Presidential Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States
Matt Connolly on Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
Within the swirl of disingenuous logic, faulty planning, and barely coded Islamophobia that defined President Donald Trump’s now-scrapped “Muslim ban”—aka Executive Order 13769, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”—it was easy to overlook a small but striking argument by which the administration sought to justify its sweeping restrictions on refugees and citizens from seven majority-Muslim nations. The authors of the executive order contended that the United States needed to be protected from individuals who bore “hostile attitudes toward [the United States] and its founding principles,” including those antithetical to the ideals of the U.S. Constitution. The executive order pairs this more general concern with anti-American sentiment, however, with a more targeted concern: “In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.” There’s much to unpack within that one sentence, but I want to linger on its final words: sexual orientation. Here was a Republican administration that explicitly vowed to protect LGBTQ individuals from purported oppression by foreign threats; define said threats as equivalent to gender, racial, and religious bigotry; and, ultimately, include the protection of LGBTQ people under the big tent of foundational principles of the United States.
It’s a head-spinning move when one attempts to place it within the broader history of the Republican Party, though perhaps slightly less so when considered within the context of Trump’s persona and campaign. A lifelong New Yorker with little convincing interest in religious doctrine, Trump differed from most GOP contenders for his laissez-faire attitude toward LGBTQ people. He noted that Caitlyn Jenner could use whatever bathroom she would like in Trump Tower, at a time when his rivals for the Republican nomination were expressing support for restrictive bathroom bills that would require an individual’s restroom choice to correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. More consistently, Trump evoked the specter of homophobic violence perpetuated by members and sympathizers of ISIS as a means of justifying his hardline anti-terrorist and immigration policies. These twin tendencies found their most memorable iteration at this past summer’s Republican National Convention. Accepting the GOP nomination, Trump evoked the June 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub. He noted that the “forty-nine wonderful Americans [who] were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist” were specifically targeted for being in the LGBTQ community. Online pundits snickered at Trump’s halting verbal journey through the five-letter acronym, but those gathered at the convention erupted into sustained applause as Trump vowed “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” He added an ad-libbed aside:“And, I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
Not surprisingly, the most common reactions to Trump’s affirmative gestures towards the LGBTQ community have been eye-rolls. This is the candidate who chose as his running mate a governor who signed into law a bill that substantially lowered the legal threshold for private businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious objection. This is also the candidate who himself remained opposed to marriage equality and who vowed to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice in the vein of Antonin Scalia. Since his inauguration, guidance from the Obama Justice Department to public schools on how to accommodate trans students has been revoked under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Both the head of the Department of Health and Human Services and the (until recently) nominee for Secretary of the Army have made anti-gay or transphobic statements in the past. In short, one can dismiss Trump’s statements about LGBTQ people as unorthodox but essentially hollow political maneuvering.
And yet, what Trump actually promises to LGBTQ individuals within those campaign statements and that executive order reveals a bargain far more insidious than standard-issue GOP rejection. Rather than be cast as the threatening other, LGBTQ people can join the ranks of the dominant-yet-embattled masses, fighting for their safety and values against the literal and figurative darkness of “a hateful foreign ideology.” That such an alliance would be ideologically incoherent and inevitably tenuous is almost beside the point. In expanding his coalition of the fearful—one implicitly defined as white and Christian—Trump offers (implicitly white, Christian) LGBTQ people not only protection from “violence and oppression,” but an entrée into the realm of the majority, the normal. All one had to do was agree upon a new enemy.
It’s a siren song that plays upon the legacy of denial and demonization that many LGBTQ individuals have faced, and I’d be lying if I didn’t find myself unexpectedly moved by Trump’s show of gratitude to his audience as they cheered his pro-gay oratory. How long had I seen Republican after Republican smear LGBTQ people as deviants, as moral reprobates, as fundamentally at odds with the fabric of true American values? To finally hear promises of protection and support from the same party struck a chord, and it had everything to do with the confidant-like nature of Trump’s delivery: bellicose provocation, followed by a dialed-back, “just-between-you-and-me” moment of seeming candor. Its manipulation of the basic desire for security and belonging is no less effective for being so cynical. Lubricated by the snake oil of Trump’s sales pitch, bald-faced manipulation becomes dangerously recast as shoot-from-the-hip frankness. There may be no more important aspect of the Trumpian con than that oft-used phrase that pointedly made an appearance right after he promised to bring LGBTQ Americans into the conservative fold: “Believe me!”
When considering what films and filmmakers offered a way forward in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, I kept thinking about Stephen Cone. Raised in South Carolina and currently residing in Chicago, Cone has directed a range of shorts and features, though he’s perhaps best known for a pair of films that sketched warm and even-handed portraits of Christian teenagers navigating the tides of faith and desire. The Wise Kids (2011) followed a trio of high school seniors, linked by their South Carolina Baptist church and charting divergent paths post-graduation. Four years later, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party explored similar intersections of religious belief and burgeoning queer sexuality in its chronicling of the 24 hours surrounding the eponymous character’s birthday pool party at his parents’ suburban home. Cone’s sharp eye for detail and attitude of empathetic humanism toward a population oft-caricatured within independent film felt especially relevant in the post-election conversations surrounding the discontents between the “two Americas” of religious rurality and secular urbanism. The more I spent time with Cone’s work generally and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party specifically, however, the more his films seemed to speak to the challenge of how to confront the president’s corrupt bargain within the LGBTQ community. Henry Gamble’s understanding of would-be dichotomous ideas—piety and secularism, straightness and queerness, tradition and progress—reveals the limits of understanding and the paucity of imagination and empathy in that bargain. The Trumpian stance assumes that one can simply shift the positions that LGBTQ people occupy while maintaining an essentially us-versus-them structure. Cone insists that most people live the “us” and “them” roles simultaneously. To exist in the world is not to choose one identity over another, but rather to do the constant work of interweaving them together in ways that are frequently difficult, sometimes painful, and occasionally revelatory.
This interstitial quality starts with the film’s titular character, though it’s hardly limited to him. A preacher’s son, 17-year-old Henry (Cole Doman) has grown up in a deeply religious family and evinces little desire to abandon the faith. At the same time, the longing gazes he directs at cheerfully oblivious friend Gabe (Joe Keery) make it clear that Henry is navigating his own burgeoning sexuality. It’s a journey that he himself has not revealed to others, even as some of his friends have begun to make benign assumptions. He carves out a niche within his friend groups not through his sexuality, but rather through eclectic and indie-inflected musical tastes that he shares via a podcast. Cone is remarkably astute in his understanding of how queer youth find a refuge in and identity through rarefied artistic tastes—a move that gestures toward yet also displaces larger questions of difference from one’s peers. Such refuge proves as tenuous as it is vital. There’s a moment roughly halfway through the film when Henry briefly leaves his party and retreats to his bedroom. He sits by his turntable and cues up BAATHHAUS’s “Sweet Baby.” The camera tracks in to a close-up on Henry’s face, at rest as the song’s libidinal lyrics and waves of pulsating synth wash over him. The moment is interrupted when fellow churchgoer Emily (Mia Hulen) enters the room. As the music continues to play, she moves toward him and Henry acquiesces to an extended kiss. The song that started as a momentary oasis from the crosscurrents of adolescent sexual confusion becomes the background to a moment that embodies every one of those anxieties.
Henry’s gradual understanding of his own desires is central to the film, but it’s hardly its sole concern. Indeed, Henry’s connection to both religious and secular circles makes him the nodal point for an array of characters to meet and intermingle. Fellow churchgoing youths like Gabe and Emily form a core contingent of the day’s festivities. Cone finds the humor within the more incongruous overlaps between religiosity and burgeoning sexuality, as when Emily unveils her revealing two-piece, a silver cross affixed to the waistband of the bikini bottom. He avoids deck-stacking against his teenage Christian characters, however, by applying a similar standard to Henry’s non-religious school friends Christine (Melanie Neilan) and Heather (Grace Melon). The trio bonds over a shared love of alternative media. Christine gives Henry a DVD of Gregg Araki’s Kaboom (2010), “the first movie we ever watched together” and a nigh-perfect detail of the type of gateway-drug indie movie that burgeoning film geeks share in high school. This makes their earnest stumbling over the complexities of being different all the more poignant. Consoling a fellow classmate being picked on at school, the queer-identified Christine pauses before earnestly proclaiming, “Hey—it gets better.” The classmate and Heather burst into giggles before giving her appreciative smiles, a succinct summation of Cone’s own tone of gentle, knowing empathy. As the two groups intermingle over the course of the party, their divergent worldviews occasionally clash, even as the film underlines their linked anxieties around forming and defending a cohesive identity. This is illustrated in a sharp exchange in which Henry’s older sister, Autumn (Nina Ganet), describes her Christian college’s approach to teaching biology. Both sides bristle, with Christine raising an eyebrow at the notion of biblically inflected science classes and Emily rising to the defense of the school’s pedagogy. Autumn gently navigates between the two, trying to keep the peace between two women whose opinions she seems to fall somewhere in between: “I’m able to think for myself, you know?”
Not that the adults in the room have a definitive sense of who they are and what they believe. Within his work, Cone often returns to a specific kind of relationship between adults and adolescents, in which the former intellectually understand their roles as mentors but who nevertheless see within the latter a level of experience or understanding that they themselves have not (or could not) yet fully achieved. This is particularly evident in The Wise Kids, where both a closeted youth pastor and his wife form intangible connections with youthful interlocutors who seem to embody the self-knowledge that they are only now discovering. In Henry Gamble, all grown-ups at the party come from the family’s church. Their shared faith manifests in a variety of ways: from the dour prudery of Bonnie (Hanna Dworkin), who frequently launches into monologues about sex trafficking; to the bro-for-Christ looseness of youth pastor Keith (Travis A. Knight); to the playful impiety of Bonnie’s husband Larry (Francis Guinan), who impishly sneaks wine with an ever-growing number of guests as the ostensibly booze-free party progresses.
Most central to the film’s dramatic arc is the spiritual questioning of Henry’s mother, Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw). Wife to pastor Bob (Pat Healy), Kat contends with the emotional fallout of a brief affair with the church’s former pastor who since passed away from cancer. The tryst not only created rifts within her marriage but also seems to have opened up larger questions about her role as a Christian wife and mother. She lays these bare to her daughter after Autumn has a volatile encounter with her quasi ex-boyfriend at Henry’s party. As they sit in the family’s parked car and sip wine from appropriately discreet coffee mugs, Kat reveals the liaison and apologizes for whatever internalized shame of the female body that she’s passed onto her daughter. More than that, she confesses the sense of perennial evolution of self that connects them and confuses “normal” parental bonds. “The trouble with growing up is that you’re always becoming yourself,” Kat notes. “You think you’re grown up and your body has reached its peak, but you’re still…becoming. You’re never actually ready. You never actually arrive.” “Why is that trouble?” Autumn inquires. Kat smiles wistfully: “Because you have children.”
These interactions across religious belief, social milieu, and family role are allowed to fully blossom thanks to Cone’s chief narrative conceit. He loves a party scene. Both The Wise Kids and Black Box (his 2013 ensemble piece about an undergrad theater production) contain memorable fetes that gather different people in charged settings, the ever-multiplying variables of suspicion, desire, and connection building within a shared space. That impulse becomes magnified within Henry Gamble. Working with cinematographer Jason Chiu, Cone maneuvers fluidly between spaces and groups that become ever more complicated as day turns to night. At the physical and thematic core of the film is the family’s in-ground pool. The arena of adolescent play, the site of bodily unveiling, the zone of both fleeting physical contact and dreamlike underwater solitude—the pool becomes the primary and very public site within which various interpersonal tensions flare and resolve. It’s no accident that the film reaches its dramatic climax once Kat and Autumn reveal their bathing suits and jointly jump in the water for the first time. Having confessed their anxieties and desires in the privacy of the family vehicle, they’re ready to literally dive into the emotional and social churn at play in the pool.
Lest one think that the film’s vision edges too close to utopianism, however, Cone includes two characters whose markers of difference gesture toward the unspoken prejudices roiling beneath the surface. The only African-American teenager at the party, Logan (Daniel Kyri) is the first to arrive and clearly is more than excited to see the birthday boy. Henry’s generally brusque attitude and quiet admonition when Logan brushes his hand against his arm indicates some kind of previous encounter between the two. Even without this interpersonal tension, however, the predominantly white partygoers tend to treat Logan with an air of vaguely anxious condescension. (It’s just too bad that his mother and stepfather couldn’t make it to the party, but you know…) More than even Henry, however, Logan has learned to operate within multiple social spheres, and he spends much of the party in the more relaxed company of Christine and Heather. It’s to him that Christine makes her comically earnest vow of things “getting better.” Indeed, by film’s end, it has, as Henry’s own shifts in self-comfort over the course of the party lead him to move from the uninterested Gabe to the more outwardly affectionate and introspective Logan.
The same cannot be said for Ricky (Patrick Andrews), whose entrance to the party inspires an even more notable wave of uncomfortable pauses and shifting glances. Slightly older than the other adolescent guests, Ricky casts an aura of puppy-dog eagerness and perpetual hurt shadowed on his stubbly face. Party guests speak in hushed tones about his past: an incident at the church’s summer camp where he appeared to become aroused around other male attendees; a seeming failed suicide attempt. Ricky attempts repeatedly to get confirmation that he can return again as a camp counselor for the summer, only to be met with tight smiles, averted eyes, and vague talk about “needing to figure out the chaperone situation.” And unlike Logan, Ricky possesses no alternate social circle to fall back on as his unspoken dismissal from church life unspools before him. “He just marks these days by these youth activities,” confides Ricky’s mother, Rose (Meg Thalken), to pastor Bob. (In a subtle knitting together of unspoken betrayals, Rose is also the widow of the pastor with whom Kat had her affair.). Isolated in the house bathroom, the weight of these subtle slights finally becomes too much for Ricky. He begins slicing his face with a disposable razor resting on the sink. As the party guests join together in an evening prayer in and around the pool, Ricky appears on the deck, eyes wet with years and blood running down his cheeks. His re-entrance feels like nothing less than a return of the repressed. Gashed and oozing, he demands the shocked attention of those who claim to welcome him into the religious and social fold yet hold him at arm’s length.
In this way, Henry Gamble offers a vision that is fraught, often tense, and occasionally cruel. It refuses easy answers and trite denunciations, and insists upon the hard work of living amongst others who both are and are not like you. It provides a challenge to all its characters to exist within ambiguity and make sense of multiplicity. In short, it cuts right to the heart of Trump’s fraudulent promises. As seen in recent weeks, the president has maintained a patina of queer positivity, signing a recent executive order that loosened restrictions on religious organizations to endorse political candidates but stopped short of protecting those groups’ “principled objections” to hiring or offering services to LGBTQ people. Such a move is certainly about as much as we could have expected from, say, a Ted Cruz administration, but it once again draws LGBTQ people into a feeling of tenuous security. “We’re” fine for the moment, assuming the “we” does not include the undocumented gay man, or the lesbian who’s been sexually assaulted, or the bisexual whose hijab gets ripped off in the subway, or the transwoman whose palms begin to sweat as she’s forced to enter the men’s bathroom. The Trump lure cannot be disentangled from the Trump lie—the sealing off of the self against easily containable others in the name of not just “security,” but an imagined wholeness free of would-be contamination. This noxious fantasy denies the actual pleasures and possibilities of connecting across difference, which is something most “normal” people know from their day-to-day lives regardless of where they live, who they are, and how they love. Cone’s gift of a film reminds us of this reality. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds us that this reality is actually a gift.