We are in the final week of Pride Month and I still have some important reviews to get through! Today I want to take a look at another book/film combo with Before Night Falls. This particular story holds a very special place in my heart for so many reasons. Not only did the memoir release in the very early 90’s, but it touched on elements of the gay experience that we don’t see expressed even now! It highlights the toxic elements of machismo, cuts into the loneliness, and daringly plays with the reader to tempt them to the idea- maybe we are all the same.
Machismo: An element to every and all Latin cultures. It is so present in this memoir/film that it feels as if it’s a character. The title role of Reinaldo Arenas is given to Javier Bardem and revolves around his life in Cuba and his experiences of growing up gay in the machismo culture.
Within the context of the memoir, there are many moments that come off as not just angry but resentful of heterosexual males. Reinaldo goes to list his sexual experiences with men over his years. However, what is key to recognize is that he just doesn’t list any men but specifically makes it a point to list police officers, military men, men tied to the government, and other figures that support or pertain to the machismo status quo.
Were some of these stories an exaggeration? Were they lies created as a final attempt to get back at the people/ world who tormented him? Perhaps. There is one episode in particular within the book (that is not in the movie) that had a profound impact; he recounts a time he had sex with a man, a police officer to be exact, and he played the “active role.” Once they finished, the police officer asked him, “If people find out what we did, who will we say was the man?” Reinaldo doesn’t think too deep into it, but tells him casually that he would be considered the man because of the role he played. The police officer then proceeds to physically attack him.
Curious thing! In this moment in the story I didn’t suspect a lie or exaggeration. What I did find was the beginning to a huge piece of the conversation; Is it really homosexuality that is the fear or is it the loss of masculinity? From experience I have seen many men make pockets of reality in their own minds for how to cope with themselves and their urges. “It’s not gay if we don’t kiss” or “If I’m the top then I’m not gay.” There are so many different forms of this excuse that avoids the real questions of self.
It was such a mind blowing piece of this book and would become a huge navigation tool as I approached not just my own sexuality, but to read the fear and insecurity in homophobia.
Loneliness: There is a harsh reality to having grown up gay, and it is one that I would rarely see depicted in film or television; the profound sense of loneliness. I understand that those mediums are about escapism and to see ideal worlds we hope for. However, they can also be key places to communicate truth of experience. The reality is most of us didn’t come out in high school and get an amazing boyfriend after five months of doing so (Degrassi, 90210, Dawson’s Creek, Desperate Housewives, Glee, Gossip Girl, Ugly Betty, Pretty Little Liars, and Shameless. There’s more but you get my point). The reality isn’t attractive for television! It’s quite boring. More often than not it’s not having anyone to relate to. It’s not having anyone to talk to about what’s happening or what you’re feeling. Perhaps there’s no hatred but there is buckets of indifference and doses of suspicion.
The film captures a moment in a heartbreaking and beautiful way. Reinaldo at the beach tries to connect with a man sitting on a rock. They are hitting it off well until the man suspects Reinaldo is gay. He lashes out against him and swims off as fast as he can. Reinaldo, to protect himself, yells at the man as he swims off saying he was ridiculous to suspect he could be something so disgusting. He sits back down on the rock and there is this deep sadness on his face. The scene shifts to an evening where Reinaldo sits in a chair at a garden party. He looks anxious and carries the same sadness from the previous scene. Someone at a microphone announces his written work as the winner of a contest and the happiness that comes across his face in tandem with the sadness is a MOMENT. Winning that award, even for a moment, relieved him to believe he mattered. He was not a freak. He was worthy.
Maybe this is changing today! Yet, an honest telling of what it was like, and probably is still like in many places of the world ,I believe is overdue. Arenas in his memoir talks about his sexual episodes but in all of it he talks about the sadness. How one is looking for their opposite but that perhaps in this world that isn’t possible.
Yes, to read this entering my 20’s was hard, but it was appreciated nonetheless. Reinaldo Arenas spent most of his life alone. Though he found a companion at the end of his life where he died from complications of HIV/AIDS, it of course was not the freedom and joy he hoped for as a young child staring at the trees. Pride month is full of celebration, but I think it is important to remember those that never had the chance to be loved properly.
Las Locas: Something else that this book opened my eyes to was the idea of a third gender. Oh yes, bare with me. As mentioned before, Reinaldo had many alleged sexual episodes with men that pertained to the machismo system. Within the context of those relationships there was the mention of “las locas.” What he’s referring to is effeminate homosexual men or rather sexually passive gay men. Though I had never heard of it before, coming from a Latin culture myself, it was a reality!
There is an entirely different category of acceptance or engagement for homosexuals that have more effeminate tendencies. Is it fair? F*** no. Alas, we live in a world where masculine is good and feminine is bad. We see it in a simple example such as it’s alright for women to wear pants but it is HERESY if a man wears a skirt.
This is also where we see the classic case of “minority group animosity.” There are masculine gay men that roll their eyes and hate all things effeminate and often look at these people as “the problem.” My thing here is, you can choose to not subscribe to the popular markers of the culture- I personally don’t- but it is VERY important to know the history.
It was gay men and women that did not subscribe or fall under gender norms that were at the front lines fighting for gay rights in this country and so many around the world. Whether we want to participate or not, respect is owed to those who made it possible for us to have the benefits we (hopefully never) take for granted.
Mother Relations: Lastly, this book/movie lightly touches on a popular myth around the gay experience- if a mother coddles her son she will turn him gay. This is a load of hogwash.
However, what the book and film do show us is a fractured relationship between Reinaldo and his mother. She was a woman who had been burned by a man like so many before her. As a reaction, she gave up love and the hope for partnership. She believed that kind of happiness could never be for her. Though Reinaldo was gay because, well, he was gay, I think observing his mother installed deep beliefs in him about relationships and men; they don’t stay and you will never be happy.
This goes beyond sexuality and dives into the TRUTH that our parents and their energy around partnership is our learning guide for our own futures. It creates another interesting angle to the conversation around sexuality.
If daughters without fathers seek that affection in strangers in unhealthy ways, what about gay sons? What happens to homosexual sons who do not have intimate relationships with their fathers? Or their fathers never accepted them or embraced who they were? How does that influence how those boys enter manhood and their own relationships?
So many questions but I don’t have the answers! They are just questions that I wish to see the world begin to embrace. My deepest gratitude to this departed soul who told his story shamelessly. Yes, the book can be a bit intense and graphic. If you can get passed that part and see it for what it really is- a human being desperate to know he mattered- you’re in for something special.