Culture

The Monster LGBTQ Readers See in Stephen King’s ‘It’

Bill Skarsgard in Stephen King’s ‘It’/Image © Warner Bros.

When fans of Stephen King’s It refer to “that chapter,” it’s usually pretty obvious which one they’re talking about. Numerous online discussions have recently sprung up around it as a new generation of readers discover the gargantuan 1986 novel, which they’re doing in ever-greater numbers thanks to the upcoming film. You know the chapter they’re talking about: after the the tween-aged members of the Losers Club (seemingly) vanquish their enemy, there’s a sexual interlude in which they all take turns coupling with Beverly, their sole female member.

By now King is used to being questioned about the scene, and has told his fans: “The sexual act connected childhood and adulthood. It’s another version of the glass tunnel that connects the children’s library and the adult library. Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues.”

For myself and other LGBTQ readers, however, there’s another “that chapter” – one that creeps into conversations far less often, and which other readers might find themselves tempted to skim in their haste to get to the monster mash that lies ahead. This part too serves as a tunnel between the book’s childhood and adult timelines, and in fact involves a literal tunnel: It is the brutal 1984 murder of gay Derry resident Adrian Mellon, which provides the impetus for Mike Hanlon to get the Losers Club back together again. While Pennywise the clown makes a mere cameo in the scene, to certain eyes it’s up there with the bleakest horror that King’s ever written.

Here’s your refresher course: Despite warnings from his boyfriend about their small town’s particularly virulent brand of homophobia, evidenced in graffiti scrawls like STICK NAILS IN EYES OF ALL FAGOTS (FOR GOD), Mellon makes no effort to conceal his sexual orientation, nor does he stand down to local bullies when confronted on the street one evening for wearing a goofy hat announcing his civic pride (“I ♥ Derry”).

Cops intervene before Mellon comes to any harm, but they aren’t around to save him when the roughnecks take revenge later that night, terrorizing Mellon and his boyfriend as they walk home across the Main Street Bridge. Here they beat him, stab him, and then toss him off the bridge, leaving him for dead in the shallow water twenty-three feet below. That’s where Pennywise – presumably drawn to any location where fear and hatred reach a fever pitch – claims him as a victim, feasting on Mellon’s flesh in full view of two witnesses: the boyfriend, Don Hagarty, and fifteen-year-old assailant Christopher Unwin.

Establishing a theme that will become familiar by the end of the book, none of Derry’s other residents respond to the victim’s desperate screams. King writes: “The buildings of Main Street loomed dark and secret. No one came to help – not even from the one white island of light that marked the bus station, and Hagarty did not see how that could be: There were people in there. He had seen them when he and [Adrian] walked past. Would none of them help? None at all?”

The painful invisibility of victimhood is a recurring theme in King’s work, and It is perhaps his deepest exploration of it, an epic saga of outcasts versus bullies that spans generations and clocks in at more than a thousand pages. This is the easiest explanation for the book’s popularity among teenage book lovers, who are intellectually capable of appreciating the injustice and mistreatment that surround them every day, but powerless to do anything about it. While some of Derry’s evil can be attributed to its lingering supernatural presence, King makes no bones about his message to all those who don’t fit in, regardless of their zip code: Beware, because help is not coming.

The lynching of Adrian Mellon occupies twenty-two of those thousand pages – the entire second chapter in fact, one that Redditors recently described as “seemingly ancillary” and “out of place” and “inconsequential,” though ultimately defending the chapter’s inclusion as evidence of King’s masterful world-building. These were responses to a question from a first-time reader wondering whether this chunk of the book was “actually necessary” to read.

As a fourteen-year-old growing up in a small town, I certainly found it to be so.

This would have been in the mid ’90s, when activism and public sympathy were still having a hard time outrunning the fear and stigma unleashed by the AIDS crisis, which by then had claimed about 40,000 American lives. At this point small-town folk still knew practically nothing about gay men, except that they were prone to promiscuity and disease, and that it was socially acceptable to be nasty to them.

Being young and queer against that backdrop confirmed everything a teenager might read in a Stephen King novel: Your parents won’t help you. Teachers won’t help you. The police and other authorities won’t help you. And the church – well, don’t get me started. I sleepwalked through my high school years with the understanding that any or all of those entities could inadvertently do me even greater harm than the kids laying in wait for me at the bus stop, or in the halls between classes.

During the year I first read It, a classmate punched me square in the face, in full view of a teacher who abruptly turned and walked away as if she’d seen nothing. I, of course, told no one.

The following year, two students looked up my number in the phone book and called me at home, threatening to drive over, drag me out of my house, and beat me up in the front yard. “When we tell your parents why we’re doing it, they won’t stop us,” they told me. I pleaded with them until they laughed and finally hung up. I went back to the living room and sat right back down in front of the TV as if nothing had happened, and spent all evening waiting, wondering if they really might show up; I wondered if they were right about my parents. I told no one.

When my grades plummeted and I was taken to see a therapist, I resisted the urge to open up about my problems. This proved wise. Later that week a friend at school casually mentioned: “I heard you went to see Charlie.” Turns out her mom worked in the same office, and word travels fast in a small town. This only deepened my resolve to keep battling demons and bullies on my own, eventually forming a sort of real-life Losers Club with other outcasts. (Every school has at least one.)

Brutal as Mellon’s chapter may be, and ancillary to the book’s main events as it may seem, I can now say with certainty that King got it right, adequately warning young queer people of the AIDS age (and beyond) of the realistic threat awaiting them in the world. The threat of violence and the chill of indifference, whether from the general public or the institutions designed to protect us, were never just all in our heads; unlike a vampire or protean spider-goddess, this wasn’t the kind of monstrosity that could be dispelled with laughter or a silver bullet. And unlike most of King’s other monsters, this one didn’t go away when I finished the book – it haunted me for years, in broad daylight.

It still does, in fact. The uptick in hate crimes nationwide has put the entire LGBTQ community on edge, and most of us already know that the majority of these incidents go unreported, but this was recently confirmed in a new report from the Department of Justice. The reason why isn’t so hard to guess: From an early age, LGBTQ people learn to count on indifference or mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement, not to mention drawing further attention to such incidents could end up drawing even more unwanted attention, including outing to one’s family or workplace. Going on the record with an accusation might even be seen as an escalation, inciting revenge or further hatred.

The increase in assaults isn’t limited to rural areas. There was a wave of them in NYC following the Supreme Court’s 2015 passage of the marriage equality bill, and it’s hard to ignore the feeling these were retaliatory in some way, an inevitable result of the GOP-sanctioned “pushback” against LGBTQ civil rights.

Even so, King is correct: The world really has changed quite a bit since this book was written, and so has he. Sometime in the ’90s, he seemed to take it upon himself to include more (and better) feminist and LGBT perspectives, perhaps inspired by his proximity to gay issues through his daughter, Naomi, who is a lesbian. Too often King’s vintage works are combed for stereotypes considered offensive by today’s standards; many of these instances amount to period-accurate portrayals of rural life, where homophobic language is (to this day) used frequently and non-ironically. Reading It in 2017, what stands out is the author’s careful narrative distance, which includes a sort of rueful acknowledgment of the status quo (such as the casual homophobia of the cops investigating Mellon’s death) without condoning it in the slightest. In fact, he casts all the interested parties’ perspectives into doubt except Hagarty, the bereaved boyfriend who’d been hip to Derry’s sickness all along.

This is likely due to the fact [which has been pointed out to us since this article’s posting] that the chapter’s events are based on the real life 1984 murder of Charlie Howard, an event which few non-Mainers may be familiar with. None of Howard’s killers served more than two years — and it seems especially worth pointing out that as recently as 2011, Howard’s memorial was defaced with an anti-gay slur, requiring it to be cleaned and rededicated.

The subtext remains crystal clear: Watch out, kids.

You can still point to the book’s casual use of the word “fag” and other homo-negative elements – for example, the brief moment of experimentation between two young delinquents (equal-opportunity fondler Patrick Hockstetter and murderous gang leader Henry Bowers), which mainly serves as a window into the sexual confusion and repression experienced by bullies, which they pay forward to their victims – but you can’t say King hasn’t done his homework on the human condition.

As much as we want novelists to bear a certain standard for the voiceless and oppressed, every writer (even one who fantasizes about killer clowns) is ultimately a documentarian. As Roxane Gay observes in a discussion about her new memoir, Hunger: “Marginalized people aren’t allowed to be artists. They aren’t allowed to be intellectuals. We’re expected to only be activists or people who are singular and can only write about the self.”

As a white, straight man, Stephen King may not be anyone in 2017’s idea of a marginalized person, and it hardly seems in his nature to stand up and count himself as such – although I’m sure it didn’t feel that way to him as a geeky young brainiac growing up in a time and place when people were downright proud of their intolerance of Carrie Whites and Arnie Cunninghams. As the Losers Club’s various members teach us, there are many paths that lead to those margins. Expanding his moral universe to chime in on the injustices heaped upon women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, and other outcasts, It becomes an enterprise in proving the importance of forming close networks bonded by creativity and human decency: Among outcasts, there is relative safety in numbers.

White gay men like Adrian Mellon (and myself) are often considered to be part of the problem when it comes to social justice, soaking up more than our share of attention and resources compared to others, like transwomen of color, who find it much harder to assimilate due to the additional factors of racism and sexism, and find themselves disproportionately attacked and killed for it. This has become a systemic problem within the LGBTQ community, and confronting it often threatens to tear us apart, but the reality is that none of us, regardless of color or sexuality, knows when the next attacker may strike, or who may bear the brunt of it. They lash out in rural and urban settings alike, in “neutral” public places and “safe” spaces (like the Pulse nightclub massacre) alike. They erupt in the suburbs and on college campuses. Some may face greater danger than others, but no one is safe.

King’s prose refers to Mellon as “gay” (he is also a “fruit” and a “bum-puncher” in the eyes of the cops) but his description of the character is more in line with someone who’d probably identify as “queer” or even “genderqueer” today. At the time of his death, Mellon was dressed for a night on the town with his boyfriend: red nail polish, lipstick, and “satin pants so tight you could almost read the wrinkles in his cock” (again, cop’s description).

Whereas gay merely denotes sexual orientation, nowadays queer refers more specifically to these kinds of non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality, describing how visible you might be to “straight” heteronormative society. Anderson Cooper is gay, whereas someone like RuPaul might readily embrace the term queer. Do all queer men have a fondness for lipstick or nail polish? Of course not; expressions of queerness can be quite varied, but you tend to know them when you see them. As gender pioneer Kate Bornstein explained in a recent interview, “drag queens, drag kings, dandies, transvestites, cross-dressers etc.” all tend to fall under the Q category in LGBTQ.

In other words, avowed “queermeat” like Mellon (and again, myself) are among those most likely to be perceived as “rubbing your face in it.” Not unlike our trans brothers and sisters, our very existence in public can be seen as a provocation, and if attacked, we’re more likely to be subjected to victim-blaming based on what we were wearing, or the company we happened to be keeping.

King fully explores the spectrum of queerness in his description of Derry’s burgeoning gay scene, and even within the relationship of his doomed lovers – the more straitlaced Don Hagarty is “a draftsman with an engineering firm in Bangor,” while flamboyant Adrian is a freelance writer who hails from the several-degrees-more-cosmopolitan city of Portland. Revisiting the chapter as an adult, I actually found their relationship dynamic quite endearing: While the more conservative Hagarty warns his lover about drawing attention from all the Derry residents afflicted with the “deep-down crazies,” it doesn’t stop him from holding Adrian’s hand or kissing him in public. Adrian’s queerness becomes Don’s by association, and they both pay a terrible price for it.

Most men who embark on relationships together end up having some version of this conversation, and finding the compatibility between queerness versus gayness can often be difficult. Some happily flaunt public displays of affection as an expression of their equal rights, while others think relatively little of it one way or another. However, many men will never be able to fully relax and enjoy affection in the public domain. Their hand will suddenly jerk away from yours, or they’ll cringe away from your kiss, eyes darting to see who might be watching.

In other words, your affection may spark someone’s “fight or flight” response, because of what they’ve seen, experienced, or dreaded their whole lives. How messed up is that?

These distinctions in gay/queer identity are still constantly subject to debate, and were not so finely drawn at the time when It was written – especially outside of big cities. Remember, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness by the APA as recently as 1973, and echoes of that stigma persist today, particularly in the communities that still consider religious conversion therapy a viable option, willfully mistaking the LGBTQ communities’ higher suicide rates and other lingering symptoms of trauma as symptoms of a sick lifestyle, instead of linking them to the bullying and repression we endure from a young age.

As such, it should surprise no one that Adrian Mellon’s chapter didn’t make it into the fondly remembered 1990 It miniseries. ABC was already nervous about airing a four-hour horror special about a clown who abducts and eats children, so depicting a violent hate crime against an openly queer individual at the height of the AIDS epidemic would have been truly beyond the pale. As scriptwriter Lawrence D. Cohen recalls: “I look at as a glass half full situation … The way I see it, the best moments from the book made the cut and the rest are casualties of war.”

As for whether Mellon might end up in the upcoming Andrés Muschietti film, that’s harder to say. The filmmakers seem to have divided the book more cleanly into 1950s and 1980s storylines, with this September’s first installment covering the Losers Club’s first battle with Pennywise, and the followup film depicting their fateful reunion twenty-eight years later. That means Muschietti and his screenwriters still have a little time to decide whether the Mellon storyline is worth their attention.

Here’s why I think it is.

Even though LGBTQ characters all too commonly meet their demise onscreen, there’s an opportunity here to tell Mellon’s story in a way that doesn’t spare non-LGBTQ viewers from the real, horrifying impact of attacks like these, or let them off the hook for ignoring societal factors that contribute to them.

Whether we like it or not, violence against LGBTQ people is a huge part of our nation’s history – particularly in the ’80s when HIV/AIDS was allowed to wipe out entire communities before official intervention was deemed necessary. Too many portrayals of that time period in our films and TV shows gloss over these facts, erasing the dread that suffused our romantic and sexual lives, in public and in private.

Today a new generation of kids are confronting a version of this boogeyman, one that’s energized by political rhetoric. They are growing up in a world where the murder of dozens of people are bestowed a cursory amount of “thoughts and prayers” on their way to becoming an NRA talking point. Trump supporters insist they want to save gays from being thrown off rooftops by Iranian Muslim radicals, but even a closeted fourteen-year-old in South Dakota knows these kinds of torments are just as easily inflicted by American hands.

LGBTQ figures deserve a much wider spectrum of representation in films (and to survive to see the closing credits), but Mellon’s chapter ought to be filmed as a challenge to all the “straight” viewers out there: Let our horror become theirs. Show the truth of the cruelty that pounces when our backs are turned, when we’re kissing our significant others. Show the convenient silence of non-intervention that envelopes us during an attack – and in the moments afterward, as bereaved loved ones struggle to hold someone, anyone, accountable.

Consider that you’ll be giving the genre fans and nostalgic blockbuster movie crowds exactly what they came for: a glimpse of their own face in the mirror, the mask of polite society constantly threatening to slip – that’s the true face of It, and always has been. Use it to scare the shit out of them.

We in the LGBTQ family might not like seeing it. We might even be “triggered,” as internet troglodytes are so fond of sneering at us. Even so, it won’t be anything most of us haven’t already seen before.