Connect with us

a&e features

“Conflict is Not Abuse” provides clarity in anxious times

A conversation with Sarah Schulman and Darnell Moore



Sarah Schulman is a New York based novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, screenwriter and AIDS historian. (Photo courtesy HBO)

There is no turning away from the stark consequences of violence in the U.S. and abroad in our current moment.

Mass shootings, blatant (and subtle) forms of white supremacist terror, sexual abuse, erratic conflicts between nation states, unrepentant government backlash against undocumented immigrants, harm committed by law enforcement, economic pillaging of the poor, myriad forms of antagonism aimed at queer and trans people, and the willful mistreatment of girls and women are incessant, ever-evolving, horrors we are embattled by daily.

We feel the effects of such horrors. We sense in our bodies, in our homes, and within our communities their consequences. But we often lack the language and analyses that can move us beyond a shortsighted focus on the after effects of violence and into a place of clarity in which we might collectively find resolve.

Sarah Schulman, a novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, screenwriter and activist whose three decades of work has established her as a distinguished and sharp cultural producer and critic, has written a book that brings relief, in the form of careful examination, for our conflicted times.

Schulman’s “Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair” is a thought map charting a course we might follow as we attempt to move from conflict to transformation. She argues, with impeccable clarity and insight, that “any pain that human beings can create, human beings can transcend.” To some, that line may read as too poetic, too quixotic, during times when so many vulnerable people in the U.S. face the real threat of imminent harm by the state or other people, but what is hope but a belief in the possibility of overcoming seeming impossibilities?

Having known, and admired, Sarah over the past several years, I’ve come to respect her perspectives, which are always ahead of the times. I was delighted to learn more about conflict and resolution by way of an interview. What follows is a condensed version of the dialogue we shared via email.

Darnell L. Moore is editor at large at CASSIUS and the author of the forthcoming, “No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America.”

DARNELL MOORE: Let me begin by asking you to comment on the most recent mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. 19-year old Nicolas Cruz, who had been accused of physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend in the past and an alleged white supremacist, killed 17 people. Can you say a bit about mass shootings within the U.S., the root causes and consequences, and how the central argument in Conflict Is Not Abuse might help us to respond collectively?
SARAH SCHULMAN: The killer’s father died when he was 3. He was posting scary racist images of guns and hurting animals. Then his mother died 3 months ago. His girlfriend broke up with him and got a new boyfriend. He started telling people he wanted to shoot up the school. Some people described him in a way that points to biological issues. He got expelled. Why expel a messed up kid whose parents just died? What do we do with people who cannot handle immense pain and loss? Kick them to the curb and let them buy guns?

My friend Jeff Van Dyke pointed out to me that America’s two greatest exports are weapons and entertainment, and most of our entertainment glorifies weapons. It could be said that our commodified popular culture is one big ad for weapons. But on top of the obvious issue of guns and brutality culture, other important questions arise. We must find a way to deal with male offenders. Right now we either excuse them, or eject them via incarceration or exclusion or shunning. None of these options actually try to engage why they are abusive.

In my book I look at two different kinds of people who engage in abusive behavior: supremacists and the traumatized (while recognizing that both can live in the same body.) Some people are raised with a sense of superiority. They feel that they have the right to never be opposed or questioned, and certainly to never be asked to question themselves. If anyone resists their supremacy, they feel uncomfortable and falsely equate that with being under attack. They feel justified in escalating against others, treating others in ways that are not justified but feel reasonable because of the distorted thinking of entitlement. But sometimes when we are traumatized, it is so hard to just keep it together, that facing some kind of difference, or being in a situation where not everything can go our way, feels threatening. Any kind of further self-interrogation feels impossible, and so- similarly to the supremacist, the traumatized person may feel under attack when they are simply facing difference, and act out in ways that are terrible for other people.

In my book I cite the work of Edith Weigert, a mid-20th century German psychiatrist who describes treating people during the rise of the Nazi Party. She and her friend, another refugee psychiatrist Frieda Fromme-Reichman, talked about the wish to treat Nazis. How Nazis were people who could not separate anxiety from the need to act on it. Racism is an interior anxiety that people falsely blame on exterior experiences or other people. A fascist, a rapist, a school shooter, a brutal police officer, are people who feel compelled to act out their internal conflicts on other people. We need awareness, and responsible group relationships to help us separate anxiety and fear and grief from actions that destroy other people.

Rather than expelling Nikolas Cruz and selling him guns, which made him even more hurt, more alienated and more alone. We needed to surround him with community, with acknowledgement of his pain, with help in separating his painful feelings from destructive actions, to avoid this kind of disaster.

MOORE: “Conflict Is Not Abuse” could not have been written at a more appropriate time. It is also true that it could have been published a century ago, or published several decades from now should the world as we know still exists, and the argument you make would still be critical. Share a bit about the book’s timing and the ways it is in dialogue with so many of tremors shaking our world?
SCHULMAN: Well, I have been writing this book for many years. It started with my book “Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences” (New Press), in which I examined the homophobic family. How they bond with each other to blame and exclude the queer family member. They give each other pleasure, in their bond of supremacy, by claiming that it is the queer in the family who is the problem. But actually, the reality is, that the real problem is the homophobia of the family. They are rewarding each other in a negative group relationship.

This insight was something I applied with more complexity in my book “Israel/Palestine and the Queer International” (Duke Press) in which I applied it to myself as a Jew born 13 years after the end of the Holocaust to truly face how the Israeli State and its supporters use abuse tropes and victim language to justify the grotesque subordination of an other people, the Palestinians.
So by the time I came around to “Conflict Is Not Abuse,” I had already explored the negative group relationship, in which the people causing the pain describe themselves as victims, in both the family realm, and the geo-political realm. And I had a strong foundation for going deeper, into the kinds of group relationships, like couples, and cliques, and communities, in which terrible behavior is justified and used as a springboard for supremacy.

The book came out two weeks before Trump’s victory. And in many ways, he has proven my thesis. Every day he tells us what a victim he is, what a witch-hunt is attacking him, and how “sad” it is. At the same time his supporters take their own real pain, and project it—through distorted thinking—onto immigrants, who have contributed nothing towards their confusion and pain. The real blame should be placed onto the white 1% who are behind the globalization of industry that has eliminated the social role of many white working people. But this is obscured by scapegoating.

MOORE: I am always struck by your candor. You’re an honest writer who is not afraid to position yourself as a subject of analysis or critique. You do so in Conflict Is Not Abuse. I often say that so many of us are able to name the feet situated on our necks but are less willing to name the necks our feet are situated on. This is what you do in your work. Why is self-reflection, or self-reflexive analysis, vital for the end of the transformation—for the end of creating communities and relationships without harm?
SARAH: I have to, or else I would be absurd. My femaleness, my lesbian life, have subjected me to every level of denigration and exclusion, but my whiteness, and especially my Jewishness in the age of apartheid Israel, requires me to take responsibility for the de facto advantages and power. One thing I have learned is that it is necessary to negotiate, and in order to negotiate we have to communicate. When we apologize, we lose nothing. When we have terms for ending shunning, we enter into the realm of the sane.

MOORE: I really appreciated your take on the role of social media and the ways it can flatten dialogue or make dialogue difficult. You are active on social media, especially Facebook, what do you see as its benefits and negative effects?
SCHULMAN: If it were not for Facebook, I wouldn’t be able to hear from Palestine, and especially activist and queer Palestine everyday as I do now. If I were dependent on the New York Times and MSNBC, I would know nothing. Anything can be used for good or for evil: a hug, a book, a candle, a television set, a computer. It is not the tool that has inherent meaning, it is the person who is using it that brings its value.

MOORE: The #MeToo movement has elevated a much-needed dialogue on sexual assault, sexism, misogyny and male domination. What are your thoughts on the present public call outs and responses?
SCHULMAN: The pre-eminent event of the moment is that women are being heard for the first time, saying something that we have been saying for fifty years that has been met with derision and mockery. And this is the most significant happening. I hope this gets extended to a broader conversation about the meaning of the revelation that so many men with the power of selection, abuse that power. What does that mean about our social standards of what is good or beautiful? Secondarily, what I am seeing, is that corporate entities: entertainment industries, universities, companies, are firing, shunning, and even erasing people, not for ethical reasons, but because they fear legal liability. The people doing the firing are often behaving in the same manner as those they are eliminating. This may still help some victims, but it is not going to produce any real change. And there is corporate overreaction in some cases, in which people get crushed. We are also seeing a lot of confusion about what is actually wrong. Assault is one thing, and that executives go so far as to set up rape situations, or hire Mossad agents to harass actresses, reveals criminality at the helm of social institutions. But just because one person is uncomfortable does not necessarily mean that the other party has violated them. That is a grey zone that requires a lot more conversation. When I see people complaining “he invited me to his hotel room”—well, that is not a crime, nor should it be. We need more opportunities for connection and expressions of desire, not less. The solution is not more repression and punishment, but instead more freedom and options for everyone. If I am embarrassed by the potential for passion or sexuality or love between me and another person, that doesn’t mean that they are hurting me if they are bold enough to take the chance.

MOORE: Give us Sarah Shulman’s quick take on the current state of national political affairs.
SCHULMAN: We are in the middle of a national cataclysm and no one knows what is going to happen. But one thing I am sure about: we are never going back to the neo-liberal society that we lived in 14 months ago. There is no going back. We have to come out the other end of this terrifying moment, and we had better articulate our visions for what kind of society we want to live in when we get there.

MOORE: I was so moved by this line: Any pain that human beings can create human beings can transcend. That is a sermon—one that holds the potential to spur healing. It’s also hard to fully accept. As a black person, for example, as someone who is in this country per chattel slavery living through its many aftereffects, it is difficult for me to accept that the U.S. can transcend its violent racist heritage. But I also maintain hope in the possibility of a world that is not anti-black. What does transcendence look like?
SCHULMAN: We need moral group relationships in which loyalty and love are defined by encouraging each other to negotiate, to be self- critical, to help each other listen, communicate, and to change. Right now, the standard is that we have to be perfect to be eligible for compassion, but perfection is a delusion, and difference the shared reality of humanity.

Continue Reading

a&e features

Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’

Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following



Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya Clark. (Photo courtesy Sony/Columbia)

Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan. 

With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.

BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.

BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?

EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.

BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?

EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.

BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.


BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?

EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.

BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?

EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.

BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?

EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.

BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?

EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.

BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?

EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.

BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?

EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.

Continue Reading

a&e features

LA Blade Exclusive: L Morgan Lee, Broadway’s newest icon sings her truth

She is the first ever trans actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination & the first trans performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer



L Morgan Lee exclusively photographed by Andrey Strekoza for the Los Angeles Blade June, 2022

NEW YORK CITY – “I am just a girl,” L Morgan Lee tells me. That simple statement is her self-definition, a girl taking life one step at a time.

To the rest of us, L Morgan Lee is so much more. She is the award-winning actress starring on Broadway in the hit show of the season, A Strange Loop. Her singing talent matches that of any legendary diva, she is creating landmark theatrical projects on womanhood and New York Times articles are being written about her. She is the “girl” in the spotlight now.

She is also, the first ever transgender actor or actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination.

While she is not the first trans performer to be seen on a Broadway stage, she seems to have broken the glass (or some might say, cement) ceiling of being recognized in the upper echelon of talent. She is the first transgender performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer. While the Pulitzer recognizes the author, whom she was not, certainly her creative input was weaved into the final book of the play.

L Morgan has journeyed a complex path to self-awareness. “For me, even in terms of being trans, the idea of being anything outside of what I was assigned at birth was just laughable and crazy to me as a child,” she says. “It just, it made no sense. It was not something that I was comfortable saying out loud to anyone or voicing. How would I be looked at by my parents, by anyone else? So, I would sit and dream. The dreaming is, I think, what forms, much of so many queer people’s lives and experiences.   Those dreams become our lifelines. I would dream and dream. I have a memory of when I was maybe six years old, in the middle of the night, looking up at my ceiling in my bedroom. Waking up soaked with tears. Saying, if I could wake up and be a girl, a girl, everything would be okay.” She adds. “That is why I am so excited to have gotten my first opportunity to be on Broadway, excited to have gotten a Tony nomination. Because I know that there is some kid somewhere, who is also looking up at the ceiling saying that same thing.”

L Morgan’s first adventure into performing was as a kid and ironically projected her future identity fluidity: she costumed up and performed “Karma Chameleon” in nursery school. She allowed herself to explore her true identity under the guise of a Halloween costume quite a few years later. She went in fully fashion glammed drag, and it changed her world forever. “The minute I did it, I felt a jolt of energy I had never felt before. I finally felt free in so many ways. It’s as if like it’s as if I finally got to breathe.”

When she started work on A Strange Loop, she had been cast under the assumption that she was a cisgender man playing female parts. As the years of work into the play went on, L Morgan’s transgender journey escalated, and she attempted to resign from the play as she realized she was no longer the person they thought they had hired. Not only were they aware, as many close loved ones can be, of her journey, but they embraced her and assured her that she belonged more than ever.

“The characters I played allowed me to, in some ways hide until I was able to be more public about who I am. And once I did that, it certainly brought another layer of depth to what I was doing. I have been that much more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve grown. Transition has settled in more. So, both my viewpoints about the show, the people I’m playing, and my lens of life in general, has evolved through the process. So, certainly the woman I am today, views the show and the script, and the characters I play in a very different way than I did when I first sat down to do it in 2015.” 

Her growth within the show, and the growth of the show itself are intertwined. Certainly, some of the magic of the show is that it is not “performed” as much as it is lived out of the souls of the actors in it. L Morgan describes, “The experience of A Strange Loop has been beautiful, complex, layered and ever evolving, for me in particular.  Every time I’ve come back to the rehearsal room with this project, my own lens has been slightly evolved or has moved forward in some ways.”

“The piece is as strong as it is because the lens itself, the lens through which the story is told, is very specific and very honest. Inside of that specificity, there are lots of complications and layers and messy stuff. There are things that you don’t ‘talk about out loud’ taboo to discuss. There are things that people see as problematic. There are so many things inside of all of that, but it’s honest and it’s human. It is a 25-year-old, who’s about to turn 26, sort of raging through life, feeling oppressed and unseen and shouting out to find how he fits into the world. It is how he can find his truest voice in a world that doesn’t really allow him to feel like he’s enough. Because it is so specific about those things the show touches so many different people.”

L Morgan demonstrated coming out as a confident transgender actress, with her vulnerabilities unhidden, on the opening night of the play and decisions she made as she stepped into the public spotlight. “I feel a responsibility. It feels like a dream, it feels wonderful. It feels exciting. It’s like everything I’ve ever asked for but the, the most poignant feeling for me is the responsibility. How could I show up for that person that needs to find me.”

“On my opening night on Broadway, we were trying to figure out what I was going to do with dress and hair and all these things. You only get a first time once. You get your debut one time. So how do I make the most of this moment? I felt raw and excited. I needed to show like the most honest and clear-cut version of me I could. I needed to show my shaved head because that’s something that’s important to me. It’s something, I almost never show. I stepped out revealed, exposed and vulnerable on the very public red carpet, speaking to cameras with my buzzed head. Our relationship with hair runs very deep, especially for trans people, and there was something about it, that just felt like, I needed to do it. That kid somewhere under the covers needs to see this trans woman who is in her Broadway debut and she’s in a pretty dress and she has a shaved head, and she seems like she’s comfortable. Then when you hear her talking about it, you hear about her vulnerability and hear that she felt nervous, and you hear that she was dealing with dysphoria and she was dealing with confidence and she was dealing with all these things that we attached to our hair and she reveals those things. Not only because they’re true but because when we reveal Our Truth, our humanness, there is universality there. There is connection inside of our vulnerability.”

While the Tony nomination escalates her Broadway experience, L Morgan does not lose sight of her mortal existence. “On the day that the Tony nominations happened, I fell apart, completely losing it in my bedroom. Then I realized, I still needed to get a couch, and clean up the apartment. I still feel regular. It’s been a wild dream and at the same time, your real life just keeps on going. I am just trying to put one foot in front of the other.”

On the night of the Tonys. L Morgan will be up against some heavy hitters. Not the least of these is Broadway Legend Patty LuPone. L Morgan is ok with that. Her dream has been to see her face in one of the camera boxes on television of the nominee hopefuls.  

“The biggest reason I do, what I do is one because I love storytelling. My experience is black, my experience is trans, but I’m just, I’m just a woman. I am a woman who had a trans experience. That’s my story. I know that somewhere there’s s a kid, as I have said, who is just like I was. It is extremely important for me to make that kid proud and make that kid feel seen and make that kid know that it’s possible.” 

“I want that kid to be able to know that most importantly, they already are who they are dreaming to be. The world is telling you something different, but you know who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you, there is nothing wrong with us. The world has never told us that we were an option.”  

“That kid needs to find my story. They need to know that we exist. It is the reason it took me so long to be public about things and to start speaking, because I wasn’t seeing enough examples. There’s a quote, ‘she needed a hero, so that’s what she became.’ I really live by that.”

She needed to see a transwoman Tony Nominee. So that’s what she became.

When they call the winner on Tony Night, it will be between a Broadway legend and Broadway’s newest icon.

However it goes, another ceiling has been broken forever, and somewhere a trans girl in hiding will realize her dream too can come true.


Continue Reading

a&e features

For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again

The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress



Jessica Chastain accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress (Screenshot/ABC)

HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.

When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.

There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.

Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.

Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces. 

Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.

Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.

Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.

Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.

True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.

Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.

Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”

Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.

The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”

The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.

Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.

According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.

While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.

While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).

The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.

Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.

Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.

This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.

Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.

Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.

The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.

Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.

We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.


Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:

Continue Reading

Follow Us @LosAngelesBlade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts