equality

Does Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” Break Backs?

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Once I was old enough, I spent my summer breaks at home instead of having to go to a day care. My parents both worked, so I wound up spending many of those days home alone. While I did have chores that needed doing and friends that I could see, most of my day was spent doing whatever I liked, and it was my first taste of independence.  

One summer day while flipping through channels, I came across this movie that showed a Chinese wedding. While they were dressed in western clothes, they were engaging in various wedding games that seemed foreign to me based on the Southern weddings I had attended up to that point.

I must have continued searching channels, but upon returning I was transfixed by what I saw. Two men entered an apartment and began to kiss, tear at each other’s clothes, and they were practically undressed by the time they got up stairs, where they unexpectedly found one of the men’s father. They proceeded to discreetly dress and tend to the older man’s health, hoping he hadn’t heard their discourse that would have led to intercourse.

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While I had had my own experiences of this nature despite my youth (which is a long story on its own…), this was my first time seeing this in a film or in any way depicted on TV. I immediately identified with their need for secrecy, their fear of discovery, their worry of disappointing family. Basically, that was all reality for me and my young mind was both exhilarated at the chance to see other people, albeit fictional, with whom I could identify, and deathly afraid that this would also be the tragic path my life would follow because of being gay.

The movie was 1993’s “The Wedding Banquet,” by Ang Lee who is also known for “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and that other famous gay flick “Brokeback Mountain.”

The film is about a Taiwanese man who is living his life as a gay American openly and happily with his partner in New York City. Half a world away in his homeland, his family is constantly harping on him about getting married, going so far as to send potential brides to visit him. Eventually, this pressure builds to the point where Wai’s partner Simon suggests that he marry a Taiwanese tenant Wei Wei, who fears her time in America will soon end with deportation if she can’t find a job or a man.

The marriage of convenience turns out to be anything but when Wai’s parents insist on coming to visit America for the wedding. One thing leads to another in a comical way until finally the deception begins to break down everyone involved. While the truth of the matter is not easy to accept or divulge, it turns out to be for the best.

The obvious themes of being gay and coming out are apparent here, and they’re explored thoughtfully. They are also paired with the cultural ramifications. While it is Taiwanese customs that are challenged by Wai’s homosexuality, it’s easy to switch out any culture, even an American one, and the story’s applicability stands.

Wai’s scene coming out  to his mother is genuine, even considering the early 90’s setting. The difficulties he describes gay people have finding relationships when even straight people have a hard time are headed breaking, and his explanation that he was “born this way” rings true even decades before Lady Gaga made it a tagline. When Wai’s father comes out in his own way, telling Simon that he knows about them and that he just wants to make sure his son is taken care of, I cried. It was beautiful and simple.

And that is probably the film’s greatest strength, aside from its clever writing: the endearing characters. Every single one gets into your soul in some way. In fact, none of them are antagonists in a major way as much as they are all struggling against the situation. In that sense, you get a chance to understand each one, and that’s where they get to you, and you can feel what they are all going through.

While Ang Lee is more well known for “Brokeback Mountain” and its challenge to American culture in particular made it more controversial and famous, I feel like I prefer the tone of “The Wedding Banquet”.  While the inherent warning of the former suggests that America’s steadfast adherence to traditional masculinity and heterosexuality can indeed be back-breaking and life-shattering, the latter shows the benefits benefits of cultural progress, even if the price is accepting an emerging culture that has very little precedent.

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Even more outstanding is that all is this was done in a time when marriage equality was unthinkable, even though gay marriage itself is not addressed. It’s just a shame that the themes explored in this film may not have appealed to a 90’s crowd that was still reeling from the AIDS crisis.

When I was explaining to my own partner last week about this film and how it still resonated with me, I was surprised that he knew what I was talking about (he doesn’t watch as many movies as I do) and produced a copy of it for us to watch. Finally watching it in its entirety bright back a flood of old feelings that I could more easily handle now that I can deal with that aspect if my life.

I am glad to say that my own life has turned out similarity to this film. While I had my own phase of being closeted, hiding from my parents who I really am, the truth has finally come out for us all. Like Wai, I have my own partner and my parents know him and see that I’m happy. It could have turned it much worse, and for many others the characters of “Brokeback Mountain” are an unfortunate reality. Perhaps “The Wedding Banquet” may be more of what we will see in the world.

While it may have been a naive fantasy back in the 90’s, the film is now truer to life. That is as much a testament to how our society has developed as it is to Ang Lee’s ability to capture this particular slice of life, what it’s like to be gay, and to find acceptance.

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To Be Takei. Or Not To Be? That Is the Question.

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Some of us are afraid to be defined by some of our own features. It’s easy to imagine ourselves in caricature, like my childhood self who was ashamed of the freckles and big front teeth that surely would have dominated a comic sketch of my face.

George Takei is someone who could easily have let his life define him. He could have been a gay Asian man too ashamed of his orientation to pursue acting, and too burdened by the memory of being imprisoned by his own country for being Japanese-American to strive for anything more than to avoid further instances of racism.

Instead, he is a well known actor, activist for marriage equality and gay rights, and a devoted husband to his partner of over two decades. That certainly doesn’t seem like a man avoiding who he is.

In my family, George Takei is a household name. Unlike other children born in the 80’s my first major Star Trek experience was the original series instead of The Next Generation. That’s what happens when you live in a foreign country and have a VCR and the entire show on VHS, you binge watch episodes like candy. This normal for me and my parents.

So when George Takei came out in 2005, it was definitely interesting news for us, especially me, since Sulu was a childhood hero of mine alongside Spock and the gang.  Over the years, I watched as George stood up time and again, leveraging his reputation to advance important causes for gay people.

The documentary does a good job relating all of these things, not so much in chronological order as much as it tries to connect all of George’s pursuits to the reasons behind his passions. His family’s internment in concentration camps during World War 2 is a major inspiration for his current endeavor, the musical Allegiance. There is also his sexual orientation, which he had to hide during his early acting career, like so many others in that time.

While the documentary doesn’t showcase very much that was new, that can be attributed to the fact that George Takei is already quite open about himself. One point that did come through quite well was his sense of optimism he said he has maintained throughout his life. While it doesn’t hurt to be successful, there is something to be said for how much he attributes his own success to this optimism.

The fact that he is an activist for the gay community also shows that he understands that his success is something he can leverage to aid others who share his struggles. I still remember when he called out my home state of Tennessee, which attempted to outlaw the usage of the word “gay” in public schools. While my state still lags behind in the rights it extends to LGBT people, his campaign of “It’s okay to be Takei” still gives hope that even the most conservative states will be unable to conserve the bigotry that they hold as sacred.

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Overall, it was enjoyable to watch. George Takei has overcome racism and bigotry, has found success, love, and still makes time to pave the way for others to share in the opportunities he has had. This single documentary doesn’t make everything better for everyone, but perhaps it still serves as a beacon of hope for those languishing in the dark places where mysticism and hatred oppressively flourish.

Remembering that George Takei is a household name for me and my parents, as is everything Star Trek, it reminds me of when I noticed my father had liked George’s page on Facebook. This was before I had come out to my parents, and saw that my father, who had also grown up with Star Trek, had been able to look past race and sexuality  to have a good laugh every now and then from the hilarious content posted there. This gave me a inkling of the acceptance I would eventually get.

On the other hand, at a wedding several months later, after I had come out to my parents, I had an uncle of the backwards and conservative type come up and try to be chummy with me. The way he mentioned that my father and I followed “that George Takahashi-or-whatever-his-name-is” on Facebook was dripping with such racism and disdain that I realized some people will never wake up from their ignorance.

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It is people like that who can make us want to hide, or even change who we are. However, we all have a chance to be who we want sooner or later. While it may seem difficult to accept those things about us that others seem to hate, it starts starts with ourselves. If we all retreated from the truth of who we are, then there would be no documentary that charts the achievements of George, and it wouldn’t be okay to be Takei.

Her Name Was Leelah

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It’s tragic when someone dies.

It’s even more devastating when that death is a suicide.

When that act is committed by a young person, all of that is compounded exponentially.

Leelah Alcorn was a teenager who identified as transgender, who was transgender. Unfortunately, her religious, specifically Christian, family could not accept this. In their horror, they decided that their son who felt he was really a daughter should not accept this either.

That’s the thing about Christianity, if you don’t conform you are condemned. It is seen by Christians to be a righteous act to “save” someone by changing his or her nature to prevent condemnation.

This is how Leelah’s family reacted, by subjecting their child to religious based counseling. All they wound up doing is confirming that this type of therapy does not work. They broke their own child’s mind, and heart, and sense of life. Leelah decided to preserve what was left of herself by prematurely ending her life in order to avert more torture.

Many will judge Leelah for this, but no one has a place to do so. No one really knows for sure that things could have gotten better for her, so no one can say that she should have held on to such an unconfirmed potentiality.

The real regret is that Leelah is not alone. Many young people will suffer the same fate, but with much less awareness. Leelah’s desperate wish was that her death would mean something, and I’m attempting to do my part by sharing my sadness at her loss.

I didn’t know her personally, but I have felt similar pain. I am fortunate to find acceptance for being gay where she did not for being transgender, but I always feared that I wouldn’t either. In some ways, I still don’t have true acceptance, but those of us who are different have to take what we can get, because some of us, like Leelah, don’t get any.

I wish to extend with my words through this blog all the sympathy that I can to those like Leelah, living or otherwise, who are transgendered, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or just different in any way that is especially challenging. It does not get better for everyone, as long as people like Leelah’s parents wreak their ignorant havok upon the innocent.

It is true that there are some who have come through the pain to see better days, but that is not a promise made that is always kept by fate. We still have a long way to go, and when we lose friends on the way, we have to remember that we fight for their equality as well as our own.

Image by pixel–speechbubbles on Tumblr.

Is Star Trek’s “The Outcast” Gay Enough?

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The Outcast is one of Star Trek’s most controversial episodes. While it certainly isn’t the only one to address gender and sexuality, it is one that attempted to directly address the issue of homosexuality, something long promised since Star Trek: The Next Generation’s inception.

The episode follows Riker and his collaboration with Soren, member of an androgynous race, to rescue missing scientists. Soren’s curiosity about humanity leads to her discreet revelation that she, unlike most of her kind, has a sense of gender, female, and is attracted to males, to Riker.

The romance is treated tenderly, unlike space player Riker’s other cosmic hook ups. He even consults ex-girlfriend Troi about this and receives her blessing. Ultimately, Soren is discovered by her people, and after a brief trial is sentenced to a high tech lobotomy to remove her “unnatural” sense of gender so she can be “cured”.

Tragically, Riker’s attempt to rescue her is too late and we see what happens to a society that is free to enforce its oppression.

It doesn’t sound very gay, does it?

But hold on… Star Trek has always worked best as allegory. While it has been mentioned that the producers of the show evaded homosexuality with this story, giving it a veiled showcase, the episode’s more allegorical nature has actually allowed it to transcend the “gay issue” into a much more inclusive one.

Before Soren’s “deviance” is revealed, she spends time inquiring the Enterprise crew about gender roles. While the obvious physical differences are mentioned, Soren learns that treatment of gender in other ways is fair and equal. To her, the Enterprise’s happy coexistence of gender and equality is foreign but hopeful.  Many in our world may feel just as shocked as Soren is, considering still lingering inequalities between the genders in even our most progressive societies.

Soren tells Riker her secret in the privacy of a shuttle, where she is met with his understanding. Her description of a life of fear, and secrets, and hiding from persecution is all too familiar to anyone who is gay, or a racial minority, or even transgender as Soren most certainly is. When I watched Soren divulge her attraction to “maleness”, instantly I identified with her and I saw the terror and strength in her admission.

Soren’s true strength comes through when she speaks in her own defense on her home world. She proclaims her sense of gender is natural, and that all she wants is access to the same things as the rest of her kind, freedom to live with a compatible partner to share in life’s joys and support each other during its troubles.

Her rhetoric is common nowadays, with marriage equality being such a hot topic in our world. Think about twenty years ago, though. Gay people were merely struggling to be recognized as something more than the punchline of a joke, the victim of a “gay disease” that is actually a threat to us all, or as some secret to be swept out of sight and out of mind.

Marriage equality in the 90’s was as foreign to us as gender equality (or recognition, even) was for Soren.

With gender and sexuality being so intertwined, and able to be included in the entire spectrum of LGBT rights, the issues covered by this episode are now more relevant than ever.

Certainly, I was not the only child affected by this episode, who shared in Soren’s terror of the rest of her kind because of a secret truth that we couldn’t safely share. Being able to see a story that put a face to our fear gave us hope that there would be other Rikers out there to understand and love us.

The ending is tragic, yes, but it provides a staunch warning to the rest of our world.

Photo from the wonderful online Star Trek resource: memory-alpha.org
From YouTube, Soren’s speech from the channel JasonOnEarth:

Thy Hood and Thy Gloves They Comfort Me

A short story about equality.

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I look carefully into the mirror as I put on my hood. I have to make sure that it fits properly over my eyeglasses, which are small and discreet. Few people still wear them, but my eyes are sensitive and contacts an uncomfortable option. Dangerous actually. I had terrible infections when I was a child. My twin sister did, too, but she finally opted for corrective surgery.

Before putting on my gloves, I have to make sure that my hood is securely fitted to my shirt collar. The clips around the back are hardest to adjust, and I usually get my husband to help me with them, but he left early today. He wanted to finish his duties at work early so that we could spend more of the evening together. It’s my birthday.

After doing my best to attach my hood, I put on my gloves. All the accessories are lightweight, made of natural cotton, and you almost forget you wear them after putting them on. That’s good, because you must wear them when you are in public.

We started wearing them years ago. I was still a small child. There was a plague at the time, the government said, and this was our last recourse. Most will agree that it worked, one way or another.

In the mirror next to the front door, I give myself one last glance to ensure everything is in place, then I leave. I have an appointment with my sister.

Every year for our birthday, we meet in the market and buy food to prepare for our evening meal. We never spend our birthdays together anymore, and there have been some years where we have been unable to find each other for our yearly ritual, but I think we have that worked out now. Since our birthday is in the early summer, we have the best selection of fruits and vegetables to choose from, so it’s always a pleasure to spend and hour or so at market with her to shop.

It’s the only time we get to spend with each other.

By now I’m used to seeing everyone else on the street wearing hoods and gloves. While we get to choose what to wear otherwise, we are still limited to high collared shirts or jackets so that we can attach our hoods, and by now most people wear simple clothing. Most times, unless someone’s proportions are drastic, I can’t tell most women or men from each other. No one is vain anymore. There is no beauty to see.

It’s quiet, too.

The silence continues as I reach the market, where it’s nearly crowded to capacity already. No one talks. They type messages into their communication devices, or directly into consoles at each market stall. Transactions are conducted quickly and silently.

My sister and I always meet at mid-morning on our birthday at the stall with fresh tomatoes. We both love them.  As I make my way through the crowd I notice a strong wind picks up. I worry about my hood, and I hope that I’ve clipped it properly to my collar in the back. As the wind continues, I feel the fabric of my hood jostle on my head. The breeze passes and I feel relief that my hood is still intact, and I can see the glorious red tomatoes stacked in a stall not far ahead of me.

I approach the tomatoes and start feeling them for ripeness. By the time I find several I still feel for more. I sense someone next to me, and notice that someone else is checking the produce. This person is not my sister. Whoever it is, is too tall to be her. The eyes of our hoods meet and there is a brief nod of acknowledgement. The person quickly retrieves several of the tomatoes to put them into a bag that another person behind is carrying. They walk together arm in arm around the stall, probably to go pay.

As the tall person walks away I see another hooded person standing and looking directly at me. From the way the hooded head is tilted to one side curiously, I can tell it is my sister. I hold up a ripe tomato in front of my face as if to show her not the fruit, but my identity.

Quickly, the hood nods in affirmation. She reaches out and quickly shakes my hand and grips it with the other. We lock eyes for a moment.

It’s been a year since I’ve seen her.

After a few long moments regarding each other, we begin to peruse the tomatoes together, in silence. Then another gust of wind assails the market. This time much stronger and more insistent. Before I know it my hood is starting to flap strongly in the breeze and nearly flies off of my head. If not for my eyeglasses, the hood would have flown free. My hands, encumbered with tomatoes, are unable to quickly address my escaping hood. I feel the fortunate catch between my eyeglasses and my hood begin to slip when something hits my head.

It’s my sister’s hand. She manages to hold my hood while I can free my hands from holding tomatoes and secure it. As I quickly try to secure it, I hear a commotion behind me. As I turn around and look it is the two hooded patrons who were also shopping at this stall.

Their bag of produce has fallen. Bruised and broken fruits litter the ground. The couple, still arm in arm, have both lost their hoods like I almost did. And there in the middle of the market did the fear of the old plague once again reveal itself. Everyone was looking at the two women, standing arm in arm, faces burning red with shame that they lost their hoods. Lost their security. Lost their anonymity.

“Leave!” someone says.

The two women scurry off and my heart aches for them. Whether sisters, lovers, or friends it doesn’t matter. They have been exposed and the plague could return. And this is why we wear the hoods and gloves. They hide us, and protect us. Without them, we are seen for who we are. Unfortunately, the plague never went away. It’s potentially behind any mask in the market.

I’m just glad that I was at the market with my sister on this windy day instead of my husband. I’m also glad that my sister helped her twin brother from losing his mask. Hatred is a terrible plague. Discrimination is a horrible disease. And that’s why we hide.

No one wants to suffer from the plague. No one.

 

Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act… Shenanigans

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HB 1547, a bill passed in my home state of Tennessee, proposes to protect the rights of religious students by granting them special rights that will allow them to freely voice their religious views and protect their religious views from discrimination.

Essentially, a person may use religion as a free pass.

Don’t understand that final answer on your biology quiz about evolution? God is the answer.

Why did you just harass the foreign exchange student from the Middle East? God is the answer.

Why are you wasting class time sharing the Gospel instead of studying Edith Hamilton’s Mythology? God is the answer.

Why did you just terrorize your classmate who is gay, or at the very least doesn’t fit in with the kids from your church’s youth group? God is the answer.

Why is God the answer? Because religion is sacred and should be above discrimination. And this is where I call shenanigans.

That’s right. Tennessee proposes to sanction religious based bullying as a protected right.

As a gay person who went to school in this state, I can honestly say that I didn’t experience any bullying because of my sexual orientation. Because I kept it a secret.

I lived in terror that someone would discover I was gay. I feared the ridicule I would experience for being gay. I loathed myself for feeling different in a way that others seemed not to deal with. I felt shame that other “normal” people were happy and that I was only pretending to be. I maintained this painful facade carefully for many years, and many choices in my young life were made based on this facade.

I avoided actively pursuing interests that would betray my attempt at deception. I acted contrary to my true self to uphold that false image. I let opportunities pass me by because they would make my identity harder to maintain.

Imagine living like that. And imagine that if you were discovered that “Christians” would have legal freedom to persecute you like a witch in the Dark Ages.

But it isn’t just about being gay. What of the intelligent young person with a mind of science, with a love of logic, and a future in discovering the mysteries of the universe? Imagine how ignorant young people will stall education because their “religion” forbids them to learn evolution or the Big Bang.

What of an aspiring young author who is unable to study Shakespeare or Keats in peace because her classmates are railing against the ungodly secular literature that offends their sensibilities?

To be clear, I am not implicating all people of faith as ignorant, because I have known many intelligent people who have coupled their faith with a love of learning. I have also known many religious people who are truly gracious and accepting of other people.

But those are not the people for whom this bill was written. There is a huge wave of equality rights sweeping this nation, and it has been cresting for decades. This bill is an attempt to thwart progress.

This isn’t just a war against equality. This is also a war against the mind. The very mind which can love a person is the same one that thinks and produces art and science that fills the future of our world.

Whether or not this bill is made into law, consider the implications of something like this. If Tennessee is willing to sign over the rights of its citizens to medieval theocracy, then what other travesties will follow?