Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Return Of The Evil Gays

(HBO/Warner Media)

“These gays — they’re trying to murder me!” – Tanya McQuoid.

The character played by Jennifer Coolidge was referring to a clique of overly-mannered, ethically dubious, prissy aesthetes in Mike White’s second season of The White Lotus. (The equally brilliant first season got some Dish love here.) The phrase is now beyond a meme. Meticulously manicured, deeply frivolous, and parasitic on the very wealthy (especially widowed heiresses they can fawn over and then dispossess), the gay trope was deeply, even shockingly, old-school for 2022.

I was in fact surprised and not a little relieved that Mike White wasn’t subject to some kind of cancellation threat for the portrayal. Chatting about the return of evil gays with my friend Jamie Kirchick (who’s writing a column on this as well), we noted that these characters would have been instantly recognized by audiences in much of the 20th Century as classic homosexuals — as surely as their actual sexual orientation would have never been explicitly mentioned in the movies and shows themselves. And they would have been thought of casually as evil. Like gayness itself.

Vito Russo’s brilliant documentary, The Celluloid Closet, ticked off every mini-trope of the evil gays of the 1940s and 1950s: gays as frivolous, fabulist, untrustworthy, sinister corrupters of youth. Their evil — like that of Jews in anti-Semitism — is defined by their secretiveness, their wicked intelligence, and their ability to hide in plain sight. They flout conventional values, worship the crafts of artifice and design, hone the arts of deception and deflection and share a kind of code that outsiders can never fully crack. In the 1950s — the darkest period for gay men in the last century — evil gays were also murderers, sexual abusers and pedophiles. So when Mike White included a scene where a beautiful young man is required to fuck an old queen in the bum in return for his safety and upkeep, it was hard not to flinch a little.

But not much. It’s fascinating what shifts in the political world can do to culture. The deep and pervasive cultural homophobia of much of the last century dissipated in the AIDS crisis, as gay men suddenly lost the aura of power and secrecy and were mercifully seen as powerless and exposed. The veiled ugliness morphed into a very unveiled banality, as we entered a sometimes worthy and sometimes cringe Will and Grace era, where gay men were masc and friendly, or camp and funny, and everyone liked us. (If you saw Jeffrey, my sympathies.)

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