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Men Playing Men

Still from "The Evening Hour" by Scott Patrick Green. Courtesy Come On, Backslider LLC.

The VFW parking lot in Harlan County, Kentucky, is filled with pickups and SUVs. An American flag hangs above the door. This is not the kind of place I’d ever expected to find myself—it’s for members-only, mostly men and their wives or girlfriends. But tonight I’m here for the kick-off party for the filming of the adaptation of my first novel, The Evening Hour. I drove down from Lexington, where I moved a few years ago for a teaching position.  

My husband and I, two men—one white, one Latino—know not to touch as we walk through the door. Still, a few men, all white, look up from their beers and stare. The bartender, a young woman with tattoos cobwebbing across her bare arms, asks if we’re with the movie people and directs us to the back, past the pool tables to a large open room. A few dozen people mill about—actors and crew members who have just arrived from L.A., New York, and Nashville. A sheet of paper is taped to the wall with instructions in black Sharpie: Movie people order drinks here.  

Once the site of massive mineworker strikes in the 1930s—Bloody Harlan—and again in the 1970s, Harlan no longer has any coal miners’ unions. There are few opportunities for employment, and the catastrophe of the opioid epidemic, another kind of war, touches every resident in some way.  

The VFW serves as the set for the film’s bar scenes, but today it’s where Hollywood gets good and drunk. More VFW regulars show up and some mingle with the movie people, and the air thickens with cigarette smoke. Brett Ratliff and his band play, followed by the Local Honeys. A few people saunter to the dance floor. Later, the scene shifts to drunken karaoke, and some of the women from the costume department belt out Dolly Parton’s anthem “Jolene.”  

I talk to Braden King, the director, and Elizabeth Palmore, the screenwriter. At the bar, I meet Philip Ettinger, who is playing my protagonist Cole Freeman, a nursing home aide who sells Oxy around town. As we talk, I’m studying Phil, trying to find my character in him. Phil’s eye contact is intense and magnetic, the way actors’ often is, and kind. He is a few inches taller than me, and his shoulders are broader, his chest wider. I feel small next to him. He is twelve years younger than me. We are both dressed in flannels and skinny jeans. He’s prettier than Cole, but his stubble looks right—and much thicker, I note, than my own splotchy facial hair.  

I haven’t reread my novel since it was published in 2012, but now here is some real life version of my character, which maybe is also some made up other version of myself, another life I didn’t live, sitting across from me in a bar where I don’t belong, asking me to tell him about himself and why he does the things he does. We order bourbons on the rocks and talk about Cole’s motivation and yearning and sensitivity. We talk about his unspoken love for his best friend Terry Rose. We talk about masculinity and fluidity, about intimacy and fear among men.   

 

I started writing The Evening Hour when I was living in New York City, around 2004. From my apartment in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, I immersed myself in researching the coalfields of West Virginia, learning about the devastation caused by mountaintop removal coal mining and the opioid crisis. West Virginia reminded me of southeast Ohio where my grandparents lived, a place that still hums like an old song inside me. 

As I wrote this novel, I was living as a queer woman, presenting as genderqueer and androgynous. I came out in college, in the ’90s, long before I’d ever heard the word transgender. By the early 2000s, my understanding of trans men was still limited and narrow, and I never dared to imagine that transitioning could be a possibility for me. I walked through the world feeling invisible, yearning for what I could not name.  

When people asked why this story, I talked about the urgency of stopping mountaintop removal coal mining and about my own experience growing up in the 1980s in a rural town, where I did not know a single gay person. Like many queer people, I later found freedom and community in cities, but a part of me still longed for the landscape of my childhood, the closeness of my family of which I felt like I could no longer be a part. Maybe there was something else, something even more private, pulling me toward these particular characters that I had no way to articulate or understand at the time—except by creating fiction.  

On my visits to West Virginia, as I gathered research for my novel, I felt uneasy stopping for gas or to use the bathroom. I never knew how people would read me, though most of the time, I was read as female. That felt safer to me then. I never came out to anyone on these trips, though I’m sure most assumed I was queer. Or maybe they just pegged me as a New Yorker—one of those.   

In New York, sometimes, strangers read me as a guy and then looked closer. Straight, cis men almost always responded with anger: Are you a man or a woman? I was a threat to their manhood. Even in those potentially dangerous moments, I noticed I didn’t mind being recognized as a man. On the other hand, when a stranger referred to me as “lady” or “ma’am,” my heart sank. One night, I met up with a friend at a gay bar in the Village, and an older dapper man wearing stylish glasses slid up next to me and said, “How have you been, honey? I haven’t seen you in so long.” He apologized when he realized his mistake—I wasn’t his young friend, and I wasn’t a gay man. I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt seen in a deep, true way that brought me astonishing joy. And terrified me. 

 

On  set, I try to stay out of the way. I stand by a monitor, wearing a headset, listening to the actors speak lines, a few of which come from my novel, and simultaneously watch the scene unfold in front of me. On the set, I’m the Author, and I am treated politely by the crew. I assume that everyone recognizes me as queer. Am I the only queer man on set? Maybe, maybe not. I am certainly the only trans man. This isn’t unusual. Unless I’m in queer spaces, I’m often the only trans man around. Most people, except other trans people, rarely recognize me as trans, a part of my identity that I may or may not share (depending on safety and comfort, and if I feel like coming out, again). Many on the film crew don’t know my history or identity. Months after the shoot, one crew member, who had happily asked me to sign a copy of my book for him, posts a transphobic meme on Facebook. I consider engaging, but instead just unfriend him.   

What does it mean to perform masculinity? When I started transitioning, I paid close attention to cis men, watching their gestures and mannerisms, how they carried themselves. Masculinity is perceived as natural, whereas femininity is considered performance—but all gender is performative (thank you, Judith Butler). In the film adaptation of The Evening Hour, a straight actor, Michael Trotter, plays an out queer character, Reese Campbell. Michael and I discuss representation and inclusion, talk about what it means to step into this character’s shoes. When Michael says he wants to play Reese with respect but also with a fullness and complexity, I believe him. I’ve known Michael since the start of this film journey and witnessed the closeness with which he read my novel. Michael, as fierce, broken Reese, performs beautifully. I realize I’ve been watching men perform all my life—for each other, for women, for lovers.  

I watch men play men. Cole (Phil) sips a beer and laughs at something another character says. Five takes, ten takes, thirteen takes. Over and over, Cole speaks or shakes his head, or looks away. Cole is quiet, introspective, watching. Though he resembles the men around him—flannels and boots, scruff—his nontraditional role as caretaker and his unspoken desire for his best friend sets him apart. He doesn’t know who he is or what kind of man he will become.  

 

When I started writing The Evening Hour, I grappled with my limited understanding of Appalachia. I was writing about a place that has endured over a century of stereotypes, that continues to be sensationalized and mocked. I was living in New York and writing about Appalachia, and trying to figure out for myself what I still could not articulate except in fiction—how to live as a man who desired men. I was thinking about how queer men lived in rural places. I didn’t want to write about the stylish or beautiful out gay men living around me in the city. I wanted to write about the kind of boys and men who lived in rural places, like the boys I grew up around in Ohio. Boys who played football, rode motorcycles, and eschewed anything considered feminine (read: weak). Boys who were tough and straight, and grew into tough, straight men.  

And, yet, didn’t I also observe sparks of tenderness lighting up the dark heavy folds of traditional masculinity? My grandfather walking through the woods and teaching me the names of the trees, or my father gently pulling tomatoes off the vines. A boy in a ripped up jean jacket and motorcycle boots strutted through the halls at school, and in art class, he drew the most delicate birds—they looked like they could fly off the page. I wanted to write into that tension between toughness and tenderness, about the men I knew growing up and later met in West Virginia and in Kentucky, men, like Cole, trying to break out of the old narratives of masculinity.   

  

On a cold, brisk, bright afternoon, a caravan of trailers, vans, pickups, and cars winds its way up Pine Mountain, the second highest peak in Kentucky. The shoot takes place on the property of Jim Webb, who died a few weeks before. I never met him, but I heard stories. Jim Webb was a legend. Poet, community organizer, eccentric, ruckus-raiser famous for throwing wild parties on his property.    

We’re at the old rock quarry, among the strange, hulking rusty red boulders, beds of limestone. A handmade sign posted to a tree says Welcome to Mars. Golden leaves blanket the ground and naked sycamore branches reach up to the evening sky. Buzzards circle above, wings tilted. The sun slips away as the crew builds a fire and blocks the scene.  

In this pivotal scene, Cole and Terry (Cosmo Jarvis) look at each other, the fire lighting up their faces. They remember their past relationship as lovers. In the film, there is no direct reveal, but Phil and Cosmo know the back story. Cole’s character deepened and grew after I understood his love for his best friend, but Cole has no way to face or express his truth. It’s hard to live in a space where you can’t tell your own story. Or don’t know what that story is. 

Tension and desire and repression culminates. All flannel and boots and denim, rugged and tender masculinity, desiring. And here I am, the creator of these men, in my boots and flannel and denim, desiring. I hold onto handwarmers, the little packets of heat. Everyone on set watches intently, collectively holding our breaths. Intimacy tangled up in yearning and violence and vulnerability. Phil carries Cole’s weight—all that he can’t say (all that I couldn’t say)—in his body language and eyes. A sadness, longing. He wants something different, but he doesn’t know what that is or how to find it.  

At the rock quarry, two men hold each other. They let go. They can’t take that step, which would lead to another and another. They don’t know how to change their lives.   

 

After nine years in New York, I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I lived in the country for two years. It was there that I met other trans people, some of who had grown up in rural places like me. Slowly, I started to change my life. I came out to friends. I changed my name and then my pronouns. When The Evening Hour was published in 2012, I moved to Portland, Oregon, far away from all I knew. As I hiked among the Douglas firs and red cedars, and spent more time in a welcoming community of queer cis and trans men, I also began to discover a more expansive and inclusive and complicated place for myself in the wildness of masculinity.  

Before starting testosterone, I tamped down gestures or attributes that could be read as feminine—for example, talking freely with my hands—because I didn’t want to be misgendered. To be misgendered, whether by cis strangers or queer men, felt like a kick to my face, and the pain rippled out into shame and fear and self-doubt. I observed how cis straight men barely expressed themselves because they were restricted and confined by our popular understanding of masculinity. They performed masculinity so well they made it look natural. I worried I could never be “man” enough.  

But I also knew I didn’t want to be that kind of man.  

After my voice deepened and my shoulders broadened, I stopped worrying about being misgendered. T allowed me to be comfortable with my own masculinity, and I no longer had to “act” in a way that didn’t feel like me. I could be expressive, for example, talk with my hands, which people may read as feminine or queer. Now I understand all that time I spent watching cis men was not to imitate them, but to catch glimpses of myself—and to recognize, and feel grateful for, my differences. I don’t have to act anymore. I can be me.  

One of the deep pleasures of writing fiction is to imagine other lives and worlds, and I don’t want to draw simple comparisons between my life and my characters. Still, years after writing my novel, I can now trace the tangled connections and resonances between me and my characters that I didn’t see before. Cole Freeman is a cis white man who never would use the word gay or queer or bi to describe himself, but who falls in love with his best friend Terry Rose. While writing his character, I was a living as queer woman who felt more myself when gay men recognized me as one of them. For a long time, to live openly as a gay man was elusive and impossible for me as it was for Cole.

While I was writing my novel, I was trying to navigate the worlds of men—both fictional and in my real life. By the time I handed the pages over to my agent, I was developing a self-consciousness as a queer trans man, and moving into a glorious space that was both new and achingly familiar—a hidden part that I could finally recognize and reveal. 

 

The crew has been here since seven a.m. It’s cold. Frost blankets the ground, and the early morning light mixed with the fall color gives everything the atmosphere of a vintage filter. Today, we’re at Cranks Creek, on Cole’s grandparents’ property. While the cast and crew set up, I walk the hushed grounds. The place mirrors my novel: the grandparents’ small house, Cole’s single-wide trailer, and the country church where his grandfather preached. This is where Cole learned to hide parts of himself, but also where, around the trees and the mountains and the streams, he felt most himself: a sensitive, tender boy. The morning sun hits the autumn leaves in the distance, but here, in the valley, we’re hidden under the mountain’s long shadow. 

Sometimes, the wildness of creation and art reveals a deeper truth. Sometimes, what is imaginary in the book or film may actually end up occurring later, in real life. Is the writer a seer? Maybe. But doesn’t prophecy come from a place of deep attentiveness? When I started writing my novel, I didn’t have the access or understanding to come out as trans, but over time, by meeting other trans people and asking questions, and through my writing, a form of witnessing, I began to come into my authentic self and to let myself be seen and heard. I began to transition. I began to transform.  

Now, the sun is up, and they’re shooting a new scene. Cole, alone. He sits in his grandfather’s church. The golden light falls over him. He’s looking at something the viewer can’t see.  Maybe he’s thinking about another way of living. How to survive, how to be true. How to be a good man. It’s a performance of stillness. Of vulnerability. The film crew bustles around him, then watches. We’re all watching. Though I’m outside the frame, I feel uncannily present, as if I’m also being watched. For such a long time, I was afraid to be seen. The director calls cut. The camera stops rolling. The morning light shifts and expands, and I step into it. 





Carter Sickels

Carter Sickels is the author of the novel The Prettiest Star (Hub City Press), winner of the 2021 Southern Book Prize and the Weatherford Award for Appalachian fiction. His debut novel The Evening Hour was adapted into a feature film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 and is now streaming. His writing appears in the Atlantic, Poets & Writers, BuzzFeed, Guernica, Joyland, and Catapult. Carter teaches at Eastern Kentucky University.