It’s important to read ‘The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk’

Harvey Milk is a hero and martyr for the gay rights movement. In The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the late Randy Shilts writes about the slain politician who is seen as a pioneer whose life was tragically cut short. A sad and brilliant book, The Mayor of Castro Street isn’t just about Harvey Milk, but about looking at the moment when the mainstream gay rights movement took on a nation-wide profile. Reading the book, which was published in 1982, is fascinating because of all the recent strides and setback in the modern gay rights movement, as well as knowing where some of the players of The Mayor of Castro Street go in the three decades since the book’s publishing. While progress has been made in many aspects of the gay rights movement, there are chilling and direct parallels in the book that are still around today.

The story of Harvey Milk has been well-publicized and the man has been canonized by his admirers. What Shilts does is carefully deconstruct the saint, and show just how human Milk was. He was a complex, mercurial, and passionate figure, whose single-minded goal of breaking down barriers often left him at odds with friends, lovers, supporters, as well as political adversaries and allies. Through exhaustive research and interviews, Shilts tells the story of an ambitious and courageous man who sought to change minds through example and hard work.

What sets Shilts’ book apart from simple hagiography is that the author is more than willing to highlight sides of Milk that the media chooses to ignore. Though Milk was a compassionate man, he was also calculating and politically savvy. He cared about the issues, but was also very calculating in how he approached his work and how he crafted his image. In one notable example, when highlighting the problems of dog waste to a group of journalists, Milk stepped in dog feces in front of the cameras, as if to illustrate the nuisance, though he planted the offending feces himself for maximum effect. In another case, he refused to vote for Diane Feinstein as president of the board of supervisors, when his vote would’ve merely been symbolic as Feinstein garnered the necessary majority, but a unanimous vote would’ve been a nice courtesy. For Milk to become as successful as he was, he had to anger those around him, including many who worked with him and supported his agenda. Shilts isn’t arguing that Milk was stone cold or unfeeling, but merely that the man was much more wily than the smiling, sometimes idealized figure who has passed into legend.

For context, Shilts’ work gives us an encompassing view of San Francisco circa late 1970s. In this backdrop, Milk’s ascension works as a way of highlight progress. During Milk’s time, the city of San Francisco was gutted by the Jonestown massacre, in which over 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in a mass murder-suicide. The tragedy was a convenient way for right wing politicians and religious figures to legislate homophobia, through a series of anti-gay legislation that swept through the country, decimating local anti-discrimination ordinances. Shilts expertly describes the rise of the religious right and compares its success, tactics, and outcomes, to those of the growing gay rights movement. He doesn’t create false equivalencies, nor does he offer excuses for bigotry, but he adds context to the rising anti-gay movement, as well. This context is helpful when trying to assess the atmosphere under which Milk and his fellow gay rights activists were operating.

What the book really needs is a sequel, however. Unfortunately, its author has since died, but Milk’s story did not end in 1978 when he was gunned down by fellow supervisor Dan White. In the the more than thirty years that followed, the gay rights movement has shifted with its focus on marriage equality, hate crime legislation, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, trans awareness, and most poignantly, the AIDS crisis (which would not only take Shilts away, but many of the people that populate The Mayor of Castro Street). Reading the book now adds a certain tension to the story because many of Milk’s goals have been met – there is a growing number of openly gay politicians – but a lot of the resistance and bigotry he and his contemporaries face are still prevalent. The Mayor of Castro Street is a beautiful book, but very sad one, because despite its inspirational tone and heroic subject, it exposes just how much of Milk’s legacy has been left unfulfilled.

Click here to buy The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts on amazon.com.

 

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‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ is TV’s best comedy

The story behind Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an interesting one: Tina Fey and Robert Carlock created the show after 7 critically acclaimed seasons, but NBC’s programming in 2014-2015 is comedyless, which means that there was no place for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, so the show’s available on Netflix, which allows for some great binge watching. All of this procrastination, plus Fox’s killing of Fey’s other newbie sitcom Cabot College, could have been bad for the show; the sitcom’s premise: a young woman tries to adjust to society after being trapped in a bunker for 15 years, also makes the show sound way to high concept for it to work. But it does. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a hilarious, often brilliant show, that benefits from all of Tina Fey’s patented smart and snarky sense of humor.

The Office comedienne Ellie Kemper stars as the titular character, a bright, bubbly young woman, who has been in a cult, sequestered in an underground bunker with a tiny group of other women. When rescued, Kimmy decides to “make it in the big city.” A potentially-depressing premise, instead, Kimmy Schmidt is an optimistic comedy about second chances and finding strength within yourself. Kimmy’s life could’ve been really crappy, but she doesn’t wallow in self-pity for too long.

Through the magic of TV logic, Kimmy finds a new best friend, Titus (Tituss Burgess), a struggling actor-singer who becomes her roommate. Her instant family also includes her wacky landlady, Lilian (Carol Kane), and a nightmare of an employer, Jacqueline (Tina Fey’s 30 Rock pal Jane Krakowski). Each episode charts Kimmy’s heroic strides in acclimating to 2015, having to deal with archaic pop culture references, atrophied social skills, and being an apologetic misfit. Since Kimmy was trapped under ground since she was 15, she also has to do all her growing up real quick.

The idea of a naive and well-meaning girl from the sticks living in New York City could’ve been a source of mean humor. And as evident from certain episodes of 30 Rock as well as her hilarious Sarah Palin impression, Tina Fey can do mean. But on Kimmy Schmidt, she wisely avoids cheap shots at Kimmy’s expense. Instead, we’re meant to root for Kimmy and her ridiculous foibles. The writers – Fey, Carlock, as well as other 30 Rock alumni like Sam Means, Jack Burditt, and Allison Silverman, along with other accomplished comic scribes – maintain Kimmy’s dignity and strength.

And along with the top shelf writers, Fey and Carlock have assembled a great cast – Kemper’s a wonder. Her work here is excellent, though it should be a surprise to no one that Kemper’s a comedic genius, given that the last four seasons of The Office were watchable solely to Kemper. As Kimmy’s appallingly spoiled socialite boss, Jacqueline, Krakowski steals her scenes – her performance will remind viewers of Jenna Maroney, and there is huge overlap (imagine Jenna getting married, settling down, but still acting a fool). Though Kemper is the star, Tituss Burgess is clearly a standout with an extravagantly hilarious performance (he stole scenes as D’Fwan on 30 Rock). In fact, though we’re watching Kimmy’s journey, Titus’s story is equally-poignant: after all, being a black, gay failed actor-singer who’s pushing 40 isn’t the easiest road to travel, and his flights of fancy and moments of supreme self-indulgence all work as self-preservation.

Because Kimmy is so sunny and genial, she’s remind viewers of other lovely TV ladies like Mary Richards or Leslie Knope. Kimmy’s plucky and resourceful and manages to pull through her episodic dramas with indomitable will. The writers know enough not to make Kimmy’s progress too dramatic – after all, too much growth and success would make the character unbelievable; instead, Kimmy’s changes are important to her – they’re not world-changing, but they mean something to her.

Because the show’s premise lends a bit toward “fish out of water” the show will face some challenges in the second season and beyond in keeping the episodes fresh. Shows like Samantha Who? and Ugly Betty also started off brilliantly, but then quickly flamed out when their rigid situations stymied any growth or development. It’s still too early to judge how Kimmy Schmidt will move beyond the first season’s handling of Kimmy’s re-entry into the world – hopefully it will maintain the excellence of the first batch of episodes.

 

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Nonsensical blathering of Dolce & Gabbana

Dolce & Gabbana. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to comment on the stupid comments the designing duo made on “traditional” family. In an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama, the two made various comments about traditional families and gay families such as:

“”The only family is the traditional one. No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.”

“I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Uteri [for] rent, semen chosen from a catalog.”

“The family is not a fad.”

The reason I wasn’t so sure I’d write something is because the comments are so dumb, and the source of the comments is unbelievably irrelevant. I mean, really, Dolce & Gabbana? Are there any normal, average people on the planet who wear D&G. That’s why even though I participated in #boycottDolceandGabbana, I felt a bit silly doing that because even if I wanted to boycott D&G, I couldn’t because I can’t afford their ridiculous clothes.

Anyways, it goes without saying that these guys are tools and are just mouthing off. In response to the backlash, D&G cite their Sicilian background as an excuse for being stupid.

Being hateful is wrong – calling kids “synthetic” is all kinds of fucked up – families become families in many different ways and we should embrace them all. Because of advances in reproductive medicine and reproductive health, same-sex couples as well as couples with reproductive issues can go ahead and have biological children. Obviously, if I had my druthers, these folks would go ahead and adopt some kids before going through the expense of in vitro fertilization or surrogacy, but hey – that’s just me. If a couple (or single folks) want a biological baby, and for some reason can’t, then by all means, do what you have to do to be happy…

Let’s not give D&G more importance that they deserve: after all, they are simply products of celebrity-driven culture that honors commerce, money, and greed (and please, don’t tell me D&G are artists – those fuckers aren’t artists, they’re a conglomerate). If D&G doesn’t believe in the advances in reproductive science, I’d be curious if they view other advances with equal wariness: after all, if having babies through in vitro fertilization or surrogacy is “unnatural” then how does either D or G feel about all kinds of medicine? Does either take pills? I’m assuming if D&G fly to New York they take a plan, and not by flapping the wings they grow through evolution, because after all, the expense, toil, and technology involved in flying an airplane isn’t exactly all-natural, either. And what about iPhones, iPads, and whatever i-product one owns? Do they pluck theirs from a different kind of Apple tree – the kind that grow PEDs?

Listen nature’s great, but it’s not perfect, and we’ve stepped in to curb some of its more limited or unattractive qualities: such as not getting eaten by carnivorous predators or not having our food go bad or not freezing our asses off when it gets cold.

This is the moment in my blog post that I heave an annoyed sigh. D&G suck because they were mean. They were stupid and spoke before thinking and now a whole bunch of people are handing them their asses on a plate. Let’s not make this more than it is. Doing so would make D&G more than they are.

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Kathy Griffin and Rosie O’Donnell – thoughts…

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Kathy Griffin Kathy Griffin at the 2015 Television Critics Association’s Press Tour for the NBC Universal TV show announcements, interviews with cast and creators at The Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, CA on January 15, 2015. Picture by: Mingle Media TV

Kathy Griffin announced that she was leaving the E! gabfest Fashion Police after just 7 episodes. Griffin’s departure shouldn’t be a surprise as after original host Joan Rivers died last year, the show’s been teetering on the brink of irrelevance, before it was plunged into infamy when host Giuliana Rancic made some racist comments about actress/singer Zendaya, specifically about her choice of wearing dreds to the Oscars. Rancic’s comments were scripted – the “weed” jokes were fed to the host by the show’s writers, but Rancic still gave a heartfelt and sincere apology, which Zendaya accepted with grace.

Still, Fashion Police – which returned after Rivers’ death to lower ratings, seemed hobbled by the bad press. Then co-host Kelly Osbourne left the show, reportedly unhappy with the racist joke, though her public reason was a diplomatic “moving on to other opportunities” kind of statement. Then Kathy Griffin stepped into the fray with guarded caution by pointing out that she wouldn’t have told a joke simply given to her by a staff writer. Soon after, Griffin also announced that she was leaving Fashion Police, leaving the two with two hosts: Rancic and Brad Goreski.

Griffin’s abrupt quitting isn’t surprising, as I always thought Fashion Police wasn’t a good vehicle for the comedienne. In her statement, Griffin explained that though she was grateful for the opportunity she found that “After 7 episodes of Fashion Police, I discovered that my style does not fit with the creative direction of the show & now it’s time to move on.” In the statement, which was posted on her Twitter and Facebook account, Griffin explained that though her humor was irreverent and barbed, she sought to use comedy as a leveler, citing her LGBT activism as well as her feminism.

When Kathy Griffin had her Bravo reality show, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, she was able to create the perfect outlet for her particular brand of comedy. Interestingly enough, she created the gig for herself because she was having trouble finding work on network television after her four-year run on the Brooke Shields sitcom Suddenly Susan came to an end. Her age, her unconventional beauty, and the general demise of the multi-camera sitcom contributed to Griffin’s struggle to find acting jobs. So though a reality show My Life on the D-List was actually a brilliant sitcom posing as a reality show.

But as with most sitcoms, My Life on the D-List had a limited shelf life because the conceit of the show – that Griffin’s low-level celebrity forced her to toil away at sad and uninspiring gigs – soon became obsolete as Griffin became one of the nation’s leading female comics. Because she’s close friends with people like Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt, Rosie O’Donnell, Suzanne Somers, and Joy Behar, it proved to be more difficult to believe that Griffin was still a D-list celebrity.

So, she decided to end the show and returned to Bravo with a talk show – Kathy. Unfortunately, the show only lasted two seasons. I was surprised by the show’s failure, especially since it’s actually a very good show and worth looking at. Because stand-up is Griffin’s passion, she’ll never be wanting for work, but I understand the pull of Fashion Police: Griffin’s dear friend and mentor, Joan Rivers, found a new career as an acerbic fashion critic, and parlayed that success into a late-career renaissance that included books, more concert tours, a CD, and an excellent web series (In Bed with Joan).

But what was so appealing about My Life on the D-List was that it combined all of Griffin’s best qualities: her underdog status, her outsider persona, as well as the intellectual. Often comedians won’t highlight their intellect if it’s not part of their persona. Griffin never dumbed herself down, but she also played up the vapidity of Hollywood and celebrity culture. The fact that Griffin’s politically astute, well-read, very articulate, and very brainy was hinted at in her stand-up, but was on display on the episodes of D-List. Fashion Police would’ve been an inappropriate place for Griffin to discuss how important feminism is in the 21st century, or how badly we treat our troops when they return home from war. She’s a fearless activist for LGBT rights and feminism, and when it was just she on the D-List, these concerns got as much attention as did her snarky take down of Hollywood celebrity.

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Rosie O’Donnell at the premiere of I Am Because We Are at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Picture by: David Shankbone

All of this reminded me of Rosie O’Donnell, another comedian who is often criticized for speaking her mind. O’Donnell had a long-running talk show in the 1990s that predicted Ellen DeGeneres’ successful gabfest. In the show, O’Donnell was family friendly – once the show ended and she came out, O’Donnell remained friendly and lovable, but her persona also became more complicated as she was also speaking out about politics. Her inclusion on The View was brilliant because it allowed for O’Donnell to be outspoken and political – unfortunately, she left early after an infamous dustup with conservative co-host, Elisabeth Hasselbeck. She had a comeback talk show on Oprah Winfrey’s then-struggling OWN, which was canceled after two seasons – again, as with Kathy, I was surprised that O’Donnell’s show didn’t make it. O’Donnell returned to The View after Barbara Walters retired, but like the rebooted Fashion Police, the new version of The View stumbled, and O’Donnell left after a few months (citing personal reasons including a divorce and a health scare).

This all leads to me to one conclusion: like Joan Rivers, O’Donnell and Griffin should look to the Web for their next project. What was so brilliant about In Bed with Joan is that it exploited social media, and proved to younger viewers that a veteran entertainer like Joan Rivers can adapt to new avenues of work. Most importantly, though Rivers invited traditional comedians like Griffin, Aisha Tyler, and Jeff Garlin, she also booked popular YouTube comedians like Tyler Oakley and Hannah Hart, as well. She recognized that comedy doesn’t just happen in a smokey club – YouTube comedienne Colleen Ballinger, who created the genius character Miranda Sings proved she can more than hold her own when appearing with Jerry Seinfeld, Martin Short, and Jimmy Fallon on Fallon’s The Tonight Show. Griffin and O’Donnell should look to the Web to expand their audiences – and they would be free of networks, who would predictably ask them to tone down their personalities.

The Internet is a great avenue because artists can create work that would reach their audiences without the intervention or meddling of studio suits. Griffin and O’Donnell both have such established fan bases, that they would fit the format perfectly. Griffin’s former Groundling pal Lisa Kudrow is a great example of an established comedienne who after years of mainstream success on network television, decided to go to the Internet. After a decade on the NBC hit Friends, Kudrow experimented with darker material, first with the cult classic The Comeback, and then with the brilliant Web series Web Therapy (which was picked up by cable). There’s no reason why O’Donnell or Griffin couldn’t do what Kudrow did – keep an eye on both standard, mainstream modes of entertainment (TV, radio, film), but also looking to alternative options.

What the Fashion Police bump proved was that Kathy Griffin, despite all of her success, is a square-shaped peg in an industry that only has round-shaped holes (I know Griffin would enjoy the double entendre). She’s an original, opinionated, smart, and brave – qualities that aren’t always celebrated in women. She needs a vehicle that promotes all of these qualities and lets them all shine. And just maybe she’ll have to create that vehicle for herself, as she once did before.

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Madonna returns with ‘Rebel Heart,’ her strongest release in ten years

Rebel Heart (Deluxe) [Explicit]Every time a Madonna album comes out, it’s difficult to judge it on merit alone, because the pop diva always releases new music in a flurry of publicity. With Rebel Heart, a lot of the noise wasn’t Madonna’s own doing: in fact, the release of Rebel Heart is notable because it puts Madonna in a position she’s not used to: not being in control. Hackers released songs on the Internet before they were meant to be released, so in response, Madonna and her label decided to release a clutch of album tracks. It wasn’t the online ka-pow of Beyonce’s online album release, but it does show that even the mighty Madonna is vulnerable to Internet music swipers.

All of this loudness shouldn’t obscure that Rebel Heart is easily Madonna’s strongest album since 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor (and by the way, it makes me feel old to say that COADF is 10 years old). What makes Rebel Heart so great is that the music marries a variety of Madonnas into one cohesive sound – there’s the defiant, “up yours, asshole”; the sexy Madonna; the Madonna that just wants to dance; and the sad, soulful Madonna. It’s the latter that I find to be the most intriguing because for the bulk of her career, Madonna has crafted an image akin to the Maschinenmensch – all metal and steel, with little room for vulnerability. But when given the chance, one of Madonna’s greatest strengths is how human she is (ignore the slogan-like chorus of “Vogue” and read the hit song’s poignant lyrics).

With all that I just typed up, it seems as if the simple act of listening to a Madonna record must be a heavy act. Not so. The songs on Rebel Heart show the pop singer at her best: instead of trying to fit her into dance-pop trends that may not be terribly sympathetic, Madonna’s raft of producers create a soundscape in which she sounds perfectly at ease. Though not a nostalgia fest, Rebel Heart does harken back to some of Madonna’s earlier sounds – like “Living for Love,” the song’s gospel-inflected house-pop number that sports EDM beats, uplifting lyrics, and a hallelujah gospel chorus. To Madonna’s credit, though the soloist (Annie from the London Community Gospel Choir) is a much stronger singer, Madonna’s vocals stand proudly on their own. “Living for Love” will remind listeners of “Like a Prayer” or “Nothing Fails” with Madonna’s patented penchant for the secular with the sacred.

Other songs on Rebel Heart also look at Madonna’s salad days. “Holy Water” – which indulges in the singer’s interest in Catholic imagery, has a nasal-sounding, stuttering synth that will remind some of her Like a Virgin days, while “Hold Tight” has the synth-brushed loopiness of Ray of Light. And though her overtures to urban radio has largely been mixed (Hard Candy was a bit of a chore to listen to), on Rebel Heart, her forays into hip-hop sound credible – especially her joyfully defiant “Bitch, I’m Madonna” (which pairs our superstar with an always-welcome Nicki Minaj). And the Kanye West-helmed “Illuminati” will erase the bad memories of Madonna’s rapping in “American Life.”

But what makes Rebel Heart so captivating is the “heart” part of the equation. At this point in her career, Madonna feels safe enough to let listeners see that beneath the lacquered-solid exterior beats the heart of a very sensitive lady. None of the ballads or slower numbers indulge in icky platitudes, but instead hark back to Madonna’s constant quest for self-empowerment and betterment. In the autobiographical title track,  over a catchy beat and strumming guitars, she sings about not fitting in, and being an eccentric and an original. Instead of roaring with a full-throated passion, she’s crooning wryly. And in the song’s best song –  the aptly-titled “Joan of Arc,”  Madonna warbles with a bruised knowing about how rough it is sometimes, being Madonna. As she sagely admits, “I can’t be a superhero, right now,” listeners get a chance to see that all of the nasty quips on Twitter or Facebook about Madonna’s age, sexuality, talent, or looks do have an effect. There’s little of the conqueror of “Living for Love,” and instead we get the image of a sad and sometimes weary warrior – and it’s very appealing.

Rebel Heart isn’t a perfect record, nor is it Madonna’s best. The album’s sprawling 19 (!) tracks make it for a bit of a slough to get through – and though the bulk of the album shows Madonna at her best, some of the low points – like the ridiculous “S.E.X.” or the ugly “Veni Vidi Vici” – glare an unforgiving spotlight on some of Madonna’s shortcomings, mainly her sometimes schizophrenic grasp at music trends as well as her dredging up the hyper sexuality of her Erotica days, which at this point sound a bit routine and rote.

But at this point, these quibbles feel like nitpicking – Rebel Heart is not merely a “cohesive” or “consistent” set, but a very good, solid B+/A- effort, which is very impressive, given that Madonna’s been writing songs and making music for 30 years, and it appears that despite the threat of younger divas who are vying for her crown, Madonna still has a lot to say – and it’s still awfully compelling.

 

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Kate McKinnon is a future SNL legend

Kate McKinnonKate McKinnon’s was always a breakout star on Saturday Night Live, but something special happened last week when Chris Hemsworth hosted. The cold open – usually a toothless political joke – gave McKinnon the opportunity to show just how fantastic and talented she is by essaying former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

Like Amy Poehler’s hilarious take on Clinton, McKinnon doesn’t impersonate the veteran politician, but instead takes values and ideas that Clinton exemplify – terse entitlement, intelligence, seal-like slickness – and creates a whole new person. It’s recognized as Clinton, but it’s also something else completely: it’s a snapshot of women in politics circa 2015. It’s very funny.

But that isn’t surprising given just how fantastic McKinnon is. Seriously, there hasn’t been an SNL cast member this versatile and talented since the glory days of Will Ferrell, Poehler, and Tina Fey. Because McKinnon’s a gorgeous blonde she has the ability to play stunning lookers, but because she also has little-to-no vanity, she can also play grotesques. Her seemingly endless list of characters and impressions include an excellent Ellen DeGeneres, which McKinnon plays as  somewhat weary and darkly resigned; her Justin Beiber is the right mix of insouciance, puppy dog coyness, and unappealing doucheness; Sheila Sauvage, the appalling barfly; Barbara, the skittering and deeply disturbed volunteer at a cat shelter; Jodi Cork, the spot-on satire on 90s dated workplace instruction videos; and because she’s a wiz at coming up with accents, she can play Australians, Mexicans, and British people.

As a cast member and writer, she’s also responsible for two bonafide classic moments on SNL: “Home for the Holiday (Twin Bed),” the excellent Pussycat Dolls-like ditty she wrote with Aidy Bryant, Sarah Schneider, Chris Kelly, and Eli Bruggeman; and the incomparable “Dyke and Fats,” a brilliant faux cop show that she starred in with pal Bryant (seriously, I’d pay anything to see an episode of “Dykes and Fats”).

What’s so great about watching McKinnon is that she brings an energy and star power that will remind viewers of Gilda Radner or Maya Rudolph (even a nothing sketch like last week’s “Iggy Azalea Show” benefited from the virtuoso’s talents). Not only is she incredibly funny, she’s also utterly likable, and stands out even in an ensemble piece (in the excellent “Say What You Wanna Say” sketch from Dakota Johnson’s episode, McKinnons fiercely optimistic performance makes her a first among equals).

Click here to watch a collection of McKinnon’s sketches – in the past few years, SNL has suffered from a sense of malaise and mediocrity, but McKinnon has been a consistent source of brilliance.

 

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Ben Carson, Adam Carolla, ISIS, and Matthew Shepard – musings on homophobia

It’s been a weird week for me because I just finished reading Stephen Jimenez’s book The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard. The book was notoriously slammed for its author’s thesis that Shepard – the iconic victim of a homophobic attack in October, 1998 – wasn’t killed because he was gay, but because he was involved in meth deals that went awry. Jimenez’s book was pulled apart brilliantly by Alyssa Rosenberg in a brutal review, that took the author to task for “shoddy” journalism and unchecked narcissism. After reading the book, I haven’t changed my mind about the Shepard case – even if he was a drug addict/dealer as the author reports, that doesn’t change the fact that he was brutally murdered, and that his killers tried to slither their way out of harsher sentences by invoking a gay panic defense (similar to the Twinkie defense that got Dan White off of murder charges after killing Harvey Milk). The only thing I’ll say for Jimenez is that the canonization of any individual doesn’t do much good for a cause – because when we create a hierarchy of victimhood, in which a “most deserving” victim is honored above others, we’re implicitly saying that other victims somehow brought their murders upon themselves. Because we wanted to create a saintly icon in Shepard, we are saying that queer people who are drug addicts, who are promiscuous, who are black or trans somehow are, in part, to blame for their murders – because everyday we read about trans women of color being killed and murdered, and there are no national debates or discussions about how to stem the victimization of trans women of color – in fact, when a trans woman dies, often she’s misgendered by the media, and there are spurious assumptions about her personal life.

Still, even if Jimenez didn’t convince me that the Shepard attack wasn’t motivated in large part by anti-gay sentiment, he got me to thinking about that awful October back in 1998 when Shepard died. After reading The Book of Matt, I felt I needed a palate cleanser of sorts, so I watched the 2002 HBO film The Laramie Project – an excellent film written by Moisés Kaufman, about a group of New York theater artists who go to Laramie in hopes of putting together a play inspired by the voices of Laramie locals. The film is based on the play of the same name, and like a lot of HBO movies, the cast is loaded with a lot of big names – Christina Ricci, Laura Linney, Peter Fonda, Camryn Manheim, Frances Sternhagen, Margo Martindale, Steve Buscemi, Janeane Garofalo, Joshua Jackson, Amy Madigan, and Bill Irwin. I think the big stars did a good job, but it’s the lesser-known actors that had the biggest impact in the film – though I do have to say that Martindale was brilliant (as always), and Irwin has, what is essentially a cameo, but delivers a beautiful monologue. What I liked about The Laramie Project is that aside from Shepard, the story is also about the town and its citizens. It’s a really complicated story with a lot of conflict and complexity, namely in how a lot of the locals, while repulsed by the murder, harbored anti-gay feelings. It’s a beautifully-filmed film, that perfectly encapsulates why Shepard’s memory was so important. There’s a great line delivered by Irwin in the film, in which he marvels at a homecoming parade that quickly becomes a vigil for Shepard. In his amazement he says, “as the parade came down the street… the number of people walking for Matthew Shepard had grown five times. There were at least five hundred people marching for Matthew…Can you imagine? The tag at the end was larger than the entire parade. And  people kept joining in. And you know what? I started to cry. Tears were streaming down my face. And I thought, ‘Thank God that I got see this in my lifetime.’ And my second thought was, ‘Thank you, Matthew.'”

So, because Matthew Shepard was on my mind a bit, I guess I was paying attention to gay news a little bit more, and heard about Dr. Ben Carson – a possible Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential elections – who was giving an interview and was asked about homosexuality – specifically whether it was a choice. Dr. Carson believes it was a choice, and said, “a lot of people go into prison straight, and when they come out, they’re gay.” Of course, Dr. Carson apologized (well, non-apologized) for his ridiculous comments, affirmed his belief in civil unions, and declared that he would no longer discuss gay rights. He posited himself as a victim of sorts, being dogged by these questions. Obviously, it’s a bit ridiculous for Dr. Carson to expect anything different: if he’s interested in running for president, he’s going to be asked questions about pressing issues like gay rights. His statement conflating homosexuality with prison sexuality was interesting to me because the guy’s a neurosurgeon – he’s a brilliant man. So if intelligent, well-educated, Yale graduates, can spout nonsense like “prison rape = gay” then what hope do the rest of us have?

And alongside Dr. Carson, I thought about Adam Carolla, who proudly proclaimed that he’ll stop apologizing for his anti-gay and racist humor, because he believes the onus is on those offended to get over it, or as he says, “You are in charge of your own feelings. I’m not in charge of your feelings.” He suggests that those offended should “Go find a politician or somebody who’s in charge and poke a popsicle stick up their butt.” A long time ago, I would called Carolla out on his horseshit and called him a knuckle-dragging neanderthal. But after reading The Book of Matt and seeing The Laramie Project, as well as hearing about the atrocities ISIS is committing against suspected gay men (throwing them off tall buildings), I thought, “you know what? He’s right.” Adam Carolla is an idiot – no question about it, but he and Dr. Carson both personify the sheer absurdity of anti-gay ignorance and how giving them credence by expressing even an ounce of outrage makes the two men more important than they really are. The progression of the queer movement is on the right side of history, and Carolla and Carson are both just bystanders who are caught up in something they don’t understand (and may not be intellectually capable of understanding). I’m not saying I’m not going to call folks out on their asshattery if they manage to say something stupid – I will, but I’m definitely going to choose my battles, because an elected official is fair game. If a member of congress decides to spout anti-gay sentiment, I’ll call her out because she’s capable of real damage. But a second-rate comedian? Or a Yale-educated doctor that has difficult differentiating homosexuality and prison sexuality? Those two men are really just nothings (though if Dr. Carson does run for president, his comments become fair game).

 

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