Commentary

LGBTQ movies will never be as popular as straight ones. We don’t need them to be.

Billy Eichner in "Bros"
Billy Eichner in "Bros"Photo: Screenshot

It’s understandable to get defensive when you see people criticizing something that you worked hard on, especially when it’s not as popular as you’d hoped. This is why a recent Twitter thread by Bros actor and producer Guy Branum is easy to forgive.

“Until we can show Hollywood that stories by us, about us are a way of directly generating money, we will not have the opportunities, or control over our own stories that straight cis people have always enjoyed,” he laments. “This movie doing poorly at the box office limits the opportunities which will be in our future.”

While the film’s star Billy Eichner mostly blamed straight people, Branum targeted, in part, LGBTQ people looking for a more reflective film than the trailers seem to portray – even if the cast was almost all queer. This theory is incredibly common across the community whenever something one of us does isn’t as successful as we’d hoped.

We had too little faith! We blew it. We didn’t support our own enough! Our straight bosses will never give us a chance again.

First, let’s put aside the deeply problematic way Universal Pictures marketed the film, somewhat unfairly maligning what is seemingly an enjoyable, substantive work Eichner, Branum, and everyone else can be proud of. The studio killed the movie’s image at the outset, seemingly orienting the trailers and advertisements to straight people who have never actually met a gay person but who totally support marriage equality – in theory.

Ignoring that, in general, are we even responsible for LGBTQ works not being as lucrative for studios or popular across society as straight ones?

LGBTQ people account for around 5-10 percent of the overall population. There will always be a problem with estimating our true size, but the 21 percent  Gen Z claims is an outlier.

Even at five or 10 percent, we matter. We have just as much of a claim on American pop culture as other minority communities, and we appear across all groups, too. Jewish Americans are only about 2.4 percent of the nation’s population and Black Americans are only about 14 percent.

Will we LGBTQ folks alone ever have the economic or political might of mainstream society? That sounds a little hopeful in a “detached from reality” sense. This idea also kind of punches down.

For all our bluster about the power of pink dollars, we’re also a community that, like the mainstream, concentrates wealth amongst a few while most struggle. Unlike the mainstream, we seem to have higher incidence of high school dropouts, poverty, substance use, and suicide than straight peers. 

This reality runs headlong into the tiresome claim that if only we had supported something, it would be doing better. Because we simply don’t have that power or those resources. 

It’s more than just a raw numbers problem, though.

Stories “about us by us” as Branum calls them will never be as interesting to straight society as straight stories are. Competing with them isn’t realistic. But thank God for that.

From the terrible and fatalistic “Romeo and Juliet” to the dreadful consequences of straight people having children as detailed in “Mommie Dearest,” straight stories are unsettling and speak to a truly miserable, seemingly mentally unstable population. Likewise, based on the work of straight comedians, I am to surmise that marriage is an unfortunate, depressing institution where one partner is held hostage by the other.

As John Waters once observed even decades before Herschel Walker ran for U.S. senate or Alabama’s Roy Moore was banned from the mall for trying to pick up adolescent girls, “The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”

Boring, I’m not so sure. A trainwreck is hardly boring, even if tragic.

Contrast this with queer relationships, improvised family structures, and friendships inherent in the LGBTQ experience often formed as a direct result of the toxicity of heterosexual culture. Surely our relative health in these ways makes our stories less identifiable amongst straight society.

And that’s OK.

Communities like ours, be they racial or religious or gender-based or otherwise, float as life rafts in a morally impaired majoritarian sea. 

Stories by us about us, then, wouldn’t resonate with “most” people.

Sure, we might be tokens some of the straights can trade in. Absolutely, we might have some true allies who do share the same level of interest in our stories as they do their own. And of course some themes amongst our stories are universal.

Still, acting like it’s our failure, that we’re bad gays for the failure of a film or play or anything else to rise to the same level of interest as Love, Actually is the LGBTQ community equivalent of an abusive pastor saying people are poor because they didn’t have enough faith. 

There is a reason why we have our own newspapers, verticals within magazines, content channels, pride month, and parades. In 2022, it’s still about safety for many but it’s also about the fact that we’re at our most powerful when we focus ourselves together in opposition to the norm. That is literally the definition of queer. Our issues are not mainstream society’s issues all the time. Our thoughts are not their thoughts.

To me it’s welcome self-segregation, not problematic ghettoization. Many of us recognize the inherent peril in mainstreaming ourselves too much. Let us not erase ourselves into box office success and hostage situation marriages.

If you ask me, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have an overtly LGBTQ movie be as popular as a straight rom-com. Even movies that come close are done for the straight gaze and typically enjoy cult classic status more than immediate box office success, like The Birdcage.

I’d happily retain our “non-traditional” community, even if it means a smaller market share and films more suited for streaming, off-beat venues, and arts festivals. Let us have different metrics of success for ourselves than a blockbuster lining the pockets of clueless straight executives at Universal Pictures who think we’re all Jack from Will & Grace.

Besides, given the condition of straight society, I’d much rather be an outsider.

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