“What if I’m not gay?”
This may not be the first line of James Sweeney’s feature film debut “Straight Up,” but it may as well be. Todd (Sweeney, debut) sits in a diner across from his friends, model Meg (Dana Drori, “Freaky”) and competent gay Ryder (James Scully, “You”), trying to convince them that he’s straight. In his current rationalization, Todd is only gay because everyone else deems him as such — he embodies the idea of “gay,” therefore he is. Desperate to not be alone, he believes that giving heterosexuality a shot will magically find him a partner, and it miraculously does in the form of aspiring actress Rory (Katie Findlay, “Man Seeking Woman”).
Let’s be clear — the relationship between Todd and Rory is about as cisgender-heterosexual (cishet) as I am, which is to say: not. On account of Todd’s intense hatred of bodily fluids and Rory’s past sexual trauma, sex plays no part in their connection; they instead have hours-long conversations about grammar and idioms, or they bond over dinner and a weekly documentary. If it weren’t for their deep emotional interdependency, you could almost mistake them as best friends who kiss sometimes. From the outside, it seems a bit Queer, but is there anything wrong with that?
Todd and Rory remind me of myself and my previous partners. In fact, it was with my most recent partner that I first watched the movie. Snuggled up together in my bed with the laptop resting above my waist, we viewed the film as a cishet couple. We laughed at Sweeney’s clever wordplay and slick jokes, we held our breath during the climactic break-up and we smiled sweetly at the neat and joyful resolution. In essence, we missed the entire point of the film.
Watching it now, one year of being single and a tangled mess of gender and sexuality, it’s impossible not to recognize that my relationship faced the same dilemmas. Long before I came out, the sexual pillar of our relationship was crumbling; whether it was the constant long-distance or our mental states is anybody’s guess. The time we spent together was experiential: We’d bake treats, cook meals, watch movies, finish one another’s sentences. I knew her idiosyncrasies and she knew mine — you could almost mistake us for best friends who kissed sometimes.
“What if I’m not who you think I am?”
I may have used more specific language — the comforting pigeonholes of bisexual and non-binary — but I may as well have said this when coming out. In my search for a comfortable identity, I had to manipulate how people viewed me, coerce a mental touch-up exposing them to things that were always visible even if no one had seen them before. After spending nearly three years together, I was asking my partner to change the definition of our relationship — my own burgeoning Queerness challenging her straightness. If she recognized me as non-binary, would that make her Queer? Did my attraction to men and gender non-conforming people undermine my love for her? We were moored on this strange middle ground, one hidden in between the cishet labeled lands we had previously known.
Todd and Rory face a similar dilemma throughout the movie, unsure of what labels to use when the societal norms of gay and straight constantly clash. Are they really a cishet couple if Todd won’t fulfill Rory’s sexual desires? Or are they simply playing house, pretending that they are in love out of some desperate need for connection? Everyone — Rory, Todd, Ryder, Meg, hell even Todd’s therapist — tries to answer these questions using existing terms and phrases. With each attempt, Sweeney shows that there is no singular answer, that the way we think about gender, sexuality and our relationships is woefully narrow.
Labels are lighthouses, shining beacons that guide people safely ashore from the brutal and mysterious seas of identity. But lighthouses can’t warn you about rocks that pepper the shoreline, and they cannot tell you the best place to dock and wait out a storm. They cannot promise that just because they helped you they can repeat the task for others, as ships sink all the time. The nuances are lost in order to signal to as many people as possible; it’s when you’re close to shore that you’re on your own yet again.
“Who am I?”
It’s a question I’ve asked countless times — it’s etched into my memory and scrawled throughout my journals. The safety I felt while basking in the labels’ light has long since faded, and I feel the deck shifting beneath my feet as I struggle to find an answer. No longer fitting neatly into existing boxes, I uncover different possible solutions daily: pierce my ears, paint my nails, be open to falling for anyone yet somehow fall for no one. Even if they feel partially correct, how I feel one day might contradict how I felt on another, stranding me in an endless cycle of dysphoric confusion.
Wading through the unknown, it seems irresponsible to search for someone else; they cannot define themselves in relation to my diaphanous identity. It hardly feels fair to ask someone to care about me deeply, romantically, wholly when the whole is undefined. Living in the in-between, I know it’s better to be alone and find happiness from what I can control. To find self-fulfillment by defining my needs and desires long before asking someone else to. I know that I must be like Rory, who moves to Seattle to escape all the frustrations and redefine herself somewhere she actually sees a future. It’s the right thing to do.
“Baby, if you love me, won’t you please just give me a smile?”
Watching “Straight Up” pulled me out of my work and woes and reminded me that at the core of everything, I am lonely. That I miss the inside jokes and constant hugs, the smell of someone you love clinging to a sweatshirt you do not dare to wash. The sound of a groggy “good morning” and the subsequent squeeze because words simply cannot accurately capture the joy and love you feel in the moment. You don’t realize how much you miss hearing someone say your name until the last time has already passed. You don’t know when the smiles will stop coming.
I desperately want to hear that again — an “I love you.” Maybe from some Todd who has tracked me down and surprises me as I leave work with a flash mob and impassioned speech that leads into a proposal and declaration of love. Some Todd who declares the labels and norms stupid because we are simply too perfect together to care about such things. Some Todd who knows me well enough to scare away the fears and show me that the impossible has always been possible, but only when we are together.
And that relationship will be real, a collection of all the various in-betweens that cishet normalcy leaves undefined, glued together to form a stained glass window. Something shattered and broken; something beautiful and whole, the sum far greater than any individual part.
At the end of “Straight Up,” Sweeney — like life itself — doesn’t provide answers. Todd and Rory are together, sure, but are they friends? Lovers? And there’s a third person there, someone who sits intimately between Todd and Rory while they play Bananagrams. An undercurrent of unspoken connection drives you wild because you want to categorize what you are seeing, you want to know what to call this thing Todd and Rory are in. But why would anyone want to label something that’s clearly working well enough without one? What’s so Queer about that?
Senior Arts Editor M. Deitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.