American society, law and culture have changed enormously in the 19 years since I started the ninth grade and joined my high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Back then, the meetings were a genuine place of refuge even in Massachusetts, where in 2003 the state supreme court recognized that same-sex couples had the right to marry. I had at least one classmate who was disowned by a parent upon coming out. The guidance counselor who led the meetings was an invaluable resource for the students who were most immediately threatened by their sexual orientations, and a great cultural resource for those who weren’t — among other things, she was the person who introduced me to the seminal band Sleater-Kinney.
And so my old high school club that I thought of first when I saw “Spider-Man: Homecoming” star Tom Holland performing an exuberant drag routine to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” on “Lip Sync Battle.” It may be a minor moment: Even in the context of this current political moment when routine civic engagement is rebranded as “resistance,” a huge franchise star’s turn on a fun reality show doesn’t exactly constitute the revolution. But it struck me that the video, which has gone viral, is an interesting measuring stick for how far our culture has evolved in the past 20 years.
In 1993, when “Philadelphia,” which starred Tom Hanks as a closeted gay lawyer with AIDS, was about to arrive in theaters, the New York Times explored the risks in a mass-market film about “such touchy, potentially off-putting material,” noting that “If it fails at the box office, Hollywood may be tempted to conclude that the subject, even at this late date, cannot be treated in film. If ‘Philadelphia’ succeeds, it could be an important step in making the tragedy of AIDS a personal issue for a mass audience.” In 1996, it was considered daring when MAC Cosmetics gave the drag queen RuPaul an endorsement deal, and then, the campaign was linked to MAC’s AIDS fundraising efforts.
Twenty years ago, when both Ellen DeGeneres and the character she played on her sitcom came out of the closet, it was a major event, with serious repercussions for the show. DeGeneres began negotiating with network executives about the episode the year Holland was born. After it aired, subsequent episodes ran with a content warning, and the series lost advertisers. It may be hard to remember, now that DeGeneres is hugely popular and wildly mainstream, but at the time she worried about being siloed like Melissa Etheridge had been.
In 1998, the year I started high school, Matthew Shepard was murdered. Eight years later, when I graduated from college, Anderson Cooper — then still publicly closeted, but with rumors about his sexual orientation swirling — spoke at my college graduation and joked that he was old enough to have fathered any of us, in remarks that landed on his audience like an attempt at a coverup. (Cooper came out in 2012.)
Having lived through all of this cultural history, it is kind of amazing to see a 20-year-old actor — who in two months will anchor the latest iteration of the Spider-Man franchise, part of the multibillion-dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe — go on a television show and deliver an excellent and utterly un-self-conscious drag performance that neither mocks drag performers nor women.
I have no idea whether Holland is gay or straight, and it doesn’t matter. The point is that doing something like this no longer disqualifies an actor from being seen as a sex symbol or a superhero. It’s no longer even a risk: an all-in, surprisingly skillful drag performance can be part of the campaign that makes an actor a sex symbol ahead of his star turn as a superhero.
I don’t want to overstate the case: Not everything has changed in America, or in Hollywood. Drag performance can be fun if you’re on the cusp of Hollywood stardom, but nine transgender people have been murdered in 2017 so far. Long-standing debates about whether it’s acceptable for straight actors to play gay characters (or whether such a policy would ghettoize gay actors in gay roles) are yet to be settled. But if we’ve still got a long way to go, there’s nothing wrong with a little shot of joy to remind us how far we’ve come. I wish I could go back in time and share this one with my high school classmates.