Graham Moore, the screenwriter behind The Imitation Game, took the stage at Sunday night’s Academy Awards and delivered a brave, stirring speech acknowledging his own teenage depression and resulting suicide attempt, drawing a parallel to the gay protagonist of his film, Alan Turing, and encouraging young people watching the show to “stay weird.” His speech was one of several highlights of an otherwise dull Oscar night, and brought tears to the eyes of many, myself included, delivered by a writer many viewers–myself included–assumed was a gay man. Then Graham Moore went backstage and delivered the lede that launched a thousand thinkpieces: “I’m not gay.”
June Thomas at Slate called the speech “stirring but confusing.” J. Bryan Lowder, writing later at the same publication’s Outward LGBT section, says the speech “reveals a problem in how we think about gayness.” At Buzzfeed, Ira Madison III accused Moore of “simplify[ing] oppression into a hashtag-ready catchphrase,” an act he labeled “deceptive to the point of near cruelty.”
The central complaint seems to be that Moore, who has not self-identified with the LGBT community, cannot understand the pain and social exclusion LGBT kids feel. “The social force behind anti-gay prejudice is far stronger and more pernicious than the animus against social outcasts,” writes Thomas. Lowder adds, “Bullying may suck for everyone, but being a Trekkie or socially awkward or straight edge or whatever just doesn’t have the same weight in that regard as being a sexual minority.” Madison pointed out that gay and trans kids “don’t have the privilege of staying weird in spaces that are only reaffirming to white men.”
While all of these points may be true on a sociological scale, they are totally off-base when applied to the subjective experience of specific individuals–to the point, to borrow a phrase from Madison, of near cruelty.
Let’s be clear, here: While The Imitation Game was a good movie in a lot of ways, it’s entirely valid to accuse the movie of whitewashing Alan Turing’s real-life expression of his sexuality, and the choice to script Turing as a stuttering savant does seem to serve a vision of him as heroic nerd, at the cost of historical accuracy. It’s also entirely fair to expect a man winning an Oscar for a script about a hero of gay history–one that was heavily marketed to gay audiences–would specifically acknowledge the LGBT experience. But Moore chose to give a difference speech, one that was not limited to the LGBT experience but addressed all outsiders under the umbrella of “weird.” Equating that to the exclusion of the gay community–or worse, invalidating the experiences of straight outsiders–is hurtful, even discriminatory.
Every individual is on his or her own journey, with his or her own experiences. Many people will feel ostracized or excluded, for a miscellany of reasons. Sexual orientation is certainly at the top of the list, but so are disability status, race, and even gender. Neurological disorders, language access, nationality or religion; even depression itself can be isolating, as the depressed person hides their pain and presents a brave face to the world. To reduce the many and varied experiences of the weird to “being a Trekkie or socially awkward or straight edge or whatever,” as Lowder does, is unfair to the extreme. In his speech, Moore doesn’t specify what tormented him a teen, but he says his troubles drove him to the point of suicide. Is that not enough evidence of his personal suffering? Can he not be suicidal, because he isn’t gay?
Increasingly, the experience of being bullied has become part of the queer identity, and while it’s true that bullying and suicide are demonstrably more common among queer teens, and that, as Lowder says, “the bully is the entire culture,” it doesn’t therefore follow that straight kids can’t experience bullying or exclusion in a way that is personally meaningful to them–in some cases, to the point where they feel suicide is their only escape. The fact that queer kids face a different and more pervasive hatred from society at large does not diminish or invalidate the experiences or emotional torment of straight kids.
I am an open and outspoken bisexual man. For seven years of my adult life, I self-identified and saw myself as gay–and still often self-apply the term as shorthand for the community to which I belong. But my first inkling that I was queer came when I was 15 or 16, when I’d already spent most of my childhood feeling like an outcast. Sure, you might argue that my social exclusion stemmed from my unconscious but perceptible sexual orientation, but mostly it came from being an anxious kid with unpopular interests and behaviors. I was bullied, in varying forms and degrees, from the second grade on. All along, I watched the kids who had it even worse than me, and was silently thankful that I was not one of them. On occasion, much to my shame today, I participated in bullying them. In tenth grade, starting at a new school, I was the victim of a class-wide conspiracy in which everyone pretended I was cool and popular, laughing behind my back at my confusion. No one once insinuated that I was gay.
While I don’t recall ever seriously contemplating suicide, the point is that I have experienced the outcast life from both perspectives–that of the queer kid and that of the nerd waiting until after school to play Dungeons and Dragons–and while I certainly see the use in raising awareness of queer teen issues, and especially the way those issues are institutionalized in schools and society, I see no value or benefit in devaluing the personal experiences of straight individuals.
“Weird” is not an exclusionary term, meant to lessen the legitimacy of LGBT people. It is an inclusive term, encompassing and embracing all those who feel themselves marginalized or excluded because of who they are, who feel erased or lessened by society’s push to conform and fit in. That push toward conformity continues into adulthood, as evidenced in the arguments framed by may of Moore’s critics, their astonishment that a man who speaks like him and wrote the film he did says he isn’t gay, and their not-too-subtle insinuations that Moore must be closeted. Reading some of the criticism directed at Moore–not for the content of his film, but for his reckless suggestion that straight kids can be depressed outcasts, too–it’s not hard to witness the difficulty of fitting in, even as an adult.
There’s value in calling out the specific threats and discrimination faced by queer kids, in defining specific identities by shared experiences. But there’s also value in finding labels we can all wear together. Graham Moore’s speech may not have been specifically for me, the queer teen, but it was for me, the introverted closeted nerd. It was for millions of other kids, straight and queer and questioning, who watched at home and saw a man, holding an Oscar statue, who had once felt as hopeless as they might feel. “Weird” is an umbrella all outcasts should be proud to share together.
Photo credit: Golden Globes