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A man’s world

Glenn Close’s pet project explores societal advantages of gender

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Aaron Johnson, left, and Glenn Close in the gender-bending 19th century drama ‘Albert Nobbs.’ Close and co-star Janet McTeer are both nominated for Oscars for their performances. (Still courtesy Roadside Attractions)

“Albert Nobbs” is a complex movie about a simple man with grand dreams — and a big secret.

The fastidious Mr. Nobbs works as a waiter at a posh Irish hotel. He carefully tracks the tips he receives from his stylish clients, saving up to buy a tobacconist’s shop (even though he does not know how to smoke or even roll a cigarette). He lives a quiet lonely life, carefully locking the door to his Spartan room, wandering the streets of 19th century Dublin looking like an early version of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and squirreling away his growing stockpile beneath a loose floorboard.

All that changes when he is briefly forced to share his room with Hubert Page, a painter who has been hired to spruce up the hotel. The two men soon realize they share a secret — both are really women who have dressed as men to escape poverty and sexual violence.

The two women embody very different modes of masculine behavior. Nobbs, played by Glenn Close, declares that “life without decency is unbearable.” She binds herself in a scratchy undergarment, dresses in formal clothing and seems to vanish into the background, watching the action around her rather than participating.

On the other hand, Page, played by Janet McTeer, employs a different strategy. She disguises herself in a set of baggy clothes stolen from her abusive husband. Page swaggers through life, smoking, flirting with women and slapping men on the back. In fact, Page has married a woman, leaving a mystified Nobbs wondering, but too timid to ask, how Page told his wife about his sexual identity.

Inspired by Page, Nobbs expands his dream. He envisions taking on a wife who can provide companionship, respectability and free labor for the shop. He starts “walking out” with one of the maids, not realizing she is already having an affair with the handyman at the hotel. Nobbs is too busy fantasizing about their life together and wondering when he will reveal his own secret.

Both Close and McTeer offer vibrant portrayals of women forced to live their lives as men, making clear and interesting choices about the fascinating similarities and differences between their two characters. Close has a long history with the character. She created the role onstage in 1982, and since then has worked to bring the material to cinematic life. She produced the movie, co-wrote the screenplay with award-winning Irish novelist John Banville and Gabriella Prekop and even provided the lyrics for “Lay Your Head Down,” the lovely ballad that closes the movie (which opens today in Washington).

The press materials describe Nobbs as “trapped in a prison of her own making,” but that seems rather inaccurate, although there is a scene where Nobbs and Page put on dresses and Nobbs runs giddily along the shore.

Nobbs is not simply a straight woman masquerading as a man to get by, but somewhere on the trans spectrum. He shows no sexual interest in men. His interest in women is more social and economic than sexual, but he is obsessed with the question of when to reveal his true sex to Helen (even though he never touches her and he does not realize that Helen and her beau are just milking him for gifts) and the mystery of when Page revealed his true sex to his wife Kathleen, so he thinks about having an intimate physical relationship of some kind with a woman.

The film — which is more interested in telling Nobbs’ story than identifying his gender identity — deals with these murky issues with a velvet touch. Even the rape and poverty mentioned as part of his story are discussed but not shown.

Close and McTeer are surrounded by a strong supporting cast and crew including Mia Wasikowska as the calculating maid who is the object of Nobbs’ affection, Pauline Collins as the affected proprietress of Morrison’s Hotel and Brendan Gleeson as the kindly doctor who lives at the hotel.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers appears all too briefly as a party-loving and occasionally gender-bending aristocratic guest at the hotel. Designers Patrizia von Brandenstein and Pierre-Yves Gayraud lovingly recreate period Dublin in rich detail and director Rodrigo Garcia (known for HBO’s “In Treatment”) directs with a sure if somewhat too steady hand (the movie could have used a little less of Nobbs’ timidity and a little more of Page’s bravado). Nonetheless, “Albert Nobbs” is an interesting consideration of class and gender that sheds a gentle light on both a remarkable character and our own times.

 

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Sports

Paris prepares for the gayest games since Tokyo

Everything LGBTQ about the 2024 Summer Games

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The biggest name in LGBTQ sports at this Olympics is that of the fastest woman in the world: Sha'Carri Richardson. (Screen capture via NBC News)

When this week’s Summer Olympic Games kick off in Paris, it will bewith an abundance of flair, fireworks, and joie de vivre — that’s French for “joy of life” — and more inclusion than ever before.

For the first time, the Olympics have achieved gender parity, with 50% of athletes identifying as men and 50% identifying as women, and at least two athletes identifying as transgender nonbinary. There is one trans man, boxer Hergie Bacyadan of the Philippines. These athletes will compete in 32 sports and 339 events, starting this week, and once again there will also be a Refugee Team featuring 37 athletes from all over the world, vying for medals in 12 sports.

There will also be a huge amount of LGBTQ representation among more than 200 countries and that Refugee Team. The big name athletes include track and field star Sha’Carri Richardson, shot-putter Raven Saunders, basketball superstars Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart, new “Pops” Brittney Griner, Alyssa Thomas (who is engaged to her WNBA teammate DeWanna Bonner), BMX Freestyle riders Hannah Roberts and Perris Benegas, the British diver Tom Daley, who is competing in his fifth Olympic Games, and Brazil’s legendary soccer player Marta, who will compete for a sixth time.

But determining exactly how many athletes are out is no easy feat.

Published estimates of total competitors range from 10,500 to 10,700, and the official Olympics site counts 11,232 athletes, including one 18-year-old woman representing the People’s Republic of China who will compete in a sport making its debut at this Olympics, called breaking — better known as breakdancing. She is identified only as “671,” no first or last name, just “671.” Good luck, “Six!”

While we don’t know how “671” identifies, there is a consensus that these games will see the largest contingent of out athletes since the 2020 Olympics were played in Tokyo in 2021, delayed a year because of the pandemic. GLAAD and Athlete Ally counted 222 out athletes competing in Tokyo, as mentioned in their comprehensive guide to these Summer Games, a collaboration with Pride House France.

In 2021, the editors at the LGBTQ sports website Outsports had estimated there were 120 competing in Japan, and updated that number to 186 after learning about other athletes who were LGBTQ, including some who came out after competing. That number, they said, set a new record.

This year, they have once again done the math, and calculated how many queer competitors will participate in this year’s Summer Games: Fewer than in Tokyo, but more than in any other Olympics.

“At least 144 publicly out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and nonbinary athletes will be in Paris for the 2024 Olympics, the second consecutive Summer Games where the number has reached triple digits,” says Outsports co-founder Jim Buzinski. “There are also a record number of out male Olympians.”

And yet, Team USA has only one man who is publicly out: distance runner Nico Young, a cross-country and track and field athlete at Northern Arizona University. Young, 21, came out as gay in 2022 in a post on Instagram.

“I am living proof that it is not a choice, it is something I have always known and been aware of, but have kept silent out of fear of rejection,” Young wrote. “I have struggled to accept myself, but I am becoming more proud and happy with who I am. I have realized that the only reason I never liked this part of who I am was because of what society has told me, not because of how I actually feel. This is a quality of myself as well as so many other people that should be accepted and celebrated just the same as a straight person’s identity is.”

USA has the most out athletes

At least 24 countries — including the Refugee Team — are represented by at least one publicly out athlete in 32 sports this year. As before, the United States has the most out athletes of all with 28, about one-fifth of the athletes on the “Team LGBTQ” list compiled by Outsports.

Brazil has 22 out athletes, Australia has 17, Great Britain is fourth with 10 and Germany has nine.

Not surprisingly, out women athletes far outnumber out men on their list by about a 7 to 1 margin. But it’s not women’s basketball that has the most out athletes of any sport, with more than 30 players identifying as LGBTQ. It’s women’s soccer.

Tierna Davidson of Menlo Park, Calif., is the sole American competing in women’s soccer who is publicly queer. She proposed to her partner Alison Jahansouz in March. At Stanford, Davidson and her team won an NCAA title in college football. Then, at age 20, she won the 2019 Women’s World Cup — the youngest player on USWNT — and the Bronze with Team USA in Tokyo. But with the departure of the team’s gay icons, namely Megan Rapinoe, Davidson, 25, told The Athletic she said she feels pressure like never before.

“I think that there’s no illusion that the ratio of queerness on the team has decreased a little bit, at least with players that are out,” she said, noting that as an introvert she is not seeking the high profile of Rapinoe. “And so, I think it’s important to recognize that I am part of that ratio, and that it is important to bring issues to the table that are important to me and to my community, and be able to be that representative for people that look up to queer athletes and see themselves in me on the field.”

Canadian soccer player Quinn, 28, returns to the Olympics this week as the first transgender nonbinary athlete to have won a gold medal, at Tokyo in 2021, as the Blade reported. They came out to their team in an email in 2020, and recently took part in a Q&A about that experience.

“I think I had a better relationship with my teammates after coming out,” they said. “I had a new confidence and ability to be vulnerable with them and it strengthened many relationships in my life. There were some players on my professional team at the time who were ignorant, but having the overwhelming majority of players and staff support me really created an environment where anything less than that wouldn’t be tolerated.”

As of press time, GLAAD and Athlete Ally are still counting how many out athletes will be competing in Paris. But the numbers aren’t as important as visibility, GLAAD President & CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis told the Blade.

“LGBTQ athletes continue to shine at the Olympic Games, including transgender athletes who will help reporters and viewers to see their humanity as well as their achievements,” Ellis said. “For the first time there will be gender parity among Olympic athletes, a significant milestone that comes as transgender and nonbinary people are also included. This guide, created in collaboration with Athlete Ally and Pride House France, is uniquely positioned to help media covering the Games include and report on LGBTQ athletes so their talents and stories are centered to inform and inspire acceptance among audiences around the world.”

Of course, compiling all these lists is a gargantuan task, one that LGBTQ historian Tony Scupham-Bilton of Nottingham, U.K., has been doing for more than a decade with a blog called The Queerstory Files. He told the Blade he contributed to the list Outsports published.

“I had six athletes which they didn’t have on their list when we compared them last week, but there were about 20 athletes on their list which I didn’t have,” Scupham-Bilton said, noting that inclusion is increasing. “Paris has already exceeded previous levels of representation and involvement. That indicates a probable increase in medals. I have also noticed that there has been an increase in the number of Olympians coming out between Olympics.”

One other big change in terms of representation that this historian sees is how the Olympics themselves have embraced the LGBTQ community.

“Even though there have been Pride Houses at most Olympic Games since Vancouver 2010, the majority of which have been supported by the various organizing committees, Paris 2024 is the first to include it on its official website,” Scupham-Bilton told the Blade.

As the Blade reported, Team USA celebrated Santa Cruz, Calif., native Nikki Hiltz qualifying for the Olympics with their record-setting finish in the 1,500-meter race earlier this month with an Instagram post that drew a flood of negative comments from straight cisgender men.

Hiltz, 29, is the other trans nonbinary athlete competing in Paris. Team USA’s post showed them writing “I ❤ the gays” on a camera lens. A lot of the comments showed ignorance of their actual identity, calling them a “cheater” and “a man.”

Hiltz responded with grace, in an Instagram post about how far they’ve come since 2021. That year they finished dead last in the Olympic trials, held shortly after they came out. Earlier this month, Hiltz reflected on their growth.

“I’ve spent the past 3 years rebuilding my confidence and reshaping that narrative. Telling myself every single day that I belong. Showing up to meets, taking up space, and making friends with those little voices in my head that consistently tried to convince me I was too confusing, I was a burden or I wasn’t enough,” they wrote.

This year, in Eugene, Ore., was different.

“I stood on the start line of the Olympic Trials 1500 final and told myself ‘I can do this, the world will make space for you. Remember to enjoy this race and have fun playing the game of racing, this is your moment.’ The gun went off, it got hard, I didn’t crumble, I didn’t fall off the pace, I held on and 3 minutes and 55 seconds later I broke the finish line tape and became an Olympian.”

But by far the biggest name in LGBTQ sports at this Olympics is that of the fastest woman in the world: Sha’Carri Richardson. She missed out on competing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021 for testing positive for cannabis, and now is going for gold.

Richardson graced a recent cover of Vogue, and told the magazine how committed she is to this goal: “Everything I do—what I eat, what I drink, if I stay up too late—it’s all reflected on the track,” she said. “Every choice. That’s what the world doesn’t see.” But she also talked about keeping herself fixed firmly in the present. “If all I’m doing is looking ahead, then I can’t be where I need to be. Which is here, now.”

The Blade will be there, in Paris, to bring you all the excitement from the Olympic Games.

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Books

New Isherwood biography an insightful read

An honest, sympathetic look at prolific writer’s life and work

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'Christopher Isherwood: Inside Out' (Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

‘Christopher Isherwood: Inside Out’
By Katherine Bucknell
c.2024, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$45/864 pages

“Christopher Isherwood: Inside Out” is an insightful biography of the prolific English writer, author of “Goodbye to Berlin” (the inspiration behind “Cabaret”), “A Single Man,” and “Christopher and His Kind,” among others. Katherine Bucknell, director of the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, as well as editor of several collections of Isherwood’s diaries and letters, draws on his letters, journals, creative work, and interviews to build an extensive look at this talented writer.

Isherwood was born in 1904 to landed gentry, with properties, a large house, and servants. His father was in the British Army and the family moved around for a while, including a stint in Ireland. His father went to fight in World War I and died in France, leaving his mother to look after Isherwood and his younger brother. This clearly affected Isherwood, although he wouldn’t discuss it until much later. While this section of his childhood is important to Isherwood’s later development, the many details make for slow reading.

The book really picks up when Isherwood travels to Germany in 1929, where he fully embraced his sexuality. In Berlin, he first lived next door to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, one of the first sexology research centers advocating for decriminalization of homosexuality. Isherwood met many young German men, falling in love with Heinz Neddermeyer, who he tried to help get out of the country as the Nazis gained power. His short novels “Mr. Norris Changes Trains” and “Goodbye to Berlin” are fictionalized versions of the people he met and his experiences there, although they don’t tell the whole truth about his sexual adventures.

Decades later, as the German translation of “Christopher and His Kind,” a nonfiction account of Isherwood’s time in Germany, was to appear, Neddermeyer, now with a family, wrote to Isherwood despairing that the book would out him. The translation wouldn’t be published until after Isherwood’s death.

Isherwood emigrated to America with his school friend, the poet W.H. Auden, in 1939. The two collaborated on several plays and covered Japan’s invasion of China, even sleeping together several times. This move, near the start of World War II, plus Isherwood’s pacifist refusal to fight, caused bitter feelings with some friends in England.

He settled in Los Angeles where he discovered the Vedanta Hindu-inspired philosophy. He translated the Bhagavad Gita with the religious leader Prabhavananda, who he deeply admired. Although Isherwood struggled to practice all of Vedanta’s teachings, including celibacy, the religion accepted him completely.

He also met Don Bachardy, with whom he’d spend the rest of his life. Thirty years younger than Isherwood, Bachardy shared with Bucknell the challenges in their relationship. While Isherwood encouraged him to study art in England, Bachardy had affairs there, as did Isherwood back in LA. In their letters, Isherwood was “Dobbin” while Bachardy was “Kitty.” Seeing their love grow and develop is one of this book’s pleasures.

Despite the biography’s length and slow start, it reveals an honest yet sympathetic look at Isherwood’s life and work. It should inspire readers to pick up his books, either again or for the first time.

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Out & About

DC Center to host Alzheimer’s awareness event

‘Seniors & Cognition’ talk to explore warning signs, healthy brain practices

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The DC LGBTQ+ Community Center, the DC Department on Aging and Community Living, and the Alzheimer’s Association are joining forces to host “Seniors & Cognition with the Alzheimer’s Association” on Thursday, July 25 at 2 p.m. on Zoom. 

Guest speakers will walk the audience through understanding Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, their warning signs, healthy brain practices, and more. The lecture series will consist of three 1.5-hour sessions, with the others set to take place in August and September. 

To register, visit the DC Center’s website

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