Whenever I think about marriage, I think about these sex dreams I used to have as a teenager. They were based on a porno called Here Cums the Bride where this bride sleeps with the best man on her wedding day and gets left at the altar, only to then fuck the best man again while the priest jacks off in a corner. I went to a Catholic school; it’s all very Freudian. Anyway, I would have dreams where I would be fucking the bride, making her cum, and then suddenly everything would shift and I would become the bride tearing my big white gown for easy access and using my veil for leverage so the best man could fuck me standing up, and then I would wake up confused, sticky.
I think about that dream whenever I think about marriage lately because it quite often feels like I’m fucking myself. In the middle of all the talk of marriage equality, my boyfriend, a few other friends and I drove to Broken Heel Festival. A three-day drag festival celebrating Stephen Elliot’s 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and its impact on our culture, and on the town of Broken Hill in and of itself (where the majority of the film was shot).
I was never a big fan of the film but was a big fan of drinking during the day so I agreed to go. On the way up, there was this unspoken ban on talk of the marriage equality vote. We didn’t mention it, but it hung in the air above us. As I walked into the festival, the first thing I saw was a middle-aged man wearing a jockstrap with the word twink embroidered on it and white-feathered angel wings. I couldn’t stop staring at his ass. It sagged slightly, like it was hunching and self-conscious about being so exposed, at odds with the person it was attached to. My boyfriend caught me looking and said, ‘Broken Hill’s got some pretty big holes, doesn’t it darl?’
Darl. My boyfriend says ‘darl’ a lot. He’s older than me. In his 40s. Twice my age, in fact. He jokes about us getting married and he flutters his eyelids and I say by the time this vote is over, you’ll probably be dead, and I accept his proposal. To him, Priscilla acts as a marker for how his life, and the lives of the queer people around him, changed. His life can be divided neatly into periods of ‘before Priscilla’ and ‘after Priscilla’.
As I sat in The Palace Hotel and took a tour of the Priscilla room and watched the film in between prolonged periods of staring at that guy’s ass because I didn’t know it was possible for an anus to frown, it hit me that I, as a 23-year-old gay man, was at an almost identical point to that of my boyfriend some twenty-three years later. My life could probably also be divided neatly into ‘before the postal survey’ and ‘after the postal survey’. The film suddenly felt like it applied to me in a way I hadn’t considered before.
Priscilla is first and foremost a road movie, which – according to Steven Cohan’s The Road Movie Book – uses ideas of escape to examine and challenge ‘the uniform identity of the nation’s culture’, providing ‘a ready space for exploration of the tensions and crises of the historical moment during which it is produced’. Despite its problematic depictions of race, glaringly uncomfortable in 2017, the film holds up remarkably well in its examination of the conservatism inherent in Australian culture.
In the film’s infamous bar scene, where the three protagonists try and grab a drink we watch Shirl, gruff and covered in oil and dirt, slam her hand down on the bar and shout ‘no, you can’t have. You can’t have nothing. We’ve got nothing here for people like you. Nothing.’ And even though the entire festival cheered when she was told to blow her box apart (and everyone threw tampons and let of party poppers at the screen), there was a solemnity to the moment because that act of saying no – that outright rejection – is still alive and well. We see it in the ‘no’ ads that our government encouraged and in the people that it locks up and leaves for dead. The road to Broken Hill from Adelaide (for me), or from Sydney (for the characters in the film) is littered with dead things. Roadkill. Bodies of animals smeared across the blacktop with crows dodging cars to pick at the carcases. It’s easy to think of the animals as stupid, lacking good sense to keep off the road … but it’s a side-effect of living in a harsh and unforgiving landscape designed to work against you.
Though typically a genre dominated by the heterosexual white American male, Priscilla works similarly to films like Thelma and Louise and Rabbit Proof Fence (which is a road movie that just happens to be about a chase on foot) in that is uses the conventions of the road movie against the people that usually populate its landscape and exemplify that attitudes that it usually celebrates.
In Corey Creekmur’s essay ‘On the Run and On The Road’, he makes the assertion that the road in a road movie functions as a
two-way street generating either exploration (the panoramic view ahead through the windshield) or escape (the furtive backward glance in the rear-view mirror) from a someone, who is usually representative of a broader social problem or group.
In Priscilla, the transplanting of an atypical group of heroines into the genre, again, forces the viewer to glance critically at Australia’s view of itself. When the protagonists come across the ‘typical Aussie blokes’ – the cowboys and buddies that populate our nation’s imagination and would, therefore, populate the road movie – they’re met with violence. Priscilla, for all its faults (and there are many), was radical in its portrayal of what would very annoyingly be called ‘toxic masculinity’ in 2017 instead of just, you know, prejudice or hate. The film takes that bloke that underpins our identity and it says, ‘well that’s just drag too, isn’t it darl?’
But in stories of chase, of journeys, there is also community to be found. For the girls in the film, there is love to be found on the road, family (both biological and created) and a chance to experience community and generosity in its truest sense, as illustrated by the iconic performance of ‘I Will Survive’ for a remote Aboriginal Community (which has gobsmackingly been cut from the 2018 touring production of the musical).
Broken Heel Festival was a reminder that, in a country so stubborn in (and proud of) its hostility towards difference, community trumps everything. It was a chance for queer people, from cities and towns all over Australia, to experience and celebrate drag and Priscilla and all that it’s done for us and our community. It was a reminder that we, as queer people, don’t need marriage when we’ve created so many beautiful alternative modes of loving. Though like Priscilla, they’re imperfect, they’re special and powerful mainly because they’re not enshrined in the laws of the state. They’re a form of resistance and a form of survival. Marriage isn’t necessary but it would be nice so that all the love that comes out of spaces like Broken Heel can be granted some recognition. Before Priscilla Australia was a hostile, close-minded place. Not much has changed after Priscilla – but it could if we let it.
On the drive home, I tell my boyfriend about the dream I used to have and he laughs and says, ‘Oh my god, there’s a gay version of that! It’s called Here Cums the Bridegroom.’ I watch it when I get home and there aren’t any dresses, but there are some sad looking asses. I can’t look away.