We Need to Talk About ‘American Horror Story: NYC’ and Lesbian Invisibility

FX

In the American Horror Story: New York City finale, creators Brad Ryan and Brad Falchuck departed from last season’s scary movie schtick to explore our collective fears around death, decay, and oppression. This refreshing change of direction makes an emotional impact many of us haven’t felt watching AHS in years. But if there’s one area where AHS struggles, it’s delivering satisfying endings. In season 11, Murphy and Falchuck fumble by erasing key queer female characters from the finale.

AHS: NYC devotes its final two episodes to exploring how the AIDS epidemic ravaged gay men in graphic detail. In “Requiem 1981/1987 Part One,” the body horror is visceral and intense. Sam (Zachary Quinto) seizes in a hospital bed, his glory days and young lovers behind him, while Patrick (Russell Tovey) slowly succumbs to AIDS. The writers finally unmask Big Daddy as the handsome angel of death who helps Sam cross over, and an allusion to HIV/AIDS. Patrick’s lover, Gino (Joe Montello) stays by Patrick’s side until Patrick flatlines to a hallucination of Kathy Pizzazz (Patti LuPone) singing Jevetta Steele’s “Calling You.”

“Requiem 1981/1987 Part Two” shows Gino survived the first wave of AIDS deaths. But his triumph is short-lived — his HIV has progressed. This revelation leads to an emotionally-charged sequence of Gino battling the U.S. government’s failure to address HIV/AIDS, illness, and loneliness set to Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity.” His funeral closes the season. It’s a deadly finale, one that incorporates the heartache that made earlier seasons of AHS so compelling. 

But there’s a glaring problem: Fran (Sandra Bernhard), the lesbian lab assistant who first brought the possibility of HIV/AIDS into awareness, is neither seen nor heard again in parts one and two. Her girlfriend, KK (Clara McGregor), and their best friend, Lita (Quei Tann), are also conspicuously absent. That the queerest season of AHS to date lacks meaningful lesbian representation is shoddy writing. It’s worse when we consider how AHS: NYC otherwise strives for historical accuracy.

Murphy and Falchuck nail the nuances of 1980s America and the gay community. There’s a deep dive into the city’s infamous leather gay community and all its hedonism, and doctors neglecting HIV/AIDS patients. There’s also the Mai Tai Killer, Mr. Whitley, (Jeff Hiller), who twistedly attempts to protect gay men from the NYC police and society at large by creating a Frankenstein-like being out of gay men’s bodies — the Sentinel. This subplot is an obvious criticism of death precipitating change in the LGBTQ+ community, and the Sentinel is good horror. But it also positions gay men as alone in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and that isn’t true

Lesbians fought for gay men during the AIDS epidemic whereas the U.S. government and medical system did not. Dr. Kristen Ries and her partner, Maggie Snyder; Sharon Day; and Maxine Wolfe are a few lesbian activists who supported gay men and challenged the stigma around HIV/AIDS. It’s outrageous that KK, an HIV-positive lesbian activist was written out of scenes depicting AIDS activism. But it makes more sense if we look at her exclusion as a sign of the modern-day divisiveness between gays and lesbians. 

There’s also something to be said about Fran moonlighting as a tarot reader. I’m queer, so of course, I appreciate any mention of the tarot. But it made more sense for Fran to ally with the scientist investigating HIV/AIDS, Dr. Hannah Wells (Billie Lourd). Equally disappointing is that Fran never teams up with Gino in an era where gays and lesbians were united in AIDS activist groups like ACT UP. They both write for the New York Native, a gay newspaper; she could have contributed to Gino’s op-ed about gay pride.

Instead, Fran is reduced to a plot device. Each time Fran gives a reading, she draws the Death card — and, you guessed it, every one of those gay men ends up dying from AIDS. But she doesn’t do anything about it. Dr. Wells blows her off. Her reporting skills fall by the wayside to turn the spotlight on Gino and a strictly male perspective on sexual identity and homophobia. Maybe the writers were going for shock value, turning the scientific, no-nonsense Fran into something of a psychic. But it’s too shlock value to land. 

It’s an unwritten rule that good queer film and television don’t make lesbian characters invisible, two-dimensional, and over- or desexualized. Rule number two? Don’t write queer icons like Bernhard out of finales. Unfortunately, AHS: NYC breaks both. We can only hope that season 12 will ditch the token lesbianism if the writers can’t commit to making these characters visible in the ways they deserve.

by Alexa Pellegrini

Alexa Pellegrini (she/her) is a writer and visual artist living in greater Philadelphia. Her work has been featured in Flip Screen and Wig-Wag. Alexa enjoys black comedies, horror movies, and everything in between by filmmakers who dare to think outside the box. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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