Yesterday’s mail included two DVDs—the Diana Ross vehicle Mahogany and the campfest Valley of the Dolls. When Cubby came home, I waved them at him excitedly.
“What are those?” he asked.
“What are they?” I repeated. “Only two of the most glorious gay classics of all time.”
“I’ve never heard of them,” he said.
I gasped. I’d barely gotten over the shock of the previous night when, while watching an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race season three, he’d seen India Ferrah and Mimi Imfurst lip sync to Thelma Houston’s immortal “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and then announced that he’d never heard the song before.
“This is inexcusable,” I said. “How have you never heard of Valley of the Dolls?”
“When was it made?” he asked.
“1967,” I told him.
“That’s 21 years before I was born,” he said. “You weren’t even born yet.”
“Please,” I said huffily. “Only by a year. And when I was 13, I was watching All About Eve, and it was made years before I was born.”
“What’s All About Eve?” he said.
After I recovered from fainting, I explained to him about Bette Davis.
“I know who Bette Davis is,” he said. “That song about her eyes was really popular, right?”
Listen. I get it. A lot of pop culture things belong to their respective eras. But when it comes to gay pop culture, the rules are slightly different. We have our movies. Our songs. Our divas. I don’t care how old you are, Cher is your gay fairy godmother.
I really was watching Bette Davis movies when I was a kid. When a video rental store opened in our little town, the options were limited. But they had a large collection of classic films, and one day I brought home The Little Foxes. I had no clue who Bette Davis was, but watching her coldhearted Regina deliver lines like, “I hope you die! I hope you die soon! I’ll be waiting for you to die!” to her beleaguered husband, Horace, I somehow knew that she belonged to me in some way, or that I belonged to something to which she and her performance were inextricably entwined. I rented all the other films featuring her and fell in love.
Years later, when I graduated from college and finally moved to New York City, a friend took me to see a screening of All About Eve. I sat there in an audience of gay men and listened as we all recited line after line. I remember feeling first perplexed that other people knew the film as well as I did, then overjoyed as I realized that the connection I’d made with the film as a teenager was shared by other men like myself. It was our film. Bette Davis was our diva. We might share her with other people, but she belonged to us.
As I met more gay men, particularly ones older than myself, they introduced me to more films, more music, more books, more actresses and opera singers and artists. My boss—a showtunes-loving bear—told me which Broadway shows to see. The first man to take me home from a bar, after introducing me to some other things I’d never before experienced, put on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and explained the homoerotic subtext. Parties were an opportunity to hear famous lines bandied back and forth, and little by little I developed a knowledge of gay pop culture as it was shared with me by my queer brothers.
I don’t know if this happens in the same way anymore. Partly this is because there’s just so much more queer content available. When there wasn’t as much, we all had the same reference points. We quoted the same lines from the same movies because they were fabulous, but also because they were what we had at the time.
Also, of course, times change and new things come along. Where gays of my generation might quote “Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?” from The Boys in the Band when meeting or discussing a new acquaintance, today’s queens snap Mystique Summers’ “Bitch, I am from Chicago!” line from her fight with Morgan McMichaels on Drag Race at one another and laugh hysterically.
Still, there are some things that will never go out of style. Like Diana Ross’s unhinged photo session with Anthony Perkins in a speeding car in Mahogany. Or the women’s room catfight between Neely O’Hara and Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls. And these things we must pass on to the next generation of gay men.
“You’re going to make me watch those whether I want to or not, aren’t you?” Cubby said last night.
I snorted. “Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope, Cubby,” I said. “Now get out of my way, I’ve got a man waiting for me.” ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com