The Honeymoon is Over
In addition to writing about pop culture here at Letters, I also co-host a podcast that looks back at old movies. Mostly, this is because, well…I love old movies. But the real reason for The Rewind Project is to talk about what it’s like watching some of these old movies today. Sometimes we’re surprised by how well a movie has held up. Other times, the world has changed a lot since a movie premiered, and it just didn’t age well.
Recently, my co-hosts and I gave another look to the 1997 comedy In & Out, a zany story about a closeted (even to himself) high school English teacher who is forced to reckon with his homosexuality both internally and externally when he’s outed by a former student who is now a famous movie star.
To find out how we all experienced the film a quarter century later, you’ll have to listen to the show, but the reason I bring this up in my column is this: when I sat down to rewatch In & Out after 25 years, my main thought was, “Wow…I can’t believe this was 25 years ago, it just doesn’t seem that long ago.” But, when I was about halfway through the movie, I was having the opposite feeling. It was something like, “Wow…this feels about a million years old.”
After the movie was over, time was beginning to feel a little meaningless. So, I opened a web browser to figure out just how long 25 years ago really was. I was reminded that nationwide marriage equality has only been a reality for seven years. When In & Out was released in 1997, the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was one year old, and Massachusetts making history as the first state to recognize same-sex marriage was still seven years away.
Further research revealed that 1997 was also the year that Ellen DeGeneres made the cover of TIME magazine when both she and her sitcom character finally came out as gay. At the time, everyone wondered if her career would soon be over, and the quick demise of her show would soon seem to prove it would be, indeed. (Her wildly successful daytime talk show wouldn’t premiere until 2003.)
With this in mind, some of the plot points in In & Out that had seemed so antiquated began to make sense. For instance, upon confirming his sexuality in a very public (and extremely cringeworthy) way, our protagonist is fired from his job at the local high school. That the firing took place at all looked odd, and that everyone just blithely accepted it (initially, at least) seemed downright Neanderthal.
But when I googled that bit of information, I was shocked to discover that sexual orientation and gender identity have only been recognized as protected classes under Title VII for two years. The Supreme Court cases that formally codified these protections happened in 2020.
It suddenly became very clear to me just how comfortable equality under the law can be—so incredibly cozy, in fact, that it’s easy to take it for granted. All things considered, it’s been a pretty good quarter century for us queer folks. Of course, hate crimes against trans women (especially trans women of color) are sobering, and individual tragedies like the Pulse massacre in Orlando signal the ongoing need for progress. I was both amazed and a little disturbed by just how complacent I was apparently feeling.
And if enough people feel as smugly snug as I, this might be a significant weakness in the years ahead. Our federal rights to employment nondiscrimination and marriage equality are still intact, but the political winds have shifted considerably since the nation elected a failed reality television host with authoritarian leanings to its highest office in 2016, and we are only now feeling the full effects.
Despite voting him out in 2020, Donald Trump appointed three arch-conservative justices to the Supreme Court in his single term, and Mitch McConnell’s Senate placed more than 200 judges on the federal bench in the same period. Roe v. Wade is sure to be overturned in the near future, and hateful bills like “Don’t Say Gay” in Florida and a law targeting supportive parents of transgender kids in Texas are being passed at the state level.
After many hard-won successes in our fight for equality, the honeymoon period has been nice. But if it’s not officially over, let’s just say the bags are packed and the bridal suite is about to be vacated. The year 1997 might feel like a million years ago, but perhaps it was just the blink of an eye, and there’s still a lot of work left to do. ▼
Eric Peterson is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) educator; co-host of The Rewind Project, a new podcast about old movies; and is the author of a new novel, Loyalty, Love & Vermouth.