Surprise – it could be a lot worse.
In a February 2002 commentary for her syndicated column “Lesbian Notions,” Paula Martinac recalls her angst at browsing through her local lesbian and gay lending library and finding that “right alongside Desert Hearts, Parting Glances, and other classic lesbian- and gay-themed movies, was The Boys of St. Vincent – a deeply disturbing film about the sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic brothers at a Canadian orphanage in the 1970s.”
Martinac is right to be angry. But she should not have been surprised that even queer librarians unthinkingly coupled homosexuality and pedophilia in this way. The notion that all gay men are either potential or practicing pedophiles has survived beyond all logic, even in queer circles, thanks to enduring homophobia, well-funded right-wing religious and political groups (and their mountain of phony scientific studies), and a phobia of adolescent sexuality.
With movies reflecting the popular mindset, they should be the last place to look for fair portrayals of an issue deemed too dicey to discuss. Logically, the same confused impulse that made that gay librarian put The Boys of St. Vincent next to Desert Hearts should be the driving force behind films on the subject. Right?
Maybe not. A survey of a group of movies and television shows from the last three decades shows a surprising complexity in portraying these relationships, with many variations. Typically, though not always, they do not equate homosexuality and pedophilia, instead consigning the pedo problem to individual pathology or institutional repression, or in a few controversial cases, treating it as a socially disapproved but potentially positive force. In repudiating the equation of queer with child molester, these works seem to be doing what some segments of society cannot.
The first thing to note is that most of the films on this subject were made outside the Hollywood mainstream, either as American indies (L.I.E., Happiness, Eban and Charley) foreign imports aimed at small art-house audiences (Our Lady of the Assassins, Ernesto, For a Lost Soldier, Clay Farmers), or sexually frank foreign or cable-TV shows (The Boys of St. Vincent, Queer as Folk). The fact that most of these works had only a limited, or in some cases no, American theatrical release suggests the level of anxiety that surrounds the issue and any portrayal of it.
The Boys of St. Vincent (Canada, 1994) follows the twin templates of institutional repression and individual pathology. Based on a 1975 scandal in Newfoundland, this three-hour made-for-TV drama shows a Catholic orphanage as a hotbed of gross physical and sexual abuse that’s permitted by an omnipotent Church and cowed local police. This brutal and very timely work never succumbs to the expected gay cliché. The main abuser, Brother Lavin, is portrayed as a nutcase whose abuse of 12-year-old Kevin is driven by demons he can’t control. Any temptation to read him as a frustrated queer is trumped by his later life of marriage and children and by the film’s unrelenting portrayal of Lavin as a straight-up, though not entirely unsympathetic, psychotic.
The successful straight male who’s also an out-of-control predator occurs in other films in this group, most notably Todd Soldonz’s Happiness (U.S., 1997). Like The Boys of St. Vincent, Happiness features a paragon of heterosexual virtue, here a respected psychiatrist who’s at once charismatic and fatally flawed. The film treats him as a complicated character, both repugnant (in a grueling scene he confesses his problem to his own young son) and pathetic, but not particularly gay, even in code.
Another complex portrait of a sexual predator can be found in L.I.E. (U.S., 199?) “Big John” is another “normal guy” who’s also a molester. Some viewers may find the character at least partially coded as a gay stereotype: unmarried, worldly, well-off, compulsive, and bumped off in the end just as gay men in the movies so often were. But in making Big John a real person rather than the scary shadow of the popular cliché, the film shifts the paradigm from gay/pedophile to human/monster. Like other such characters here, he’s subject to impulses he can’t control and regrets what he is. Told by one of his boys who’s being displaced by a younger model, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” Big John replies, “I am … I am … I always am.”
The economic motive in adult/youth relationships is common, no doubt reflecting the reality of such relationships in life. In L.I.E. , Big John pays and sometimes houses his victims, a strategy also seen in some of the European films surveyed. The teenage boys in Our Lady of the Assassins (France, 2000) hook up with older men for money and a respite from the social chaos of Medellin, Colombia, where the film is set. The film has an unabashed queer consciousness – the lead character, a 60-year-old writer, sarcastically tells one of the boys, “Someone who’s slept with over 1,000 boys isn’t a fag. He’s a far-out guy, right?” But the relationships here are more mutually exploitative than exploitatively queer, reactions to an society violently out of control. Social forces also drive the relationship in Ernesto (Italy, 1979) between the title character, a 16-year-old bourgeois youth, and a 30-ish dockworker. Eventually their roles reverse, and Ernesto abuses his abuser in this deservedly acclaimed class parable.
There are still other variations. Clay Farmers (U.S., 1988), a featurette at a mere 60 minutes, is so fearful of equating homosexuality with pedophilia that it refuses to even clarify the relationship between the two main characters, young men working together on a farm who seem to be a couple, much less their interest in a neighbor boy abused by his alcoholic father.
Two of the most controversial works in this genre are For a Lost Soldier (The Netherlands, 1982) and Eban and Charley (U.S., 2000). These films do the unthinkable in portraying the adult/youth relationship as a positive, desirable force in the lives of both parties. Soldier treats what happens between a 12-year-old boy (the film is based on his WW II memoir) and a Canadian soldier come to liberate his village as a romance that settled into a joyous memory rather than a repressed one. Eban and Charley, about a 29-year-old soccer coach and a 15-year-old boy (played by a 21-year-old), makes society the villain, thwarting what to the two principals is simply a love affair. Neither film apologizes for these relationships. Nor does Queer as Folk, though the “boy” is nearly of age. Showtime’s highly successful gay soap opera features 20ish sexhound Brian involved from episode one with 17-year-old Justin (in the British version this character was 15, so Showtime is playing it safer). Brian can be read as either sexually liberated or amoral and predatory, or perhaps both, but his affair with Justin is just one of many kinds of relationships shown, not the focus. Now, of course, as QAF heads into its third season, Justin is a consenting adult, making the question of their relationship as pedophilic moot.
The question of what kinds of messages these works are sending to the mainstream is also moot in a sense, since most of them never reach the mainstream. They’re as marginalized in their way as their subject, staying safely under the cultural radar – playing at film festivals, in brief art-house runs, on obscure videos. This is one of the conditions of their being made. When they do get noticed outside their target audience, the controversy usually returns them to the margins. This was the case with L.I.E. , which deserved a wider audience. The filmmakers’ decision to release it with the dreaded NC17 rating killed its chance for wider distribution, and L.I.E. went dutifully to video.
Queer critics and audiences, understandably sensitive on the subject of adult/youth films, tend to find them intrinsically homophobic, in part because they’re fearful that any portrayal of two males in a sexual relationship will be noticed by the mainstream and bring censure on average-Joe queers. When the films are actually seen, however, it’s clear that their messages tend to be as complex and varied, and not inevitably queer, as the taboo topic they’re exploring.