What ‘Priscilla’ Can Teach us this Pride
The movie that still makes me proud to be queer a quarter of a century later
Pride season is upon us and it makes me think of all things gay and glittery. It’s a time to celebrate all the wonderful aspects that make us queer and also to reflect on those things that create divisions within and between our communities and that keep us from being more united and powerful.
As a gay man, I reflect on those cultural moments that have mirrored my own queerness back to me resulting in a strong feeling of belonging. Looking back, I now recognize that those were moments of pride: the fulfillment of an unnamed yearning to connect with queer culture.
One of those times was when I first watched The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the tender age of 8. I remember being completely engrossed and riveted. When you see yourself being represented onscreen, it evokes a deep feeling of connection unlike any other; especially because those depictions were so few and far between back then. Priscilla did not only reveal queerness in a way that I had never seen before, it also struck a deeper chord — the unsettling sort that evokes both fear and excitement at the same time. I was left thirsty to become one of the queer people onscreen (I wasn’t quite sure which one yet), while also knowing that I was equally terrified of the barren, treacherous stretches of desert that I would have to traverse in order to become a fully-realized, bonafide homo.
Looking back, I now recognize that those were moments of pride: the fulfillment of an unnamed yearning to connect with queer culture.
For those who haven’t seen Priscilla or who need some reminding (the latter hopefully), it follows Tick (Hugo Weaving), Adam (Guy Pearce) and Bernadette (Terence Stamp) as they venture from the relative safety of Sydney across the barren outback to perform their drag act in Alice Springs, where Tick’s estranged wife and son live. Tick and Adam are gay men who do drag for a living while Bernadette is an older transgender woman who used to be a well-known performer. On their journey, they encounter a variety of characters, including dangerously homophobic sorts (in one town, their bus is vandalized with the graffiti wording AIDS fuckers go home; in another, Adam is nearly attacked by a homophobic gang) as well as more accepting and welcoming folk.
Each character represents a sort of queer archetype: Tick lives an openly gay life in Sydney while anxious about revealing his sexuality and his livelihood to his son. He appears to be stuck somewhere between fully accepting himself and being dragged back into the closet because of his one-time romance with a woman. He questions what type of father he would be as a gay man and a drag queen. Adam is flamboyant and obnoxious; yet this is merely his way of putting up walls to deal with his pain. He is crying out for attention and to be seen but often goes about finding it in destructive ways. And while Bernadette is older and more knowledgeable, instead of being a benevolent maternal figure, she occasionally comes off as a bitter, old queen who has built up a hardened exterior. As they venture out into the wide, barren Australian desert, they are also venturing inwards and need to learn how to love those aspects of each other that they hate most about themselves.
Priscilla is a glitter goldmine when it comes to taking a frank look at what it means to be queer. This probably explains its enduring cultural impact. There is so much that divides the queer community: race, gender-identity, how masculine or feminine we are, how well or badly we accord with heteronormative standards, our overly-critical inner gaze. But Priscilla also reminds us that it is all of these things that we should celebrate, and ultimately, it is these things that bring us together.
When Adam is nearly mauled by the homophobic gang, it is Bernadette who comes to the rescue: she unleashes her unique blend of mother and mercenary and she is invincible. She reminds me of the drag queens and trans women who fought so bravely on that night in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn. They weren’t afraid of anything or anyone because their journey taught them how to be fearless. It’s Adam’s disarming brand of camp and unapologetic queerness that endear him to Tick’s son, allow Tick to be himself and help father and son to begin an authentic relationship. It is our very queerness — our brokenness, our openness, our oddities — that bestows upon us our unique powers.
Pride season always leaves me feeling a bit like I did after watching Priscilla that first time: excited and yet equally apprehensive. Being queer isn’t easy, hasn’t ever been and isn’t likely to become much easier anytime soon. But as Bernadette says when comforting Adam: “Come on. Don’t let it drag you down. Let it toughen you up. I can only fight because I’ve learnt to.”
It is our very queerness — our brokenness, our openness, our oddities — that bestows upon us our unique powers.
Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, how much tougher we are and just how proud we are to be here and to be queer.
Krishen Samuel is a queer author with a master’s degree in Public Health and has previously written for the Huffington Post UK and the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide.
Follow me on Twitter @krishensamuel