City of Brotherly Love

HBO’s Looking is an advertisement for a gentrified San Francisco masquerading as a portrait of contemporary gay life

About a decade ago, I was standing outside a San Francisco bar shortly after closing when I found out that around the corner a Hollywood film crew was shooting the movie adaptation of Rent. Sure enough, a block notorious for poverty and desperation had been commandeered by at least three different kinds of cops: SFPD officers, private security, and actors playing the NYPD. There was fake snow on the ground and rainbow feather boas wrapped around parking meters. Black women dressed as stereotypical hookers peered out of an NYPD car while the cameras faced a crowd of actors looking clueless in the middle of the street (presumably these were New Yorkers).

Of course it made sense that the $40 million film production of the blockbuster AIDSploitation musical about artists, activists, junkies, and queers dancing and dying in a mythical downtown New York at the dawn of the 1990s would decide to film scenes in San Francisco to evoke New York City realness. I’d always considered Rent a grotesque charade, an opinion cemented when I read Sarah Schulman’s Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America. Schulman exposes how Rent stole the plot of her 1990 novel People in Trouble, repositioned straight people as the heroes of the AIDS crisis, and raked in billions. But when a friend later called with free tickets to a preview screening at the theater across the street from my apartment, I gave in. I went to Rent to watch for San Francisco in the background.

When I watched the season one premiere of HBO’s Looking, about a group of gay men searching for sex and sensibility in current-day San Francisco, it was with a similar goal: I was looking for glimpses of the city that had formed me. I didn’t hold out hope that a Hollywood product would show me anything I recognized beyond a consumer gay culture satisfied with glossy representations as a sign of progress. But I wondered what Looking would show me about the image of a gentrified San Francisco, framed for mass-market consumer appeal through a gay lens.

Season One of Looking opens in a cruising park that looks like it could be someone’s backyard, but overall the series gets off on displaying its characters in an actual San Francisco—they have conversations on public transit, go on walks through Golden Gate Park, admire the view at Ocean Beach, party in Dolores Park and at local bars, many of them easily recognizable by your average gay (or straight) San Franciscan.

Looking follows three gay men and their various sidekicks, sex partners, and love interests. Patrick is the 29-year-old gay ingénue at the center—he works as a videogame designer, his favorite movie is Goonies, and his whiteness is so pronounced that he says “bummer” without intended irony. Agustín, a friend of Patrick’s from college, is the slutty bearded Cuban-American from Coral Gables who derives most of his joy from making other people uncomfortable. Dom, who waits tables at one of San Francisco’s quintessential gay powerbroker restaurants, looks like a 1977-vintage clone, the classic white gay sex symbol, complete with mustache. On the verge of turning 40 (gasp!), he’s the eldest member of our trio. There is one female supporting character in the mix, Dom’s roommate and former girlfriend (don’t worry, it was ages ago!) Doris, a straight woman with a gravelly voice who outdoes the gays in drinking and saying whatever sounds most inappropriate.

While Looking revels in its San Francisco setting, there’s very little in the series that isn’t bland enough to imagine in any whitewashed gay destination city. The storied Folsom Street Fair is an excuse to rush into a leather store and spend hundreds of dollars without blinking. El Rio, the bar with “your dive” advertised on the awning, is the setting for a gay bachelor party. The escort on the phone at a café scheduling an appointment with a trick charges $220 an hour and looks like he just stepped out of the International Male catalog.

Whenever Looking gets too close to anything that could possibly lead to revelation, it backs away and shows us another compelling city view. “I think I might be racist,” Patrick says, after mulling over his disappointment that Richie, the Latino guy with fabulous facial hair who cruised him on MUNI, doesn’t have an uncut cock. When Patrick hints at a critique of misogyny in video games, saying “I relate to the women as an outsider,” it’s only to show that he likes to play the female parts (wink wink). We would never know that San Francisco is a city vibrating with a wide range of feminist and oppositional queer possibilities. But did you see that gorgeous aerial shot of Market Street?

The three lead characters and their sex/love interests rarely depart from the carefully-crafted casual masculinity and the typical muscular bodies and chiseled features of gay consumerist desire. Occasionally they use campy banter, but often it’s to distinguish themselves from the real queens—you know, the ones who just can’t stop. In one of the most fascinatingly dull scenes in the first season, Patrick discusses gay marriage with love-interest Richie (In Looking, just like in life, lust is always on the verge of blooming into love). Both agree that they might want to get married at some point, but Patrick says he doesn’t want to be “one of those crazies who goes on two drunken dates… and runs to City Hall.” His acknowledgment that some gay people might now face pressure to conform to straight institutions for the approval of their homophobic families is as close as the first season gets to a political critique. But in spite of all of the San Francisco portraiture, there is no mention of decades of queer alternatives to this vision of normalcy in the city where these alternatives are perhaps the most visible.

Director/producer Andrew Haigh is certainly capable of bringing these conversations to the screen—it’s one of the things that Weekend, the film that got him this job, does best. Weekend centers around a drunken hookup and its ramifications over the next few days, when the two main characters drink and fuck and do lines of coke and argue about internalized homophobia and sexual shame and gay domesticity, flamboyance versus secrecy, whether gay marriage has anything to do with love, whether sex can illuminate the world, whether dating is just some cruel joke, whether art means anything, and whether there’s a point in purposely making straight people uncomfortable. Their conversations are long-winded and intoxicating—emotionally draining, contradictory, messy and frustrating. They actually feel like the conversations you would have with someone you just met as you found yourself revealing more than you expected, and you struggled to imagine what this might mean. But in Looking, there isn’t a hint of the texture of this life.

It’s clear that the second season of Looking is trying to be edgier than the first. We meet two representatives of alterna-gay culture in the first episode. First, a glamorously made-up faerie who appears in the woods near the Russian River to usher our more conventional heroes to the party like some saucy doorgirl (service from the fringe). Next, a group of bears, including one rather loud queen, Eddie, who gleefully cruises Agustín. But mostly this first episode feels like an infomercial for taking drugs in the woods (have you heard that ecstasy lowers your inhibitions?). Speaking of trees, the jaw-dropping shots of Russian River wilderness are sure to boost the number of visitors to the area. Yes, the mutually-supportive engines of voyeurism and tourism are running at full speed.

In fact, the landscape shots are so gorgeous that they rival the scenery in the much-hyped 2013 film Stranger by the Lake, set solely in a gay cruising area in the French countryside. Stranger by the Lake, though, includes erections and cumshots (performed by body doubles to preserve the purity of its straight actors), but it centers on a predatory gay murderer and the fags who die for their sex I mean sins. Without gay blood, this movie might have been considered porn, but thanks to three dead bodies it won an award at Cannes (great cinematography!).

Luckily, in Looking no one gets drowned in a lake or slashed in the throat so the hero can hold the dying guy as he says, “It’s okay, I got what I wanted.” Once Eddie is introduced, though, Agustín needs to tone down his flamboyance—only one queen at a time in this show, man. It is refreshing that Agustín expresses no particular fear of sleeping with or dating Eddie after he reveals he’s positive, although even here the boundaries are drawn between someone like Eddie who contracted HIV because his boyfriend said he was negative (but wasn’t), and a tweaking “courtesy bottom” in a sling at a sex party.

One might hope for more discussion on becoming HIV-positive in a relationship with a duplicitous lover, but that would steer us too close to a critique of gay culture. Instead the scene soon switches to Patrick and Richie talking about struggling for acceptance from their families of origin. It seems that whenever the characters dig deep, it’s to reflect about childhood. While it’s nice to see references to structural homophobia in a world that now declares “It Gets Better” whenever anything gets worse, in Looking this mostly feels like a device to give flesh to its hollow characters and make them more sympathetic. Worse, it obscures the reality of day-to-day life in San Francisco, where the type of gay men portrayed in Looking is mostly accepted into the mainstream, while more marginal queers are pushed further to the fringes.

We get a soft-focus glimpse of one of these fringes when Eddie introduces us to the cute trans kids at the homeless shelter where he works. When Agustín asks about getting a job there, Eddie warns that the kids will stalk him on Facebook, call him, text him, refuse to respect his boundaries. No word on personal, intimate, or structural violence that might cause homeless trans kids to behave in this way. (It’s not because of the shelter, Eddie says, with a Larkin Street Youth Services awning in the background like an advertisement). One of the kids, assessing Agustín, asks him if he’s trans. When Agustín says no, the kid says, “but you’re queer, right?” Agustín’s response: “I’m gay.”

This is as close as Looking gets to introducing an oppositional queer politic, one that believes in articulating a queer identity as a challenge to both straight and gay normalcy. But with two words, the conversation is over before it begins. There’s no mention of the violence of gay powerbrokers in San Francisco, who are more than happy to push aside queer and trans youth, elders, HIV-positive people without money, homeless queers, drug addicts, disabled queers, people of color, migrants from smaller towns and other countries, and anyone else unable or unwilling to conform to narrow notions of white middle-class respectability. In fact, San Francisco is a textbook example of what happens when gay people become part of the power structure—they engineer the election of anti-poor pro-development candidates over and over and over again; they advise property owners on how to get rid of long-term tenants; they fight against the construction of a queer youth shelter because it might impact community property values; they arrest homeless queers for getting in the way of happy hour.

The symbolic heart of gay assimilation is San Francisco’s Castro district, where gay men flocked in the 1970s to escape places where they couldn’t express their gender, sexual, and social identities. (They also fled San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where more down-and-out queers remained.) Could the Castro have become a beautiful place where queers of all types were welcome? Perhaps. But the reality of the Castro is that it was (and is) a neighborhood built on exclusion. Now that the gays who renovated the neighborhood’s old Victorians have successfully shed sexual exhibitionism and low-income tenants for platinum wedding bands and surrogacy arrangements, even wealthier straight people have arrived to displace the neighborhood’s gay old guard.

While the aesthetics of the Castro’s golden years have been preserved in the form of Dom’s mustache and other nods to the ‘70s aesthetic de rigueur for trendy gay and straight clones of today (will the tyranny of the red-and-black plaid ever end?), Looking isn’t nostalgic. It rarely glances back to the past, but prefers to speak for the gays of today, when so many are more than happy to join affluent straights in ethnic cleansing as long as they can live as close as possible to the best single-origin drip coffee, the most creative craft cocktails, the sassiest sweatshirt boutiques, and the most exclusive indoor street food. It’s no accident that the majority of the action in Looking doesn’t take place in the Castro, but in the Mission and other fresher battlegrounds of gentrification. While the Castro may still be the best place to buy underwear, the Mission is a far better outpost for conquering cuisines.

Speaking of the narrowness of the gay gaze, the only appearance of lesbians in Looking is a case of mistaken identity—the woman who Patrick’s boss says is “more man than both of us,” but she’s straight and married (to a man). Apparently the lesbians love Doris. But which lesbians? We haven’t seen any yet. While gender segregation is certainly endemic to gay and queer spaces, it so happens that in San Francisco there are more friendships across conventional lines of gender than perhaps anywhere else. Looking is careful to include many cross-racial pairings, but lesbians remain outside of the picture.

Looking strives to keep itself current, even setting a scene at the closing of Latino gay bar Esta Noche (shuttered in 2014 after 33 years in business). “San Francisco is so over,” Patrick laments, speaking of a bar he only went to once before and which was never meant to serve him anyway. The closing of San Francisco’s only Latino gay bar (to make way for an upscale organic cocktail lounge called Bond) is a direct effect of the current displacement crisis set in motion by tech companies like the one where Patrick works, but you would never know this by watching Looking.

In fact, gentrification, the single largest issue in San Francisco right now, the subject of national and international headlines, is never directly mentioned in the series. We do hear that Dom and Doris remain roommates because the rent in the city is so extreme, but they share a spacious two-bedroom in a high-rise. Dom is skeptical of the pompous tastemakers who control the restaurant business, but only because they won’t give him money to realize his lifelong dream as a restauranteur. He has no qualms about opening a peri peri chicken takeout window for foodies on an “up-and-coming” block in the Tenderloin—he just needs to find $80,000 to get the business started.

Gentrification is just another backdrop, adding a certain je ne sais quoi to the talk about cock size (length and girth), fears about bedbugs, and gym-toned naked asses pumping away for the camera. Looking naturalizes displacement by making it invisible. Throw in a smattering of interracial sex and dating, a few conversations about HIV and enemas and pop-up restaurants, and we get the sense that something is being represented, but what? By acting like displacement isn’t happening, Looking plays an active role in cultural erasure—it’s a tourist brochure for a gentrified San Francisco, an advertising campaign with bodies as billboards. In this day and age, when the portrayal of gay lives is hardly more threatening than a trip to Pottery Barn, Looking makes sure that no hint of a queer alternative slips through the cracks in the glaze. At least in Rent, there was something to sing about.