Today my COVID-19 post steps away from the previous topics of corporate social responsibility, economic context or the disproportionate impact of the crisis on LGBT+ people to look at a popular culture phenomenon during the epidemic.
“It takes a long time to dissolve the bars of a mental cage”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
In the United States, the confinement cultural highpoint (or low point depending on your perspective) has been a bizarre Netflix documentary about great cats called “Tiger King”. The show, one of the most popular shows on television at the moment, discusses the ascendance and decline of an egomaniac zoo owner “Joe Exotic” who ends up going to jail for plotting the murder of his nemesis, an animal activist called Carole Baskin.
A savory mix of rural America bashing, murder, cute animals and insanity, “Tiger King” is one of the most-watched shows on Netflix at the moment.
“Tiger King” has gone viral (no pun intended) in the past few days. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, posts with the hashtag #TigerKing have been exploding as everyone seems to have something to share about this show. All news outlets have taken a few minutes away from their obsessive coverage of the pandemic to devote an article to the documentary. This weekend, a sizeable number of my friends dressed in leopard print performed Carole Baskin or Joe Exotic drag shows online while others posted homemade memes about the show.
What interested me about the show is that it comes on the heel of two other successful Netflix shows in the past four months featuring a gay character as the villain. First, in December 2019 there was the widely popular three-part series “Don’t F**K With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer” about Canada’s most infamous crimes, the murder of Lin Jun by gay cat-killer turned murderer Luka Magnotta. Then in January came “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez”, about a famous closeted football player who got imprisoned for the murder of Odin Lloyd. And finally, in March “Tiger King”. All three documentaries have incredibly strong ratings.
While the documentaries appeal to the voyeurism of America [disclaimer: I am French and watched all 3 shows with complete delectation] as well its deep interest in cute animals and football, and its fascination for murder dating back to OJ Simpson’s civil trial in 1997, there is definitely an underlying and unexplored common theme: the long-term psychological impact of homophobia.
All three documentaries allude to the sexuality of their main protagonists but fall short from exploring the role that queerness played in the psychological issues that the gay characters present such as their common insatiable appetite for external validation, a strong culture of secrecy and their difficulties dealing with truth and reality.
It does not take a Ph.D. in Social Psychology to understand the crucial role growing up gay in rather homophobic environments played in the personality development of Joe Exotic, Luka Magnotta and Aaron Hernandez. Yet Netflix made the strange choice to underplay this aspect and in fact downplay it. Similarly, in all three cases, the legal defense team did not invoke societal violence against gay men in court.
Not all gay people turn into murderers. In fact, I would argue that LGBT+ people tend to develop more empathy and generosity because of their intense experience of discrimination, isolation, and violence in their formative years. But we have to stop ignoring that all LGBT+ people carry the long-term consequences of growing up in intensely homophobic and transphobic environments.
My message to young LGBT people – often eager to portray themselves as resilient beings rather than victims – is to never minimize the deep injustice they experience particularly in childhood.
Ultimately, bigotry ends up affecting families, communities, and society-at-large. Homophobia and transphobia are self-inflicted wounds on our civilization – something which in time of crisis appear even more unnecessary than usual. At a time of a pandemic, it is worth reiterating that the harm done to LGBT+ children also amounts to a global health crisis – one that is tackled with tiny Band-Aids rather than the all-out assault we observe on COVID-19.
“Tiger King” is entertaining but it is also sad because, similarly to series “Don’t F**K With Cats” and “The Mind of Aaron Hernandez”, it is a reminder that personal, family, and community acceptance of one’s sexual orientation and gender identity ends up affecting the mental health of LGBT+ individuals for the duration of their lives.