Cinema, that modern mirror of human life, has been somewhat hopeless when it comes to portraying love between members of the same sex. Our Eric Rohmer is yet to be visible. Worse still, most films, the predominant theme of which be, faute de mieux, gay love, easily fall into one of the following four categories: (a) coming out amidst great adversity and dying, (b) coming out amidst great adversity and surviving, (c) the 'bi now, gay later,' straight-to-gay wish-fulfilment fantasies, and (d) the AIDS film, which is seldom dealt with the sensitivity and poignancy it deserves.
The first two categories were surely worthwhile once, but further additions, especially when blatantly platitudinous, is merely boring. As for the third, seeming as it is to be every gay man's fantasy, I'm sure its appeal won't diminish.
In recent years, it seems to me, a transatlantic divide has emerged when it comes to what, for the sake of convenience, I shall call 'the gay cinema.' The US & Canada have produced some great films of this kind: notably Philadelphia, Boys Don't Cry, and Les Amours Imaginaires. And, no, before somebody feels hurt by the omission of the gay shepherd film, I'm sorry, it is, in my opinion, one of the most over-rated film I've ever seen. For the record, the famous love scene therein is not just unrealistic, it is also inadvisable.
But, Europe, though equally capable of producing irritating films, has been more adept at producing artful and thoughtful films. It was Britain, after all, which first brought forth Beautiful Thing and My Beautiful Laundrette, and, lest we forget, Brideshead Revisited. But, in recent years, while America is prone to produce horrendous gay indies, with unbearable dialogue, appalling acting, and sinful plots, European Cinema is showing signs that it has begun to move beyond kitsch and cliché. Weekend, an independent British film, was both a critical and commercial success. Tomboy, a French film, and Romeos, a German one, both looked, without resorting to sensationalism or violence, at life with gender malalignment. Le Temps Qui Reste is a modern, understated, and highly emotional look at being gay and facing mortality (not HIV/AIDS). In the amazing Io Sono L'Amore, both the coming out, and the the question of familiar acceptance, was addressed with such delicacy and grace, that you wonder whether it were films like these, rather than melodramatic films with tears and screams, that will subtly influence LGBT rights for years to come.
The most beautiful film on what it means to love someone of your own sex, released earlier this year in the UK at the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, must be Noordzee, Texas (North Sea, Texas). In one of the very first scenes, a young boy, of about five, goes up to his room, dons a tiara, wears a pearl necklace, and adores himself naked in the mirror. His mum walks in, but neither screams nor cries. 'Don't worry, Pim, mum's not angry,' she says.
As he grows into a beautiful teenager, Pim falls in love with a neighbour. Although the love is mutual, Pim's lover, Gino, is sexually confused. But, no terms, no words such as 'gay' or 'straight,' no vacuous truisms about society and family deafen our ears. There is a tacit understanding on the part of Gino's lugubrious mother, but much, as in real life, is left unsaid. Indeed, Pim barely speaks five hundred words through the film. Pim, who patiently collects memorabilia from every important love in his life, from the tiara to a bit of shaving foam on a piece of paper, is perhaps the tenderest and purest expression of adolescent love in gay cinema.
It may be, of course, due to the fact that the film is Dutch, and the Dutch tend to be more relaxed about these things than many other countries. The cynical side of me also wondered, were not the two men in question so beautiful, and they are beautiful, whether the film would be as effective. But, that is besides the point. What the film evokes, in the days of Grindr and GayDar, online dating and an oft-celebrated divorce between sex and emotions, and evokes powerfully, is the issue at the heart of all endeavours associated with gay rights: the innate need, the natural desire, the human right, to fall in love.
I came to Britain, roughly six years ago, seeking a new life. In India, from where I had moved, sexual acts between two men, or two women, were still illegal, and could carry a sentence of life imprisonment. Much as I moved here for intellectual and artistic reasons, I also moved here, I'm not ashamed to admit, to burn, with a gem-like flame, in love. If youth be not the age for love, what is?
The passionate love I have instinctively sought has yet to materialise. There are several personal reasons, such as studying at a demanding university, and maintaining a career in addition. But, these are facile orthodoxies. Upon reflection, and this is what Noordzee forced me to confront anew, thereby compelling me to pen this piece, I realised that the nature of love itself, and especially perhaps for gay men, is radically transforming, which I'm not sure is at all for the better.
A disclaimer at this point: this article is written from the perspective of a gay man, for gay and bisexual men. Not to discriminate against people of other sexualities. But, when it comes to writing about something so personal as love, I cannot generalise beyond what I myself know and feel.
Until, say, a decade or so ago, the traditional venue for gay men to meet each other was in dedicated bars and clubs. Of course, cruising for sex was always widespread among gay men, and I have nothing to say on that matter, nor judge it. But, people routinely fell in love, which was one of the motivations in the fight for equality. After all, gay men and women weren't fighting just for the right to have sex. Were that the case, they could just as easily have done that in the privacy of their bedrooms.
Then, online dating came in, and at first, it seemed like a boon. Gay people, especially in the more oppressive societies, could communicate with ease and without fear of being put in the pillory for it. But, as acceptance improved in Western countries, this purpose seemed to wither, and people used it more and more to find transient sexual partnerships. The surest example of this is (or was) the extremely popular website GayDar, or in America, CraigsList. Open these websites today, and flip through the odd profile, and one is immediately disabused of any illusions as to their proclaimed innocuousness.
Now, with the arrival of Grindr, which pinpoints through your smartphone where the nearest gay man is, GayDar and its cousins, including Facebook, seem tame as a lamb. At least on GayDar, your subjective self had a few thousand words, categorised and stereotyped as they are, to express your essence. In Grindr, you at most have twenty words. The rest are categories, check-lists: age, height, weight, sexual status, and most importantly, ethnicity. In my experience, and this has been confirmed by many others, almost all online dating platforms are routinely racist, and, this is ironic, blatantly homophobic, with little moderation from the developers. The most common sentences on the profiles are: 'No Asians,' 'Not into Indians, Blacks, Asians, or Africans,' 'No camps, femmes, trannies,' and, 'No one under 30.' The profiles commonly have headless torsos, seldom authentic, and the first picture that comes one's way, if one is deigned to receive a reply at all, is a picture of the private parts. The number of men in their late forties and fifties, attempting to take advantage of a teenager, is seriously disturbing.
In the space of online and app-based dating, the space for love has been correspondingly hard to find. Even in bars and clubs, ever frequented by straight women for 'fun,' men's faces are increasingly preoccupied with the screens in their hands, their faces yellow with the glow of Grindr. People don't look into the other's eye, hoping, yearning for that spark of contact, that longing for communication, the intimacy of touch. There are, as Rohmer would bemoan, no surprises, no mysteries, the essential ingredients for affections to blossom.
More worryingly, for the young men and women coming out today and exploring their sexuality, a world of hypersexuality, one filled with predatory individuals, is surely not the best way to help them see sexual partnerships as a means to connect with other individuals. Besides, how prepared are we to suggest, or admit, that the only means, let alone the best one, to proceed with sexuality is to divorce it from feelings altogether?
Lest I be misconstrued as an old fogey or a luddite, I can, I admit, see the 'networking' aspect of these technologies, especially, as I said in the less tolerant of places. It does provide an opportunity for us to reach out. Equally, I recognise the problem gay men and women face today. When we wish to begin talking to someone whom, for various reasons, we find attractive, society still dictates that the person we behold is straight. At best, it leads to a simple rejection, at worse, to physical assault. Also, far be it from me to draw the moral contours of human sexuality. The less we moralise it, in fact, and leave consensual adults to their own healthy devices, the better.
Yet, as someone who, with no interest in Grindr or DismayDar, whose idea of music is more of Scriabin than of Lady Gaga, as someone who is interested more in love than sex for its own sake, the lack of platforms to meet and find other gay friends, and hopefully, a boyfriend, is a cause for melancholy. I fear that love, such as one finds in Nordzee, can no longer establish itself, for it has no space to breathe and be nurtured. Which is why, I cannot help but ask, even plead, if love be the ultimate reason as to why we fight for gay rights, that we may burn, slowly, fully, and with sweet labour, in its pure flame, then, as a community, and as a society, that we find a way, were that possible, to provide human relationships their due sense of space and time.