Essay by Hank Stuever on Gays and 'Bruno,' New Movie From Sacha Baron Cohen

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009

Amid the screams of shock and laughter at a packed preview screening of "Brüno" Tuesday night, one could also detect slight sighs of relief.

There were many gay people in the audience, some notable Washington gays and lesbians, some of whom are involved, peripherally or otherwise, in "the movement." The movement stalls and sputters these days. Depending on the day, the movement entails working state-by-state for gay rights at the altar (marriage licenses are becoming like souvenir snow globes -- collect them all!), trying to get President Obama's fleeting attention, fighting to partake openly in military life, trying to join whatever tributary of the mainstream still does not wish to have gay people in it, pressing the limits of employment-benefit paperwork and so on.

But nothing can interest the gays quite like monitoring how they are treated in movies and TV.

It seems the gays have found, if not a friend in Brüno, at least a very (very) tenuous ally in his over-the-top (and under-the-bottom) stereotype.

After watching Brüno, a character played by Sacha Baron "Borat" Cohen, traipse across America and incite whatever homophobic responses and misadventures he can (especially in such places as Arkansas and Alabama), gays seem ready to accept that "Brüno," which opens tomorrow, will not hinder their hopes for pop-culture progress. Nor is it likely to inspire any. What "Brüno" inspires in gays is a lot of talking and typing and thinking. Here is some more.

"Brüno" gave me a new (and not new) thought about homophobia. The straight people seen in the movie, such as a heterosexual swingers group infiltrated by Brüno, have just as many issues about their orientation and desires as anyone else. Homophobia, schmomophobia. America has a giant case of sex phobia. The bedroom is a bigger hang-up than it's ever been, which is bizarre, after all the supposed revolution we've been through. Gays just happen to be on the unfortunate side of the bed.

We're all afraid of sex. Any kind of sex -- gay, straight, bi, May-December, Michael Jackson, whatever. Forty years of gay rights after the Stonewall Inn riots in New York have not moved actual hot sex forward. In fact, the more political being gay gets, the more afraid everyone gets of sex. So much for liberation. Now we just cringe in movies, waiting to watch straight people laugh and scream and affirm their complete fear of outre carnality.

Nothing quite matches the feeling of being the gay person in a movie theater full of straight people when the gay jokes come around. It can put a guy right back on the recess playground, where the bullies are smart and funny and the sissy (also smart, also funny, but only to the girls) is just trying to get through the day unscathed. Not all gay men feel this as acutely, but plenty have sat blithely in otherwise enjoyable movies and watched as audiences howl with disgust when the gay sex joke presents itself.

In this regard "Brüno" is unlike anything the American multiplex has ever seen, with its raunchy (if technically impossible) acrobatic sex acts between the Brüno character and his fey Filipino lover. "Brüno" will make all the well-meaning homophobia seen in this decade's movies seem like blips on the gaydar, and that's saying something, since Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell and their interchangeable cohorts seem incapable of making a comedy without at least one I'm-not-gay-you-are jokes.

Here's what happens when you are gay and stuck in your multiplex stadium seat. You feel it about to happen, or you probably know it's about to happen because you've already read the press about how it happens. You brace yourself. You laugh while measuring the laughs around you, like a human applause-o-meter. You watch everything with the extra awareness of how others are watching it, too. You pay attention (or you don't) to the press releases that waft out of gay rights organizations, condemning one movie or praising another. You debate it with your gay friends. Some tell you to get over it, or sometimes you tell them that. A horror flick mantra generally applies: It's only a movie, it's only a movie.

Some of us date ourselves by recalling the audience squeals that met the kiss between Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine in "Deathtrap" in 1982. Or the horror that met the big reveal in "The Crying Game" in 1992. (Piercing screams like you've never heard since, as if everyone in the audience suddenly had their hands caught in a leather press: It's a man!!) When the effeminate art-student crawled into bed with a poor, unsuspecting Vince Vaughn in "The Wedding Crashers" in 2005 and tried to seduce him, the screams almost matched "The Crying Game."

Nowadays, the squirming comes wrapped in layer after layer of post-gay nuance.

You are so gay and that is freakin' hilarious.

There's a whole lot of ironic understanding going on here, if it is indeed going on here. (You find yourself hoping some sort of understanding is going on here.) And the understanding is this: We're all supposed to know that the filmmakers and movie stars whom we know and like are in fact not homophobic people, that they are totally comfortable around gay people, that this is all in good fun here, and this is why they still make fun of homosexuality as a flaw, reaching its zenith with Rogen and Rudd's classic "You know how I know you're gay?" exchange in the 2005 movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. (Or being mocked in movies. Thanks again, Oscar Wilde.) Meanwhile, in Fort Worth, there is an investigation launched into a police raid of a gay bar two weeks ago, at which patrons claimed cops acted violently and the cops claim they were groped in sexually suggestive ways. It all sounds like a Brüno sketch sans Brüno, only with the sad fact of being all too real.

The credits roll, and you walk out of the theater, blinking, wondering what just happened, wondering at the very least how come all the straight actors and straight filmmakers have the market cornered on gay jokes. What is Brüno going to teach us, other than sex is basically a total gross-out? You throw away your large soda and return to the world that exists outside of movie theaters, still a second-class American in a number of measurable ways.

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