St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

The Gay Deceivers (1969)

The Gay Deceivers title card.

The Gay Deceivers is an… interesting film. The entirety of the plot is two young men just out of high school attempt to dodge being drafted for the Vietnam War by pretending to be gay. The rest is just wacky hijinks as they pretend to be gay, avoid giving their girlfriends/parents the wrong idea, and try to fit in with the rest of the gayborhood. I really don’t know what I was expecting, but I think I anticipated it being a lot worse than it was. Don’t get me wrong, there is so much stereotyping and a general attitude of “Look, GAY people! What a funny joke.” But there’s more going on besides.

It's a GAY party.

Elliot (the one whose lips are the same color as his skin) loses his job as a lifeguard because someone makes a complaint about him being gay. Doing “that fag routine” has been a joke to him for most of the movie and Elliot is consciously mocking his gay neighbors, but losing his job suddenly makes it very real. He becomes a victim of the same prejudices he holds. That doesn’t stop him punching a man who comes onto him at a gay bar, but by the end of the movie he willingly goes to his neighbor’s gay party wearing a VERY skimpy outfit. He gets loaded and picks up the only woman there, but freaks out when it turns out to be an androgynous twink in very convincing drag. Gotta watch that stubble, mate! The knobbly knees are a dead giveaway.

'Grow some hair on your chest.'
The bitchy guest, Elliot, and the twink in drag.

Five minutes later another party guest is being bitchy about the twink landing Elliot, and Elliot tells him, “Grow some hair on your chest and I might give you call one night.” See what I mean? No-one’s going to say this is politically correct, but damn, it’s making some gestures in the right direction. And with humor, too! The jokes about the characters carrying huge fruit baskets or exclaiming, “I have the most gorgeous peonies!” are not especially subtle, but the jokes do go both ways. Unlike those college kids! HEYYO!

“I may not know my flowers, but I know a bitch when I see one!”

There was a time when I wouldn’t have liked this movie. Gay representation has been historically poor, even into the 2000s. A friend of mine describes Will and Grace as gay minstrelry, and he’s not wrong. It’s gay culture watered down, sanitized, stereotyped, and neutered so it can be packaged and sold to straight people without making them uncomfortable. Two men kissing! The scandal! In that light you can see why I wouldn’t have appreciated this depiction of mincing, bitchy queens. But gay representation is much better these days and I think gay culture has come round to the point where we can appreciate something like this for what it is. It will never be politically correct, but for 1969 it’s surprisingly progressive and a lot of it still reads well today. We get to see happy gay characters in fulfilling relationships; we get to see a variety of different gay subcultures; we get a very sympathetic speech about how gay people can get fired from their jobs for no good reason; and we get to bask in some gloriously camp dialogue, because no matter how much we might protest otherwise, there will always be something that touches our drama-loving little hearts in a line like, “I may not know my flowers, but I know a bitch when I see one!”

Malcolm with an enormous fruit basket.

I gather this movie owes a lot of its watchability to Michael Greer, the actor and comedian who plays the landlord Malcolm. He worked with the writer and director to make the depiction of the gay characters more sympathetic and did a lot of his own dialogue. Without that we would have been deprived of anyone likeable or relatable and we’d probably just be left with a nasty, sniggering joke at the expense of gay people. Even though I can’t whitewash it and pretend that the jokes aren’t at the expense of the gay characters, I do get the impression this movie is deliberately double-edged. For the straight crowd it’s about two normal boys landing themselves in a nest of gay vipers, but for anyone with a remotely queer eye it’s about gay characters befriending and caring for two people who have found themselves out in the cold and who eventually come to have some appreciation for gay culture. With plenty of jokes about peonies and pansies. Is that so wrong? Yeah it’s dumb, and no it’s not good, but if you don’t take it too seriously then you can laugh along with it.