Sexuality, Religion, and Science As Seen Through "Twilight of the Gods"
Within the first ten minutes of Twilight of the Golds, it is clear that both Judaism and homosexuality play a role in the Gold family. The family is at least culturally Jewish, if not more, and the son David (Brendan Fraser), is portrayed to be gay. Yet neither “gay” nor “Jewish” is actually mentioned until much later in the film. What are the methods that the film uses to construct gayness and Jewishness? And are these constructions depicted as being cultural, ethnic, biological or genetic? How does the film use these constructions to make a statement about the ethical implications of genetic testing? And finally what are the interactions between Jewishness and gayness in the movie? All of these questions focus on the deliberate decisions made by the writers and directors of this film to make a statement. The statement is that both homosexuality and Jewishness are cultural as well as biological phenomena, and genetic testing is not very helpful since both identities are so malleable and multifaceted, and since they interact in such complex ways.
Twilight of the Golds was originally a play written by Jonathan Tolins. It opened on Broadway in 1993. The play was then adapted for a television movie directed by Ross Kagan Marks that was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997. The movie centers on the Gold family and their struggle with the genetic test results of Suzanne (Jennifer Beals) and Rob’s (Jon Tenney) unborn child. The results predict that the baby will be homosexual, and Suzanne is contemplating aborting the child. The plot is complicated by the fact that Suzanne’s brother David, is gay as well. Moreover, he is not completely accepted by his somewhat conservative family.
There has been a good deal of literature written about both homosexuality and Jewishness, and some literature that has been written about both. Abba Borowich writes about the failed reparative therapy of Orthodox Jewish homosexuals as attempted by an Orthodox Jewish psychiatrist. Jeffrey Satinover worked with both men and women in hopes that their common religious background would increase the effectiveness of his treatment (Borowich). This article supports the theory that homosexuality is an inborn trait, providing a basis for the message that the movie sends.
The article “Gay, Jewish, or Both?” by Steven M. Cohen, Caryn Aviv, and Ari Y. Kelman focuses on the intersections of gayness and Jewishness. The article begins by stating that most of the time gay Jews choose to privilege one identity over the other, however “this sense of split identities is not unique to gay and lesbian Jews, but their strong identification with these two American minority groups fosters patterns of engagement that are distinct to this population” (Cohen, Aviv and Kelman 156). The concept of the double taboo applies in this circumstance. But how large is this population, and how does the “double taboo” affect their lives? In fact, seven percent of American Jews are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. They are more likely to find long-term partners and close friends who are not Jewish, which may pose serious consequences for their levels of engagement in Jewish life. It is therefore not surprising to learn that compared with heterosexual Jews, gay Jews score substantially lower on all measures of Jewish engagement (Cohen, Aviv and Kelman). Clearly this group of people has a difficult time managing their multiple identities.
Yaron Peleg discusses the history of the masculinization of Jews and how that has carried into modern Jewish culture. Peleg agrees with the claim that suggests that early Zionism involved a sort of gender revolution that called for “European Jews to shed their perceived effeminate characteristics and become more masculine as part of the creation of a renewed Jewish nation in Palestine” (Peleg 31). This masculinization can ironically be seen in contemporary gay literature in Israel, which has since adopted and altered this model to normalize Israeli gay men through masculine associations involving military service (Peleg). Perhaps these early thoughts on masculinity have shaped common thoughts about homosexuality, especially in the United States where military service is not nearly as common as it is in Israel. Could this be one of the reasons why gay Jews have a hard time with their various identities?
In her article, Judith Rosen-Berry writes about another reason why it is difficult for gay Jews to be accepted by the Jewish community. Her explanation dates all the way back to the Bible. In the Bible, there is a passage that can be interpreted to mean that sexual relationships are intended to be solely between male and female (Rosen-Berry). So for those who live their lives according to the Bible, homosexuality clearly becomes an issue. In “Introducing the Gay Gene Media and Scientific Representations,” David Miller talks about the media frenzy following the supposed discovery of a gene sequence that predicts homosexuality. Just the fact that this sequence was discovered is a huge step for the biological theory of homosexuality. And the media responded very positively about this news (Miller). It seemed as if the obvious implications for genetic testing were not a concern. The media took the stance that knowledge was power, and the fact that homosexuality is a historically discriminated characteristic was overlooked.
Finally, Randal Schnoor’s article is about negotiating the intersecting identities of being both gay and Jewish. Schnoor brings up many fascinating points about these identities after interviewing gay Jewish men in Toronto. He comes up with a continuum of how these people deal with their two conflicting identities. The three main types of people that he discusses are lifestylers, commuters, and integrators. While lifestylers fully commit themselves to one of their identities, commuters switch between the two, rarely uniting them. Integrators attempt to combine both their Jewishness and gayness (Schnoor). It would seem that David falls under the category of a commuter, as he tries to separate his family life from his personal life.
When David is with his family, he rarely brings up his sexuality. In the beginning of the movie he makes a comment about Steve (Sean O’Bryan) not being invited over, and about his favorite legally recognized couple. These are signals that the writers use to inform the audience that David is gay. He raves about opera, another hint to the audience. But the viewers don’t really get to see that side of David until he is in his own apartment with his partner. His place is not very traditional, and it is looks artsy, modern and eclectic. David is very comfortable with his sexuality in the presence of his partner, and seems to dismiss his family life. He mocks Suzanne at one point, and later denounces his family for not accepting him. The example that really brings to light David’s balancing of his identities is how his partner does not interact with David’s family. David speaks about how his father will never accept Steven as he did with Suzanne’s boyfriends. Towards the end of the movie, we see an integration of these two lives when Steven and David’s father play tennis together, and when the father invites Steven over for lunch. But for most of the movie, David is struggling with how he can find stability with his two identities.
David’s situation is made all the more complicated by the film’s stance that homosexuality is primarily an inborn trait. First, the accuracy of the genetic testing performed on Suzanne’s child is rarely questioned. It is accepted that if the gene predicts it, the child will be gay. There is only a small mention of how perhaps raising the child in a certain manner could prevent its fate. This option is quickly discarded. Additionally, Walter Gold (Gerry Marshall) is initially portrayed as a loving, caring and accepting father. His image is shattered when Walter declares that he thinks David is “sick and diseased.” Although insulting, this claim shows that Walter does believe that David’s homosexuality is not a choice. Perhaps that is why he seems to care for his son so much – because David cannot help his condition. Yet despite all of this, there is never any suggestion that David is a different type of person because of his sexuality. He may be viewed by his father as sick and diseased but he is never seen as abnormal. He is still part of the family, and he is still cared about. There is also no way to immediately tell that David is gay. There are no markers on his body that expose his homosexuality. So there is a part of that concept that still ties in to cultural aspects, even though it is mostly viewed as inborn.
Because gayness is concluded to be mainly biological, genetic testing is shown to have serious ethical implications. Throughout the movie, Suzanne must decide if she wants to abort the baby and hope for a more “normal” one next time, or if she should have the baby and be prepared for the hardships that it will inevitably face. It seems as though Suzanne is leaning towards abortion for the majority of the film. It is a surprise to the audience when she finally decides to keep the child. I believe that the film makes the statement that it is not ethical to abort a child because of its potential sexuality. David makes a poignant declaration that sexuality is just a thread in the tapestry of a person and if one thread is removed the entire tapestry falls apart. Gayness is just another trait, similar to eye color and height, that just must be accepted. And aborting a child based on a single trait could suppress the existence of an intelligent, creative being. Suzanne’s decision at the end of the film, especially paired with her parting with Rob, emphasizes that aborting the child would have been the wrong decision. But the child will not only be gay; it will be Jewish as well.
Is Jewishness an inborn trait? It seems as though the only group of people to truly believe this was the Nazis, who concluded that Judaism was a race and not a religion, but there is still debate as to whether Jewishness is an ethnicity or a religion. An initially subtle fact in the article “Gay, Jewish, or Both?”, that Jews with no religion (i.e. secular Jews) constitute about 20% of the Jewish population, proves to be much more significant at second glance (Cohen, Aviv and Kelman). This statement is saying that there is such a thing as a secular Jew – that it is possible to be a Jew but not be religious. So Jewishness therefore is not exclusively a religion. Perhaps that is the case for the Golds. Other than the Bar Mitzvah in the beginning, we are not shown any outward signs that the Golds are Jewish. It can be inferred that the family is culturally but not religiously Jewish. The Golds are also contrasted with Rob’s family, who are clearly much more religious. In Rob’s case, the Jewishness of his family clashes with his other identity of being a doctor. Rob is not able to manage his family and his personal life. The film could be implying that it was the Gold’s lenient religious conviction that allowed for David’s eventual assimilation within the family, in contrast to David’s isolation from his due to a strict religious conviction. The movie is stating that religion, especially strict and conservative religion, does make it harder to balance multiple identities.
Twilight of the Golds brings up many important questions regarding homosexuality, Jewishness, genetic testing, and the interactions of all these elements. Literature on these topics is varied, from discussing the biological origins of homosexuality and the origins of Jewish masculinization, to the range of ways that gay Jews deal with their multiple identities. The film, while dealing with a Jewish family, a gay son, and a pregnant daughter, must face these issues head on and make a decision that will greatly affect them all. The movie sends the message that homosexuality is mostly inborn and that genetic testing and abortion are not appropriate or necessary. Overall, the film succeeds in convincing the audience about the complexity and difficulty of dealing with these multifaceted issues.
Borowich, Abba E. "Failed Reparative Therapy of Orthodox Jewish Homosexuals." Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 12 (2008): 167-77. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Host. 2 May 2009.
Cohen, Steven M., Caryn Aviv, and Ari Y. Kelman. "Gay, Jewish, or Both?" Journal of Jewish Communal Service 84 (2009): 153-66. http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=3946
Peleg, Yaron. "Heroic Conduct: Homoeroticism and the Creation of Modern, Jewish Masculinities." Jewish Social Studies 13 (2006): 31-58. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Host. 02 May 2009.
Miller, David. “Introducing the Gay Gene Media and Scientific Representations.” Public Understanding of Science (1995) : 269-284.
Rosen-Berry, Judith. "Revealing Hidden Aspects of Divinity in the 'Queer' Face: Towards a Jewish 'Queer' (Liberation) Theology." European Judaism 41 (2008): 138-54. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Host. 2 May 2009.
Schnoor, Randal F. "Being Gay and Jewish: Negotiating Intersecting Identities." Sociology of Religion 67 (2006): 43-60. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Host.
Twilight of the Golds. Dir. Ross Marks. Perf. Jennifer Beals and Brendan Fraser. 1997.