Queer Town: The Televised Revolution

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron, a poet and singer with a strong distaste for political apathy, released the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” It was something of a brass-knuckled, knock-out punch against anyone who didn’t fight the powers-that-be, with Scott-Heron delivering his lyrics with just the right amount of sarcastic outrage.

The revolution will not be brought to you

by the Schaefer Award Theatre

and will not star Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen

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or Bullwinkle and Julia.

The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.

The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.

The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner,

because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

Queer Town: The Televised Revolution

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell will be one of the films showcased at this year's Outfest in Los Angeles.

I first heard the song on KCRW several years ago, as I recall, around the same time I came out. I often think about it whenever I write something about the gay rights movement because it makes a certain amount of pragmatic sense--people need to get involved, hit the streets, and work for equality. But, over the years, I've realized Scott-Heron's battle cry doesn't fully apply to the gay struggle.

For millions of gays and lesbians, the revolution has very much been televised. Through such TV shows and movies as Will & Grace and The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Birdcage and Brokeback Mountain, the hearts and minds of straight America, little by little, have been won over. Anti-gay groups know it, and that's why they keep sounding off alarms about anything on television or the screen that smacks even remotely of gay-friendliness.

The televised revolution has also been a power force in my own life. I never understood drag, for example, until I rented Paris is Burning, the award-winning documentary about a clique of New York City drag queens. And when AIDS was hitting hard, I was pretty much clueless. Then I saw Longtime Companion, which jolted me with its humane portrayals of the sick and their lovers and friends.

Movies also made me face myself--quite possibly the ultimate, and most important, revolution. When I was a teenager attending an all-boys Catholic prep school, I knew something was up about my sexual orientation. But things didn’t start to crystallize until I discreetly went to art houses in New York City, by myself, and watched films like My Own Private Idaho, Wild Reeds, and a bunch of others. I didn’t come out right away, but at least I started to have an idea of who I was. When I finally did come out, Hedwig and the Angry Inch showed up in the theaters. This time, I went with a friend. By the end of it, I had a king-sized lump in my throat. Through the story of a rock ‘n’ roll transsexual looking for true love, I knew I was home.

When done right, movies and TV shows possess that kind of power. Just recently, Randi Reitan, the mother of gay activist Jake Reitan, sent me an email. A few weeks ago, I had written about her family’s experience in Colorado Springs, where they were arrested for a civil disobedience action that went down at the headquarters of Focus on the Family, the influential evangelical Christian group that has a somewhat unhealthy preoccupation with gays and lesbians. Randi contacted me and said she and her husband, Phil, were now touring their home state of Minnesota with the film For the Bible Tells Me So, a documentary that challenges the age old notion that homosexuality is a sin. It also shows the stories of several families with gay sons and daughters, including the Reitans.

“People are so moved by the film,” Randi wrote. “We were in the town of Albert Lea a couple of nights ago, and a woman, probably in her seventies, shared that she had married in her twenties to a man, even though she knew she was gay. She was trying to fit into society, she said. She shared that night that she was marrying a woman in a couple of days, and this time it was the right thing to do and the right person to marry. It moved everyone in that room to hear her personal and touching story. The film has done that in town after town.”

For the Bible Tells Me So won an “audience award” at last year’s Outfest in Los Angeles. This week, starting on July 9, the gay and lesbian film festival gives life to more queer stories. Some of the movies are serious, some are light-hearted, and some will undoubtedly change the life of someone in the audience, one way or another. The revolution is coming…at a theater near you.

For movie times and scheduled events, go to www.outfest.org for more information.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.


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