In the opening scene of Beach Rats (2017), American director Eliza Hittman’s remarkable, Brooklyn Beach-set study of adolescent sexuality, and its inherent secrecy and violence, the film’s protagonist Frankie is chatting with an anonymous man on a Chatrandom-like cam site. ‘Do you like what you see?’, he asks, to which Frankie responds: ‘I don’t know what I like’. Irritated, the anonymous man goes to switch off his cam. ‘Can I see it first’, Frankie asks, suddenly a little pleading. ‘See what?’ the man asks teasingly.
‘Please don’t make me say it’.
The difficulty, indecision, reluctance involved in saying it – uttering, identifying, labelling – could be traced across many of the representations of gay life that abounded in 2017, this being in the UK the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Criminal Offences Act, which decriminalized private consensual sex between two men (over the age of 21, and outside of the armed forces).
Many of the nation’s institutions – from the BBC to the National Trust, the British Museum and the British Library – responded with special seasons of programming, events and exhibitions. One of the most prominent in art circles, Tate Britain’s survey ‘Queer British Art: 1861-1967’, was also a prime example of the difficulty of saying what we meant. The curator made the unusual point of publishing a prominent note on the show’s webpage, justifying the use of the term ‘queer’ in the show’s title on the grounds that ‘no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show’. Yet this alleged diversity was in fact rather difficult to perceive within the Tate’s display, the figures there assembled being overwhelmingly ones who would just as comfortably be filed under ‘gay’ (at least by contemporary definitions of the term), from Oscar Wilde to E.M. Forster and Noel Coward to Duncan John and David Hockney. Indeed, unless the section related to noted Victorian cross-dressers Stella Boulton and Fanny Graham counts, I noted just one exception – a work by the extraordinary early 20th century painter Gluck, the trans implications of whose gender identity was, moreover, given disappointingly scant attention in the accompanying wall text.
If the Tate show used ‘queer’ when it only arguably earned the right to say ‘gay’, a different kind of category confusion was on display in ‘Coming Out: Gender, Sexuality and Identity’, which opened at the Walker, Liverpool in July and moved to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in December. Featuring some canonically queer works – from Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Andy Warhol to James Richards and Zanele Muholi - the show also boasted less familiar ones; emerging practitioners Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, whose massive drawing The Dudes (2017), the centre-piece of whose show at Arcadia Missa in September, invoked all the thrill and strangeness of a gay community witnessed from a distance – in a language equal parts Paul Cadmus, Pierre Klossowski and Donna Huddleston – was for me one of the most exciting works of the year. Yet within the crowd mingled many artists – Anya Gallaccio, Sarah Lucas, Maud Suter – whose practice, though important, had puzzlingly little to do with minority sexual identity. I love Anthea Hamilton’s Leg Chair (Jane Birkin) (2011), but it’s hard to see what its collage of pin-up images of Jane Birkin might say to a gay or lesbian visitor to the show about their experience.
The vagueness of the definitions of sexuality seemingly operative in these two exhibitions were matched by a sense of confusion throughout the year’s wider cultural discourse as to what terms and categories might mean, and who could claim them. Was there something queer about single people, as a column in the New York Times in October suggested? Could the actor Andrew Garfield, appearing in the National Theatre in London’s revival of ‘Angels in America’, be so immersed in his role he could consider himself ‘a gay man […] just without the physical act’? And if such thinking was trivial (‘I’m a gay man now because I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race’, ran Attitude’s story), what about those who claimed four year old Prince George – on the basis of a sappy pose adopted in an official photo – a ‘gay icon’? Can we impute sexual identities to pre-pubescents? And if not, what does it meant to ‘come out aged eleven’, as did the subject of Channel 4’s Extraordinary Teens: My Gay Life, which was broadcast last month? Among these multiple perspectives, the sensation described by the sometime lesbian narrator of Sally Rooney’s bracingly intelligent novel Conversations with Friends (2017), as she returns to an adulterous relationship with a man, of ‘things and people […] taking positions in obscure hierarchies, participating in systems I didn’t know about and never would’, felt unusually resonant.
Gay is an adjective, Gore Vidal used to say, not a noun. I thought of this in response to possibly the year’s most high-profile depiction of same sex love, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name (2017), adapted by James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 novel. Set in a grand Italian villa where a Jewish American family are summering with their staff, this dewy, titillating tale of heartbreak traces the blossoming sexual passion of Timothee Chalamet’s Elio, a moody 17-year-old pianist, for Oliver, embodied by Armie Hammer – a kind of living Ken Doll with a monumental jaw, an expert command of etymology and a collection of obscene swimming shorts, who is visiting Elio’s archaeologist father. Elio gradually gives himself over to an all-consuming crush, which is eventually reciprocated by Oliver to an almost fantastical degree (no film this year quite so well supported artist Hannah Black’s claim that: ‘most movies just v expensive versions of the most basic daydreams - "I have the hottest sex" "I win" "my sadness is aesthetically pleasing").’
The element of confusion stems not from the fact that both the lead actors are heterosexual – as The Advocate noted in an editorial, ‘It's a Great Year for Gayface at the Golden Globes’ – but that even within the film’s digesis, the Elio and Oliver’s sexual orientation is a matter of ambiguity, if not obfuscation. Specifically, Elio loses his virginity to a woman even while pining for Oliver, who is himself implied to sleep with women during his time at the villa; later in the film, when the couple are separated, Elio’s father too indicates his own experience of a lost, same-sex love. If it’s rare in American cinema to see gay characters, it’s rarer still to see them sleep with women. Is Call Me by Your Name, then, a story of desire expressed and then repressed, tragically (and/or improbably) within two generations of the same family? Or should the viewer eschew a generalizable sexual identity like ‘gay’ when thinking about its characters, and instead consider the specificity of affection as something unique, which transcends general preference? Should we treat the characters’ apparent homosexuality as something fluid, or temporal – or are they just plain ol’ bisexual (a term which I have yet to see circulate in any of the discussion of the film: symptomatic of a wider cultural lacuna which I hope Michael Amherst’s Go The Way Your Blood Beats, published by Repeater books in February, will I hope begin to address)?
The narrative’s undecided quality is matched by a further mystery: namely why the lovers are parted at all (after his stint in Italy is up, Oliver calls the house months later to announce his engagement to a woman in the US). The viewer knows from a lively conversation about the incumbent government of Bettino Craxi the story takes place in the 1980s, past the point of legal discrimination, and social censure is largely absent from this milieu too: as well as Elio’s father’s confession of his own sexual variety, his parents invite gay friends to the house (a couple Elio sneeringly nicknames Sonny and Cher). So why doesn’t Elio just follow Oliver back to the USA at their summer’s end, rather than closing the film starring with tearing eyes at an open fire, as in the film’s mesmerizing, almost painful final shot? It is as if the characters, as gay, must be destined for isolation, in a spectral return of the old Hollywood codes explored by Vito Russo.
This stood in contrast to Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country (2017), a less feted and technically magnificent film but to my mind a vastly more truthful and valuable one. The set-up – Johnny, the self-destructive son of a Yorkshire smallholding family falls reciprocally in love with Gheorghe, a dashing Romanian migrant worker hired to help with lambing season – is no less improbable than Guadagnino’s (if the statistical likelihood of this scenario is small enough, that both protagonists should be as strikingly attractive as the film’s leads render the odds infinitesimal). Yet, though equally rich a hymn to sensuality both erotic and natural (no small feat when the raw materials are not Italy’s apricot orchards but the drystone walls of the West Riding), the film is attentive to the factors arrayed against this love’s fulfillment – jealousy, shame and homophobia, but also economic and social conditions, from poverty to xenophobia. Rather than instituting a sense of inevitable, unspeakable gay calamity as Call Me by Your Name does, Lee’s situating of the couple’s romance in the intersection of these currents brings a sense of realism to the tale, making the couples’ reconciliation at its conclusion all the more genuinely moving.
What is strikingly similar about both Call Me by Your Name and God’s Own Country is that neither narrative involves the ritual of coming out – of professing or accepting an identity, of joining a community; in neither film, to my memory, is the word ‘gay’ ever used. This could be read as a manifestation of the soupy definition described above – why employ a general label for an utterly unique, one-of-a-kind romance between two specific individuals? (The title of Call Me by Your Name, with its emphasis on unique personal nouns rather, than, say, categorical ones, is suggestive in this respect.)
This focus on the isolated romantic unit of the couple, rather than the of the community more widely, as the primary vehicle for the gay experience might be read as indicative of a similar shift in wider discourse around minority sexuality this year. In reference perhaps to the pro-Marriage Equality slogan ‘Love Wins’, Pride London took as its official theme ‘Love Happens Here’, a phrase which was duly emblazoned across spaces as indiscriminate as the blue plaque on the former home of Siegfried Sassoon and, more hilariously, branches of Barclays bank (an official sponsor of the festivities). If this seemed incongruous, the foregrounding of love also alienated queer audiences who felt that love – in the sense of fulfilling, accepting relationships – was not their primary experience of sexual identity. The situation points to a tension in the growing optimism of the gay movement. As porn performer Tyler Mitchell, in one of the year’s most perceptive essays on the cultural and emotional situation of the gay community, suggested: ‘when loving and being loved are now requisite to our personal identities, and when our political optimism rests on being the lovers who must trump the haters, we also find a terrifying, taboo hollowness carried around by gay people who cannot seem to find the love that we won the right to’.
Echoes of that ‘taboo hollowness’ – not identical with the ‘epidemic of gay loneliness’, which one much discussed essay in the Huffington Post in March diagnosed – could be traced throughout the year, from the ‘Gay Culture Is’ meme which arose on Twitter in the autumn – which offered definitions ranging from ‘always choosing the female characters in video games’ to ‘being a teenager when you’re 30 because your teenage years were not yours to live’, in every manifestation emphasizing the bittersweet feeling of the lack of a definition or a sense of what joins us – to the launch of Richard Dodwell’s zine, Not Here, with contributions from artist Marc Hundley, poet Timothy Thornton and legend David Hoyle among others exploring the queer experience of loneliness.
If each of these moments points to a feeling of a dissolution of bonds, a thinning sense of what gay (or indeed ‘queer’) people have in common, rather than what unique experiences and encounters make them distinct, I wondered if this might be linked to a certain coyness about what is, in some sense, the bedrock of sexual identity, namely sexual activity itself. As Huw Lemmey – who in his writing, his Twitter and his public addresses, most impressively bringing Samuel R. Delaney to Glasgow for art organization Arika’s Episode 9 in November, was one of the year’s most essential queer voices – noted in an exemplary essay for Even, that nothing in the Tate Britain show besides the library book collages of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell ‘carried any of the anarchic and erotic energy that might represent your own desire to actually fuck someone.’
A similar coyness could be found in some of the year’s 1967 anniversary tie-in publications. Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day (2017), on my skim read, lavished vastly more attention on Roman brothels and Georgian Molly-Houses than the more quotidian encounters offered (and still offered) by the sauna, Heath or toilet – the Index listed no entry under ‘cottaging’), while Paul Flynn’s readable but meandering Good As You. From Prejudice to Pride: 30 Years of Gay Britain (2017), which in its opening profile of Frankie Goes to Hollywood front-man Holly Johnson describes the 1984 number one single ‘Relax’ as ‘the sound of gay sex’, without even teasing out what that track’s somewhat general lyrics have to say, or not, about the act. I wondered, at times, if this reluctance – like that of Beach Rats’ Frankie – to say what we mean when it comes to sex, or to acknowledge what relation sex might have to being gay (to my mind, pace Garfield and Prince George’s gay fans, a pretty determinative one) was somehow related.
Looking back, three shows stand out. ‘Xeno Factor’ at London’s Chelsea Space was a tight but rich survey of the late painter and teacher Mario Dubsky, born of émigré parents in London at the outbreak of World War II. Influenced by the apocalyptic postwar landscape as well as the Slade School figuration of David Bomberg, the exhibition followed Dubsky’s evolution from tender, almost expressionist life studies (Robs Day, Not Night Its Silvery Emotion, 1977) to hefty, absorbed figures, in which classical order and a sense of primordial energy struggle – in works like Buried (1975) and Roma III (1982) as if both embattled sexual identity and the fragile position of the human subject in a violent world are all struggling through a single pose: a complex phrase made through the body.
Further back in time, into the terrain of the Tate show, the equally focused ‘On Pagham Beach: Keith Vaughan Photographs and Collages from the 1930s’ at London’s Austin/Desmond Fine Art brought to light a fascinating trove of photographs by the British artist, uncovered in the home of Tracy Stamp (the second person in the UK to undergo a sex change). Conveying an infectious sense of freedom, the photographs primarily document anonymous (but, by their builds, likely working class) men arrayed across the pebbles of the Sussex coast: posing, playing or just unembarrassedly being. The obvious eroticism of some studies – Bather Lying in Surf (c.1939) could almost be a Bruce Weber in its slick sexinesss – did not exclude their poignancy: the slant of a beach chair, alone against the sky, which was deepened by (but not reliant on) the knowledge of Vaughan’s own miserable life, or the fact that most of these subjects were likely to perish in the oncoming war. A valuable if not entirely legible record of inter-war gay community, and of influences as disparate as Diaghilev and the physical culture so admired by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood at the time, the pieces were also, undeniably, art: an extraordinary suite of collages brought elements of the photographs into a strange terrain of washed-out blues and greens, show Vaughan both moving towards his later abstraction, and also achieving a singular mood of its own, both utopian and bleak (on VE Day, Vaughan noted in his diary ‘Perhaps I might be last person in Europe who can still lie in the sun’, as the show’s excellent accompanying publication noted).
In the summer, British artist Prem Sahib displayed ‘Balconies’ at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, as part of the institution’s impressive ‘Brightest and Boldest’ series. ‘Balconies’ employed remnants collected by the artist from the now closed branch of the gay sauna Chariots in London’s Shoreditch: the idea of the trace, or relic, and how to treat it, was foregrounded by a fragment of a plaster copy of Michelangelo’s David, lying like a slash across a modern sofa at the exhibition’s entrance, or a chrome water fountain from Chariots, encased in a cuboid of transparent resin: perfect, but impenetrable. At the exhibition’s heart stood 12 lockers rescued from the sauna’s changing rooms, standing in rows like roofless pillars, evoking a community of bodies as much as a display of minimalism sculpture (in German Romanesque churches, naves would sometimes feature 12 pillars to remind the worshipper of the 12 disciples). Under snaking threads of neon lights, the lockers doors were left generously open, like chests, their interiors offering private glimpses of lives, encounters, offers made and lost: stickers for Class War, or promoting sexual health schemes, or poetically declaring ‘Aromas Available’ (meaning amyl nitrate was on sale); homemade advertisements for one ‘Beast of Holloway’; a sign which, stripped of its functional context, seemed to implore the viewer to ‘HELP YOURSELF’. In a final, dark room, a spotlight shone on a small table accompanied by institutional chairs, on top of which lay a replica of the cake made for the artist’s first birthday, recreated from a family photo in ageless rubber. The cake’s garish size was striking, reflecting not just parental pride but the social aspect of this celebration: an individual life event made a reinforcement of community – community being, however tenuously, what the implied bodies of the locker room in some sense sought, or formed.
In one of the most unusual passages of Aciman’s novel, translated roughly into the film version of Call Me by Your Name, Elio wraps himself in a pair of Oliver’s discarded swimming shorts, and is transported to a moment on Yom Kippur, when an older man placed his tallis on Elio’s head ‘till I had all but disappeared and was now united with a nation that is forever dispersed but which, from time to time, comes together again when one being and another wrap themselves under the same piece of cloth.’ In suggesting how an individual, erotic encounter might connect one with a community of others, an identity that is shared while also rooted in an individual experience, Sahib’s show felt like a reconciliation of the cross-currents in the articulation of gay life described above: and a vessel which might see us through the coming year’s unknown waters.
Main image: Eliza Hittman, Beach Rats, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Peccadillo Pictures Ltd