We need to talk about the dinner party scene in the Tales of the City reboot
Instead of yelling at each other about the specific hardships we've faced, we need to start listening
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
One of the many wonderful things about the absolute explosion of queer storytelling on television recently is that we are finally, truly close to seeing a diversity of representation that includes everyone under the LGBTQ umbrella. From FX's Pose to Starz's Vida to HBO's Gentleman Jack, women, people of colour, Lantinx folks and transgender folks have been getting a significant spotlight these last few months, more often than not in series created by and for the people they depict. But in terms of the sheer quantity of representation within this surge, nothing quite matches the demographics of Netflix's reboot of Tales of the City — and with that comes a bit of an opportunity to discuss the power dynamics inside "LGBTQ."
The fourth television adaptation of Armistead Maupin's San Francisco-set novels of the same name (the first three airing in 1993, 1998 and 2001, respectively), Tales of the City unites some faces from the older series (Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis and Paul Gross) with a slew of new ones (including Elliot Page, Murray Barlett, May Hong, Charlie Barnett and Garcia) in a massive cast. The result is surely the first time we've seen every letter in LGBTQ represented by a main character in one series. And collectively, these characters factor in three different generations and multiple races and social classes. It's lovely to see, even if there's something kind of otherworldly about such of variety of perspectives all interacting (mostly) harmoniously in one social world. But there's one scene that seems to suggest Tales of the City is aware of its utopia, and it represents probably one of the most imperative discussions queer folks of all generations need to be having with each other right now — one that, for the most part, it seems we are not.
In the fourth episode of the miniseries, Michael (Barlett), a 50-something white gay man, takes his 28-year-old Black boyfriend Ben (Barnett) to a dinner party that, beyond Ben, is exclusively attended by white gay men in their 50s and 60s. Around the table, Ben does his best to politely engage in a conversation that's not particularly welcoming to him — until one of the other men repeatedly uses the word "tranny." Ben decides to challenge the man, telling him, "I don't think that we use that word." What ensues from there is a fiery intergenerational confrontation where the older gay white men essentially refuse to be policed at "a fucking gay dinner party" by someone who — they believe — got his rights and freedoms because of the hell they went through, particularly with respect to AIDS. "I won't be told off by someone who wasn't fucking there," one of the men seethes at him.
You can watch the scene in its entirety below. (If you haven't seen the series, it really has very little to do with the overall plot and doesn't really spoil anything.)
So what exactly do I mean when I say we need to talk about how the scene unfolds? It's not that I think this is the conversation that should be being had. The older men are horrendously dismissive of Ben's perspective, failing to even seem to consider what his experience as a Black gay man could mean, or how their white privilege played a significant role in their ability to be visible leads in the fights they faced in the 1970s and 1980s. What we need to do — all of us — is do the exact opposite: instead of yelling at each other about the specific hardships we have faced depending on the cross-section of our races, ages, gender identities and classes, we need to start listening and stop vilifying. Which also requires us to actively seek out conversations — and maybe even friends — with people outside our specific identity group. (I should probably acknowledge I say this from the perspective of a specific identity group — white, gay, cis, male and middle class — that is pretty damned privileged.)
Last week for this column, I interviewed Tranna Wintour and Thomas Leblanc about their CBC podcast Chosen Family, and it just so happened their most recent guest was Tales of the City showrunner Lauren Morelli. When I brought this up, Wintour and Leblanc's most immediate question was whether I'd watched the series, and if so, "Oh my god, the dinner party scene!"
"I think it's just one of the most significant things I've seen in queer media recently — this intergenerational confrontation that is happening on social media and even face to face in communities and in cities all over," said Wintour. "But to to see it the way that they presented it was so phenomenal."
Wintour and Leblanc were also curious to discuss the scene with Morelli herself, and as you can hear in full in the episode, it was very significant for her to include it in Tales.
"I feel really passionate about how, as a community, we have a lot of stuff that I think we're not dealing with," she said. "We have a lot of intergenerational resentment. We have a lot of intersectionality that's not being talked about. I think because our stories aren't told a lot, when they are told, we're depicted as a monolith. And politically, I understand it's been important for a long time for us to portray ourselves like that — we're united, we're one — when in fact, we are not."
For Morelli, this felt like this was an opportunity to break some of that open.
"It's a thing I see in my own life all the time," she explained. "We have a generation of people who survived something and haven't been able to properly grieve it. They haven't been able to grieve within the community, let alone publicly. It's just been completely erased. So there's this rigidity around, 'Don't you dare tell me what words I get to say and don't say.' And I think it's happening in both directions. There's a generation who's above us who's like, 'I get to say tranny if I want to say tranny.' And then I can see it happening with the generation below me. That generation is starting to identify themselves in ways I can't even begin to understand and my first instinct sometimes is like, 'What?' instead of, 'Talk to me about that, tell me why that makes sense for you, tell me why that feels good.' We gotta start fostering that dialogue."
We do indeed — and maybe a good way to start is sitting down with an LGBTQ sibling who doesn't share your generation or gender identity or skin colour and watching that dinner party scene. It might get a little uncomfortable, but discomfort is usually a necessary step on the way to change.
Tales of the City is currently streaming on Netflix.