A Different Kind of Coming-Out Story

Photo: Chnnel Four

There’s a scene from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie that has stuck with me ever since I first saw it in London’s West End — and it’s one the new musical film adaptation, streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, September 17, gets exactly right: “Work of Art.” The title character is forced by a spiteful teacher to walk through his school’s halls in poorly-applied drag as punishment for spending class time doing his makeup in the bathroom. Jamie turns his public embarrassment into personal fantasy: The flashes of his classmates’ phones as they sneak photos give way to a flashbulb-lit runway, the teacher’s taunts transform into a thumping house beat, and Jamie invites his makeshift audience to his first-ever drag show at a local club later that night.

The number is a stunning masterclass in the self-encouragement required of queer people in order to make something out of the crumbs given to us by a heteronormative society; these small exercises in personal fantasy can carry a person forward in a world that often feels designed to push us down. The scene destroys the idea of traditional masculinity in favor of turning yourself into, yes, a work of art.

Jamie — based on the real-life subject of the 2011 documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 — has already come out by the time we’re introduced to him. In an early scene, he defends himself matter-of-factly when his bullies call him “gay” (the best “insult” people can come up with when you’ve got nothing to hide), acknowledging this truth and moving on with his day. When Jamie tells his best friend Pritti that he “wants to be a boy, who sometimes wants to be a girl,” she is bewildered but supportive. Jamie’s struggles don’t play into tired coming-out narratives that make coming out to be an all-important and definitive event instead of an evolving process. For Jamie, they’re far more personal: He wants to wear a dress to prom, to be a drag queen in his small Northern England town, and to reconnect with his deadbeat father. (The same father who, by the way, Jamie thinks he has stayed in touch from afar thanks to some saintly lies from his adoring single mom.)

Photo: Channel Four

Eventually, Jamie finds a local drag store (empty, but filled with feathers) and is taken under its owner, former queen Loco Chanelle’s, wing. Loco opens Jamie’s eyes, showing him home videos of his friends dancing and loving through the late ’80s collaged with actual footage of liberation protests, police breaking up queer club nights, and Freddie Mercury publicly announcing his HIV status — images of recognizably “masculine” resistance in the face of Margaret Thatcher’s homophobic society. Given that most queer narratives ignore history and pretend a modern show of queer force is somehow groundbreaking, Jamie is inspired by this knowledge, declaring Loco and his friends “warrior queens.”

Still, this queer elder is not without his problematic edges, telling Jamie, “A boy in a dress is something to be laughed at; a drag queen is something to be feared,” when trying to hype him up.  The line, later weaponized by Jamie against a school bully who refers to him as “just a boy in a dress,” shows the older guard’s essentialism when it comes to progressive matters of gender identity and performance. Though it is later lightly readdressed, the fact that it is meant to land as a devastating clapback is strangely off-brand for a film so focused on creating space for individual identity, complicating an otherwise progressive stance on masculinity.

In “Over the Top,” sung by Loco and fellow queens to Jamie as he struggles to muster the confidence for his first show — “You’ve got your armor on / you’ve had your warpaint done / and you’ll be a man my son” — Tom MacRae’s lyrics and Dan Gillespie Sells’ music call to mind the British films of the second World War, which extolled the battleground as the place to find personal honor. They assure him that “When your sisters are behind you / they’re your brothers marching too,” blurring gendered lines between these encouraging men in drag, the women who have stood by him, and whoever it is Jamie wants to become. Whether in sisters or brothers, the song makes a point of highlighting resilience, not masculinity, as the power to which he should aspire.

Later, drunk and disenchanted after confronting his mom’s well-intentioned lies about his absent, homophobic father, Jamie turns a team flag into a dress and storms a soccer field, finally catching his dad’s attention. His recklessness here could easily be read as disorderly hooligan behavior — and it is — but the film complicates this typically hyper-masculine act by turning it into one of defiance, with a feminized young boy pissing off a crowd full of straight men. Her son having stormed off, his mom sings “He’s My Boy” over the scene, a boozy pub ballad about the heartbreak built into most relationships between men and women: “Maybe he’ll break my heart / ‘cause he’ll take my heart when he goes / It’s cruel that he can but that’s just like a man.” Jamie, no matter how separate he fashions himself to be from typical masculinity, can still hurt the women closest to him through his selfishness.

But Jamie is aware that he is capable of this. An early song has him reminisce about the small quips against his masculinity his father would make throughout his childhood, lines which immediately resonate with queer audiences: “It was something he said / his words built a wall / a wall inside my head / just one little thing / didn’t mean that much to him / but it keeps building this wall in my head.” The wall is universal, it is anything holding us back from what we want to do. But it is also the wall of typical masculinity, the one that made his dad take him to pubs to “straighten him out” and shake off his love of glitter; the one that favors stone-faced toughness over individuality; the one that becomes toxic past the point of redemption.

By the time the prom rolls around, Jamie’s best friend calls him a superhero for the way he’s opened up the community’s eyes, hearts, and minds. He shrugs and says, “I’m not a superhero, I’m just a boy in a dress.” His humility is touching, and the line — although delivered too subtly for a musical that is anything but — again creates a lovely parallel between our common symbols of heroism (capes, armor) and the new icons of fierceness (lipstick, six-inch heels). Jamie belongs to the next generation of queers, divorced from strict, outdated ideas of clothing as performance.

It’s fairly novel to see a film address the fact queer people must come out again and again, and in so many ways. Where most stories treat a climactic coming-out as the first day in the rest of a person’s life, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie features a 16-year-old who quickly realizes, and adapts to, the fact that coming out is an ongoing process. He came out as gay to those around him, sure, but a world where Queer Eye is as widely discussed as any other series sort of neutralizes that impact. His real fear, his deeper “coming out” — the one in which his “masculinity” is tested — is in his desire to be a drag queen. Summoning the bravery to demand public acceptance of that which is most personal to us is actually the greatest test of our strength, masculine or not.

Is it an “offending, trending, gender-bending, gender-blending, gender-pending, gender-ending, and transcending work of art” as the song declares? Not entirely — it’s a bit too by-the-books for that, and the story could stand to be queerer. But in applying a conventional approach to a subject that has never felt as normalized in a mainstream film, it’s a glorious, radical step forward.

A Different Kind of Coming-Out Story