In the premiere episode of Sordid Lives, a new comedy series created by Winters native Del Shores and currently airing on MTV’s queer-themed Logo network, we meet an institutionalized, chain-smoking drag queen named Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Leslie Jordan) who is sent into an emotional tailspin upon learning that his idol, Tammy Wynette, has died. (The show, which is inspired by Shores’s 1996 stage play and 2000 film adaptation, takes place in 1998.) If this sounds like a grotesque stereotype, it’s supposed to. Shores—who populates this mostly Texas-set program with pill-popping matriarchs and trailer-dwelling soap opera junkies—is a proud purveyor of gay camp. If you can get past the sheer dopiness of the whole thing, Sordid Lives might even qualify as a pleasant late-summer diversion—a small-town gloss on Desperate Housewives with a patina of soft-core homoeroticism.
Watch the first few episodes, however, and a depressing realization quickly sets in: These clichéd representations of gay life in Texas—the other character on the show, played by Jason Dottley, is a typically guileless, gorgeous twentysomething who escaped to the greener pastures of Los Angeles—are pretty much the only representations we have. Shores makes no room in his outsized universe for the legions of non-Baptist, non-Judy-Garland-worshipping gay men who live in the cities, suburbs, and even rural towns of Texas, and as it turns out, few other film and television artists do either. Forget that Dallas has been cited as one of the most livable cities in the United States for gays and lesbians. Forget that the Supreme Court’s landmark 2003 gay rights decision, Lawrence v. Texas, which declared unconstitutional antisodomy laws across the country, originated in Houston. Forget that a number of major gay literary figures, including playwright Terrence McNally and novelist Patricia Highsmith, grew up in the state. If you were to base your understanding of homosexuality in Texas simply on what Hollywood offers, you would think the state contains approximately ten gay men, all of them booze-sloshed and lipstick-smeared. As for lesbians, you would have to figure they didn’t exist in these parts at all.
To some degree, this is to be expected: The history of Texas film and television, after all, is bound up entirely in the history of the western, a genre that, at least until Ang Lee’s extraordinary Brokeback Mountain (2005), barely acknowledged the concept of homosexuality. What’s surprising, though, is how few films set in Texas have attempted to upend our commonplace notions of Marlboro Man masculinity, in the style of, say, John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) or Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). You have to dig deep into the subtext of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956), starring Robert Stack as an alcoholic oil scion competing against Rock Hudson for the love of Lauren Bacall, to find a Texas movie that can hold up to any sort of gay reading. More commonly, homosexual themes get written out. In his 1966 novel The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry deftly considered the plight of a small-town married football coach who struggles, not entirely successfully, to suppress his desire for one of his male students. Yet in Peter Bogdanovich’s otherwise very faithful 1971 film adaptation, which features Bill Thurman as the coach, this subplot is barely present.
Nor have Texas gays fared much better on television. Indeed, while Dynasty was introducing one of the first gay characters in a prime-time drama (Blake and Alexis’ son Steven Carrington, played originally by Al Corley and later by Jack Coleman), Dallas just kept on cycling through the same old plots about paragons of testosterone fighting over who has the biggest oil rig.
Is it any wonder that Brokeback Mountain had the impact it did? The film, about two cowboys who carry on a decades-long, clandestine affair, single-handedly wrote homosexuals into the cinematic history books. It audaciously announced that gays have always been present, living on the plains of Wyoming and in the towns of West Texas, even when Hollywood didn’t want to acknowledge them. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist is an instantly recognizable Texas type that we’d nonetheless never seen before in movies: a strong and handsome, if slightly effete, man who steadfastly believes that his gay dalliances can be kept separate from his traditional heterosexual life. Gyllenhaal’s fearless performance at once embraced such figures—who are often contending with deeply religious upbringings, fiercely traditional family members, and alpha-male friends and co-workers—and piteously grieved for them.
Brokeback Mountain, though, is just one movie, and for all that’s deeply felt about the film, it presents a decidedly narrow view of gay life—it equates homosexuality solely with repression. The frustrating fact remains that, by 2008, we still haven’t seen a major film or television show that prominently features a gay or lesbian Texan who is open about his or her sexuality. Independent filmmakers have mostly steered clear of the subject too. Perhaps it’s just that old habits and perceptions die hard. More likely, artists still shy away from challenging Texans’ ideas about sexual identity.
A couple of filmmakers give us reason to hope: In 2004 Jonathan Caouette created Tarnation (see “Boys’ Life”), an arresting self-portrait of growing up gay in Houston. And if he learned to write characters with a bit more subtlety, Del Shores might turn out to be a very important creative voice. (The planned film version of his most affecting play, Southern Baptist Sissies, tentatively scheduled for a 2009 release, could prove to be a breakthrough.) For the time being, though, we’ll have to settle for the amiable stereotypes in Sordid Lives or for repeated viewings of Jack Twist telling Ennis del Mar, “I wish I knew how to quit you”—and fill in the many blanks for ourselves.
Boys’ Life: One documentary’s unvarnished look at growing up gay in Houston.
If you’ve never seen Jonathan Caouette’s one-of-a-kind documentary Tarnation (2004), you’ve missed more than just a piercing coming-of-age story about the relationship between a Houston-reared gay man and his mentally unstable mother. You’ve also missed as pure and eloquent an expression of our YouTube-exhibitionist tendencies as will likely ever be crafted. Caouette pieces together home-movie footage, answering-machine messages, and personal confessionals, recounting his life story so vividly that we feel as if we’re trapped in his bedroom right alongside him. This is the kind of work Texas cinema has been lacking: humane, harrowing, and utterly true to the complexities of being gay in the Lone Star State.