportedly clashed often on the set but established a deep and lasting respect and friendship for each other. Like former Wyler stars Bette Davis and Laurence Olivier, Streisand credited the director for teaching her how to act on film, and while she would go on to deliver other powerhouse performances, she arguably never topped this one. Indeed, she won the Oscar for it, just as Wyler had hoped – and he picked up his own twelfth Best Director nod, a record number of nominations which still stands today.
So, when you celebrate the 55th anniversary of “Funny Girl” by watching it again for the umpteenth time, perhaps it’s worth paying a little special attention to the love and craftsmanship that William Wyler put into it. It might be a vehicle for a breakout star who owns every second of it, but it’s also an impeccably made piece of cinema, which is why it remains iconic for queer audiences even in an era when direct queer representation has supplanted vicarious “coded” depictions of queer experience.
Loving the Land Down Under
Australia offers LGBTQ travelers a welcoming and diverse culture
By CHAD MANTOOTH
Having grown up in Kansas, in the middle of the United States, I’ve always longed to see more than the flat, flyover states that are the Midwest.
When I was a kid, my dad was a huge Olivia Newton John fan. She was his Australian heartthrob. Many a school day, I would come home to her music blaring or one of her live concerts in the VCR. And as a young gay boy, I was mesmerized by her as well. She was pretty, sang beautifully, and was from this great land far, far away.
I wondered how this pop chanteuse from Down Under got into my living room. And I always wondered what her homeland of Australia was like. Was it filled with dangerous animals as everyone suggested? Was there something at every turn that could kill me?
To me, it sounded exciting! I’ve always tried to live my life by a Helen Keller quote I heard while in high school: “Lift is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” And it was with that mindset firmly in place that I packed my bags this past spring to visit that mystical Land Down Under.
Australia is one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world, with a progressive culture that embraces diversity and inclusivity. Australia decriminalized homosexuality in the 1970s and legally recognized same-sex marriage in 2017. The country has a very vibrant and dynamic LGBTQ community, and it is a popular destination for LGBTQ+ travelers.
Sydney, the largest city in Australia, is often considered the LGBTQ capital of the country. The city hosts the famous Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, an annual festival and parade that attracts more than 300,000 visitors from around the world. The festival, with colorful floats, music, and performances, has become a symbol of Australia’s commitment to LGBTQ rights and is a must-visit for anyone traveling to Australia.
The parade, beginning with the roar of hundreds of “dykes on bikes,” is truly a sight to behold. The whole country comes to SLAY at this parade! Everyone puts on their brightest colors and outfits for this over-the-top event. It was one of the best (and longest) Pride parades I’ve ever been to in my life.
In 2023, Sydney was home to the 2023 WorldPride festival, and the city rolled out the rainbow carpet for the estimated 1 million-plus people, staging more than 400 events. And when I tell you that this city went over the top — well, that’s a complete understatement. EVERYWHERE I went, EVERYTHING was covered in rainbows — from the city sidewalks to the lighting on buildings, to every employee I saw in every shop with their rainbow pins and buttons. It was like gay was the norm and straight was the minority; it was weirdly fabulous!
Melbourne is another great city for LGBTQ travelers to visit. Aside from being the current home to my favorite pop star, Troye Sivan, the city is known for its vibrant arts and culture scene and is home to a thriving LGBTQ community. The annual Midsumma Festival, a three-week celebration of queer arts and culture, is held in Melbourne and features a range of exhibitions, performances, parties, and other events.
If shopping is your thing, check out the 145-year-old Queen Victoria Market. This open-air market is home to more than 600 small businesses where you can buy everything from Australian fruits and veggies to gourmet food, clothing, and souvenirs. There is literally something for everyone.
What initially drew me Down Under were the lush landscapes and wild animals I saw on TV growing up. The country is home to some of the world’s most stunning natural wonders, including the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback, and the Blue Mountains. LGBTQ travelers can explore these natural wonders through a range of activities, including hiking, snorkeling and even zip lines and hot air balloon rides.
One stop for me was the breathtaking Heron Island, a stunning coral cay located on the southern Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland. It is accessible only by catamaran or helicopter and offers a secluded and pristine escape for travelers looking for a uniquely tranquil experience.
The island boasts world-class snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities, giving visitors the chance to swim among vibrant coral reefs and an abundance of marine life including sea turtles, manta rays and reef sharks, while its sandy beaches provide a picturesque setting for sunbathing and leisurely walks. The island is an also breeding ground for several species of seabirds, including the endangered black noddy tern and the wedge-tailed shearwater, making it perfect for birding enthusiasts.
I spent three glorious days on this piece of paradise and have never felt so relaxed in my life. I got up close with nature — every kind of wildlife you could imagine birds — in a way that I’ve never experienced before and will never forget.
Accommodation options on Heron Island range from eco-friendly tents to luxurious suites, with all rooms offering stunning views of the reef and the island’s lush vegetation. Facilities include a restaurant and bar and well as guided nature walks and reef talks.
If you need a chance for some peaceful rest and rejuvenation, especially after all the excitement of Sydney and Melbourne, Heron Island is the perfect destination. Its remote location and unparalleled natural beauty make it a must-visit destination.
Australia has several LGBTQ-friendly beaches, including the popular Bondi Beach in Sydney. The beach is home to the Bondi Gay and Lesbian Beach Picnic, which is held on the first Sunday of every month and is a great way to meet other LGBTQ travelers.
Food and wine
Australia’s food and wine culture is yet another draw for LGBTQ travelers, offering a range of culinary delights from fresh seafood to world-class wines and unique indigenous cuisine. I know I came back to the states 10 pounds heavier! The cities of Melbourne and Sydney are particularly known for their food and wine scenes, with a range of LGBTQ-friendly restaurants and bars.
Overall, I spent a little more than two weeks in The Land Down Under. I loved it so much that I’ve decided I will definitely be going back to vacation there again, and I might even move there some day. The welcome I felt from the people there is something I will never forget.
Aussies care about their country and the people in it. From the moment I touched down until the minute that I left, I never felt unwelcome anywhere I went.
The country’s progressive culture, natural beauty, and diverse cities make it an ideal vacation spot for LGBTQ individuals and couples. Whether you’re looking to attend a Pride parade, explore the great outdoors or simply relax on a beautiful beach, Australia has something to offer everyone.
So, pack your bags and come and say G’day; you won’t regret it. For more info on traveling to Australia, visit www.australia.com
Chad Mantooth is a writer for the Dallas Voice. This story is courtesy of the National LGBT Media Association.
Intriguing historical novel based on the true story of 1800s lesbian couple
‘Learned by Heart’ by Emma Donoghue a moving read
‘Learned by Heart’
By Emma Donoghue
C. 2023, Little Brown
English landowner, diarist and businesswoman Anne Lister (1791-1840) married her last partner Ann Walker in a marriage ceremony at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York. This is considered by many to be the first lesbian marriage in England, and likely, the world.
Lister, born in a landowning family at Shibden in Calderdale, West Riding of Yorkshire, who’s been called “the first modern lesbian,” is having a moment. In two seasons in 2019 and 2022, “Gentleman Jack,” a riveting series, based on Lister’s diaries, co-produced by the BBC and HBO (streaming on Max), dramatized Lister’s relationship with Walker.
“Learned by Heart,” an intriguing historical novel by Emma Donoghue is based on the true story of the queer relationship of Lister and Eliza Raine. Raine is believed to have been Lister’s first lover.
Much of the novel takes place in 1805-1806, when, at age 14 and 15, Lister and Raine were students at Miss Hargrave’s Manor School, a boarding school for girls in York.
Raine was born in Madras (now Chennai) in India. Her father, who was English, was a surgeon with the East India Company. He and an Indian woman, whom he did not legally marry, had Raine.
In an author’s note, Donoghue writes of a letter of Raine’s that refers to her as having “sprung from an illicit connection.” Another letter calls Raine a “lady of colour.”
Raine is sent to England at age 6. After her father and mother die, she’s left an orphan with a small inheritance.
Through “Gentleman Jack” and her diaries (which are being digitalized), Lister, with her brilliance and charismatic personality, has become a queer culture icon.
Raine is comparatively unknown. Perhaps, for this reason, “Learned by Hand” focuses on Raine’s point of view.
Raine arrives at the Manor School before Lister. Prior to Lister’s arrival, Raine is mousy, rule abiding.
Because Raine’s from India, she sleeps alone in a small room. Aware of unspoken racial bias (against people who are part Indian and part English), she wants to blend in – to stay out of trouble in this school with its many rules. “She’s trained herself to wake at seven,” Donoghue writes, “just before the bell.”
When Lister arrives at the school, Raine’s world and personality are transformed. Lister, known even at this young age for being too smart for her own good, is assigned to room with Raine — isolated from the other girls — in the tiny room they call “the Slope.” Donoghue skillfully illuminates how the girls’ friendship becomes sexual, passionate first love.
One day, Lister and Raine, who call each other by their last names, alone in a church, conduct a marriage ceremony for themselves.
“Learned by Heart” is heartbreaking because its chapters are intertwined with letters that Raine writes to Lister in 1815.
It’s clear from this correspondence that Lister has (and will have) other lovers than Raine. And, that, sadly, Raine is writing from what is then called an “insane asylum.”
As is evident from “The Pull of The Stars,” and her other historical novels, Donoghue has an unerring talent for creating fascinating tales out of true stories.
Unfortunately, as so often happens, Lister, the bad, outrageous girl, is far more interesting than Raine. Raine frequently comes across as loyal, passionate, but too needy and clingy. As Lister’s Barbara Stanwyck to Raine’s June Cleaver.
“There’s nothing noble about Anne Lister…,” Donoghue wrote of Lister in “The Guardian.”
Lister had the sexual ethics of a bonobo, Donoghue continued, “lying to every lover as a matter of policy.”
Yet, Lister is Donoghue’s hero. “Because she looked into her heart and wrote about what she found there with unflinching precision,” Donoghue wrote in her “Guardian” essay.
“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” Lister wrote in a coded entry in her diary on Oct. 29, 1820. (Lister wrote one-sixth of her diaries in code to hide from homophobic eyes.)
“Learned by Heart” is a moving, entertaining read. Raine’s story along with Lister’s should be told. Even the clingy can be unsung heroes.
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A voyage to Iceland, Greenland, Denmark and beyond
Cruise of a lifetime to unforgettable ports of call
By MARK SEGAL
(Mark Segal is publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. This story is courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.)
LGBTQ people like to travel, and like many people they take cruises to see the world or just to relax. It used to be when taking something as personal as a cruise, where you’ll be with people in close quarters and where conversations can be easily overheard, you might have felt uncomfortable to be yourself. Today there are numerous LGBTQ cruises for almost every segment of the LGBTQ community where you can be your fabulous self and party until dawn or more. Among those companies are Atlantis adventures, primarily for men, and Olivia cruises for women. But those companies still comprise only a fraction of available cruise sailings. So, how welcoming are non-LGBTQ cruises?
My husband Jason and I have been on numerous cruises on many LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ cruise lines. For our current trip we booked a cruise on Oceania, a line known for its food (they claim the best food at sea), exceptional attention to detail, and out of the ordinary shore excursions. We chose Oceania once before, and it was above most of the other cruises we’ve done. Another advantage of Oceania is that they do exotic itineraries. Our July cruise started in Reykjavik, Iceland and then proceeded to Greenland, the Shetland Islands, Denmark, and Sweden before ending in Oslo, Norway after a whopping 15 days. We traveled with another gay couple, our friends Klay and Val, who are out and proud like us.
And that really is the heart of the question: How out and proud can LGBTQ people be on a traditional cruise?
On the first night of the cruise, the ship promoted an “LGBTQQIA+ Get Together” in their daily schedule printout. The 4 of us attended along with 3 other couples, though we weren’t the only LGBTQ people on board. Throughout the trip, we met many other LGBTQ people, mostly couples, who also had other cruise experiences. I asked many of them why they picked this cruise over an LGBTQ cruise, as well as how comfortable they felt being out on this cruise.
The overwhelming answer was that people on a cruise, like the general population, gravitate to like minded people, and since everyone’s on vacation it’s easier to get along. Most of them were comfortable being open about their sexuality. Jason and I felt comfortable enough to show our emotions at times and hold hands or put an arm around each other, just like non-LGBTQ couples. It made a larger point for me. Could we have done that a decade ago? The answer is: probably not. So in that regard, traditional cruises pass the comfort level for LGBTQ people. But what about the more nuanced reality of being an LGBTQ person on a cruise with 97% non-LGBTQ people?
Like any cruise, we found ourselves finding our own friends who turned out to be a fascinating lot. One of those was a couple who work at a small college and are developing new ways to be inclusive to LGBTQ students. Another was a retired couple from Seattle, another from Dallas. That’s the secret sauce in cruising, finding the people you get along with and having a nice time.
For all of us, the two factors that led us to this cruise were the itinerary and the reputation of Oceania. Let’s start with the cruise stops.
The departing port of the cruise, Reykjavik, deserves a few days to tour since it has some of the greatest landscapes and wonders on Earth, and if you’re lucky as we were, you will be met by an active volcano. We had arranged 3 days of touring with an LGBTQ tour company called Pink Iceland. There not only is a sizable LGBTQ population in Iceland, but it seems everywhere you go there are rainbows. The country even has had a lesbian Prime minister. It’s one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places on earth.
Our first day we traveled to the south shore and marveled at the raw natural landscape, which looks like something from the moon but is actually dried lava with moss growing atop. The volcanoes and glaciers are everywhere, and with an abundance of volcanoes, you’ll see steam coming up from the ground in certain places. This has translated to natural geothermal power that powers the country, as well as natural glacier water (which tastes better than any bottled water) in every home. Later that day we went to the black beach at Reynisfjara with its basalt rock formation from eruptions thousands of years ago. We also visited and walked behind several waterfalls, and the sunshine meant that rainbows were aplenty. It was wet, magical, and romantic.
Our second day began with an adventurous ATV ride on that moonscape with a stop at a dormant volcano’s top ridge. With me driving, Jason held on for dear life. Afterwards, we spent the afternoon in the world famous Blue Lagoon spa, where there are pools of volcanic minerals and silica that are a color of blue you’ll see no other place on earth. As you soak you can apply those minerals as a face mask. Even though it was around 50 degrees outside, by the time we finished, we were all pleasantly overheated.
Our third day we toured the capital city, which is easily walkable and features a giant rainbow street, and then attended a get-together organized by Eva and Birna, the owners of Pink Iceland, with some local LGBTQ community members, including a member of parliament and a playwright who was the first to come out in his village in western Iceland. The audience was among the most engaged I’ve ever spoken to, and they asked insightful questions and were delightful to engage with. Iceland is a country built on stories (called the Sagas), so the people are keen to learn the stories of others.
After our three days in Reykjavik, we went onto our ship, the Oceania Riviera.
The ship had recently come out of dry dock with a total renovation. The cabin was the most beautiful we’ve ever seen at sea and had ample closet space and a bathroom with a rainfall shower. Our home away from home would be comfy.
Our friends Klay and Val opted for a larger room with butler service. The room had more closet space than some New York apartments, and the amenities were above average. But their butler, as they learned, seemed to have had no understanding of his role and often overcomplicated things.
Iceland is still developing its infrastructure for tourism. Our ship had provided 10 shore excursions, but all were completely sold before we even boarded the ship, including the one we wanted most, whale watching. The fact that shore excursions sell out months before the trip was not fully communicated to us. When we attempted to book 6 weeks before the trip, many ports had no available excursions. Nevertheless, in this small fishing village, left to our own devices we discovered one of the treasures of Iceland, The Tjoruhusid Restaurant. Known to be the most traditional Icelandic food in the country, you still needed a reservation since locals and tourists come from all over for its cuisine. But in true Icelandic hospitality, the staff found room and were kind enough to seat us, and I must admit that while I’m not a seafood eater it was amazing. The buffet meal included a fish soup, five types of fish entrees, including fish throat, which I didn’t know existed, various vegetable combinations, and coffee, biscuits, and chocolate.
After the meal, we took a stroll through the village and discovered that among the fishing boats, fjords, and homes, the town square had a giant rainbow painted down the center. That’s two for two cities in Iceland with rainbow streets.
Our second stop was a small village of about 1300 whose complete economy was fishing and seal hunting. Very few cruise ships have ever stopped there, and for good reason. While there are very few facilities and the infrastructure is sparse, the main problem was that as we approached, the seas were somewhat choppy and we found ourselves in a sea of Icebergs. Before I could suggest to everyone that we all break out into a chorus of “My Heart Will Go On,” the captain stated the obvious: he canceled the adventure in Paamiut. It was not safe to take the tender boats to shore (there was nowhere to dock in a port that small). However, a consolation prize was being treated to a sea of majestic icebergs as we sailed away.
That evening the entertainment and information system in all the staterooms went down. No television, no stateroom information, no map. Not only was the television system down, but the ship’s entire network went down as well. The casinos were out of service, and bartenders and shop staff had to write down stateroom numbers on paper receipts. Getting information about the problem was met with what would become a common complaint on this trip: a lack of communications skills from the staff.
But we moved on to the next port of call, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.
The capital of Greenland, Nuuk, held its Pride celebration the week before we arrived. Discovering small cities with Pride events astonishes me even to this day. We had tried to find a Nuuk Pride T-shirt but since the city is so small (17,000 people) the organizers told me they didn’t have the funds to create merch.
For our excursion for the day, we chose the Fjord Boat Tour, which was majestic. Our boat driver dodged icebergs like a taxi weaving in and out of traffic. When we stopped for a few minutes, the calmness and solitude, being surrounded by ice and mountains, was otherworldly.
Sadly, our driver said that ten years ago, none of the ice in the water was there, and that it has been a result of climate change and melting ice. I shudder to think what the area will be like in another ten years. There might be so much ice that boats can’t get anywhere.
In Qaqortoq, a 1,500-person city south of Nuuk, the excursion we chose was the “Kaffemik,” basically enjoying coffee and traditional Greenland cakes in a private house. We walked up the hills and passed by colorful homes to get to the residence of our host, an 80 year old widow with Swedish ancestry who was charming and explained Greenlandic culture. One of her children was there to help translate, while her other children live in Denmark, which Greenland is a territory of. During the pandemic, Greenland received ample funds from Denmark to make up for the loss of income in industry.
After we wrapped up our sightseeing, that evening, while walking around the ship, we came across a portrait of a woman who is the godmother of the ship, Cat Cora, the famous Iron Chef. She and her wife and children were also among the guests on board with us. We went to see her give a talk the following evening. We figured since there was no working casino or state room entertainment, that meeting an Iron Chef would be entertainment worth seeing. During her presentation she introduced her family, and afterwards we got a chance to chat. When I asked her about how it felt introducing her wife, she said “that’s what we need as a community, we need to be more visible.” That was music to our ears.
Torshavn (Faroe Islands), Denmark
This charming capital of the Faroe Islands is a wonder of old architecture and homes with grass roofs. The town’s Library had several LGBTQ books on display in the window due to the previous week’s Pride celebration. This trip, after learning about Pride in Nuuk, Greenland and also the Faroe Islands, proved to me what I’ve always believed, that Pride is one of the best exports America has ever given to the world. I thought of my friend Ellen Broidy who helped write the resolution that created Pride, and all of us who marched in that first Pride in 1970 in New York.
Lerwick (Shetlands Islands), Scotland
Believe it or not, it was actually stated in the ship’s excursion brochure “encounters with Shetland ponies is not guaranteed” which gave me a chuckle. The tour we were on in Lerwick included going to the town’s museum to learn about the Shetland Bus, where people ferried people and supplies back and forth between Norway during WWII, as well as, thankfully, a stop at a Shetland Pony farm. Seeing the ponies and the beautiful green hills full of sheep was the highlight of this stop. One surprise was that while the Shetlands are part of Scotland, the citizens feel culturally closer to Norway, and there are lots of Viking motifs.
While there were excursions available to see the Norwegian fjords, by this point in the trip we needed a little bit of a break, so we simply walked around the town’s main square, bought a magnet as a souvenir, and enjoyed the warm sunshine, the first day above 50 degrees we’d had in two weeks. One of the LGBTQ couples did go on a fjord tour, and they said it was beautiful despite spending three hours in a bus to get to them.
Skagen is the picture-perfect Danish seaside town. I’d recommend not doing any guided tours and just walking around the city’s downtown area on your own. There are museums, art galleries, shopping, and plenty of outdoor cafes and bistros. There are also top notch garden shops and plenty of greenery for those who have a green thumb.
Sweden’s second largest city has a population of 579,000 and is a model of a beautiful European city with second empire buildings and a very large central shopping area. We stumbled upon some fun shops, including one dedicated to Pippi Longstocking, as well as the largest cinnamon rolls and cookies we’ve ever seen. We took some time to sit in a city park and enjoy the surroundings.
On the final night of the cruise, we enjoyed a performance by Tiano, the tenor and piano duo of Shimi Goodman and Chris Hamilton. They dedicated one of the love songs to Val and Klay, who were celebrating their 25th anniversary. The duo will soon embark on a North American tour, and we’re looking forward to seeing them again. They’re also a couple, and they mentioned that they were glad to meet other LGBTQ people on the ship.
The cruise ended in Oslo, Norway, and many passengers planned a couple day layover before heading home. But others, like Jason and I, decided to head to the airport the morning of disembarkation, and we purchased tickets from the ship that would transfer us and our luggage to the airport. The luggage was put in a truck, and we were ushered into buses. The process was confusing, and there was no ship representative at the airport to direct us where our luggage was. Ultimately, the truck with the luggage arrived about 15 minutes after we did, and everyone was reunited with their bags.
Compared to the other Oceania cruise we did, this one failed to meet expectations. While it had what seemed like the best cabin at sea and a wonderful itinerary, the staff, while helpful, seemed to be learning on the job. The other major disappointment was the food. Oceania no longer has the best food at sea. Other than the specialty restaurants, the food was similar to any other cruise at best, and at times some of the food was severely disappointing. Also disappointing were the ships lack of available shore excursions, and lack of communications skills. The lack of information, especially from the cruise director and excursion staff, was subpar compared to many other cruises we’ve been on. And while the cruise did go to ports that have little infrastructure, there are ways to mitigate that which the cruise staff did not do.
While the cruise did not meet Oceania’s reputation, it still afforded us the delight in the people we met and the destinations we saw along the way. That’s what we’ll remember most. A private party with some of the LGBTQ guests we met; Tiano on that final night; the maitre’d in the dining room who seemed to know the name of every passenger on the ship. Each evening we had the delight of sharing our experience with our friends over dinner.
To sum up the reason for this trip, as an LGBTQ couple, we felt comfortable being ourselves on a non-LGBTQ cruise, and the other LGBTQ people we spoke with didn’t seem to have any issues either. As for whether we’d take Oceania again, we sadly would not unless the itinerary was completely unique. Oceania seemed to have lost the sparkle that made it one of the best cruise companies around.
But despite the ship’s faults, seeing Iceland, Greenland, and so many other places was an experience of a lifetime. We can’t wait to go back to Reykjavik someday and see more of the country and meet more of the people, and we’re forever grateful to have seen Greenland, a place of unparalleled beauty and where few others have ever been. It’s a reminder that the planet has existed long before humans, and that we are but a small part of the wide wonder of nature
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