(This piece was first published in Business Standard.)
Can a homophobic person run a business that earns most of its revenue from gay people? Is it possible to compartmentalise one’s life in such a neat way that religious beliefs and professional priorities do not clash at all? Is capitalism a reliable ally for grassroots movements working on social justice issues? What does it take for a heterosexual parent to accept a gay son? Can love conquer bigotry?
These are some of the questions you will grapple with as you watch Circus of Books, a new documentary film streaming on Netflix. Director Rachel Mason tells the story of her Jewish parents, Karen and Barry, who earned a formidable reputation among the gay community in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The adult bookstore they ran not only stocked novels and pornography but also became a place for gay men to meet.
The couple hid this fact for a long time, not only from their children and relatives but also the local synagogue they visited. Though the success of their business depended on the goodwill of the gay community, it was something they were not willing to acknowledge publicly. The director explores how her mother’s earlier understanding of being a good Jew rested upon upholding the monogamous, heterosexual family unit as sacrosanct.
Is Judaism fundamentally opposed to homosexuality? There is no definitive answer to this question. Faith is often a matter of interpretation, and this holds true for all religions. On the one hand, there are Jews who think of homosexuality as a kind of perversion. On the other hand, there are Jews who publicly speak about their support for gay rights. Both these realities exist simultaneously.
Circus of Books is a moving film on an unusual subject. One tends to imagine that an adult bookstore with a gay clientele might be owned by people who appear less conventional, or are perhaps outliers if not revolutionaries. However, this stereotype is demolished as the viewer begins to go deeper into the story of the couple. What comes through is that they are simple, hardworking and sincere people.
The film shows how the business was built by hiring employees who were knowledgeable about their field of work. Karen and Barry had no qualms about admitting their ignorance, and learning the ropes from people who were better informed. This humility became a strong asset; it helped them grow quickly as they were responsive to clients. They developed a large customer base, especially as the back alley also became a cruising spot for gay men.
When the filmmaker was growing up, she did not know that her parents were also involved in making and distributing adult films all over the United States. The money earned from this business is what helped her parents send her to college. The film holds a profound emotional appeal because the director too is discovering new things about her family. Her mother does not seem too enthusiastic about these discoveries.
The director’s brother, Josh, is a gay man who is an integral part of the narrative. Though his parents were running a business that created a place of warmth, intimacy and fellowship for gay men all over the city, he could not benefit from it. He struggled with embracing his identity and felt that he would be thrown out of the house. The filmmaker presents some tender moments featuring him on screen. She also expresses remorse for not having been a source of strength for her brother.
Indian viewers would find this film extremely relatable for various reasons. The idea of showcasing a certain image of the family in public, in order to gain brownie points for respectability, is prevalent in many Indian households. Sheltering young people from the big bad grown up world of sexuality rather than speaking with them openly about desire, attraction and consent, is also likely to resonate with Indian audiences.
The business had to be shut down because it was not financially viable. Karen and Barry could not afford to pay the salaries of their staff. With digital platforms gaining currency among gay men, not only to watch pornography but to also meet prospective partners, they realised that it was time for them to let their staff go. The recent closing of the store was almost like the end of an era for people whose lives were deeply entwined with its history.
Since Karen is more committed to religious dogma than Barry is, she had a tougher time coming to terms with the sexuality of her gay son. How did she work through her feelings of guilt and shame? Was she worried about her son’s future because she saw many of her clients dying during the AIDS epidemic? What did she think about sexual exploitation of gay men in the porn industry? These are some questions that the film left me with.