ESSAY
November 2021

HOME/BODY

Wonder.png

notes on coming out

documenta barbrism

HOME

Cornflower blue. Still lifes:

 

A blonde porcelain figurine in medium full shot.

 

Medium close-up: on the left, vinyl blinds stretch beyond the frame (maybe to infinity). On the right, a delicate vase and two creamy hybrid tea roses: one lavender and salmon, blanched as though being bled, the other white with flecks of purple as though doing the bleeding.

Wide shot: the blinds (they’re just normal size after all), and a smoked glass lamp dangling like a diffident spacecraft. A framed still life-within-a-still life of flowers on the wall, amber glass sconces to the northwest and southeast, cross-reeded. The little light trespassing the blinds is downy, tentative—luxuriating in the fermata of possibility before committing to day. 

 

Extreme close-up: a lamp, briefly. An urn?

 

No humans yet but now, an index, and a flicker of actual life: the camera pans left across a carpet of dusty rose, probably nylon or polypropylene, toward the spectral divot of a long-gone table or high heel, the sort of impression endless hoovering can never erase.

So far, so anodyne—The Model Home That Time Forgot.

More rooms pass by, pale blue and immaculate, wallpaper ever-so-slightly peeling at the seams. Like Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields, we seem to have just missed whoever was here, yet it also feels like no one has set foot in these rooms for years—time out of joint. 

 

All at once, a foot! More precisely, a diamanté platform heel under a diaphanous ruffled sunflower dress. The alien reveals itself in pieces: beaded gloves with full nail set, robotic earpiece, shimmering candy apple red lip, severe facial features and bald head painted the hue of bone and blush. The creature gazes off into the middle distance, lost in memory, seated at the foot of a bed, absent-mindedly running its hand over a double wedding ring quilt.

 

Wide shot: the humanoid is revealed in full, a vertical yellow blade slicing the frame in two, destabilizing the home’s fastidious proportions. She clearly does not belong here, or maybe isn’t even really here? The home has conjured her, or vice versa—space out of joint.

 

A smile. The musical score, until now all drone and throb and hum, bounces a synthesized bass ostinato as the creature sits at the dining room table, peers into the camera, and sings…

 

The Island We Made is part of Opera Philadelphia’s ‘Digital Commissions Series’, one of numerous attempts worldwide to stanch the financial hemorrhage from COVID-19’s near-total stoppage of live performance. Filmed in a single day in middle-class Staten Island, New York City’s conservative stronghold, the 11-minute film grew out of conversations between director Matthew Placek, composer Angélica Negrón, and drag phenom Sasha Velour ‘about the limitations of relationships in general, but also particularly those connected to the women that shaped (them)’. [1] The action is simple but moves in two chronological directions at once: Velour’s queen-who-fell-to-Earth prepares afternoon tea for a woman seated at the dining room table (played by three different actors), who reverse ages as she molds a lump of clay with her hands. 

 

Meaning, however, eludes. Velour ‘imagined the character as the embodiment of Queerness…a loving non-judgmental spirit who haunts a house and tends to a person who is busy shaping an idea of it for themselves’. [1] Elsewhere: ‘I imagined myself as a spirit…that was in search of understanding…The moment is static…a space they keep returning to and reshaping’. [2] For me, she is less gay guardian angel than liberated queer consciousness returning to the ‘island’ that was both fortress and prison. Perhaps it is a literal, begrudging homecoming to care for an ailing matriarch, Velour’s otherworldliness and the mother’s increasing childishness denoting the gap between them. Clues abound: the parasitic rose, the peeling wallpaper, the clay molded by the end into a familiar shape. 

 

To the artists’ credit, though, not only do the free-floating signifiers resist fixation, but interpretation also comes second to an aura of contingency, nostalgia, absence, loss. This feels right for a tone poem on queerness, characterized as it is by an out-of-jointness of both time and space. To be gay is to exist outside of what José Esteban Muñoz called ‘straight time’—a freedom, but also a predicament. Mothers can ease or increase this burden, but for Placek they are ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t. As much as I live for my mother, I hold her accountable for way too much. And it’s unfair’. [3] 

 

Her presence can damage, her absence even more so. This is not mere abstraction in The Island We Made; Velour famously modeled her bald drag style on her mother, who lost her hair to chemotherapy before succumbing to cancer. Further, the home chosen for filming was pristine because its owner had prepared to sell it after the death of their mother.   

 

Following the psychogeographical mapping of the opening third, the film limits itself mostly to kitchen and dining room. Space constricts but gaps proliferate—the woman/girl never sees Sasha or consumes the tea. Alternating P.O.V. shots across the table seem to draw them toward each other, but the camera returns often to a master from the living room toward the dining room to separate them again, a table’s-width apart that might as well be an eternity’s. 

 

—————

 

Right now, in my home, I am an alien. I am also all three women at the table.

 

I love talking about myself. Writing about myself, especially in criticism, is another matter. Film critic Michael Koresky captures the conundrum in Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ‘80s Films That Defined Us, another recent work that artfully triangulates mother, home, and the creation of queer consciousness:

 

For years I found the idea of writing anything with even a hint of autobiographical material to be anathema, evidence of a lack of imagination, perhaps. If done indelicately, the incorporation of the self into the critical appraisal of a work of art is worse than egregious—it can be distasteful.

 

However, he concludes:

 

By foregrounding the self in criticism, I’ve come to realize that one can honestly acknowledge the subjectivity that goes into any evaluation. A work of art, and how we perceive it, becomes inseparable from the emotion we bring to it. [4] 

 

The Island We Made holds a powerful mirror to my experience, so my reception of it is far from objective. Yes, the critical apparatus frames the encounter with the work; it would be impossible (and unethical) for it not to. Yet my identification with the film, coming as it did during a moment of profound, irreversible change in my life, is so charged that I am left with no alternative but to step through the looking glass.

 

Another caveat: whiteness has eased my journey. This isn’t about that.   

 

The last time my parents and I spoke about my being gay was 25 years ago, when I was 16 years old, and my father found porn on the computer. In 1996, the dial-up images couldn’t have been very high quality, and certainly wouldn’t have had motion—I’m not even sure how I found them—yet there was enough incriminating evidence on the hard drive for my parents to summon me down to their basement bedroom for a chat. 

 

I experience the moment in my memory like the still frames in the film’s opening: rainbow shag carpet underfoot (too rich an irony for me to comprehend in the moment); the computer on my left, just past my periphery (they would soon move it upstairs to the family room, presumably to hinder my erotic explorations, but at that moment it sat in blank judgment, the serpent whose apples had once filled my heart and my groin with such illicit pleasure silently witnessing our shared expulsion from the garden); Mom and Dad in metallic folding chairs facing me as I descend the stairs, a third chair set up across from them for me, the parolee. 

 

ME: (grasping and credulous) ‘Everyone’s felt these things before, right’? 

DAD: ‘I haven’t’.

 

They sent me to my bishop, who told me to stop taking the sacrament for a month. Dad was upset at the leniency of the punishment, but the Lord’s representative had spoken, and that, to this day, was that.

 

I don’t remember my mother saying anything during ‘the talk’—damned if she did, damned if she didn’t—but she must have. And in fact, it’s not technically true that we never discussed it again. Once, years later, after I had been in a hetero marriage for several years, the subject came up somehow and she simply said that she ‘didn’t see me that way’.

 

I suppose I should feel lucky they didn’t kick me out, as so many parents do. But sometimes I wish they had; it was one of the few true before/after rupture points in a life, and had they kicked me out, or had I just left, at least I could have been about the business of self-creation at the correct age. Then again, with my lack of education and queer mentorship, that parallel future might have held HIV—1996 also marked the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy [HAART], itself a positive rupture point in the fight against AIDS—which was still a death sentence. What-ifs are futile, but their allure is undeniable for a consciousness trying to wrestle time back into legible form.

 

Instead, lacking the imagination and courage to perceive an existence outside the religious realist framework in which my parents raised me, I dove headfirst into the performances of ‘straight time’: missionary service, marriage, job, child-rearing, home ownership, the works. I got a beautiful son out of the deal, and 17 years of emotional intimacy with a wonderful woman, but through it all I was a spectator; this was someone else’s lawn I was mowing, someone else’s trash on the curb every Thursday morning, someone else’s dreams. A Talking Heads lyric come to monstrous double life. Water flowing underground. 

 

The marriage is over, but the disjunctive balancing act persists for I find myself, having already experienced all the normal milestones of a straight middle-class life, back living with my parents, albeit in a home I did not grow up in, and on the other side of the country. My boy is here with me too, meaning I am both father and son in the same home. I prepare the afternoon tea, but I also sit at the table molding a clay figurine, yearning to finally be on my own for the first time, experiencing every present as the nexus of an intractable tension between past and future. Is it any wonder I’ve become a bald queen?

 

Per Muñoz, ‘Queerness is not yet here…We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality’. [5] Even if I never touch queerness, I hope one day to rest my bare feet on the floor of a home that is all mine. One way I have coped with the existential entropy of my new life over the past year, highlighted, underlined, italicized and bolded as everything has been by the pandemic, is by magicking that warm horizon into fleshly reality one household item at a time. A freesia Raawii Strøm vase here, a magenta Heller Frank Gehry coffee table there, a Zojirushi Micom rice cooker, an ergonomic stainless steel ice cream scoop, an extension cord; not a single detail (usually pink) escapes contemplation as I mix, match, and build my future home from the inside out. Mom and Dad show heroic forbearance as the stuff accumulates, yet, like the mushrooming bins in the garage storing the props of my gay utopia, things undiscussed accumulate and fill the air between us. 

 

I haven’t lost my mother, though. Not technically.

 

Screenshot 2021-11-07 at 15.46.58.png

BODY

 

More than a flowering, then, coming out has so far felt more like a drunken attempt to surgically reattach a phantom limb, or, to risk mixing metaphors, to reinsert a soul into a body with which it no longer shares a shape.

  

I mean this literally. One of the graces of the closet is freedom from the imperative to be desirable. Beyond the usual cosmic injustices of an aging and decaying body, I now must also contend with the sexual economy of contemporary gaydom. Let’s face it: forty isn’t a gay death sentence, it’s gay death. For the culture, the apps, the abdominal gaybies in the bars and the clubs, forty is a mandate to join the Abject Flotsam Queen Parade, trudging to the mountains to starve themselves for the good of the village like a 19th century Japanese elder, only with poppers and HPV. ‘Thanks for your service, don’t let the TikTok hit you on the way out!’ No amount of self-help literature can tell me otherwise; every movie, every book, every pitiable-withering glance and Grindr snub tells me so. Susan Sontag saw it way back in 1958: ‘Homosexuals are extraordinarily vain. Concerned with being beautiful. Obsessed by the idea of getting old. If you are ugly or old, you have no pay, no one wants you…No one finds an old queen attractive’. [6]

 

This body, fat, nervous, and gynecomastic, is the saggy clay through which I interface with the world and the world with me. It’s not great, but it’s all I’ve got, and it holds the eyes and (increasingly hairy) ears through which I receive The Island We Made. The same nerves that carry the film’s light and sound waves to the pleasure centers in my brain are also prone to tics and twitches, making it difficult to ever relax fully. I hate a lot about my body, but the thing I used to hate most of all was my throat. 

 

Until recently, my throat attempted daily to strangle me. Thanks to a prognathic jaw and an undiagnosed food allergy, food would stick in my lower esophagus nearly every time I ate, damming the excess saliva produced as a countermeasure. By sitting up straight and relaxing my pectoral muscles, I could usually coax the mass down, but often the entire unholy concoction, plus most of what I had already eaten, would force its way back up and out, just far enough to block the trachea and cut off air to my lungs until I could expel it all. It’s no exaggeration to say I nearly choked to death hundreds of times.

 

In The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, Wayne Koestenbaum locates the throat as one of the most important markers of queerness, for reasons as much sexual as aesthetic: 

 

We drink sound through our throats: our throats are activated, brought to life, by what we hear. Listening is a reciprocation: grateful for what the ear receives, the throat responds by opening. [7]

 

I take a daily pill now to suppress the allergy. Afraid to lose the habit, though, my glands still love to produce a superfluity of saliva, which makes oral sex…interesting. Just ask my sexual partners, or better yet, don’t. I am capable of giving pleasure, if I do say so myself, but my throat is hardly the conduit of joy Koestenbaum envisions. His focus on the throat, though, offers another way into The Island We Made. First, let’s let him bring this essay’s subtext to the level of text:

 

Home has grim meanings for the gay kid or the kid on the verge of claiming that ambiguous identity. Home is the boot camp for gender; at home, we are supposed to learn how to be straight. Queer identities arise against normative structures of home, whether or not we later faithfully replicate the canons of domesticity.

 

However, the advent of mechanical reproduction offered respite for some when 

 

opera entered the home—at first only in fragments, and later in full— (and) opera changed home’s meanings. Home bent to accommodate opera. And opera’s meanings altered, too; an art of excess and display, of exteriority, it became an art of introspection and interiors…Marvelously, just at the moment that opera became a museum piece and an object of domestic pleasure, it invited gay appropriation. Suddenly opera was an art of the past. [8] 

 

Though not in the way Koestenbaum intended, this is an apposite description of The Island We Made. Is it even opera though? Conscious that the electronic score causes it some genre trouble, the website describes the film as ‘a uniquely intimate art-opera.’ [9] Negrón is sanguine on the matter: ‘why not call it an opera’? [3] Well, because the star doesn’t even sing, for one; she lip-syncs.

 

Lip-syncing is a time-honored drag tradition, and Sasha Velour is its undisputed 21st century queen, thanks to the many performances available on YouTube and her legendary and eternally meme-able performance of Whitney Houston’s ‘So Emotional’ in the ninth season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which saw her lift a wavy ginger wig from her bald head, releasing a shower of rose petals and turning a song of lost love pining into a livewire anthem of borderline psychotic obsession. ‘When you talk, I just watch your mouth’. So did we when Velour began her final, winning performance in a boned helmet revealing only her ruby red lips. The gimmicks didn’t win her the crown, her psychological precision and tremulous intensity did. And that mouth. 

 

That MOUTH. Teeth like dinner plates, lips that write in cursive, just the right amount of expression for both the back of the auditorium and an extreme close-up. It hasn’t launched a thousand ships (yet), but it did inspire Negrón to make it the centerpiece of her evocative, fragmentary Island lyrics: ‘My lips…your voice…inside…the space in my mouth…my lips…your voice inside…the space in my mouth…the space in my mouth…the space in my mouth…the sand in my mouth…’ ‘The piece itself plays with the idea of embodiment…which is why lip-syncing felt so correct’! Sasha told an interviewer. ‘By embodying (singer Eliza Bagg’s) voice in drag, I also got to add a personal layer to the storytelling—grounding it in my body but making space for many others at the same time’. [1] The film further re-bodies the voice, giving occasional lip-sync lines to the three performers playing the woman at the table. Bodies become permeable, porous. No longer disorienting, out-of-jointness grounds and frees the queer consciousness.

 

And yet… 

 

At the risk of reifying the mirror (and stumbling into an unfortunate double entendre), I feel little space in Velour’s mouth. She is lean and beautiful; her body is correct. Matthew Placek, the director, is lean and beautiful; his body is correct. [10] Everywhere I turn the gay bodies I see are lean and beautiful and correct. I know these avatars are only icons, but in their litheness, I only see what I will never have. My ear and eye are grateful, but when my throat opens, it fills with sand and saliva, and I choke.   

 

And yet, and yet…

 

At the end of The Island We Made, the little girl places the clay figurine on the table in front of Sasha and the film cuts to the girl’s P.O.V. From the low angle, all we see of Sasha’s face is her mouth and chin, just as in her final Drag Race lip-sync. It is also finally clear that the clay figure is a mini-Sasha, bald head, ruffled dress, and all. The position of the arms recalls the blonde porcelain figurine from the opening shot. A cut to the master from the living room and Sasha sits alone, wistfully considering the figurine as the camera slowly pulls back. The tea and the little girl are gone. 

 

The glob of clay has found its form, but the molding is far from complete.

References:

[1] https://www.stageandcinema.com/2021/03/04/the-island-we-made-opera-philadelphia/

[2] https://www.inquirer.com/arts/sasha-velour-opera-philadelphia-angelica-negron-20210317.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/29/arts/music/sasha-velour-drag-opera.html

[4] Koresky, Michael. Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ‘80s Films That Defined Us. Toronto: Hanover Square Press, 2021. 218-219.

[5] Muñoz, José Estaben. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 1.

[6] Sontag, Susan. Quoted in Moser, Benjamin. Sontag: Her Life and Work. New York: Ecco, 2019. 230.

[7] Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. Da Capo Press, 2001. 14.

[8] Ibid. 8.

[9] https://www.operaphila.tv/products/the-island-we-made

[10] https://www.matthewplacek.com/projects/ring-them-bells/about/

DOCUMENTA BARBRISM hosts the podcast House of Barbrism, which is actually three queer podcasts in one: Adventures in Gaybysitting, Closet Practice, and Documenta and Son. From relationships to parenting to culture and sex, it’s all in our house! Documenta is a PhD candidate in Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center, CUNY, writing a dissertation on Broadway musicals about classical Hollywood. He received an MA in Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and has taught at City College of New York, Lehman College, College of Staten Island, Drew University, and the University of Utah. A former member of Drama Desk, his writing has appeared in Exeunt, Film and History, Studies in Musical Theatre, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, and more.

(Image Credits: 'Wonder' by woah_vv. By kind permission of the artist. INSTAGRAM, Sasha Velour in a still from 'The Island we Made,' directed by Matthew Placek 2021, Opera Philadelphia)