During my recent interview with actor and drag legend Murray Hill, he talked about the 7th grade teacher who showed him VHS tapes of Paris is Burning and The Queen. “I had one cool teacher,wp_postshe said. “There’s always one!”
Many of us survived closeted childhoods, because of that one teacher. Many of us grew up to be queer adults because one person saw something special while everyone else just saw difference. Not all of these people were queer themselves, but a lot of them were. We take care of our own when no one else will. But community is not a given among queer individuals — it requires work, it requires fight, it requires care.
Georgia Oakley’s new film Blue Jean takes place in a time much like our own. The year is 1988, and Thatcherism has the UK in the grip of traditional values — traditional values like hurting workers, increasing social inequalities, and oppressing anyone with a marginalized identity. Queer people are visible in all the wrong ways with daily debates about our existence occurring on TV and the radio.
Jean is a high school PE teacher and netball coach living a double life. At school, she tries to remain private, her short hair, lack of a husband, and teaching subject still leading to rumors. At home, she has a robust queer community, primarily due to her radical dyke girlfriend, Viv. These worlds start to collide when Jean sees her new student, Lois, at the gay bar — and, more importantly, Lois sees her.
Ninety years since The Children’s Hour was first on stage and over sixty years since it appeared on-screen, the story of a tortured lesbian teacher hovering at the door of the closet may seem tired. But there’s a reason teachers have long been a battleground for queer progress — in fiction and in real life. “Save the childrenwp_postsis just about the easiest manipulation tactic those who want us dead can use. It’s never: save the children from hunger by giving them free lunches. It is instead: save the children from queerness, education, themselves — anything that might result in life different from the conservative status quo.
The triumph of Blue Jean is that it takes time showing the queer lives at stake. This is not a dour film. It has hot lesbian sex, sweaty snapshots of queer bars, and, ultimately, portrays the power of community. This makes the constricting environment of the school all the more painful.
Rosy McEwen as Jean, Kerrie Hayes as Viv, and Lucy Halliday as Lois give a trio of complicated performances. Each of their characters is fighting different battles in the same war, approaching their queer lives with different bravery and compromise. The pain and pleasure of each is made clear in every look and line delivery.
This film does not present easy answers. The arc is not one of self-acceptance, a triumphant moment where Jean comes out and learns she should have been out the whole time. That’s not the world we lived in; it’s not the world we live in. Instead, the film exists within the complexities that face these various queer lives. Viv’s queerness doesn’t allow her the choice of being closeted — Jean’s does. By staying closeted, Jean is allowed to be around children, shaping their lives in the ways only that one cool teacher can.
But the film also doesn’t excuse cowardice in the face of these impossibilities. As the plot develops, as Jean’s balancing act becomes untenable, Oakley suggests that courage is a moral imperative. It’s not fair that we’re put in positions that require sacrifice. And yet at a certain point to focus on the not-fairness of our own lives means ignoring the lives of others. We have to accept that burden, meet that burden, and fight the best we can. It’s scary, it’s unfair, it’s essential. Queer people owe this to each other. All people owe this to each other.
Early in the film, Jean says: “Not everything is political.wp_postsViv shoots back: “Of course it is.wp_postsThere is room in queer cinema for work that is escapist, but in a moment when anti-queer, anti-trans legislation is rapidly being passed in the US, when transphobia continues to spread across the US and the UK, I’m grateful for a film like Blue Jean. We need art that grapples with these realities, and still — even still — finds hope.