The sanitizing of queer icons

During the fight for gay rights, there has been a push to intergrade gay culture into the mainstream to foster acceptance of queer people. This strategy has been a success overall: not only has it shone light onto the humanity of a deeply stigmatised group, but also has allowed the general public to celebrate aspects of the queer experience which were previously hidden or condemned. This increased awareness of LGBT life has undeniably been pivotal to the attainment of various democratic rights, including marriage equality and gender recognition. The intention of this article is not to condemn the widespread celebration of gay culture has received in recent years, for this recognition has led to respect in the minds of many non-LGBT folks. 

However, for LGBT individuals themselves, the widespread revelry in the enjoyable parts of gay life can detract from the understanding queer spaces used to provide. With many gay bars closing at an increased rate, the argument has been made that the achievement of equality has decreased the need for LGBT focused places. However, this does not account for the understanding and guidance that these locations provide. As a confused kid trying to figure yourself out, sometimes all you need is a community who has stood where you’re standing, who can support you when you fall. A consequence of opening up such spaces to everyone is that this comprehensive empathy no longer exists in its previous home. The people around you have not been through your troubles; they simply enjoy the fun to be found in gay culture.  

The idea that liberation must be achieved through celebration can result in queer struggles being underplayed or ignored in the media. This notion has been dubbed the sanitization of gay life in recent discourse, and can be seen by examining how infamous queer icons are portrayed for straight audiences. The musical biopic of Freddie Mercury entitled ‘Bohemian Rhapsody received a lot of criticism from LGBT viewers about its portrayal of the protagonist’s bisexuality and struggle with HIV. A press interview conducted with the leading actor Rami Malek summarizes the problem: When asked if Mercury was a gay icon, Malek replied that ‘If he’s an icon, there’s no reason that it requires another adjective’, as Freddie ‘never wanted or thought of himself as being boxed into anything.’ This reluctance to acknowledge the importance of Mercury’s queer experiences and the influence they had on the legacy of Queen is seen throughout the film, and has been attributed to the need to keep the film rated PG-13. The problem with this can be seen by examining the biopic of another queer man, Elton John. When asked whether ‘Rocketman’ could ‘tone down the sex and drugs’, he replied that he ‘hadn’t led a PG-13 life’. Arguably, neither did Mercury. His bisexuality and HIV status are arguably central to the tale of Queen, yet they are not authentically central in the story of Bohemian Rapsody. In order to present Freddie as an icon, his status as a gay icon had to be toned down for the film to be palatable to general audiences.  

For this film, the queer experience needed to be commercially successful, and subsequently had to be sanitized for mass consumption. Putting aside the ethical implications of sanitizing a real-life historical figure (because that is another debate entirely), what is the answer to this byproduct of integrating gay culture into the general consciousness? Are the experiences of queer people going to be forever sanitized to increase relatability?  

To me, the solution lies in the creation of more LGBT stories. We simply need more queer representation in the media, so that the sanitized versions would not be the only examples we have. The depiction of gay stories has undeniably increased the acceptance of the community; I hope that they continue to do so. However, instead of hoping to appeal to those whose only contact with the LGBT world is through their television screen, it is also time that more queer movies start being made with queer audiences in mind. 

Featured Image: ceinwen21 on Flickr with Licence

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