In 1992, my life changed forever.
It was a typical Friday evening. My family (me, brother, parents) went out for a night at the movies. My favorite!
My parents were going to see something called The Crying Game, while my brother and I were excited to see Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57. Remember when Wesley Snipes was the man?
Remember when he was a woman? (Foreshadowing)
When we got to Berlin Showcase Cinema, the pimply faced teenager working the ticket counter informed my brother and I that we could not see Passenger 57 without parental supervision because it was rated R. My parents did not want to change their plans, so we told them all they had to do was purchase the tickets for us, then they could go watch their movie. My mom refused. It would not be honest. The All Mighty Teenage Ticket Seller said we needed a guardian to watch the movie and we were going to comply, dammit. My dad (as much as I'm sure he wanted to) wouldn't leave my mom to watch the movie by herself and watch Snipes' timeless classic with us, so the only solution was all of us seeing The Crying Game together.
This is when we all learned, as a family, that honesty isn't always the best policy.
I knew nothing about The Crying Game but I knew it couldn't possibly compare to prime Snipes. After some grumbling from my brother and I, we begrudgingly followed our parents into the theater.
It started off much better than I imagined. Forrest Whitaker was in it...how bad could it be? Despite myself, I started to enjoy it. It turned out to be a story about the Irish Republican Army and a botched kidnapping. There was some gruesome violence early on and I was starting to believe this would all work out.
Holy shit was I wrong.
So this IRA guy Fergus befriends a British soldier (Whitaker) he's supposed to be kidnapping, and before Whitaker is killed, he asks Fergus to find and protect his girlfriend.
Fergus does just that. Turns out the girlfriend is a hottie. The two become friends and it starts to get romantic.
If you've ever watched any type of sex scene with your parents, you know that even well into adulthood it's an exercise in silent, awkward fidgeting that nobody should have to go through, nevermind a 12 year old. So needless to say, it was getting a little uncomfortable in the theater.
Things start getting hot and heavy. They are alone in her room. I could sense his anticipation and excitement as she starts to undress because I felt it too, as much as I didn't want to in that situation. The camera pans down to her chest and I simultaneously try to hide my face in embarrassment and keep my eyes glued to the bare breasts on screen. The camera pans past her belly button and for a brief second I thought I was going to see what I had only briefly glimpsed in my friend's dad's collection of 1970's Penthouse magazines in his attic.
Instead, I saw what I unwillingly viewed any time I went to my dad's gym and decided to use the sauna, hoping it would be empty. It was never empty. Dear god it was never empty.
There on screen, just like in those saunas of days gone by, was a floppy, flaccid penis.
There are no real words to describe the mix of emotions I felt at that moment (and for days afterwards) but "overwhelmed" comes close.
I looked off to the the walls, the floor, the seat in front of me; anything to avoid the image on screen. I could sense the tension and awkwardness throughout the theater. There was no doubt in my mind that my parents, much like my brother and I, were now wishing they just bought the damn tickets to Passenger 57. No surprise penises there.
At this point, Fergus becomes a stand-in for the audience, reflecting the common reaction to transgender people at the time; he immediately freaks out and throws up. This was 1992, a less enlightened time. We had RuPaul, but there were no illusions about her femininity, we all knew there was something dangling between her legs as she worked it, girl. We just never saw it.
But it was always there.
RuPaul was looked at largely as a joke, but at least she was trying to change people's minds for the better. The only other time I confronted transgender issues in pop culture was Aerosmith's Dude Looks Like A Lady and that wasn't exactly the most enlightened take on the issue. I don't know if I can truly capture the spirit of the moment because of how far we've come with transgender awareness and acceptance. Obviously we still have a long way to go, but we are light years ahead of 1992 in that regard. At the time, the scene was absolutely shocking.
Plus, I was 12. Do you know how hormonally confused 12 year old boys are to begin with? Here's this beautiful woman who I've been staring at for 45 minutes about to get naked on the big screen. Then it turns out she's got the same dangly bits I do. And this is all happening while my parents are sitting directly next to me! You're telling me shootouts on a plane (and a carnival for some reason) are more damaging to a child's psyche than that?!
Slowly, the audience adjusted to the new storyline, just as the character Fergus adjusted to his new storyline. His initial anger and confusion and disgust subsides (again reflecting the audience's emotions) and he accepts her for who she is, even falling in love with her.
After the movie, the car ride home was silent. We never talked about it again. It had affected the entire family and we chose to never discuss it, kind of like a crackhead uncle.
It wasn't until we were all watching the Academy Awards together later that year when the topic finally arose again. In the opening number, host Billy Crystal did his typical ode to the Best Picture nominees, which included The Crying Game.
He made some puns or whatever passed for clever Billy Crystal jokes in the early 90s about all the movies, then he started on The Crying Game:
You see a pair of flashing eyes
Your hand starts creepin up her thighs
You hurry to her spot
Your hot to trot
For this dame.
Those eyes, those thighs...
Then, while reaching out and pantomiming grabbing a scrotum, he yells:
It's The Crying Game.
Then, in the most typical Billy Crystal face of shock, he spouts, "I didn't order that!"
Listen to all the gay jokes about The Crying Game in the first TWO MINUTES and think about
how that would go over on Twitter today.
He also talked about the lack of quality female roles, though, so it proves that things haven't changed that much.
Finally, after months of unspoken tension, Billy Crystal had broken the silence. The issue was addressed. We all laughed. And it was okay. We weren't laughing at the idea of a transgender woman (as I'm sure many people were) we were laughing at the shared family experience of intense awkwardness.
I will never forget that experience, but it wasn't until recently that I realized just how influential that moment was in my life. It was my first real experience with transgender issues. I was too young to fully understand everything, but seeing it so openly made me come to terms with it a lot sooner than most people. It normalized transgender people for me, as Laverne Cox from Orange Is The New Black is doing for millions of people today. At first, the very idea was awkward and uncomfortable, and quite honestly disgusting, but those feelings are ordinary, sometimes necessary, when confronting something new and different. I was forced to address the various questions and feelings that arose during and after the movie and I was able to come to a better understanding of myself and sexuality as a whole. I saw the main character Fergus overcome his own biases and treat this transgender woman as a normal person, and I eventually came to that same conclusion. I realized that besides being grossed out by seeing a penis on screen with my parents nearby, I was disgusted by the thought of a "he/she" or a "tranny" because I didn't understand them and I wasn't comfortable in my own sexuality and identity yet. The film questioned the very idea of "manhood" and "womanhood" at a time when I thought I had a firm grasp on those terms. I realized gender and sexuality are much more complex issues and that I would have to define manhood on my own terms. As I got older, I became more and more accepting of so-called "alternative lifestyles" because my own manhood and sexuality were never threatened. I knew who I was and I accepted people being whoever they were.
Dealing with serious topics as a child is important. I wasn't able to fully comprehend the nuances of the situation, but it planted the seed of understanding. Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. I didn't understand every nuance of the issues on screen, but I was able to understand the feelings Fergus was going through: surprise, revulsion, betrayal, and confusion, leading to understanding, acceptance, and appreciation. It's exactly the emotional arc I went through, and this experience helped me become more progressive in my thinking in regards to LGBT issues. My family and upbringing played a bigger part for sure, but movies and music and books have been highly influential to me, and in this case I know exactly what aspect of my life and personality was affected. I teach Family Life and Sex Education to teens. It's not hard to see the connection.
The fact is, my response to the movie could have gone either way. Somebody from a different family or in a different part of the country might have seen The Crying Game and ended up hating transgender people. That's why I don't give in to simple theories about entertainment causing violence or whatever other social ill is being blamed on entertainment these days; your upbringing is really the determining force. On some level, though, the entertainment you take in does affect you, just as all of your personal experiences in life affect you and shape your identity.
This also speaks to the importance of properly recognizing and representing minority/marginalized groups in pop culture. Ellen's character coming out in a primetime sitcom was a huge turning point for gay rights. And even though Will & Grace perpetuated many stereotypes, and was just plain awful, it helped normalize gays for many Americans. Movies and shows are often our first real exposure to groups outside of our own, so it's understandable when minority groups complain about being underrepresented or poorly represented in Hollywood.
Although I didn't realize it for a long time, The Crying Game truly taught me to be more accepting. Even so, I would never put any child through the viewing experience I went through. I still wake up screaming at visions of a floppy dick attached to perfect breasts flying at my face. Thanks a lot, Mom and Dad.
It hung to the right, by the way.
I Love You All...Class Dismissed.