Tom of Finland

Finals will be over soon, but for now they are still eating my brain and making me a highly-tuned ball of vibrating stress. I managed to get to see one movie this weekend, in spite of that.

Almost everyone who has sought out queer culture knows the work of Touko Laaksonen. Tom of Finland, as he is known in the U.S., was an artist with a strong, bold style who celebrated male bodies and male desire.

Even if you don’t know his name, you may well have seen his work – muscular men naked or ensheathed in tight leather or uniforms. Men on display. Men who flaunt it in a way that has been outright dangerous in most of modern history (and still is, plenty of places).

Cover of 'Tom Of Finland: The Art of Pleasure' art book by Taschen featuring two men in motorcycle leathers with faces close together as though they're about to kiss.

I encountered his work all over the place in the nineties. I remember visiting London back in the very early aughts, when a friend of mine was working there. I bought a little book of Laaksonen’s work that Taschen had published. This nod of understanding went between me and the clerk at the purchase (though all he said was ‘I love him!’, referring to Tom).

Some of the art is explicitly sexual, some merely erotic. None of it hides a thing.

Having experienced my own queer awakening when his work was already firmly part of the gay culture, I was very interested in seeing the biopic of him. Covering a huge swath of the mid twentieth-century, the film smoothly brings us from era to era, highlighting the challenges faced by gay men in each and the ways they worked around those challenges.

The challenges, though they loomed too large to be ignored, were not the focus of the film. The focus was an artist’s persistent love and drive and desperate desire to depict and see a world in which he could not only live freely, but be happy. The film depicts Laaksonen not as an idealist but as someone whose sexual identity is fundamental to his own health and well-being and who won’t pretend to be what he is not.

He will, in both his cynicism over the world’s inability to change and his perseverance in the face of the world being truly awful, be relateable to a broad swath of the queer community, I believe.

The film goes through some dark places but it has this core of thrumming delight. It takes us into Laaksonen’s desires and shows us what strength they give him. It runs the emotional gamut and takes us through war and brutality and repression but also through moments of freedom and light and clarity.

My comment on twitter when coming out of the film was “That might be the first time I’ve wept with joy and triumph at the notion of a room full of joyous leathermen being themselves, but I can’t be certain.”

It filled me with joy and pride and determination – a kind of patriotism for queerlandia, wishing to fight for her honor and sing her praises.

It’s been a pretty good couple of years for queer cinema. Between Moonlight‘s (well deserved) oscar wins, the Battle of the Sexes biopic, the wonderful and powerful James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, a slate of acclaimed indies and even a few wide release action movies with queer leads, it’s been a joy and a relief to be a non-straight person in a movie theater seat several times.

Do I want more? Absofuckinglutely. This is my gay agenda: I won’t be happy till we have action movies with openly gay leads, lesbians in space, trans folks in political dramas and romcoms and bipan people who openly admit they’re bipan on screen. There’s so much further we can get, but damn, we’ve come a long way.

But I digress. Tom of Finland is well worth seeing – Pekka Strang’s acting as  is excellent and the film pulls no punches, celebrates its opportunities for joy and brings you through a chunk of history with its subjects. You will laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll gasp in horror and you’ll be filled with inner joy.

It’s not perfect. No film is. And one of these days I’m going to write about the parts that women and folks of color play in films that focus on gay white cis men in detail, because it bothers me, but for now, let us pledge allegiance to the rainbow flag of the united states of Queerlandia…

There is a saying among motorcyclists about riders who have been hit by cars:

“Saying ‘I didn’t see them’ is not a defense. It’s an admission of guilt.”

Motorcyclists hit by cars fare very badly. Cars hit by motorcycles generally come through just fine. Cars are deadly to other things on the roads, sometimes, in part because car drivers are unused to keeping an eye out for bicyclists, motorcyclists, and even pedestrians in some places. But not being used to looking out for something so different on the roads is not actually an excuse for running into it.

The driver is still making choices and cultivating awareness (or lack thereof) that led to someone else getting hurt.

The societal systems through which we interact are kind of like that, too. There are laws to try to ensure that we share the road, but conventions often leave a substantial sub-set of humanity out of the calculus of safety.

We can help to change that through the choices we make and the awareness that we cultivate. There has been a lot of talk lately about the importance of diversity for minority folks (particularly kids). To see oneself reflected in media is to feel that one can achieve things beyond one’s immediate context.

This reflection still, currently, reflects a lot more white, Western folks than other colors and cultures. It reflects more straight people than queer, more men than women, more cis people than trans folks, more able-bodied folks than disabled folks….

The environment where we still normalize and make default the cis, white, Western, able-bodied, straight man is an environment that doesn’t just cost people who don’t fit in that circle. It affects us all. We miss out when all people aren’t encouraged to reach their full potential. And we miss out personally when we can’t relate to folks who aren’t exactly like ourselves.

It is, for instance, just as important for any random boy to see that a black girl can be a superhero as it is for the black girl herself.

Stories are an important way that we learn to empathize with people who are not like ourselves. They can connect us to people who lived thousands of years ago or people who go to space or people who live on the other side of the planet. They can surely help to connect us to someone with a different skin color or background.

When you find internalized prejudice in yourself (as almost any of us who do any self-examination will), it’s your job to try to de-fang and unseat that prejudice. An easy and pleasant way to do that is to expose yourself to more stories about folks who aren’t just like you.

Prejudice is often defeated person-to-person as an acquaintance with someone in a group disproves what another person thinks they know about that group. But that is a heavy burden to place at the door of folks who already have systemic injustice and everyday life to deal with.

There are plenty of nice ally 101 articles around the web that give solid tips like “research before you ask your acquaintances questions” and “don’t let racist/sexist comments slide – use your privilege to speak up”. This is part of activism 301. Look inside yourself and see what assumptions you’re making. Figure out ways to crowbar those assumptions open and broaden your perspective.

Complex stories can help you to see folks who are different than you as real people with full lives. Stories with heroes that don’t look or love or worship like you can help you to open your mind about the heroic potential in everyone.

Stories can help you to be a better person and a better ally.

Some simple things you can do in this vein include following folks who are different to you on social media. Listen to what they have to say on a daily basis, not just about their identities but about everything.

If the only stories you watch about people of color or queer folks or anyone in any minority category are civil rights period pieces, consider broadening your outlook. Seek out stories that are not about the identity politics of a person but includes their identities as part of a full humanity.

This is not to say that a civil rights story can’t have full, true characters, but there are so many more aspects to minority lives than the struggle for justice.

Make sure your media diet includes stories by minority writers and directors, not just stories written about minorities by white dudes. It might take a little extra effort, but it’ll be richly rewarded. I think you’ll find truth in the words of Alan Yang, co-creator of Netflix’s Master of None, “Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, and for so long, that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original.”

So let folks who aren’t like you into your imagination and your emotional world. It’s not the only way to unseat your internal prejudice, but it’s a relatively easy and frequently entertaining way to work on making yourself a better person. You choose what you’re exposed to (and what your kids are exposed to).

You choose what you see. Saying you lack exposure is not an excuse for ignorance or prejudice. It is an admission of guilt.