As gay men, we’ve been through a lot.
For so many years we were deep in the closet, fearful of being arrested, and threatened with pseudo-medical cures.
Then came the Stonewall uprising, the declassification of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, and the defeat of sodomy laws. And finally, the legalization of gay marriage.
Now—at least in some parts of the world — we’re free to live our lives exactly like everyone else. No one gets to tell us how to live, whom to love, or what we can or can’t do in the bedroom. We alone call the shots.
Then again, maybe we’re not as free as we think. Ever wonder why so many of us open our relationships? Are we always really deciding for ourselves how we want to live?
Or are we sometimes on autopilot, blithely following expectations and norms of which we aren’t even aware, oblivious to the possible consequences?
Spring, 1987: Although I didn’t know it at the time, my own introduction to the world of gay relationships was following a script that countless gay men have lived.
Growing up in that era, there were no visible gay relationships, no role models. Astoundingly, a gay porn theater/bathhouse did advertise in the Washington Post, my hometown paper, when I was a kid. While this was titillating, I dreamed of something more traditional and soulful for my future than the anonymous encounters and orgies at which those ads hinted.
So when hunky, adorable Justin* asked me out after a meeting of the campus gay group and we started dating, I was over the moon. That is, until my friends Ben and Tom, an older gay couple, shot me right back down to earth when, one evening over dinner, they asked if Justin and I were “exclusive.”
Huh? What a question!
“Just wait,” Tom said knowingly, “Gay men never stay monogamous for long.”
More than 30 years have passed, and the world of gay male relationships remains pretty much the same. Working as a psychologist for the past 25 years, I’ve listened to hundreds of gay clients share their own versions of my long-ago dinner with Ben and Tom. “We just assumed we’d be monogamous, but then this older gay couple told us, ‘yeah, let’s see how long that lasts.’ So we decided to open up our relationship and start playing around.”
New generations have the possibility of proudly visible relationships and recently, marriage. And still, for many of us, open relationships are seen as the default choice in one form or another: “Monogamish.” Only when one partner is out-of-town. Never the same person twice. Only when both partners are present. No kissing. No intercourse. No falling in love. Never in the couple’s home. Never in the couple’s bed. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Disclose everything. Anything goes.
Examining our affinity for non-monogamy can be seen as judgmental or anti-gay, “sex-negative,” tantamount to suggesting that gay men should mimic a heterosexual model that is patriarchal, misogynist, oppressive — and maybe not even really workable for straight people. Questioning our penchant for casual sex while we are coupled is also seen as a challenge to the inspirational (to some) narrative that gay men, free of the constraints of history and tradition, are constructing a fresh, vibrant model of relationships that decouples the unnecessary, pesky, and troublesome bond between emotional fidelity and sexual exclusivity.
But we do not honor our diversity if we expect that any of us should choose (or not choose) any particular role or path. After all, gay men are just as multidimensional, complex, and unique as other men.
And while an open relationship may be the best relationship for some couples to have, successfully being in one requires capabilities that many of us do not possess. Simply being a gay man certainly does not automatically provide skills such as:
The solidity of self to be trusting and generous
The ability to sense how far boundaries can be pushed without doing too much damage
The capacity to transcend feelings of jealousy and pain
The strength of character not to objectify or idealize outside sex partners.
Yes, open relationships can be as close, loving, and committed as monogamous relationships, which of course have their own difficulties. But even when conducted with thought, caution, and care, they can easily result in hurt and feelings of betrayal.
Moreover, open relationships are often designed to keep important experiences secret or unspoken between partners. Clients will tell me they do not want to know exactly what their partner is doing with other men, preferring to maintain a fantasy (or delusion) that certain lines will not be crossed. As a result, the ways in which we structure our open relationships can easily interfere with intimacy—knowing, and being known by our partners.
Consequently, we gay men often struggle to form solid, mutually respectful attachments that include both emotional and physical connection. Might any of these scenarios be familiar to you?
Jim and Rob came in to see me after a disastrous cruise with eight of their friends. Although it had not been their plan, between them they had ended up separately having sex with all eight. This had broken several of their “rules,” although as Jim pointed out, the rules were unclear because they often made them up to suit whatever they wanted to do, or not allow each other to do. Each partner’s ongoing anger over how his partner was hurting him by ignoring admittedly ad-hoc sexual boundaries meant that Jim and Rob hadn’t had sex with each other in two years.
Another couple I work with, Frank and Scott, have had an open relationship from the start. When they met, Frank felt strongly that monogamy had no relevance to him as a gay man. Though Scott wanted a sexually exclusive relationship, he somewhat reluctantly went along with Frank’s wishes because he wanted to be with Frank. In recent years the two have become near-constant users of hookup apps, and recently Scott met a younger man on Scruff with whom he has “great chemistry.” Now, to Frank’s dismay, Scott is dating Todd.
Carlos and Greg came to see me after Carlos discovered that Greg was hooking up numerous times a month. Although they had a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” agreement and both assumed the other was occasionally having sex with other men, Greg’s behavior was far more frequent than Carlos had imagined or wanted to accept in his marriage. Greg was steadfast in his conviction that because he was following their rules, his hookups could not be negatively impacting his relationship with Carlos.
Beyond the hurt, enmity, reduced commitment, lack of connection, and distance they experience, men in these situations often tell me that their relationships and their lives have become overwhelmed by their pursuit of sex.
Another potential drawback to an open relationship: Yes, multiple partners are an easy (and fun) fix for sexual boredom. But when hot times can be easily found with others, we may feel little incentive to put sustained energy into keeping sex with our partners interesting. My educated guess: This is why many gay couples in open relationships have little or no sex with each other, just as a twosome.
Finally, it is troubling how easily, in our open relationship/hookup culture, we objectify those we have sex with and see other men as disposable, replaceable bodies. Treating others and being treated in this manner does not advance our respectfully relating to each other, nor does it benefit our self-esteem as men and as gay men.
What is influencing these behaviors?
Gay men lean toward non-monogamy for many interconnected reasons.
Men (stereotype acknowledged) often enjoy pursuing and having no-strings sex, so gay men readily find willing partners. Open relationships, seemingly fun and unconstrained, offering a stream of new partners to reduce the monotony of an ongoing relationship, can be intrinsically alluring. Gay men’s sexual connections have historically not been governed by societal rules, so we’ve been able to do pretty much whatever we want, as long as we’ve flown way under the radar.
And, open relationships are what we predominantly see around us as the relationship model for gay men, for the reasons noted above and also in large part due to the influence of gay history and gay culture.
For a deeper understanding of this last point, let’s take a whirlwind tour though gay male history in the Western world (much of which overlaps with lesbian herstory). Ancient, recent, forgotten, familiar, all of it is impacting our lives today.
Since at least the fourth century C.E., as Christianity gained influence, homosexual behavior was illegal in Europe, often punishable by death, and European settlers brought these laws with them to what became the United States. Some periods were relatively more tolerant, others less so. France became the first Western nation to decriminalize homosexuality after the 1791 Revolution, but harsh laws remained and were enforced throughout the Western world well into the 20th century. (And at present, 78 countries still have laws prohibiting homosexual behavior; punishments in some include the death penalty.)
Following World War II, America’s McCarthy “Red Scare” of the 1950s was accompanied by a campaign against the “Lavender Menace,” resulting in hundreds of homosexual government employees being fired. The anti-gay environment in the United States, similar to that in other Western countries, included FBI tracking of suspected homosexuals; the postal service monitoring mail for “obscene” materials including mailings from early gay rights organizations; prison terms for homosexual acts between consenting adults; and nightmarish “treatments” for homosexuality including chemical castration. Obviously, under conditions such as these, gay men had a difficult time congregating openly, meeting each other, or forming relationships. Many gay men lived fearful lives of isolation and furtive sexual encounters.
To get a chilling sense of what it was like to live as a gay man in this era, view William E. Jones’s “Tearoom” on the Internet. The film presents actual surveillance footage from a police sting operation of men meeting for sex in an Ohio restroom in 1962. The men’s fear is palpable, and the absence of affection or connection between them is heartbreaking.
While in 1967 parts of the United Kingdom decriminalized homosexuality, 1969 is known as the start of the modern gay rights movement because in June of that year, patrons of the Stonewall Bar in New York City fiercely fought back against a routine police raid. Following Stonewall, we began to congregate and organize openly, to throw off the cloak of shame, and to fight against third-class status. (In 29 of the United States it remained legal to fire someone simply for being gay until the June Supreme Court ruling in the Bostock case. The scope of that ruling is still being debated.)
During the 1970s, with sexual liberation coming on the heels of the civil rights era, the gay rights movement gained momentum. The American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. We became more visible, and gay culture—bookstores, bars, political organizations, and sex clubs—flourished as gay men rejected living in fear and openly celebrated their sexuality.
But by the late 1970s, HIV was silently making its way into the gay community. As men began to fall sick and die in staggering numbers early in the 1980s, anti-gay sentiment again exploded, and we began to equate our own sexuality with death. Yet the AIDS epidemic ultimately led our community to coalesce and strengthen, organizing to care for our ill and to fight for effective treatment, leading to greater visibility and acceptance, and providing some of the organizational groundwork for the equal rights battles that continue today.
History influences culture, and both our history and culture influence who we become, and how we lead our erotic and intimate lives. Modern gay culture developed in an environment of justified fear.
Often, the only possibility for us to meet for any sort of intimate encounter was through hookups and anonymous encounters. When connecting, we had to keep one eye over our shoulders, scanning for danger (this can literally be seen in Tearoom). Can such connections really be termed intimate?
For most of us, the days of outright surveillance are over. But the patterns of interacting that developed over many years have been passed down through the generations and still influence us in the present, even those of us who don’t face losing our jobs, family support, freedom, or lives if our sexual orientation is discovered. The longstanding need to hide, scan, and be vigilant has helped shape a culture of gay male interaction that— even when we are partnered — often centers on brief encounters, putting greater emphasis on sexual connection than on knowing and being known as multidimensional physical and emotional beings.
At the opposite end of the spectrum: The era of exuberant sexual liberation that followed Stonewall. In part as a reaction to our identity having been badly stigmatized and gay sex having been literally forbidden, both pre-Stonewall and to some degree in the era of AIDS and safer-sex campaigns, gay male culture has leaned toward placing strong emphasis on sex and hooking up. As a result, we often get the message that to be a successful gay man, we should be sexually desirable, open to sex, and have frequent conquests.
Other related factors that can contribute to our so easily leaning away from monogamy and toward multiple partners include:
The stigma around being gay denies many of us opportunities to date and romance early in life. Instead, the experiences of growing up gay, having to hide, and having difficulty discerning who might be a willing partner often lead us to have our first experiences in anonymity and shame, learning how to be sexual apart from and before we learn how to be close. As a result, we’re likely to have a hard time connecting sex and emotional intimacy. Moreover, our early experiences can set our arousal templates to be most aroused by secrecy, risk, anonymity, and being a sexual outlaw.
Internalized homo-negativity from growing up in a culture that has stigmatized homosexuality and gay relationships may lead us to absorb the idea that our relationships, and gay men generally, are “less than.” Consequently, we may think that we, our significant others, our relationships, and our sex partners are unworthy of honor and respect; and we may easily behave in ways that reflect these beliefs, pursuing pleasure without considering the possible costs to what we say we hold dear. And we may not even realize we hold these beliefs.
As gay men, we are likely to have grown up feeling defective and hiding our true selves from our closest family and friends, fearing rejection. When children and young people don’t get a sense that they are loved for whom they really are, and instead grow up seeing themselves as damaged, it’s difficult to develop a positive sense of self-worth. Many of us are still seeking to heal this wound through our ongoing pursuit of sex and the companion feeling of being desired by another man, unaware of what is driving this pursuit.
Alcohol and other substance abuse are entrenched in gay culture, in great part as a means of soothing the isolation, distress, anxiety, and depression that many of us experience from living in an often-hostile world. Clients routinely tell me they are in a chemically altered state when they make decisions to engage in extracurricular sexual interactions that threaten or damage their primary relationships.
One more key factor, true for all relationships: While closeness can feel good, being close also means being vulnerable, which is scary. Open relationships can be a way for us to keep some distance from each other in an attempt to keep ourselves safer.
I became a psychologist at a time when gay relationships weren’t getting much societal support, with the goal of helping gay couples thrive despite a deck stacked heavily against us. Over the years, I’ve learned that some of the most important work I can do with gay male clients is to help them be more thoughtful about their choices, so that they can better develop stronger, more nurturing, more loving relationships.
We gay men often keep our eyes closed to the ways that we may be damaging our relationships through some of our most commonplace, accepted, and ingrained behaviors. Obviously, it can be painful to acknowledge that we may be harming ourselves through seemingly fun, innocuous choices, or to acknowledge the possible downsides of our ubiquitous open relationships.
Nevertheless, there is great value for each of us in figuring out, as individuals, what it means to live in a way that we respect; in holding our behavior up to our own standards, and only our own standards; and in clarifying how we want to live life even when there is pressure, from the outside world and from other gay men, to live differently.
Pressure from other gay men? That’s right.
On first thought one might think that we gay men would have no trouble standing up to others’ expectations. Certainly it’s true that openly acknowledging we are gay despite societal judgment and pressure to “be” heterosexual demonstrates a strong ability to be true to ourselves, and to manage our anxiety in the face of tough challenges.
But beyond the expectations of society-at-large are the expectations of gay culture about what it means to be a successful gay man. Here is where many of us can get wobbly.
Not finding complete acceptance in the larger world, we have the hope that by coming out, we will finally feel a sense of really belonging somewhere. If this means behaving in the ways that peers do, taking on what we perceive to be the values of our community in order to fit in, many of us are willing to ignore our own feelings, and possibly our souls, so as to not feel excluded yet again.
Jim and Rob, the couple who had sex with all their friends on their cruise, are sitting in my office, with my dog Aviv snoozing at their feet. After some consideration, they had decided to stop having sex with other men for a while, to see if this would help them to feel closer and re-start their sex life with each other. The rancor had decreased and they reported enjoying having sex together again.
Their news: Jim has decided to enroll in a graduate program on the other side of the country, and they are discussing how this will affect their sex life.
“Of course we’re going to have to make some allowances for this,” Jim says.
I look at him quizzically.
“I mean, we might not see each other for a month or two at a time. So we need to have an agreement that we’ll have sex with other guys.”
Rob nods in agreement.
I ask them how they each anticipate the impact of both again having sex with others. They respond with shrugs.
“You know, our friends Bill and Dave—Bill has been working in Argentina for the last two years and they only see each other every three or four months. They’re definitely hooking up with other guys,” Jim notes.
“I mean, what else would we do?” adds Rob. “Not have sex for eight weeks?”
If I didn’t regularly have similar conversations with other coupled gay clients, I would be stunned that neither man is stopping to consider his own feelings about what it would mean to resume an open relationship. Both are focusing solely on their perceived need to have sex regularly, and on the notion that this is simply how gay couples should operate.
So much of gay history, culture, and relational development are shaping this moment.
When working with a couple like Jim and Rob, I do my best not to accept much as “simply a given.” Here are the questions that I wonder about with them: What have your hopes been for couplehood, and how is reality lining up with those hopes? How have you made your choices? How is your relationship working for you? What is most important to you?
As with Jim and Rob, I often find that clients haven’t considered these questions much. “It’s what our friends do” is the most frequent answer for how they have made the choice to have an open relationship. Many times it seems to me as if there’s a fog around these men’s thinking about their relationships.
I don’t want to contribute to the fog by colluding with them to believe that the particular heartbreaks that can come with carelessly conducted open relationships are unavoidable; that our relationships are not in fact fragile; or that we gay men must establish our relationships along certain lines simply because that is how it is “usually done.”
And when I challenge these clients to go deeper than stating that they are just doing what everyone else does? “Yes, it’s a struggle” is the answer I usually get. “It is painful when my husband doesn’t come home till the next morning.” And then: “But isn’t this how gay men have relationships? It’s what everyone around me is doing.”
These are the poignant and troubling words I hear again and again, echoing what I was told by my friends back in 1987.
Given the numerous interrelated factors that shape our choices in the realm of sex, it is difficult to envision gay men making significant changes in how we operate, especially as committed relationships are—at present—becoming less popular among younger people of all sexual orientations.
But when we look at the arc of gay existence over the past 50 years, from the shadows to the margins of tolerance to marriage equality, it is clear that surprising and dramatic shifts are possible.
So I am hopeful that we gay men can get off autopilot and become more aware of the factors contributing to how we construct and manage our relationships. And I am hopeful that this awareness can go a long way toward our making ever more thoughtful choices, respectful of ourselves and our partners, that help us to build stronger, closer, and more rewarding relationships.
(All names and identifying information changed in this article.)
Final season of ‘Pose’ is must-see TV that matters
Groundbreaking FX drama has left its mark
When the COVID pandemic hit in the early months of 2020, there were certainly more pressing and essential worries for us to grapple with than how it would impact the next season of a TV show. Yet it’s a testament to the power of “Pose” that many among its legion of fans were at least as concerned about the show’s disruption as they were about the possibility of running out of toilet paper.
The powerhouse FX drama — which spotlights the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground ball culture in the late 1980s — had already made history. Not only did it feature the largest cast of transgender actors in regular roles, it boasted the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever included in a scripted series. In its first two seasons, the show racked up accolades and honors (including a Primetime Emmy for Billy Porter as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series) while breaking new ground for the inclusion and representation of queer people — and especially transgender people of color — in television, both in front of the camera, and behind it. With the end of its second season in August 2019, fans were hungry for a third — but thanks to COVID, its future was suddenly in question.
So, when word came that the show’s third season would have its debut on May 2, it was the best news since finding out the vaccines were finally going to start rolling out. But it was bittersweet: Along with confirmation of the series’ imminent return came the sad revelation that the new season would also be the last. “Pose” would be coming to an end with a final, seven-episode arc.
As any viewer of show can attest, there were a lot of threads left hanging when last we saw its characters. That means there’s a lot of ground to cover in these last chapters in order to give everyone — characters and audience alike — the closure they deserve.
The show’s official synopsis goes like this: It’s now 1994 and ballroom feels like a distant memory for Blanca, who struggles to balance being a mother with being a present partner to her new love, as well as her latest role as a nurse’s aide. Meanwhile, as AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44, Pray Tell contends with unexpected health burdens. Meanwhile, a vicious new upstart house is emerging in the ballroom world, and the members of the House of Evangelista are forced to contend their legacy.
Obviously, there are a lot of details left hidden in that broad overview, and fans are undoubtedly full of questions about what they can expect to see.
Fortunately, the bulk of the show’s main cast convened on Zoom last week (along with show co-creator and Executive Producer Steven Canals and Executive Producer Janet Mock) for a press conference to discuss their “Pose” experience, and while they didn’t exactly give away any spoilers, they definitely dropped some tantalizing hints about what’s in store for audiences in the farewell season.
In truth, most of the discussion was dominated by reminiscences and expressions of mutual appreciation, sure signs that the feeling of family we see onscreen is something that has taken hold off screen, as well. But in between the affectionate banter, the cast and creatives addressed several questions that might be most on viewers’ minds.
Perhaps the most pressing of these — why, after only three seasons, is the critic-and-audience-acclaimed show calling it quits? — was taken on by Canals, who explained:
“I always knew what the beginning and what the end of the narrative would be. And when Ryan Murphy and I first met in September of 2016, we felt really strongly that that particular narrative made sense. And so, while we certainly could have continued to create narrative around these characters and in this world, and we certainly had a conversation in the writers’ room about it … I think we all agreed that it just made sense for us to ‘land the plane,’ if you will, comfortably — as opposed to continuing to give an audience story that just simply didn’t have any real core intention or a real thrust towards specificity.”
Also of interest was the obvious subject of how the parallels between the current pandemic and the AIDS crisis that looms over the show’s narrative might be reflected in the new episodes. While he didn’t hint at any direct connections in “Pose,” Porter used the subject to underscore a theme that has always been one of the show’s most important elements:
“I think the parallels are quite profound. I know that as a Black gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, I have been dealing with a lot of PTSD during this COVID time. It’s very reminiscent of what it was like then. The best news about that is that I survived. We got through it, and there is another side to it. We can get to the other side.
“I feel like that’s what ‘Pose’ really accomplishes this season, reminding the public that it’s when we come together and when we lead with love [that] we get to the other side.”
Mock elaborated on the theme of resilience by discussing the importance of showing the strength of House mothers like Blanca and Electra (Dominique Jackson), who hold together — and lift up — their entire community:
“It’s that matriarchal power and lineage that I think the ballroom is, and what trans women are to one another, that then feeds everyone else and enables them to shine and have all the things that they want in the world. For me, it is [about] that celebration […] of Black trans women — that they’ve created this space, that they brought everyone else in with them, and that, at the end of the day, they are often the ones most often forgotten.
“I think with this season, I want everyone across the industry, the audience, to realize that. I think it’s essential, and it’s important.”
Mock also talked about the way “Pose” focuses on the small, day-to-day lives of its characters as much as it does the larger-than-life splendor of the ballroom culture in which they participate:
“We wanted to ensure that we show the everyday, mundane moments, as well as the great, grand celebrations. The ballroom is are presentation of what it means to congregate and share testimony and to love on each other, and our show is a celebration of the everyday intimacies. So, for us, while we were plotting these big, grand moments […] we wanted to bring in traditions — weddings, matrimony, all this stuff — that our characters get to engage in. We wanted to be a part of the tradition of that, and all the moments that a family shares together. We wanted to make sure that all of those things were celebrated in this.”
When discussion turned to the unprecedented level of support and collaborative inclusion with which the show’s queer cast were bestowed by Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative staff — from the presence of trans women like Mock and Co-producer Our Lady J in the writers’ room to the extensive reliance on the insights and talents of real-life members of the ballroom community — Jackson was quick to add that besides giving the show its ferocious authenticity, it gave her an increased recognition of her own worth:
“I will never, ever, ever walk into a space thinking that I need to impress them […] I will never walk into a space being fearful of my identity stopping me from anything. Because of this journey, when I walk into spaces now, my identity is not because I’m an abomination. My identity is a plus. My identity is my value. So, when I walk into spaces now,they need to impress me. You can be the biggest Hollywood director, producer, whatever, but you’re not going to take my story or relay stories that are reflective of my life or my existence and make them into anything you want, because of ‘Pose,’ because of Ryan, because of Steven, because of Janet and Brad [co-creator/executive producer Falchuk), because of Our Lady J, because of my cast members.
“I will never walk into spaces or live a life or an existence thinking that I need to impress anyone.”
Porter concurred, adding:
“There was never, ever a space in my brain to dream what‘Pose’ is, what Pray Tell is. I spent the first 25-plusyears of my career trying to fit into a masculinity construct that society placed on us so I could eat.‘Pose,’ and Pray Tell in particular, really taught me to dream the impossible […] the idea that the little, Black church sissy from Pittsburgh is now in a position of power in Hollywood in a way that never existed before. You can damn sure believe that I will be wielding that power and there will be a difference and a change in how things go from here on out.”
If the cast members themselves have found themselves feeling more empowered thanks to “Pose,” so too have the millions of LGBTQ people — and allies — who have tuned into it since its premiere in 2018. The show is one of those rare entries into the cultural lexicon that simply allows its queer and trans people to live authentic lives, giving long-withheld representation to countless viewers who were able to see themselves reflected back from the screen for perhaps the very first time. It’s that powerful sense of validation provided by “Pose” that keeps it standing tall in an entertainment market now providing so much LGBTQ inclusion that it’s becoming dangerously easy to take it for granted.
Whatever moments of heartbreak, joy, and celebration “Pose” brings us as it plays out its final act — and there are sure to be many — we can all be sure it will leave us with a message expressed through an oft-heard line of dialogue that Mock says she found herself writing “over and over again” during the series’ run:
“You are everything, and you deserve everything this world has to offer.” It’s that nurturing sentiment the “Pose” has been instilling in us from the beginning, like a mother to us all.
And that’s why so many of us can’t wait until the first two episodes of its final season air at 10 p.m. (both Eastern and Pacific), Sunday, May 2, on FX.
At 75, John Waters has no plans to retire
‘I’d go nuts if I didn’t work’
When writer and filmmaker John Waters turned 70 five years ago, he said he took six friends on a first-class trip to Paris for his birthday and “we had the best time.”
This year, for his 75th birthday on April 22, he was going to take his friends to Rome but the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way and they couldn’t all travel.
Instead, a friend is having a small dinner party for him in New York City, and he’s going with a friend. “Everybody has had their shots, and that’s what I’m going to do…It will be low-key this year.”
The older he gets, he said, the less he cares about making a big fuss out of every birthday anyway.
“What difference does it make? Old means old. It doesn’t matter which one.”
Though he’s taking some time to celebrate his 75th birthday, Waters has no plans to retire.
“No, God no,” he said last weekend while on a Zoom call with fans from London. “I jump out of bed every morning. It hurts to jump out of bed. I have aches and pains. But no, I’d go nuts if I didn’t work.”
That’s probably just as well because he has a lot going on. Between shooting episodes of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” getting ready for film festivals in several cities, planning a guided tour in Provincetown, and preparing for an exhibit of his private art collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, he’s staying busy.
The ultimate multitasker, he didn’t even stop working when he went for a COVID vaccination recently.
“I signed an autograph when I was getting the shot,” he said. “Well, not at the moment, but right before.”
In a Zoom session organized by London’s Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities — an early birthday present of sorts because it drew fans from at least three continents — Waters announced that he just last week finished the book he’s been writing for the past three years, “LIARMOUTH,” a novel about a woman who steals luggage at the airport. It’s due out next year from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
He also expressed optimism that some events that had to be cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic will be back in 2021, including his Camp John Waters “sleepaway” weekend for superfans in Kent, Conn., and a new, renamed iteration of the Burger Boogaloo punk rock music festival that he hosts in Oakland, Calif.
There’s even a chance he’ll make another movie. Waters told his fans there’s still interest in “Fruitcake,” the children’s Christmas film that he’s been trying for years to make. “There is new possibility,” he teased. “That’s all I’ll say. I’m not going to jinx it.”
He’s waiting to hear about the several dozen spoken-word shows he performs around the country every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “I think a lot of those decisions are going to happen in September.”
Most of all, he said, he’s just eager to make in-person appearances after a year in lockdown. Some of his engagements that were cancelled due to COVID have been rescheduled for the coming year, including appearances in New York, California, and Pennsylvania, and he’s adding others.
“I’m dying to get back on the road,” he said last weekend. “I’m still amazed that 20-something-year-old kids know who I am. I want to see what they look like.”
He’s wondering whether Meet-N-Greets – the sessions where he signs autographs and poses for photos with fans after a performance – will be possible in a post-pandemic world.
“Even before this, when I did the Christmas tour, I had Meet-N-Greets for usually 50 people” after a show, he said. “I’d always get sick because you have to hug everybody and then get on an airplane the next day. So I think Meet-N-Greets might never come back. I don’t know how they’re ever going to do that safely.”
On a personal basis, too, he’s yearning to get out and travel more.
“I want to go to a movie theater. I want to go to a concert,” he said. “I want to be able to have even a dull day out with other people.”
This year’s Oscars might be historic — but does anyone care?
Diverse nominees lacking LGBTQ representation
It’s Oscar weekend. Are you excited?
Unless you’re actually one of the nominees, odds are pretty good that you’re not – but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is geared up to present its prestigious annual film awards for the 93rd time on Sunday night, really, really wants you to be. Why else, a week ahead of the Big Night, would they roll out the show’s producers for a press conference to drop hints that the upcoming broadcast would “look like a movie” and incorporate satellite hookups from “multiple locations?” It was a clear bid to drum up excitement.
More details came Monday, when a letter from that same trio – producer Steven Soderbergh (himself an Oscar winner for directing “Traffic” in 2000) and co-producers Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher – went out to the nominees. As it turns out, the ceremony will be held at LA’s historic Union Station (site of Saturday’s press conference), which will be treated “as an active movie set” in terms of COVID-related safety protocols, with “additional elements” of the show being incorporated live from Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre via satellite hook-up.
More interestingly, the letter revealed, “The first—and most obvious—point we want to get across with this year’s show is STORIES MATTER.” In keeping with that theme, nominees are requested to submit to a brief interview to “tell the story of your path to April 25,” as part of an effort to “highlight the connections between all of us who work in the movies and show that the process is uniquely intimate, collaborative, and fun.” The emphasis on “story” was further reflected by instructions about messaging in the speeches (“If you’re thanking someone, say their name, not their title… make it PERSONAL”) and a dress code described as “a fusion of Inspirational and Aspirational.” Whatever Soderbergh and crew have planned for the show, their letter leaves little doubt they intend to tightly manage the narrative it presents.
That’s not surprising, of course; Hollywood is in the business of creating narratives, and the one it takes most seriously is the one it creates about itself. Nevertheless, it’s particularly telling that the story it is working so hard to tell seems designed to brush its problem with inclusion comfortably into the background.
This year, the organization might well feel that when it comes to diversity, the nominations speak for themselves. For a year in which tremendous social upheaval has brought Black experience in America to the forefront of the public conversation, the Oscars have chosen an impressive number of Black-led films and Black artists among an overall slate that offers the most diverse lineup of nominees in its history. Women are also represented, thanks to the inclusion of Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” among the Best Picture contenders and the first-ever two nominations for women – Fennell and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) – as Best Director. Additionally, Zhao, who is Chinese, is the first woman of color ever nominated in that category, Steven Yuen (“Minari”) became the first Asian-American to receive a Best Actor nod, and in the same category, Riz Ahmed (“The Sound of Metal”) became the first person of Pakistani descent to be nominated in any acting category.
In the midst of all this inclusion, however, the LGBTQ community – traditionally a stronghold for some of Oscar’s most ardent fans – has this year been largely left empty-handed, once again. Besides two Best Actress nods for women playing bisexual characters (Viola Davis and Andra Day, for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” respectively), there are no major nominations for films with significant LGBTQ content – though it’s worth noting that the aforementioned “Young Woman” features trans actress Laverne Cox in a prominent supporting role. While it’s not a problem for us to stand on the sidelines and cheer for the victories achieved by representatives of other marginalized communities, it’s becoming harder to ignore the nagging feeling that our willingness to forgive an institution that continues to disappoint and diminish us is really something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.
In any case, this year’s Academy Awards have the potential for making history. Nine of the 20 acting nominees are people of color, and at least two of them are considered frontrunners in their categories. Zhao could become the first woman of Asian descent to win the Best Director prize. And while the potential for those wins lends a kind of excitement to the proceedings, an inescapable feeling of “too little, too late” – coupled with a pandemic-induced awareness of the relative unimportance of awards like these in the greater scheme of things – makes it more difficult than ever, perhaps, to care.
With that in mind, here are the currently leading “official” predictions for the winners in the top six categories, based on a combination of Oscar history, industry buzz, review consensus, and plain old-fashioned gut instinct:
BEST PICTURE: “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” are considered the front-runners, thanks to previous wins in the equivalent category at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, respectively. “Nomadland” is favored to win.
BEST DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao, who has taken the directing prize at both the Globes and the BAFTAs, seems a sure bet for “Nomadland.”
BEST ACTOR: Chadwick Boseman, whose death in 2020 after a secret battle with colon cancer devastated fans and co-workers alike, would seem the inevitable winner for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” even without his already-racked-up wins at the Globes, Critics’ Choice, and SAG Awards. If he takes it – and it’s almost certain he will – it would make him only the second Best Actor winner to be awarded the prize posthumously (the first was Peter Finch, for 1976’s “Network”).
BEST ACTRESS: There are no clear front-runners here. With one high-profile win each under their belt Davis (SAGs), Day (Globes), Frances McDormand (BAFTAs for “Nomadland”) and Carey Mulligan (Critics’ Choice for “Promising Young Woman”) are all positioned as possible winners. However, with Davis already making history with this performance as Oscar’s most-nominated Black actress, the appeal of also making her the first to win in both Actress categories (her performance in 2016’s “Fences” earned her the Best Supporting prize) might just give her the edge.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Having won for his performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” at all the other major film awards, Daniel Kaluuya is the definition of a “shoo-in.”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: As is often the case, this category might be the most wide-open. Buzz has favored both Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) and Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), but her win at the BAFTA Awards puts Youn in place as the probable frontrunner. If she wins, she will be only the second Asian actress to win an Oscar, after Miyoshi Umeki (1957’s “Sayonara”).
You can find out the winners when the Oscars air on ABC, Sunday April 25 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. But don’t worry – if you don’t care enough to watch, you can always Google it afterward.
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