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Millennium Passes: Spider-Queers, Angels & AIDS, Oh My!

On Andrew Garfield, Queer baiting and the stark realities of living with HIV/AIDS

By: F. Daniel Kent

If I may borrow a phrase, “Everyone wants to be Queer until it’s time to be Queer.”

Queer baiting is nothing new. In fact, it’s become almost rote in an age when so many straight performers are eager to play gay while maximizing their bank off the Queer community by playing coy games about where they fall on the Kinsey Scale. There truly is no shortage of fauxmosexuals in any given genre of entertainment especially in the realm of acting. The list of straight performers both male and female eager to flirt with the idea of their potential heteroflexibility – as if being Queer is an outfit one tries on and discards once it’s served its purpose – could fill dozens of pages alone.

One of the latest additions to this ever-expanding multitude is Sony Pictures Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew “I kissed a dude at the Golden Globes for attention” Garfield. The popular British actor is currently raking in a veritable mountain of glowing reviews for his portrayal of the tragically iconic protagonist of American playwright Tony Kushner’s epic two part play Angels In America (Millennium Approaches & Perastroika, respectively) for its current National Theatre London revival.

Garfield plays Prior Walter – a Reagan era gay man who’s contracted AIDS and is quickly abandoned by his lover Louis Ironson. Soon after, a heavenly book names him as an earthbound prophet to mankind. He then falls into a downward spiral of self-loathing fueled despair and is eventually visited by an agitated angel who crashes through the roof of his hospital room and chastises him for not being the prophet against humanity’s progress and change he’s preordained to be.

In the second half of the play, Walter wrestles with and defeats the angel – echoing the Biblical story of Jacob in the Old Testament book of Genesis – thus, allowing him to ascend a ladder to heaven. After reading all the angels of heaven for filth, Walter forces them to reclaim the book of prophecy, finally convincing heaven of humanity’s inability to cease progression even to their detriment. Awakening back in the hospital, Walter rejects an attempt by Louis to reconcile their relationship.

 

No longer a victim of circumstance, abandonment or heavenly conspiracy, he ceases feeling sorry for himself and refuses to run from his troubles any longer, fully accepting his future living with AIDS is bleak, uncertain and will be – to say the least – a great challenge. But his determination to move forward, to progress alongside all of humanity wading waist deep through the miasma of life, carries him through.

By the end of the play, viewers are left to determine Prior Walter’s ultimate fate for themselves. But the message is clear: No matter what comes, who leaves your side, or how bad it gets; no matter if heaven itself stands against you – never be silent. Never give up. The wheel turns and we all turn with it. It’s an important and potentially life changing message, especially to those under the grim shadow of living with or caring for someone with HIV/AIDS.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with straight actors playing Queer roles just as many Queer actors often play straight roles on stage and screen. Over the past two plus decades there have been a number of straight actors who’ve portrayed Queer characters with deft nuance and aplomb. Indeed, Eric McCormick in arguably one of the most visible Queer roles of our time as the titular gay man Will Truman in Will & Grace proved straight actors can “get it”. Whatever one’s opinions on the show’s (many) issues, it must be conceded McCormick and his zany costars brought prominent, relatable Queer characters into living rooms on a weekly basis for eight years. In context of the cultural attitudes towards Queers of the time, that was no mean feat.

The real problem for many Queer audience members is when these same ostensibly straight actors try cynical leveraging of their sex appeal to Queer audiences in hopes of titillating them to buy into their varied and sundry projects. However, it could be argued one can hardly blame someone whose job is filling the seats, selling the product and playing the part for flaunting what they’ve got in order to do so.

Most in the mainstream Queer community would identify Andrew Garfield as a staunch ally. His history of deference to the community includes suggesting his character Spider-Man be allowed to explore his sexuality by dating a guy in Amazing Spider-Man 2. He further suggested actor Michael B. Jordan
(Fruitvale Station) be cast as his love interest adding, “It’d be even better. We’d have interracial bisexuality!”

This and other instances of Garfield’s support for Queer visibility were a large part of the reason many were rendered slack-jawed at his seemingly vacuous response when, during a recent panel discussion on Angels in America, an audience member asked, “I read… you’ve been locked into this process for a year. What sort of resources did you have in terms of…research, or did it all just come during rehearsals?”

“As far as I know, I am not a gay man,” Garfield began, clearly playing to the idea he might be bisexual. “Maybe I’ll have an awakening later in my life, which I’m sure will be wonderful and I’ll get to explore that part of the garden, but right now I’m secluded to my area, which is wonderful as well. I adore it, but a big concern was what right do I have to play this wonderful gay role? I had to trust that it was the right thing and Tony [Kushner] had asked me and maybe if he’d asked me, it was the right thing. It was about doing honor, doing justice and knowing my herstory.”

Still nothing too egregious, right? Read on.

“The preparation had begun before rehearsals with a lot of my friends,” he continued.” The play is as much devoted to my friends in the gay community as it is those that passed during the epidemic.”

And this, gentle reader, is where Garfield “jumped the shark”- as it were – in the eyes of many as he went on to explain how watching a certain popular reality show led him to find his character: “I mean every single series of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I mean every series. My only time off during rehearsals – every Sunday I would have eight friends over and we would just watch Ru. This is my life outside of this play. I am a gay man right now just without the physical act – that’s all.”

At that moment one could almost hear a fuchsia robed Jedi Knight pausing to exclaim, “I feel a disturbance in the force as if millions of angry homosexuals were furiously typing out 140 characters of shade and a sexy former super-hero was suddenly silenced.”

Twitter exploded with posts decrying Garfield and what may have been meant simply as a joke to lighten the mood of a conversation revolving around a play with very dark, very deep subject matter. Unfortunately, a lot of people weren’t laughing. What they heard wasn’t a joke, rather a minimizing declaration all it took to be gay was watching drag queens lip synch, spill tea and toss shade – all while looking fierce and fabulous. All these people could think was, “Andrew Garfield, sashay away”. There was no way he was going to lip synch for his life out of this one.

Predictably, many others jumped to Garfield’s defense decrying the offended as “oversensitive” and “looking for something to be offended by”. Over and over the phrase, “Get over it” resounded in response to negative comments about Garfield’s perceived tone deaf oversimplification insisting this was no more than a tempest in a teapot.

Was Garfield insensitive to Queers with his remarks or was it just a cute joke blown way out of proportion? That will have to be left for the reader to decide. There’s a larger point to be made amidst the cacophony of back and forth between supporters and detractors which both sides – and it seems Garfield himself – have failed to consider in their fervor.

By every account, Garfield took this role very seriously. He approached it with pious trepidation even questioning if he had any right to play the part. It seemed clear he was aware of the gravity the role carried, of how important the message of the play was, not only to the average person in the audience. Also, to those who live with the daily nightmare of HIV/AIDS. Given the chance to dig deep and explain how truly serious this all was to him, how important this message of hope and determination is even in this modern time of drug cocktails and PrEP some 30 years from the darkness of the Reagan era in which it is set, Garfield chose instead to quip about binge watching a television show to learn how to be gay. He consciously chose to completely ignore the red ribbon covered elephant in the room.

His response to a question about playing a gay man with AIDS, no matter how well intended or playful, reached far beyond just the Queer community. The answer he gave effectively trivialized the struggle and loss of every person who ever died of AIDS and all those who loved them. By being glib, he failed every person currently living with the disease struggling not to be thought of as a leper and a pariah in the face of the stigma and guilt our society heaps upon them daily. His attempts at levity over gravity dismissed every young person terrified of getting tested for fear they may be infected and how drastically it could change their lives.

In order to play to his possible Queerness, Garfield excluded the very people the role for which he professes such earnest respect was meant to represent. In that moment of reality off the stage, outside of the screen, he was given the opportunity to be a sort of super-hero again, to give hope to the hopeless, to empower the disenfranchised, to right the wrong of ignorance with education. Instead of using that power for the good of others, he chose the easy path of least resistance and selfish gain. He chose a sound bite over edification.

In much the same way, every hastily typed digital assertion his words were an insult against Queers failed to account for those not necessarily in the community infected and affected by the disease, just as every insistent push back of “oversensitivity” and “get over it” further trampled on the worth of those already traumatized by their condition, those struggling to find a bright spot in a dark world which would just as soon not have to think about their existence .
Andrew Garfield’s remarks may well be considered thoughtless and deeply disappointing coming from a supposed ally. Indeed, more disappointing and thoughtless is the narcissistic attitude of the Queer community and our other allies who, in the fog of hubris on both sides of the argument, failed to even acknowledge those most relevant to the conversation while trying so desperately to be righteously indignant or, conversely, to keep their self-appointed idol atop the pedestal upon which they saw him crouched in blue and red web-covered spandex.

The tragic irony to be found here is during the time in which Angels in America is set, the Queer community were the staunchest advocates of support for those struggling with HIV/AIDS. Organizations like ACT UP and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence among others were instrumental in forcing the government to recognize and deal with the epidemic in real, concrete ways. Those early activists are the reason we have the effective treatments and education we enjoy today. While watching helplessly as an entire generation of Queers dropped like flies, the community cared for those dying at the hands of the epidemic. They leant support and encouragement to caregivers and pushed for education of those ignorant of the facts. They genuinely cared about the effects HIV/AIDS had on the community and the world beyond.

If this unfortunate incident is any indication, it seems that halcyon time has passed us by as the millennium has come and gone. Unlike the protagonist of Angels in America, we haven’t progressed at all. Instead, it seems we’ve become the living embodiment of the prophesy Prior Walter fought the very heavens against. We’ve grown arrogant, indifferent and stagnant in our newfound “recognition” by the world at large. HIV/AIDS has become the new “Don’t ask! Don’t tell!” As a result, we’ve become more like the terrified, egotistical Louis Ironson: interested more in our own selfish vanity while abandoning those in desperate need to fend for themselves.

The wheel still turns but our “proud” community seems buried, mired deeply into the tracks left behind.

The two parts of Angels in America will be broadcast live to select US cinemas one week apart: Part One on July 20, Part Two on July 27. Visit ntlive.com for more information.

Watch the trailer for the live show starring Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey below.

About the author: One fateful day, not-so-mild-mannered Queer entertainment reporter F. Daniel Kent was bitten by a strange radioactive printing press rocketed to Earth from a doomed planet. In order to save his life – and his blog – the writer’s managing editor performed an emergency blood transfusion replacing his blood with a mysterious magical ink formula which unexpectedly interaced with the deadly radiation and Kent’s own dormant mutant genetics. Gone was the reporter, now replaced with the crusading champion of Queer geekery fighting to educate a world which fears and hates him. He is the Four Color Queer! The Four Color Queer can be reached at Queertheair at gmail dot com.

You can also buy him a coffee at Ko-fi!

July 13, 2017
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