How I Came to Understand the Cruelty of My Closeted Ex

Some freaks

My first time on a movie set was the movie I was producing. Please note, future filmmakers, I do not necessarily recommend this as a way to enter this wacky business we call “show.” Nonetheless, if you are interested in creating art, when you encounter a project and the prospect of its existence in the world feels “inarguable,” nothing can stop you from leaping in head first. Such was my experience the first time I read the screenplay for Some Freaks.

Written by my graduate school classmate Ian MacAllister-McDonald, Some Freaks charts the relationships between a trio of teenage outcasts: Matt, an insecure boy with one eye; Jill, a sharp and magnetic plus-size girl; and Elmo, a mostly closeted young gay man who is out to his friends but withdraws into homophobia among strangers. When Ian invited me to produce the project, I instantly said yes. I’d never seen these characters on-screen before, and certainly not as the leads of a story in which their romantic conflicts were a film’s chief concerns.

As we started putting the wheels in motion to make the movie, Ian asked me if I would play a role in the film. Ian and I had first collaborated when I performed a one-man show that he’d written in graduate school. (If you’re in the market for a neurotic werewolf, I’m apparently the guy to call!) So he very sweetly wanted to give me an opportunity to act in addition to my producing duties. 

Several months later, I was so in over my head producing that I’d almost forgotten that I would be playing “Copy Shop Guy,” a man who strikes up a flirtatious conversation with Elmo only to then be rejected with a homophobic slur and a not-so-veiled threat. Ely Henry, our gifted actor playing Elmo, proved a generous scene partner, and filming it was over in the blink of an eye.

It wasn’t until months later in the editing room that I realized how much I hated this scene. I fought like hell to cut it: “It’s confusing for Elmo’s arc! We need to shave time off! My performance just isn’t that great! I look bad in those glasses!” For a while, I won this war. But like a dismembered zombie hand, the scene crawled back into the edit. Everyone agreed: The scene must stay. Not long after, I realized why seeing myself in this scene was triggering such a visceral response: I’d dated an “Elmo.”

I don’t know if I can use the world “relationship” to describe the situation; he refused to ever admit we were actually in one. For a long time, I’d labeled it an “entanglement.” The word felt apt: a knotted, unhealthy, and damaging connection that isolated me from everyone in my life. While I was out at the time, he wasn’t. I don’t think I ever fully grasped the power of the closet until this incident, because suddenly I was dragged back into it, to sit in the darkness alongside him.

Amid our volatile encounters, I felt myself diminishing in every way imaginable. (I also blasted a lot of Mumford and Sons in my apartment, because what underscores internalized homophobia quite like dueling banjos?) Eventually, after a uniquely savage exchange, I cut off things for good. I felt such shame that it had taken me the better part of two years to extract myself. I tried to find the humor, publicly invoking one friend’s advice to only date “card-carrying homosexuals, minimum three references!” But in reality, it took longer to get over.

In the contested Elmo scene (watch below), you see my character biting back a response to Elmo’s cruelty. That’s what hit me: I’d made that same expression so many times before in my life. And maybe why I hated watching myself in this scene was that it still hit too close to home. It wasn’t my relationship to my own closet that made me rage against this scene; it was my relationship to someone else’s.

 

Looking at the film now, I’ve come to appreciate the much-debated scene, and I understand Elmo as a character more too. Elmo (and perhaps my “Elmo” also) puts himself in dangerous and problematic situations due to his own fears (as do all the characters in the film). He courts a dark path for himself, one that I have more empathy for than once I did.

When we were first developing the script, someone said, “You can’t have the gay character make those mistakes! We love him so much! He needs a happy ending!” “No,” I countered. “He is treated the exact same way as every other character. Being gay can’t excuse him from making bad decisions. Show his mistakes, even if they are awful and terrible ones, because to do otherwise is to not hold him to the same standard as everyone else in this film.” And I know now I had to allow myself to see my mistakes as well as my “Elmo’s.” After all, it takes two to entangle.

Yes, of course we need to depict healthy and positive relationships between young LGBT characters. We also need to depict unhealthy ones so that our audiences can learn from them. I certainly needed to. So I hope all the Elmos out there find this movie — I hope the people dating them do too.

LOVELL HOLDER is a producer of Some Freaks, a misfit-centered movie directed by Ian MacAllister-McDonald and starring Thomas Mann and Lily Mae Harrington. It premieres today in select theaters and VOD.

Tags: Commentary

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