National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, No. 67: The ‘Billy Elliot’ Case For Gay Identity

The hit single, “Born This Way,” by Lady Gaga – the enormously-talented Stefani Germanotta – is a huge, obvious “shout out” to gays, a big component of her following. It was her contribution to the “It Gets Better” offensive against bullying and hate that resulted from a spate of high-profile teen gay suicides in the fall of 2010.

But her “born this way” anthem can also be extended to Gaga, herself, as one who exhibited enormous talent at a young age, beginning piano at age four, writing a ballad by 13, and bringing her portable keyboard to sing at gay clubs and other venues in Manhattan’s Lower East side as a 14-year-old. Despite her flamboyant style and staging, at her core she’s phenomenally skilled, with a good heart, to boot.

“Born This Way,” for her, refers to her musical inclination and empathetic sensibility. That’s also the “This Way” that defines what sets gays apart in our early years, as well, the root of our most precious and critical contributions to humanity.

Little depicts this better than the amazing “Billy Elliot” story, both as Lee Hall’s Academy Award-nominated screenplay for the 2000 film version, and as the stage version, “Billy Elliot the Musical,” which debuted in 2005 in London, and has played worldwide before audiences totaling 7.5 million to date, and counting. In the musical version, which won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, upon arriving on Broadway, Hall’s story and lyrics are augmented by Elton John’s music.

The story is about a youth growing up in British mine country during the historic British Mine Workers’ strike in the 1980s, who at age 11 discovers and seeks to pursue his natural affinity for ballet against pressures from his family, community and the strife-ridden times. In the musical, it opens to “The Stars Look Down” sung by a chorus of mine workers, affirming a cosmic dimension to the story.

The movie version, starring Jamie Bell, begins with young Billy using his bed as a trampoline while listening to T-Rex singing “I danced myself right out of the womb” (“Cosmic Dancer”).

The story resonates strongly with gays who as youths found themselves with dispositions contrary to the norm (myself included). In a straight-male dominated conformist world where boys like sports and girls like dolls, inclinations toward other, non-conformist interests run usually encounter resistance.

The worst is brutal suppression of such tendencies. In Peter Weir’s brilliant 1989 film, “Dead Poets Society,” set at a prep school in the late 1950s that I consider a “prequel” to the modern gay liberation movement, the strongest pressure against a lad who wanted to pursue acting came from his father.

Such is often the case, but society fears taking that on, focusing instead on bullies in the school yard. The suicide in “Dead Poets Society” resulted from parental, not peer, pressure.

The beautiful film portrayed fellow students, inspired by the works of gay poet Walt Whitman, rising up against boorish, male dominated authoritarianism to cry out to the teacher fired for inspiring the tragic boy.

“O Captain, My Captain!,” quoting Whitman’s poetic eulogy to the death of Abraham Lincoln, they repeated as, one by one, they defied orders to desist to stand on their desks and pay homage to the man who’d kindled in them the fire of their creative spirits.

In the case of “Billy Elliot,” encouragement from a teacher steeled his resolve to challenge his family’s resistance, and he eventually prevailed, buoyed by his grandma and especially a letter from his deceased, loving mother that encouraged him: “In everything you do, always be yourself.”

The story underscored how gay creative sensibility can bring the best out in others, including Billy’s family and community (while Billy’s friend, Michael, is explicitly a “poof,” Billy remained, for the sake of mass audiences, ambiguous).

The eventual support by all for pursuing his potential brought Billy, in the musical, to dance with his own future – a stunning duet when Billy at 11 dances with Billy as an adult to the music of gay composer Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”

When auditioning for ballet school, and asked how he felt when dancing, he invoked imagery of an inner fire: “Like a fire deep inside, something bursting me wide open impossible to hide,” he sang. “And suddenly I’m flying, flying like a bird. Like electricity, electricity, sparks inside of me. And I’m free, I’m free.”

(This is precisely the Promethean gift and life-giving “inner fire” I’ve associated with our gay sensibility. Getting, or staying, in touch with it is key to life.)

Set against the backdrop of the British miner’s strike, the “Billy Elliot” story also affirms how, rightly, gay sensibility casts its lot with the underdog, the downtrodden, just as modern gay movement founder Harry Hay was first inspired by his role in the San Francisco longshoreman strike of 1934.

To be continued.