Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Labels

This past weekend, my search for more information on Tom Ford's upcoming motion picture "A Single Man" led me to a website where derogatory comments about Ford's position toward his movie were documented.  For those unfamiliar with Ford, he is mostly known for being a fashion designer, who worked a decade for Gucci, and who, in 2004, left to focus on his own brand, including eyewear, men's fashion, and a line of men's fragrance.  More recently, Ford turned his attention to co-writing and directing his first feature film based on Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel "A Single Man," about a British professor living and working in Los Angeles, trying to get through a twenty-four hour period following the sudden death of his longtime partner.

On the website www.queerty.com, Tom Ford is quoted as saying that "A Single Man" isn't a gay film, which the web site blogger takes issue with. The blogger's thought is that since the motion picture is about a gay man, whose lover is killed in a car accident, then how is it not a gay film?  In addition, it could also be argued that since Ford is gay, and the long-deceased Isherwood was gay, then, again, how could the finished product not be a gay film?

Because, dear blogger, a film cannot be gay.  It may portray characters who are gay, doing things that characters who are gay do, but since no movie has ever or will ever have sex with a man or a woman, gay or straight, it's asexual.  It's simply a film.  End of story.

But all of this got me thinking about the bigger issue, one that I've commented on before and that seems relevant more than ever:  that of the gay label.

Here's another thought based on Ford's comment that "A Single Man" isn't a gay film.  What I see him trying to do is take away the gay stigma for the purpose of increasing the potential success of the film.  If the assumption of the movie-going public is that "A Single Man" is a film about gay characters, then many people with dollars to spend at the box office will decide to see something else, like an asinine Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler flick, because they have no interest in it, or because they make the assumption that such a movie has nothing for them.

On the other hand, if they're told the movie is about love and loss, which are universal themes, not exclusive of straights or gays, then they might have more of an interest in seeing it (although it might be wrongly labeled a chick flick), thereby increasing the chance of its success.  For that reason, I can't blame Tom Ford for wanting to increase the box office take for a movie in which he makes his directorial debut, particularly if he wishes to direct more films in the future.

But there's so much more that needs to be said about this.  

For example, like I've written before, I consider myself to be a human being first and gay second.  In fact, I might not even be gay second, depending on how important you consider that label to be in relation to who I am as a human being.  I might be gay fourth or fifth, or tenth or eleventh, or even twentieth or twenty-first, behind a number of other features that better define who I am, like my personality, or my characteristics (assuming those aren't the same thing), or what's important and not important to me.

So, if we're going to place a label on me, how about we slap on the human being label and leave the gay label off me altogether?  Is it really important to anyone to learn that I'm gay?  It shouldn't be.  What do they have to gain by knowing it?  I'm a member of the human race first and foremost, and, ultimately, that defines me far more than any other label ever could.  Just like it does for everyone else who's different in one way or another.  

Here's what happens.  As soon as we attach a label to someone, those who are not described by the same label are excluded, or they believe they have little in common with the person to whom the label is affixed. It would not surprise me in the least, for example, to learn that, when many people who aren't  Black found out the movie "Ray" was about the '60s African American soul singer Ray Charles, they decided, consciously or unconsciously, that they didn't want to see the film. "That film's about Black people," they may have thought.  "What do I have to gain by watching a movie with Black people in it?"

And I'm certain that when people who aren't Japanese realized that "Memoirs of a Geisha" was about Japanese people, they probably decided, consciously or unconsciously again, that there was no point seeing that film either because it was about Japanese people, and how did they stand to benefit from watching a movie with Japanese people in it.  (This may be one of the reasons why the film wasn't as successful at the box office as it should have been, being, in my opinion, one of the best movies made in recent years.)

Honestly, I've done the exact same thing myself, only my attitude was even more arbitrary.  Many years ago, when Oprah selected Janet Fitch's novel "White Oleander" as a book club selection, I remember standing in Book Warehouse on Broadway in Vancouver, picking up a copy of the book, reading the inside flap, and, upon learning it was about a child in the foster care system in the U.S., deciding I had nothing in common with her and returning the book to the shelf.  Some weeks later, I picked up the book again, and, on the basis of Oprah's glowing recommendation alone, decided to spend money on it and to read it.  In the end, it was one of the most beautifully written, even poetic, touching, and memorable books I've ever read, probably one of the best reading experiences I ever had, and I wouldn't hesitate recommending it to anyone belonging to the human race because, in some respects, it's about all of us.

I'm not proud of how ludicrous my reactions were, but I know it happens.  It happens because we're quick to label people.  We're quick to make assumptions about people based on the labels we attach to them.  Consider some of the following labels, which is by no means an exhaustive list: Jewish, fat, mentally challenged, autistic, Muslim, Asian, senior citizen--whatever?  Each one of these carries baggage with it because of our collective  assumptions and attitudes based on what we've seen, or heard, or experienced, or been told, or read about people with these labels attached to them.  And you want to bet our behaviors are shaped by those assumptions and attitudes.

The story is the same for people with the gay label attached to them. Because of the moral judgment that's often brought against the whole issue of sexual orientation, perfectly worthwhile human beings, who, because of their genetic make-up, happen to feel more emotionally and physically affiliated with other human beings of the same sex, than of the opposite sex, are often thought to be less than everyone else.  These same people are ostracized, and ridiculed, and demeaned, and assaulted, and even murdered,  because, regardless of everything else they are, they also happen to be gay.

Leaving a well-known, local coffee house last Sunday, after buying Chris a small bag of ground coffee beans, I noticed posters hanging on the inside of the doors.  Paraphrased, they said:  "I wish EVERYONE could see how much we all have in COMMON."

In the film "A Single Man," a male human being suddenly loses his partner of many years in a car accident.  Who among us, regardless of sexual orientation, cannot relate to the loss of a loved one?  Is it because my partner happens to be the same sex as I am that my love for him and my loss of him are any less tragic, or compelling, or painful--or worth watching portrayed in a movie?

Perhaps the greatest gift we could give ourselves this holiday season is that of losing the labels and meeting each person we come into contact with on his or her own merit, regardless of whatever differences there are between us.  Labels do nothing but allow us to pigeon-hole people, to classify and categorize them, placing them into neat little boxes that supposedly help us to understand them better, or to socialize with them in a way that feels more comfortable to us, or to treat them differently from each other because it's much easier to stereotype than it is to consider each one based on who he or she is.

Ironically, at the same time we label people, they label us, based on nothing more than our ethnicity, or our religion, or our appearance, or our abilities, or our gender, or what-have-you.  So, at one time or another, we've all experienced the injustice and the pain associated with a label affixed to us that we know doesn't begin to capture who we really are.  This Christmas season, and from this point forward, let's all just be human beings.  Beyond that, nothing else matters.  

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