Thanks to the fortunes of History and the inevitable bending of the Universe’s moral arc towards justice, our children, gay and straight, are growing up in a world where it is easier than ever to be queer-positive (though nowhere near as difficult as it ought to be queer-negative; one unintended consequence of “tolerance” as an ideal for diversity is that it tacitly permits even people of good will to let bigotry go unchallenged in the name of tolerance — tolerance of the intolerant). We’ve a long way yet to go before we’re anywhere near full parity — hell, we’re a long way from even basic goals like appropriate and proportional media representation — but the progress even in my lifetime has been remarkable.
It’s hard to remember, now, just how prevalent the closet was, and how rare it was for any LGBT individual to be out of it 100%. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was still common for gays and lesbians to be out only to select subgroups within the circles of family and friends. Their siblings might know, for instance, but not their parents — certainly not their grandparents, and absolutely not their employers.
Fear was holding them back — the fear that they would be rejected, were they known to have an “incorrect” sexual orientation. In all too many cases, that fear was justified; don’t think for a minute that I am minimizing the deep-seated prejudice that our LGBT brothers and sisters have faced, and the bullying, ostracism, disownment and even violence that so many have endured. Those instances are very real, and every one is a goddam tragedy, and it is in memory of those victims that the vital work of cultural transformation must continue.
But there are many others, perhaps even a majority, for whom the process of coming out has been positively anti-climactic — who have discovered, with mingled shock and relief, that they have underestimated the capacity of their families and neighbors for understanding; that the love of their parents is less conditional than they had believed; that the truth can, indeed, set people free, and that the people they care about will usually prefer uncomfortable honesty to a pleasing lie.
I was lucky enough, or smart enough, to arrive at a queer-positive attitude fairly early on. It helped to grow up with bedrock of liberal values. I don’t remember ever talking specifically about politics with my parents, but I picked up their New Deal social progressivism by osmosis, and from the example of my father’s generation — who had kicked fascism’s ass — I learned to detest bigotry in all its forms.
So the groundwork was in place. But my ability to extend that liberalism to the realm of sexual orientation — to recognize that no matter where you personally might fall on the Kinsey scale, it’s a shitheel move to throw over a friend or family member on account of who they love, and that the heart wants what it wants, and that nothing, no vice statute or social programming, can or should legislate the attraction between two people — I attribute that mostly to repeated listenings to the Kinks’ 1970 single “Lola” during childhood.
Now, y’all know “Lola.” It’s a massive song, your genuine rock ‘n’ roll classic; and among such a huge audience, I suppose there must be people who take it as a joke song, or even as a cautionary tale. Maybe that’s even how Ray Davies meant it; I’ve never asked him. The situation, reduced to its bare bones, does sound superficially humorous: a naïve young man, drunk and horny, unwittingly picks up a drag queen, and hijinks ensue.
Except that there are no hijinks, really. L-O-L is only the beginning of what “Lola” is about. Once you get past the funny lines (and “Lola,” to its credit, does have some very funny lines), you find at its heart a turbulent emotional core. Just as The Crying Game — to which the scenario bears a surface resemblance — went beyond its well-hyped twist to explore the strange, highly-charged connection between its central characters, “Lola” is a work of real depth and complexity. The protagonist makes some discoveries not only about his date, but about himself, and about love — and “Lola” becomes, I think, a raucous celebration of love, and of the ways, however unlikely, in which people come together.
I was pondering this a while back when a friend of mine — Internet pal Andrew Weiss, in fact, before whose encyclopedic recall of popcult ephemera your Old Professor must bow in wonder — reminded me of a science fiction story in which (paraphrasing his words) “a soldier flees out into a post-apocalyptic wasteland to die of radiation poisoning rather than sleep with a tranny.”
I remembered the story, entitled “Ersatz,” by Henry Slesar (which, as far as I know, you can still read online), but my takeaway from it was rather different. Looking at Slesar’s little story — at only 1,200 words, it’s shorter than this column — it’s obvious that although he’s playing with sexual taboos in a deliberately-provocative way, his real topic is not homophobia, but the corrosive effects of loss.
It comes from the title on down. The German word ersatz literally just means “substitute,” but it has a very particular connotation that became familiar during the wartime privations of the early 20th Century — that of an inferior imitation, a desperation swap-out for something unavailable, something that is in truth irreplaceable. Slesar, born in 1927, was old enough to remember the scarcity and the rationing of World War II, when you’d drink chicory because you couldn’t get coffee, eat bread that was half sawdust, bake cakes using powdered eggs and paraffin, because you couldn’t get butter. If you’ve ever gagged on a tofu hot dog, then you know the special awfulness of ersatz.
The worst part about this is that no one is truly fooled. When forced into consuming ersatz goods, you’re not only damn aware of how terrible they are — you’re expected to be grateful that you’re getting anything at all, even to congratulate yourself for your ingenuity in getting by without the required ingredient. “Why, I can hardly tell the difference!” you say, as you choke down a “healthy brownie” made with carob. “These are so tasty, I almost forget I’m on a diet!” You force a brave smile, though the taste is like ashes in your mouth. “No, sir! I don’t miss chocolate at all,” you lie desperately, while tears of disappointment sting your eyes.
In Slesar’s story, the company of a woman comes to symbolize, for that young soldier, all that has been lost to him in the ravages of war. He has been too long alone is the badlands, and he’s half-dead with loneliness. Everything that was real and good in his world has been taken away, and he is expected to muddle through with half-assed substitutes.
Now, tofu in itself is no bad thing, properly prepared; and even carob, I’m told, has its charms. But when what you really crave is a knockwurst, or a Hershey bar, then these alleged “substitutes” are worse than unsatisfying — they are an insult, a torment, a painful reminder of the very thing that you lack.
Just so, the company of a gentleman may be a fine thing in itself — even the company of a someone playing with gender roles as (you should pardon the expression) a kink. But the way that the transvestite encounter is presented in “Ersatz” — as a Hail Mary substitute for the loving company of a woman, where the passion is as transparently fake as the gender but it’s all chalked up to doing the best you can with what you’ve got — only reinforces the hopelessness and deprivation of Slesar’s scenario. And that, ultimately, is what drives the soldier to his death; not gay panic, but despair.
“Lola,” like “Ersatz,” is coded throughout with images of inauthenticity, of trying to pass one thing off as another — from the bogus “champagne” that “tastes just like Coca-Cola,” to the “electric candlelight.” But it ends up in rather a different place. The crucial difference is that the narrator comes to accept that though Lola’s gender may be only a matter of presentation, her desire — and his — are indisputably real.
The initial verses float by serenely, as our young narrator, freshly-arrived in the big city, recounts his enchanted evening in the arms of a lovely creature named Lola. She’s everything a lad might need, is Lola — beautiful, physically affectionate, sexually knowing; just the sort of kind older lady that a young fellow wants to “make [him] a man.”
As the music gets a rowdier behind Davies’ mild voice, the narrator has flashes of doubt. Bits of Lola’s presentation aren’t adding up — she “walks like a woman and talks like a man” — but he largely attributes it to his own youth and inexperience. After all, as he himself admits, he’s “not the world’s most physical guy.”
Then things get real. And with the uncovering of the initial deception — in this case, more a matter of misunderstanding than outright falsehood — there comes moment of discomfort, even panic, as the lilt of the verses is suddenly interrupted by that unexpected, aggressive middle-eight; the relationship, brought to a crisis point, must be renegotiated.
But the narrator is able to do so successfully, and to move forward — because, dammit, he likes Lola; liked her when he thought she was a woman, and really, what’s changed? The emotional authenticity keeps them grounded and connected. Lola’s affection is genuine — freely offered and, in the end, freely accepted. In a “mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world,” where so much is fluid and inauthentic, here is something real: “I’m glad I’m a man, and so’s Lola.” Love remains the One True Thing that can save us from loneliness and despair. Love, no matter how unlikely the source.
And when you’ve taken the truth of that on board, you’ll let nothing stand in the way of it.