I’ve been seething over some really bad takes on the movie Cruising (1980). Both professional reviewers and casual commenters claim that the movie is homophobic, that it demonizes gays, that it doesn’t fit their idea of acceptable gay lifestyles.
If William Friedkin wanted to gaybash for 102 straight minutes, he certainly could have found an easier way to do it; he didn’t have to film at actual leather clubs and befriend actual Leathermen before hiring them as extras, didn’t have to portray obscure aspects of Leather culture, didn’t have to emphasize every sweat droplet and leather creak and smoky voice, didn’t have to make every single sex scene so real and intense, didn’t have to be the first Oscar-nominated director to bring uncensored gay culture to the big screen, didn’t have to take on the risky burden of directing one of the first and only films of its type, didn’t have to highlight the police brutality our community has always been plagued by. Hell, Friedkin doesn’t even know who the murderer is. Cruising required a lot of undue passion for an alleged homophobe.
I happen to be a really big fan of Cruising, and the biggest reason is what I interpret the film to be about: our society’s rigid definitions of sexuality and the serious tensions they create. In fact, I think that the direction of the film was tailored to reflect its own thesis. What Cruising does is turn on people like me, turn off people who aren’t like me, and maybe flip the switches on a few people who didn’t know they were like me. The movie’s infamous dancing scene (fuck you if you don’t think Pacino’s moves are the shit) is one big celebration of this metamorphosis through self-discovery; turns out sexuality is slipperier than society would lead you to believe. The biggest tension that Cruising and Leathermen at large examines is at the intersection of homosexuality and masculinity; many straight people and gay men alike are still contending with the existence of that intersection.
The gays who say Cruising demonizes gays are the same gays who say that the Leathermen don’t deserve to have a place in Pride. They’re proving the film’s point. The notion that Leathermen are some shameful secret that needs to be hidden from the general public lest we reflect poorly on the gay community is fucking disgusting. I read one commenter say: “This had to have helped Reagan and the Moral Majority get elected. Did gay men actually do this shit in 1980?” We did this then, we still do this today, and you’re the reason why the Moral Majority got elected, and why Trump got elected. It parallels what Friedkin said about the real-life murders that Cruising is based on: "people questioned their own sexuality and found a lot of question marks and took it out on gay people."