National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 68: The Emerald Pin in ‘Velvet Goldmine’

Gay screenwriter Todd Haynes in his brilliant film, “Velvet Goldmine” (1998), has his own colorful way of depicting the “otherness” of our tribe in its opening segment. The baby Oscar Wilde, the famous gay “pop idol” of his day, arrives in a space ship and is planted on a doorstep in a basket with an emerald pin attached to his blanket.

The subject of the “Velvet Goldmine” story (granted, this is how I view it) is the emerald pin, its passing on from one bearer to the next. In 1955, 55 years after Wilde’s death, the pin appears in the dirt to a lad whose bloodied face had just been planted there by bullies in a school yard.

That lad grows up to be Jack Fairy, who Haynes describes in the interview by Owen Moverman which appears as a preface to the published screenplay, “remains the kind of lost originator of the whole glam thing,” who is “the ‘real’ thing.”

(The movie is ostensibly about the glam rock craze of the early 1970s, when gay liberation exploded).

Jack Fairy comes home with the emerald pin and, according to the screen direction, “Clasps the emerald pin to his shirt, stops in front of the mirror and looks up. Jack’s lip is still bleeding. He touches it. Gently, he rubs the blood over his lips like lipstick.”

Then a female voice-over says, “Jack would discover that somewhere there were others quite like him, singled out for a great gift. And one day…the whole stinking world would be theirs.”

In the film, Jack Fairy is a marginal figure, appearing only at the beginning and at the end. But with his “instinctive need to camp it up” (according to Haynes) he kicks off the glam rock fad, which is then carried to fame by the film’s main character, Brian Slade (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a David Bowie-type figure.

While Brian Slade tries out a same-sex relationship with the character Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), an Iggy Pop-type, it’s not real for him, just as his musical act is not Jack Fairy’s “real thing.” Slade soon arranges for his own disappearance.

But Slade’s music and erotic same-sex on-stage antics nonetheless awaken the gay spirit of another player, the journalist character Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale). Thus, the emerald pin is passed behind, so to speak, the main action in the film from Fairy to Stuart, from the one “real thing” to another.

Beneath or behind the fad lay the passing of the emerald pin, the marker of our authentic gay tribe, we who are “singled out for a great gift.”

The film accurately depicts both the meteoric rise and, through Brian Slade’s figure, the rapid crash of the post-Stonewall gay liberation scene.

While Fairy and Stuart are genuine emerald pin-bearing gays, the ranks of youths pouring into the glam rock scene were swollen massively by a new social encouragement to play with gay sexuality. It became a countercultural imperative to engage in as much sex with as many partners as possible, which soon turned the gay movement from a beautiful liberating experience for gays into a compulsive drug and sex addicted, disease-crawling urban nightmare.

The nightmare of loveless, obsessive, hedonistic excess worsened through the 1970s as gifted gays who’d come to major urban centers to hitch their wagons to stars trashed their creative aspirations in favor of an unrelenting pursuit of sex.

A gay activist in the immediate post-Stonewall period, I was eyewitness to the swarm of young runaways arriving onto the streets of San Francisco. They’d arrive rosy cheeked, precocious and full of fun, even though many had been kicked out of their homes because they’d “come out” or otherwise offended their parents.

But within weeks, I’d see them undergo what became a painfully-predictable transformation. Their appearance and demeanor turned pale, sunken and ashen. I couldn’t figure out why: was it due to drugs, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, too much sex? Probably all the above, and more.

Over the course of the 1970s and through the 1980s, this process led to the literal destruction, mostly from HIV/AIDS, of hundreds of thousands of promising young lives. Countless emerald pins, promises to humanity of “great gifts,” were lost.

It was too much for me. I bailed from my leadership role in the gay movement in 1973. My “coming out” having cut me off from my family completely, my radicalism alienating me from mainstream career options, I clung to savagely my emerald pin, figuratively speaking, through those tortured years. I struggled on the margins of society, hoping to make a positive difference working with strident activists who secretly held me in contempt because I was gay.

I clung to my emerald pin until something changed, and only when a test for HIV was finally provided in 1985, and I was cleared of an immediate death sentence, did I begin to reclaim my life.

To be continued.