If this election cycle has had any single theme that has dominated all possible themes, it was without a doubt: CHANGE. Not only did Barack Obama’s campaign coin it and stick to it, but John McCain’s campaign co-opted it in an effort to portray the McCain/Palin ticket as the real agents of change. It is clear, now, who the majority of Americans believed could actually effect change. Now, what exactly “change” will be, specifically, in Barack Obama’s presidency, remains to be seen as his administration unfolds. But already there is a powerful sense of change, for many of us, that has already taken hold, and shapes our view of the world with each passing day. What is this “change”, and how can it be measured?
Wednesday, I was watching Spike Lee give an interview on one of the cable networks, and at one point, he proclaimed that from now on, America’s history will be measured as “BB” (or “Before Barack”), and “AB” (“After Barack”). (The obvious pitfall of using “Obama” in this scenario is that “Before Obama” comes up as “BO”…) At first, I was skeptical of the idea. It borders on the verge of hubris, and is too analogous to how the world’s history is divided between before and after the birth of Jesus Christ: the last thing we need is more unfortunate Obama=Jesus parallels.
But then, last night, as I was walking to meet C.C. BFF Claudia La Rocco at PS 122 to see Goat Island’s final production, “Lastmaker” (a really excellent piece that I enjoyed but didn’t really understand), it occurred to me that it was the first time I had seen Claudia since Barack Obama won the election. I also realized that “Lastmaker” would be the first performance I’d seen since then.
When we met, Claudia mentioned this feeling as well. It is strange. Neither of us was really a crazed Obama supporter (if anything, my own support for Barack Obama stemmed from a strong reaction against Republican leadership in general, although I am optimistic–with a healthy dose of skepticism–that Obama’s presidency will have a largely positive impact on our nation), and yet Claudia and I were both moved by this inexplicable knowledge that something had changed and we had not yet shared an experience with each other since that change had happened. This seemed to be a clear measure of change.
As we discussed this before the show began, I mentioned to Claudia that there is one other moment that changed my life in this way: Coming out as a gay man. Interestingly enough, this sense of change manifests itself through cinema.
Here’s what happens:
If I’m watching a movie I have already seen, I know–I sense deeply–whether or not the last time I watched this movie was before or after 1998, which is the year that I realized and embraced the truth that I am a gay man; aka, the year, or period of time, I integrated gay identity into my daily life.
The most recent example of this was watching “Sleeping With The Enemy” a week or so ago with my roommate. I know, I know, one of my guilty pleasures is Julia Roberts. Yuck it up! But I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I actually watched this movie all the way through (unlike, say, “The Pelican Brief,” which I have undoubtedly watched every time it has popped up on cable).
Well, as the movie was unfolding–Julia had finally decided to let her guard down and start bonding with the Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story “Jets” dance number recreating college theater instructor with the Richard Marx hair, just when, unbeknownst to Julia, her evil husband (the enemy with whom she had been sleeping, and subsequently, from whom she ran) had tracked her down and was about to sneak into her house and re-organize her kitchen cupboards, you know, to scare the shit out of her–I began to sense it; this deep, unsettling feeling that some kind of gay moment was coming up. I couldn’t remember what it was, but I knew it was negative. Sure enough, not ten minutes after I felt that, the scene arrived where the evil husband character assaults a man in a car who he thinks is the college theater professor. Well, he’s not, and to “prove” to the evil husband that he isn’t Julia’s new beau, he admits that he’s gay, or literally, that he “lives with another man.” Get it? I’m gay, so I can’t be schtupping your wife! Not the best writing, but I suppose it’s an interesting argument. Well, let’s just say that the evil husband wasn’t exactly relieved by the news, and quickly threatens to kill the guy and his partner if he tries to talk to the police, and then clobbers him over the head with his pistol.
Now, what does all this mean?
Well, the scene itself portrays a gay man in a weak position having his life threatened by a crazy straight guy with a gun, even though the gay man is quite innocent and was minding his own business and such. I would imagine that this scene had special resonance for me, as a young man who had not yet come to terms with his sexual identity, but who, try as he might to resist, still had deep-rooted and powerful sexual attractions toward men. So seeing harm come to the innocent gay–as often happened in movies, particularly during the 1980s and even into the early 90s–probably struck a chord of terror that I could not quite place or defend. But today, I have the perspective that this scene exploits the gay character as a victim of weakness. I could not have had that reaction when I was still repressing my sexual identity.
But also, when I watched this scene for the first time since coming out, I distinctly sensed that there was a time, an era, of my life that was real-ly different from another time, or era, of my life. And that the difference is entirely connected to how I did view, and how I now view world.
The process is clear. During the time of my life when I was not able to express my feelings about my sexuality, I related to characters in film as a repressed participant; I repressed attraction and accepted humiliation. My reactions were entirely determined by my outlook. Then, after I came out, I seem to have rewired my relational connection to the world and began to allow my myself to experience positive sexual reactions to male characters, and empowered reactions against violence toward gay characters.
Yes, there are examples of movies I watched before I came out, where I was attracted to a male character but repressed the feeling: i.e. Brad Pitt in “Thelma and Louise”, to name butt one. And that, watching them now, (or watching T&L recently on the TV: I know, I watch too much TV!) I feel a very real change, not only in that now I allow myself to experience the attraction in a positive way, but I can feel the memory of having once repressed it. Perhaps my own history could be said to be divided between BG (Before Gay) and AG (After Gay).
The fact that I also experience this with films that contain no obvious gay theme or sexual content–most recently, the children’s stow away fantasy flick “Savanah Smiles” brought me back to a time…BG–suggests just how permeating and fundamental sexual identity is to how we connect, or relate, to the world around us.
It’s clear that when our view of the world changes to a significant degree–largely because a real change has occurred in the world–our experience of life really does alter, creating a sensual distinction between the experiences of before and after. That’s why the idea of dividing human history between the time before a powerfully influential figure (now Jesus, although it could just as well have been Muhammad or Buddha) doesn’t seem like an arbitrary decision, even though, with this specific example, the choice to make that figure Jesus is definitely tied to cultural bias. But that is neither here nor there.
One surprising example of a moment that did not shape my view of the world in this manner was 9/11. I attribute this to a conscious effort I made NOT to allow this terrifying experience to shape my world view. Doing that has clearly led to all kinds of unfortunate policymaking, and a very frightening roll back in the way our government regards (or, rather, disregards) privacy and basic civil liberties. I don’t think it’s healthy to allow a moment of terror to guide our every move. That’s my personal choice, and it’s a choice I’m glad I made.
Nonetheless, powerful changes in the world change us and how we relate to things. I wonder, seriously, what it would be like to watch Ann Liv Young’s “The Bagwell In Me” now. I saw “Bagwell” a few weeks ago, when the fate of Barack Obama’s presidency still hung in the balance. In “Bagwell”, Ms. Young plowed the soil of America’s racial history without planting any crops. I left that performance feeling more torn up than tended; it was static change. But how would that piece have resonated had we already the knowledge that Barack Obama had won? There is no way to know. But I can say that the work, in hindsight, seems somewhat out of touch due to the fact that the majority of this country just put an end to a woefully long era of political racism. That’s about as much as I can surmise.
I am glad, even joyous to sense this new change. Whether it translates to real political and social change in terms of the policies that Barack Obama’s administration will help usher in, I cannot say. No one can. But it can’t be denied that Barack Obama’s promise of change has delivered on this very immediate level. Or rather, maybe the American people had already changed their view of the world, and this election is simply an elegant, dignified and momentous reflection of that.