Better Than Besties: Why Gay Holiday Films Matter
I gasped so loudly it sounded like Judy Garland showed up at my Christmas party.
It happened during Dashing in December, a new vacation movie on Paramount Network about two men falling in love on a ranch. I took an involuntary breath as Wyatt, a clogged venture capitalist, closed his lips with Heath, the ranch hand’s favorite. When I saw it, I felt like Santa Claus was putting me on the top of his nice list.
I’m gay. I kiss men. Never on a ranch, once at a Denny’s. But there was something surprisingly renegade about the film’s hickey. Leading men just don’t kiss in the conservative fraternity of vacation TV movies.
You do it now. As I recently reported, there are six new vacation-themed films featuring gay and lesbian protagonists this year, including “Happiest Season” (Hulu), “The Christmas House” (Hallmark Channel) and “The Christmas Setup” (Lifetime). This is a milestone in this chaste genre.
Nia Fairweather believes that too. She plays an Afro-Latina woman with fluid sexuality in the new indie “A New York Christmas Wedding” which is now on Netflix.
“There’s a list – a list – where there never was a list,” Fairweather said. “That lets us know this year was different.”
This change is meaningful to me, a vacation movie buff whose biggest gay Christmas memory is George Michael, loving Andrew Ridgeley on the cover of Wham! Album “Last Christmas”. But in reporting the article, I wondered if I had overstated the arrival of a New Queer Christmas Cinema. Are we going to look back on the terrible 2020 – I think – as the year when the Christmas movies finally got weaker?
I called movie lovers and asked, is this a big deal?
“It’s a big deal,” replied Joanna Wilson, author of several books on Christmas entertainment. “Queer people were bosses, employees and siblings of the main characters. Being the central romance is very exciting and doesn’t come a moment too soon. “
Blake Lee, who stars with his husband Ben Lewis in “The Christmas Setup”, put this in response to a chaotic 2020.
“We are four years in a presidency that has attacked the LGBTQ community and projected hatred,” Lee said. “I have a feeling these authors were like now with these stories.”
What vacation films offer – nostalgia, predictable formulas and the escape from real adversities like Covid-19, bankruptcy, bigotry – can be particularly reassuring for queer people, said Michael Varrati, screenwriter of several vacation films, including the new “Christmas With a Crown. “
“Movie Christmas is a lot different from real Christmas,” said Varrati. “Not everyone has great relationships with their families or flawless memories of times gone by.” In vacation films, he added, “there live queer people at Christmas who they always wanted or didn’t want”.
Jake Helgren told me he wrote and directed Dashing in December as an Americana romance and “Love Letter to the End” that he wanted to have on Brokeback Mountain. Lawrence Humphreys, the film’s production designer, said the set was a tearful mess as he and other crew members, straight and gay, watched the leading men kiss.
“We knew what we’d made was beautiful,” said Humphreys, who has worked on several Christmas films. “It’s the cutest I’ve ever taken part in and I’m most proud of.”
LGBTQ vacation entertainment has roots in the days when the word “queer” landed with a slap in the face. The performers secretly conveyed stereotypical gayness – through winking, camps, bullshit, frills – that was obvious to the familiar audience but sailed over the heads of others. A Christmas episode was shown on Liberace’s TV show in 1954. Paul Lynde starred in “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. a 1977 ABC special. That same year, “All in the Family” ran the groundbreaking Christmas episodes of the murder of Edith Bunker’s friend Beverly LaSalle, who describes herself as a transvestite. (She was played by Lori Shannon, the drag stage name of Don McLean.)
LGBTQ characters are now regulars on vacation television. But up until this year there were few queer leads in vacation films that appeared in low budget indies like “Too Cool for Christmas” (2004), which was also released in a straight version, and “Make the Yuletide Gay” (2009 ) were banned. Supportive queer characters were mostly marginal and white. That all changed that year when color actors starred, including Fairweather (Afro-Caribbean) and Juan Pablo Di Pace, the Latino actor who played Heath in Dashing in December. However, transgender characters and actors are still rare.
That’s sex. Couples of all orientations rarely get heavier than a kiss on the mainstream vacation plan. “Dashing in December” is a little more sexually adventurous, and by adventurous I mean a scene in which Wyatt in his underwear meets a wet heather in a towel. According to the chaste standards of the holiday rom-coms, “Dashing in December” is “cruising”.
And yet – it is not. What you won’t see in these new films are activists, leather men, butches, or bad mouth drag queens. This isn’t the Lifetime or Hallmark brand, so this isn’t a shock. But that is exactly what happens with assimilation. If gay people want straight people to believe our love deserves a vacation movie, don’t be surprised if straight people expect this movie to look like theirs.
To counter the new gay sweetness, I’ve made renegade vacation films about strange people who are raunchy, vulgar, stocky, and crazy. Or as BenDeLaCreme, the star of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, put it: “The beautiful, bizarre things that queer people have been exposed to when they had to search harder.” BenDeLaCreme is making its contribution with a cheeky new holiday special on Hulu with the Drag Race Season Five Winner Jinkx Monsoon.
Whatever the opposite of “The Christmas House” is, I’ve seen it. There was “Naked City: A Killer Christmas” (1998), a film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who used the Andrew Cunanan-style fear of a gay serial killer for a garish thriller. The ensemble dramedy “Some of My Best Friends Are…” (1971) was filmed on Amazon on Christmas Eve in a lively gay bar in Greenwich Village with moving performances by Rue McClanahan and Candy Darling. (This paper called it “a very sad gay movie”.)
The value of these films – as gloomy and joyless as they may seem – is that they paved the way for the “happiest season”. They are historical standards showing that LGBTQ performers and creators made Christmas entertainment because – surprise! – They loved Christmas, despite the Scrooges who said they didn’t belong there.
My binge ended with Letters to Satan Claus, a new horror satire about Syfy about a girl who misspelled her letter to St. Nick and called the angel of death instead. With a same-sex subplot, a trans actor (Xavier Lopez), and a non-binary Santa creature, the Christmas counter-programming is at its weirdest.
Yet Mike Zara, who wrote the film, seemed like a perfect trademark when talking about what inspired the story.
“It’s about finding joy through tragedy and darkness,” he said. “That sounds cheesy, but I wanted to talk about all the scars we carry with us. We can hug them, but we can’t live in this darkness forever either. “
Sounds like a New Years resolution to me.