Content Note: This article contains a discussion of self-harm and homophobia
“Dirt is my policy, dirt is my life.” With this simple declaration, Divine – the monstrous drag queen in whom American director John Waters has found his muse – pledges allegiance to a strange thing: dirt. It’s the leitmotif of his cult classic Pink flamingos, a self-titled “exercise in bad taste” that unfolds like an orgy of depravity in which every taboo, from castration and rape to bestiality and murder, is transgressed for the camera in lucid detail as Divine fights for the title of “dirtiest person”. living’. The movie itself is borderline unwatchable. Truth be told, I only did it once and quickly swore never to do it again. But it’s also a film in which I find an esoteric beauty, a beauty so disgusting and singularly and undeniably queer. It is a film that preaches as doctrine a feeling with which I have struggled for a long time – a feeling of dirtiness – and tells with the violence of the camp and the crushing of its strange reconquest.
“It’s a film that recounts with the violence of camps and crashes its queer reconquest”
I will always associate my homosexuality with my childhood room at my grandmother’s. Even now I can build this room in my head, four radiant eggshell walls and an ever-hopeful little guitar in one corner. At night I would stay up just to watch the world through my bedside window, staring into the still darkness of a Lancashire countryside whose monolithic twilight was dimmed only by the hypnotic red lights of Winter’s radio tower. Hill. They clustered together in the sky like an abstract constellation, the meaning of which I could never understand. I looked at them curiously; they looked back at me.
Staring into their glow on those nights when time seemed to stagnate, thoughts raced through my head in a frantic chain reaction, thoughts that always brought me back to myself. Thoughts that led me to my flesh, to the red constellations that also appeared there as my skin itched in a little self-flagellation, hoping to wash away the dirt that I could almost feel manifest as I headed toward an inevitable conclusion: something was wrong with me. And so I would sit cross-legged and alone in my bed, praying to a God I didn’t quite believe in and scratching myself, hoping that these rituals would make me clean. In this room I started to feel dirt, and in this room I started to understand what it meant.
“Embrace otherness, says Waters”
My feelings are not surprising in retrospect. I grew up in a rural northern village where life seems forever paralyzed in central England in the 1970s Only fools and horses-dream of induced fever and where every road strewn with potholes leads back to the same sandstone church, named Saint-Barthélemy. Here, homosexuality was never mentioned. And when it did, it would just be the butt of a freakish boyish joke from a freakishly boyish peer. “I would kill myself if I was gay,” a friend once told me on an otherwise forgotten summer night. I think I made him happy by laughing. To be gay was to be wrong, shamefully and irrevocably different.
But that’s what Pink flamingos famous, a movie about nonconformity in which a juggernaut of a drag queen in suburban Maryland, where everyone decorates their lawns with the same plastic flamingo figurines, triumphantly defeats a disbelieving straight couple due to her superior filth and claim the title she so craves for. Through her queer filth, she becomes transcendent: “Divine is not only the dirtiest person in the world,” Waters reminds the audience as we watch her eat a pile of dog feces in close-up, “but also dirtiest actress in the world. Its depravity becomes so extreme that it goes beyond the filmic world and enters the real world; it transforms, transcends.
“Divine’s depravity gets so extreme it goes beyond the cinematic world and into the real world”
Dirt therefore has, for Waters, a transformative potential for the queer subject. In a society built on heteronormative values that queer people can fundamentally never conform to, what is the value of trying? Embrace otherness, says Waters. Strangeness is filth in the sense of something that will probably always be disgusting to someone, as something that will always be “other” to a society whose survival is tied to the heterosexual family and its ability to reproduce biologically. If we learn to find our own beauty and power in our own community united in our otherness – with this “our” importantly involving the whole spectrum of otherness that is “queer” – then the shame around this “dirtiness” dissolves.
I can comfortably say that I am gay at 20 and feel no revulsion at the word, even if only recently. Shame, however, is a disgusting, fresh flavor in my mouth, its aftertaste still tainting my family interactions and affecting who I become when I leave Cambridge to return to the small village I call home. Here, I can sometimes still see the red of the radio tower lights glowing, almost pulsating, in the night sky. I sometimes wonder if they can still see me too.
Dirt was my life when I looked at those lights in my youth and remains my life now, if only in a different way. And I guess that’s also in my policy. Dirt is not that same feeling of shame, but dirt as a celebration of homosexuality as otherness, dirt as part of my identity, dirt as freedom.
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