ABC, I’m coming for you.
I began writing this post a week before Anderson Cooper came out publicly. I’d be remiss to neglect the importance of his declaration, and I’m not being glib. Our greatest strength on the path to equality is visibility. I applaud and encourage everyone who comes out, celebrity or neighbor. My thoughts on gender identity in media below…
The short story:
I made this audition video three weeks ago, just before I jaunted off to Alabama for the summer. The last one (for Food Network Star) was a hoot to shoot so I figured it was only logical to try my hand again. This time I’m auditioning for ABC’s latest cooking show. I don’t know whether they’re looking for personalities, chefs or some hedonistic combination of the two, but I wanted to throw my hat in with this snappy video recipe for Berry Clafoutis.
The long story:
As I am wont to do with most things I produce, I showed it to my mother. When it was finished playing she let out a withering, “Do you want me to tell you what I think?”
I boned up and told her, yes, I’d like to hear her opinion, though in truth, by the time anyone finishes asking that question you already have a good idea of what might come next. She told me she didn’t recognize the man on screen. She thought I came off affected, and, meaning no offense, quite gay. She expressed her confusion, was this how I wanted to portray myself? Something I was trying? An on-camera experiment? It was so very different from what she was used to, from the on-camera son she knew.
In the moment, I told her it was something I had wanted to try for a while. Yes, an experiment, but also something I dashed to get recorded before I had to board a plane to Birmingham. We sloughed it off and got back to the business of packing (I was helping my moms move out of their apartment). I had a feeling this was meant to be a larger conversation, but at the time didn’t want to initiate a capital Family Discussion.
I knew it would surprise my mom to find me acting stereotypically flamboyant on camera in great part because I had always played it rather straight at home. But my “straight-acting” self wasn’t a conscious decision, it wasn’t born out of self-hatred; I wasn’t trying to sublimate my sequined heart. My parents are the epitome of support and neither my gender and sexual identities nor my choice of a career in the arts have ever been contentious. My personality at home is a fairly neutral, relaxed version of myself; an outcome of having such a loving and uplifting family.
And part of having such a strong support system is the responsibility to see things from my parents’ perspective. As a parent, I imagine one believes she knows the very core of her child, and that of all the endless possibilities, the version she knows is the most true, the most authentic, the most real. But, in reality, the “me” my mother knows is, indeed, just one variation, one point on spectrums of both character and gender.
It must be startling then, to look at a perfect representation of your child and see him performing and entirely different role, a variation on gender which, up until now, you had known only in the abstract. Is it a character? Is he pretending to be this way?
You see, my mother knows I’m gay. We talk about dates with men, she has seen photos of my glittery nights and she knows I identify with the queer community. But at the same time, she has never actually met anyone I’ve dated (having never had a boyfriend), she’s never been out dancing with me (bringing her to CHERYL is questionable at best), and she has never seen me in the company of my chosen community. As such, my gay life is almost entirely theoretical to my family, while to my friends, the makeup-wearing, lovingly affected dandy I portray is part and parcel of who I am.
How difficult it must be to see someone you know so well acting in a way that stands in such stark contrast to your understanding of their spirit. Knowing that my mom was seeing a side of me she had never witnessed made me wonder what parts of her I haven’t yet met. How does my grandfather see her? What version of my mom does my sister know? Will I ever know those variations on mom? Can I know them? Should I know them?
Watching the video through mom’s eyes I also see the fear that might creep into her heart upon seeing her son act in a manner that might pigeon-hole him in his chosen career. Let’s be honest, I am better served to let a casting office believe I am straight (without lying) than I am to walk into an audition with an outsized personality that distracts them from my work. Much like Anderson Cooper says in his letter, I am a storyteller and blending in can be as important as standing out.
Having had these conversations with my mom, I’m fairly positive she watched the video and thought, “Is this castable? Does he want the networks to see him in this way?” And she’d be right to ask those questions. Despite the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community, it’s still risky to be an out-and-loud personality in mainstream media. Ideally we’d live in a world that could judge talent and ability equally with or without foreknowledge of sexual orientation. But we don’t live in that society, and consequently, I’d be foolish to pretend we do.
Gender is performative and I am an actor; I was, quite literally, born to play this role. Knowing when and where to employ my various social costumes is essential to pushing boundaries, both my own and the lines drawn in our grand cultural sandbox. I’ve got a gaggle of personae in the clown-car of my body and each of them deserves a turn at the wheel.
This video, something that was hastily shot and edited, launched me into a 7-car pileup of gender and identity questions. Many thanks to those of you who made it through this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Isn’t it electrifying to imagine just how little we know of each other?
Maybe my mom will introduce me to another side of her. (Love you Mom!)