I’m skeptical about the idea of role models. The pseudo social scientist in me wants to point out that all the world is not a stage and we are not merely players strutting and fretting and modeling one another’s behavior. This is a flowery way of saying that my resistance is defensive. Personal. A role model can be a hard thing to find in the gay community.
My generation came of age in a moment of flux. I was born in 1997, a few years after the AIDS epidemic peaked in the United States. As a child of the early 2000s, I learned quickly that the political climate was a hostile one. I left middle school with the traditional script: Stay in the closet, aspire to be straight-passing and expect the worst of people.
And then, in one fell swoop of Supreme Court judicial activism, I was thrust into a world where I was expected to be out, proud and eventually married off. But it was also a world where an entire generation of queer adult men were, statistically, dead.
My role models were confined to the pages of a play: Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” I found tremendous comfort in a theatrical universe where two men dying of AIDS could be kept company by irresponsible angels, Mormon housewives cut loose from their faith and the ghosts of wrongly-convicted communist spies. Which is why, at 16 years old, I was viscerally wrinkled by another teenage boy who found the play deplorable.
To him, “Angels in America” was a crude drama peopled by caricatures of homosexuals who made terrible role models for young gay men in the 21st century. This alternative reading brought up a fury inside me that I had no way of unleashing because this boy and I had never met. My friend AJ met him during a winter sojourn in Miami and related the encounter to me second hand. I had never even seen his face.
My literary indignation was tempered only by the machinations of the Orange County Board of Education. I was taking Advanced Placement art history and had countless paintings to memorize. I was taking remedial physics and had countless formulas to forget. I was in the French Honor Society and there were Piaf ballads to butcher, oral proficiency exams to mangle and the occasional reprieve: a field trip to the Getty Museum to see an impressionist painting or two before the end of the grading period. And it was there, at the Getty Museum, that I came face to face not with Manet or Renoir, but with Robert Mapplethorpe.
It’s impossible to explain why one work of art moves you and another does not. All I knew was that I wasn’t moved by the photography on the wall. Not the dramatically angled bodies, not the BDSM ephemera, not the fetishistic gaze of the artist, not even the political shoestring of queer representation that the photographs seemed to promise. I was informed that Mapplethorpe was one of the preeminent queer photographers of the 20th century, the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic, but that changed nothing. His work didn’t speak to me.
And yet a surprising number of people seemed to feel that Mapplethorpe would speak to me if I would stop being obstinate. My AP art history teacher dropped hints that, of all her students, I would have a “unique” appreciation for Mapplethorpe’s disruption of the male body. A friend at UC Berkeley tried to persuade me to visit the Folsom Street Fair on the grounds that it would be like stepping into a real life Mapplethorpe, an enticement.
I have yet to understand my “unique” appreciation for the male body under Mapplethorpe’s gaze and I have yet to encounter an opportunity to step into a Mapplethorpe photograph, but I have been thinking a great deal about that boy and his binary opposition to “Angels in America.”
For years, I mentally pictured him sitting in a private opera box, bored and blase at the sight of the angel descending onstage on a pair of tremendous steel wings. This image used to be the closest thing I had to a queer manifesto. The archangel of biomedical apocalypse and the well-to-do teenage homosexual too self-involved to hear her.
But I see it differently now. If that boy wanders through my mind, he appears in a contemporary art museum. His scuffed shoes stop in front of a beautifully printed black-and-white photograph and I can tell from his body language that the image moves him profoundly. It’s a Robert Mapplethorpe, and he stands before it like my emotional doppelganger, feeling all the things I never could. And in that moment, I have a profound longing not for Mapplethorpe photographs or for Kushner plays, but for a grandfatherly homosexual telling me everything is going to be alright. But I’ve yet to find the manifesto in that.