Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

World Mastercard Fashion Week Day 3: Christopher Bates and Brunch

ImageGeorge Pimentel / Getty Images

The keyword in my invitation for the ‘Toronto Fashion Incubator Press and Buyers Brunch’ on Wednesday was ‘brunch’. As per usual, I had had only a cup of coffee and a banana when I got up so I was starving. I arrived at David Pecaut Square at noon—too early even for the street style photographers outside the tent waiting to not take my picture. Inside it was so dead as well I thought I had the wrong location. But the studio space where the brunch was held was brightly lit and buzzing with activity. About ten to fifteen vendors were set up with their clothing, accessories, and jewelry, but my eyes went straight to the back of the room where I spied tables of steaming breakfast goodies.

“No, Max,” I warned myself. “You cannot go straight to the food. Remember society. Mingle. Schmooze.”

I did a once around, stopping to talk to designers who piqued my interest. I complimented Muhammad Alamgir (for L’Momo) on a gorgeous aquamarine dress and Jon De Porter on his pearl concoctions, which turns out I had just seen in the VAWK presentation. I stand out was the Sappho line by Kim Smiley—bracelets made from lace that appear like intricate henna-designs on the arms and wrists.

“Okay, now I’m ready for food,” I thought. “I’ve earned it.” But all of the three little tables were occupied with brunchers. I could have grabbed a plate and stood with it, but as I am not the type to eat something without spilling on myself I decided against this course of action. Fortunately, I spotted Laura-Jean Bernhdardson of Clothing Collective with her distinctive red hair and cat eye glasses. I introduced myself. At the Standard I conducted a phone interview with her, but never met her in person.

“This sounds a bit high school, but…can I sit with you?” She said yes.

Pancakes, bacon, potatoes, sausage, fruit (of course)—they had quite the breakfast spread for us, but I couldn’t immediately get to it as the tables were blocked by reporters and cameramen following a little fancy suited middle-aged man.

“Who is he?” I asked Laura-Jean. “He looks very important. He’s blocking the food.”

It turns out the man in the suit was Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, who had a few kind words to say about the industry. “The designers I’ve talked to are living their dream,” he said. “And I think that’s wonderful.”

Speaking of suits, my only show that afternoon was Christopher Bates menswear. Bates always seems like he’s casting a particularly elegant James Bond film and this collection was no exception. He showed slim-fitting suits in black and grey, and sexy beige sweaters that highlighted the models pectorals. As for the models, the audience responded to a man with gleaming white hair and matching beard. (“Sexy Santa” I wrote in my notebook). My friend Dervla and I couldn’t decide whether he was an older man with incredibly good skin, or a younger man who’d gone prematurely white. Another mature model, squinty eyed and beard of salt and pepper, broke the fourth wall by making eye contact with members of the audience. He appeared to be flirting with the whole room.

“That got lady bits excited,” I said.

“Christopher Bates chooses models that look like him,” Dervla observed afterwards. “Just, in different incarnations of his life.”

She may be right. 

World Mastercard Fashion Week Day 2: Mercedes-Benz Start Up

ImageGeorge Pimentel / Getty Images

When my friend Jess Bartram and I entered the cavernous presentation space for the Mercedes-Benz Start Up presentation models were already standing on platforms on the runway, still like mannequins. On their boxes were little triangular spikes.

“I like their wee mountains,” Jess said.

It felt more like a performance art piece than a runway show and, as with every performance art piece, attendees looked a bit uncomfortable walking by the performers. Of course, it took about five minutes before people started taking selfies with the models, implacable as British guards.

“They are human beings!” I protested to Jess. “Well, they’re models, at the very least.”

The Mercedes-Benz Start Up awards up-and-coming designers and this year they chose two: Cécile Raizonville of Matière Noire (who showed first) and Malorie Urbanovitch. I suppose Raizonville saved some time by having the first models already on the runway because she played an extended intro of electric music and, projected on the screen, flashing satanic symbols—orbs, vertical lines, and triangles.

“It’s the Eye of Sauron,” Jess whispered.

“She’s trying to hypnotize the fashion critics,” I replied.

Considering the creepy, pagan atmosphere, Raizonville’s collection was fittingly “Noire”. She showed wide-necked square sweaters with asymmetrical, two part skirts—black wrapped around vibrant royal blue. Black and white abstract patterns on belts and sleeves called to mind African prints, while large shapeless coats referenced the late-1950’s silhouette. The designer demonstrated how subversive a baby doll dress can look when, in lieu of white or pale pink, you colour it black. On their heads the models wore small, helmet-like caps as though they were horse jockeys. A recurring full-moon motif on a handful of tops reminded me immediately of ‘Twilight’ series book covers.

In between the collections a group of white and pink t-shirted Fashion Week volunteers came out. There were scattered applause from people who may have been confused. The volunteers were there to remove the platforms with the little spikes, like stagehands during intermission. Maybe the applause weren’t accidental—WMCFW’s hardworking volunteers literally move mountains.

The difference between Matière Noire and Malorie Urbanovitch was the difference between night and day. The lights turned up bright and suddenly it was a sunny morning in California. A model with blonde, bouncy hair walked out in an oatmeal sweater, black skirt, and Doc Martin-esque boots. The nineties are back, my friend. Urbanovitch also showed wrap skirts, but in soft grey and acid yellow. I practically gasped at a baby blue sleeveless turtleneck.

“Yup,” Jess whispered. “Pretty sure I had that in grade 7.”

Shift dresses looked very soft and comfortable, as though they were made from shaneel. And a loose-fitting yellow coat looked ripped from the cover of Vogue circa 1997.

“It was very 1990’s TV,” I remarked as we got up to leave.

“Yeah,” Jess replied. “First were the vampires, then there was Buffy.” 

ImageGeorge Pimentel / Getty Images

A Fan Reacts to Sex and the City 3

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In one of the final episodes of ‘Sex and the City’ red-haired Miranda Hobbes, played by blonde-haired Cynthia Nixon, has proposed to her on-again-off-again boyfriend Steve “over three dollar beers.” She hates everything to do with romance and phoniness but, after she tells her friends of the engagement, Carrie, Charlotte and Samantha get misty-eyed verklempt. Getting up from the table because they’re “freaking her out,” Miranda says, “Samantha, I expected more from you.”

The line works because, of the four lead characters, Carrie and Charlotte were the optimist/idealists, while Miranda and Samantha the cynical/realists, although their personal philosophies came from opposite directions. Miranda was the show’s feminist voice while Samantha was a de-political hedonist—a male sexual ego trapped in a woman’s body. Just how inescapable that female body was becomes clear later in the same episode when Samantha discovers she has breast cancer, a risky and brave story line for the writers to insert in the final episodes. When she accidently lets slip her condition at the end of Miranda’s wedding, she reminds her: “No tears. Miranda, I expected more from you.”

While ‘Sex and the City’ will always be associated with Carrie and her musings (but look, I wrote two paragraphs and didn’t even mention Big!) the trajectory of the show more resembled the development of Miranda and Samantha, who both had to let go of some cynicism and independence to accept that love was possible. It’s why, after Steve cheats on her in the first movie, Miranda’s line “I changed who I was for you,” cuts so deep.

Although Carrie had to get over her sarcastic reaction to Petrovsky’s romantic gestures, that didn’t work out too well for her. She ended up with Big, the man who had constantly let her down but she loved regardless. The series started as a tribute to chain-smoking, mid-thirties negativity (“Welcome to the age of Uninnocence,” Carrie voice overs in the first episode) but eventually became one of the most unabashedly romantic shows on TV.

Funnily enough, I think personally I’ve gone in the other direction. I started out with Carrie’s idealism, tested Samantha’s joie de vivre (the polite way to say it), and have settled somewhat on Miranda’s snarky skepticism. It’s maybe what happens in your twenties. But as both a first and second generational fan (I watched it when it first aired, sneaking downstairs late at night to watch it on the family TV as a teenager, and then shared every episode on DVD with my university friends) I will always stand by the show, even as the cultural cacophony has moved against it. After the economy crashed, Carrie’s shopping and trendy restaurant name-dropping instantly looked dated. Entire series have been created as rebukes to the fictional world of dating in New York that ‘SATC’ espoused. But it will continue to irritate me that in an era of philandering, drug-dealing, serial killing, male ‘anti-heroes’ Carrie Bradshaw is the one routinely described as a ‘bad person’.

The movies didn’t help. And I say this as a fan who watched both in the theatre and owns both on DVD. (Even the second one, yes.) There are scenes from both films I enjoy and, if I had any digital editing skills I would put them together into a passable thirty minute long episode, as I heard someone did with ‘Star Wars’. But the final three episodes, in which Carrie gives up her column and moves to Paris, were so perfectly conclusive there was no reason for a first film, let alone a sequel. I will say this for the much-maligned ‘Sex and the City 2’: I appreciated the theme, which was something about it being okay for women to speak their minds, much more than that of the first one, which was ‘forgive the one who love no matter what they do to you’.

I believe screenwriter Michael Patrick King deserves a lot of the blame. From what I’ve learned, the writers’ room for the series was a chattering place where the writers’ bad dates and misadventures in love were worked into episodes. Those different experiences and perspectives became the different voices of the characters and were essential to the chatty spirit of the show. The movies, in contrast, are subdued and quiet, the silence becoming all the more obvious with feature length runtime. He also deserves the blame for completely misreading the zeitgeist and sending the girls on a frothy vacation to Abu Dhabi, a sojourn that pleased no one.

What I’m saying is I can’t handle another movie. Which is why I was glad to see Miranda’s alter ego, Cynthia Nixon, holding out on signing up for a third film. Nixon, New York City’s most famous activist lesbian mom, has always come across as the most down to earth of the actors, and her non-involvement would make it impossible for the show to go on. (For the record, Chris Noth was also as noncommittal as Mr. Big.)

Sarah Jessica Parker, an actor I admire and will always have a deep affection for, seems unable or unwilling now let the character of Carrie go. When she came up to Toronto to open a Target store she wore a big season 3-style flower pin. She’s a professional Carrie now. It was only a matter of time before she started a show company.

Meanwhile, Nixon appears happy with doing the odd bit of theatre, the odd bit of TV. She told the press it would be okay if they let the series end. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, Nixon told the ‘Today Show’ she’d “absolutely” be on board for a third movie. (My question: who got to her? Was it Kim Cattrall?) I understand that working actors need money and movie studio pay cheques allow them to continue to pursue the life style they’ve become accustomed to, but there are bigger issues at stake. ‘Sex and the City’ is what the four lead actors will be remembered for, unless ‘Failure to Launch’, ‘Rampart’, ‘Cross Roads’ or ‘The Shaggy Dog’ become cult favourites. (Actually, ‘Cross Roads’ might be already.) They should let the beautiful series finale speak for itself. They should hang up their Manolos and call it a day. Lastly, they should consider how I feel, the lifelong fan who defend ‘SATC’ till his dying day, but wants to talk about Paris and Petrovsky and not camel toe sight gags. I hope one of the actors comes to her senses.

Miranda, I expected more from you.

World Mastercard Fashion Week Day 1: VAWK

ImagePhoto: George Pimentel / Getty Images

I keep saying I’ve retired from fashion writing but, like Cher with her unending farewell tours, it never seems to stick. Through WORN, the Toronto Standard, and befriending the right PR women I ended up on several media contact lists and consequently was invited to a handful of shows during Toronto’s World Mastercard Fashion Week. I decided to attend because I do enjoy runway shows, and playing ‘spot Stacey McKenzie’, but this year I didn’t want to go on my own. While I never did this when I covered the shows for the Standard this time around I asked for plus-ones for every presentation I was invited to. Remarkably, the PR women indulged me. I wanted to bring my friends to fashion week to give them a peek into this glamorous, crazy world, and they’re useful for snagging extra Peroni drink tickets.

First up was Sunny Fong for VAWK. Sunny and I go way back (and by that I mean I rooted for him when he was on ‘Project Runway Canada’). Also one time I approached him at Starbucks and said I was a fan. His whole face turned into a bashful smile. He’s just the cutest of elfin men.

His collections are also reliably excellent, often inserting some cheeky fun and much-needed model diversity. His Autumn/Winter 2014 collection promised to be interesting. It was officially touted as a collision of classical and modern, blended with the luxury of Dubai and the organic style of ‘90s street fashion.” I couldn’t really picture that (Salt-N-Pepa mixed with Abu Dhabi via ‘Sex and the City 2’?) but couldn’t wait to see it.

The resulting concoction was quite different than what I expected. It could have been subtitled ‘Fifty Shades of Black’. While I get a bit exhausted with the fashion industry’s obsession with monochrome, the collection demonstrated what a talented designer can do with limited colour. My favourite piece was early on—a black leather jacket with silver snakeskin sleeves which, under the glaring lights, shone like a suit of armor. Underneath the model wore a long diaphanous cape that flowed out the back like a train. The jewelry was restricted to large silver pedant necklaces, as you might see in a Renaissance portrait. Whether pants, skirts, or floor-length dresses, most of the pieces clung to the body tightly. When combined with the models’ straightened hair and dark eye makeup, they gave the show a ‘Morticia Addams goes to the Oscars’ air. 

And just when I was worried about diversity (while the models were multi-ethnic they were all of the same body type, with a couple looking dangerously skeletor) ultra marathon runner Amy Winters headed down the runway with a beautiful, intricate metallic prosthetic leg, designed by the Alberta-based Alleles Design Studio. There were whispers, then scattered applause, as the attendees noticed the reason for her distinctive gait.  After the show I spotted Winters, having switched back to her everyday prosthetic, carrying the unique one around in a complimentary tote bag. Hopefully she’ll have another excuse to wear it soon. 

ImagePhoto: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The Harvey Girls, Judy and the Limits of Camp

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Illustration found here

Every Millennial at one point or another will have to answer the inevitable question, “Are you a hipster?” (Every Millennial who wears glasses and has some sort of interest in the arts, at least.) I faced the question at a wine party last year and replied in the negative. I admitted some of my fashion choices may fall in with the cliché of the hipster (though I never succumbed to skinny jeans, aviators or wolf sweaters), but my music taste is much too ‘top forty’ and my personality too earnest.

“Oh, come on, Max!” my friend Amy shot back. “You’re such a hipster! You read the New Yorker.”

“Since when is that a hipster publication?” I cried. “It’s not VICE.”

“The hipster thing wouldn’t be VICE anymore,” someone else chimed in. “It’d be the New Yorker.”

Obviously, we settled nothing that night. I bring this up to illustrate that identities are complicated and how others see you is often vastly different from how you see yourself. While I will continue to shriek in protest against the label ‘hipster’ until my dying breath, there is one label I’m totally at ease with.

I’m gay.

And I use that word purposefully. I’m not a ‘man who sleeps with men’. I’m not ‘attracted to masculine performance’, as one guy I met convolutely defined himself.

Every generation has to redefine sexual identities for themselves and it’s a wonderful development the struggle for equal rights has expanded to include lesbian, bisexuals, transgender, two-spirited and intersex individuals, among others. (Lesbians were a part of the gay rights movement from the very beginning, but men managed to hog the spotlight. It’s what men do.) A scan of news headlines, from Russia to Uganda to Toronto’s City Hall, demonstrates the fight has only begun.

But speaking personally, I like the word ‘gay’ and I’m proud of gay culture and history. All sorts of pieces have claimed the death of that word or identity, from Foucaultian academic treatises to blog posts. But I’m not done with it yet. If anything, like the child of immigrant parents, learning about gay history and culture helps me feel connected to my past forebears. It helps me understand who I am.

For example, learning about gay history put my camp humour into perspective. I can’t tell you if I was born with it or it was somehow learned (these are debates too big for WordPress) but I do know from a young age I acted with a little camp performance. By ‘camp’ I don’t necessarily mean effeminate, although that’s part of it. Rather, it’s living life as though you were on stage, doing things as though they were in quotation marks. There’s a home movie of my little brother and me sitting on the kitchen floor, banging on coffee tins with wooden spoons as if they were drums. When my mom asks me what I’d like to play, 6-year old Max taps his fingers on his chin and looks off dreamily.

“Let’s see,” he says, overacting the process of thinking. “What should I play?”

In contrast, when it’s my brother’s turn he immediately starts banging the wooden spoons like he’s Animal from the ‘Muppet Show’.

Performativity is a part of how I speak to this very day. Every third sentence that comes out of my mouth is in quotation marks. Sometimes they’re direct quotes from movies or TV, but mostly they’re the type of thing you’d hear in fiction. I’m asking the listener, with exaggerated language and tone of voice, to understand I mean them as clichés.

On occasion, this habit gets me in trouble or someone fails to understand the joke. It’s probably more difficult when English isn’t your first language. When I lived in Dublin I worked with a girl named Daria who was from Mongolia. She spoke English very directly. Once she told me, “I didn’t like you at first, but now I like you.”

When I got a minor promotion at work (I don’t even think a raise was part of it), I turned to her and, waving my head around flamboyantly, said, “Now that I’m the ‘coffee master’ for the café I don’t want you to treat me any differently. I’ll never forget where I came from. I want you to know that, truly.”

She stared at me blankly. “Why are you saying this?”

Camp is very complex to define, but one of the most succinct summaries comes from Steven Cohan, author of ‘Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical’: “Camp can be defined as the ensemble of strategies used to enact queer recognition of the incongruities arising from the cultural regulation of gender and sexuality.” In an era of deep oppression, camp allowed gay men to both engage with the discriminatory dominant culture while mocking it in a manner invisible to outsiders. Sociologist Esther Newton, who interviewed drag queens in Chicago and Kansas City in the 1960’s, said the main tenets of camp are incongruity, “its subject matter”; theatricality, “its style”; and humour, “its strategy.”

By treating a minor promotion at Starbucks as a Broadway star would talk about landing the lead role, her name emblazoned in glittering lights, I gently mocked the absurdities of being a minimum-wage-earning barista. Camp also might explain why, when I have to be assertive, I imagine myself as Joan Crawford, Margaret Thatcher or Elizabeth I (as played by Cate Blanchet), rather than any of the aggressive male personalities available. I’m playing at being angry so I can float above it.

Which leads me to Judy. In first year university I read Gerald Clarke’s biography of Ms. Garland, ‘Get Happy’. I became a bit obsessed with her and I couldn’t figure out why. I grew up on MGM musicals it’s true, but I watched ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘American in Paris’ far more than ‘The Wizard of Oz’. (Gene Kelly’s ass is just as likely to turn you gay as anything Garland ever did.) Perhaps, I thought at the time, I related to Judy’s personal struggles, often the explanation people give as to why gay men appreciate her. At the time I was a popular undergrad with many friends but no boyfriend, which sometimes plunged me into feelings of loneliness and unattractiveness. Judy Garland was loved by countless fans but never felt intimately loved enough. It’s a human tragedy with no solution.

Lastly, as a cultural history buff, I liked the era that Judy’s career spanned and the change you can see in American pop culture from Rooseveltian patriotism to 1960’s cynicism. (It’s probably a good thing that near the end of her life Garland was fired from ‘Valley of the Dolls’ in which she had been cast as Helen Lawson, a cruel caricature of herself. It may have damaged her reputation in the manner Joan Crawford’s was bludgeoned by Faye Dunaway’s wire hanger.)

But ten years on, after watching ‘A Star is Born’ every year and reading everything I could get my hands on camp and gay history, I think I have a better explanation. Judy Garland performed with a camp attitude, including her over the top singing style and her delivery of lines as though they were in quotation marks (which of course as scripted lines they were). Her singing voice gave more emotion than her films usually called for, while her awkward, fidgety acting suggested discomfort with the Ohioan girls-next-door she was often asked to play. Unlike Joan Crawford, who is appreciated as camp but not a camp performer herself (her caramel voice always oozed sincerity), Garland wins out with gay audiences because she seemed in on the joke.

Why Judy performed this way is up to debate, although I think Roger Edens, musical arranger, gay man and longtime friend of Judy who taught her how to sing for the camera, along with Kaye Thompson, another music arranger and author of the Eloise books, who taught her how to move, have a good deal to do with it. Garland was a mimic who entertained her friends by impersonating people they knew. Not hard to imagine, given all the gay men surrounding her (including a couple husbands) that she would start acting camp.

I like the Garland-as-camp-performer theory better than the Garland-as-sad-sack-and-gays-are-also-sad explanation because it gives Judy agency. As well, it explains why gay men who grew up long after the Stonewall riots, when camp was supposed to disappear with the smashing of closet doors, might still be interested in her. (I know I’m not the only one.) As David M. Halperin wrote in ‘How to be Gay’, times have changed but little gay boys still need strategies to cope with and find a place within a dominant heterosexual culture.

Re-watching films I’d grown up with I saw Garland’s campiness over and over again. I also saw myself. In ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ Judy’s character is a lovesick teenager and the part would have been dull if played by another musical actress. Director Vincente Minnelli got mad at Judy when they started filming for mocking the lines. The story goes that Judy eventually came to trust Minnelli, turned in a sincere performance and the pair ended up married. But watching the movie now I see traces of Garland’s tongue-in-cheek attitude, as though she’s whispering to the audience, “Oh, as though I’m supposed to be silly teenager from Missouri!”

Before a dance, while Judy’s character Esther and her sister are getting ready, she folds her hands and says in a matter of fact voice: “I’ve decided I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.” Her sister is scandalized and says you’re not supposed to kiss until after you get engaged. (It’s supposed to be 1904.)

“Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off,” she claims.

“Personally, I think I have too much bloom,” Esther says as her sister walks away. “Maybe that’s the trouble with me…” She then pinches her cheeks (turn of the century rouge) and flutters her eyelashes at herself in the mirror in a mock pretty-girl flirtation. She then drops the mask, sighs at herself and gets up from the desk. It’s the type of thing I’d do.

 

But there are limits to my fandom. Judy couldn’t single handedly rescue every picture. I finally made it through ‘The Harvey Girls’ (1946), a movie which I tried to watch years ago but gave up after it completely lost steam after its big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” musical number. Set in the 1890’s, and oh you should see the size of their puffy sleeves, what little story there is centres on a group of waitresses for the Fred Harvey restaurant company, the first chain restaurants in America. (Sadly, unrelated to the hamburger joint Harvey’s.)

According to the film’s introduction, “When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Sante Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had know… the Harvey Girls…these winsome waitresses conquered the West as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons…Not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.”

‘It’s a good thing the land was empty for all these white people to come and serve beefsteak,’ I thought. Then in the big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” number, when all the “winsome waitresses” arrive at the sleepy cowboy town of Sandrock to bring civilization and coffee, the filmmakers dare to include Native Americans as extras, or at least actors meant to be Native Americans.

‘Oh,’ I said to myself. ‘There’s the civilization that white people eradicated by way of railroads and chain restaurants!’ As the Native American extras bob around merrily to the song, the women sing about all the different states they’ve come from. They’re in the Old West to be waitresses but really to be wives, and the cowboys of the town leer at them approvingly while tightening their brightly coloured handkerchiefs.

‘But wait,’ you ask. ‘Weren’t there women in the town before?’ Not really, unless you count sex workers as women. The movie is from the 1940’s so it doesn’t call them sex workers. But at the end of musical number the waitresses look up to see a group of feather headdress-wearing, corseted showgirls glaring down at them like vultures from the balcony of the saloon. These are the ‘bad girls’ who entertain the single men with booze, gambling, and whatever else. They’re threatened by the arrival the Harvey Girls, who may marry their customers and straighten out the town. The extinction of their way of life, and not that of the Native Americans, is the subject of the film.

The most fun casting is that of the head bad girl. She’s played by Angela Lansbury, who puts on a tough, world-weary accent. (Sadly, they dubbed her singing voice. It would have been fabulous if she had performed her songs like Mrs. Potts!) She gets the best outfits, though—sequined monstrosities that make her resemble a Christmas tree. MGM let the gay men in the costume department go a little far. 

As Judy becomes a Harvey Girl and their schoolmarmish boss instructs them on always having a clean apron (they look like freakin’ nuns) and the rules of costumer service, I rolled my eyes and shouted at the screen, ‘Oh, shut up!’ When Garland and Lansbury start competing for the same man you can’t help but route for Lansbury. Who decided that a movie about goody two shoe waitresses was more interesting than one about showgirls?

Most disappointing, Judy doesn’t subvert any of her characters lines, nor does the film undermine any of its sexist and racist themes. In real life, Fred Harvey chose the prettiest girls as waitresses (something the film implies), which doesn’t seem that far off from pimping. He also hired actors to play Native Americans to provide ‘local colour’ for tourists. While it was still going on, the Old West had to be faked for white audiences. Even for MGM of the 1940’s, this is an insanely conservative Americana movie, managing to combine Manifest Destiny, fast food, and the post-WWII move to shove women back into the home.  

I would love to remake ‘The Harvey Girls’ as a stage play/drag show, using the same songs and basic plot but with the opposite point of view—the ‘bad girls’ as the protagonists and the priggish waitresses as the villains who ruin all the fun. Although there may be some movies, Judy or no Judy, that are beyond rescue. 

Miss Piggy Turned Me Gay

Muppet-Film "The Muppet Movie"

I’m sorry to disappoint you but Bert and Ernie are not gay. They’re not. When Jim Henson and Frank Oz created them for Sesame Street they were intended as a tribute to the grand tradition of mix-matched comic duos—Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Felix and Oscar of ‘The Odd Couple’. The fact that in the decades since people have come to view them as a gay couple says more about the normalization of homosexuality and the decline of the comic duo than anything intended by the Children’s Television Workshop.

“They’re puppets,” explained Steve Whitmore, who’s performed Ernie since Henson’s death. “They don’t exist below the waist.” But denials have only added fuel to the fire. With a smirk, gay men enjoy ‘outing’ these symbols of childhood with the same relish they used to reserve for ‘outing’ Hollywood actors. With a continued dearth of same-sex role models in popular culture Bert and Ernie have been enlisted as gay marriage symbols, appearing on placards, buttons, and t-shirts. Men dressed in Bert and Ernie costumes have even been married at gay pride parades. When it came to celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act last June The New Yorker chose not an image of a flesh and blood couple but an illustration of the two Muppets cuddling.

It’s not just allies who suspect same-sex shenanigans at 123 Sesame Street.

“Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom,” claimed the Reverend Joseph Chambers on his radio show. “They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics… If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”

The Reverend clearly knows nothing of the show or, for that matter, fashion. Ernie has only ever worn horizontal stripes. Bert, being the more practical one, wears vertical, along with a very 1970’s turtleneck. As for being effeminate, Ernie is a disorganized mess while no stylish gay men would allow the caterpillar that stretches across Bert’s forehead to go un-tweezed.

Bert and Ernie sleep in separate beds, are rarely physical with each other, and never say lovey-dovey things. In fact, they seem ready to murder each other most of the time. (“Sounds like a lot of couples I know,” I can hear you saying.)

But everyone has it wrong. Bert and Ernie are meant to teach children they can be friends with people different from themselves. There’s nothing ‘gay’ about them, save for Ernie’s love of bubble baths. If Reverend Chambers is really worried about kids being introduced to queer culture he needs to move past Bert and Ernie. He should condemn an entirely different show and an entirely different Muppet.

It was Miss Piggy who turned me gay.

Despite the celebrity cameos and pop culture spoofs, ‘Sesame Street’ was always meant for children, but Jim Henson was weary of being seen as a kids’ entertainer. It took years for him to get it on the air but ‘The Muppet Show’, which ran from 1976 to 1981, was meant to correct this misconception. Henson sought to prove a show with puppets could have universal appeal.

Like Walt Disney and the creators of the Warner Brothers’ cartoons before them, Henson and his Muppet Workshop forgot to create female characters. (When a girl was needed on ‘Sam and Friends’, Henson’s first TV show, he’d throw a blonde wig on Kermit. If only Reverend Chambers had seen that!) There was the odd exception, such as a purple Muppet named Mildred who, with a perm and cat’s eye glasses, resembled a Fraggle librarian. But at the beginning ‘The Muppet Show’ was an overwhelmingly male affair with male characters performed by male puppeteers. Like a true star Miss Piggy would have to invent herself.

The Muppet performers had used a homely lady-pig puppet in a few TV specials but she lacked a name and distinctive personality. Before the first season of ‘The Muppet Show’ Muppet designer Bonnie Erickson replaced the puppet’s beady black eyes with large blue ones and dressed her in a silk dress with lilac gloves. A permanently attached handkerchief was used to conceal the puppet’s arm rod. Paying tribute to Peggy Lee, Erickson named the puppet Miss Piggy Lee, but the ‘Lee’ was swiftly dropped to avoid offending the singer.

Initially Miss Piggy lacked a distinctive voice. Frank Oz and Richard Hunt shared the responsibility of performing her, with the latter giving her a flouncy British accent and a stuffy, Margaret Dumont-ish character. But as Oz gradually took over, Miss Piggy’s personality asserted itself.

During one rehearsal, Henson and Oz were working on a scene in which Piggy slapped Kermit. Oz thought a karate chop was funnier, paired with a dramatic “hiii-yah!”

“Suddenly, that hit crystallized her character for me,” Oz told the New York Times. “The coyness hiding the aggression; the conflict of that love with her desire for a career; her hunger for a glamour image; her tremendous out-and-out ego…” As they say, a star was born.

Befitting a diva who stepped out of the chorus, Miss Piggy soon took over. With practically no other females to compete with (other than the androgynous guitarist Janice, originally designed as a big-lipped tribute to Mick Jagger) Piggy would grow in stature to become the only woman the Muppets needed. Her costumes multiplied. Her production numbers became more elaborate. She peppered her speech with ridiculous bastardizations of French, a habit perhaps inspired by the legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Miss Piggy thought nothing of throwing herself at male guest stars, or stealing scenes from great beauties like Raquel Welch.

Pigs, despite their documented intelligence, are thought of as dirty, rotund, and as far away from showbiz glamour as possible. But as a little kid I never took Miss Piggy as a joke. I accepted her beauty and elegance sincerely. For me, she was the star she believed herself to be. This was perfect training for my eventual love of drag queens, who also don sequined gowns, feather boas, and demand you take their star personae seriously.

Miss Piggy taught me that femininity and glamour are constructs. They are costumes anyone can wear providing you have the right attitude. I was a slightly effeminate little boy who collected ‘My Little Ponies’ and owned a pair of Jelly sandals. Miss Piggy showed it was okay to be girly, that there was even power in being feminine.

Of course, simmering just below her fuzzy peach surface, Miss Piggy had a well of anger and aggression that busted out in karate chops, punches, and kicks. When she got mad, Frank Oz lowered her voice from its regular high-pitched coo to a low, gruff, streetwise snarl. Being a lady is all well and good, but when the going gets tough, the pig gets rough. A lilac glove can sometimes conceal a fist.

Miss Piggy is a pushy, bullying, manipulative, insecure, egoist. There’s more Diana Ross in her than Peggy Lee. She should be unlikeable.

But she has one trait that humanizes her. She loves Kermit. He’s her Achilles Hoof. Her love for him is pure, passionate, and pathetic. She humiliates herself over and over just to get his attention. As Frank Oz said, quoted in Brian Jay Johnson’s new biography of Jim Henson, “She wants that little green body so badly.” And Kermit, for the most part, brushes her off and ignores her. Loving someone incapable of reciprocating is a tragedy every queer person who’s fallen for a heterosexual can understand.

Miss Piggy eventually snagged Kermit via a surprise wedding at the end of ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’ (1984). The ceremony was performed by an actual New York city minister and in the years since puppets and performers alike have enjoyed teasing fans about whether the characters are ‘actually married’ or not. Either way, the union of frog and pig and the nullification of their romantic tension brought a symbolic close to the Muppets’ Golden Age.

I love Miss Piggy, but I realize her characteristics as I’ve listed them aren’t exactly those of a role model. With her diva behavior and camp aesthetic, Miss Piggy is a throwback to the closeted gay world before the Stonewall Riots, when queer men worshipped Mae West and a sharp, sardonic tongue was their only weapon. By the time ‘The Muppet Show’ was at its height, gay men had already moved on to body-building and Donna Summer. Perhaps this is why Pride Parades feature Bert and Ernie and not Miss Piggy. Miss Piggy, with her exaggerated femininity, barely concealed aggression, and pining love of a ‘straight’ man, reminds gays of their past. Bert and Ernie as a committed couple is a more useful symbol for gay activists still fighting for same-sex marriage, even if it is a projection of fans. Puppeteers aren’t the only ones who can pull the strings.

Carrie’s Apartment

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In a city of famous buildings, the one I wanted to see didn’t actually exist.

Officially, the address of this New York landmark is 245 East 73rd, but this location is as fictional as 123 Sesame Street. (Ernie and Bert’s building being the other make-believe brownstone I still somewhat believe in.) Even though I know deep down ‘Sex and the City’ was a TV show and Sarah Jessica Parker is an actress (and a savvy one at that, parlaying the fashionable series into a series of perfume and clothing endorsement deals), the apartment of the character of Carrie Bradshaw, where she sat by the window, with her lap top, yearning, will always hold a place in my heart. It is the quintessential New York flat; with piles of books but no kitchen table, it is the writer’s dream abode.

I had been to New York three times already but had never made the effort to find Carrie’s street. Partially, this was because those earlier trips were with my father, who could only, due to the potty mouths of the female characters, appreciate ‘Sex and the City’ from afar. But more likely I was not prepared to give into that level of obsessive nerdiness.

Now, going back to New York at the age of 26, I know myself. I may not own a T-shirt that says “I’m a Carrie” (and not just because HBO doesn’t sell them in men’s sizes!) but I can admit I’m a ‘Sex and the City’ obsessive.

Although five different locations were used for the outside of Carrie’s apartment over the run of the series (and the interior was a soundstage), a general consensus emerged among the experts (fans on the internet) that the main, and most picturesque, location was on a little street in Greenwich Village.

I drew a map in my notebook, along with the location of Magnolia Bakery, the shop which, after being featured on the show, did so much for the sugary cupcake-mania we are still immersed in. I got lost on my way there, and not even on the subway.

While I’m on the topic, the New York subway and I are not friends. I like to think of myself as a metropolitan person, one who has successfully navigated the public transportation systems of London, Paris and Barcelona. But in Manhattan, trapped underground, I had to sit with my subway map open on my lap, like a country rube, double-checking where I was at every, single stop. Like I said; not friends.

But no, I got lost in the Village, ending up at a weird, triangular intersection which, despite seeming important, I could not locate on my map. After a couple circles, once I was finally back in chartered territory, I treated myself to a diner lunch which was so massive, so New York City big, that I didn’t eat dinner.

When I found the street, it was more lovely than I imagined. With trees on both sides and turn of the century brownstones, their stone steps elegantly spilling out in front of them, I agreed with Carrie’s own observation that it was like walking in the New York of Edith Wharton.

When I arrived at the house, two young women were there already, snapping pictures. Embarrassed to be seen doing the same thing as them, I kept my distance. (Maybe I’m not as comfortable being a nerd as I thought!) After they moved on, I approached the steps where Carrie had emerged so many times to greet Mr. Big waiting in his limo on the street.

A metal chain prevented one from walking up the steps and attached was a sign. Diplomatically, it read: “Dear people taking pictures: please remember this is a private residence. You are welcome, but be respectful. No sitting on the steps or loud noises. Thank you.”

I was suddenly flushed with an emotion close to shame. This was a real home to real people, probably a family, and because it was used as a pretend home for a fictional character, bus loads of people are going to come by and be invasive until the show slips from syndication. The house means much more to the people who now live in it than it does to us ‘Sex and the City’ fans. Carrie’s Apartment, the idea of Carrie’s Apartment, is a place in our minds, not a location on Google maps.

So I took a picture and walked away. 

Tattoos, Beards and the Importance of Diversity

As every generation comes into its own (and correspondingly, gets old) the decade that they grew up in returns, recycled for its non-ironic nostalgia. The Gen X characters on 1990’s ‘Friends’ cracked jokes about 1970’s ‘Happy Days’ (itself a tribute to the 1950’s).

Around 2000/2001, everyone started wearing shoulder pads and humming ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ as though the 1980’s were an epoch recently uncovered from an archeological dig.

Now, my generation is using online social media outlets that didn’t even exist ten years ago to celebrate the 1990’s, from ‘Romy and Michelle’ on Tumblr to ‘Clueless’ on Youtube. The pace of revivals is becoming so fast, I wonder if we’re not far from a future in which a trend can be appreciated as brand new and retro simultaneously.

One thing I remember from the 1990’s and early 2000’s are my notebook doodles: intricate spirals; flamboyant fleur-de-lis; ladies in hats and outlines of five-pointed stars

I began to think I might like a tattoo of a thick outline of a star, in black or blue, on my arm, or maybe my hand. Clean, simple, a bit of a pun (I had already started to think of myself as a reincarnated Old Hollywood starlet in a modern Canadian boy’s body). My mother had half-jokingly informed my brother and I we weren’t allowed to alter our bodies, so I kept my plan in my back pocket.

But then, part way through university, I realized I had stopped doodling stars and that they were no longer a symbol I particularly embraced. I now associated them with emo culture (this was right before the term ‘hipster’ would begin it’s long-lasting but embattled empire). I was definitely not an emo.

Not only did I not get my star tattoo, but I was scared away from the idea of tattoos in general. If my feelings about a symbol could change over time, how would I know that I wouldn’t get sick of a design I happened to like at a specific moment?

Another thing I remember from the 1990’s: everyone cared about body dysmorphia for about five minutes. The cover of ‘Time’ magazine questioned the skinniness of models, the words anorexia and bulimia entered common parlance, and Callista Flockhart, star of the formerly popular show ‘Ally McBeal’, made an effort to be photographed eating.

But then it seemed to go away. The beautiful Kate Winslett was ridiculed for her weight, but before she slimmed down everyone moved on to worrying about kids finding internet porn. At a pretty young age, I learned a valuable lesson: it’s not enough to point out a problem and complain. Society is not going to change itself. You have to roll up your selves and make it happen.

That is one of the reasons I am so proud to work for WORN Fashion Journal, an independent fashion magazine dedicated to promoting different kinds of beauty. (Please watch this video about WORN and our exciting next step.)

The work is by no means done for changing the definitions of female beauty, despite the current issue of ‘Vogue’ congratulating itself on no longer featuring exclusively “waif” models. I find it depressing when I happen upon a Tumblr, often curated by a young woman, who, given the opportunity to select any image from across the internet without interference of editors or advertisers, reuses the same type of pictures that are not only fictive and damaging, but clichéd and dull: skinny blond white girls, looking bored.

But at least we’ve reached the point where even Anna Wintour has to talk about different kinds of female beauty. What I noticed recently, in magazines, on Tumblr, in the general pop media landscape, is the powerful prevalence of certain kinds of male beauty. In particular, photography that has pretensions of being arty and stylish almost always feature skinny guys with wide eyes and sharp features. Shot in black and white, these boys smoke cigarettes and stare off into the middle distance.

In contrast, musclemen with the same six-pack torso we’ve come to expect when a Hollywood actor lifts up his shirt are portrayed in sports illustrations and Romance novel covers as active, assertive and engaged with the camera. This muscleman-twink dichotomy is especially prevalent in the gay world, in which our free glossy weeklies, while ostensibly celebrating diversity, promote guys who look like young Zack Morris or older, shirtless Zack Morris.

And here’s the really sad, creepy thing: most of us can be rational media observers and realize that not everyone looks like Keira Knightley or Chris Evans. But we internalize these beauty standards, and because they have been so normalized, we treat them as normal.

I did not realize how depressed and ashamed of my body I was until I first opened the (sadly now retired) Butt magazine, and saw erotic photographs of gay guys whose bodies were, using the polite term that our culture promotes, as ‘imperfect’ as my own. Other men have love handles! Other men don’t wax their asses! It was like a weight lifted off me. It felt like, “Thank you! I thought I was going crazy!”

Things are getting better. Gay Bear culture celebrates, indeed, fetishes, older, bigger, hairy guys. And I’ve noticed, even on the covers of those superficial queer weeklies, a ‘browning’ of their models who increasingly have Middle Eastern/Mediterranean/Semitic features. And an outlet like Tumblr is great for things like this. If you’re not getting what you’re interested in from the mainstream media, promote it yourself. Like I said before, don’t complain. Replace!

Indeed, on the gayer than gay Tumblrs I follow, I noticed a new kind of archetype of male beauty: dark features; scruffy beard; tattoos; and thick-framed glasses, implying a certain lack of vanity as well as bookishness. There is even a Tumblr specifically called ‘Tats, Beards and Glasses’. The photographs of these men didn’t exaggerate their Aryan perfection, but rather highlighted individual facial features like full lips, freckles, scars and blemishes.

I was drawn to these pictures, although I didn’t immediately understand why. I also, for the first time since I was 21, began to seriously reconsider getting a tattoo, maybe a retro-inspired sailor design, an anchor or a red rose.

Then two realizations collided in my brain with the impact of a car crash. These glasses-wearing, bearded hunks looked like me! And a lot of them have tattoos! A tattoo would help me look even more like the guys that I see celebrated online, the ones who are presented as sexy, cool and desirable.

Strangers online demonstrated that I could be considered attractive in a way supportive friends and lovers never could. This is why we must keep pushing for diversity of all kinds in media. When people see themselves reflected back to them it can leave a mark as permanent as a tattoo.

Maybe mine will have a heart with the message ‘Sorry, Mom! Blame Tumblr.’

White Boys

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As anyone who follows my Tumblr knows, I enjoy bright, vibrant, over-saturated colours which would not look out of place in MGM musical fantasias. Canary yellow, emerald green, royal blue, flamboyant fuchsia: these are the hues I gravitate towards and wear. But as a former academic, I am comfortable acknowledging grey areas in life. Every person on this earth is different, with unique experiences and insights. If you ever think you have all the answers you are more stupid than someone who has everything wrong. I sincerely believe that even the strictest beliefs can mellow over time and that we’d all do a lot better if we pontificated less and listened more.

But I’ve been told that my acknowledgement of grey areas doesn’t fit comfortably with our digital age. Opinions on the internet are as black and white as the pixels you are staring at. For some, it’s not enough that I previously wrote about how blogging may be hurting writers. I should have written “blogging is silly and a waste of time!” or, alternatively, “yay for blogging!” That would make it better, or at least got more hits (which, in the world of blogging, is the same thing). The habit of taking one extreme side of an argument in order to get people mad and drive up clicks has caused me to abandon one snarky columnist after another. I don’t respect that world view, nor do I respect those writers.

All that being said, I thought I would try my hand at writing a ridiculously oversimplified diatribe based on my observations and recent conversations with friends. To segue rather awkwardly, I will introduce another colour: brown.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least by my friends and readers) that I have a fondness (I don’t want to say ‘fetish’) for men of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage. It is forgiven that my friend Jess Bartram has never made me the ‘I Heart Brown Boys’ t-shirt she’s promised me for by this point it would be redundant.

For the record, I don’t ONLY date brown men and would gladly meet, date and enter into a relationship with any kind of guy, except for vampires. I’m over them.

But the interest seems to go both ways. My big ex-boyfriend was white, but my two second longest relationships were with an Iranian and an Indian. When I do online dating, ethnic men seem to be more responsive to me and eager to meet up.

It works in person, too. When I meet friends of friends, or when, good heavens, someone tries to set me up, white guys are not particularly interested in me. When I get crushes on guys who are superficially like me (white guys from middleclass Ontario backgrounds, interested in leftwing politics and the arts) the results have almost always been a disaster. I naively believe they will like me back, but it usually ends with me throwing myself at them, being turned down and us settling on being friends, with varying degrees of awkwardness.

For my own piece of mind, I want to believe the myriad excuses that it has nothing to do with me: “I’m not into dating right now”; “I’m still getting over my ex”; “I’m really messed up about sexuality.”

“Fine, fine,” I say, while thinking, “Okay, get over it.” Then I’ll meet a Pakistani guy, raised by a conservative Muslim family, who came to Canada by himself and has to balance being an ethnic minority within a sexual one (and the other way around), and we have a hot, passionate love affair. Why was that easier?

White boys have issues and, despite being one myself, I don’t have a simple explanation.

Maybe Canadian born and raised gay guys are less comfortable with themselves than our community’s rhetoric encourages us to be. Maybe the brown men I have dated are more courageous, which is why I was able to meet them in the first place. Maybe white guys are more idealistic (or spoiled), holding out for the great love affair with the six packed-guy the movies promised them.

Or maybe white guys are more difficult because they don’t like sex that much.

It doesn’t seem to be only gays. I have a good friend, an attractive, smart, interesting girl who, on top of all that, would make an amazing girlfriend for straight guys (she likes beer and hockey). But the stories she tells me of having to work around all sorts of white boy neuroses in order to hook up makes the mind reel.

Feminism has given women the freedom to own their sexuality, but it doesn’t mean they want to be the ones always chasing.

Popular culture always warned us to be weary of men. Girls had to watch out to not be used and thrown away once a guy’s enormous sexual appetite was filled. (Here is another crossover with gay guys: watching the original British ‘Queer As Folk’ as a teenager, I thought that I too would have an older man scoop me up on my first visit to the village and have his nasty way with me. Never happened.)

Maybe it’s not true. Maybe the old stereotype of Irish guys, that they were more interested in drinking at the pub with their mates than having sex, is true of all white men. Although that’s a slander against Irish blokes, as my experience in Dublin was much different from my cold times at Toronto bars.

I don’t think it’s biological. If white guys liked sex as little as that they’d be in as much danger as extinction as panda bears. Despite what the Tea Party may think, that isn’t the case. Evolutionarily, you’d assume sex shouldn’t be as complicated for humans as it is. I don’t know if I think it’s too much ego or too little, but I think we could all use a little bit of loosening up. Not becoming total slags (unless you want to), but opening oneself up to opportunities and saying ‘yes’ to new experiences.

It sounds like I’m trying to get with a straight guy. I’m really not. I have enough problems with the gay ones.

 

Testing, Testing

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the room was filled with gay guys. I was on Church Street, after all. Men of different ages and ethnicities stood around, studiously ignoring each other. I took in the assembly of Abercrombie and H&M to see if there was anyone I knew, but even if there had been I probably wouldn’t have raced over, arms a-stretched, bellowing, “Hey girl, how are you?!”

For I wasn’t at a gay bar on Saturday night: I was at the Hassle Free clinic to get tested for HIV.

I am a single, gay guy living in Toronto. I go on dates. I try to enjoy my life. While I always practice safe sex and have never been with someone who is HIV positive, I believe that getting tested is what a responsible person does. If you describe yourself as HIV negative, you have to occasionally make sure you are. In the past, my family doctor had just thrown the test in when she’s taken my blood and I hadn’t thought much of it.

But this time felt different. It had been over a year since I was last tested and there had been some men in that time. I knew, rationally, I had no particular reason to worry, but the prospect of the test weighed down on me. For one thing, as I get older, I find that I worry about illness and death a lot more. And not just my own: nowadays I get paranoid every time one of my parents goes to the doctor.

Last year, when I felt a mole on my back, the two month wait for my doctor’s appointment was agonizing. After telling me I had nothing to worry about with the mole, she added, “I do want you to get those two spots on your chest checked out with our skin specialist, though. You always wear sunscreen, right?”

“Yes,” I said, defensively, before thinking, ‘There was that one time, in India…’

(The spots were fine.)

The other problem is, I have too many fictive stories in my head. While it’s good that TV shows, movies and books have dealt with AIDS, when it comes to my own life, instead of embracing the most likely scenario, my mind jumps to dramatic plotlines out of ‘Angels in America’. It’s the equivalent of people who are scared of flying because of movies in which planes burst into flames. The fact that one of the safest places in the world you can be is in an airplane makes no difference to them.

“If you are worried about it, just get tested,” a friend of mine said.

“But I don’t want to wait for a doctor’s appointment,” I whined.

“Then go to the Hassle free clinic. They have a five minute HIV test.” My friend, who is currently in a three-way relationship with two handsome bearded men, is more privy to this kind of information.

“I didn’t even know that existed. Welcome to the future.”

“Yeah, to get that test, they ask you to make an appointment,” he went on. “I think you should, even though I’m sure everything will be fine.”

Despite his admonishments, as the day of my appointment approached, I was nervous. I couldn’t stop picturing, after the test, the doctor pulling me into the little room to talk. Would I faint, like Samantha Jones on ‘Sex and the City’. In an episode of ‘Queer As Folk’, a main character gets tested after having unprotected sex in an orgy but finds out, miraculously, he’s still negative. In the same scene at the hospital, a man who presumably didn’t get the same result is comforted by a friend. The main characters look sympathetically at the two softly crying, before they exit, never to be seen again.

The night before my test, I went out for ice cream in the Annex with my old friend Laura, who is almost finished the tortuous odyssey of becoming a doctor. I thought if anyone, Laura, rational to the extreme, would allay my fears.

“Statistically, the chances are very small that you’d have anything,” she said. “But it’s good you’re getting tested.”

I stopped licking my Butter Pecan.

“That’s it? I thought you’d say I had nothing to worry about.”

“Sorry, Max, you probably don’t. But I’ve been trained to never promise people anything.”

‘I need to get this stupid test over as soon as possible,’ I thought.

I learned later that the reason it was all gay men in the waiting area was that the clinic has male and female hours. After I filled out the requisite forms, I pretended to read my book, but really I was thinking about the people around me. How many of them expected bad news? How many had already received bad news? After having read Randy Shilts’ ‘And The Band Played On’ about the development of the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s, I thought about how lucky we were to have the resources and the knowledge whose absence destroyed a generation.

“Max?”

It was a middle-aged South Asian man in glasses holding my newly-created chart.

“Sorry it is so crowded today,” he said. “We are understaffed.”

“Did somebody call in sick?” I asked, partly joking.

“Yes. Two people. Please have a seat. So, because of that, I will be doing your tests, but as I am not a doctor, I cannot do all of them.”

“Oh,” I said. “Which ones?”

“HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea–those are all fine. I can’t do a genital or anal exam.”

“That’s fine,” I sighed in relief. “I don’t think I need those.”

Then, there was a bunch of questions. It’s weird to describe your sexual history in stark, no-nonsense terms to a stranger. I kept wanting to go into deeper contexts about my ex-boyfriends: “Okay, the thing with that guy was that…” But the man seemed pleased with my answers.

“Given your history and your precautions, I would be very surprised if we found anything today,” he said, preparing the needle.

“So…are you a nurse?”

“No, I am a counselor who is trained to administer tests. Can I have your hand please?”

“I’m not going to look, okay?”

“That’s fine. It’s just a light prick.”

“I know. I’m not scared. It’s just that, when I got tested for mono at the end of high school, I almost fainted. First, the nurse asked, ‘Mono, huh? Been kissing lots of girls?’ Which was so inappropriate! I remember joking about it, saying that if I was being tested for HIV, would she have said, ‘HIV, huh? Been screwing lots of gays?’ (In reality, I had probably been coarser in my phrasing, and used two F-words.) And then, because it was taking longer than I expected, I glanced down at my arm, and saw the blood filling the needle. And my vision went all white, all I saw was light, and I started yelling, ‘I can’t see, I can’t see!’ So I had to lay down for awhile.”

“Okay, done,” he said. “Now I just need to take this sample to the other room and I’ll be right back. One line means you’re negative, two lines, positive.”

“Kind of like a pregnancy test.”

“Yes, but like I said, I doubt you’re positive.”

‘Stop saying that!’ I thought.

Then he left me alone. Here it was, the part I had feared: waiting for the moment of truth. But I was no longer scared. Partly it was the man’s nonchalant attitude and his freedom to say things that doctor’s aren’t allowed to say. But I also think my own rationality had kicked it. I trust science and facts, not gut feelings and phobias. I understood the dangers and had taken the right precautions. As Laura had said the day before, the advantage of having been careful is you don’t have to worry as much. I felt a bit silly for creating drama entirely within my own head.

I have been very fortunate in my life. Many have been less so.

“Good news!” the man announced as he came back in. “Like I thought, one line. Here! See? You’re fine.”

“Good.”

“With your habits, I see no reason for you to get tested any more than once a year, or once every two years.”

“Okay.”

“One last thing. I would like you to fill this cup with a urine sample. Up to this line, but not past it! Leave it at the front desk and we will test for everything else. We will call you if we find anything, but like I say, I don’t think we will.”

“Still best to be safe,” I said, collecting my things to leave.

“Yes. Goodbye.” he said, scribbling on my chart, continuing with his busy day.

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