Madonna being dipped by a blonde dancer in a tux - Regan Patno

Queer Representation Matters

Watching the Oscars recently, I had one of those little flashbacks. Nothing mind-blowing just dropping into life circa 1985. This was before we had MTV but there was Nick Rocks on Saturdays when Nickelodeon aired videos. And Madonna’s Material Girl video captured my attention in multiple ways.

What made me think of this during the Oscars? Well I’m convinced that the Ryan Gosling performance of “I’m Just Ken” from the Barbie movie was emulating Material Girl and or Marilyn Monroe’s Diamond’s Are A Girls Best Friend. Both videos featured Madonna and Marilyn dolled up in pink dresses while men in formal wear chased them up and down a stage set filled with stairs.

I’m Just Ken!

I mean even down to the pink gloves this feels like an obvious riff on Madonna and Marilyn! And while I know Marilyn did it first I’m just going to share the Madonna video because this was from my adolescent years.

Oh The 80’s Of It All

Watching this video afterward reminded me of why I sometimes prefer to identify as queer over gay because it just stirred up some old if confusing memories. Madonna is gorgeous in this video, glamorous by any measure. And I remember thinking that when I was 13. But I also remember taking notice of the men in this video. I mean so clearly that I vividly remember it. The blonde dancer in particular I remember stirred some feelings that weren’t as clear then as they were later.

Madonna being dipped by a blonde dancer in a tux - Regan Patno

Yes, this guy in particular. And not just in the dancing portion of the video. He also appeared in an “off-stage” scene with Madonna.

A handsome blond man wearing an earring and the fingerless gloves. Why does this still cause a breathless moment all these years later? Excuse me while I melt… LOL

There’s a difference in those feelings that’s MUCH more clear now than it was way back then. I don’t remember ever looking at Madonna and more than appreciating her beauty. She was visually attractive, yes. But in retrospect not in the same heart-skipping-a-beat way. If it weren’t for compulsory heterosexuality I don’t think it would have been confusing at all. Life as I knew it revolved around heterosexual relationships and I had no notion there was anything else out there. I think if I had seen any positive representation of gay men I wouldn’t have ever questioned my feelings.

All aspects of my early life seemed to point in one direction. Maybe mine more than typical. I remember at a very early age being told that I was the last male Tisdale to carry on the name. This went back at least to my great grandfather. I don’t know if my parents realized how much I took that to heart. In the end I wasn’t the last but I still spent most of my young life with this feeling that I was obligated to eventually have children. Of course these days gay couples manage to have families in alternate ways but in my youth, a hetero relationship was implicitly implied in this. And even after I didn’t have the role as the last Tisdale I was an only child and I never doubted my mother at the very least wanted grandchildren. Because I always had this external push I’m not sure if I ever had any internal desire for children. I do vicariously enjoy watching others raise their little families. If I married a man with his own kids, or nephews/nieces, etc. that would be a neat experience but otherwise I’m honestly good.

The world we exist in shows us what’s possible whether you’re ten or forty years old. Growing up not only the media showed me what was possible but the people that existed around me modeled a heterocentric world. No one had two moms or two dads. There just weren’t people who represented any letter of the LGBTQIA+ openly existing in my world and what little media portrayal existed was pretty bleak.

A recent Not Going Quietly podcast episode reminded me that I was in my mid 30’s before I saw a gay couple walking down the street together holding hands. This was on a trip to London and it was just the most random but unforgettable thing for me. I mean at this point in my life I had friends who I knew were gay but I still hadn’t seen any public display of affection between men before. So there I was I think about 36 years old and for the first time seeing two men on the street hold hands and kiss briefly. It didn’t give me the courage I needed to immediately bust down my closet door but it was unquestionably part of my story. And to the point of the podcast the fact it was just casually out in the open was so important. It wasn’t something I had to seek out. It was there for anyone to see whether it was a 7 year old queer kid, a 40 year old closeted adult, or a homophobe of any age. Seeing casual moments of PDA like that is important for all of us including that out couple.

Living in a small rural town, moments of queer representation like that are still not commonplace in my every day real life experience. But I think that makes me all the more conscious of how important it is to see affectionate displays like that. And to be clear I’m talking about the same sort of small gestures you see straight people engage in all the time. I was never confident enough to go find the places where I would have seen this. I lived in Atlanta for a decade and part of that time right on the edge of Midtown. In the 90s at least I would have still needed to go out of my way and I was too inhibited to do that.

I still feel pangs of queer grief, sadness of what I missed out on growing up in a world that was very black and white on what was acceptable. Clearly others escaped from that box sooner but for me it was very long something that I couldn’t embrace even while having friends I loved who were part of the community. It goes back to a previous post I made about my anxiety and CPTSD. I lived so much of my adult life in survival mode. It didn’t matter what was going on in my life, I felt like I was constantly in “flight, fight, freeze, or fawn” mode. And for me personally, I specialize in freeze. If something sends my anxiety soaring, I freeze.

Exhibit A, on a trip with new friends to see Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers play a show years ago, a man in the car rental parking lot had a seizure. There were four of us in our group. One ran over to help the man. One called for help. And two of us were just frozen. I was one of the frozen people. I just watched this entire scene play out. The man had hit his head on the concrete. I don’t think the head wound was actually that bad but it seemed like there was blood everywhere and my brain just shut down. I’m aware that I do that in social situations as well. If I don’t know how to respond, my brain says see you later and leaves me mute! I’m more aware of it these days and a little more able to exit from that trauma response, but it’s still what my brain wants most to do. Fawn and fight are probably my least used trauma responses, but I have freeze and flight down to an art.

So I have a sort of understanding about why it’s taken me so long to build to where I am now. I have a huge appreciation for all of the tiny things along the way that finally got that boulder moving down the hillside. So just a note for future me and all the out queer people who might read this. You living openly may be the thing someone else needs to see. Maybe it will be the thing that little by little changes the mind of a homophobic person or maybe it will be the thing that shines light into the life of someone who for whatever reason isn’t able to live openly yet. For some of us it’s very hard to imagine something we don’t see represented around us. Although it wasn’t conscious, I don’t think it was an accident that I slowly ended up with a friend group that included many queer people unapologetically existing before I was ready to crack that door open for myself. I needed to visually see that first.

So often when we hear “representation matters” movies, TV shows and books are the only things we imagine. And portrayal in the media does absolutely matter. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that seeing people out in the world is the most affirming representation. Whether it’s holding hands on the street or sharing a photo of your date night on social media, you are also part of that representation. The more routinely we all see those little things the more it shifts the world.

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