Oct 20, 2012

Brad Renfro

Most teen idols appear cleancut, wholesome, innocent -- after all, they are performing for an audience of young heterosexual girls and gay boys who haven't even kissed anyone yet.

But a few lack the ability or the inclination to appear innocent -- they gaze at the camera, sultry, languid, knowing the score, wanting to be desired not as a boyfriend, but as a lover.  My list includes Ricky NelsonLeif Garrett, Matt Dillon, and certainly Brad Renfro.

It was impossible for Brad to pose as an innocent teenager, even with his shirt on.  And it usually wasn't.

Born in 1982, Brad became famous in 1994, when he starred as a boy who witnesses a murder in The Client.  Extensive homoerotic buddy-bonding followed: his Erik falls in love with the boy next door (Joseph Mazzello), who has AIDS, in The Cure (1994).  His Huck Finn falls in love with Jonathan Taylor Thomas's Tom Sawyer in Tom and Huck (1995).

Soon the homoromance became manipulative and abusive. He is a victim of sexual abuse in Sleepers (1996).  In Telling Lies in America (1997), his Karchy falls for Billy Magic (Kevin Bacon), an antisocial user.  In Apt Pupil (1998), his Todd becomes involved in an abusive, subtly homoerotic relationship with his elderly neighbor (Ian MacKellan).

As a young adult, Brad played characters who were either gay, or homophobic, or both, in Bully (2001), Tart (2001), Deuces Wild (2002), Tenth and Wolf (2006), and The Informers (2008).  They were usually immersed in a grim post-industrial wasteland, where everyone had an angle and no one was to be trusted.  It's almost impossible to find a picture or video of Brad Renfro smiling.

In real life, he was probably bisexual, but he never made any public statements.  He died of a drug overdose in January 2008.

Estrada versus Lopez

Erik Estrada was sort of the Mario Lopez of the 1970s: Hispanic, built, always smiling, constantly winning "World's Sexiest Men" awards, and photographed shirtless every ten seconds.

But there were some significant differences.

Erik is best known as Officer Ponch on Chips (1977-83), a role which allowed him to consort with beach-babes and big-brother troubled teens (such as Leif Garrett), while never establishing any significant homoromantic bond with his partner, Jon (Larry Wilcox).  Mario's characters frequently enjoy homoerotic buddy-bonds.

Perhaps due to the popularity of Chips, Erik was heavily identified as a police officer.  He played parodies of his character several types, he actually was a reserve police officer in Muncie, Indiana, and he lent his name to several police-related organizations.  Mario seems to have a wider range of roles to choose from.

And the most important difference: Mario Lopez has played gay characters several times and is a strong gay ally.  Erik Estrada has never played a gay character and has never made a public statement supporting gay people.  To be fair, he hasn't said anything homophobic, either.

In 2012, a photo of his Ponch character was found on a supervisor's desk at the notoriously homophobic Atlanta Police Department, marked with an anti-gay slur.  It was unclear whether Ponch was "accusing" the supervisor of being gay, or the supervisor was "accusing" Ponch.

Either way, Erik Estrada had no comment.

Oct 19, 2012

Tom and Huck

In Tom and Huck (1995), an idiosyncratic take on Mark Twain's classic Tom Sawyer, the standard elements are retained: Tom paints the fence, gets engaged to Becky Thatcher (with a tight-close up kiss), has a fake funeral, gets lost in the cave.  But as the title suggests, the relationship between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is emphasized.

Tom is played by fourteen-year old Jonathan Taylor Thomas, whose short stature and baby face could easily mark him as prepubescent, especially given his previous cute-boy roles.  Huck, in contrast, is played by Brad Renfro (left), thirteen years old but already a head taller and considerably more mature looking than Thomas, and already saddled with a reputation for being bad, wild, and irascable.

Brad Renfro’s Huck is a creature of the wild, as unpredictable and enigmatic as forest sprite.  He appears without warning, lodged in a tree or lying on a river bank to comment on the action of the fools with the dispassionate interest of a Puck.

In one scene he appears unexpectedly before Tom, naked, his body coated with mud.  He explains – it is a form of camoflauge – but still we are shocked at the sight of an elemental spirit. Indeed, his wilderness home is no hut or cabin, but an earthen pit, the sort of place one might visit at night to conjure hobgoblins.

Huck has no need or desire for human relationships. When Tom says softly “I thought we was friends,” Huck retorts “You thought wrong. I ain’t got no friends.”

But Tom desires him with a intensity beyond friendship, beyond even erotic longing.  Though he knocks around with acts of minor mischief, conning his schoolmates and torturing his cousin, he yearns to be naked and muddy, to need no one, to be free.

Yet he also yearns for a connection with Huck: he seeks out the sprite, invites him places, gazes at him with glassy-eyed wonder, sometimes dares to put touch his shoulder or put an arm around his waist.  This version omits the traditional homoromantic idyll on the island, since, in a terrible paradox, if Tom ever succeeds in establishing a connection with Huck, it will destroy the very “no-strings” freedom that he finds so attractive.

Huck is mistaken, of course: he does need human relationships, and Tom is indeed his friend.  In the cave with Injun Joe, he risks his life to save him – not Becky, who has long since escaped, but Tom alone: “When a friend’s in trouble, you can’t run away.”

With an elemental human connection (and, coincidentally, a fortune), Huck accepts the Widow Douglas’s offer to civilize him.  He puts on pants and enrolls in school and church.    Now Tom feels betrayed.  He decides to stay in the pit and replace Huck as woodland sprite, proclaiming “Somebody’s got to carry on!”  But Huck convinces him that one can be both uninhibited and civilized, and the two walk off together to plan their minor acts of mischief. The outsider has become a schoolboy through the evocation of friendship, with Becky Thatcher long since forgotten.

Oct 18, 2012

Bix Beiderbecke: First Gay Jazz Musician

If you grew up in the Quad Cities, you couldn't help but hear about Davenport, Iowa native Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931).  We listened to him in music class, and researched him in Mr. Manary's American history class.  Scott, the cornetist who died, was a fan.

There was a  Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival every year.  There was a bust of him in Leclair Park in Davenport. (My Grandma Davis wasn't from Rock Island, but she had some of his records.)

 But no one told us, or know one knew, that he was gay.

Beiderbecke was one of the pioneers of jazz, playing and composing for the cornet and piano. He performed with the legendary Paul Whiteman's Band in New York. He influenced Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby, and the "cool jazz" of the 1950s.  But he had a tortured personal life, became an alcoholic, and died of pneumonia brought on by exhaustion in 1931, only 28 years old.

His first biographies, and the teachers in Rock Island, never suggested for a moment that he might be gay.  

But in Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age (2000), Ralph Berton writes that his brother Eugene, a gay opera singer, took Bix  to a gay sex party in 1920s New York.  Bix kept exclaiming "Iowa has nothing like this!"

In Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend (2005), by Jean-Pierre Lion, Eugene and Bix have a brief romantic escapade.  But, Eugene complains, "It meant absolutely nothing to him. His attitude toward sex, with men or women, was 'What the hell?'"

What women?  His biographies try to pair him up with this or that woman, but with limited success and lots of conjecture.  But it's not hard to find Bix talking to men, working with men, spending his life with men.  His roommates include Eddie Lang,  a young Bing Crosby, and gay musician Jimmy McPartland (left, with his future wife Marian, who knew that he was gay and didn't care).

Of course, the "accusation" has some jazz fans up in arms.  Even more than country-western music, the world of jazz is known for its homophobia.  There have been some lesbian jazz singers, but very, very few gay men, and even fewer open gay men, especially in instrumental "pure" jazz, where macho men in smoky rooms refer to non-aggressive musical styles as "faggy."

 "I don't even know one jazz musician who is [gay]," Dizzy Gillespie said.

I know one.

Oct 17, 2012

Charlie Brown, Linus, and Gay-Coded Peanuts

I didn't read  Charles Schulz's Peanuts in the newspaper; our Rock Island Argus offered only a cheap imitation called Winthrop. My knowledge of Peanuts came through Fawcett paperbacks acquired at garage sales during the 1970s and treasuries acquired at the Waldenbooks at the Mall during the 1980s.

Not a lot of gay content.

1. Only two significant same-sex friendships (Charlie Brown-Linus and Peppermint Patty-Marcie), and neither display the intensity, physicality, or exclusivity that might push them from friendship to romance. (Christopher Shea provided the original voice for Linus.)

 Marcie calling Peppermint Patty "Sir" does not signify lesbian identity.  Lesbians do not call each other "Sir."

Plus, every character, almost without exception, is involved in an unrequited heterosexual romance: Lucy is in love with Schroeder, Sally with Linus, Peppermint Patty and Marcie both with Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown with the Little Red-Haired Girl.  Linus and Snoopy never zero in on one crush, but they each get many girlfriends.

In one 1985 continuity, Charlie Brown merely has to say "Eleanor" for Linus to collapse, and "Fifi" for Snoopy to collapse in agony over their lost loves.

Heterosexual desire validated over and over again, same-sex desire absent.  It was a world where gay kids felt alien and unwanted.

But there was an exception.  Like Jughead in the Archie comics, Schroeder is not interested in girls.  He not only rejects Lucy's advances.  He not only lacks a heterosexual crush of his own.  He never expresses any interest in any girl, ever. 

Of course, Schroeder never expresses any interest in boys, either, but he had a passion for music, specifically classical music.  Mostly Beethoven, because Schulz thought the name sounded funny, but also Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Handel.  His artistic interest and ability is gender-transgressive in a world devoted to sports (continuities are devoted to baseball, tennis, golf, ice skating, and so on).  He alone resonated with gay kids as "one of us."  He alone saw the world in a way they could understand.

Simon and Milo Don't Find True Love

In the fall of 2003, after they sang the theme song for the Disney movie Get a Clue, starring Bug Hall, the Canadian pop group Prozzak was splashed across the Disney channel.  They were renamed Simon and Milo, to avoid the association with drug use.

Their music videos were animated.  Simon (Jay Levine) was short and dark haired, well dressed, with a head that had the habit of separating itself from his body.  Milo (James Bryan) was tall, blond, and muscular, a stereotypic pretty boy.  And they had a back story.

Centuries ago, they were on opposite sides of a long, harsh war.  Finally they fought each other in hand-to-hand combat.  Then a voice from the sky told them:

You have been chosen.
Chosen to live in a time that is not your own,
sentenced to walk the Earth in search of True Love.
Only True Love holds the key to your destiny.

They were zapped into the 21st century, where they were sometimes in high school, but more often rock musicians.

The music videos on the Disney Channel illustrated "Get a Clue" and three earlier songs: "Sucks to Be You" (1998), "Strange Disease" (1999), and "It's Not Me, It's You" (2001).

They all have the same general plot: Simon tries to find "true love" with a woman, but is rejected.  As he sits, depressed and lonely, Milo is there to offer his hand.  They walk side by side into the sunset.

Could Milo be Simon's true love?

There are lots of clues.  Milo never exhibits any interest in women, and he treats Simon in an unfailingly loving manner.  Most friends would tire of Simon's constant depression and self-doubt, but Milo never hesitates, always supports him, gently waits for him to realize who his true love is.

And once, as Simon flipped through a list of potential lovers, Milo's face was there.

But Disney didn't see it that way: all of the rather extensive press about the duo talked about Simon's quest for a girl.

Nor did Prozzak. The band released a new album in 2005, Cold Cruel World, with Simon older, but still depressed, still searching for true love.  Not with Milo.

Oct 16, 2012

Joe Slaughter: Dancer/Model/Bullying Survivor

It's hard being a male terpsichorean (dancer) in high school.  You face constant homophobic harassment from the jocks, the bullies, and even the teachers.

And it's even harder if you're heterosexual, working out and stripping down with 5,000 girls, all of whom treat you like a buddy and aren't up for dates.

But Joe Slaughter survived both the homophobia and the horniness to become a successful dancer, touring with superstars like Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, and the Pussycat Dolls.  He has modeled for brands like The Gap and Calvin Klein (and he's not shy about underwear and semi-nude shots).

Checking out his killer physique, one wonders if he really had a problem finding girls to date. 

Checking out his killer bulge, one wonders if the jocks and bullies were harassing him to hide their homoerotic attraction.

He has recently broken into acting.  In Step Up 3D (2010), the first 3-D dance movie, he plays Julian, the leader of the evil House of Samurai dance crew, who disapprove of his sister's romance with Luke (Rick Malambri) of the rival House of Pirates.  Lots of gay subtexts all around.

In Music High (2012), a music teacher tames a group of surly juvenile delinquents with -- you guessed it -- music and/or dance. Joe plays the gay-coded William.

Joe has also played dancers or models in several tv series, including CSI, The Bold and the Beautiful, and Femme Fatales.

Oct 15, 2012

Star Trek

Star Trek (1966-69) represents the beginning of a franchise that eventually encompassed 6 tv series, 12 movies, and an infinite number of tie-in novels, comic books, games, and toys. But at the time I didn't notice.   Either my parents watched something else, or it aired past my bedtime, so I only watched when I slept over with a friend who was a fan.

And I didn't have a lot of friends who were fans.  I didn't see most episodes until reruns started appearing in the 1980s.

I only remember one moment of joy: in the 1966 episode "Naked Time," the space explorers contract a virus that makes them act irrationally. Navigator Sulu (George Takai), imagining that he is D'Artagnon of the Three Musketeers, rushes down the corridor, sword in hand, his chest hard and bronze and gleaming.  

And later, cured, he returns to the room he shares with Ensign Chekhov (Walter Koenig).  Chekhov, already in bed, rises on one elbow.  "Are you ok?" he asks.  "I was worried."  "I'm ok now," Sulu says, sitting next to him.  They smile.

Like the smile shared by Rich and Sean in The Secret of Boyne Castle, it became an iconic memory of my childhood.  I wanted that smile more than anything.

Except the scene never happened.  Chekhov wasn't even in the episode, and he and Sulu were never shown sharing a room.  I invented the memory.

So, what are we left with:

1. A universe where heterosexual desire is a constant.  Remember when they meet early explorer Zephram Cochrane (Glen Corbett), trapped on a planet with an alien energy cloud.  It's female, and in love with him.  

2. An endless supply of alien babes for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to smash his face against: "Kiss?  What is kiss?"

3. Some beefcake: Kirk got his shirt ripped off in many episodes, occasionally Kirk or another character (such as Frank Gorshin) bulged, and occasionally an alien dude, such as David Soul or Michael Forest,  wear a revealing outfit.  

4. No significant buddy-bonding.  Some people see a spark of homoerotic desire between Kirk and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), but I don't see it.

5.  No gay characters, ever.  Ok, we can forgive the 1960s series, but what about The Next Generation, Voyager, or Deep Space Nine?  Obviously this is a world where gay people are unknown and unwelcome. No wonder my friends and I spent our time watching something else, or listening to The Monkees.  

Oct 14, 2012

The Prisoner: We Want Information

When I was a little kid, we had only 3 stations, but sometime in the early 1970s, we got PBS -- the Public Broadcasting System -- and with it, a British invasion.  Suddenly I could see Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMonty Python's Flying Circus, The Tomorrow People, and even fluffy comedies like Father Dear Father and No, Honestly.  I guess they figured that anything British was bound to be educational. They were certainly easier to find subtexts in.

Take The Prisoner, which appeared in Britain in 1966-67, and on PBS in the mid-1970s.

The plot: a British secret agent (Patrick McGoohan) resigns, angrily, then goes home and packs for a trip.  He is gassed, and awakens in a scenic, well-scrubbed Village, where everyone has a number rather than a name ("You are Number Six.").  The Villagers are mostly kidnapped secret agents, from a variety of countries, more or less brainwashed and docile.

The mysterious Number Two, who is in charge of the Village, wants "information."  Number Six wants to escape, or, failing that, to find out who his keepers are.  But plots soon moved beyond the "Why did you resign?" maguffin to explore questions of conformity and individuality.  In order to live together in a community, we must require certain behaviors and banish others, but at what point does the need for conformity impinge upon the rights of the individual to think and feel what he pleases?

It was heady viewing for teenagers in the 1970s, on the par with Animal Farm and Brave New World.  And it was especially evocative for gay teenagers, who were told, day after day, hour after hour, "You must conform. You must desire the opposite sex, date, have sex, marry."

The gay symbolism made up for a decided lack of beefcake -- handsome Patrick McGoohan never so much as unbuttoned a button, not even to work out.  And a lack of bonding -- though there might be a homoerotic subtext in the cat-and-mouse game played by Number Six and the current Number Two (the Village leader changed in almost every episode).

However, there was one plus: virtually no heterosexual content.  Sometimes Number Six got a girlfriend, or pretended to in order to harass Number Two, but they never kissed.  McGoohan had it written in his contract -- no kissing girls (but not because he was gay; he wanted to stay faithful to his wife).

McGoohan starred in many other movies during the 1970s and 1980s.  He is perhaps most famous for playing King Edward in Braveheart  (1995), and eliciting homophobic audience cheers by pushing his gay son's lover out a window.  Not that I believe McGoohan, who died in 2009, actually condoned throwing gay people out of windows.

From Blueboy to Holyoke

This is one of the iconic photos of the 1960s, nearly as famous as Graham Faulkner's bare bum in Brother Sun, Sister Moon. It displays the handsome, muscular 22-year old Michael Burns nude, barely hiding behind a towel.  It's from That Cold Day in the Park (1969): Michael's character is an innocent, possibly mute,  somewhat addled Boy taken in by the middle-aged, repressed Frances (Sandy Dennis).  She provides food, shelter, nice clothes, whatever he needs, and he provides a coy eroticism.

When Frances' flirtation becomes too aggressive, the Boy leaves, returns to his hippie commune, and we discover that the innocent-addled bit was all an act. He often defrauds the establishment that way, acquiring free food and favors in return for displaying his body and feigning a willingness to have sex.

The Boy represented the desire and dread with which the adults approached the youth counterculture, but he also served as a metaphor for the game gay male teens must play: pretend to be interested in women, let them desire you, but pull back at the last moment. Always remember that your real desires, your real emotions, your real life lies elsewhere.

Born in 1947, Michael Burns was a very busy child actor, with starring roles as an orphan kid on Wagon Train (1960-65) and the kid brother on the overtly homoerotic It's a Man's World (1962-63), plus guest spots on about 30 Westerns, dramas, and comedies.

But other than That Cold Day in the Park, he was most famous for a 1967 episode of Dragnet, in which the deadpan detectives investigate a houseful of hippies who are using the "new drug menace, LSD," and going crazy.  Michael plays Blueboy, who has half of his face painted blue and screeches in paranoia before dying. Again, the desire and dread of the youth counterculture.

Michael retired from acting in 1977 to pursue an academic career.  He became a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, a specialist on the Dreyfuss Affair of 1890s France.

Zandor, Tor, and Chuck: Saturday Morning Muscle

When I was a kid in the late 1960s, it was hard to find beefcake on tv.  Wild Wild West and Tarzan were reliable, there were shirtless teens on Maya, and otherwise you had to hope that an episode of That Girl would have Ann Marie befriending a boxer, or Kirk would get his shirt ripped off on Star Trek.  

But Saturday morning cartoons more than made up for it, with huge numbers of teenage boys and adult men with muscular bodies on display (mostly spandex and open shirts, however; nothing like the semi-nudity of today).  In the fall of 1967, for example:

At 8:30, The Herculoids (1967-69), about a nuclear family of blond space barbarians who defend their planet from alien invaders.  The kid, Dorno, was about my age, but with an amazing build, like Tommy Norden from Flipper.  The dad, Zandor, was even hunkier.

At 9:00, Shazzan (1967-69), about two teenagers trapped in an Arabian nights world with the titular magic genie (not to be confused with Shazam, the Michael Gray series).  Shazzan wore a black vest and no shirt, and the teenage boy, Chuck, wore a white shirt unbuttoned to his navel.  Note: the girl was his sister, not his girlfriend.

At 9:30, you had your choice of Space Ghost and Dino Boy (1966-68), about a boy trapped in a prehistoric world with a cave man guardian, or Samson and Goliath (1967-68), about a boy and dog who morph into superheroic Samson and his lion, Goliath.  I preferred Samson, who wore another shirt unbuttoned to his navel, plus no pants.

At 10:00, The Mighty Mightor (1967-69).  about a prehistoric teenager named Tor -- super hunky already, and a member of a tribe of bodybuilders  -- who morphs into the superheroic Mightor. Unfortunately, the girl in this picture was his sort-of girlfriend.

  At 11:00, reruns of Jonny Quest.

Then a quick lunch, a bit of playing outside, and it was time for an afternoon of The Magic Sword or an old Tarzan movie.

See also: Bamm-Bamm Rubble: Gay Promise on The Flintstones.


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