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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ perfectly encapsulates the horror of being LGBTQ in Trump’s America
Gilead is not just a dystopia for women.
Warning: Contains spoilers; graphic descriptions of assault.
The most unsettling image you’ll see on television this year is the panicked close-up of a queer woman’s face as she comes to grips with the world she’s living in. It’s an oppressive, yet all-too-familiar vision of the United States under the mantle of right-wing extremism.
In Hulu’s new drama The Handmaid’s Tale, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) is a handmaid, a class of women referred to as “wombs on two legs.” She is arrested upon being discovered having an affair with a “Martha.” Whereas the Marthas are women who must labor through the cooking and cleaning of the household, a handmaid is tasked with reproduction in the fundamentalist society of Gilead. To have an affair is an affront to the new state’s caste system—and it’s especially abhorrent when the liaison is with another woman. Lesbians, in the dystopia, are referred to as “gender traitors.”
The Martha is hung, but Ofglen—as one of the few women who remains fertile in a time when many have gone barren—is too valuable of livestock to be killed. The elders of Gilead have another punishment in mind.
Ofglen wakes up in an antiseptically white operating room, the color as blinding as the state’s faux-piety. She reaches down to find her vagina covered in gauze. She realizes then her clitoris has been removed.
Bledel, best known for playing the studious daughter on Gilmore Girls, is put to her best possible use in this scene, her impossibly large, doll-like eyes overwhelmed with horror. The camera films her reaction from five different angles in close up, as she moves from shock to rage. Ofglen screams, her futile cry a protest over how puritanical cruelty became the new normal.
The Handmaid’s Tale, an adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel, has been widely acclaimed for its portrayal of a future where women are stripped of the right to their own bodies. But for LGBTQ viewers, there’s a special resonance to the show’s themes, which have been radically expanded from the source material. The Handmaid’s Tale perfectly encapsulates the fear of living under a Trump presidency, as queer and transgender people nervously check the CNN app on their phone to see what horrible thing has happened now. But while it reflects an extreme vision of religious fascism, the show also depicts every LGBTQ person’s worst nightmare: that the current administration will rollback our rights until anyone who isn’t cisgender and heterosexual is treated like an enemy of the state.
LGBTQ characters were present in Atwood’s book, but not to the extent they are in the television adaptation. The Hulu version is loosely based on its source material in many ways, which allows the show to deepen and richen its text’s subject matter. The Ofglen of the novel—who was straight—committed suicide, rather than being genitally mutilated. Moira (Samira Wiley) remains the lesbian BFF of handmaid Offred (Elizabeth Moss), our steely protagonist, but in the show, she’s portrayed as a queer ladykiller, who often doesn’t remember the names of her female companions.
Casting Wiley was an astute choice. One of the most likable actors on television, she has a preternatural innocence that makes you instantly fall in love with her characters, which is why Wiley so often ends up being the moral center of the shows she’s in. Her character Poussey’s death in Orange Is the New Black symbolized a point of no return for Litchfield, a women’s prison that had become brutal and punishing since privatizing its security staff. When Offred learns of Moira’s disappearance in the pilot episode, the news is that final gut punch, a realization that Gilead will do anything to rob you of your basic humanity. The world you once knew—and whatever life you had before—is gone.
Get Out, the social horror movie directed by Key and Peele’s Jordan Peele, connected with audiences of color because it closely mirrored a world they live in: where black people learn to fear being in white spaces. What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so potently terrifying for LGBTQ people is that it represents the horrors both of our collective past and our possible future. This is a world we have lived in—and one to which we could return.
Much like in Gilead, LGBTQ people in America people have been policed, hunted, and murdered just because of who they are and how they love. In the series’ opening scenes, Offred and Ofglen pass a giant cobblestone wall lined with hanged men—a warning to all those who would trespass against Gilead’s moral codes. The bodies include a gay man, a pink triangle drawn on the flour sack that now covers his head. The symbolism is a clear reference to the Holocaust: The homosexuals and gender nonconformists that were thrown into camps and exterminated by the Third Reich were designated by that symbol—the queer equivalent to the Star of David. During the Reagan era, the pink triangle was re-appropriated by LGBTQ rights groups like ACT UP as a sign of the community’s resilience.
It would be disingenuous to compare the Trump administration to the oppression of LGBTQ people under the Nazi regime, especially given that the president has been in power for 100 days. But it’s unmistakable that the country is moving in a direction that seeks to curtail the freedoms and basic civil liberties of queer and trans people. The American Civil Liberties Union has projected that a whopping 200 anti-LGBTQ bills will be considered at the state level in 2017, including legislation that would allow businesses to discriminate against people on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation and bills that would all but force trans people out of public life.
That conservative U-turn has incited a great deal of panic in the LGBTQ community, sometimes warranted but other times a bit knee-jerk. The reason why is pretty understandable: For the past three centuries, queer people have been treated as deranged, sick, and in need of medical help. The American Psychological Association didn’t declassify being transgender as a mental illness until 2003. Until 2004, it was legal for states to have laws on the books prohibiting two members of the same gender from having sexual intercourse, and some states never got rid of their unconstitutional sodomy bans. Eleven states, including Michigan, Florida, and Kansas, still have their anti-LGBTQ codes in place. Police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, targeted gay men engaging in consensual sex in a sting operation just four years ago.
LGBTQ rights are as fragile as they are relatively new, and they have been constantly under attack in 2017. Alabama and South Dakota have passed laws making it legal for faith-based adoption agencies to turn away same-sex couples, while North Carolina replaced its old transphobic bathroom law with a new one.
Since taking office, Trump, too, has quietly chipped away at LGBTQ equality. Although he did not repeal nondiscrimination protections for federal employees, the president struck down the enforcement of those laws, making it easier to fire LGBTQ contractors because of their identity. Trump overturned federal guidance for K-12 schools, which advised teachers and administrators to treat trans youth in a manner consistent with their gender identity. The administration has also scrubbed questions on LGBTQ people from federal surveys, making it more difficult to monitor discrimination against queer and trans seniors and people with disabilities. If the LGBTQ community lives in constant fear of what could happen next, who can blame them really?
The Handmaid’s Tale gives voice to our queer anxieties with an unflinching gaze. Before Ofglen goes under the knife, she is put on trial for her “abomination” alongside the Martha with whom she’s been having an affair. The proceedings are a kangaroo court and their fates already decided. It all happens so quickly that the women on trial barely have time to react. They don’t know what hit them.
That’s a deft metaphor not only for the world of Gilead, in which a post-apocalyptic America turned to religious extremism for order, but also the world all of us face now. Three months after the election, so many of us are still grappling with how the United States went from a nation that voted for the ideals of hope and change to one that elected an administration based in a mantra of discrimination. The unsettling parallels queer people experience watching The Handmaid’s Tale are sadly not that different from the reality any marginalized group is living—whether you’re a person of color, undocumented, female, or anyone who hopes that you still have healthcare tomorrow. It’s a pretty horrible time to be alive, and it could very well get worse.
America has not given way to totalitarianism in the name of faith, but if you’re scared we might not be far off, The Handmaid’s Tale is a reminder that you aren’t alone.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.