A straight friend of mine who is about half my age (I’m 78) suggested I might want to watch a TV show called “Tiger King.” I don’t watch a lot of TV, and didn’t know a thing about this program, but I took his advice. (Spoiler alert: You could watch the series with the shock and awe that I experienced, but if you read this first, your experience will be different.)
My friend cleverly did not mention to me that the title character of “Tiger King” is a gay man named Joe Exotic, so right there in the first episode I got that big surprise. The subtitle of the show, streaming on Netflix as an eight-episode series, is “Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” and that is certainly appropriate because those ingredients are part of what makes the show so popular.
This first sentence of the Wikipedia page for Joe Exotic, is a good introduction: “Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage (né Schreibvogel; born March 5, 1963), better known by his stage name Joe Exotic, is an American former zoo operator and convicted felon.”
This bizarre and somewhat villainous gay man has become the most famous gay man in the USA, more famous than…who would be the competition for such a title? Maybe Anderson Cooper of CNN?
I’m still pondering the significance of this intriguing show, and as for the intention of the producers, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, I think they knew they had the makings of a great show. It seems they wanted to let the footage speak for itself rather than inject a strong “message.”
Netflix has revealed that 64 million people have seen Tiger King, and that’s the basis for my suggestion he’s “our” number one celebrity. But this is not a gay pride story at all. In fact, it’s likely that (with some exceptions) Joe Exotic is unlike gay men known to the typical reader of the Philadelphia Gay News. He’s not the sort of gay man who is a Gayborhood regular, who vacations in Provincetown, who reads gay novels or has ever considered the concept of gay community.
And while Joe Exotic may not know the history of the gay liberation movement, he is liberated enough to be openly-gay in Oklahoma and on an internet reality TV show he once starred in. That’s one of the conundrums of Tiger King, and what has drawn me to it.
I have wondered to myself, is this series something good or bad for the gay community? I can quickly say this man is definitely not a “role model,” because his behavior is so despicable. He embraces his gay marriages, but this is not the kind of gay marriage we can be proud of. His marriages are based on manipulative relationships with 19-year-olds playing on their hunger for affection and economic security and the fact that he’s got them using crystal meth.
His openness about being gay has him allowing filming of his chatter at the funeral of one of his husbands, during which — in front of the youth’s grieving mother — he recalls how “he had come to me rubbing his balls in my face” and then he describes those balls as “golden nuggets.” Curiously, “Tiger King” has received little or no attention in the gay media. Other periodicals have had articles, however, including this one you can read in Women’s Health.
The cast of characters in this story is rather complex, including Joe’s husbands, employees and business associates and even a campaign manager who helped him run for both President of the United States and Governor of Oklahoma. Joe is delusional, narcissistic, violence-prone (i.e., proud of carrying a gun at his side and openly talking about wanting to kill a rival named Carole Baskins), and perhaps just plain crazy.
The producers suggest that some sort of cult mentality, or perhaps an addictive trait, can be found in the many people who have a peculiar desire to own and touch dangerous wild animals. Joe’s wealth comes from such people as he bred tiger cubs and sold them for about $2,000 each to private zoos as well as individuals who keep them as pets. There are thus more tigers in captivity (an estimated 5,000 to 10,000) than the estimated 4,400 in the wild.
One of Joe’s employees is a woman whose forearm was bitten off by a tiger, and yet she continues to work for and admire him. One of his allies is Doc Antle, who owns Myrtle Beach Safari and who fancies himself a guru with a harem of buxom young women. Joe’s rival and acknowledged enemy, Carole Baskin, owns Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla. As an ordinary tourist, I visited that place in 2014 and liked it well enough, as it purports to be a place for exotic cats to get decent care after owners no longer wanted them.
There is no obvious role for gay politics in this movie, which in many ways puts the animal welfare movement in the center of the narrative. For devoted animal-lovers, a special, emotion-laden breed themselves, Joe is quite the villain and Carol quite the heroine. However, the producers of Tiger King intentionally present no heroes in this movie, and this leads many viewers, including me, to find creepy elements in Baskin’s personality and even consider the possibility (suggested by some evidence) that she murdered her first multi-millionaire husband and maybe fed him to the tigers! The police have never charged her.
Watching this series reminded me of a feeling I had while viewing “Grey Gardens,” the Maysles brothers’ classic about two rather crazy women on Long Island. I felt as if I were watching something that I really shouldn’t see. But my curiosity motivated me and might motivate many of you reading this. Those who are super-sensitive about animal rights may just feel uncomfortable.
There’s more ahead. Joe is serving 22 years for his murder-for-hire scheme and animal abuse, but from his federal prison cell he has become a plaintiff in some lawsuits and asked for a presidential pardon. Answering a reporter’s question, Trump said he’ll “look into it.” Also, a feature film with well-known actors is being talked about.
We’ve had other gay villains. Roy Cohn is one of the most evil men of the McCarthy Red Scare, and his closet homosexuality is part of the story. Just a few years ago, gay millionaire and PayPal founder Peter Thiel gave tons of money to help elect Donald Trump, making him a villain in my eyes. I think we are smart enough to acknowledge that not all in the community are angels, not even necessarily nice.
But is Tiger King’s bad homo going to expand homophobia and endanger our community? I posed this question to my straight friend who told me about the show in the first place, and this is what he said:
“Allen, I think the great thing about the “Tiger King” documentary is that his homosexuality is just one of the many eccentric characteristics of this man that is intriguing to people. If Joe wasn’t gay and the story was about his infidelities with women, it just wouldn’t capture the attention that it does. But make him gay…now you have our attention! More people are upset with his unethical treatment of animals than they are with him being a homosexual, and that is a great thing.”
So I wonder, is my own homosexuality just an eccentricity that makes me intriguing? If it does, and it causes no harm, I’m OK with that.
My innate curiosity is a factor in how much I’ve enjoyed the experience of viewing and analyzing “Tiger King.” However, for more sensitive and intolerant souls, this show will just be offensive. A good friend of mine commented, “I find the concept of this series repellent. He sounds like Trump could adopt him as a third son. Murder, mayhem and madness? Just what we need, especially during a pandemic! Yikes!”
A final bit of advice: if you find that your interest is not in crazy humans, but beautiful wild tigers, connect with the World Wildlife Fund or other reputable organization that works on habitat protection in Asia.