A Divine Affair

The Screening Room, hidden along Princess Street of downtown Kingston, opened its doors on February 6th to celebrate one of the LGBTQ/alternative/drag communities’ most beloved and controversial icons in a documentary titled I Am Divine. I did not know what to expect of The Reelout Queer Film Festival as it was the first I had heard of Divine, let alone any drag performer but I was intrigued to understand what drag was about, why people did it and why so many loved it. When I entered the theatre I was surprised to find a full house of almost ninety moviegoers. When I left the theatre, I could see why even after death, Divine’s fans worked to his keep spirit alive. Dedication proved to be a reoccurring theme; Divine’s dedication to succeeding in his craft at any cost and the dedication reciprocated to him by his fans.

Director Jeffrey Schwarz fashioned this biographical story in chronological order through personal anecdotes recounted by friends, family and colleagues of the star. We watch him grow from a feminine young Harris Glenn Milstead playing dress-up to the fat, bullied high school boy still struggling to fit in. We see his career take off through sleazy parodies under the direction of his life-long friend, John Waters and his evolution into the larger-than-life persona, Divine – the self-proclaimed “filthiest human alive.” Each interview clip emanates a relaxed, comfortable tone, as the speakers openly share secrets to make the audience laugh out loud, cringe or both. The setting and background elements of cinematography play a secondary role to the images painted through storytelling. Anytime camera effects are added, they are made to match the grainy 80’s feel of the footage from Divine’s first films like Mundo Trasho and Pink Flamingos. It is clear the film was made as an intimate tribute to reflect how Divine would have wanted his life story to appear; professional, entertaining, shocking, and triumphant. His life, from the fallout with his family to their heartwarming reunion, embodies the ultimate queer performer’s version of an “It Gets Better” story.

Being an audience member felt as though I was amongst Divine’s close friends as they all laughed in unison at inside jokes while I had missed the punch line. It was then that I realized the intense sense of community his fandom had created. What’s more impressive is the reach of this fandom; his performing career which extended to audiences in across America and Europe literally served as a worldwide beacon of possibility to misfits everywhere. People were captivated by Divine even if they hated him because was he was absolutely engrossed in all he did. When he said he was the most beautiful woman alive, he believed it and whether you believed it or not, he did his job by getting a reaction out of you.

The tactics that led Divine to fame such as the infamous “eating dog feces stunt” in Pink Flamingos were so unconventional it is not surprising that many were critical of him. He challenged standards of beauty at the time and took “the age of excess” as it was known to new extremes, reclaiming the word beautiful to fit himself. He defied odds by proving a fat, gay [white] man could be a successful leading lady.

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Ruminate on that. It’s hard not to see these two pictures and be left in awe. Divine’s ability to defy limitations inspired hope that really anything is possible. It is often forgotten that drag roles, similar to characters in movies are works of fiction and do not reflect the actor when the camera is not rolling. Many interviewed clips are included addressing the reoccurring question of whether Divine’s character on screen matched his personality off screen. One of the key points I learned about drag from this documentary is that one’s drag persona can and often will assume a name, gender, sexuality, voice and personality as a whole completely distinct from their day-to-day self. It was emphasized in the film while Divine was womanly, Glenn himself had never identified as one. I noticed the complications of gender categorizing throughout the film as some would refer to Divine as “him” and others as “her.” The blurred lines between transgender people, transvestites, cross-dressers and drag performers are a source for countless false assumptions about gender identity, sexuality and behaviour that each distinct communities must deal with. In a world of strictly enforced gender binaries, members of these communities can find themselves under extra pressure to defend and define their personal identity or else continue to be misrepresented.

As inspiring as his story was, the devil’s advocate in me must ask was Divine really the serious actor he claimed to be or were his movies only good for their outrageous publicity stunts? The film works to show how Divine grew over the years and how what he wanted for his career changed over time. By his peak, he did have the maturity to put down the glittered makeup and take on more mainstream roles such as that in the original 1988 Hairspray. Yes, I too was amazed to learn that John Travolta’s role in the 2007 Hairspray remake was inspired by Divine himself.

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John Travolta as Edna Turnblad.

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Divine as Edna Turnblad.

But is that just heteronormative me being uncomfortable with his extremely vulgar, out-there ways and labelling it immaturity? Am I wrong for congratulating him on eventually landing ”normal” male and female lead roles? It’s hard to say. In one way, it is not wrong because that was in fact Divine’s dream all along; to be taken seriously and show his versatility as an actor. Divine convinced people to overlook his gender and was privileged by his white skin to be able to fit the mainstream niche. Had he been of colour during that time period, his independent films may have received attention but opportunities in the mainstream movie world would have been extremely limited, even for cis-gendered people of colour. In another light however, Divine was a role model to many and his progression away from underground culture could be interpreted as encouraging to his followers that only mainstream success is real success. The bittersweet end is that no one will know where Divine’s life and career would have gone but he is now and forever remembered as a symbol for anyone who has felt like an outsider.

For Harris Glenn Milstead, being Divine was his creative outlet, trademark and his vessel to follow his dreams. For his fans, Divine was a wonder to watch, a raw interactive entertainer and a reminder that they could be whoever they wanted to be and they would not be alone. And for anyone who loves a story about an underdog, this is one that must be congratulated.

“The things that make me different are the things that make me.”
― A.A. Milne

Kristafurrobin

I Am Divine. Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz. Perf. Harris Glenn Milstead, John Waters, Mink Stole. Automat Pictures, 2013. Film.

John Apple Jack – Sexually Progressive and Racially Ignorant

John Apple Jack (2013) directed by Monkia Mitchell is a type of romantic comedy that features two gay men. Boy meets boy, boy forgets about boy, boy pines for boy. Fast forward twenty years later when boy finally sees what’s been in front of him this entire time but now the other boy needs major convincing. This is the simple formula for the cliché romantic comedies; however, this time it involves a homosexual relationship. John (Chris McNally) is a wealthy, promiscuous, white man who runs his family restaurant. He has lived an extremely extravagant life with top of the line foods, drinks, cars, and men. However, after hearing of his sister’s engagement to his childhood crush, Jack (Kent S. Leung), John decides to confess to his family that he is attracted to men, although they were already aware. John hopes that Jack will see this confession as an act of commitment to him. His father shortly after hearing the news cuts John off from family money and leaves him with no place to stay.

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Jack is a cook at John’s restaurant and is ready to create his own restaurant and family. Growing up he had always hoped that John would acknowledge him, fall in love and live happily ever after; however, after many years of being ignored, tension heated between the two. During one of their arguments, Jack throws an apple at John’s head to quiet him. Nevertheless, when John becomes homeless, it does not take him very long to find his way to Jack’s place. They spend the night together and realize that they are soul mates. This did not last very long, and Jack realized that John was not a 100 percent committed and he decided to marry his sister after all. John refused to let this happen and interrupted the wedding by throwing an apple at Jack’s head. Jack and John end up together and open their own restaurant entitled ‘John Apple Jack’.

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For obvious reasons, the movie does an excellent job of portraying a relationship between two men. However, like most movies it also has its downfalls. When John admitted to being attracted to men, most of his family did not even flinch. It was a nonissue. As well, Jack’s mother considered it a nonissue and just wanted her son to be happy. Although this does happen for many people and is the hope for the future, it does not demonstrate the hardships that many gay men/women go through. Gay oppression still exists and John Apple Jack tends to ignore this.

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The demonstration of Jack’s family was also extremely progressive. Many films produce the stereotypical Asian family by creating a patriarchal structure where the father makes all the decisions while the mother remains silent. There is typically a one-way communication where the adults speak to the children, and the children do not speak back. In addition, shame and guilt are used to control and train children. They emphasize loyalty and honour to the family and avoidance of shame and embarrassment to the family. The mothers typically use less nurturance and more verbal and physical punishment than White mothers who meet emotional needs of children. However, in John Apple Jack, this is not displayed. Jack does not have a father figure in his life because he was actually a product of in vitro (a progressive reproductive technology). The mother shows caring attributes throughout the entire movie and makes it known to her son that homosexuality is not shameful or embarrassing to her and should not be to him. It is actually John’s White mother who has an issue with his sexuality, but in the end accepts it.

Before John commits to Jack he has a variety of sexual encounters with other men. John hires a stereotypical Asian ESL boy toy. Although this role created many comical moments, it is offensive. This role is viewed as feminine, passive and submissive towards John (a White male). Therefore highlighting racial power dynamics. It mimics the colonized and colonizer relationship. Although Asian men are typically depicted as asexual within Western film, when they are viewed as sexual, they are “presented as wanting to be sexually subordinated and violated by a more dominant, stereotypical white male” (Kendall and Funk 2003: 106). As a result, gay Asian men are not seen as physically attractive but more appealing because of their submissiveness. In addition, Jack was also hired by John, which can be viewed as problematic.

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In addition, cultural appropriation was a major theme within the film. John gives Jack the idea of Westernized Asian cuisine for his new restaurant. John is using traditional food of a marginalized culture (Asian) because it is viewed as profitable. This is harmful “because it is an extension of centuries of racism, genocide, and oppression” (Zinelibrary 2011: 5). It “treats all aspects of marginalized cultures (also known as targets of oppression) as free for the taking” (Zinelibrary 2011: 5). This is extremely problematic, and John Apple Jack reinforced this way of thinking.

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John Apple Jack was an important movie in acknowledging different kinds of relationships such as between two gay men. However, it demonstrates the problematic factor that the LGBT community tends to ignore race.

Before going to the Reelout festival my understanding of queer films was very minimal. Throughout my four years at Queen’s University I have come to realize that the culture is extremely White, heterosexual, middle to upper class focused. The fact that these festivals still exist and they are not displayed in popular culture depicts homosexuality as different and the minority. It would be amazing to get to a point where these films are not viewed as progressive because it is about a gay relationship but viewed as standard, like heterosexual relationships.

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Mitchell, Monika. (Director). (2013). John Apple Jack [Film].

Kendall, Christopher N. and Rus Ervin Funk. 2003. “Gay Male Pornography’s ‘Actors’: When ‘Fantasy’ Isn’t.” In Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress. New York: The Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press.

“Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation.” 2011. Zinelibrary. Retrieved February 26, 2014 (http://zinelibrary.info/files/culturalappropriationread.pdf).

John Apple Jack – All about the right guy

John Apple Jack is a recently filmed gay, romantic, comedy film that was played at the Reelout Queer Film + Video Festival in Kingston, Ontario. The film is written and produced by Vancouver’s Rick Tae, directed and co-produced by Monika Mitchell and produced by Selena Paskalidis. It tells the story of a modern-day boy-meets-boy romantic comedy about finally finding love. The interesting fact about this boy is that he has slept with nearly every hot guy in town.  I had the opportunity to watch this feature film during this festival in Kingston and I definitely recommend checking it out. 

This film has more to it than just a guy falling in love with another guy and the audience seeing their lives together. It is different. When a very attractive playboy realizes that his dream guy, also his childhood best friend, is the true love of his life, he turns his life upside down in a mad rush to confess his love. 

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This tale unfolds around the escapades of John, played by Chris McNally, a handsome gay man and heir to a restaurant empire. John is considered the rich playboy in the film, with access to lots of money and lots of men. The film indicates that as kids, John and another boy named Jack (played by Kent S. Leung) were best friends. Twenty years passed and the boys grew apart, causing them to barely recognize each other when older. I guess in those twenty years, some feelings arouse in John for Jack because his sister Vivienne was about to marry Jack and oh boy, was John jealous. The marriage had to be stopped.

Thus far, we have talked about who John is, but who is Jack? What does he do? Well Jack is the line cook at John’s restaurant and his marriage indicates that he wants to build a future and a family. However, Jack once did imagine that he and John would be happily in love and will have a restaurant together one day. Then one day, while in the kitchen, the two men have a heated argument, resulting in Jack throwing an apple at John’s head – hence, John Apple Jack. From here, things take a turn. John tries to back Jack out of the marriage to prevent his sister from heartbreak later on. How does he do this? He comes “out of the closet” in front of his parents, who already knew that their son was gay. However, his parents take advantage of this situation and cut their son off financially, so that he can stand on his own two feet and make something of himself. Homeless and loveless, John finds himself at Jack’s doorsteps, where it did not take long for the two men to realize they are meant to be together. So what happens from here on? Well that’s something that can only be uncovered by watching the film. All I can say further is that the characters need to find a way to blend sex, love, money, and family. 

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Overall, there are some great performances in this particular film and many entertaining moments. As with most romantic comedies, the film has a really cute and satisfying ending that will leave you longing for Mr. Right yourself. Aside from the entertaining moments, this film displayed some or no problems to homosexuality. That is good, but is it realistic? In society today, so many issues have arouse due to one’s sexuality and John Apple Jack tends to swerve away from this concept.  Even today, “moral, religious, and legal attitudes are such attempts that in turn are utilized to control sexual behavior” (Reider 1957). However, this film does not show this explicitly. The only individuals who seemed a bit hesitant would be John’s parents, both of whom were not phased majorly.

Personally, this was the first time I had attended any Queer Film + Video Festival and to be honest, I actually enjoyed myself. As stated in GNDS125 at Queen’s University, queerness is not necessarily something that is largely marketed. For this particular film, there was a really good turn out. It felt like a privilege to be able to witness this film and to be given the chance to go to the festival. There has been much talk about homosexuality and homophobia in the news – rather it is in Russia or in a different corner of the world. Particularly, as it turns out, the Opening Ceremony had a glitch when one of the Olympic rings did not open. The following are some parodies that arouse in social media, which personally I was not very pleased with. It shows discrimination towards homosexuals and bullies the concept of homosexuality through a glitch that seemed to happen at the opening ceremonies.

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It was nice to see a good turn out at the festival because people seemed to enjoy why they were there – whether it was to hang out with friends or to support different sexualities. Would I go again if I were given such an opportunity? Absolutely. 

Mitchell, Monika. (Director). (2013). John Apple Jack [Film].

Reider, Norman. 1957. Problems of Homosexuality.California Medicine 86: 381-384.

G.B.F.: Satire With A Twist

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G.B.F. (a.k.a., Gay Best Friend) is a 2013 teen comedy written by George Northy and directed by Darren Stein.  G.B.F. stars Michael J. Willet, Paul Iacono, Sasha Pieterse (Pretty Little Liars), and several other notable actors (Evanna Lynch, Megan Mullally, Natasha Lyonne).  Although G.B.F. was targeted at teen audiences, the film received an R rating from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) film-rating system for sexual references.

G.B.F. revolves around closeted best friends Tanner Daniels (Michael J. Willet) and Brent Van Camp (Paul Iacono).  The duo attend a large suburban high school, where no student is openly gay.  One day, introverted, nerdy and unfashionable Tanner Daniels is accidentally outed to the student body.  Concurrently, the “Clique Queens” of North Gateway High, Fawcett (Sasha Pieterse), Caprice (Xosha Roquemore) and ‘Shley (Andrea Bowen), have been out on the prowl searching for this years latest “must-have teen girl accessory”—a G.B.F.  Social warfare erupts within the walls of Gateway High, as the Queens fight for social supremacy through acquiring their “very own gay”.  The Queens give Tanner a full makeover and attitude, while providing him with complete social protection.  Soaking in his newfound attention and popularity, Tanner [almost] ends up neglecting all of his true friends—including the spotlight seeking Brent. 

Aiming to drag homosexuality out of the margins of teen comedy and into the pubic-eye, G.B.F. is a mash-up of Mean Girls and Clueless, with a dash of Glee (minus the song and dance).  While Stein’s film may appear to be a throwaway teenage drama, the essence of its narrative is to open conversations amongst young people, in regards to the negative impacts of stereotypes, acceptance of those who may be different from yourself, and the investment of time and interest in the lives of teenagers.  By creating a film that focuses its attention on teenage appeal, Stein and his crew have created a welcoming project, which will [hopefully] evoke more thoughtful contemplation of these subjects among those individuals who see the film.

While G.B.F. holds good intentions, portrays crucial social themes, and offers an admirable message of tolerance, the film does have some downfalls.  Tanner, our protagonist, is portrayed as a conventionally attractive white male from a family of stable socioeconomic status.  The same goes for Tanner’s best friend, Brent.  For Tanner [and Brent], being outed resulted in good fortunes: instantaneous acceptance from their families, friends and community (with the exception of McKenzie Price), higher social status at school, influx in romantic relationships, etc.  Ultimately, being one of the few openly gay students in their school changed their lives for the better.  However, this is obviously not the case for many queer individuals—especially if you do not fall under this specific character category.  How would the story been different if our protagonist was a queer individual of color, differently abled, and not conventionally attractive?  The situation probably would not have gone so smoothly, instead, go against our new protagonist.  In a way, G.B.F. has glamorized the idea of being gay—so long as you are an attractive white male with a perfect physique.  Moreover, the characters and overall setting of the film is composed entirely of white, able-bodied individuals, all with a stable socioeconomic status.  Caprice (Roquemore), the “Queen of Drama”, is the only individual of color, and is portrayed as a sassy, glamorous and pompous African-American.  Are we shocked that our only sassy and snarky Caprice is African-American, and not an individual of another race?  Not at all—after all, if we want to incorporate a sassy female character, it best be played by a haughty African-American woman, right?  This perpetuates the stereotype that African-American women are just generally vivacious and attitude-packed beings.  Alternatively, McKenzie Price (Lynch) is one of the head religious good-girls and is portrayed as a preppy, know-it-all, uptight and close-minded Mormon.  McKenzie makes it very clear where she stands on homosexuality, as she ultimately instigates the banishment of same-sex couples from Gateway High’s prom.  At the end of the film, McKenzie is the only character that does not undergo any character change or growth, while all the other characters face drastic transformations and developments.  This portrayal of McKenzie propagates and reinforces the idea that religious individuals are often extremists, who are unwilling [or unable] to change their mindsets. 

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Overall, G.B.F. does pull its end of the weight.  Stein manages to set-up the storyline quite nicely, with Tanner being outed perfectly in conjunction with the recent G.B.F. fad, while Northy succeeds in pulling the story through, via a controversy over queer couples attending the school prom, which resulted in a climatic rivalry prom brawl.  Moreover, Willet, Pieterse, and Mullally give charming performances, making it impossible to watch G.B.F. and not leave the theatre without feeling a sense of cordiality with its characters and themes.  This was most striking when Fawcett, the ultimate beauty and queen bee every teenage girl “aspires to be”, cautiously and bashfully confesses to Tanner of her “mad chemistry skills” and shyly offers to help Tanner out with his chemistry troubles.  At this point, we also see Tanner finally step up as a character, as he provides solace and encouragement towards Fawcett, telling her to embrace her knowledge, and not to be ashamed of it. 

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The bottom line?  The satire and underlying messages which pierce through G.B.F.’s overall silliness and witty one-liners makes this teen comedy a refreshing film to go check out.  Plus, Stein and crew have managed to work in a tacky, yet appropriately fit soundtrack, costume and set design.  As for MPAA’s R rating—the most sexual or explicit action you can expect to see is some light kissing and topless teen boys showing off their toned bodies (go figure).

Struggle, Internal or External

After attending Kingston’s annual LGBT Reelout film festival I have been left with a different perspective on the fight for LGBT rights. One of the movies I was able to see, called The New Black, follows the fight for those rights in the state of Maryland. Directed by Yoruba Richen, director of award winning films such as Promised Land and Take it from me, The New Black embodies the division and discrimination of the black community in the state of Maryland. It gives viewers an insight into the debate on the legalization of gay marriage and the LGBT communities struggle to gain their right. The opposing party, which is composed predominantly of the African American Church, is openly opposing the idea. The movie interviews dozens of people from both ends of the spectrum and gives the viewer the chance to form their own opinion without bias. The film makers leave much up to the viewer’s own interpretation. The debate throughout the movie is on a “Question 6” which in the 2012 election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will decide on whether to legalize gay marriage in the state of Maryland. In the previous election there was a proposition 8 which made it legal for domestic partnerships but did not give them the right to marriage. If voted for Question 6 will give the LGBT community the right to legally marry under God in the state of Maryland.

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The New Black interviews and follows the lives of many different people from both sides of the debate. One of the main characters that seem to be leading the charge for Question 6 is Sharon Lettman-Hicks; she is the leader of a group called the National Black Justice Coalition which moves to empower individuals within the African American LGBT community. She herself regularly attends church and bears witness to the discrimination and oppression of the LGBT community. Coming from a family that shares the views of the Black church and who are aggressively against the legalization of gay marriage it fuels her desire to fight for her beliefs that all should be treated equal.

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A second main character who is also a supporter and activist for Question 6 is Karess Taylor-Hughes. Born in Long Island, New York, she has worked in many campaigns and has years of experience with lobbying for LGBT rights. As an openly gay black woman who has had to deal with gender, racial and sexually oriented discrimination she is able to convert all of the negative experiences she has endured into a fight for her right to be accepted by the community.

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The film makers in an attempt to eliminate bias, also interviewed people who are blatantly against the legalization of gay marriage. Pastor Derek McCoy preaches out of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville Maryland. He has served there for 18 years. He is also the president of the Maryland Family Alliance and Maryland Family Council which serve the community by overseeing the education of children, the strengthening of families and the implementation of a stable government in their community.

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Yet not all members of the black church are opposed to the idea of gay marriage. Reverend Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church emphasizes the point that if he is able to preach his views about equality in the black community then he would be endorsing hypocrisy by condemning gay marriage. Gospel singer/songwriter Anthony Charles Williams II who uses the stage name “Tonéx” was also on the side of legalization. Considered celebrity in the religious community and holding considerable influence, it was a shock to say the least when he revealed himself as queer. These revelations delivered much support towards the LGBT community and many complications and confusion with the religious, homophobic community.

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The characters of the movie could not have been chosen better. Addressing the concept of intersectionality, the intersecting of all discriminatory aspects in any given minority, an example of this would be Ms. Taylor-Hughes, being an African American, Gay woman she is subject to monumental amounts of discrimination by oppressive groups. Whereas the reverend who is lobbying against Question 6 has generally a good intersectionality being a powerful man, upper class and respected by the community only with the sole grounds of potential discrimination being race.

From opening scenes to the final credits the film-makers make comparisons between the fight for gay rights and the fight for civil rights that the blacks went through 50 years ago. This is what has infuriated the black community, the fact that people are asking themselves, “Is gay the new black”. It is blatantly put by Mr. McCoy that the church does not think so. He addresses points of the segregation between black and white, the separate water fountains, wash rooms, the “black” section of buses, movie theatres and restaurants. He is infuriated that their struggle, which they were born with, is being compared to the struggle of the LGBT which he believes is internal and can be hidden. The only right that is withheld from them is holy matrimony which, described by him, is a sacred right, not a civil right. That gay marriage is not right in the eyes of god.

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My personal opinion is conflicted, not in the sense that I don’t believe in gay marriage, it is in the sense that I empathize with both sides. The LGBT community should have the right to marry whoever they want without any opposition. They should be accepted into the community as equals and not as outcasts or subordinates as they are so often perceived. Society should stop referring to the LGBT community as “they” and more as “we”, acceptance is the only option and this belief should be taught from the day a child is born. This is the reason I believe that the religious community is so opposed to gay marriage. They have been taught since they were children that the definition of marriage is the formal union between a man and woman under god and law. The changing of that definition frightens them. People are generally afraid of change and things they don’t understand. During the movie many sympathizers of the churches endeavour voiced that they believed being gay is a choice that is made. These people do not fully understand that it may be a choice for some but many are born this way and it is no different than being born Black, White, Asian or any other skin colour. It is understandable that they may be frustrated when people consider it the same as the Black fight for civil rights. Yes it is true that the LGBT community is not subject to the amount of discrimination and oppression that African Americans had to endure, but they do undergo their own struggles of growing up and living in a society that seems to accept only the binary girl/boy relationships. The two groups should be able to understand each other given the fact that they have both undergone the struggles of oppression by the majority population.

The New Black is quite inspirational and informative of some of the conflicts that are going on in our society every day. It is a movie that will invoke deep thought in its viewers and hopefully change or strengthen their views on cultural as well as gender and sex based equality. Director Yoruba Richen has made a movie that has the power to make a difference in modern society and bolster the impending idea that no matter what your race, sexual orientation or gender identity, society is making progress towards complete equality.

Richen, Yoruba, dir. The New Black. Film. 2014.