Dec 22, 2012

Gay Teens in Deep Space: Arthur C. Clarke

When I was a kid in the 1960s, juvenile science fiction was great, all about boys falling in love as they fled from the tripods or zapped through the solar system.  But then I became a teenager and started reading science fiction for grown ups, which was -- and still is -- heterosexist, mostly about men and women falling in love:

A. E. Van Vogt, Two Hundred Million A.D. (1943): L Onee was waiting. Together they closed and sealed the door. Together, they went up out of the darkness into the light.

Raymond Jones, Man of Two Worlds (1951): "I want to marry you] more than anything else in the world,” Elta said. She drew close and laid her head against his shoulder.

Michael Moorcock, The Wrecks of Time (1966): She winked at him. He grinned and winked back. They walked into the house.

John Brunner, Interstellar Empire (1976): She came down the steps to Ordovic, and put her arm around his waist, smiling.

R. M. Meluch, Wind Dancers (1981): “ Shall we go to bed together, get drunk, or start a fight in a bar?"  Roxanne hooked his arms. "One of those.‟”

But then at a garage sale in the mid-1970s, I stumbled upon two books about muscular boys bonding as they explored the Indian Ocean.  By Arthur C. Clarke, whom I knew as the inspiration for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Surely his science fiction would not be obsessed with feminine smiles.

So I began reading.  And kept reading.

The Sands of Mars (1951), A Fall of Moondust (1961), Imperial Earth (1975): no heterosexual romance.

Against the Fall of Night (1948): Alvin is a teenager living in the distant future city of Diaspar.  He becomes the first person to leave the city in countless milennia, explores the savage world outside, and buddy-bonds with a boy named Theoron.  At the end he decides to take a spaceship and explore the stars, and Theoron goes with him.

When Clarke revised the novel into The City and the Stars (1956), he gave Alvin a girlfriend in Diaspar, like the Hardy Boys have girlfriends in regular time, but she is completely forgotten once he begins the adventure.

Childhood's End (1953): Galactic overlords land on Earth and transform all of the children into a new, advanced species, another entry into the "threatening gay kid" genre.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): a homoromantic idyll with two astronauts, Dave and Francis (played by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood in the movie) jetting out toward Jupiter in the Discovery One, until the computer Hal gets jealous.

Arthur C. Clarke was well known in the science fiction community as gay, although he never came out publicly (when asked by a reporter, he always gave a coy response like "Why? What have you heard?").

In 1956 he moved to Sri Lanka, which being gay was legal  (Britain didn't decriminalize homosexuality until 1957).  He stayed there until his death in 2008.

Dec 21, 2012

Spotting Celebrities: Merritt Butrick

Someone asked for a complete list of all the celebrities I met in Los Angeles from 1985 to 1990.

It depends on who counts as a celebrity.  A lot of my friends in L.A. had done something, Teen #2 on Family Ties or Party Guest #1 in The Coca Cola Kid. 

And what counts as "met."  I saw Don Grady at Gay Pride, became a "bookstore friend" of Richard Dreyfuss, bought a love seat from Cesar Romero, worked out in the same gym as Max Gail, had lunch with Michael J. Fox, and talked to Nate Richert at the Gold Coast without realizing who he was.   Does that count?

But several celebrities made a lasting impression.  We dated, or they dated my friends, or we ran into each other a lot, or maybe we just walked together for a mile or so at an AIDS Walk.  We found points of common interest.  They became people, not just images on a screen.

I met Merritt Butrick in 1988, when he was playing a muscular hustler who wreaks havoc on an older man's life in the theatrical play Kingfish.

I didn't know at the time that Merritt was famous as gay-vague slacker Johnny Slash on the high school sitcom Square Pegs (1982-83).

And as Captain Kirk's son David in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1986). Or that he had a vast range of tv and movie roles, from cowboy to vampire.

I had  never seen any of them (I still haven't).  But I knew that Merritt was quiet, intelligent, driven, serious about his craft.  And that he wouldn't have time to reach his star potential.

He died on March 17th, 1989, of AIDS-related pneumonia.

Dec 20, 2012

River Phoenix: Running on Empty

River Phoenix died on Halloween night, 1993, at the Viper Room, a Sunset Boulevard hotspot a few blocks north of my apartment in West Hollywood.  19 years have passed, but he remains a gay icon.

Though he had been performing for several years, including a starring role in a tv version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982), he first drew the attention of gay fans at the age of 14, in Explorers (1985), as the buddy of a boy (Ethan Hawke) who finds an alien spaceship.

After the heterosexist "coming of age" movie Stand by Me (1986), River starred in The Mosquito Coast (1986), as the son of an eccentric inventor (Harrison Ford of Star Wars).  There he moved perceptibly from child star to teen idol, revealing a smooth muscular chest and abs.

Most teen idol vehicles are fluffy, lightweight, feel-good concoctions, but aside from the teen sex comedy A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), River's movies were serious, even dark.  His characters in Little Nikita (1988), Running on Empty (1988), and I Love You to Death (1988) rarely smiled; they were in pain; they were searching, exhausted from searching, "running on empty."

And they ached with desire.  Like fellow teen idol Brad Renfro, like Leif Garrett a decade before, River Phoenix imbued every relationship with a unstated but intensely erotic desire.  Unvariegated, sometimes for women, sometimes for men, usually older men. Twice for Dermot Mulroney (in Silent Tongue and This Thing Called Love). 

Even his frequent shirtless and semi-nude scenes presented him more as someone aching with loneliness rather than as an object of desire.  He gazes at the camera, confused, wondering who is out there looking at him, asking, with Allen Ginsberg, "Are you my angel?"

Twenty years ago, the only gay teenagers in the movies were bisexual hustlers who abandoned their "gay lifestyle" for a girl (such as Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Speedway Junkie and Lukas Haas in Johns), but in My Own Private Idaho (1991), Mike (River) is gay, going with women only when necessary for his job, and he falls in love with an unresponsive straight hustler (Keanu Reeves). 

River enjoyed being an object of desire for both men and women, and he desired both men and women.  He had girlfriends and boyfriends throughout his life.  The rumor mill paired him with nearly every actor rumored to be gay at the time, including Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, and talk show host Merv Griffin.  Many of the twinks I knew claimed to have been with him.  Maybe some of them were telling the truth.

 But it wasn't his male partners that made River Phoenix a gay icon.  It was his combination of sexual knowledge and vulnerability, his neverending search not only for sex but for love.

See also: I Was Betrayed by Keanu Reeves.

Dec 19, 2012

Jonny Quest Gets a Girlfriend

An adventure series with distinctively realistic animation,Jonny Quest first appeared on prime time in 1965-65, and then on Saturday morning through the 1970s. Renowned scientist Dr. Benton Quest (Don Messick), with a reddish-brown beard and a white lab coat, and his white-haired, hard-muscled boyfriend Race Bannon, investigate weird mysteries in the Andes, the Artic, the Sargasso Sea, or most commonly in steamy jungles full of dragon-like lizards and headhunters.

 Tagging along, either to figure out the mystery or get abducted by bad guys, are Dr. Quest’s 11-year old son, Jonny (Tim Matheson) and his companion Hadji (Danny Bravo), who met them in Calcutta and then tagged along for no logical reason except that he rather liked Jonny.

Dr. Quest and Race Bannon were quite obviously gay partners, as modern "parodies" on the Cartoon Network have recognized. Neither displayed the slightest interest in women.

 Race was often drawn in a swimsuit so his massive muscles were visible.  Here he stains himself with purple berry juice to convince the savage Po-Po Indians that he is a god.

But I was more interested in Jonny and Hadji. Jonny, blond in a tough guy’s black turtleneck, rushes double-fisted into danger, while Hadji, slim and brown with petite hands, wearing a turban with a ruby in it all the time (even when swimming), is skittish and emotional, shouting “Be careful!” from the sidelines as he waits for an opportunity to assist with his mystical arts.

Hadji, by the way, was just one in a line of South Asian boy-adventurers such as Sabu, Kim in the Corentin series, Gunga Andy's Gangand Raji on  Maya .We see in him the feminization of the Colonial Other as dark, mysterious, intuitive, and sensual, and a none-too-subtle masculine-feminine dynamic in his interaction with Jonny. The intensity, physicality, and sheer heat of their interactions make them seem more lovers than foster brothers.  At playtime nobody wanted to be Hadji, but everyone wanted to rescue him from bad guys and carry him off in their arms. 

The comic book series wasn't successful, but there were novelizations, toys, and games, including a record, a version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

In 1996, a new series appeared, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest.  Jonny and Hadji were now teenagers, considerably more buffed than in the original series.  Unfortunately, to address the strong homoerotic subtext of the original, they were heterosexualized.  Dr. Quest got a wife.  Race Bannon got a daughter, Jessie, who became Jonny's girlfriend.

No word on whether Hadji resented being replaced.

See also: The Venture Brothers.

Dec 18, 2012

Easy Bake Ovens and Gay Identity

In response to a 13-year old boy's video that went viral, Hasbro has just announced that it will begin selling Easy-Bake Ovens in neutral colors, with ads showing boys as well as girls.  This is a victory against sexism, of course, but it is also a victory against heterosexism.

When I was a kid, boys weren't allowed anywhere near the kitchen (this book was published in 2006).  Girls were carefully instructed in the art of boiling, baking, sauteeing, and simmering, in order to prepare them for their futures as housewives, but boys were expected to have no use for such skills, since they would all have wives to cook for them.

On the tests of adequate masculinity that they kept forcing us to take in school, one of the questions was: "What does fricassee mean?" If a boy knew, he got a visit from the school nurse.

The only boy you ever saw cooking was Jughead in the Archie comics, and he was a "woman hater" (that is, gay).

Thus, any interest in or aptitude for cooking in boys was viewed as a rebellion against our heterosexual destiny: "If you learn to cook, you won't need a wife, so you'll never get married."

Or: "If you enjoy cooking, you must want to become a wife! "

The Easy-Bake oven was the most rebellious of toys you could put on your Christmas list: all pink and pastel, with only girls in the commercials, and the print ads talking about how much "she" will enjoy practicing for her future as someone's wife.

At Christmas 1969, when I was nine years old, I asked for one,  and caused my parents a lot of anxious conversations behind closed doors.  When they emerged, they smiled fearfully like the parents of the demonic kid on The Twilight Zone, and asked "Um...Jeff, do you think you might like to play pee-wee football next spring?"

Santa brought me a football.

In the fall of 1970, I asked for an Easy-Bake Oven for my birthday.  More anxious conversations, and afterwards my parents signed me up for Judo.

Joe Mazzello and Friend

Joe Mazzello made a career out of playing lonely, abused, oddball, or outcast boys, or the boy who bonds with them.

In 1992, at the age of eight, he won critical acclaim in Radio Flier, about a boy (Elijah Wood) who discovers that his stepfather is abusing his younger brother (Joe), and develops an imaginative escape plan: they'll transform his toy wagon, a Radio Flier, into an airplane.

In The Cure (1995), jock Erik (Brad Renfro) befriends Dexter (Joe), who has AIDS.  His mother forbids the friendship, and the bigots at school call them homophobic names, but their bond transcends all obstacles.   When they discover that a doctor in New Orleans has discovered a cure, they raft down the Mississippi like Huck and Jim.

Joe took a break from the gravitas in Star Kid (1997), where he plays a kid who finds an alien warrior cybersuit, but in Simon Birch (1998), he takes on the jock role; his Joe Wentworth befriends Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith), who is small and frail due to a hormonal condition.  Simon believes that God has a special purpose for him, and the two embark on a journey of self-discovery (I haven't actually seen this one).

Movies about intense friendships are harder to do with adults, since muscular physiques and the promise of sexual potency make it harder to ignore the homoerotic.  So as a young adult, Joe did some tv series (CSI, Without a Trace, Providence) and some independent movies, and had a starring role in The Pacific (2010), a miniseries about World War II (where his character has a homoromantic bond with James Badge Dale, right).

 In 2010, he starred in The Social Network as Dustin Moskovitz, who helped Mark Zuckerberg start the Facebook social network site.

No word on whether he's gay or a gay ally.

Dec 17, 2012

The Wonder that was India

During the 1960s, we didn't learn anything about India in school, except maybe a reference to Gandhi in a lesson on civil disobedience.  The impression we got came from boys' adventure stories, My Village in India, Kipling's Jungle Book (left), and the infinite variety of white-Indian companions: Jonny Quest and Hadji in cartoons, Terry and Raji on tv, Corentin and Kim (right) in comics, Sabu and Jon Hall in the movies.

I thought of India as a vast, steaming jungle studded with ruined temples and lost civilizations, like Tarzan's Pellucidar or the Hyperborea of Conan the Barbarian   A magical place, where tigers could talk and carpets could fly. A savage place, unhindered by heterosexist constraints of civilization, where boys could walk hand-in-hand and men could marry.

When I was a little older, I began reading children's books about India and Hinduism.  There was nearly as much beefcake among the gods and warriors in the Vedas, The Mahabharata, and The Ramayana as in Greek myth.

The stories were slow-going, all about the loves of kings and courtesans, faithful wives, and heroes searching for the woman of their dreams.  But there were a few hints:

Mitra and Varuna are Sky Gods who fly through the heavens on a golden chariot. They are so closely linked that they have a son together,

Agni, the God of Fire, and Soma, the God of the Moon, also have a son together: Karttikeya (left), god of male beauty.

Later I visited India with my friend Viju, and learned about Ashoka, the Guptas, Varanasi, Nehru, the British Raj, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Sikhs, the Jains, the poetry of Tagore. The heterosexism and homophobia: India didn't repeal its sodomy laws until 2009, and then in 2013 it reinstated them.  But in my memories, India remains a site of freedom.

Sword and Sandal

Steve Reeves didn't invent the genre of Italian peplum ("toga")  or sword-and-sandal, about a toga-clad demigod fighting oppression in a vaguely ancient Greek or Roman setting.  But he introduced it to the world.  Between 1957 and 1967, peplum was the most popular Italian movie export, even more popular than the artistic masterworks of Fellini and Antonioni.  

The hero was always a legendary muscleman: Goliath and Samson from the Bible, Hercules from Greek myth; Maciste from ancient Rome; Ursus from the movie Quo Vadis (1951).  Alan Steel (right) played both Samson and Hercules. Samson Burke was a rare bodybuilder who played mostly villains.

  But the plots didn't worry about historical accuracy.  Hercules fought the Mongols; Maciste found his way to the 16th century Aztec Empire; another Hercules (Giuliano Gemma) visited the Incas; an Arabian Nights setting involved Samson, who was born 1500 years before Mohammed.  There were even science fiction and horror movies; the hero fought vampires and moon men.

Many Mr. Universes (such as Ed Fury, right) were hired to play the mythic hero, giving bodybuilders their first roles other than self-absorbed beach-bunnies, and giving millions of gay boys their first crushes.

Kirk Morris (left), discovered while working as a gondalier in Venice, played Hercules, Maciste, and Anthar.  His villains included headhunters and the Tzar of Russia.

The peplum hero was a man-mountain, able to destroy entire enemy armies by flexing his superheroic biceps.  He was usually tied up and tortured two or three times, so he could struggle, his muscles glistening in the firelight of the Tzar's dungeon.  Sometimes other parts were clearly visible, as when Gordon Scott, a future Tarzan, played Maciste.

But buddy-bonding was conspicuously absent.  Men were sometimes comrades, but more usually competitors and back-stabbers.  Plots rarely involved rescuing men or sailing into the sunset with men.  Instead, there were always two women: an evil brunette (whom the hero spurned) and a virtuous blonde (whom he fell in love with).

The heroes were nice to look at, but they offered no glimpse of a "good place."

The very informative Peplum blog gives a rundown of many of the movies.

Dec 16, 2012

Bless the Beasts and Children

When I was a kid, our church forbade going to movies, but a combination of factors (a babysitting uncle, an adventurous friend, increased freedom) led to me seeing a lot during the summer and fall of 1971: The Million Dollar Duck, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Omega Man, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight, and Bless the Beasts and Children, an early example of the "shirtless teens working together" genre (others include Toy Soldiers, White Water Summer, and White Squall). But I found it painful to watch, and I haven't seen it since.

It stars a group of misfit teens at a summer camp, bullied by the others, ostracized as "The Bedwetters." They all have problems with distant, abusive, over-achieving, or absent parents (another of the establishment vs. youth plotlines of the hippie generation).
Counselor Cotton (Barry Robins, center)
Violent juvenile delinquent Teft (Billy Mumy of The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space).
Overweight Shecker (Miles Chapin, right)

The antisocial brothers Lally 1 (Marc Vahanian, right) and Lally 2 (Bob Kramer)
Shy, introverted Goodenow (Darel Glaser)

When they discover that a herd of buffalo at a nearby preserve will be hunted and killed, the Bedwetters decide to take action.  In 1971, during the heart of the Vietnam War, we couldn't miss the parallel between hunting buffalo and the parents' attempts to destroy the boys.

There is some buddy-bonding between Cotton and Teft, but usually the boys act as a group.

They even sleep together in a mass of entwined bodies.

The boys in Bless the Beasts and Children are not nearly as muscular as those in White Squall or Toy Soldiers; they are children, soft and vulnerable, in need of protection and nurturing, not objects of desire.

The many shirtless and semi-nude shots -- underwear so revealing that you literally see everything -- have been criticized as inappropriately erotic, but actually they add to the sadness of the movie. We see not only who the boys are now, but who they could become -- strong, powerful, potent -- endless human potential destroyed.

Only Bill Mumy and Marc Vahanian are still active in show business (Bill primarily as a singer). Barry Robins, who was gay in real life, died in 1986.  Miles Chapin is now an environmental activist and writer.

Sherlock Holmes, Gay Icon

As a kid I liked science fiction, fantasy, and jungle adventures, but not detective fiction, except for Michel (because he was cute, and in French), The Hardy Boys (because they were in love), and Sherlock Holmes: "The Red-Headed League", "The Five Orange Pips," "The Musgrave Ritual," and many other stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

They were short enough to read quickly, exciting but not scary, mysterious but always realistic (no ghosts or monsters).  Sherlock Holmes' power of logical deduction was appealing to a boy just starting to tease out the patterns, conventions, and constraints of adult life.

And he was gay.

The original stories, published between 1881 and 1927, give Holmes a rather sexist disapproval of women's "weakness," and a dislike of heterosexual romance: "he never spoke of the softer passions, except for a gibe and a sneer."  He admires Irene Adler, the heroine of "A Scandal in Bohemia," but has no romantic interest in her.  However, he quite enjoys the company of men, especially his roommate, assistant, and life partner, Dr. Watson.

Watson did express heterosexual interest; in The Sign of Four (1890), he falls in love and marries.  But marriage always puts a damper on adventure, so soon Mrs. Watson was written out with a brief reference to her death, and Holmes and Watson were together again.

Many movie versions of Holmes appeared during my childhood and adolescence:
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)
Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)
The Seven Percent Solution (1976)
Murder by Decree (1979)

But none offered any beefcake -- Sherlock started displaying a bare chest only in the 2000s.

And only The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) openly alluded to the homoromantic relationship between Holmes and Watson, and then only as a joke.  Some kept the buddy-bonding, but most presented Holmes as avidly heterosexual, leering at women, dancing with them, falling in love with Irene Adler.

Another Hollywood attempt to erase the existence of gay people from the world.

Not to worry -- Jeremy Brett played him as rather more gay-vague in the late 1980s and 1990s.


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