A "Beautiful Thing" on the Internet: Building Gay Community in Cyberspace
Dr. Gary Drum, Dept. of Communications & Theatre, Lambuth University
 joehardy@hardyboy.com

In a working-class, high-rise housing project in London, two teenage boys - Jamie and Ste - awkwardly come to express their love for each other, in the process admitting to themselves and others their sexual orientation. In an isolated community in upstate New York, a college student decides he is no longer ashamed of being gay. Somewhere in Germany, a teenager decides to brave coming out to a close friend, as do some college-aged males in England.

The young men in New York, Germany and England are real. Jamie and Ste are characters in a movie. Yet it is they who have such an impact on the people just described. All of the latter group - and literally hundreds of others around the world - have responded to a film called Beautiful Thing, the story of Jamie and Ste. And all of this responding group have found each other on the Internet. They will share their thoughts on a guestbook at an official movie site on the World Wide Web, establish an electronic mail discussion list to further share their lives. They will engage in real-time chat on a dedicated Internet Relay Chat channel. Some will even plan transoceanic trips to where the film was made, in Thamesmead near London. Some will establish a second electronic mail discussion list for the purpose of posting sequels to the film, as well as alternate storylines. Many will "come out" - reveal their homosexual orientation - to close friends, colleagues and family members. Others who are already "out" will tell of strengthened relationships and heightened self-esteem, all as a result of seeing just this one film.

Beautiful Thing began as a stage play by Jonathan Harvey, premiering July 28, 1993 at the Bush Theatre in London. The play was revived and toured in 1994 and opened in September of 1994 at the Duke of York's Theatre in London's West End. (Harvey, 1994, p. 1) Harvey then wrote a screenplay version and the film premiered in London on June 14, 1996. Hettie Macdonald, director of the stage versions, directed the film for Channel Four Television. Beautiful Thing received its American release in October 1996.

The Internet life of Beautiful Thing began September 1, 1996 when two British fans launched a "tribute site" on the World Wide Web. Within just twelve months, the site had received 60,000 "hits" or visits by web surfers. Early in 1997, an electronic mail list, a sort of Internet bulletin board conducted by e-mail, was established and soon had over 100 subscribers. A USENET newsgroup, which would be available to anyone with Internet access, soon followed and then came an Internet Relay Chat channel which allowed real-time discussion of the movie. By spring of 1997 several more tribute sites had been established, including one developed by a Dutch youth to promote a fan club for the film. The fan club now has its own e-mail discussion list. By spring of 1998, there were over a dozen known tribute sites and a second e-mail discussion list had been created solely for posting of fans' sequels to the original story. The stories posted to this list are now being collected on a separate web site and another site is under construction to contain an archive of e-mail postings to the first discussion list.

Tribute sites and related Internet activities devoted to a particular film are not unusual , but most soon fade in participation a few months after the film's release.

Almost two years after its release in the United Kingdom, the Internet presence of Beautiful Thing continues to grow. To understand this phenomenon, we will first offer a brief synopsis of the film and then share a number of reactions to it that were posted either to the various e-mail discussion groups or to the "guestbooks" of the various World Wide Web sites, reactions that appear to explain the film's appeal to that which is real in gay life versus that which is ideal, especially among gay teenagers and young adults.

Set in the present time in Thamesmead Estates, a British-style high-rise housing project, Beautiful Thing focuses upon the young residents of three adjacent flats, each living in single-parent households. Jamie, 16, is a shy romantic, averse to P.E. classes, ostracized by the "regular" boys, preferring to read celebrity tabloids and watch romance films on television. His mother, Sandra, manages a pub and dreams of having her own establishment. Ste, 17, is the British equivalent of the "All-American boy," athletic, well-liked by his mates and others. His alcoholic father and his designer drug-dealing brother reject him and beat him quite often. Leah, Afro-British, has been expelled from school and spends her days escaping in either drugs or her obsession for the late American pop singer, Mama Cass.

After Ste endures an especially vicious beating and tells Sandra he will never go back, she offers to take him in for a time, although she warns he and Jamie will have to sleep "top to toe," since there is no spare bedroom. The first night of this arrangement is pleasant, but it is not until a night following yet another beating of Ste by his father and brother, whom he had accompanied to a boxing match, that Jamie and Ste's feelings for one another turn from friendship to physical intimacy.

Unsettled by the experience of awakening with his arms around Jamie, Ste avoids him and even condemns him as a "queer" when Jamie confronts him at a teen party. He soon relents and brings Jamie a peace offering of a wool hat. Thus reconciled, Jamie and Ste make their first brave foray to a gay pub, unaware that Sandra, Jamie's mother, having found a purloined copy of Gay Times in Jamie's bedroom, has followed them. Confronted upon returning home, Jamie tearfully admits his homosexuality, thus also disclosing that (a) Ste is gay and (b) they are in love. Profoundly disturbed but unwilling to reject her only child, Sandra also becomes a surrogate parent to Ste, knowing his family would not only reject him, but likely do it with violence. The story closes with Jamie and Ste - in a true "fairy tale" ending - slow dancing in the Thamesmead plaza to Leah's record of Mama Cass' "Dream a Little Dream of Me."

There are subplots involving Sandra's relationship with her neo-hippie boyfriend, Leah's attempts to cope through drugs and Mama Cass music, and, of course, Jamie's and Sandra's rocky relationship. Yet the focus is on the developing awareness in both Jamie and Ste of their sexuality and what they feel for one another.

While the above synopsis seems adequate for a quirky film of modest appeal, how does one explain the continuing attraction for young gay males for what is definitely a romantic film. While the history of cinema is replete with negative, even brutal portrayals of gay characters (The Children's Hour, The Sergeant, even The Boys in the Band), several recent films (Jeffrey, The Birdcage, In and Out) have shown gays in a more positive light. Why then the attraction to this film? The answer seems to be that Beautiful Thing expresses young gay relationships in both a real and ideal fashion that resonates with young gay males.

To understand this resonance, this paper will draw from three Internet-based sources: (1) the guestbook of David Moody's original tribute web site, (Moody, "Beautiful Thing,") (2) posts made to the Beautiful Thing e-mail discussion group, and (3) personal e-mail sent to the paper's author. Responses will deal with four basic themes: (1) the initial impact upon each writer of discovering and first viewing the film, (2) how many viewers saw the film as a real and honest expression of gay life and love, (3) how some saw the film as expressing a gay ideal in terms of relationships and life, and (4) the ultimate impact the film had on many viewers, such as coming out, dealing with relationships and growth in self-esteem.

The Initial Impact

The two most common responses to a first-viewing of Beautiful Thing were to (1) see it again and (2) go online to find Internet resources about the film. An Atlanta TV newswriter claims to have seen it twelve times in three weeks (Beautiful Thing Mailing List 26 Mar. 1998). Another "saw it, then I saw it again, then I went to the Internet. It was the first time I joined a mailing list" (List 14 Oct. 1997). One fan didn't discover the film until it was shown in December, 1997 on British television. "I watched the film over and over again, it must be around 40 times by now, and I never get bored with it. . . This fueled my desire to find out more [and] unable to speak to my friends about it I turned to the Internet" ("Why I like BT"). Several seemed to share the obsessive behavior of one viewer:

Did it affect me? MAN did it affect me. I saw it yesterday evening, and I couldn't get to sleep. I woke up at 3 a.m. and I can't get that last scene out of my mind. I just kept thinking about it. Couldn't get back to sleep. Can't sleep now either. Spent the whole day surfing the net. Downloading clips, pics. Getting everything I can on that blasted movie. Still can't get it out of my mind  (E-mail Archive Page 4: 6 Apr. 1997).
Being "Real"

For many, one of the greatest reasons for the initial impact and the repeat viewings was that the story of two adolescent gay boys discovering themselves was that they - and their story - seemed so real. One discussion list writer spoke of how the film "reminded me of my own experiences, fear of myself, fear that others knew, fear of what happens if they knew. The self-discovery aspect is the most appealing and
the ordinariness of the two boys is so real - not 'Hollywood' (List 14 Oct. 1997). Some viewers reported taking "straight" friends to see the film "and it changed their attitudes as well" (E-mail Archive Page 5: 16 Apr. 1997). "Jamie has all the stereotypical gay traits and interests, but not the mannerisms," wrote one fan, reflecting several other comments about Jamie and Ste being portrayed as "ordinary" boys and not vivid gay stereotypes.

Some even took issue with film critics' comments. Roger Ebert's generally favorable review had nonetheless questioned the credibility of several of the boys' coming-out experiences and other favorable critics had done likewise.

I think it is easy to fall into the trap that it is fantasy. It's not real BECAUSE THEY {the critics} HAVEN'T BEEN THERE!! The Hello! Scene sitting on the bed; the changing of clothes without a word; the Peppermint Foot Lotion scene; the scene at the pond, the celebration in Abbey Wood. We don't see it as fantasy because WE HAVE BEEN THERE!!!!! (E-mail Archive Page 5: 26 Apr. 1997).
A Belgian fan, wrote that, "the story isn't fiction at all. Because the movie was so recognizable, it was my own mirror image. I've been there too you know. I'm gay" (Guestbook 14 Jan. 1997). Another declared that the film had captured "the true feelings of what it is to be young, gay and uncontrollably in love" (Guestbook 22 Jan. 1997). One British fan's life directly paralleled the film because "I came out to my mum after she found a copy of Gay Times in my bedroom," just as Jamie's mother had. (Guestbook 21 Jan. 1997).

Being "Ideal"

The posters to the web sites and e-mail discussions have been overwhelmingly gay males and, not untypically for males, many admit to finding little appeal in "sweet" romantic stories. Yet one fan, age 39 and in a ten-year relationship, lamented that "we have precious little fiction to hang our romantic longings on" (List 27 Mar. 1998). He suggests that the film offers romance-starved gay males an "ideal of love."

A poster to the original web site's guestbook celebrated Beautiful Thing as a "film about gays that doesn't make them the victim" (21 Jan. 1997). This would seem to be an issue both of the real and the ideal, of realizing that gays are often victims but, in an ideal world, they wouldn't be. "How much we need positive images of ourselves," declared one viewer, both reflecting the desire for this ideal and expressing an aspect of the fourth appeal of the film, its affirmation of gay self-esteem. (E-mail Archive Page 4: 6 Apr. 1997).

Identity and Action

The most common responses to both the guestbook and e-mail lists deal with just how the film impacted the viewer's sense of self-identity and self-worth. In many instances, this led to coming out. In the very least instances, it led to a great sense of satisfaction with one's personal identity. A college student in upstate New York discovered the film at a video store and, initially, found the English dialogue hard to comprehend.

But . . . I gave it a chance. I am so glad that I did. This was the day I wasn't ashamed of being gay anymore . . . Since Beautiful Thing I have learned that relationships for gay people can be just as sweet, intimate, special and normal. Somehow the movie removed the stigma of being a freak and replaced it with a hope (List 27 Mar. 1998).
Others also spoke of "normality," and overcoming long-term efforts to change their identity.
All through high school and college, I hated being gay. I prayed that somehow it would change, which of course it won't. Deep inside, I knew it wouldn't change. I figured I can't be gay, and I can't be 'normal,' so I will simply not care about anyone and lock myself in an impenetrable barrier. It wasn't until I saw [the film] that I realized I was only hurting myself. For the first time I considered myself normal - it just happens that 'normal' for me is being gay (List 27 Mar. 1998).
Another theme was personal freedom, as one poster declared, "Finally, Beautiful Thing made me feel like a healthy human, fully awake and fully alive, everything having potential and promise. That there is freedom to be found in honesty" (E-mail Archive Page 2: 1 April 1997). "It helped me realize that I'm not a second-class citizen and that I deserve to be happy and content" ("Why I like BT").

Some were even more exuberant. "I was filled with enthusiasm, wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. It was the first gay movie I saw and I really loved it. I loved Beautiful Thing. I loved Jamie. I loved Ste. I loved BEING GAY" (E-mail Archive Page 8: 6 May 1997). Another e-mail list subscriber responded to that post by declaring, "I wanted to change something in my life. That I didn't want to hide anymore, wanted someone 'to love and being loved' and wanted to escape my isolation" (6 May 1997).

Yet these expressions of exuberance were often tempered with others of frustration and sadness, for there were many who just could not come out. One confessed he wasn't even out enough to see the film in the local theater, so he waited for the video. Others were at least encouraged by the film to make tentative steps from the closet. "All my life I have been gripped by fear of being gay. After I saw [the film] I was able to pick up a gay magazine [in a local store] and browse," reads an early Guestbook entry (Oct. 1996). The creator of the original tribute site spoke of how he and his partner reacted upon leaving the film. They sat upon a bench in front of the theater and one rested his head upon the chest of the other in full view of other departing movie patrons, doing so despite the young men's admission that neither had really been willing - prior to the film - to admit they were really gay! (Oct. 1996).

While some wanted to take their straight friends to see the film, others wanted to "get the word out" to other gay people, especially young people. One Dutch fan wrote that, "I wanted to spread the word," and, within a few days, he had created a web site and gathered some friends to create a Dutch fan club and even get rights from the Dutch distributor of the film for photographs to be used on the web site. (List 15 Oct. 1997).

An Internet Community

The Internet became the common thread that joined these disparate fans. Some had never admitted to anyone, including themselves, that they were gay. Others wrote of having been out for some years, even being in long-term relationships. Some were teenagers, others over 50. Within a few months, the "community" included "members" from every continent. This writer experienced a number of Internet Relay Chat sessions that included "chatters" from over a dozen countries all sharing at one time what the film meant to them.

The initial Internet web sites and discussion lists led subsequently to where many such fan sites lead: to personal, off-line encounters. The first of these was a "pilgrimage" to Thamesmead upon the first anniversary of the film's British release. Over a dozen fans from half a dozen countries visited the film's locations, including the Gloucester pub. They published their accounts and photos on the web for all to share. No detail was too small, whether jumping over the bench that Jamie jumps over early in the film, to a journey through the Abbey Woods where Jamie and Ste share their first "public" (and very passionate) kiss. All was documented in word and picture and shared with the online community.

It is almost two years since the initial theatrical release of Beautiful Thing and almost a year since the American video release. In today's world of disposable media, a two-year old film is yesterday's film, something to rent occasionally when the video store is out of the best of the new releases.

Yet the Beautiful Thing community continues to thrive and to grow. A two-year anniversary trip is planned for June in Thamesmead and over two dozen fans from several countries, indeed continents, have committed to gathering for the celebration. Since the beginning of 1998, at least three new web sites have been created to honor the film, as has a separate e-mail discussion group, BT-Stories, dedicated to sequels and alternative adventures of Jamie and Ste. A New Jersey fan has established an E-Mail Archive, hoping to gather virtually all the discussion list posts from late 1996 to the present.

While the online participation has remained overwhelmingly male, participation (especially in fiction contributions) has been welcomed from some heterosexual females. The attitude appears to be that, so long as one loves Beautiful Thing, one is part of the community, a community that transcends nation and continent and even gender, a community of "out" extroverts and of those who must remain hidden in their "real" communities. For the latter especially, the Internet community they have found is indeed a "Beautiful Thing."
 

Works Cited

Beautiful Thing Mailing List.
bt @highstreet.demon.co.uk
(Accessed 30 Mar. 1998).

E-mail Archive Page 2.
http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/1159/arch2.html
(Accessed 30 Mar. 1998).

E-mail Archive Page 4.
http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/1159/arch4.html
(Accessed 30 Mar. 1998).

E-mail Archive Page 5.
http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/1159/arch5.html
(Accessed 30 Mar. 1998).

E-mail Archive Page 8.
http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/1159/arch8.html
(Accessed 30 Mar. 1998).

Guestbook. "Beautiful Thing."
http://www.netlink.co.uk/users/davie/beautiful-thing/
(Accessed 30 Mar. 1998)

"Why I like BT." Personal e-mail (3 Apr. 1998).

Related Sources

Harvey, Jonathan. Beautiful Thing: An Urban Fairytale. (stage play). London: Methuen Drama, 1994.

Harvey, Jonathan. Beautiful Thing: An Urban Fairytale. (screenplay). London:

Methuen Drama, 1994.
 

 
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