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A rough Pride Month proves the need for honest shows about gay progress

Harry (Rory Fleck Byrne) and Adam (Ben Wishaw) in ‘This is Going to Hurt’. Pictures: Anika Molnar/Sister Pictures/BBC Studios/AMC

Harry (Rory Fleck Byrne) and Adam (Ben Wishaw) in ‘This is Going to Hurt’. Pictures: Anika Molnar/Sister Pictures/BBC Studios/AMC

Published Jul 2, 2022

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By Inkoo Kang

It’s been a bruising Pride Month, one marred by attacks against drag queens, ongoing offensives against transgender rights and, after the overturning of Roe vs Wade, justifiable fears that the Supreme Court decisions that legalised same-sex marriage and intimacy will be next on the chopping block.

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But for those of us who look to pop culture for solace, inspiration and representation of the world as it is, it may be worth remembering that June began with a pair of themed projects that hid their thoughtfulness under winsome genre tweaks.

The Hulu film “Fire Island”, named after the famed gay vacation spot and starring Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang, explored the deep and painful fissures within the LGBTQ community through an Asian-American update of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (an apt title for this politically mixed bag of a month).

On the other side of the ambition scale, Discovery Plus’s “Trixie Motel” forced a shotgun wedding between “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and HGTV-style home-makeover shows, with the reality competition series's breakout star Trixie Mattel “dragging up” the seven rooms of a Palm Springs inn she’d purchased with her boyfriend, David Silver.

It’s a fresh, queer spin on the heterosexual domesticity silently but unmistakably idealized by the home-improvement network, as well as a joyful showcase of Trixie’s kitschy, maximalist drag translated into an unexpected new medium.

This year’s notable Pride programming also include Netflix’s lesbian vampire drama “First Kill”, Peacock’s “Queer as Folk” reboot and that streamer's "The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip: Ex-Wives Club," an extension of a franchise that, while not technically about queer life, has become a gay touchstone through its camp affect and exaggerated femininity.

A sort of "Suicide Squad" for the Bravo reality juggernaut, the spinoff finds the villainesses booted off their original series heading to a palatial estate in the Berkshires to drunkenly accuse each other of ... whatever.

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But even this brief overview highlights what exceptions "Fire Island" and "Trixie Motel" are; what's most notable about the LGBTQ-centric achievements this year are how evenly they've been distributed throughout the last six months.

However traditionalists might kick and scream, queer stories have become our stories.

Meanwhile, June's best show, the medical drama "This is Going to Hurt" (AMC Plus), was hardly marketed as a gay series.

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Starring Ben Whishaw as an obstetrician battling burnout in the overburdened British health-care system, the show also happens to center a poignant gay romance about the impossibility of making a serious relationship work when the hair-raising rate of office catastrophes makes emotional detachment practically a requirement of the job.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in HBO’s “Gentleman Jack.” MUST CREDIT: Aimee Spinks/HBO

The bumper crop of 2022's most notable LGBTQ projects came out in April: Jerrod Carmichael's intimate and raw coming-out comedy special "Rothaniel" (HBO), the teen romance and word-of-mouth sensation "Heartstopper" (Netflix) and the second season of the reverence-resistant lesbian period drama "Gentleman Jack" (HBO), starring a virile Suranne Jones as Anne Lister, the real-life Regency-era industrialist, mountaineer and "wife" of fellow female landowner Anne Walker.

Add the gay pirate escapades on HBO Max's "Our Flag Means Death" and the soul-sustaining Midwestern queer talent shows on HBO's "Somebody Somewhere," and the diversity within these LGBTQ stories quickly reveals itself.

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But the representation certainly isn't equal; there's still a heavy bias toward the experiences of cisgender, White, male protagonists under 40, as is true of so much of our culture.

But even within just these shows, there are small but significant advancements in embracing the creativity and complications of queer lives, without which our culture would be flatter, barer and simply less reflective of the country at large.

Trixie Mattel is a vision in florals in the bold and colorful Flower Power room in Discovery Plus’s “Trixie Motel.” MUST CREDIT: Discovery+

It's hard not to feel ambivalent about the state of LGBTQ progress at the moment; the cultural and political headway that the queer community has made just since Obergefell v. Hodges has been astounding to witness, and yet here we are again, wondering if the history-making rights that case allowed will last.

Perhaps that's why the queer tales that resonate most are those that grapple with the stalled movement so many people intuit. On the comedy stage, Carmichael summons from the crowd the acceptance of his sexuality that his religious mother withholds.

And in "This is Going to Hurt," Whishaw's doctor has to choose his battles with his posh mother (Harriet Walter) in getting her to acknowledge his artsy, unassuming boyfriend (Rory Fleck Byrne), while constantly having to casually come out to well-meaning co-workers when they assume he's straight.

But the more strides representation makes, the more obvious its limitations become. "Queer Eye" star Jonathan Van Ness summed it up best when he set the record straight at an industry event earlier this month: "Representation is absolutely so important," they said, but we have to acknowledge that it doesn't "necessarily make people's lives better day-to-day."

The superhero- and capitalism-satire "The Boys" (Amazon Prime) illustrates this point in its signature blunt style in the current season, when its once-closeted Wonder Woman-like character, Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), is forced to suffer the indignity of being turned into a corporate mascot for desexualized queerness after coming out.

Perhaps no fake product better depicts the real-life compromised advancement of queer folk than the rainbow-hued box of Brave Maeve's Vegetarian Pride Lasagna, from which its namesake smiles haltingly, wishing progress looked like anything else.

TV's finally catching up with the fact that, for years now, Pride is an occasion not only for celebration, but a more urgent reckoning with the uncertainties about the best path forward.

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