When They Go Low, We Go Sideways: Finding Queer Light in Dark Times

This Pride, lean into whatever weird thing makes you happy

Pride Month means endless ear-bashing about history, community and being a "key voter" — so join me in front of the TV and we'll zone out for a bit to recover.

Flick on the TV and you’ll see a battered housewife from Battle Creek, Michigan, talking about how she's been spat out by Hollywood. Click. Next up, a blonde bombshell that never was, hawking God's greatest hits for $40. Click. Ukrainian dance party. Click. Dress Barn advertisement. Click. Baked potato.

This is the seriously unserious television landscape of gay video artist Tom Rubnitz. Born 1956 in Chicago, Rubnitz used the camera to make sparkling exaggerations of the mass media of his day — especially broadcast television. Every couple of years, one of his videos, “ Pickle Surprise,” makes the viral video rounds, thanks in part to performances by two then unknowns: RuPaul and Lady Bunny.

“Pickle Surprise” spoofs the recipe instructional, with a humanoid sequined pickle leading the charge.  Part of the lower Manhattan club scene of the '80s and early '90s, Rubnitz's videos sample an era of unique and politically incisive art created out of the leftovers of late-20th century American television culture. In the video described above, “Made for TV” actress Ann Magnuson plays each character you'd find channel surfing in the 1980s. Every TV preacher is a potato saleswoman in disguise.

Until a few weeks ago, I assumed that articles about Rubnitz must be easy to come by. After all, his work is stunning and features the now-famous RuPaul and Lady Bunny. I was wrong, in that particular way that you're wrong when you mistake the necessity of something to you for its necessity in the world. I need Tom Rubnitz's videos, but it seems most other people haven't recognized that same need in themselves.

Recently, a transphobic pundit visited the University of Pittsburgh campus to lead a debate: "Should transgenderism be regulated by law?" More recently, Florida banned or unbanned something or another. I can't keep track. Either way, bad news for people like us.

In the early '00s, someone promised us "it gets better," and I'd like to see that person brought up on legal charges for deceitfully advertising the future. Let's not mince words: Things are bad.

Things were bad when Rubnitz was making his videos, too.

The dominant treatments for AIDS at the time might be described as a regimen of neglect, rejection and violence. Even his most seemingly joyous video, “Strawberry Shortcut,” ends with a heavy message: "Dedicated to the hope for a cure to AIDS." Hollis Griffin, associate professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan, comments that, "HIV/AIDS was not the manageable illness it has become for so many people in the time since. That was not the case in Rubnitz's era, when a diagnosis was considered deadly." Rubnitz himself would die of AIDS in 1992.

AIDS wasn't the limit of trouble in Rubnitz's time. Gentrification in lower Manhattan, coupled with disastrous city policies and police brutality, led to the scenes like the 1988 Tompkins Square riots. Drag aficionados might recognize the park as the original home of the Wigstock festival, documented by Rubnitz in 1987. Village Voice reporter C. Carr described the scene of the riots clearly: "Panic-stricken pedestrians ran down the sidewalks, as cops galloped, clubs at the ready. I tried to duck into a restaurant. 'No!' shrieked someone at the door, slamming it in my face. I kept running."

In the midst of all this, Rubnitz sought laughter. "I wanted to make things beautiful, funny, and positive — escapes that you could just get into and laugh through," he said in a 1992 Advocate interview. In other words: When they go low, we go sideways. He credited the un-reality of mid-century TV as inspiration. "It was that whole space-age thing of anything is possible, anything can happen." Even when our hands are tied, we reach for something through fantasy.

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Making these light videos was a heavy task for Rubnitz — figuratively and literally. Somehow, his videos capture the playfulness of the nightlife scene at its most potent, despite all the trouble around. The equipment at his disposal was cumbersome and expensive. Suzie Silver, professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, explains: "A 3/4 portable U-Matic video

system could easily weigh 20 pounds or so. On top of that, the equipment was really expensive. A basic system would cost at least a few thousand dollars." Rubnitz wrangled enough strength to lift the camera, the club and the world, dress them in a sequin shift and spin them in front of a spotlight. It's hard to know exactly how Rubnitz found this strength, though, because so little has been written about him. In fact, Suzie Silver, that very professor of art, is perhaps the whole reason I know about Tom Rubnitz.

I can't confirm that transmission, but I know that sometime in my early 20s, I came across “Pickle Surprise.” If it wasn't directly through Suzie, it was probably through one of her students at the time. That's how we — Suzie, me, and maybe you, dear reader — work. We can't trust that what we know or want or need or love will show up in books, and that those books won't be banned or burned, so we share things amongst each other. There's something very LGBTQ+ about not knowing quite how you know something, but knowing who else knows and why it matters to all of us.

Tom Rubnitz matters to me, and I think, if you make yourself a Pickle Surprise or take the Strawberry Shortcut, he'll matter to you, too.