They do gay differently over there

Canadian Ellen Page is a talented actress with a colourful and storied career spanning an array of genres, but her most recent beat is travel television, with Gaycation, a show in which she trots across the globe getting a glimpse into gay culture. But, as is perhaps inevitably the issue with things like this, the show is a lot more complicated than it lets on, and it takes on a distinctively colonial, gawking aspect when viewed more closely, after the rose-coloured glasses are removed and people can step away from their sense of cultural superiority, that we here in North America and Europe do gay acceptably.

At Harlot, Tovah Leibowitz described it as “gay imperialism,” a very apt way of putting it.

At its core, Gaycation involves the perpetual restaging of an imperial fantasy that constructs (gay) tourism as an adventure into uncharted territories rife with exotic seductions. In the first episode of her ‘exploration,’ Ellen travels to Japan where she and Ian adamantly search for ‘LGBT’ subjects who properly narrate their lives according to a Western identity politics that privileges ‘coming out’ (the more rainbow flags the better!) and legislative measures, namely gay marriage, as the dominant barometers of social progress.

Leibowitz articulates the myriad problems with the series — the tendency for tourism to displace and marginalise, the disruption and abuse of ‘exotic’ cultures and settings, and narrow, binaristic, Western views of sexuality and gender that Page and her costar attempt to force upon the people they interview and interact with, turning them into objects without any social or political agency. It’s an excellent commentary on both the show itself and the booming industry of LGBQT tourism, something that’s slowly eating the globe as people with disposable income take advantage of nations eager for their dollars.

Tourism in general perforce involves a certain level of imperialism. People travel because they want to see ‘the other,’ and to experience it through Western eyes — whether they’re objectifying Indigenous people in South America or gawking at maiko in Kyoto. Usually it is people who are objectified by this gaze, with tourists treating them like part of the landscape, something to goggle at rather than individual human beings with their own lived experience. Programming like Gaycation underscores the notion that things are ‘better’ here, singling out homophobia and challenges faced by queer communities as examples of oppression and hatred.

But this isn’t a simple wrong or right issue — and the countries they single out as filled with horrors are characterised as uniformly awful for queer and trans communities in a way that is deeply discomfiting, erasing lived experiences and the work of activists, advocates, and organisers. To put it in perspective for Westerners: It’s like a television presenter arriving in the United States and deciding that the country is deeply, dangerously transphobic because of the rising number of bathroom bills sweeping conservative states, while completely ignoring the huge steps the trans community is taking, the critical community organising, the role of marginalised trans people in claiming autonomy and carving out a critical, safe, important space in the landscape. This kind of erasure would be rightly criticised as a false and damaging characterisation, but people don’t blink an eye when they sit back on the couch for a lecture on the horrors of being gay in Jamaica, or consume popcorn while they watch a grossly inaccurate discussion of gender and sexuality in Japan.

The goal of so much of this show seems to be to talk about all of the terrible things ‘over there,’ in some kind of great nebulous ether, or to talk about how wild and fascinating and exotic queer culture is in other parts of the world. There’s no acknowledgment of the fact that these two white, cis, middle class, nondisabled people have very specific experiences of sexuality and gender, and that they’re benefiting from tremendous privilege as they travel. No discussion of differing experiences and the clear, simple, known reality that sex and gender are not universal and easily defined: Every culture has its own relationships to these important aspects of identity, and these relationships must be explored, but without turning them into objectified subjects of gawking and intrigue.

Tourism is an incredibly complex political and social subject, and communities interact with it in hugely varied way. This idea of a fun, hip ‘gaycation’ tends to sell their trip as a romp across the globe without deep analysis of the issues they’re exploring — while the title is clearly intended to be a bit tongue in cheek, I’d be much more interested in a film series starring creators from their own nations talking about their own culture, what they see and experience, because sexuality and gender are so incredibly varied, and those with a fixed, Western construct in their minds can’t understand that.

A series of shorts directed by and starring people from these regions, whether Brazil or Japan or anywhere else, would be really fascinating, and I would totally watch it. Instead of using a medium for a colonial discussion, it could be turned into a tool for promoting voices that often go unheard in mainstream North American culture. Page may be the star vehicle that Viceland has hitched itself to in order to sell the series, but it offers little of the participants in their own voices, the thing that would make the series truly new, engaging, and valuable.

Image: Ellen Page & Omar Sy, Gage Skidmore, Flickr