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Gaycation heads home for some introspection in season one finale

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“Everyone was waiting for you to come out,” a fan tells Ellen Page in the finale of Viceland’s Gaycation. Page and her best friend and Gaycation travel companion Ian Daniel are at New York City’s pride parade, days after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of marriage equality. “Myself as well,” Page replies with a smirk.

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Throughout the first season of Gaycation, Page and Daniel have traveled to Japan, Brazil, and Jamaica, trying to learn about the complexities and nuances of what it means to be queer in each place. Page’s wry sense of humor comes through in a lot of her interactions, especially when things get a little uncomfortable. There have been moments much more awkward than that exchange in New York, like in the Jamaica episode when dancehall star Beenie Man tells Page he thinks it’s hot when two girls kiss. Instead of fighting him on the misogyny of his statement, Page just agrees, tongue in cheek. She chooses her battles carefully in Gaycation. In the finale, Page and Daniel finally return home to the United States, where they try to make sense of their own country. While talking to the Bontrager Family Singers, a family band that travels the country singing and preaching about religious freedom, Page ultimately becomes flustered and defeated.

Page brings all of her emotions to the stories she tells in Gaycation, which embodies Vice’s immersion journalism style but feels much more personal than journalistic. Page is, in many ways, a character in Gaycation. The production value of the series is very polished, but Page’s interviewing style is much more naturalistic. Her conversations with people and narration throughout Gaycation are full of phrases like “I imagine,” “I feel,” “it seems to me.” They’re clear reminders—along with the credits that list Page as an executive producer—that everything we see is being filtered through her point of view (and, to a lesser extent, Daniel’s). Sometimes that works against Gaycation. One of the most interesting parts of the Japan episode, for example, involves so-called fujoshi, translating to “rotten women” and used to describe women who read manga centered on romantic and sexual relationships between men. Page comes to the conclusion that these women are objectifying gay romance and that this doesn’t add to the picture of what it’s like to be queer in Japan. The conclusion seems dismissive and reflective of one of Gaycation’s downfalls: Despite its efforts to paint a very comprehensive picture of queer culture in these countries, it has a pretty narrow scope for queerness. Page and Daniel are white Americans, and the language they use is somewhat limited by the world they come from.

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Throughout the season, there have certainly been attempts to inform viewers of how outside, colonialist, imperialist powers have shaped what it means to be queer in these countries. In the finale, the interviewee Steven puts this in its most explicit terms as they explain the concept of two-spirit to Page and Daniel, emphasizing the crucial point that terms like “gay” and “lesbian” were imposed on First Nation tribes by Western culture. Page and Daniel, for the most part, approach their travels without a voyeuristic angle. But it’s also clear that they themselves will never fully understand what it means to be queer in these other countries, protected by their whiteness and the crew of Vice cameras that accompany them. Sometimes that dichotomy adds an off-putting filter to Gaycation’s point of view, which Page herself has acknowledged in interviews.

Gaycation’s greatest strength though is its emphasis on unearthing the complexities of each country it visits. Page never presents her observations as absolute truths. She and Daniel don’t label the countries as universally gay-friendly or universally homophobic. Instead, they couple data and personal narratives to try and show as many aspects of queer culture as possible. They aren’t presented as activists themselves, and Gaycation largely avoids coming off as white saviorism. And it’s also the emphasis on culture rather than just persecution that makes the series compelling. Gaycation remains realistic about the challenges and violence queer and trans people face all over the world while still celebrating the ways people live, love, and express themselves through dance, fashion, activism, and community.

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And it was crucial for Gaycation to make the journey home, to shed light on how homophobia and violence against queer and trans people isn’t just a problem abroad but right here. There are people who want LGBTQ individuals dead here, too. After the visit to the two-spirit gathering in Saskatchewan, the finale delves into the the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality and its backlash from the religious right. At first, I thought the episode was spending a little too much time on the legal status of the LGBTQ community in the U.S. Presumably, most of Gaycation’s viewers have already seen Page’s argument with Ted Cruz, given how it ended up being a pretty big news story before Gaycation premiered. And maybe it was because I’d already seen that part several times that the first act of the finale just laked the freshness Gaycation usually possesses.

But as the episode progresses, the segment on marriage equality strengthens, because the juxtaposition of it to the following stories is very powerful. Gaycation reveals that the legal victories for the mainstream gay rights movement don’t really affect the day-to-day life of all members of the LGBTQ community. Queer trans women of color are still murdered and attacked at very high rates, and Los Angeles is home to thousands of homeless gay and trans young people. Page and Daniel touch on some of the more well known narratives of the U.S.’s queer history, like that of Harvey Milk. But they focus more on the work of activists and initiatives that don’t always get recognized in textbooks, mainstream media, or severely whitewashed Hollywood renderings of the gay rights movement in America. They speak with trans activist Miss Major, noticeably left out of 2015’s Stonewall. They speak with the family of Taja DeJesus, a trans woman fatally stabbed last year. They journey to Lurie’s Children’s Hospital in Chicago, which offers groundbreaking support and services to trans and gender nonconforming youth, some of whom Page and Daniel have intimate and candid conversations with.

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As with the other episodes, the finale is both starkly real about homophobia and heterosexism but also hopeful, reflecting the sincerity of Page’s outlook. The finale is frustrating and devastating at times. It reminds viewers that it wasn’t all that long ago that being gay was criminalized in this country and challenges the notion that marriage equality solved some of the most pressing issues young queer people, queer people of color, and trans people face. And as with the other episodes, it unearths complexities, doesn’t present queer culture as monolithic or easily defined. The finale exposes hatred, but it also shows and celebrates love—the love between two elderly lesbians growing old together in an LGBTQ retirement home, the love between a father and his teen daughter as she transitions at Lurie’s, the love between homeless youth in Los Angeles who have forged new families through each other after being cast out of their homes. Gaycation remains incisive in its explorations of queer and trans life in the U.S., focusing more on personal stories than on facts alone.

Being home allows Page to dig a little deeper into her own narrative, leading to a conversation with her manager and publicist that’s personal and illuminating. Here, Page allows herself to be the subject, and it works quite well. Page doesn’t romanticize or martyrize her story. She’s just honest and open about her early years of being in the closet and her eventual decision to come out, and again, those personal pieces Page brings to the episode strengthen the intimate voice of Gaycation, which finds a solid balance between the personal and the political and the intersection of the two. Overall, the finale provides the introspection Gaycation needs.

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Stray observations

  • When asked what she intends to ask Cruz about, Page replies “gay stuff,” which made me laugh.
  • I think I only scratched the surface on the topic of Page and Daniel’s privilege and how that shapes the series, so if you have additional thoughts, please share in the comments!
  • Throughout the series, Page has worn some very great hats. Shoutout to those hats.
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