Culture / Life / Media

Queer-View Mirror: My Coming-Out Movie

There was only one film with queer content nominated for an Oscar last week—Dallas Buyers Club—but in honor of the upcoming Academy Awards, I’d like to talk about movies. Specifically, gay movies. Much more specifically, Coming-Out Movies.

For those of you younger than 25, a Coming-Out Movie is the film that, whether the queer content is out and proud or quietly subtextual, stirs something deep inside you, awakens a long-slumbering knowledge of yourself and makes you think, royally Hmmmm…is that me? Once you’ve seen it you’re never quite able to fit back into the closet you once found so cozy—although you watch the film a couple hundred more times just to be sure. In the symbolism of sci-fi thriller  The Matrix, the Coming Out Movie is the red pill: Once you take it, you can never go back.

1659468aI had two such movies. Frankly, being Orthodox Jewish, I needed more than one. The Color Purple was the first evidence I’d seen that same-sex attraction between women existed. The relationship between Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery (both nominated for Oscars that year) definitely made an impression. And I had a crush on Margaret Avery for a good long time. But it would take more than that chaste kiss between them to get me all the way out.

Desert Hearts did it. The year was 1987. I was a junior at the Tonya Soloveitchik Yeshiva University High School for Girls. In stark contrast to today’s smorgasbord of queer characters in films and TV series, there wasn’t a whole lot on the big or small screen to wake a girl up.  I would have known if there was. I spent every Friday night after Shabbat dinner devouring the TV Guide, mining the listings for any hint of girl-on-girl content. It was a mindless, obsessive exercise that never turned up anything—until one quiet Sabbath eve. I saw a listing for a film set in 1950s Reno about a 35-year-old uptight college professor who comes to town for a quickie divorce and gets more than she bargained for when she falls for a free-spirited casino worker 10 years her junior.

MV5BNTkxNDQ4MDA5OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDU4MjIyMQ@@._V1__SX640_SY720_That was all I knew. There were no photos and no World Wide Web where I could Google the title. No way to find out anything other than that one line written by some TV Guide intern. But I knew it was worth a look. I committed the broadcast time to memory—2:40am, I believe—and quickly read the VCR manual to teach myself how to set the timer to record. I then set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. so I could be sure to retrieve the tape before anyone was the wiser. I stashed it under the heaviest end of the sectional sofa figuring that even my perpetually vacuuming neat-freak of a mother, at 5’0 and 125 pounds, couldn’t possibly move the frame to get at it.

The next challenge was when and how to watch it. I wasn’t left to my own all that often and I certainly didn’t have a TV or VCR in my room. In those days, my mother arrived home from work about 10 or 15 minutes after I got off the bus from school. I had no choice but to work with what I had. So the very next day, I began watching Desert Hearts in 10-to-15-minute clips. It took me about a week to finish it. Talk about a slow build.

The movie has its flaws, which we’ll get to. (Most notably: the spontaneous, simultaneous climax may have set some unrealistic expectations for my first real-life encounter. Belated apologies to my First—you know who you are.) But to this day, I’m not sure there has been a film as direct, graphic and quiet in its revelations. Director Donna Deitsch didn’t hide behind any hand-held camera tricks or quick cuts or blaring music to convey the emotion of the scenes. It was just in your face.

During the scene of their first kiss, I remember sitting, quite literally, on the edge of the seat of our beige sectional, gripping the armrest with such intensity, I’m surprised my fingernails didn’t rip the fabric clear through to the stuffing. I don’t think I breathed at all during the sex scene, which may have been why I was so light-headed. Or, perhaps it was the overwhelm of a realization so intense that I could never go back to the world I inhabited before I saw it.

In preparation for this column, I decided to watch it again, through my 42-year-old, way-the-hell-out 2014 lens. Would it still seem as potent? As provocative? Would I still go weak in the knees when a naked-from-the-waist-up Cay tells a shell-shocked Vivian, “So take your hands out of your pockets and come here”?

For the answers to these and so much more, tune in to the next installment of “Queer-View Mirror,” when we’ll analyze one of LGBTQ America’s most iconic lesbian films with a modern queer eye—and ask the question: are Coming-Out Movies a thing of the past?

In the meantime, do share with us: if you had a Coming-Out Movie, what was it?



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  1. That Certain Summer — Martin Sheen, Robby Benson. Made for TV movie ABC Movie of the Week from about 1973.

  2. Some Like It Hot, at the Castro Theater. Not because of queer content, but because: Marilyn Monroe on a big screen.

  3. Tom, I can’t believe I didn’t know about that one! Robbie Benson in 1973 had to be HOT….

    Cheryl, great one. Sometimes it’s just about the beautiful woman on the big screen. It helps if she oozes sex.

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