It's hard now to conjure the feeling I had the first time I stepped into a gay bar. It was 1988, and I was a college freshman (or "fresher" as we say in the UK), and I'd just been to a screening at the Cardiff gay and lesbian film festival. That was also a first. For two days I've been racking my brain to remember what I saw, but what I recall is the overwhelming sensation of having stepped across a threshold. Those were among the first of many faltering steps to self-actualization, and sometimes I wish I could experience them all over again. I often think we dwell too much on the struggle of coming out, and not enough on the giddy, energetic, exciting sense of finding your place. That distant fall in Cardiff was charged and exhilarating, and things like the specter of AIDS, the unequal age of sexual consent, and the routine homophobia of the press did not make it any less so.
I wanted to find that movie I saw in 1988, if only to remind myself of the sensation of being in a cinema populated by other gay men at a time when that seemed, to me, both novel and magical. Instead I stumbled on Two of Us, a one-hour movie made by the BBC in 1987 as part of its schools service. It can be found in full on YouTube, and it's worth watching as a forerunner of Beautiful Thing, that upbeat, gay coming-of-age movie from 1996. In it, two high school boys, Matthew and Phil, fall in love, deflect the taunts of bullies and the incomprehension of their parents, and hitchhike to a coastal resort for their "honeymoon." There are shots of them frolicking on the beach to "Shall We Dance" from The King and I, and sharing a tender kiss (and a sleeping bag). There is no mention of AIDS. No one dies. Although the wider world is hostile, you never feel these two young men are facing a blighted future. In one lovely scene, Matthew parrots, and defuses, all the pejoratives for gay ("bent", "Nancy boy," "weird") before culminating in his own triumphant definition: happy.
Although intended, astonishingly, for teenagers, Two of Us was screened at night to avoid repercussions from a noxious 1988 law to ban the "promotion of homosexuality" in schools. But the fact that it was made at all, and as a movie for schools, is a reminder of how cinema has since fumbled and lost. In 1988, when I took my seat in that darkened auditorium in Cardiff, television was nowhere in sight. I'd grown up with a handful of stereotypes, some friendlier than others, but stereotypes nonetheless. It was movies that gave us depth and dimension. Those movies are still being made (see last year's lovely, overlooked Lilting), but are rarely rewarded. To find vivid, empathetic, and contemporary LGBT life today you are better off with television.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when this happened, but the rise of cable, as well as streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, tilted the balance, and the networks clearly knew when to take the hint. People like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes have given us gay characters who are unafraid and unapologetic (see: Jack Falahee), and young gay writers and directors, like Looking's Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh, have given us characters who are just like everyone else. The radical premise of Looking, or certainly the premiere episode of season two, is that being gay can be fun. These are the guys that Matthew and Phil, of Two of Us, were destined to become.
Meanwhile, Hollywood's view of gay experience remains oddly regressive, a world in which gay men are still fighting oppression and AIDS, and gay women are all but absent. When portrayals of LGBT lives win Oscars it's usually for movies set in the distant past, when the stakes were higher, and the tensions ran deeper. Like The Imitation Game, they fetishize torment. That doesn't mean they are not good movies, or that Benedict Cumberbatch does not deserve kudos for his brilliant portrait of Alan Turing, but rather than waste my Sunday night watching Hollywood pat itself on the back yet again, I threw my lot in with a more reliable barometer of social change, and watched Looking on HBO instead.