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Preserving Our Queer Legacy

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The remarks below were delivered by Alan Poul upon receiving the Legacy Award at Wednesday night's (9/30) benefit for the Outfest Legacy Project at the Directors Guild of America. Outfest is Los Angeles' Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and the Legacy Project is dedicated to the preservation and archiving of LGBT material. Poul was introduced by Laura Linney, with whom he worked on the three miniseries based on Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books.

Laura Linney and I first worked together on the original Tales of the City miniseries in 1993. It was a magical experience -- we were a close knit group, creating a labor of love on a limited budget, and never imagining that anyone would greet our affectionate adaptation of Armistead Maupin's beloved novel with anything other than open arms and bonhomie. Boy, were we wrong.

It's impossible to watch Tales of the City today without finding it as generous and life-affirming as we intended it. So it's hard to imagine the firestorm of controversy that greeted our airing on PBS in January, 1994. 1994 -- not that long ago. Before we even aired, we were officially denounced on the floor of the state legislatures of Georgia, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. A bomb threat in Chattanooga Tennessee emptied the local PBS affiliate so there was no one left to run the show. Donald Wildmon (remember him?) and his American Family Association sent a 12-minute VHS (remember VHS?) to every member of Congress that was a mash-up of all the supposedly-offensive moments in the show, including every snippet of same-sex affection, every mention of the words "tits," "bitch," and "ass," and Mona's famous "crotch crotch crotch" tirade at her ad agency. Actually, I wish I could find it and post it on YouTube; it's pretty hilarious.

This would all be a sweet introductory anecdote, except that in the ensuing months, PBS cravenly withdrew from financing the sequel, Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City, to which they had already publicly committed. It took three years of tireless effort to resuscitate More Tales, which was finally rescued by Showtime. The point: corporations and the media are big cowards, and a handful of noisy reactionaries can cause real damage. Sound familiar? This is not news, but it's always applicable. Progress is ephemeral and subject to setbacks, but an archive is forever.

That's why we're here tonight. And we don't even have that long a history of LGBT imagery to protect. So what we have, we need to protect ferociously.

I was struck by the cover story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. In it, Benoit Denizet-Lewis chronicles the coming-out stories of middle school children in middle-America -- 14 and 15-year-olds in Oklahoma and Michigan -- and their fearlessness in announcing their sexual identity to parents and peers, even when many of them are not yet sexually active. Of course the Internet is the key component here: think you're a total misfit? Search and click on a link, and whoa! there's another person just like you. (I could have used that.)

But let's not underestimate the potency of complex narrative images, of LGBT lives portrayed with depth, with artistry, and with authenticity, in empowering and legitimizing young people to accept themselves.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing. My generation remembers desperately searching for images that would speak to the desires we were aware of from such an early age, and coming up with nothing -- at least, nothing that didn't end with Shirley MacLaine hanging herself. On television, we had to apply our own private decoder rings to relationships that hinted at something more than mere friendship -- to Felix and Oscar, to Laverne and Shirley, to the Skipper and Gilligan, with the Professor as an occasional third. It wasn't until I hit my teens in the Seventies that genuine homoerotic images began to surface, and the first ones I saw were burned into my eyelids -- the Peter Finch/Murray Head kiss in Sunday Bloody Sunday, at which my suburban Philadelphia audience recoiled in disgust; the careful, sweet embrace of two English boarding school students in Lindsay Anderson's If...., the mutual groping of Barbara Hershey that Richard Thomas and Bruce Davison so enjoyed in Last Summer.

These images were an inspiration and a life raft for me, and I want to protect them forever, even if they won't mean anything to most 13-year-olds today. There is a connection between the bravery it takes to come out, at any age, and our responsibility to preserve and restore LGBT imagery wherever we find it. It might not be direct -- it's unlikely that a self-doubting, tortured 13-year-old is going to find the strength to come out by watching Sunday Bloody Sunday, or even Parting Glances. But there's a link, and as we know, links are how we get our information these days. Link to link to link, we are creating a context for our visual and narrative history where until recently there was none. Somewhere there's a 13-year-old who'll appreciate these films, and I want him or her to have that access. That's why we archive.

My history with Outfest is long and happy. I joined the board in 1996, during a period when the festival was beginning its transition from a smaller, activist-oriented gathering to the huge, inclusive, industry-friendly celebration it has become. During my tenure, we saw the first great flowering of gay independent cinema, here and abroad, and Outfest films from those years include such landmarks as Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love, Tommy O'Haver's Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, David Moreton's Edge of Seventeen, Douglas Keeve's Unzipped, John Greyson's Lilies, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's Party Monster, Jeff Dupre's Out of the Past, Michael Cuesta's L.I.E., Sandi Dubowski's Trembling Before G-d, Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman, and many others that have gone on to become classics -- and not just gay classics at that. I'm so proud of that list.

Our board helped shape Outfest, but even more, Outfest shaped my consciousness of what Los Angeles can be. More than any prior event, Outfest brought together the very diverse and often segregated LGBT communities of L.A. under one roof and gave us a chance to look at each other, to enjoy the same entertainment, to laugh and cry together, and to realize our combined strength. In a city that seems custom-designed for isolation and cliquishness, that was no mean feat.

I am currently developing a pilot for HBO, together with Carolyn Strauss, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, John Hoffman, and Peggy Healey, based on the famous Ann Bannon novels of the 1950's. These were lesbian pulp fiction paperbacks, surprisingly popular in their day, with titles like Odd Girl Out and Women in the Shadows. In doing research for the period, we are constantly hampered by the paucity of filmed material. Every frame of what exists must be preserved, and it's part of the mission of the Legacy Project, in managing the fabled One Foundation archives and other private archives which comprise home movies and other personal materials, that is so crucial in this area. Once this stuff decomposes, it's gone, and so is our history.

The word "legacy" is fraught with self-importance, but let's consider what it really means. A legacy is, simply, that which is handed down. Our own legacy, 50 years from now, is likely to consist largely of the narrative content that we are creating now, in our time. Yes, reality TV is full of fully-drawn gay characters, but, as everyone knows, reality doesn't repeat well. Fifty years from now it's unlikely people will be watching the exploits of Christian Siriano. For better or worse, narrative fiction has the edge on shelf life. It's the record of the context of our times which we consciously create. Milk will last forever. Brokeback will last forever. Richard Hatch will not.

About ten years ago there was an optimistic feeling among many of us that mainstream Hollywood was going to take on the mantle of telling LGBT stories, so there seemed more resistance among young LGBT filmmakers to be so relentlessly banging pots and pans about being queer. Why can't we just make fun films, they'd say, or genre films, or scary films like every straight white male successful filmmaker? It's an honorable impulse, and even a sign of progress I suppose, but the truth is things aren't turning out that way. LGBT characters of genuine texture and depth are on the decline in features and television, and unless we stir things up, our "legacy" of this new century will be that we went back to being the best friends and fastidious bosses of more important characters. So to all the aspiring filmmakers here, I say, yeah, you do have to bang some pots and pans. Go be queer. Nobody else will do it for you.

I make images for a living, images that are part of stories. So of course I have a vested interest in the concept that these images might stick around a while. I want to thank Outfest, and the Legacy Project, for taking on that concept, for linking the past to the present to the future, and for believing in our continuity.