Cooking dinner the other night with some friends, we were discussing all the sticky feelings we have around the corporate sanctioning of “pride month.” One friend made a declaration which surprised me at first, but has sat in me with resonance since: “It’s the shame that connects us; not pride.”
It struck me in how this was a valuable truth, perhaps too often overlooked—that making space for our own shame, to really dissect and process it, could prove more healing than trying to wrap our shame in a rainbow blanket and pretend we are instantly evolved, beaming with pride. What does it really feel like to peel away shame? I land on an image of mulching, our skin underneath the shame is pink, thin and vulnerable—it hurts. There is relief, but it does not come with ease.
Another image surfaces: My dad reads to me from The True History of the Kelly Gang about a man so filthy that when the cops tried to bathe him, sheets of his skin peeled away with the dirt. I remember I was only 6 or so listening to this story—the fear I felt that somehow this might happen to me was so immense.
The first time I fell in love with a girl was in 7th grade. She lived near me and whenever she wanted me to, I would gleefully come over before school so I could braid her hair and ride the train with her. I spent as much time as I could with her, her twin, and our two other friends—we were all closet-queers. We called ourselves the “Love Crew,” and once carved our collective name into a tree. The girl I loved and another girl in our group were seeing each other—a secret we all dutifully kept. I learned to just live in the hotness of restraint.
Sharing a pair of headphones felt as erotic as sharing a bed. Without knowing what they were, I did kegels on the train to keep myself on the edge, then I’d get home and feel unsure of what to do about it. Sometimes the solution was AIM chatting boys to ask how big their dicks were; perhaps this kind of early sexting was actually my introduction to the phantom cock. I mean I always did find pleasure in the role-play of heterosexuality, but there was also something else going on for me. I learned that I could harness my relentless hunger into making work and that this might be easier than seeking real satisfaction with another. By the time I was 13, I was living in this fantasy of total autonomy and felt strongly that I didn’t need (or perhaps that it would be impossible) to feel seen; rather, I became interested in exploring the pleasures and powers of being unassuming (unseen).
I remember so many makeup artists painting up my face like a doll, then telling me how it would read entirely different on camera—natural. I always knew this wasn’t true—maybe if we were shooting super 8, but not in the land of HD, baby.
Shooting my scene in the I Love Dick pilot, series co-creator Jill Soloway came over and said to hair and makeup, “femme hair with a butch face.” Then, later, Jill took the makeup wipes and wiped away the little make up they had put on me anyway—like such a dad.
Was I a femme? I sure as hell had been commodifying myself that way. Modeling became patriarchal validation as a paycheck when I ventured into financial independence at 18. This kind of femme-ing as scamming brought me such funny satisfaction, but I knew it was limited. Like how I knew strictly bottoming would gender me in a way I was used to, but which felt itchy, not entirely like me.
Toby and Devon’s (Roberta Colindrez) sex scene was my first queer sex scene. It was the first day of production on the entire season. We started shooting around 7 a.m.—I would be having pussy for breakfast. I remember the excitement on set: Jill, co-creator Sarah Gubbins, and director Kimberley Peirce buzzing with ideas and instincts—discussion in whispers, as if whispering was another rule for a closed-set. (A closed-set means no one is allowed around, unless they are directly working on the scene. This is a standard for maintaining measures of privacy during sex scenes, or scenes with nudity.)
This was the first time I was given language for things I had felt before, unnamed. The “phantom cock.” The idea of “topping from the bottom”; I joked recently with a friend that this could be the title of my memoir.
For me, the phantom cock is about the importance of someone seeing a part of you that’s usually rendered invisible. Toby sees this in Devon. And I always interpreted Chris (Kathryn Hahn) as much hungrier for Dick’s phantom cock than for his actual penis. Her engagement with him, a way of queering the couple as a closed-loop institution.
I think about queer sex as a psychedelic experience. Like the psychedelic mindset—you suddenly see everyone in the same headspace, everyone’s possibility and capability to queer.
When I use the word queer, I mean that my attraction and understanding of others is not shaped by binary modes of gender perception. This is why I identify as pan-sexual, if we want to get technical for the sake of clarity. Fluidity gets me wet.
Working on I Love Dick, I often felt like a queer baby in a room full of power lesbians. Not to erase the non-binary and non-cis voices who were a big part of the show. But I have a tendency towards imposter syndrome. It seeps in through the seams of my unfixedness—my questioning.
I knew I was never just gay, and so the idea of coming out didn’t make sense to me. But seeing Toby Willis out in the world, stark naked on the TV and laptop screens of I don’t want to know how many people, I felt a weird prosthetic coming out feeling. Not to convolute the character with who I am—we are different in so many ways. But to share a body with that story, to have a part of me recognized in her, did something small and profound for me. It validated the legibility of my queerness.
I hear lots of people talking about the female gaze on I Love Dick. I see a queer gaze. Maybe they’re not mutually exclusive, but, to me, the distinction feels important. There is no linearity to these characters sexuality. We see that when we peel back the shame, in the episode “A Short History of Weird Girls.”
Watching someone peel away their shame—playing someone peeling away their shame—all of these augmented experiences can catalyze one’s own peeling away. My greatest pleasure in this show being out in the world is hearing from people about how watching it has left them feeling that raw, pink vulnerability. Seeing someone else’s story can cut you right open.
I Love Dick is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Read Paste’s other coverage here.