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Review: "HomoSayWhat: Who's Pushing Hate" Asks the Right Question, Finds Few Answers

Tuesday Jun 2, 2020
'HomoSayWhat: Who's Pushing Hate'
'HomoSayWhat: Who's Pushing Hate'  (Source:Provided)

Writer-director Craig Bettendorf and producer/narrator Kai Morgan are life partners as well as the creative duo behind the 2016 LGBTQ dramatic series "Treading Yesterday." Bettendorf and Morgan have now created a documentary, "HomoSayWhat," that asks a crucial question, in this time of increasing anti-gay political and social animus: "Who's Pushing Hate?"

Homophobia is a deeply institutionalized system of lies, rationalizations, and excuses that seek to marginalize, silence, and, through various means, erase non-heterosexual and non-cisgender individuals. In their documentary, Bettendorf and Morgan take a look at propaganda films from the decades after World War II - so-called "social guidance films" that were created at the behest of police departments and school districts - and take note of the telling elements of such movies. For one thing, they use words like "mentally ill" and "sick" to describe gays; for another, they casually blur the lines between LGBTQs and pedophiles, a favorite strategy of those who seek to smear gays with baseless claims that to be gay is be a "threat" to children.

In one propaganda clip, the narrator declaims that homosexuality is as "contagious" as smallpox; in another, the claim is made that even adults who look at gay-oriented "physique" magazines of yore could be magically transformed from straights into gays. The clips are preposterous, as funny, in their way, as "Reefer Madness" now seems, but of course, they were produced with the most serious of intentions - and, also, the most malicious.

Where did these talking points about gays being "dangerous" and "contagious" and "diseased" come from? Bettendorf points to Nazi Germany and the rhetoric of Hitler's deranged crew. But it's not so clear that vitriolic hate ambassadors like Anita Bryant or lawmakers like Ohio State Rep. Sally Kern (heard here in archival audio, but not identified by name) knowingly recycled Nazi arguments, substituting gays where the Nazi's had aimed their slanders at Jews.

It's arguably the case that all such rhetoric depends on the same suite of fears and resentments. Dehumanizing and othering are common enough practices, mostly because they are effective; leaders who have little to offer in terms of positive progress can easily (and lazily) fall back on the time-tested tropes that some convenient "enemy" is "dirty" and "dangerous" enough to warrant eradication. (Even in Ancient Greece, Socrates was condemned to death on the disingenuous charge that he was "corrupting the youth.")

Other than that reference to Nazism, and some discussion of the research of the late gay historian John Boswell (the author of "The Marriage of Likeness," which argued that the early Catholic Church celebrated same-sex weddings as a matter of course) the film sticks to recent American history, looking at, among other things, Proposition 8 - the California ballot initiative that saw voters snatch marriage equality away from same-sex couples in 2008 a mere six months after marriage equality became legal in that state.

The film's central argument is that LGBTQ Americans are not as secure in their legal parity as the 2015 Supreme Court finding of marriage equality might lead us to believe. Indeed, the 2016 election of Donald Trump ushered in a whole new age of institutionalized homophobia, one in which the same old players - conservative politicians and evangelical, or "fundamentalist," Christians - have put into play an agenda aimed at stripping away LGBTQ legal gains.

If history, as reviewed in "HomoSayWhat", tells us anything, it's that the institution of institutionalized homophobia is pernicious and sturdy. The same sentiments that drove Texas teens to "hunt, torture, and murder" gay men in a string of horrific slayings in the early 1990s now drive the creation and playing of anti-gay video games. Yes, we can now marry - and the Right Rev. Rusty Smith, a prominent and openly gay Episcopalian who is interviewed here summarizes the salubrious benefits of that change when he notes, "Marriage equality didn't say we all had to get married, but it said we all could," as concise and direct an argument from reactionaries in both the gay and anti-gay camps as you could wish for - but the people and organizations that denied us that right in the first place are, largely, still seeking to take it away all over again. They've expanded their reach - to places like Uganda, Brazil, and Chechnya - but they have not abandoned their ambitions to roll back rights and protections for minorities of all sorts in America.

It's here that the film falls short of what you might have taken, from the title, as its stated objective. "Who's Pushing Hate?" the subtitle wonders; it's reasonable to think that the bulk of the documentary might investigate that issue. It's not like it's a secret that the rash of state-level anti-gay bills that have blanketed the nation in the wake of the 2016 elections can be traced back to common sources working relentlessly to undermine LGTBQ progress.

But the filmmakers don't bring this up; when it's mentioned, it's mentioned by a young actor named Jax Buresh, who also starred in "Treading Yesterday." Citing the actions of lawmakers in states around the U.S., Buresh says, "They're still coming for [gay] rights," and in pointing that out, he shows himself to be considerably more aware and concerned then his fellow Millennial co-star, Sean Bowe, who talks about deleting Grindr after the president of the hookup app spoke out against marriage equality, only to re-install the app an hour later "because, lonely."

In the end, "HomoSayWhat" implores us to "stop" and "think," and offers us a few tin strands for hope. But the film opts not to ask the questions that most need thinking about, and for every headline the filmmakers show us that read along the lines of "20% of Millennials New Identify as LGBTQ," there are headlines not acknowledged by the film that break the frightening news that, for two years running, surveys show homophobia is actually on the rise among young people.

The questions you go in with remain the same questions you emerge still wondering about: If LGBTQs are convenient targets for politicians without constructive ideas, what are our most effective defenses to such lazy leadership? What groups are behind the coordinated efforts to attack LGBTQ equality at the level of state laws, and what's their ultimate objective? When places like Poland and Chechnya go down the viciously anti-gay rabbit hole, what are the reasons for it? Who is pushing hate, and who's acting as pawns in their game?

What we have is a film that points out how effectively homophobia has been installed and exploited for the purposes of power, and that's something valuable and educational. What's missing, though, is an equally informative narrative about the history of those who pushed back against homophobia, a formula for how to dispel the lies and the myths, and insights into how to keep hold of the progress we've made despite a global resurgence of highly weaponized anti-LGBTQ sentiment.

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