As I age as a gay man and artist, am I getting bitter — or just recognizing the industry's toxicity?
Shawn Hitchins ponders whether the rena-gay-ssance in queer content represents real change or just consumption
I'm confused by people who dislike the taste of cilantro and protest its citrus burst of flavour. Google lists pages and pages of supposed explanations of why some think the herb tastes like soap and others, like me, eat the wild-child parsley by the fistful. Taste conveys vast amounts of information and, like any evocative cue, triggers strong emotional reactions.
Whenever I chew on my career, I think of the cilantro debate. Experience shapes our likes and dislikes; a change of perception is difficult when taste is so specific to each person. So, while many of my colleagues celebrate a cornucopia of queer content, why do I feel like a picky eater sitting at a bountiful harvest table, withholding my enjoyment while asking for more? Predictably, as a cis white gay man of a certain age, time and experience have expanded my tastebuds to include a potent new sense: bitter.
I've feared the word bitter since I was an enthusiastic young actor, when the term was freely lobbed around in dressing rooms, audition spaces, and opening night parties. Friends and I would police each other's disappointments by calling out vulnerable moments. We'd dramatically retort, "I'm not bitter! I just hate my life," then punctuate the dark statement with a performative laugh. Worse, we'd hurl it as an insult at any artist, not our cohort, as a way of distancing ourselves from previous generations, the social barriers of their time, while impetuously declaring, "Not us!"
Bitter is quickly assigned to any gay man who expresses unease or dissatisfaction. The label is used to snuff out discomfort by sucking truth out of the air, extinguishing a flicker of anger with a blast of shame. Similar to how shrill is used with women, employing the word flips the power dynamic when a complaint is voiced, especially when hurt is anchored in the past. Bitter is cruelly applied like an expiration date, as a reminder that the validity of your experience is somehow tied to your fading youth. But noticing a sore spot is the opportune moment to lean in and ask: what is this information telling me?
Queer representation is exploding on screens in ways I never thought I'd witness in my creative life — but why does this progress feel so dissatisfying? Is this rena-gay-ssance actual change or just consumption? How does supply meeting demand lead to longevity and structural changes within the industry? Perhaps it's bitterness, but mid-career artists, like me, don't want a gestural seat at the table. We want the table. We are asking for power to be shared so that we can make fundamental changes in how our stories are made while financially gaining from our work. Diversity is not just an issue to be balanced solely on the heads of creators and actors; we need safer workspaces along with real and accessible entry points to all aspects of our industry. So yes, while there are plenty of perceived opportunities, many barriers remain, especially in comedy.
In her book Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong crafted an exacting essay about stand-up comedy, Richard Pryor, and her Korean identity. "Comedians can't pretend they don't have identities," the Asian-American poet writes. "There's nowhere to hide, so they have no choice but to acknowledge their identities before they move on or drill down." My chest flared when I read the searing truth woven in Park Hong's words. The essay reinforced and confirmed something I've long understood: I'm not passable. As a gay man, I've never aligned with the desired, promoted, and celebrated idea of masculinity. My neutral state of being is a threat. It is the essence, the invisible quality that makes straight men grab the hands of their girlfriends when our paths cross on the street. I have no choice but to acknowledge my queerness and that difference in my work as a starting point — and that is defiant to a patriarchal industry that demands oneness in order to retain and share power.
Perhaps it's bitterness, but mid-career artists, like me, don't want a gestural seat at the table. We want the table.- Shawn Hitchins
Bitterness, for me, is a process of reckoning with all the microaggressions and gaslighting, all the attempts to correct my body and cover my difference trying to belong. Bitterness is callback after callback for Second City and having to perform the same lame hockey sketch, year after year. It's the feedback, "You just can't play 'dad.'" It's being expected to code-switch and come off as a straight man. It's having to go on after a comedian did five sloppy minutes of gay jokes that made the audience roar with laughter. It's showing up for an audition in full drag for a one-line role. It's being the only queer on set and feeling like you lucked into a gig instead of earning your place. It's trying to shift the opinions of executives by having to share your pain to humanize your direct experience. It's the stubborn belief that you could single-handedly defy the landscape until that very idea possesses you.
This is how fast and deep I spiral when I see a straight actor flail his way through a role that unquestionably should have gone to an actor who is queer. These casting decisions are always framed as giving a role to the most deserving actor, but in actuality, it is an unwillingness to share power with a talent that deviates from patriarchal norms. Audiences go unfazed and praise these performances, yet I wince in bitterness when they are nominated during award seasons. Living memory kicks in, and I remember the equally effeminate acting coach in theatre school who sat with his legs crossed and chastised the 18-year-old gay students for having a sibilant 's' then praised the straight boys for taking off their clothes during private tutorials. For as long as I can remember, no matter where I was in my career, my masculinity has and continues to be policed.
Today, LGBTQQIP2SAA characters not only populate storylines but lead entire worlds while existing next to straight characters without apology. Netflix loves young sexually fluid characters finding carnal desires in stairwells and dorm rooms; RuPaul's Drag Race, now a worldwide phenomenon, has brought sashaying and tongue popping to the masses; She-Ra has usurped Wonder Woman as an icon; gay couples lead Hallmark Christmas movies; and whatever the hell Ryan Murphy pins on his vision board gets greenlit. But even though this wave of rainbow content is cause for some celebration, it is not enough. Much more is needed to shift the single stories that have served as checkmarks for queer onscreen representation for decades. And, in our demand for more, we must relentlessly question the very system we wish to belong to.
When I lean into my bitterness, one question always surfaces and remains unaddressed in my industry. There are thousands of working gay male comedians, and many are beloved household names. So where are their hour-long network specials standing on stage speaking to and about their direct experience? We deserve to share our own truths, unfiltered and without apology.
My opinion is a matter of cilantro, and I clearly have strong reactions based on past instances. For some, it's all watercress under the bridge. Mastery of a career is about learning to discern all the flavours experience offers. I'm learning not to allow one ingredient to overpower but to be present and inform alongside more positive experiences. Perhaps mid-level careers are about balancing the sweet with the savoury and letting bitterness be the occasional reminder of time and progress, while providing a way to move forward.