Oct 28, 2019

Ronan Park and Jack Vidgen: The Travails of Gay Pop Stars

(Jack Vidgen)

Quite by accident, through a comment from a performance arts colleague of mine, I stumbled across the recent bios of two boy teen singing sensations, both of whom made a big splash worldwide 8 years ago. The first, Jack Vidgen, won Australia's Got Talent Contest in 2011 at the age of 14, primarily for his powerful renditions of Whitney Huston and Adele songs. As one of the judges said to him, "|You've got a black woman inside of you." Jack was a cherubic blond teen at the time, a bit shy and self-effacing, but with a vocal instrument of unparalleled power, maturity and intensity. His audition for the show, singing Whitney Huston's I Have Nothing, reached over 9 million views on YouTube and earned for him considerable international interest from music industry execs. He was touted as the "next Justin Bieber", not in terms of his voice - which is far more powerful than Bieber's, but in terms of his potential earning power $$$.

Ronan Park
The second boy, a year younger, was Ronan Park, a smaller and even more cherubic 'choir boy', also equipped with a vocal instrument of extraordinary operatic depth and power. Ronan was even more of a shock than Jack Vidgen, because of his diminutive size. Where did all that gorgeous sound come from? Ronan was the runner-up in Britain's Got Talent contest that year, but in practical terms (record contracts, media attention) he was really the show's de facto  winner. He also was touted as "the next Justin Bieber" teen sensation. Except that ...there was just something too obviously gay about him, whereas Jack gave off no such clues in voice and mannerisms.

Both boys were touted as 'the next Justin Bieber' teen sensation from different parts of the world and on different continents and there were numerous articles in the media comparing them. And then...within a few years of their respective 'wins', after albums and touring, both boys at the age of 16 disappeared from the limelight, gave up singing publicly and retired back into school boy normalcy, or so it seemed. And all that momentum built up by their wins and media attention - fizzled out.

And then, after a five year hiatus, both boys this year - quite independently of one another - made their comebacks. As of this writing, both young men, Jack Vidgen 22 and Ronan Parke 21, are struggling to make an impact, but they have nothing close to the following they had eight years ago. Yet both young men seem much stronger and more self-assured than their younger selves, and both have extraordinary voices and talent. They also have a special story to tell.

What happened?

Being gay is what happened.

Once in the limelight, both young boys were subjected to massive on-line bullying about their sexuality, Ronan Park especially. Both boys were scrutinized minutely, every gesture, every word, every action and subjected to viscous homophobic attacks. Both received death threats on social media and even sadder, both boys were subjected to intense pressure from their record company execs to 'mute' their sexuality or risk of sacrificing their careers. And both boys attempted to comply, with the result that they felt they were disconnecting from their authentic selves. As a result both boys felt a need to pull back, simply out of self preservation.

I'm not going to go into detail in this short blog post, because it's better to let the boys, now young men,  speak for themselves. Of course, they attribute their withdrawal from public life to numerous reasons and influences, but as you listen to them, it becomes clear that being gay and the hatred that brought them on social media together with the pressure put upon them to hide their sexuality were the dominant factors that led to their withdrawal. Sad, terribly sad, on one level. On another level, however, both young men came to realize that these negative experiences were meant to be a learning experience for them, and as well known public figures they had a responsibility to witness to their experiences and speak out.

But it is at this point that their stories diverge somewhat. Ronan Park, in a wonderful article in the gay magazine Attitude, is quoted as saying:
Ronan claims he attempted to come out to his parents when he was 8 years old, but they told him, "Yea, yea, we know. You're gay." And went back to watching the tv. In other words, no big deal and he lived his childhood in that climate of acceptance and normalcy. As a result, he was genuinely shocked by the hateful comments he received on social media about his appearance, mannerisms, gestures, voice because his parents had done such a good job shielding him from this kind of hatred. It came as something new for him, but it also led him to take a pause in his music career and 'leave the stage'for five years. He is now all the better for it. Mature, poised, self-assured and confident, with a story to tell and a message to convey.

Jack Vidgen was in another place psychologically when he got hit with the homophobic hate unleashed on him through social media. As he explains, he was going through puberty at the time and very confused about his sexuality. What did being gay really mean? The hatred had an impact. At the age of 16, he went into a tail spin, left family, friends and Australia behind and went to live in Hollywood, California for a year on his own, attempting to launch his career in the US. He has spared us the details of that year, except to say that he was 'exposed' to certain influences and experiences that no 16 year old should have to face. One shudders to think what these experiences might have been for this blond cherubic teen - in Hollywood of all places! After a year, he just wanted to return home and be with his mom again. So he returned to 'schoolboy' normalcy for 5 years.

Of the two young men, Jack appears to have been the most wounded by the experience of homophobic hate , but he also comes across as a strong, reflective, self-aware young man who has found the means to heal himself. He is mature beyond his years.

Here is his YouTube interview in which he discusses the bullying he received and the effect it had on him personally and on his career.

Ronan, on the other hand, with that very special upbringing by tolerant parents, seems rock solid in his identity as a gay man and gay artist. There was no journey of discovery for him as a gay boy, he always knew.

Here is his YouTube video describing cyber bullying:

Prior to writing up this post, I did a google search of both of them together. While there are numerous articles comparing them in 2011, there is nothing out there I could find that compares their respective experiences of being bullied for their sexuality and the impact this had upon them and their careers. No one seems to have made the connection. But the parallels and timing are uncanny. Both boys 'win'  their respective contests in 2011, both are touted as the next teen singing sensation, both find themselves bullied on social media and pressured because of their sexuality, both - at the same time - withdraw from singing publicly, both spend five years in seclusion, and both decide -in the same year - to return to public life as pop singers. Its almost as if they planned it together, but there is no evidence that they even know one another personally.

There's a lot more to say about these two openly gay pop stars, who have now become ambassadors to gay young teens, but I leave it to the interested reader to follow up. Ronan has numerous YouTube videos where you can hear his extraordinary voice in its mature form,

Here is Ronan singing "Never Enough" from The Greatest Showman. A sensational cover. As of this writing, Ronan is appearing all over the UK, but usually to small audiences. With a voice that would leave most pop stars in the dust, he is struggling to find an audience.

And here is Jack Vidgen's audition this year for Australia's The Voice. He chose to enter this contest as his way of returning to the stage. Yes, his appearance has changed dramatically, but I'm not going to comment on that here.

Amazing parallels and coincidences, almost as if these two extraordinary gay pop sensations were being led by the same compassionate, all-wise, all-loving Star. Blessings on them both.

Feb 22, 2019

In The Closet of the Vatican: New Investigative Study

In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy - just published today, February 22nd, 2019.

Thanks to Kittredge Cheery of the wonderful gay Christian blog,  QSpirit Blog, for the heads up about the publication of this major new investigative study into the secret homosexual double lives of many priests (and bishops and cardinals) in the vatican - and the way this affects Church teaching. I just purchased my kindle edition today. A must read for those of us Gay/Lesbian folk who feel connected to the Christian tradition and a sense of vocation to witness to being spiritual and gay within the Christian community.

Here is Amazon's blurb:

In the Closet of the Vatican exposes the rot at the heart of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church today. This brilliant piece of investigative writing is based on four years' authoritative research, including extensive interviews with those in power. 

The celibacy of priests, the condemnation of the use of contraceptives, the cover up of countless cases of sexual abuse, the resignation of Benedict XVI, misogyny among the clergy, the dramatic fall in Europe of the number of vocations to the priesthood, the plotting against Pope Francis – all these issues are clouded in mystery and secrecy.

In the Closet of the Vatican is a book that reveals these secrets and penetrates this enigma. It derives from a system founded on a clerical culture of secrecy which starts in junior seminaries and continues right up to the Vatican itself. It is based on the double lives of priests and on extreme homophobia. The resulting schizophrenia in the Church is hard to fathom. But the more a prelate is homophobic, the more likely it is that he is himself gay.

'Behind rigidity there is always something hidden, in many cases a double life'. These are the words of Pope Francis himself and with them the Pope has unlocked the Closet.

No one can claim to really understand the Catholic Church today until they have read this book. It reveals a truth that is extraordinary and disturbing.

Feb 11, 2019

Wanderer by Sarah Leon: Gay Debut Novel of the Year

A very young Sarah Leon published this heat-wrenching  love story in French in 2016 when she was barely twenty years old. Three years later we are blessed to have this exquisite English translation of the work  by John Cullen, a translator of note with many books to his name. It is one of the most affecting love stories you will ever read.

Wanderer has already been nominated to Lambda as the gay fiction novel of the year. It is a love story of such tender sorrow and grief that it tears the heart to read it. Words fail when it comes to reviewing a book of such extraordinary sensitivity to all the modulations and nuances of unrequited love. 

Wanderer tells of the relationship between a boy of 15 (when the couple first meet), Lenny Weick, and a young music composition student of 25, Hermin Peyre.  When  Lenny  walks into the piano store where Hermin is working to put himself through music school and asks to play one of the pianos, the young composer, Hermin Peyre, recognizes that the boy has a prodigious talent that needs nurturing. He provides him with the encouragement and guidance he needs, as well as directing him towards more accomplished piano tutors than himself.  This guidance finally propels the boy into becoming in time one of the most renowned pianists of his generation. However, at the age of 17, on the edge of his spectacular career, Lenny disappears from Hemin's life without a word of explanation. 

Spoiler Alert: The book opens ten years after Lenny's mysterious disappearance from Hermin's life. Hermin has retired to the Bourbonnais Mountains in the center of France to live a hermit's existence and compose his music. He nurtures a profound grief over Lenny's disappearance - without fully understanding or acknowledging the nature of the love between them, the love that dare not speak its name. This is the heart of the tragedy between these two young men, fated to be together in love, but blocked by Hermin's inability to come to terms with his true sexual nature.

Now, quite unexpectedly, Lenny arrives at Hermin's door in the Bourbonnais after his ten year hiatus. Over the next several days, the two men explore the nature of their relationship and the reasons for their inability to come together and recognize the true nature of their love. Lenny announces that he is giving up the piano altogether. It takes several days before Hermin understands - and gets Lenny to admit - that one of the reasons for this is that Lenny is seriously, even fatally ill, with tuberculosis.  

But it is not the only reason for his decision. The real reason, buried deep in Lenny's heart, is his profound grief over Hermin's inability to accept their love and to openly admit that he loves Lenny in the same passionate way the young man loves him. Lenny rebukes Hermin for never realizing that the only reason Lenny played the piano at all was to express his love for Hermin, and to play with him and be with him. Life and his beloved piano have no meaning for him without Hermin's love.

As I read these words of mine, they seem unbearably clumsy compared to the astonishing beauty and subtlety of Sarah Leon's prose, translated for us by John Cullen. At first, Lenny is tentative and cautious about the hints he gives out about his true motivations, afraid that he will frighten Hermin away. Hermin, for his part, picks up on the clues and they force him to face his true nature for the first time in his life. It is a painful process, with many doubts and hesitations on Hermin's part. He is threatened by the implications of what is happening because he had never thought of himself in 'that way', it is not part of his self-image.

Too much plot here, perhaps,for a book review. The tragic dimension of the story is revealed when we understand just how seriously ill Lenny really is - because he has refused medical treatment out of despair over his lost love for Hermin. Only now, in the mountains, he hopes that Hermin will acknowledge that he is 'like' Lenny in 'that way' and that he loves Lenny as Lenny passionately loves him. If this love is acknowledged, then Lenny will seek the medical treatment he needs. But alas, Hermin hesitates, prevaricates, retreats - 

Summarized in this fashion, the story might appear mawkish and sentimental, but I can assure you it is nothing of the kind, not as it is fleshed out by Sarah Leon. We believe every word of it and long for a healing and reconciliation between the two young men.

The story climaxes through an experience of union with nature at a waterfall in the forest, with the dying Lenny in Hermin's arms The whole experience feels to Hermin like a 'mystical marriage', a chaste consummation. But even then, after this moment of spiritual revelation, Hermin still hesitates.

The inspiration for the whole book is the music of Franz Schubert, whom both men love - especially his  the Wanderer Fantasy and the Winter Journey. I would recommend that the reader listen to Schubert's music while reading the book. It is what I did and it complements the story exquisitely, sorrowfully, poignantly. 

Well to keep in mind that Schubert died at the very young age of 31 (of complications from syphilis). And Lenny - at the very young age of 27.

Nowhere in the book are the conventional terms or phrases used - gay, coming out, out of the closet, repression. Lenny is well aware of the difficulties Hermin is facing, but the references to these painful issues for many gay men is subtle and indirect. 

Lenny - full aware of his true nature and his love for Hermin,  but afraid of frightening Hermin away.
Herman - slowly becoming aware of the true nature of the love between Lenny and himself - but hesitant, timid, fearful - a caution that has tragic consequences, which will remain with Hermin for the rest of his lonely days.

Gay debut novel of the year 2019.

Jan 18, 2019

Boy Erased and Gay-Conversion Therapy Films of 2018

We've been singularly blessed this past year to have two superb film treatments of the controversial 'gay-conversion' therapy, still legal, unfortunately, in 36 US states. The first, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the story of a teenage girl forced into the therapy program by her conservative guardians, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Sundance film festival. This win ensured the film some necessary and well deserved fame, because without it the movie would have been relegated to the small art film houses, as a gay gender film, interesting for its sensitive depiction of this unfortunatel situation, but not the most compelling drama. I still recommend the film highly, for any treatment of this subject from such a sympathetic, critical viewpoint is welcome. And I really loved the trio of young teens in the film who form a sympathetic, supportive bond with each other and their thrilling escape into freedom at the end. Soul inspiring.

The second film, however, Boy Erased, of which I spoke in the previous posting, is a very compelling film that was catapulted into the mainstream by its powerhouse cast, veteran megastars (and graduates of the same acting school in Australia) Nicole Kidman and Russel Crowe, together with young and rising star, Lucas Hedges, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for best performance by an actor. And lest I forget, sizzling pop star and openly gay Troy Sevan has a cameo performance in the film and a very impressive acting debut it is. So with this kind of cast, the film's reputation was ensured and a wide audience appeal guaranteed.

Based upon a true story (we see shots of the original boy and parents at the close) the film is anchored by the dynamic, very powerful lead performance from young Lucas Hedges (nominated for too many awards and wins to mention). And while there are bigots aplenty to satisfy any righteous viewers, what most struck me about the film was it's compassionate and even-handed treatment of the conservative Christian community in America. We are shown a variety of good, decent, compassionate and well meaning conservative Christians who have been shaped by their religious (mis) education about gay people and who are struggling with the contradictions. This is especially true of Hedges Christian pastor father, played by Russell Crowe, a man struggling between his deep and genuine love for his son and his fundamental Christian beliefs. The film makers have wisely avoided the easy cliches and righteous judgmental-ism frequently meted out to this subject. The staff of the treatment center are blind and odious enough, but not so the parents - or the conservative Christian doctor, who tells Lucas she is both Christian believer and scientist, and the scientist in her tells her Lucas is a perfectly normal, healthy young man, his sexual inclinations included. Perhaps influenced by the intentions of the family, this is a film designed to build bridges between the conservative Christian churches and the world view of the social scientists today that 'gayness' is not a choice, nor is it a biological defect or an psychological abnormality. The film attempts to show the way. It's subtlety and nuance, and it's deep understanding of the complexities of this situation (no easy judgments here) places it far above most films we've seen about this subject, including the previous Mis-Education of Cameron Post.

One final comment - and a reference to my previous posting on this film. Boy Erased is in some key respects similar to the hit gay romance of last year,  Call Me by Your Name, which raised the young Timothee Chalamet to stardom and garnered him an Academy Award nomination for best actor. In both films, the powerhouse casts ensured an openness on the part of general audiences and a wide popularity. These are not art-house gay films, but classics that made it into the mainstream and did the gay/lesbian/transsexual community immense good.

Boy Erased, however, went one step further than Call Me By Your Name, because of the candor and honesty of it's young star, Lucas Hedges. Whereas the stars of Call Me By Your Name, Arrnie Hammer and Timothee Chalament, deflected any questions about the own sexuality and what the film process itself might have revealed to them about their own sexual natures, Lucas Hedges came out with a statement announcing himself as "not totally straight," but somewhere on the continuum of human sexuality between bisexual and straight. This is not so remarkable as a scientific observation as it is for breaking a taboo. Psychologists have been telling us for decades that human sexuality is spread out on a continuum, but it is still all too rare in 2019 for a noted Hollywood actor to admit this about himself. Lucas Hedges has 'outed' himself as a perfectly average young heterosexual male, not ashamed to admit his small portion of gayness, and we in the gay community are all the better for it!

Timothee Chalamet
p.s. This reminds me of a comment made by Justin Timberlake on a talk show when asked how he felt about one of his former band mates in NSYNC who came out as gay. When asked if he was shocked by the revelation or found it hard to accept as a straight male performer, Timberlake snapped back, "I'm gay enough!" In other words, don't put my friend in one 'weird' category and me in the other so-called normal one, completely separate from him and his admission. Well done!

Jan 14, 2019

'Boy Erased' Star Lucas Hedges Comes Out as 'Not Totally Straight'

This story is about four months old, so I'm a little late coming to it. But I feel it is quite significant. I've borrowed the title straight from Out MagazineA young up-and-coming American actor, Lucas Hedges, star of the 'gay conversion therapy' film, Boy Erased, with Nicole Kidman, came 'out of the closet', according to reports, by admitting that he was not totally 100% straight.   He explained that during his high school years, he was primarily sexually attracted to his own  male friends. Not till his early twenties, did he discover that he really preferred women. He further clarified that he was neither gay nor bisexual, but some where in between bisexual and straight. 

A health teacher in his high school had explained to his class that human sexuality exists on a continuum, with human beings spread out along the continuum, not simply placed in one of three boxes, gay, straight,, and bisexual. In other words, there are infinite variations in human sexuality, with groups of people clustered around the main poles of 'gay, straight and bi' with subtle differences in degree between one person and another. Well, this has been common knowledge among psychologists for years, so it's surprising it has taken so long for this common insight to reach the mainstream.

Lucas explained that since he had taken on the role of a young gay boy subjected to gay coversion by his fundamentalist Christian parents, it was important for him as an actor and a public figure to be as honest as possible about his human sexuality. I can't help thinking this is a reference to last year's 'gay hit', Call
Me By Your Name, in which the two 'straight' actors of the film, Arnie Hammer and the remarkable young actor, Timothee Chalament were continually asked about their own sexuality and whether working together on the film revealed anything to them about their own sexual natures. Given the nature of the film and it's cultural importance for gay people, I felt the quesiton was entirely fair. Yet, both actors -with immense charm - deflected the question every time. This highlights my point above. Culturally, we are still at that point where it is extremely difficult for public figures to admit they might have some small degree of bisexuality in their natures. Its either one or the other, gay or straight - with the bisexuality category sitting there designed to include everyone else. Lucas seems to be referencing the behavior of these two actors last year. He is acknowledging that there is a certain responsibility an actor should take on when assuming a role of this nature. Honesty and openness. 

Needless to say, the story of Lucas's admission caused a lot of comment, and I'm not sure why, except to say there are still a lot of cultural controls in place about what we may and may not say, and may and may not think in our culture about human sexuality. . I was a high school teacher for over thirty years, and for five of those years (in the 1990's), I was part of a sex education team and we also taught our students about the continuum of human sexuality. So there is really nothing novel about young Lucas' revelation. What is novel is that it is a public comment, because even now, in 2019, some people are shocked by the suggestion that straight males can have within them some element of same-sex attraction that doesn't
change their predominantly heterosexual nature. And now here we are - finally - with a young Hollywood movie star (nominated for two academy awards already in his young career) bringing the subject up and out into the open. What young Lucas has done here is out himself as a perfectly average, healthy young heterosexual male. The significance of this for young adolescents, especially gay teens, can't be exaggerated. A young 'straight' celebrity has admitted to having some element of gayness in his nature - thereby normalizing gay inclinations as powerfully as any gay celebrity 'coming  out'. 

Judging by the petty gay-bitchy comments under the article in Out Magazine, there are still people within the gay community who don't get the point. This is a  victory for us, and Lesbian American talk show host, Ellen Degeneres, was quick to recognize this fact and invite young Lucas onto her show. Fortunately, the comments under the YouTube video were much more enlightened than those in Out Magazine. We should all be grateful for Lucas' candor and honesty.