Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Bad at blogging.


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Coming out to my dad and the art that finally fixed things

On Father’s Day, Amy Adams explores how coming out to her dad first strained, and then strengthened their relationship.

"Any LGBTQ person will tell you that you don't just come out once - you do it over and over again"

“Any LGBTQ person will tell you that you don’t just come out once – you do it over and over again”

There is a picture in my father’s house of two dancers. The piece was at the centre of an installation by the art duo Faile, and presented by the New York City Ballet in 2013. It shows a tattooed blonde woman in a red dress kneeling on the floor, embracing the bare legs of a ballerina. It is a striking depiction of female love and lust, and it holds the central position in the hallway of my conservative Christian father’s home.

Any LGBTQ person will tell you that you don’t just come out once – you do it over and over again. Every time you open up to a new friend or family member it feels like jumping off a cliff. Even when it’s someone who you know will love you anyway, who already suspected, even if they are LGBTQ themselves. There’s a point you reach when the other person knows you’re about to say something important, when you know you can’t turn back but somehow you can’t let the words out either. There’s a liminal space where almost anything could happen. Then you jump.

And every time that person smiles, and nods, and comforts you, or squeals, and hugs you, and then gets mad that you didn’t tell them sooner, it feels like a parachute opening. You’re safe this time, you can enjoy the ride down – the view is breathtaking, why were you ever nervous in the first place?

When your feet are back on the ground, you remember why. Next time, there might not be another parachute.

Of course, it’s not always so dramatic. Sometimes they’re little jumps – switching the word “partner” for “girlfriend” when talking to a colleague, or holding hands in front of strangers in a restaurant.

For me, the biggest risk was telling my dad. We have a fantastic relationship, but we’re too similar for our own good. We both get to work half an hour before everyone else, because we’d rather wake up early than sit in traffic. We make the same bad jokes at the same inappropriate moments. And, critically, we’d rather do anything than tell each other about our feelings.

I came out to my stepmother a whole week before I could be honest with my dad. Living proof of the inaccuracy of fairy tales, she was nothing but excited for me. I had expected her to help me form a plan, but I could never have anticipated that she would be clapping her hands and bouncing in her seat.

My dad took it harder – I don’t blame him for that, he was raised in a strict religious and homophobic environment but he loves me enough not to let that get in the way. He couldn’t say that he was happy for me though, just that he would never want to lose me. That was enough, it’s more than a lot of people get, and life continued much as it always had from that point on.

A couple of months later, I opened the front door and was greeted by the picture – Les Ballets de Faile. The house has quite a lot of art, but this very beautiful, very queer canvas was given centre stage.

“Does Dad know it’s about lesbians?” I stage whispered to my brother later that evening.

“We’ve decided not to tell him.”

It became a bit of an inside joke. More comfortable now in my queerness, and out to almost everyone, I loved to tell the story of my dad’s slip up. If that comes across cruel, you should know that we’re talking about a man who was devastated when he accidentally rented A Single Man, believing it was a spy movie, and instead left pondering Colin Firth’s existential crisis as a grieving homosexual professor in cold war America. This picture perching brazenly atop the stairs was nothing short of hilarious.

Time passed. I graduated, I got a job, I moved house twice in nine months. And last Christmas I was visiting home when I brought the picture up again. It was a lazy joke by this point, but my brother looked at me with surprise.

“Didn’t I tell you? Dad knows exactly what it means.”

“He does?”

“It’s for you,” he said. “[Our stepmum] told me. He bought it because he wanted to let you know that he accepted, you know, who you are.”

And it all began to make sense. Of course my dad knew what he was doing – no one who collects contemporary art could miss the meanings behind them. If nothing else, he would have researched the piece before he bought it. I mean, come on – one of the women is literally looking up the other’s skirt.

Sometimes we have to find other ways of making the leap. Sometimes when you’re looking someone in the eye, the words you need to say just aren’t there, and that’s okay. There are other ways of telling someone how you feel. Offer them a cup of tea, let them take the biggest slice of cake, check their tyres before they drive long distance. Just don’t let your love go to waste.

Thank you, Dad, and happy father’s day.


NB. I sent this piece to my dad before publication, out of respect for his privacy. He came back with the following two notes:

“Firstly you should know that, while that picture is 99% a message to you, it’s in that exact position because it’s also a message to everyone who walks through the front door. Secondly, the joke’s on you because it was hilarious watching you all squirm.”

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LGBTQ and the media: why Hollyoaks is the best show on television

A couple of weeks ago, same-sex marriage became legal in the UK. You may have heard about it. Of course, the law is not without it’s faults – let’s not forget that trans people are being significantly discriminated against, that heterosexual couples still can’t enter into civil unions, and that there is a quadruple lock on opposed religious groups performing such marriages, so that LGBTQ members of the Church of England couldn’t be married in their faith, even if they wanted to.

I am not forgetting those things. However, it has to be acknowledged that the change in law is still a huge step forward for human rights in this country, and emblematic of positively shifting attitudes.

However, just as in the law surrounding it, society’s attitude towards LGBTQ people still has its issues. They are still bullied, mocked and degraded for being themselves, and as long as this site still exists, you’re never a google search away from a nice little reminder of how far left society has to come.

Today, however, I am going to talk about one specific problem, because it’s one that’s been bugging me lately – and that is the way in which we understand LGBTQ characters on TV. It was a topic often discussed in my Queer Theory class at UEA last year, and one which continually comes up in the TV I watch now.

The thing is, the growing number of LGBTQ characters is something of a red herring. Of course more representation is a good thing, and the fact that openly gay characters are appearing is a step forward in itself. But why are they so often presented as minor side characters, there to throw out a good one liner, but never actually take on any strong storylines themselves? Why do they still play up to stereotypes which don’t actually help anyone? And why do the lesbiansalwaysALWAYSdie? [warning: violence, illness, spoilers]

It’s a commonly recurring theme that tvtropes.org refers to as “bury your gays link”.

Of course there are always exceptions. But no matter how great it is to have LGBTQ characters on TV, there are still only two messages being sent about queer relationships. Either they must fit perfectly into the roles society has dictated for them in order to be legitimate (one flamboyantly camp man and his long-suffering partner/two hot babes), or they must ultimately end up doomed and their partners left grieving forever.

 

A Case Study

Let’s compare Channel 4’s Dates. It was well-promoted, billed as an edgy contemporary drama/comedy, and the link with Skins creator Bryan Elsley was continually pushed.

Overall, the series was pretty good; the “straight” episodes portrayed interesting, layered characters who were struggling with various emotional issues as they attempted to navigate the awkward seas of dating in a complex contemporary world.

But then we got to the “lesbian” episode – and presumably even having lesbians was presumed to be edgy enough without actually bothering to push any more boundaries. Instead, when one admits to having previously been with men, we get the line “I’m so sick of women who go this way and that on a whim; it’s not complicated, it’s annoying and not honest … Maybe you’re just straight and bored?” In response: “you seem like an angry lesbian with a dick complex.”

Neither of these stereotypes is anything the viewers haven’t heard before, and repeating them isn’t edgy; it’s lazy. To top it all off, the two women later do sexy dancing and sleep together anyway, despite the fact that neither seems to particularly like the other, making it a lesbians-on-TV hattrick.

Gay stories can’t just rely on their own gayness to keep them interesting. They need as many twists, turns and surprises as straight stories. How else will they ever seem like legitimate stories to tell?

And that is just the gay, bisexual and lesbian characters who are, finally, beginning to exist on our screens; for those who are trans, genderqueer, pansexual, asexual, or one of the many other non-heteronormative identities, there is still the battle to get their stories represented on television at all.

The only reference I found to trans issues in Dates was this passing comment from a man in a later episode, on the number of dates he has had in his life: “two including this one, and the other ‘so-called’ girl turned out to be … never mind”. A face is pulled, the subject changed, and the subject never mentioned again. To make matters worse, this is from a man who claimed to have an academic interest in sexuality, and who even went so far as to explain a rough version of the Kinsey scale. Admittedly, the character is portrayed as racist and sexist throughout. But even in the one area in which their character appears to be somewhat enlightened, trans jokes are still too easy a shot for the writers to take.

So what can we do? What possible direction is left to take?

 

That’s where Hollyoaks comes in

Moving to a new town is hard. You don’t know where things are; you don’t have any friends yet; there are millions of roundabouts everywhere for no discernible reason (although maybe that’s just in Colchester).

Luckily, I am privileged enough to be housesharing with an extremely friendly and generous couple (and their puppy).

Unluckily, their favourite TV show is Hollyoaks.

Now, I’m not judging those who enjoy trashy soaps – not at all. But Hollyoaks though? That’s the worst one!

So what do you do? Do you watch bad TV with wooden acting, farcical storylines, and awkward sets? Or do you hide in your bedroom, carry on learning to knit, and not bond with the people you’re sharing your living spaces with for the foreseeable future?

Honestly, it was a tough call to make. But I’m pretty bad at being on my own, so in the end, against all the odds, Hollyoaks won.

At first, I was just vaguely fascinated by how terrible the plots were, and how hilariously bad the acting was.

Then, I started to notice something odd.

First, two men in a relationship kissed without any particular fuss – the same everyday peck that we see between straight couples on TV all the time. Oh, I thought. How nice! I didn’t even realise they were together until the end of the scene, because they were talking about something completely different!

Then, I began to realise that there was also a love triangle between a third man. Brilliant! These two aren’t just together because they’re the only gay men on the show – the drama of the relationship doesn’t come from their sexuality alone, it comes from jealousy and affairs – just like all the other couples! Best of all, from my limited viewpoint, it didn’t seem like any of the LGBTQ characters were being portrayed with the usual stereotypes.

Later in the week, the same thing happened again – but this time with two teenage girls! As we have established by now: usually if female LGBTQ characters exist at all, they are almost always presented through the lens of a wider male fantasy, and are highly unrealistic as a result. But here they were, at 6.30pm on weeknight, right in front of my eyes! And once again, their storyline included mental health issues, fears for a relationship that is moving too fast, and parents catching them in compromising positions. All slightly hammy versions of the sort of issues teenagers face every day; but the girls’ sexuality itself wasn’t commented upon once!

It may seems like a relatively small complaint in a world where LGBTQ people people face physical threats and violence on a daily basis. But it’s all part of the same problem. The way certain identities are presented in the media is always going to significantly affect how we think about those identities. If we are only ever shown two or three varieties of gay relationships and characters, they will never be truly accepted by everyone. And the same goes for all oppressed minorities – the more variety we are able to see, the less they will be considered minorities at all.

For years I have been complaining that we need LGBTQ characters on our TVs whose sexuality is not their primary characteristic; and for years I’ve been continually disappointed. We are often drawn to anything that is new in the hope that, this time, it will have all the answers. But perhaps we are looking in all the wrong places – and something like Hollyoaks, which is so often dismissed for its low-budget, quotidian nature, has been giving us those answers for years.


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Concrete: Rewriting the Rules – review

The self-help section is a scary corner of any bookshop. There are hundreds of titles promising perfection in your love life, your career, your soul – if only you’d follow a few easy steps.

The obvious response, of course, is that if it is so easy to fix every aspect of your life by reading a couple of books, then why are so many published? And why do they seem to contradict each other?

Combating this problem, Dr Meg Barker’s Rewriting the Rules claims to be an “anti-self-help” book. Rather than giving a set of rules which must be followed to the letter, Barker draws on her career as a psychology academic and sex therapist to offer a critical look at the “rules” of relationships.Rewriting the RulesImage via routledge.com

Do we really need to find “the One” to prove that we’re worth something? If we break up with someone, is that relationship now meaningless? What about sex – does that always have to be “normal”? What if we don’t want to be with just one person?

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Concrete: University refuses to fly Pride flag

The Union of UEA students has said that it feels “great disappointment” over a decision by UEA not to fly the Pride flag in February to mark the beginning of LGBT+ History Month.

In an open letter of response to the University’s decision, LGBT+ officer Richard Laverick said the Union felt that flying the flag “would send a clear message to LGBT+ students, staff and visitors, that they are most welcome and can expect to be treated equally and respectfully on campus. Furthermore it would strengthen its commitment to ensuring the safety and rights of its students, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. Finally it would signal to all people its unwavering stance against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.”

In the Union’s LGBT+ student experience survey last year, 83% said they wanted the University to fly the flag. Other institutions to do so in previous years include the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Norwich City Council, Norwich Castle, East Anglian NHS Trust, The Co-Operative, Wadham College (Oxford University) and the University of Reading.

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Concrete: Gender neutral toilets at UEA

The Union of UEA Students has passed policy to introduce gender neutral toilets in Union House in order to accommodate for those who do not identify within the male-female gender binary.

Photo: Chris Teale

The vote, which responds in part to findings of the Union’s recent LGBT+ survey, was approved by Union Council with 55 votes in favour and just 16 against (plus one abstention).

Although the budget is yet to be confirmed, the plans for Union House have already been drafted. Firstly, the womens’ toilets on floor one near the advice centre will be converted into a campaigns store room, with the large mens’ facilities becoming gender neutral. This means that there will be cubicles much like in standard womens’ toilets, but available to everyone.

Depending on funding the next stage will be the facilities in the Hive, which the Union plans to merge into one large gender-neutral space, removing the urinals from the mens’. The LCR toilets will remain segregated, so that students will have the option to use male, female or gender-neutral facilities across the Hive/LCR area.

The final stage will include the toilets in the Blue and Red bars. However, as these are the most recently renovated, they are currently the lowest priority.

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The internet is stupid: my existential ParaNorman crisis

So yesterday I did my first film review of the year for Concrete, the student newspaper that someone (for some reason) put me in charge of. I was super excited about it. A lot of what I’ve been doing since becoming editor involves answering emails and passing on the more interesting work to other people so that I can free up time to answer more emails. So when the film editors desperately needed a ParaNorman review at short notice, I jumped at the chance to go back to basics (and get a free trip to the cinema).

It was a pretty good film. There were better animations this summer (bravebravebrave) but overall it was funny and smart and cute.

Now for the angry ranting.

Before I went into the film, my housemate told me it was the first kids’ animation with an openly gay character. Awesome, I thought. I can totally write about that in my review!

In the end, I didn’t think it was really worth mentioning. The two “older sibling” characters are set up as a potential romance throughout the film (by which I mean the seemingly-shallow sister outrageously tries to get the attention of the oblivious older brother whose shoulders are four times as wide as his waist). After all the zombie shenanigans are over, she finally gets the courage to ask him to see a movie with her. He responds positively, and tells her that she’ll really like his boyfriend, who loves chick-flicks.

Awks.

I thought this was pretty cool, but ultimately not really something I wanted to write about when there was so much else going on – the storytelling, the humour, the cute stop animation effect. With only 200 words to play with, Mitch’s sexuality was not really relevant to my enjoyment of the film.

And then I started reading all of the other reviews people had written. My aforementioned housemate found this terrifying collection of responses from parents who were outraged at that one line which had very little to do with the rest of the plot. Let’s illustrate this point with a randomly selected sentence: “had to try explaining it to a nine year old that we hate the sin, love the sinner, and that some boys are just confused by their gender.” Followed by more exclamation marks than could fit in a single line of text.

God dammit, mothers on the internet.

My immediate response was to completely rewrite my own review in defence of a children’s film’s choice to not only include a gay character, but to include a gay character whose sexuality is of absolutely no consequence. Sort of like, you know, everyone in real life who is defined by more than one aspect of their identity, which is in itself a fluid and ever-changing process.

But then, after the second half of my review became a thinly-veiled backlash to the film’s politicised responses, I realised exactly what I had done. Part of what annoys me most about those other reviews is that they let something which shouldn’t even be important colour their whole opinion of the film. So by giving such a disproportionate amount of space to defending the action, I was really doing the same thing.

The fact that Mitch is gay is not a big deal. He admits it freely, and clearly no one else in the film has an issue with it. His line takes up maybe four seconds of screentime, in a film which is 92 minutes long (roughly 5,520 seconds). That means that Mitch’s sexuality makes up 0.072% of the movie.

I’m so mad about this issue that I did maths, you guys.

In the end, for me, or anyone else, to spend most of my supposedly objective review talking about 0.072% of a movie actually does it a disservice. And it politicises something which shouldn’t be political in the first place.

Chris Butler, who wrote and co-directed the film, had this to say on the matter when speaking to Indiewire: “I wanted it from the start, absolutely. It seemed like the best bookend to that whole tolerance thing and to do it as a joke, a kind of throwaway thing, but something that has NEVER been done before. I think we’re telling a story about intolerance, so you have to be brave about it.”

And he’s exactly right. It’s important that gay people are included across the media, and it may be even more important that their sexuality is portrayed as only a small part of their identity. Not every gay character on TV or in movies needs to struggle with coming out and defy ignorant bullies by spreading glitter and rainbows wherever they go. A lot of people just happen to also be gay, and that should be reflected too.

In the end, I took the response to the film’s responses out of my official 200 words. For me to rise to the unfairly negative reviews and focus on that one issue would just invalidate my own argument, and ignore everything else about the film which I enjoyed.

Cue angry blog post instead.