Coming-Out Narratives in Audiovisual Culture
Coming-Out Narratives in Audiovisual Culture
- Paris S. Cameron-GardosParis S. Cameron-GardosFaculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam
The rejection of coming out as a linear narrative must be accompanied by an alternative to the formulas of confession, disclosure, and identity adoption that have pervaded the current representations of coming out in the West. The appearance of coming out in film narratives provides important opportunities to observe how elements such as repetition, rehearsal, and, above all, contrasts are incorporated into the stories that are recounted. Conventional coming-out films have relied so heavily on the restrictive nature of the genre’s narrative structure that the potential for alternative, or queered, realities of coming out is erased. The continual reappearance and adaptations of coming out will enable a better understanding of the ways in which the act is presented as a moment that is never finished and that often evades a final, perfected, and polished performance.
Four specific narratives from queer film—Beautiful Thing (1996), Summer Storm(2004), Brotherhood (2009), and North Sea Texas (2011)—will be presented to offer counter models for coming out. In Beautiful Thing, the visual narrative demonstrates the importance of the reiterative, adaptable, and unanticipated representation of the act in visual media. In Summer Storm, the audience witnesses how coming out occurs in a world of competitive sports and where the teenage athletes reveal secrets that everyone already knows. In Brotherhood, the act of coming out is transformed into a moment when identities are instantaneously accepted and rejected within a homophobic, neo-Nazi subculture. In North Sea Texas, the script of coming out is reimagined by two characters who ambiguously decline any opportunity to define their identities. Coming out in visual narratives must be understood through an elaboration of Janet Harbord’s belief that the audience gravitates toward particular visual narratives where a comfort zone is created. These films have authored reiterative and adaptable approaches to the act of coming out that both comfort and challenge the audience.
- Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)
- Communication and Culture
Introduction: The Familiar Script
No matter how predictable, almost every narrative film has a script that structures and directs the action on screen. However, the genres that inform those scripts can become so reliant on the overly familiar that the two seem inseparable and other options appear to be excluded. The Children’s Hour (Wyler, 1961) and Advise and Consent (Preminger, 1962) mark two of the starting points of the coming-out genre in classical Hollywood filmmaking. In that genre, where a LGBTQ+ sexual identity is acknowledged, the narrative is structured for an audience that seeks out a version of the well-worn drama with revelations that lead to explosive consequences. In these earlier films, a key element of the script is the death or suicide of the character who is marked as gay. Even though this script is familiar to contemporary audiences in the late 20th and 21th centuries, as well as in popular culture, it is now both ineffective and harmful. Its various iterations include such classic gay films as The Boys in the Band (Friedkin, 1970), My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears, 1985), and Brokeback Mountain (Lee, 2005). The genre that focuses on gay tragedy has given this narrative form a strong degree of predictability and foreclosed other queer options.1 In those narratives, tragedy, death, or a simple lack of fulfillment in life because a protagonist identifies as gay structure the stories on screen. It is fruitful to explore alternatives without being trapped by the need to both identify another version of the coming-out narrative and then claim that once the newly identified model is incorporated, things will turn out alright in the end. It is necessary to propose a flexible and plural definition of coming out where reiteration, continual repetition, and open secrets structure the contours of the act.
The term queer is used here not as a substitute for the term LGBTQ+ but to embody acts of sexual, cultural, and political resistance by those who identify as LGBTQ+. Pioneering queer researcher Annamarie Jagose (1996) defined queer as “those gestures or analytical models which dramatize incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire” (p. 3). Jagose’s definition emphasizes the ability of queer to illuminate and resist normative practices. The historical reality that structures coming out and its transformation into a normative practice is also at the heart of her analysis. She argued that from the 1970s onwards, there has been a strong liberationist focus within gay communities in Europe, North America, and Australia; in these communities coming out has been promoted as an act that can create social transformation and unambiguous identities, reduce individual shame, and pave the way for a recognition of legitimacy. She went on to point out that, beginning in the 1990s, queer researchers, as well as gays and lesbians themselves, began to “question and resist identity categories and their promise of unity and political effectiveness” (Jagose, 1996, p. 91). This transition documents one of the ways in which coming out has moved from being the metaphorical expression of queer liberation to the present moment where it has become a method for an enforcement of the normative, heteronormativity, and homonormativity.
Heteronormativity is defined by the ability to normalize the (re-)productive aspects of heterosexuality within the West. Queer studies specialists Lauren Berlant and Mark Warner (1998) defined heteronormativity as “the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent—that is, organized as a sexuality—but also privileged” (p. 548). They went on to define the privileged language that heteronormativity asserts in Western societies as the creation of a basic idiom, transmitted as a personal ideal, or even accomplishment. The combined concepts of naturalness and omnipresence that structure heteronormativity can also be extended to provide a definition for the related term, homonormativity. Queer political researcher Jasbir Puar (2007) pointed out that, in the era of late neoliberal capitalism, societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in the West has become contingent on the “ever-narrowing parameters of white racial privilege, consumption capabilities, gender and kinship normativity, and bodily integrity” (p. xii). Puar (2007) clarified those parameters when she reminded her readers that those who are subject to hetero- and homonormativity are interwoven into “the bountiful market and the interstices of state benevolence” (p. xxvii). Acceptance of queer identities has become intimately tied with the requirement that those who identify as LGBTQ+ must conform to the structures and ideas of late capitalism.
The symbolic transformation from deviant to normative and from inside to outside are parts of the legacy that have shaped how the connection between coming out and the closet is perceived. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990) explained how the closet simultaneously both entraps and expels (p. 71). An essential step in the reevaluation of coming out and the closet is to see them as both unstable and multidirectional. Sedgwick’s conceptual understanding about the intertwined nature of the closet and coming out reinforces the idea of their coexistence. She went on to discuss the fact that the closet and the exit from it “can bring about the revelation of a powerful unknowing as unknowing, not as a vacuum or as the blank it can pretend to be but as a weighty and occupied and consequential epistemological space” (Sedgwick, 1990, p. 77). Her comments communicate to the reader that exiting the closet can deliver the opposite of its presumed promises of clarity and identity.
The potential for the effects of the entanglements associated with coming out to be both dissident and subversive is examined by Judith Butler (1991) in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” wherein she evaluated the connections between coming out, the closet, and opacity with a proposition:
being “out” must produce the closet again and again in order to maintain itself as “out.” In this sense, outness can only produce a new opacity; and the closet produces the promise of a disclosure that can, by definition, never come. (p. 16)
Her comments explore coming out and are an endorsement of it as a reiterative process. She did so when she argued that full disclosure can never happen; the act of revelation never reveals everything. She asked her readers to comfort themselves with the fact that whole truths are not always available. Sedgwick’s idea that coming out is a kind of unknowing and Butler’s notion of opacity suggest that coming out, being out, and the closet must be seen as reiterative, in that they are in a continual state of re-production and adaptation.
The scripting of coming out in audiovisual media as a reiterative act has become a complicated and, at times, impossible process. Richard Dyer (2003) illustrated how “it is much more difficult to show the process of CO [coming out]. It is only as one approaches dramatization that it becomes possible” (p. 236). He developed his point about the dramatic narrative potential of coming out with the assertation that “in the fiction films proper, CO is undoubtedly the narrative structure par excellence” (Dyer, 2003, p. 236). The allure of this dramatic narrative form has often created space only for that which could be considered canonical and the normative in coming-out narratives.
Coming out in contemporary film is often part of an attempt to achieve several objectives at the same time. This marks a change from conventional, mid-20th-century Hollywood films where an explosive revelation would lead to tragedy and the death of the gay character. In current audiovisual narratives, coming out serves as a depiction of LGBTQ+ identity, a political statement about the LGBTQ+ community, and as a visual narrative. Queer analyst Michael Bronski (2000) outlined how films such as Beautiful Thing (1996), Edge of Seventeen (1998), and Head On (1998), where coming out is a key narrative element, have failed to negotiate these challenges: “the coming out genre is symptomatic of a larger problem with films that are forced to carry the mantle of being ‘overtly political’ as well as being art” (p. 20). He went on to argue that these films present coming out as a “simple personal statement” (Bronski, 2000, p. 23). It is important to note that Bronski’s assessment is focused on films produced in the late 1990s. Those films were part of the New Queer Cinema movement and focused on positive storylines where the protagonists eventually find love, belonging, and identity. This relentless quest to create a visible and positive difference from earlier Hollywood gay tragedies also motivates Bronski’s analysis of the banal and positive representations of both coming out and LGBTQ+-identified characters in such films. He reminds his readers about what is missing in these films: “Coming out is essentially a complicated internal process, not a simple public act” (Bronski, 2000, p. 21). Through the simplification of complex personal narratives, the audiences of such films are forced onto a narrative track that leaves no room for the reiterative and adaptable elements within coming out. Beyond these narratives, where a singular and heroic statement often leads to a settled world, the genre often cuts off further analysis about the effects of the coming-out moment or whether it is, in fact, the end of the story. Bronski (2000) went on to propose that “coming out is nearly always the end point, never the beginning of the plot” (p. 23). Conventional coming-out films have relied so heavily on the restrictive nature of the genre’s narrative structure, whether to set the stage for tragedy or a banal teenage love story, that the potential for alternative, or queered, realities of coming out are erased. Through a close study of four films, Beautiful Thing (Macdonald, 1996), Summer Storm (Kreuzpaintner, 2004), Brotherhood (Donato, 2009), and North Sea Texas (Defurne, 2011), alternative visions of coming out as an act and concept can be observed. These alternatives force the audience and popular culture’s attention away from linear and normative forms of the act and toward an understanding of coming out as a reiterative moment that is continually present and endlessly adaptable.
These productions offer alternatives to normative coming-out scripts. Hettie Macdonald’s Beautiful Thing weaves a coming-out narrative and a gay youth love story together. The visual narrative of this established film demonstrates the importance of the reiterative, adaptable, and unanticipated representation of the act in visual media. The characters Jamie and Ste come of age on a working-class public housing estate in London and each young man wrestles with issues of class, identity, and sexuality. Jamie’s mother confronts her son about his identity and a dramatic, if unpredictable, moment of coming out follows. The established paradigm is subverted because the act is also presented as a reiterative moment. The acts of sexual self-identification in this film are the background to a sexual identity that is neither rejected nor heroically assumed.
In Summer Storm, coming out is intimately tied to ways in which secrets are revealed that everyone already knows. In this adolescent coming-out narrative, the principal protagonist is a Bavarian athlete who must balance his loyalties to his team, sport, and budding sexual desires. The character Tobi enacts coming-out moments that are structured around a secret that has been exposed. The continual acts of revelation are part of a process that is led both by himself and the other teenage athletes. This film illustrates that coming out and gay identification are not necessarily synonymous.
In Brotherhood, coming out is depicted by the ways in which identities are instantaneously accepted and rejected within a neo-Nazi subculture through a form of “un-coming out.” In this narrative, a young, Danish neo-Nazi named Jimmy attempts to refuse both a minority sexual identity and a conventional coming-out moment. At the end, Jimmy is forced to publicly perform an un-coming out where he rapidly and violently alternates between refusals and acknowledgments of his sexual attraction to men. The end result is that all options lead to betrayal.
In North Sea Texas, the coming-out script is reimagined and reworked by two characters who decline any opportunity to clarify their identities. The plot is focused on the lives of two teenagers, Pim and Gino, who defy the scripts that could structure their identities and relationship. The ambivalence shown within the film’s coming-out scenes steers the narrative away from the normative methods through which popular culture has come to view coming out. The film reorients the understanding of coming out toward an appreciation of the act as a time that is full of continual repetitions and variations.
Each production illustrates that coming out is continually repeated and endlessly adapted. To do so, all the narratives move away from normative coming-out stories where comedic, tragic, or even banal melodramatic moments accompany explosive revelations as well as the creation of stable and fixed identities. In these visual stories, acts of coming out occur incessantly and each new instance comes in the form of repetitions, adaptations, and evolutions from previous manifestations.
Love on the Estate: The Unanticipated Coming Out in Beautiful Thing
The forms and reception of the coming-out narrative are the central themes in the gay youth love story that is depicted in Beautiful Thing. The film’s visual narrative is focused on the adaptable and unanticipated representation of the act in practice. Both Jamie’s coming-out moment with his mother and Sandra’s response are emotionally poignant. However, their interaction redirects the storyline away from a banal moment of acceptance or rejection and toward a recognition of coming out as a continually rehearsed act that is never perfected.
The film, based on the stage play written by openly gay playwright Jonathan Harvey, presents a story of teenage love between two working-class boys on a council estate in London, England. Since its release, the film has become a research wellspring for contemporary queer film and narrative analysis. Israeli film researcher Gilad Padva (2004) summarized this narrative as the articulation of a “love story of two boys who live in a working-class neighborhood in East London: Jamie, a delicate boy who is bullied by his school-mates, and Ste, the football captain who is often beaten by his older brother, a drug dealer, and by his abusive father” (p. 358). Padva’s brief summary elides the important role played by Jamie’s mother, Sandra, who throughout the film remains concerned about her son. When she discovers that he has been taunted with homophobic abuse, she covertly trails after Jamie and Ste on their first visit to a gay bar. Back at home, she confronts Jamie and a dramatic, if unpredictable, moment of coming out ensues.
This narrative of youthful love, coming out, and acceptance is a story that does not end in shame, family breakup, or tragedy. It is described by Marxist queer analyst Bob Nowlan (2006) as a film that “explicitly takes the form of a “fairy tale” (p. 148). Despite the fairy tale nature of the love and teenage angst portrayed between Jamie and Ste, the narrative addresses a number of relevant sociological topics. Ste’s father and brother are verbally and physically abusive. Eventually, Ste escapes to live with Jamie and his mother. Sandra is a single mother who struggles to establish security for herself and her family through her quest to become a pub manager. Race also plays a role in the narrative. Leah, the Afro-Caribbean straight teenage neighbor, regularly faces the brutal reality of racism. Her friendship with Jamie and Ste only confirms the minority status that each must confront. Harvey’s adaptation of his stage work was attractive to Channel 4 Films as part of the company’s mandate to “reflect public diversity” (Pullen, 2009, p. 175). In this film, diversity includes the challenging issues of class, race, sexual orientation, family dysfunction, and teenage life.
Scholarship about coming out often emphasizes how the act is structured by the linear and heroic narrative. Padva (2004) proposed that Beautiful Thing was part of a new wave of films focused on queer teenagers and demonstrated “the necessity to provide young queers with some form of representation of their life and possible life choice” (p. 357). This is a confirmation that from the mid-1990s onward, previous narrative patterns that always ended in gay tragedy were no longer acceptable to LGBTQ+ audiences. However, the move away from coming out and gay identity as a guarantee of a tragic ending has created a new dominant script about coming out, and one that Padva endorses. He interprets films, such as Beautiful Thing, where the coming-out narrative is a central theme, as an endorsement of the idea that “coming-out is difficult and painful but staying in the closet is much worse. Coming out is presented as the only way for a queer teenager to achieve his/her personal, social, cultural and sexual liberation” (Padva, 2004, p. 368). For Padva, coming out in film narrative has before and after moments and results in the adoption of a clearly defined gay identity where the queer teenager achieves personal and sexual liberation. His findings are based on his interpretation of how the protagonists adopt attitudes of “maturity, acceptance, pride, and happiness” (Padva, 2004, p. 369). These reflections on the narratives of films, including Beautiful Thing, construct coming out for the young male characters on screen, and the audience, as a necessary evil that is made unproblematic because it leads to an idealized form of liberation.
Nevertheless, he acknowledges that coming out in visual narratives can lead to the presentation of a narrow path that privileges a single discourse about gay youth and sexual identification. He does so when he posits that the “spectacular visualization of coming-out as the ideal solution for gay youth’s agony is a naive illusion” (Padva, 2004, p. 369). Padva’s comments reflect the reiterative nature of coming out and its presentation in visual narratives. On the one hand, the act is seen as a necessity, a liberation, and the conventional means to create both community and identity. On the other, coming out can never fully deliver its promises of liberation, identity, or an attachment to the LGBTQ+ community. Coming out remains adaptable, where the continual rehearsal of the act creates the possibility for a diversity of outcomes.
The narrative of Beautiful Thing has a strong homonormative element within the love storyline and the moments of coming out. The cinematography creates a story arc that can be seen as the establishment of a simplified and normative trajectory where the moment of coming out is constructed to be explosive, dramatic, and ultimately, successful. Each part of the story leads to what Nowlan (2006) described as the point where Jamie and Ste “develop the confidence to define themselves as gay and to commit themselves to each other” (p. 143). A series of successive elements gradually lead to the explosive moment of coming out. Leah repeatedly urges the boys to come out and threatens to expose them (00:50:39–00:52:19). Jamie’s desire to explore his gay identity is made physically tangible when he steals a copy of the Gay Times from a local newsagent (00:44:20–00:44:50). The magazine becomes a talisman that symbolizes Jamie’s, and later Ste’s, first contact with the conventional LGBTQ+ community. Based on an advertisement therein, the two young lovers go out to their local gay pub, The Gloucester, to enjoy their first public evening out as a couple (01:02:40–01:04:59). From the moment they enter the pub, a dramatic coming out is pre-ordinated because Sandra has shadowed the two young men on their night out (01:02:35–01:02:40). Her confrontation with her son about the reality of his identity, something that she already knows, takes on an air of inevitability. Queer film researcher Fouz-Hernández (2008) argued that the film adopts “a more or less assimilationist approach whereby homosexuality would be accepted as a lifestyle and not just as a series of isolated acts” (p. 153). In a purely normative reading, the trajectory of the story that ends with the moment of explosive coming out can be observed as the completion of a simple, enclosed narrative. However, such a reading omits the reiterative and adaptable aspects of the coming out, which the audience confronts.
By looking closer at the moment when Jamie formally comes out to his mother, the reiterative nature of the act comes into focus. Jamie babbles while he explains his fears about being labeled as gay. He then describes himself in terms that are not merely about the present, but also a projection into an ominous future (01:07:25–01:10:30). As a result, the melodramatic declaration is neither a clear nor heroic statement where the young gay man proudly assumes the mantle of his sexual identity. At that moment, Sandra receives the already known news and does not reject her son when she states: “You think that you know all about me, don’t you?” (01:09:46–01:09:50). Padva (2004) described how Sandra’s actions within the storyline actualize the reiterative search for knowledge and understanding:
This rhetorical question is an epistemological speech act because she refers to the interrelations of the known and the unknown, the explicit and the implicit, the recognized and the denied, the admitted and the repressed, the assumed and the guaranteed. (p. 360)
His comments confirm the observation that Sandra’s preexisting knowledge and acceptance of her son is part of the visual representation of a reiterative coming out that weaves together both the known and unknown into a never finished search for knowledge and identity. Padva (2004) concluded that “Sandra was not angry at them because of their erotic identity but because they had lied to her and pretended to be straight” (p. 361). At that point in the film, coming out is both normative and subversive; and as a result, the depiction of coming out reveals how the act is always a reiterative rehearsal that is simultaneously both transparent and opaque. Jamie’s declaration is neither heroic nor a disavowal based on a sense of self-hatred and shame. He releases his emotions and presumes that disaster lurks on the other side of the statement. However, the narrative is queered because the protagonist’s expectations are defied. The act pivots on the fact that it is a disclosure of knowledge about which Sandra was already aware. Her acknowledgement and acceptance, of both her son and Ste’s sexual identities and their shared love, are premised on the notion that honesty is the best policy. She leads the audience to prefer the adoption of a clear identity for the teenage boys.
The presentation of coming out in Beautiful Thing is part of established and conventional visual storytelling about the topic. In such depictions, the gay protagonist struggles with the explosive revelation of a secret that is disclosed in a dramatic moment of self-determination, affirmation, or even tragedy. Nevertheless, coming out in this film is also a queer act. The established paradigm is subverted because the audience is presented with a reiterative moment, where the adaptable nature of coming out is made visible through the revelation of a secret that everyone already knows. The film’s coming-out storyline is the backdrop to a sexual identity that is neither rejected nor heroically assumed. The audience witnesses the articulation of coming out as the rehearsal of a search for identity and knowledge that is never-ending.
Summer Storm: Sport, Teenagers, and Coming Out
In Summersturm (Marco Kreuzpaintner, 2004), coming out is presented as a time when secrets are revealed that everyone already knows and acknowledges. The film offers coming out as both a narrative and a script. That combination is made visible when the act creates a collective coming out where the teenage athletes demand that one of their own acknowledges a homosexual identity. Despite that peer pressure, Tobi chooses his own moment to rehearse and perform the secret in front of his friends and teammates. The film forces the audience to focus on the effects of the story: A coming out mediated as a secret that is both already known and forever being revealed.
The film was also released in English with the title Summer Storm; it is both a coming-out story and a coming-of-age story. It received a number of awards but was also criticized for its limitations.2 The principal protagonist, Tobi, is a teenager from Bavaria who is slowly coming to terms with his homoerotic desires and the connection of those desires to a gay identity. In the first part of the film, Tobi makes gradual advances toward a full expression of his affection for his straight friend and fellow rower, Achim (00:05:50–00:07:49). The action accelerates once the scene shifts to a multiteam pre-competition rowing camp in the Bergisches region of northwestern Germany. There, the Bavarian rowers have their first encounter with a rowing team composed entirely of gay teenagers from Berlin. Team Queerstrokes is led by a toned, muscled, athletic, and emancipated character named Malte (00:22:29–00:24:49). Throughout the film, the fact that Malte does not recognize the existence of the closet is contrasted with Tobi’s struggle about the secret of being gay. Tobi makes a final advance on Achim, only to be rejected (00:48:29–00:49:06). After that, he meets another member of Queerstrokes, Leo, and begins a sexual relationship with him (00:52:50–00:55:48). Leo is also out and his comfort with his sexual identity applies an additional layer of peer pressure on Tobi for intelligibility about the secret of his own sexuality. The existence of this pressure illustrates how the film makes coming out the only option for resolution, even though the narrative also shows how coming out is enacted without the adoption of a normative gay identity.
This film must be situated within the German context, where national and regional identities, along with the importance placed on physical and moral health, meet at the contested intersection of sport. German sport researcher Ilse Hartmann-Tews (2002) expanded on the links between sport and German culture by positing that “competition, performance and improvement are traditional values and orientations of the sports system in general and sports clubs in particular” (p. 160). In this film, the culture of German sports competition and personal improvement are central to the narrative and the coming-out story that is enacted.
In Summer Storm, the coming-out process is not binary, consisting of a before and after, but a flow of moments and actions. Theorist Ross Chambers (1981) argued that the biggest secret is that everyone knows both the existence of the secret and its contents. For Chambers, secrets are inherently open and public. He elaborated on this point when he wrote, “only the shared secret achieves full reality and performs the true function of secrecy, which is not private and personal, but public and social” (Chambers, 1981, p. 67). In the case of Tobi’s secret, it is the various moments of revelation that matter. Just as importantly, the secret is already known in the public sphere before he denies the facts in the forest and when he later initiates his declaration of identity at breakfast. The film’s narrative exposes a blurred border between being outed and coming out. With respect to being outed, the film portrays a group of teenagers who propel Tobi out of the closet with a relentless quest for intelligence about the secret of his homosexuality. The night before Tobi comes out to the whole group, the two teams search for a missing Bavarian team member in the forest (01:10:33–01:11:25). During the scene, Tobi is outed to both teams through moments of declaration and silence. However, the audience witnesses how he chooses moments in which to come out while declining others. Tobi demonstrates that gay identity and coming out coexist in an unstable relationship to one another. It is idealistic and naïve to assume that there are only ever singular and heroic moments of egress from a closet where an individually directed coming-out narrative exclusively structures the action.
In the narrative, the gay–straight alliance eventually gets the satisfaction of hearing Tobi come out. In one of the final scenes, the breakfast scene, Tobi formally comes out to his teammates and coach while in the presence of the Queerstrokes team. He does so when he says, “What’s wrong? Can’t I kiss girls anymore, just because I’m gay?” (01:23:11–01:23:16). The audience can easily view such a statement as a simple and singular revelation of his gay sexuality. If the audience only has a conventional understanding of coming out, this declaration serves as a simple moment of narrative closure. In fact, it is yet another of the multiple moments of coming out within the narrative. Although Tobi declares himself to be gay, he is seen to adopt a highly individualized gay identity that suits him. The audience bears witness to the fact that sexuality is not his priority. It also becomes clear that sports, his team, and the competition remain his overriding concerns. The storyline breaks with the possibility of a direct link between coming out and gay identity adoption. This particular moment can only lay claim to being the final point within the film where Tobi or members of both teams act on the already revealed secret. That being said, the revealed secret is central to Tobi’s performance at the breakfast table.
The morning after the night in the forest, Tobi comes down to breakfast. Just before making his announcement, he sets up his own joke by kissing Anke on the cheek.
Anke serves as a foil throughout the storyline and Tobi pretends that he wants to be her boyfriend. Later, he tearfully confesses his gay identity during a secret lakeside assignation while the two are secluded in the reeds (00:56:30–00:59:26). Most importantly, Anke’s silence serves to out Tobi during the confrontation between the teams in the forest (01:10:45–01:10:54). The kiss at breakfast is both platonic and an attempt to atone for his past behavior. However, Anke’s facial reaction is one of discomfort and irritation (01:22:54). Tobi uses her presence and body to further his own ends. In this case, that objective is his moment of self-declaration. The narrative shows that affection can be expressed in a way that has nothing to do with sex or friendship. A gay man can always kiss a woman and a kiss does not always mean love or sex. In this case, he creates an uncomfortable moment that borders on harassment in order to set the stage for his planned performance.
Tobi’s character adds another thread to the complicated fabric of coming-out moments. In the forest scene, his character rejected being labelled gay while not offering an alternative to his peer group or the audience. At breakfast, the film depicts him kissing a girl directly before making his declarative and personal coming-out statement. After the kiss, he comes out. However, it is done in such a way that the audience may not recognize it outside this particular context. Tobi performs a ritual statement that everyone will accept and understand, but which remains unique to the character and the circumstances. This moment of declaration is a performance. As an audience, it is assumed that both his speech act and the construction of an identity label mutually reinforce each other. In this case, the link is broken.
That broken link is made visible because Tobi almost immediately pivots back to the upcoming sports competition and urges the now reunited team to victory. Their reaction, or rather lack thereof, seems to confirm observations about the changing forms of homophobia in sports. British sports psychologist Brendan Gough (2007) pointed out, “Yet, when the athletes actually decide to tell their coming-out stories to their sports peers, they report few major problems” (p. 168). Furthermore, the narrative choice to have Tobi focus on the upcoming competition illustrates another trend that Gough (2007) has located in the coming-out stories of gay athletes, “Of those athletes who are out and accepted as gay, there seems to be a great effort to discount gay identities and a desire to be treated like (straight) peers” (pp. 168–169). Gough’s comments are relevant because Tobi’s character is shown to be keen to move away from a sexual focus just as he chooses to cast a spotlight on both his and the group’s dedication to sport.
It would be equally valid to conclude that Tobi expresses a possible indifference to those around him or even about the secret itself, and it is useful to view Tobi as not exclusively oppressed by the secret. At breakfast, he is shown to embrace the open secret that he is gay. He has uttered words that matter, but the character has not changed within the narrative. At the very moment where his character performs a seemingly conventional act of coming out, the film privileges an effort by Tobi to refocus on the sports competition as a way to illustrate that the priorities of both the protagonist and the groups can shift to issues other than the coming-out drama and sexuality. In this coming-out narrative, there is no guarantee offered that the individual gay protagonist’s sense of self would be altered. Tobi, as a character whose role is central to the film’s storyline, does not change simply because he says that he is gay.
Brotherhood and Coming Out
The coming-out story in film narratives must also be observed as a process of absence, refusal, and failure. Danish director Nicolo Donato’s Brotherhood contains all these elements.3 It is also a story of contested and tragic acknowledgement. A gay neo-Nazi is shown to engage in an “un-coming out,” where homoerotic sexual desire is both violently refused and acknowledged.
On the surface, the film’s narrative is a simple story of a secret love affair between two men, the principal protagonists, Jimmy and Lars. Lars is a former sergeant in the Danish Army who is invited to join his local branch of the neo-Nazi party. Jimmy is instructed by party leader Michael to indoctrinate Lars. Shortly after they start living together, Jimmy and his protégé begin an intense sexual relationship. Jimmy avoids any open acknowledgement of his relationship to Lars and his own sexual identity until the very end of the film. Jimmy’s resistant script not only involves his homoerotic desires and his affiliation to the neo-Nazi movement, but also his relationship to his brother, Patrick. Patrick is depicted as a drug addict and someone whom Jimmy must frequently rescue. When Patrick secretly observes his brother and Lars cuddling on a bed, Patrick goes into a rage that leads him to reveal to the party elders that his brother and Lars are homosexuals.
The film’s storyline forces the audience to reflect on the collision of the homosocial and the homoerotic in a fictionalized neo-Nazi gang. As Sedgwick (2015) argued, the social bonds between men that define the homosocial are a “neologism, obviously formed by analogy with ‘homosexual,’ and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from ‘homosexual’” (p. 1). The homosocial world is both connected to and radically distinct from the realities of homosexuality and homoeroticism. Sedgwick went on to offer an example of the homosocial and one that is relevant to this article on coming out within in a fictionalized hyper-masculine neo-Nazi group as it is portrayed on screen. She pointed out that the desire among men for each other, and for the activities they engage in together, cannot be compartmentalized. To do so, she put forward the hypothesis that there exists “the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual—a continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically disrupted” (Sedgwick, 2015, pp. 1–2). In Brotherhood, that continuum is presented in the form of a violent and hyper-masculine neo-Nazi gang that chooses to bond over their camaraderie, shared ideology, and homophobia.
Homosociality and homosexuality are on the menu in a scene from the film where the gang members partake of an informal dinner (01:04:31–01:05:25). In a classroom-like setting, the men crowd around a table and the militaristic Kenneth is berated as a faggot for examining himself in a nearby mirror (01:04:32). He then nearly instigates a brawl to counteract the threat to his masculinity. In answer to the conflict involving Kenneth, Lars mentions Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Sturmabteilung (SA) who was both a Nazi and a homosexual. Lars says, “He was queer. He was. That’s why Hitler had him executed” (01:05:14–01:05:16). At that moment, Lars risks outing himself, Jimmy, and indirectly, the whole movement as a dedicated club of violent hyper-masculine, fascist homosexuals. Michael takes the role of a knowledgeable teacher, in an attempt to set the record straight: “He wasn’t necessarily a faggot, but he got too powerful, so they shot him” (01:05:14–01:05:16). The response from the other men, while they devour their food, comes in the form of a statement that one of them yells out: “Who cares why? The main thing is they wasted him.” The comment offers a display of violence and bravado at the expense of understanding the movement’s own history. As European political scientist Anna Krasteva (2016) argued about the young men involved in far-right movements, “violence is so important that it is shown off like a badge of honour, a supreme distinction” (p. 159). The gang members luxuriate in all forms of violence, even violence directed against one of the pillars of German National Socialism. At the end of this moment in the visual narrative, it becomes clear to the audience—by all their facial expressions—that the gang now harbor suspicions about Lars’ sexuality and his ability to be a loyal team member.
Gay neo-Nazis are an issue that has, for some time, fascinated sociologists and theorists alike. However, it is important to draw some distinctions. Not all skinheads are neo-Nazis and a constellation of skinheads, neo-Nazi skinheads, gay skinheads, and gay neo-Nazis exist. Criminal justice researcher Kevin Borgeson and hate-crimes researcher Robin Valeri (2005) analyzed the connections between skinhead culture and gay men. They pointed out that, “for gay men who were dissatisfied with the then current image of homosexual men as effeminate or ‘queens,’ the strong masculinity asserted by skinheads was appealing” (Borgeson & Valeri, 2005, p. 45). In their findings, the researchers point to the fact that some gay men crave defined forms of traditional masculinity. To achieve that masculine status, these gay men observed, adapted, and adopted the ways that straight men used the skinhead movement to define themselves. Nevertheless, the forms of traditional masculinity adopted by both gay and straight skinheads are intimately tied to acts of violence. Journalist Michael Kimmel (2018) argued that, for neo-Nazi skinheads, “the group’s dynamics—the intense bonding, the camaraderie, the parties, the fights—forms much of the glue that keeps the groups together. Ideology comes later, if at all” (p. 23). These comments are particularly relevant to any assessment of neo-Nazi skinheads, where the combination of homosocial camaraderie and violence are often more important than a sense of racial superiority. The targets of their violence are men who are deemed less masculine than themselves. Jimmy’s behavior in the film represents a conformation of the analysis from these researchers. The defensive position of the skinheads—whether gay or straight—frequently rests on the choice to prove masculinity through violence.
In the film, the struggle to reconcile his alliances and desires ends in violent failure for Jimmy. After a confrontation with his brother, Patrick goes to party leader Michael’s home in order to reveal what he knows about his brother’s sexual conduct (01:17:55–01:18:12). Patrick’s actions set the stage for the punishment that follows. Once he learns about the conduct of Jimmy and Lars, Michael summons the members to a meeting at which he delivers a coded speech and then announces that he has a surprise for Jimmy and Lars. Unbeknownst to the two lovers, they are driven to a water tower on the town’s outskirts where Lars is to be bashed (01:22:40–01:23:43).
The results of Patrick’s confessional act are moments of ultimatum, gay-bashing, and an un-coming out where identity is instantaneously refused, rejected, and accepted through acts of violence. Jimmy is forced—through the violence of Michael’s ultimatum—to make an impossible choice. He is told to either renounce being gay or neo-Nazism. Jimmy is seen to undo his avoidance of his own coming-out story when he is instructed to physically attack his lover in a ritual that Michael carefully orchestrates. Within this scene, Jimmy’s relationships and alliances to Michael, his fellow neo-Nazis, and his lover are governed by shame and betrayal. Sedgwick (2003) highlighted the destructive role that shame and anger can play when she underscores “the double movement shame makes: toward painful individuation, toward uncontrollable relationality” (p. 37). Michael’s ritual forces Jimmy into an unwanted spotlight. Jimmy’s painful individuation as the “outed” homosexual within the gang is accompanied by the total destruction of his relationships with all those present in the scene. At this point in the film, the audience is forced to watch the ways in which a ritual, an ultimatum, and an un-coming out are enacted.
During the bashing scene, in his capacity as the high priest of this ritualistic sacrifice, Michael gives Jimmy a final choice which turns out to be no choice at all. He reveals that he knows everything when he says to Jimmy, “You can’t have it all, so you have to choose. It either ends here for the both of you or else you show Lars what we do with fucking faggots like him” (01:24:42–01:24:59). Michael’s sense of betrayal at the sexual behavior of the lovers results in a statement that must be read as an implied death threat. Even if Jimmy accepted Michael’s offer and were to kill Lars, Jimmy’s homosexual desires would still be present. The audience can speculate that if Jimmy chose to engage in such deadly violence, the act would not achieve the desired result. The other members of the gang recognize Jimmy’s actions as part of an un-coming out and a poisonous suspicion of their comrade remains intact. Jimmy chooses to attack his lover (01:25:15). However, he proves unable to complete the task and sinks to the ground in order to comfort the wounded Lars (01:28:18–01:28:21). His actions represent another part of how the un-coming out drama is made visible. In effect, Jimmy goes on to adopt the very homosexual identity that he initially rejected. The other gang members, including Patrick, exit the scene having been able to “out,” categorize, discipline, and expel both Jimmy and Lars.
Jimmy’s struggles to choose, or privilege, being a neo-Nazi over his sexual relationship with another man and the effort to guard that secret end in violent failure. At the end, as Jimmy and Lars try to escape into the night, the gay man whom Jimmy beat up in the opening scene emerges from the darkness to stab Jimmy in the stomach (01:29:22–01:29:44). Within the storyline, Jimmy has neither directly comes out nor has he asserted a homosexual identity. However, the audience observes that he now classifies himself, just as the neo-Nazis classify him, as a homosexual. By the same token, he can no longer remain a neo-Nazi. He betrays his love and his political cause. One of the most generous interpretations of the film is that it shows the audience that all positions are untenable because Jimmy loses everything, and is gravely wounded, even when he is forced to make a choice.
Uit: Queer Realities in North Sea Texas
The LGBTQ+ characters in Flemish audiovisual culture embody many aspects of the normative. These characters have been a presence in Flemish television and film since the 1990s, but are often presented exclusively within banal contexts where storylines privilege those who are almost indiscernible from their straight counterparts (Vanlee, 2019). Flemish filmmaker Bavo Defurne pushes back against that static reality in North Sea Texas.4 In the film’s final scene, a moment of coming out that both takes place and does not happen is made visible to the audience. The film broadens the presentation of queer realities to include an unconventional approach to coming out, LGBTQ+ identity, as well as Flemish cultural and linguistic identity.
The conflicts surrounding both queer identity and coming out are demonstrably visible within Belgian film and television production. The visibility of LGBTQ+ characters, storylines, and themes is directly influenced by the social and culture context of LGBTQ+ life in the Flemish region of Belgium. Belgium is perceived globally as a leader in equality rights and recognition for those who identify as LGBTQ+. The country adopted same-sex marriage in 2003 and, since 2007, Belgians may legally change their gender. As Flemish sociologists Saskia Aerts et al. (2012) noted, “research also shows quite positive attitudes among the Flemish population toward LGBs and LGB rights, especially compared with the attitudes in most other European countries (p. 91). Nevertheless, the acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities into the mainstream of Belgian life does not necessarily mean complete societal tolerance. Flemish psychology researchers Alexis DeWaele et al. (2014) described a societal climate in Flanders that is premised on: “attitudes that can be characterized as superficially tolerant; that is, attitudes are positive as long as homosexuality or bisexuality does not become too visible” (p. 312). Despite legal progress for rights and legal recognition, acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community in Flanders is structured by the pressure on the various elements of the community to conform to normative values.
The mixture of homonormative acceptance and normative values are represented by many of the LGBTQ+ characters who appear on Flemish television and their storylines. Vanlee (2019) posit that Flemish television production privileges “gay and lesbian characters conforming to traditional gender scripts or heterosexual cultural institutions like marriage or procreation” (p. 521). In this way, the queer characters take on the mantle of the homonormative, in that they rarely deviate from what Jasbir Puar (2007) called the “disciplinary queer (liberal, homonormative, diasporic) subject” (p. xxvii). The omnipresent obedience to a neoliberal and homonormative approach to queer realities is at the heart of Vanlee’s contention that the “presence of LGBT+ characters in Flemish fiction series borders on banal. But, banality in this context appears synonymous to homogeneity” (p. 522). In Flemish television, LGBTQ+ characters appear on screen, so long as they embrace the norms of gender, race, and sexuality itself. The combination of acceptance, visibility, and the pressure for an adherence to normative values is visible in the television series, Thuis, where a queer character is part of the ongoing narrative and that character abides by conventional normative expectations about Trans* identity. Vanlee et al. (2020) made it clear that the presence of the trans-character Kat is conditional on their compliance with broader Flemish expectations that trans people will, “complete physical and performative transition from one binary constructed gender to its counterpart” (p. 109). The juxtaposition of realities in Flemish television narratives is made clear by this example. The diversity of the LGBTQ+ community can be represented in audiovisual storylines, only so long as normative expectations are reinforced. Vanlee et al. (2020) concluded that “rather, non-heterosexual and—more recently—non-cisgender characters are inconspicuously introduced in stories that revolve around less overtly identitarian arcs” (p. 112). Flemish audiovisual culture has incorporated queer realities and has been doing so for nearly a generation. However, the boundaries of inclusivity have not been expanded and Flemish audiences are presented with static and normative LGBTQ+ characters.
The film’s protagonists openly adapt gender roles and binary notions of sexuality. For instance, Pim, one of the youthful protagonists is portrayed as a queer figure in the film’s first scenes. During a childhood flashback, the audience witnesses the pre-adolescent Pim as he sneaks into his mother’s room to adorn himself with a tiara and other trappings from her period as a beauty pageant contestant (00:03:04–00:06:05). Eventually, Pim is interrupted by his mother, Yvette, and she expresses little reaction to her son’s behavior.
As Pim grows up, he lives in a world built around a longing for his neighbor, a swarthy young man in his late teens named Gino. The film focuses on Pim’s story during his mid-teenage years in a suburban town along the West Flemish coast. In the first part of the narrative, the audience watches as Pim’s friendship with Gino deepens into a sexual relationship; neither character expresses any sense of self-hatred or internalized homophobia. The audience witnesses two characters who exhibit affection for each other, engage in sexual relations, but who never show any desire to perform a conventional coming-out act or adopt gay identities. After an extensive period where Pim and Gino hang out together and regularly have sex, Gino breaks off their relationship in order to begin anew with a teenage French girl who never appears on screen. At the end of the film, Pim and Gino rekindle their sexual and romantic relationship.
What makes Defurne’s film queer is that it creates a new space for otherness that is situated between the extremes of banality and the celebration of marginality. The director resisted efforts to cast the film as exclusively Flemish through his choice to use Algemeen Nederlands (standard Dutch) for the dialogue. His choice was a deliberate effort to both broaden the film’s appeal and to avoid the creation of a distraction with local Flemish dialects. Nevertheless, the use of standard Dutch aided in the film’s nostalgic tone (Hartford, 2017, p. 240). The language choice further queered the film because it helped to universalize a narrative based in Flanders that could not be overtaken by the charged political, cultural, and linguistic realities of the region. To address that choice, researcher Jason Hartford (2017) illustrated how “the film resists identity categorization, with explicit identity markers missing or suppressed even as the setting and topics are clearly identifiable. In short, it queers Belgianness” (p. 241). In the film, Flemish and gay identities are both invisible and omnipresent as the narrative resists easy modes of classification.
The film addresses the reality of coming out in much the same way that it manages the linguistic and cultural realities of Flanders: It charts a new course. There is no clear-cut moment of coming out or gay identity adoption because Pim and Gino do not hide in plain sight, their stories are not banal, and there is no reversion to normative discourses about gay identity adoption. Neither Pim nor Gino ever enact a conventional coming-out moment within the film’s narrative. That absence enables the audience to witness how the act can lose its privileged status as the essential, singular, and heroic undertaking that is necessary to become gay.
During the film’s final moments, Pim and Gino acknowledge their shared sexual experiences and continuing desires. However, the acknowledgment and mutual recognition does not metamorphose into a time for normative and declarative statements about sexual identity. At the film’s end, Pim is shown to be living entirely at Gino’s family home. Pim’s choice of where to live is influenced by several factors. By the end of the narrative, his mother has fled for a romantic life on the road with a gypsy carny (01:12:46). After Yvette’s departure, Gino’s mother Marcella insists that Pim move in with her family (01:13:20–01:14:51). Marcella’s support also includes a final act of acknowledgement—just before she dies—of the love and affection she believes that Pim and Gino share (01:21:28). The two young men decline the offer of recognition and postpone any definitive narrative action (01:21:32–01:21:36).
The two young men demonstrate for the audience that different forms of performative actions can take place on screen about sexuality and identity adoption. Periperformative actions and statements evade the moment of normative consensus. In the storyline, the care, longing, and affection that Pim offers to Gino creates multiple opportunities for acts of interpretation by the audience. This final scene offers moments of variation that do not rely on an “assumption of consensus” (Poletti, 2016, p. 362) from the audience. The audience’s expectations of a normative romantic conclusion that would result in either Pim or Gino saying that they are gay or adopting a gay identity are pushed aside. As a result, the audience’s struggle to interpret and understand what is taking place also ensures that these moments in the storyline are invested with periperformative aspects that help illustrate how change, control, and adaptation can function. Sedgwick (1994) defined the power of periperformative statements when she highlighted how “they dramatize . . . the pathos of uncertain agency, rather than occluding it as the explicit performative almost must” (p. 76). The power of the periperformative thus lies in the fact that it creates options where various discourse acts remain in tension because no options are precluded, either for the characters or the audience. The periperformative helps to illuminate this film’s final scene because the audience serves as a witness to actions on screen that do not showcase direct declarations of love, or identity adoption, or even coming out, but a bundle of actions and statements that surround such concepts without any options having been excluded.
The final scene begins with Gino’s arrival during a heavy rainstorm. The two young men renew their sexual relationship through the creation of a new ritual: The exchange of a semen-soaked handkerchief. As the scene opens, Pim offers a generic act of hospitality to Gino that serves as a prelude to an intimate demonstration of his continuing attachment. In this scene, the actions and sparse conversation that take place are always an allusion to what is not directly said or declared. As such, this scene demonstrates the ways in which the two protagonists rekindle their friendship and sexual relationship through a series of periperformative moments that require close reading and analysis.
During the first part of this scene, Pim plays the role of a homemaker and caregiver. When Pim hands his lover a towel and a beer, he is not merely engaged in a banal act of assistance; his actions represent his own way of expressing his continuing love for Gino. What both Pim and Gino say to each other always indirectly alludes to what the audience perceives to be their feelings for one another. Despite the clarity of the actions on screen, there are no clear or normative clues about the meaning of what has just been depicted.
In the second part of the scene, Gino responds to Pim through the creation of a new ritual. He does so when he tucks the soiled handkerchief that Pim preserved as a memento of the first time that he and Gino engaged in mutual masturbation (00:13:30–00:14:56) back into Pim’s hands (01:29:16–01:29:22). In a moment that can be read as an implied acknowledgement of both his own homosexual desires, and those of Pim, Gino says, “Tie a knot in it, so you won’t forget me.” This child-like ritual can also be understood as a way in which the two “tie the knot” and get married. The audience witnesses how the handkerchief is transformed into a keepsake connoting the desire that the two young men share. In response to Gino’s comment, the audience sees the two young men begin intense kissing and foreplay. Through his words, Gino has offered Pim a form of periperformative acknowledgement that elides a simple validation and recognition of their shared sexual experiences.
The dry, sperm-laden handkerchief that passes from hand to hand is not only the physical manifestation of a memory but also a piece of evidence of their shared desire. The cloth, and the actions performed with it, represents something that is not easily acknowledged. As cultural analyst Murat Aydemir (2007) pointed out, “ejaculation forges narrative” (p. xix). Aydemir (2007) went on to argue that ejaculation must be seen “as an irreducible happening, bringing about change and consequence, it forces narrators, focalizers, and characters to come up with accounts of what is about to happen, what is happening, and what has happened” (p. xix). The handkerchief is evidence of a narrative and a relationship that combines elements of rehearsal and adaptation. The audience may cast a judgment that the object is obscene and should be hidden. What is received is an “in your face,” and almost pornographic, admission of an “irreducible happening,” the first time the boys ejaculated together. Their rekindled relationship demonstrates how the effects of that first event require an ongoing accounting of the past, present, and future. The passing of the handkerchief from hand to hand also reveals a moment of “change and consequence” about how desire can be expressed as a souvenir of futures to come.
However, Pim problematizes the moment of passion. In the final seconds of the film, while the two lovers are engaged in oral foreplay, Pim says, “Stay” (01:29:47). The statement has multiple interpretations. It is both a question and a demand. The fluctuating nature of the relationship between Pim and Gino is never resolved for the audience. The moment of periperformative acknowledgement is structured around the ways in which the lovers seek and receive recognition from each other. In the film’s final scene, Gino acknowledges their shared carnal desire without a coming-out moment or the adoption of a gay identity. The words they share before they engage in sexual relations constitute an ambiguous act of recognition that both validates the homosexual desires of each young man and omits any possible normative conclusion.
The relaxed logic and apparent stability of the words “coming out” become unstable through points of contrast, such as the ideas of presence and loss; knowing and not knowing; and even desire and its absence. These contrasts form the background of the ways in which coming out is scripted in audiovisual media. Coming-out scripts can revolve around the revelation of a deeply held secret and the ongoing rehearsal of information that is always, already known. Coming out also straddles moments of revelation and the never-ending repetition of memories and facts. Most importantly, the act of coming out is forever engaged in a struggle regarding questions of political ambivalence, visibility, and identity.
The films that have been analyzed in this article offer alternatives to a normative coming-out script. Beautiful Thing weaves together the coming-out narrative and a gay youth love story. The acceptance that Sandra offers to Jamie and Ste authors a coming-out storyline that is the background to a sexual identity that is neither rejected nor heroically assumed. In Summer Storm, coming out comprises a script where secrets are revealed that everyone already knows. When Tobi enacts his own coming-out moments, they are structured around the fact that the secret is already out. The continual acts of revelation are part of a process that is propelled both by himself and the other teenage athletes. In Brotherhood, coming out is depicted by the ways in which identities are instantaneously accepted and rejected within a neo-Nazi subculture. Jimmy’s un-coming out illustrates how he rapidly and violently vacillates between a refusal and acknowledgement of his sexual attraction to men. The end result is that all options lead to betrayal and failure. In North Sea Texas, the script of coming out is reimagined and reworked by two characters, Pim and Gino, who decline any opportunity to clarify their identities. The film contains a narrative where the principal protagonists present an ambivalence about coming out that is exhibited by the ways in which their actions allude to, but never fully address, their shared love and sexual identity. The presence of these characteristics within each narrative emphasizes the reiterative nature of the act and enables the audience to witness how coming out is both indispensable and how the act is forever opaque.
The desire for queer audiences to find visual narratives about coming out that reflect and resonate with their lives is one of the reasons that this particular genre remains adaptable. Film theorist Janet Harbord (2002) discussed the importance of the background that individuals bring to the films they view when she wrote: “We bring to film, and what brings us to film, is our own individual histories . . . our broader positioning of dispositions more generally, lead us to the social comfort and ease of certain texts and locations and the rejection of others” (p. 2).
The stories of coming out in audiovisual media present both a comfort and challenge to the audience. Harbord (2002) went on to note that the interplay of representation and language in film is a flexible field of discourse. To that end, she highlights how “filmic representation is precisely re-presentation, a fabrication, a replaying of stories, images and conventions; it is the replay of a language rather than a replay of the ‘real’” (Harbord, 2002, p. 128). Her faith in the power of engagement with filmic language and narrative is also a belief that these devices create spaces for ruptures and new performances. These flexible ways, in which to enact identification, are central to reiterative coming-out narratives in film. The normative representation of coming out, such as that which is presented in Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, have attempted to reinforce a “replay of the real” based on a set of normative conventions and expectations about how coming out is supposed to look and operate. Beautiful Thing, Summer Storm, Brotherhood, and North Sea Texas offer their audiences narratives that deviate from the normative and where stories of gay identity are rehearsed, replayed, and then reconstructed.
It would be absurd to claim that the films discussed in this analysis represent an exclusive and encyclopaedic list that contains the perfected models of the coming-out script in audiovisual media. The point of this research is not to try and fine-tune the genre, but to illustrate how a diverse agglomeration of stories, storytelling, moments of revelation, and instances when nothing is revealed work both with and against each other. The narratives discussed are not representative of a singular or unified genre, but instead form a symptomatic collection of coming-out scripts. Therefore, each makes the creation of a broader model impossible. Because of that impossibility, these narratives are available to help develop a more plural understanding of coming out as an act that is endlessly repeated but is adapted and changed each time it occurs or does not. The analysis of these narratives offers new interpretive strategies about coming out. As objects, they represent a way forward and offer plural definitions of coming out where that which does not fit can be given a place, and to illustrate how adaptation is made a central theme.
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2. The film was released in 2004 and went on to win the 2004 Audience Award at the 2004 Munich Film Festival and Best Director award at the 2005 New Faces Awards in Germany. However, praise was limited for the film. Variety critic Dennis Harvey (2004) noted in his review that “the pic is visually undistinguished for the most part, with a TV-movie feel overall and lame use of freeze frames at fadeout. But the banality it skirts in general outline and presentation are compensated for by incisive scene-by-scene writing, perfs and direction” (n.p.).
4. The film won the 2011 FIPRESCI Award for a first film and the Silver Zenith at the 2011 Montreal World Film Festival. In 2011, it would also go on to win the Alice in the City Prize at the Rome Film Festival. Variety film critic Alissa Simon noted in her review that the film’s cast of relative newcomers provide the audience with: “emotionally truthful performances” (Simon, 2011).