I grew up in the kind of household where my parents would cover my eyes during any and all sex scenes. A vanilla morning romp in Mission: Impossible II or a nearly nude Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Mask of Zorro — my parents would (and still do) put their hands over my face to shield me from reality. But censoring these moments manually made me even more aware of sex itself — my other senses seemed to heighten. I’d wait behind my mom’s palm, listening to disembodied moans and wonder what Tom Cruise’s penis looked like, all the while hating her for infantilizing me.
It’s because of this, I didn’t see Bohemian Rhapsody. I’d spent enough of my life censored by prudish, moralistic hands and decided I had better ways to spend 2 hours and 13 minutes.
I almost didn’t see Call Me By Your Name, which came out early last year. Among the many Internet criticisms of the moody gay romance emerged the primary frustration from its queer audience: the steamy book-turned-film was absent a sex scene.
When I did eventually see it, I discovered that the almost-sex scene pans away from the lovers before their khakis are even removed. As we hear the disembodied sounds of panting and soft kisses, the scene eclipses. The camera pans away and finds interest on a moonlit tree outside their window — a tree that gets almost as much screen time as Mafalda.
Even the scene everyone was waiting for — what faithful book readers knew to be “the peach scene” — left the queers feeling robbed again. In André Aciman’s now-famous pages, Elio employs a peach to masturbate to completion. Oliver discovers him, finds the whole thing very erotic, and eats the cum-filled stone fruit. The film stays almost true to text, but when Armie Hammer takes the peach into his hands, Timothée Chalamet bursts into tears, overwhelmed by the thought of losing him, and the scene eclipses before Armie can eat it.
What were meant to be beautiful, kinky, and original sex scenes from the novel had been sterilized for the mainstream. In fact, it was a trope I’d seen over and over — Six Degrees of Separation, Wet Hot American Summer, Philadelphia — and I was mad. Once again, a pair of queer characters were neutered for the ratings, for the Academy, for the artifice of “universality.” Even our queer filmmakers, as in the case of Call Me By Your Name or Bohemian Rhapsody, are beholden to the machine of palatability. Guadagnino’s excuse: “To put our gaze upon their lovemaking would have been a sort of unkind intrusion.”
But who is the “our” Guadagnino is referring to? To intrude means that one was never invited. But a queer film, by its moniker, and by the virtue of its scarcity, has a responsibility to invite queers inside. It seemed Guadagnino had another audience in mind, and this was backed by the strict-but-fair democracy of gay Twitter. Call Me By Your Name was criticized for being sexless, as well as too white, too straight, too privileged, and too Sufjan Stevens.
Straight gatekeepers are an unfortunate necessity if you want LGBTQ+ film to be in the mainstream, which means that uncensored queer sex in films remains niche. The Hollywood establishment continues to cry “representation” or “love is love” as thinly veiled bait for an Oscar. But what do we lose when our sexuality fades to black?
To critique film, we must understand the difference between evaluating a movie as art and as cultural object, as noted by Ira Madison III in his review of Call Me By Your Name. If every gay movie were to perfectly replicate the culture of its queer experience, then Love, Simon would have included Grindr, a Gaga-tracked emotional discovery, and some very distressing Google searches. Some of Bohemian Rhapsody’s critics pointed to the manner in which it largely sanitized and moralized Mercury’s place in the HIV/AIDS epidemic — a politicizing criticism many queer films, even Call Me By Your Name, receive. It is an easy critique to make given how intrinsically linked queer sex lives are to HIV/AIDS, and therefore, to political moments. How silly and esoteric that notion might be though, especially through a straight lens. Imagine When Harry Met Sally coming out in 1987, and critics leaving the theater grumbling, “I can’t believe they didn’t talk about the Cold War.” But Bohemian Rhapsody straight-washing the AIDS epidemic is not censorship, it’s erasure. Mercury’s life and death in AIDS was there, and it was redacted.
So then, if not history, what do we lose when queer sex is lost in an eclipse? In the 2016 Korean thriller The Handmaiden, a pickpocket and her mistress find forbidden love entangled in a story of money and betrayal. In the final scene of the film (one of many hold-nothing-back lesbian sex scenes), the two lovers are victorious and fully nude, having thwarted prospects of sexual abuse, rape, usurpation, and hanging. They sit, alternating between kissing and inserting large, gold jingling bells into each other’s mouths, and then in their vaginas, in a moment tracked with tintinnabulation.
The 2015 comedy Tangerine features a trans sex worker in a chummy client relationship with an Armenian taxi driver. After he sneaks out of a family gathering on Christmas Day, the two head to a car wash for privacy. Dappled light and foamy sounds envelop a minute or two where the taxi driver gives her a blowjob, and she rolls her eyes, entertained.
Beats Per Minute, a French film from 2017, depicts the activists of Paris’s AIDS crisis. We see the protagonist next to his frail partner, who’s in a hospital bed nearing his final days. The two kiss, and the protagonist’s hand slips under his lover’s waistband to move around beneath the fabric. The lover writhes through the pleasure of the moment and the pain of his disease until he climaxes. A small pool of semen arrives on his heaving body, sharing a frame with his sarcoma lesions.
These scenes, and many others, are rare, necessary moments of joy for queer people found in the context of trials, if not great tragedy. Every bedroom is a microcosm of how we seek pleasure in the face of adversity, loneliness, and plague. Whether we like it or not, every queer character’s action is a political act, and in politics lies little joy. Our sex and pleasure are among the few moments where the rest of the political world seems to fade away.
Since they started making films over 100 years ago, straight people have been permitted joy, which means they get to have raunchy sex and win Oscars. (See: Atonement, Blue Valentine, Monster’s Ball, etc.) Queer people have only been widely depicted in mainstream film in the last five or ten years, and our representation only declines. Because of that, most of our filmic narratives to date emphasize who we are before they emphasize what we do, always telling, never showing — a product for the straight imagination (not to mention acted, directed, or written by straight folks, too). We are sanitized, caricaturized, and deemed political and/or tragedy becauses its easier to understand and metaphorize, which makes it wider known to the mainstream. This is why you’ve more likely seen Call Me By Your Name or Bohemian Rhapsody (movies with no sex) but maybe not Tangerine, BPM, or The Handmaiden (movies with great sex).
I have no desire to see a movie where we are not permitted joy, where queer and trans folk serve solely as vehicles for straight epiphany. To be queer is to be sexually free. To be free is to break away from the chokehold of heterosexual respectability politics, sin, monogamy, vanilla sex, and stigma. Many of our award contenders, it feels, are still in that chokehold. Hidden behind censoring hands is queer joy in its purest form, lost in that blacked-out space between the scenes of nakedness and whatever comes next.
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