If there’s an origin story behind the myth that gays can’t drive, perhaps it lies in the fact that our moms drove us everywhere. Much of my childhood was spent in my family’s Chevy Blazer listening to disco and running errands with my mother. Mostly, we ran errands on Sundays. My mother and I drove over the Bayonne Bridge from New Jersey to Staten Island for church. My mother, a devout Christian, would only worship at a place she absolutely loved, so every Sunday, we’d pay the toll to cross into another state, even though the journey took all of 10 minutes.
I thought about my mother and my many passenger-side journeys while watching several recent movies. Some of our most beloved actresses are portraying loving, complicated mothers in this year’s slate of awards fare. Nicole Kidman shepherds Lucas Hedges back and forth to conversion therapy classes in Boy Erased. Julia Roberts chauffeurs Lucas Hedges (once again!) while he’s on the lam from rehab in Ben Is Back. And Maura Tierney chases an elusive Timothee Chalamet in a soccer mom van for the most thrilling five minutes of Beautiful Boy.
On some level, this feels like a waste of these actresses’ considerable talent. Why hire Nicole or Julia or sweet Maura when you’re just gonna shove them behind a wheel for most of the film? And on some level, you’d be right. But on another, the car feels like a perfect setting for mother-son character work, if based solely on my own experience as a queer youth.
Traditionally, the kitchen table is thought of as the place for conversation. Families gather there and have deep heart to hearts (and I’ve been there, too.) But there’s something about the claustrophobia of the car — just you, another person and the road — that inspires a deep talk. And, with queer youth, there’s always a conversation to be had with a parent. Maybe it’s because parents of queer youth are always guessing about their own children, or maybe it’s because queer youth are always hiding something from our parents. One thing you learn in fiction writing class is that, in any scene, each character has to have a clear vision of what they want. And when two characters interact, and they each want something out of each other, they have to talk until they get there. Where better for that kind of action than a moving vehicle?
After thinking so much about this year’s slate of car-based acting, I thought about the previous year and the scenes it brought us as well. Maybe one of the most memorable scenes of cinema in 2017 was Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird catapulting herself out of the passenger’s side of her mom, Laurie Metcalf’s, car.
Lady Bird, of course, is not gay, though you’d be hard pressed to convince me she doesn’t read as queer. (And even if she weren’t queer, enough people saw themselves in Ronan’s portrayal that the argument here holds water.) Part of Lady Bird’s frustration, and what propels her out of a moving vehicle, is that gap between parent and child, that chasm that sometimes feels too far to be bridged. And while it’s a bit too far to say that there’s something inherently queer about that gap, it’s not too far to say that that gap feels inherent to queer adolescence. If you spend your entire adolescence trying to figure yourself out, then how are we supposed to clue others in to what’s going on around us?
My mother and I didn’t speak much about my sexuality growing up. But one day, when I was 12 years old, she picked me up from soccer practice and I was crying. Soccer practice was already an emotional experience for me. A lot of the other boys from school were on my team. I was bullied in school for being too femme all the time. And while in school, I felt at least academically superior to my bullies, on the soccer field, I was an uncoordinated mess. It didn’t help that, on some level, I knew my mom had signed me up for this torture because she was afraid of me evolving from a fat kid to a fat adult. So, she thought, she’d get me active.
Anyway, back to the story. So my mom picks me up and I’m crying. She asks why.
“Everyone keeps calling me gay,” I told her, sobbing. My mom, at that point, was a little silent with me. Looking back on it, she knew this day would come when I would have to say that word out loud. And I know that she had been building up to some kind of speech about it.
I don’t remember exactly what she said to comfort me, but it was some kinda work ethic-based talk about how even if I were gay, I could be just as good at sports or school or anything as anybody else. I remember her saying that there were rumors for years that Mike Piazza of the Mets was gay, but who cares — he goes out there and does his job just as good, if not better, than anybody else. Her solution, I guess, was for me to go out and slay on the soccer field. A statistical improbability.
But what is most memorable about this interaction in a car isn’t what she said, but how she said it. My mother always smoked a cigarette while she drove. So she was sitting in the driver’s seat with the window open a smidge to let out the smoke and ash, and she was yelling. She wasn’t yelling at me, as the person who was being bullied. But she was screaming out of frustration. Maybe she was frustrated that her son was being bullied or that her son might be gay — or both. Maybe she was frustrated because she couldn’t be with me at all hours of the day to defend me because she knew I wasn’t really vocal or quick enough to defend myself. But either way, her pep talk was at high volume. Something about the car hotboxes our feelings. The recycled warm air expands our emotions to fill the space. Like I said, to this day, I remember more how she said what she said, the decibel level, more than the words.
In Call Me By Your Name, Elio (also Chalamet) calls his mother to pick him up from a train station just as he’s waved goodbye to Oliver (Armie Hammer) for what might be the last time ever. While everyone remembers Michael Stuhlbarg’s emotional speech in the film’s final scenes, few talk about the quiet strength of Elio’s mom (Amira Casar). The way she lovingly strokes his hair while smoking a cigarette, like my mother, as her son tries to hold in sobs and weeps only three feet from her.
So, yes, I’d prefer Julia sparring with Albert Finney or Nicole traipsing around the Moulin Rouge, but there’s an emotional honesty to a mom behind the wheel, taking a journey with her son, that will always get me.