Why "Bros" Matters
Scout Colmant reflects on the importance of Billy Eichner's gay rom-com, and how it made him—someone who didn't come out until his 40s—feel seen.
Billy Eichner’s Bros was the first movie I have seen in person since January 2020. I really don’t like rom-coms or even comedies, to be perfectly honest. Yet, for a late-to-the-party gay who came out around age 40, a mainstream movie featuring people like me, screened at the multiplex on a Friday night, filled with fellow gays and supportive allies, was a small miracle my inner 80s teen could never imagine. I had to be there on opening night with my best bro (and fellow gay) Jeff, and we laughed until we cried.
I’m not saying Bros was a masterpiece of writing or acting. There have been many think pieces speculating why “Bros” didn’t earn more money at the box office opening weekend. Eichner treaded into somewhat dangerous territory commenting publicly that “straight people didn’t show up.” That caused an avalanche of backlash, witnessed on every social media comment thread that covered Eichner’s response. Some blamed the marketing—the first they heard of the movie was an article about the movie’s financial performance.
Unsurprisingly, a number of defensive straight people displayed their true bigoted colors declaring they had no interest in watching a movie about gays. Others simply pointed out they’re still not comfortable going to the movies in person during a pandemic. And more than a few gays had their own opinions—about the movie’s display of cis white male privilege, the many promiscuous hookup culture jokes, the secondary, supporting roles played by people of color—to them, the movie did nothing to further the LGBTQ+ equality movement.
For a late-to-the-party gay who came out around age 40, a mainstream movie featuring people like me, screened at the multiplex on a Friday night, filled with fellow gays and supportive allies, was a small miracle my inner 80s teen could never imagine.
It's important to pause for a moment and consider that when I was coming of age in 1984 (probably the last time I was an avid movie goer), gay content simply didn’t exist, or it was furtive and contraband. Thanks to either my subscriptions to Esquire or Skiing magazines, I somehow scored a free subscription to the International Male catalog (thank GOD I was the first one in my family to arrive home from school and work, and always took in the mail.)
As a sensitive redhead in parochial school in the 80s, a short boy who studied French and art and was “a loser at sports” (so declared my best friend at the time), I most definitely had a target on my back. But then again, so did almost every boy who demonstrated even the slightest bit of behavior that didn’t cohere with toxic masculinity. Straight boys who were hero athletes, or came across a little too pretty or vain, were also considered suspect. Being called “faggot” was a daily occurrence for me, and the worst thing you could say about a boy. In Catholic school culture, branding a girl “slut” was the equal counterpart.
Girls, by their existence, were the ultimate conquest of teenage boys in my school. They were to be pursued and hunted, pinned down, and taken. Listening to boys full of football team macho bluster talk about their female classmates, you understood that scoring was more important than the thrill of sex; it was necessary to earn their status as men. They’d bed girls (or lie and say they did) to score points among each other as much as it was for the joy of getting laid. Years later as I listened to Bret Kavanaugh’s testimony during his Supreme Court nomination hearings, I understood the reason none of the “boys” at the time, including our now Supreme Court judge, remembered anything about Christine Blassey Ford’s traumatic night. It wasn’t in any way eventful for them. Getting drunk and jumping on unwilling, terrified girls was unremarkable. It was Tuesday.
It's important to pause for a moment and consider that when I was coming of age in 1984 (probably the last time I was an avid movie goer), gay content simply didn’t exist, or it was furtive and contraband.
My hometown, a conservative suburban community on the Jersey Shore, might have been only fifteen miles from New York City, but it couldn’t have felt farther away. Homophobia was oxygen, along with its bigoted counterparts, racism, sexism, antisemitism, etc. I didn’t know one out gay person growing up. During my sixteen years of Catholic school, even our teachers made fun of gays. “Intrinsically disordered” is the official decree of Holy Mother Church, even today.
Being a gay teen in the 80s came with a very specific sense of dread and peril. Nightly stories on ABC’s “Eye Witness News” spoke of the “gay cancer” ripping through communities in major cities around the world. Jokes about the deadly AIDS epidemic flourished, and took root in a way with otherwise polite people, who would never joke about cancer or other chronic illnesses. No one, not even my funky art teacher, demonstrated any sympathy for gay people. Rock Hudson was the only gay person I “knew” (if you count an aged movie star on the cover of People magazine a friend). But he only came out as he was dying of AIDS. The message I heard every day, all day, was crystal clear: “If you’re gay, you’ll die a lonely, unsympathetic, grisly death. More than that, you’ll be a disappointment, hated and ridiculed by everyone.”
I took art classes at the School of Visual Arts on Saturdays when I was 15, and I remember exploring Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park after class, going into bodegas that sold porn, and catching a thrilling glimpse of gay magazines. I loved to meander the city and breathe in some notion of what adulthood might be like. Wandering among these colorful, stylish, funky men on a Saturday afternoon, I was exactly this naïve: Could they be gays? I wondered. Could I be like them? I looked down at my penny loafers and conservative Shetland sweater vest. No. Those men were peacocks, or better, rare beautiful birds of every color, self-confident, seemingly all-knowing, virile, sexual, urbane, chic New Yorkers. They were comfortable in their skin. By contrast, I was a kid whose Brooklyn-born parents let him roam the city until sundown, at which point I needed to get on NJ Transit back to suburbia, where “diversity” meant there were some Irish people and Italian Catholics (and a smattering of Jewish neighbors). Everyone I knew was white, conservative, and raging against anyone different from them. I had to get back into my cage.
I didn’t know one out gay person growing up. During my sixteen years of Catholic school, even our teachers made fun of gays. “Intrinsically disordered” is the official decree of Holy Mother Church, even today.
I stayed in that cage way too long. I continued to be a lifelong singleton and practicing Catholic, never having dated a woman past my mid-20s. I often say I was never in the closet, because I didn’t even pretend to have romantic leanings at all. I thought I was just unfit for love. That’s what I would say when the question of romance traveled around to me at parties, office chats, and happy hours. And once everyone got into the complexities of our 30s, no one really cared anymore. My friends were all too twisted up in the business of failed relationships or their early struggles of marriage and parenting to care about who I wanted to sleep with. I remained undeclared until my very best friend died of cancer at the tail end of our 30s. I saw in her death a wakeup call, that life could and would change in an instant. And I wanted love too, or some semblance of it in this often scary, always unknown, journey that is life. So, I began to tell the truth—my messy, complicated, confusing truth—little by little, person by person, until I was free.
Coming out as I did on the cusp of 40, I refer to it as a “soft launch.” Privately and gingerly I told my closest and oldest friends that I’m definitely not straight, without the less specific, definitive, truthful declaration: “I’m gay.” I sort of casually let them know that I might be gay, and that I’m definitely attracted to men, to float the idea past them. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get those words out to my father, who died about six months after I began my communications campaign.
I deeply regret that I let the voices and influences of hate from my childhood set my direction in my adult life. I deeply regret how long I took to finally feel comfortable in my own skin. Coming out later in life, I soon learned I was a disappointment to an unexpected audience: fellow LGBTQ+ people who whispered that I was a coward (OK, I was, but still), or had enjoyed an extended duration of privilege while they were out there doing the work of being counted and seen. To them, I want to say: I promise you I enjoyed none of this time as my inauthentic self.
I deeply regret that I let the voices and influences of hate from my childhood set my direction in my adult life. I deeply regret how long I took to finally feel comfortable in my own skin.
Recently I found myself blindsided in a conversation with someone I deeply respected, and considered a friend. We were at odds regarding vaccine requirements (I, in favor, she against.) What began as a friendly phone call got heated. She needed me to respect her antivaxx sympathy and I would not. “You know when I first met you, of course I didn’t approve of your lifestyle,” she began. “But when I got to know you, I found that you’re a really good person, too.” She meant that as a compliment for both of us, she having looked past her ideas about me, so why couldn’t I do the same for her?
I stopped breathing for a minute. “Owning a boat and spending weekends tooling around on the water is a lifestyle,” I explained. “Being gay is who I am.” I stopped short before tumbling into Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” explanation (but really, thank you, Gaga, because you couldn’t have made it any simpler.)
This (likely former) friend isn’t the only one with this bias. For those of us jaded by progress, it’s important to note homophobia is alive and well, and these days, having a moment. We’ve heard the rumblings that after knocking down Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court will tackle gay marriage, and gay rights in general. Transgender rights are foremost in the cross-hairs, baiting even liberal parents into taking a bigoted side with false flag arguments about women’s sports one day being dominated by women born genetically male. Our transgender brothers and sisters (and those who are nonbinary and gender fluid) urgently need our collective advocacy.
In light of all that, Bros felt especially welcome to me. That it featured hilariously smart, sympathetic, transgender characters (and actors) to me is something worth celebrating. Today, at 53, I live in Seattle, one of the most progressive cities in America, where I joke that being gay by itself is boring here. It hardly brings any notice. Still, a few years ago, walking down the street on a Saturday night dressed up for a Christmas party with my then boyfriend, a group of teen boys screamed profanities and threw a can of soda at us. Once, when kissing that same boyfriend goodnight on a downtown street corner, a man in a giant jacked up truck stopped at a traffic light and shouted death threats at us. (The Jersey Boy in me instinctually gave him the finger, which was probably not smart in retrospect.)
In light of all that, Bros felt especially welcome to me. That it featured hilariously smart, sympathetic, transgender characters (and actors) to me is something worth celebrating.
These experiences I’ve had since coming out are nothing compared to the injustices, crimes, and prejudice faced by gays all over the U.S., not to mention the unprecedented high rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ+ individuals, most especially youth. And that can seem like nothing compared to the many who live in countries where being openly gay is against the law of the land, punishable by death. They live with the knowledge that their own neighbors might want to stone them to death, just because of who they are.
So, to the Bros naysayers: I think it’s a moment to check our collective privilege. We’ve come a long way, for sure, but our work toward equality isn’t finished until everyone has equal rights. I, for one, am thrilled Bros merely exists. And I’m grateful to Billy Eichner for getting his silly, sweet movie made.
To the members of the LGBTQ+ community that feel it was lacking, or could have done more, or didn’t represent you and your identity: Consider this your challenge. Raise the bar. Tell the story of the world as you have witnessed it. We desperately need more media that represents the entire spectrum of human experience, that shows the world our fascinating differences, and brings us together by highlighting our innate craving for connection. We need more storytelling about love that makes us think, and teaches us about our crazy, beautiful hearts—about who and what we desire. I can’t wait to see what you will share.
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