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Call me by her name: Daniela Vega, St. Vincent, and the Oscars moment LGBTQ women deserve

March 5, 2018

Have LGBTQ women ever experienced ultimate Academy Awards glory? In short—not really. But if last night’s LGBTQ representation is any indication of the trajectory of the Oscars, the future might be female.

In order to understand the meaning of last night’s widespread LGBTQ representation, we must remember the past. The most celebrated films featuring queer women in recent history were the 2010 film, The Kids Are All Right, and the 2015 film, Carol. While Carol was nominated in six categories, and The Kids Are All Right was nominated in four categories, including Best Picture, neither received a single award on their Oscars nights. Other recent notable LGBTQ films centering around stories of women, including Blue is the Warmest Color and Tangerine, have similarly been snubbed at the Oscars.

Last night, however, Daniela Vega made LGBTQ history at the 90th Annual Academy Awards. Vega, the star of Chile's A Fantastic Women, first took the stage as part of the team accepting the Best Foreign Language Film award and later, as a presenter to introduce Sufjan Stevens as a musical performer. As Vega walked the stage, she carried the immense, historical weight of being the first-ever openly transgender woman to present at the Academy Awards.

A Fantastic Woman's win and Vega’s on-stage moments are just a few examples of strong and diverse LGBTQ representation at the 2018 Academy Awards. This year, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Call Me by Your Name, A Fantastic Woman, Strong Island, Mudbound, Coco, and The Greatest Showman all featured LGBTQ nominees on screen and/or in production. The show also featured many powerful LGBTQ-inclusive moments, including Janet Mock's apperance in Common and Andra Day's performance of  “Stand Up for Something,” Debra Chasnoff's touching memoriam, and more.

In an industry that features such limited and often defamatory transgender representation in major studio productions, Vega’s presence and platform shines a much-needed light on transgender talent in film. In addition, Yance Ford, a Black transgender man, was the first openly transgender director ever nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category. Both of these historic firsts invite viewers to recognize the brilliance and potential of transgender industry professionals who have historically been shut out from Hollywood’s biggest stage.

Vega’s role as Marina in A Fantastic Woman is stunning—and if you have not seen it yet, what are you waiting for!—but it was her role as a presenter that made the most on-stage history. Let’s just break it down: a transgender woman, who is the centerpiece lead in an Oscar-winning film about a transgender character, introduces a performance of the Oscar-nominated song about queer love in an Oscar-nominated queer-centric film.

This. Moment. Was. LGBTQ. Magic.

But if you weren’t looking closely you may have missed an important addition to Sufjan’s performance. That addition was Annie Clark aka St. Vincent, an openly queer woman, playing guitar and singing alongside Sufjan in their touching performance of “Mystery of Love.”

Objectively speaking—of course—St. Vincent is a queer rock goddess, and her presence on stage during this historic Oscars moment matters too. Bringing in St. Vincent allows us as queer women to grab hold of Call Me by Your Name and claim it as a narrative that we own too.

The song “Mystery of Love,” appears in the film Call Me by Your Name in a dream-like sequence showcasing a getaway trip for the main characters, Elio and Oliver. During this montage, the audience is invited into a world of queer love that is out in the open and unafraid, a stark contrast in tone from the film’s more repressed earlier scenes.

By itself, the song is powerful, but within the context of Call Me by Your Name, “Mystery of Love” is heartbreaking in the most beautiful way. From the plucky intro to the whispery first lines, “Oh to see without my eyes the first time that you kissed me,” “Mystery of Love” engulfs the listener in a contemplative yet blissful memory of young love.

Hearing “Mystery of Love,” while watching Elio’s feelings bloom, took me back to strikingly familiar moments in my coming out experience. I, too, was wrought with an intoxicating combination of shame and excitement as I fell in love for the first time. This exploration was at the same time painful and peaceful, as I finally felt the feelings of love and deep connection I had longed for... and had resolved would always remain unrequited.

Seeing Elio experience the same dark and beautiful moments was cathartic for me, as I now live a very open and happy life as a queer person. It was difficult to recall those memories, but it's important for me to recognize that my painful past is still a reality for so many young LGBTQ people. This is what invigorates me to work harder to be a part of the movement of increasing LGBTQ representation in the media. When we as LGBTQ people are seen as the fully realized humans that we are, our stories can push culture forward and change lives.  

Call Me by Your Name focuses keenly on the nuances of queer intimacy, yet the film’s emotional power lies in its ability to resonate with a wide audience. Call Me by Your Name joins Boys Don't CryBrokeback Mountain, and Moonlight, as some of the most critically acclaimed Oscar-winning LGBTQ focused films of the last twenty years. However, we should not allow ourselves to believe that we as an LGBTQ community have found ourselves wholly represented in the Academy quite yet. While these films represent distinctly powerful stories, they all either center around fictional queer and cisgender men or include transgender characters played by cisgender actors.

Celebrating queerness on Hollywood’s biggest stage cannot only recognize—and therefore only affirm—queer male love. The queer experience belongs to women and non-binary people just as much as it does to queer men. And while there are many factors that play into why The Kids Are All RightCarol and other LGBTQ-women-led films are not winning, we are still left with the same conclusion: LGBTQ women deserve Oscar gold, and we cannot cease sharing our stories until we are given the same opportunities and accolades as everyone else.

Clare Kenny is a Campaigns Manager at GLAAD. She leads GLAAD's Youth Engagement including the Campus Ambassador Program, Rising Stars Grants Program, and amp series. Clare is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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