I recently watched the 1994 film, A Man of No Importance. Set in 1963, Alfie (Albert Finney) is a middle-aged bus conductor in Dublin. He is a closeted gay man with a passion for theatre—his fellow Dubliner, Oscar Wilde, to be exact.
The plot unfolds to reveal that Alfred is besotted by his young bus driver, Robbie Fay, played by Rufus Sewell. Despite his name, Robbie appears to be a very straight young man with an active heterosexual life. Robbie plays along with Alfred’s not quite kosher habits of recruiting stage actors from his regular passengers and turning a blind eye to the poorest of the lot when they cannot afford to pay their fare. But Robbie rebuffs Alfie’s attempts to join the stage production, insisting that he can’t act and perhaps wisely avoiding spending too much off-the-job time with Alfie.
The local Catholic Church is to be the venue for Alfie’s production of Salome, a feat which he slips past Father Kenny by focusing on the importance of “Art!” to the dark and plodding lives of parishioners caught up in Victorian rigidity. It helps that Father Kenny is myopically schooled in the Catechism but not so in the artistic ramifications of Aestheticism. As Alfie skillfully whips his amateur actors into reasonably convincing characters, his traitorous friend, Ivor (Michael Gambon), whose eye is firmly planted on Alfred’s spinster sister, approaches the Church Council to educate them on what is going on in their sacred auditorium. To their shock and shame, Ivor incorrectly parrots the actors’ dialogue with words like incestuous, harlot, fornication. You can imagine the result of this tattling traitor.
By today’s standards, this delightfully comical character sketch seems tame and devoid of shock value. But during the rigidly Catholic era of 1960s Dublin, the subject matter might have provoked intense squirming if not audience boycotts. While Alfie’s truest friend, Christy, played by David Kelly, counsels Alfie to find a “good woman to cuddle him,” Alfie struggles with the love that dare not speak its name. Will he break out of his prison? Will life go on for Alfie? Will he find love, acceptance, cuddles? I won’t add spoilers.
What struck me as I watched this film, was its relevance to political movements in America 60 years later. In my own state, a dedicated group of LGBTQ activists has worked for ten years to Add the Words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s human rights act. Incredibly, they have been unable to add those four words—words which would protect people outside of given gender and sexuality norms from physical abuse, and workplace and housing discrimination.
In addition, our State Legislature has been bogged down with senseless arguments over proposed bills that would disenfranchise transgender individuals. As one righteous Senator claims in discussions about legislation to prohibit changing gender markers on birth certificates, “Your sex is your sex—to me, that doesn’t really change.” This very statement highlights how little he (and his majority colleagues) knows about the difference between sex and gender, and how little he understands about the reality of intersex babies whose genitalia fail to distinguish male or female gender.
Sex and gender are not black and white issues. Those with strong religious beliefs should leave moral judgements to their maker, rather than criminalizing behavior and physical conditions that they fear and do not understand.