– By James Powers –
This weekend sees the conclusion of what is probably one of the largest niche film festivals in the nation. LA’s Outfest, which began last Thursday and continues through Sunday, showcases a panoply of films made by and about people across the LGBT spectrum, attracts around 40,000 attendees each year, and is apparently the oldest film festival in LA. It’s been a busy year for the festival, which received more submissions than ever for 2019 by a margin of about 40%.
And, at least from where I’m standing, it seems to have been a pretty busy year for queer representation in general. Stranger Things introduced a new LGBT character and, depending on how you look at it, revealed a familiar one to be gay as well. At San Diego Comic-Con, actress Tessa Thompson teased that her Marvel heroine Valkyrie will play out the bisexual identity of her comic counterpart in the next Thor film, which studio head Kevin Feige confirmed shortly thereafter. And network TV is throwing its weight behind the LGBT community as well, with the CW’s upcoming Batwoman focusing on a lesbian protagonist. These are some of the more high-profile examples, but others abound as well. All in all, “it’s a really exciting time to be a queer storyteller,” says Christopher Racster, Outfest’s executive director.
While that may be the case, it makes for a bit of a weird time to be a Catholic storyteller. Here we are, after all, repping one of the few remaining institutions that hasn’t officially raised the rainbow flag, as we step into an arena that very nearly demands everyone do so. We find ourselves opting for polite silence when those around us are fanboy- or fangirl-ing about, say, Kate Kane’s romantic prospects, not wanting to start a fight but also not wanting to misrepresent our beliefs. While most of the film and TV world is excitedly abuzz about the increase in LGBT representation, I expect this blog’s readership probably feels more ambivalent about it. I know this writer does.
Well ok, maybe “ambivalent” is the wrong word for some. There are plenty of people, plenty of Catholics, who simplify the whole homosexuality question by blithely disregarding the Church’s teaching on it, applauding the pride movement and all its recent advances. Meanwhile, there are plenty of others who use the Church’s teaching as a thin excuse for tirades and prejudice, even as they pay lip service to compassion. Either way, the issue of LGBT rights and representation is an extremely messy one, and black-and-white responses present a tempting shortcut to those who’d prefer it not be.
Some of us can’t take those shortcuts so easily, however. As LGBT characters become more of a fixture in pop culture, and as conservative pundits become more combative in response, I think Catholic storytellers especially will find themselves in a pinched spot. We know what our Church teaches, and we know the strong foundation that teaching has in both theology and natural law. But we also know that good storytelling requires eyes wide open to the truth, and truth – surprise – isn’t simply doctrinal formulations or moral principles. The experience of our neighbor is also truth, even if their interpretation of that experience may be erroneous. The consequence of this is that good storytelling lives and dies on empathy, on the ability to see through another’s eyes, to share another’s experience.
This empathy extends to our LGBT neighbors as much as any other group, but it’s easy for us as Christians to be real skittish about them in particular. In part, I think this is because of how incredibly politically charged they are at the moment, and so we don’t want to dip our toes into that hot water if we don’t really have to. But more so, I think it’s because listening to another’s story, and particularly telling another’s story, can veer dangerously close to seeming to condone their mistakes, or even being drawn into those mistakes oneself.
That, I think, is a big and very real risk, one to which I don’t have a pat answer. But it’s one I think about a lot, because it’s inherent and unavoidable in art. Empathy can be dangerous for the artist – spiritually, morally dangerous – and yet at the same time it is absolutely necessary for her. I know there are many Christians who will try and argue against one or the other of those points. Some will say that uncritical acceptance of everyone “where they’re at” is the truth of the Gospel, and others will insist that we shout our moral principles from the housetops so that we can’t hear anything else. Both are wrong, but admittedly I can’t tell you exactly what is right.
One thing I can tell you, however, is that I’ve personally found myself rewarded by taking the risk, multiple times. Recently I finally got around to seeing the gorgeous but bruising film Moonlight, the 2016 Best Picture winner, about a black boy growing up in lower-class Miami who happens to be gay. Not that he explicitly identifies as such; he doesn’t wear tight pants, speak with a lisp, sing in an a capella group, or assume any of the other affectations that our culture finds so convenient for assigning orientation. But as he slowly advances to adulthood, he realizes he is different from his peers, and eventually this difference starts to manifest in his desires.
At the film’s end, these desires are realized, at least momentarily, but not in the way you would expect. In its exploration of homosexuality and masculinity, Moonlight deeply understands something that most movies, most people, don’t understand, but that is in fact central to Catholic sexual morality. Namely, the simple notion that sex isn’t ultimately about sex, but rather about love. It is a means to that end, not an end in itself, and is therefore only good insofar as it serves that end. Eventually, the protagonist of Moonlight finds a moment’s healing after decades of pain – but not by coming out, not by hooking up, not through conversion therapy or taking up celibacy; rather, just by being seen and held by another. Straight or gay or cis or trans, that’s really all any of us wants, easy though it may be to forget.
For my money, Moonlight’s ending ties it off as the complete package: good, true and beautiful. Unfortunately, as Steven Greydanus points out in his review of the film, its subject matter is more of a turnoff to a Christian audience than it should be. “While many Christians will reject any empathic treatment of homosexual experience,” he says, “Moonlight is a film that says things worth saying and hearing.” And those things are there not despite its “empathic treatment” of homosexuality, but in fact through it. The pain and loneliness of its young hero exist largely (though not entirely) within his experience as gay, yet I think many straight viewers know well what he is feeling, in one way or another. And through that shared feeling comes, I think, a deeper understanding.
It’s a shame, then, that a wide swath of Christian filmgoers have probably cut themselves off from hearing what Moonlight has to say. For one thing, because they’ll be depriving themselves of a beautiful film. But more importantly, when some people stop listening, other people tend to stop talking. It’s a pretty simple principle, really. If we categorically close ourselves off from what someone has to say, then that person will likely stop talking to us, and almost certainly stop listening to us. And if you haven’t noticed, the LGBT community is pretty disinterested lately in having any sort of relationship with conservative Christianity.
So yes, actually, I think LGBT representation can be a good thing. Does this mean I share in all the confetti-throwing about Valkyrie in the wake of Tessa Thompson’s revelation at Comic Con? No. I expect that blockbusters like the MCU and Stranger Things don’t really have room to address queer identity with anything more sophisticated than a variation on “woooo! Love is love!” But they’ll make sure to say it, which will leave some of their fans really happy, others really mad, and the vast majority probably won’t care much one way or the other. They’ll still buy tickets when Thor: Love and Thunder lands in a couple years, and we all know that’s what matters.
Meanwhile, as Catholics who affirm that the infinite all-powerful God poured himself down into a particular, finite human person – I think we need to remember that our own salvation, and that of our neighbor, will not be accomplished through the “culture wars.” It won’t be accomplished through blog posts or legislation or (lol) box office records. It will happen only one soul at a time, one life at a time. For those of us in media and the arts, we can only inch towards it one story or image or song at a time.
Perhaps, for the given individual who’s gay or trans or otherwise queer, part of that salvation will come in finally being seen and held by a Christian, finding themselves heard and their experiences understood, perhaps in a film. Or perhaps it will come through the cross, through getting smacked upside the head and shown the truth of sin in their lives. But that’s the case for all of us. Perhaps you need to be seen, held and heard right now; or perhaps you need to get smacked upside the head. Perhaps I need to be held, or perhaps I need to get smacked. In all of these cases, God only knows. He’s probably telling us, each of us individually. But first we have to listen.
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.