Looking to Stories of Queer Resistance
As always, in times of uncertainty, I look to stories for answers. I am still reeling from the election, but I've found a teensy bit of inspiration in unlikely fictional sources: the new Harry Potter film and HBO's film The Normal Heart, both of which have subtle or not-so-subtle blueprints for engaged citizenship and activism in the face of oppression.
As I was watching the new installment in the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was momentarily overcome with a certainty that JK Rowling's intended her screenplay to be a comment on political resistance in oppressive times, which she confirmed at the premiere: "I conceived this story a few years ago, and I think I was partly informed by the rise in populism around the world." The film is laced with signals as to how people and groups cope with oppression, and how they respond in popular movements. For example, Grindelwald's radical campaign for Wizards to use violence to emerge as dominant is met with caution and fear of dismantling the regulations on magic. On the other hand, there is a damaging secrecy to the way the Wizarding community in New York has gone underground in the face of xenophobia and oppression; risking exposure means war, but self-containment is also dangerous, as is most powerfully articulated by the concept of the Obscurial, a dark, uncontrollable magical force which threatens to destroy a wizard from within if suppressed.
is this the proto-Dementor?
Either way, we're looking at a narrative that contemplates strategies for resistance, either through slow progressivism or radical change. In the words of Audre Lorde, we're looking at the dispute over whether "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."
Fantastic Beasts doesn't particularly sway us either way (yet), beyond portraying Grindelwald as somewhat of a radical nut. But I find the depiction of Creedence, the (spoiler) young man whose Obscurial wreaks havoc on New York, to be a deeper symbol of a state of specific oppression: that of current LGBT discrimination. The Obscurial is an elegant metaphor for queer kids who know themselves to be different, and how the public's condemning of that difference threatens to spur on a dark, sometimes suicidal and life-threatening, self-hatred in those kids. Fantastic Beasts shows just how many lives we stand to lose if we do not recognize and champion that magical diversity in our children.
Queer self-hatred and public shunning also comes to the fore in HBO's The Normal Heart, which I rewatched this weekend. Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of relentless activist Ned Weeks faces defeat and tragedy after defeat and tragedy as the medical and political communities turn their backs on a generation of young gay men dying from AIDS in the '80s. The interesting and arresting portrayal of self-divisions among gay activist groups, and the corrosive quality of public and private shame vs self-acceptance in these groups, gives the film its heart. But what I find most applicable for the fight ahead of us in 2017 is how much speaking out is too much, as Ned learns when he ostracizes almost everyone he knows and loves with his fervent passion for justice in the AIDS crisis. The film asks, what avenues should activists take to make effective change? Is there such a thing as being too radical? Where do our voices matter most in the face of oppression?
"What do you mean, no one knows you're gay, when you're the president of the Gay Men's Crisis Center?"
I find myself asking these questions every day these days--do we focus our efforts on contacting our representatives? Building grassroots/local/community awareness? Attempt to curtail corporate influence? There's much for us to learn, but I do think watching films like these can give us models for progress. As always, we look to the queers for evidence of the brave, continued fight for equality and change.