Queer Goings-On: The LGBTQ+ World of Twin Peaks

Short-lived it may have been; Twin Peaks has sustained a fandom well beyond its run of only two series from over 25 years ago. A show based around the murder of one sleepy Washington state town’s peculiar residents, all whilst incorporating the supernatural and down-right weird, to label the Twin Peaks fanbase as fervent would be a complete understatement.

With a third season set with a May ’17 release (heralded by original creator David Lynch), it’s worth looking back at the array of strange and peculiar characters that unravel along with the show’s plot. It’d be worth justifying said characters as ‘queer’ [adj: differing in some odd way from what is deemed usual or normal] in order to understand them, focusing on the LGBTQ+ centered moments that have conclusively lured in a large chunk of the show’s present fandom. The town may not have been overloaded with homosexual activity, ‘peculiar’ just fails to do any single character justice.

With that said, something about the obscurity and irregularity of the Twin Peaks world appealed to me as a teenage gay person. Throughout Lynch’s work, the regular rules of heterosexual normativity are thrown out the window. Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway are filled with secretive characters exploring secretive clubs in secretive worlds which, as a queer teen, appealed to my intrigue for a world where the ‘abnormal’ was normal and raised no eyebrows.

Although far from blatantly obvious, the series did include characters we would consider queer who were interwoven in a fashion destitute of comedic or shock purposes. If Twin Peaks is to be considered a microcosm for the rest of the world, we would be right to expect some LGBTQ+ characters to make an appearance. Though far and few, they become an important component in the show’s storyline, legacy and fan base (and far more so for one individual).

Amid the second season of the show, Twin Peaks added a new actor to its ranks whom would later go on to land himself the role as one of TV’s most famous detectives of all time. David Duchovny, commonly recognised as part-time alien botherer, full-time 90’s heartthrob Fox Moulder in The X Files, joined the Twin Peaks roster for a mere three episodes as an DEA agent tasked with assisting Cooper in the now-multiplexed Laura Palmer mystery. In a show awash with regular characters working for federal law enforcement agencies, what made Duhovny’s role so special?

His character marked the singular openly trans character on television at the time. Whilst never made explicitly clear that Denise Bryson, portrayed by Duhovny, self-identifies as transgender, she is presented as a woman in both working and personal scenarios within the episodes. Even better, it’s a role that avoids any feeling of being a gimmick with Bryson going on to produce some fairly heroic moments devoid of humour’s sake (given Cooper would have met an early fate had Bryson not make an appearance). Ground-breaking, besides overdue, for a network television series to air a transgender character during the 1990s making for a refreshing addition to a series already keen on shifting boundaries.

A contentious sense of eccentricity threads its way throughout Twin Peaks, ultimately defining a large part of the show’s strange, offbeat aesthetic. The sparsely populated and idyllic Canadian/US border town possesses an abnormally high concentration of drug-dealers, secretive beings and amnesiacs, not to mention murder and demon possession. As well as being the show’s protagonist, Agent Cooper serves as a grounding for modern American values and common sense throughout the series, possibly attributed to him given his role as an outsider and someone foreign to the town. As the show’s leading good-guy, Cooper displays a warmth and openness to Bryson thus welcoming the viewing audience to do so with him.

Not everyone is of a similar level of compassion as we see both Sheriff Truman and Deputy Hawk display a strange, passive-aggressive resilience towards Bryson. Sarcastic comments contradict how the two have behaved throughout the rest of the show, given a trans women appears to set off far more alarm bells with the duo than a supernatural being and a dead body for a teenager girl. Whilst this only adds further tension to the already edge-of-seats happenings of Twin Peaks, Deputy Andy takes a strong liking to Bryson which ultimately leads to one of the show’s few ‘awh’ moments where the two slow dance together.

Two episodes down the line, Bryson must disguise herself as a male in order to go undercover, resulting in some of the show’s best acting and reflective to trans folk whose employers require them to dress as their assigned birth sex. Truman’s attitude towards Bryson is ultimately switched for the better.

Denise Bryson is still one of few trans characters in television to retain her dignity and life throughout her story, as well as being presented with talents and attributes that make her a predominant and confident role. When her sexuality is called upon, it is hers to keep ownership of rather than have it weaponised against her. Sure, the portrayal isn’t totally perfect: she’s white, affluent and played by a cis male. But it was a trans woman owning it on network TV, which is really quite something.

Sexuality activity within the tiny, quaint Twin Peaks appeared fairly fluid (and diurnal) with physical relationships cropping up on a constant basis. The most notable example of this surrounds Laura Palmer, the show’s troubled and tormented homecoming queen whose death in the pilot episode kick-started one of television history’s most iconic murder mysteries.

With the two seasons of Twin Peaks revolving around heterosexual relationships, the prequel/sequel/general mess that was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me took a slightly different approach. Whilst it’d be unfair to out-right label Palmer as bisexual, the movie implied heavily that she was involved in a physical relationship with Ronette Pulaski and Teresa Banks simultaneously in the run-up to her death. Furthermore, Jennifer Lynch’s companion piece The Secret Diary Of Laura Palmer suggested she’d been arranging a tryst with her fellow classmate Josie Packard during their English class lesson.

It’s difficult to decipher if this small addition to Laura Palmer’s story was Lynch’s intention of including varying and queer relationships with the Twin Peaks franchise given his past of lesbian relationship’s seemingly only present for shock purposes. 2001’s now-legendary neo-noir Mulholland Drive would have been a perfect, ferocious ride through the subconscious had the same-sex relationship and masturbatory fantasies of the two female protagonists not ended in envy-fuelled violence. Perhaps we’ll never fully know the reasoning for Palmer’s suggested sexual history, whether it be for dramatic effect or simple some well-needed queer inclusion.

Catherine Martell is one of the more peculiar characters to appear within Twin Peaks with her joint-ownership of the Packard Sawmill with her sister-in-law forming one of the show’s longest-running subplots. Constructing the plan of destroying the mill in order to gain the land for her own profit becomes one of her multiple bad-guy traits, alongside fraud, blackmail, kidnapping and disguising herself as an Asian businessman in order to steal the land from under her ex-lover’s nose. The latter of these is arguably the most interesting as Martell cross-dressed as ‘Tojamura’ so convincingly that the show’s audience weren’t able to click onto the disguise until the big reveal and made for one of Twin Peak’s most down-right confusing sub-stories. Martell’s ability to alter her gender, voice and mannerisms fooled an entire viewership for which she can only really be applauded on.

The Twin Peaks fan following is nothing short of devout. The show created an alternative reality for its viewers to lose themselves in, almost a black mirror view of our own small-town lives and goings-on. If Twin Peaks acted as a microcosm for the rest of the world then there was surely something each and every fan could resonate with on some level.

This idea is specifically true for Travis Blue, a fan who witnessed the filming of the show in his town of Snoqualmie Falls, Washington during the late 80s and managed to be on set for filming of the infamous opening scene with Laura Palmer’s body. He’d later attend Twin Peaks fan conventions and connect with cast members though which Blue discovered a community of like-minded devotees though his fixation with some of the show’s darker, seedier elements. Ultimately, this obsession blurred the line between fiction and fact with Palmer’s back story became the focal point of Blue’s entire teen life.

As a gay teen, Blue’s experience of both physical and sexual abuse mounted in using Palmer’s life as a template in how to lead his own. The extreme attributes of Palmer’s life were made evident as the plot progressed: secret prostitution, drug use, affairs with a large proportion of the town. All whilst retaining the status as a beloved martyr which continues post-death as the townsfolk make her murder an obsession. The audience joining in on the obsession over the mystery.

The on-screen use of drugs and her time as a sex worker formed the grounds for Blue’s own teenage years as he struggled with abuse and sexual identity. The resulting thought process being “if Laura Palmer can do this and be loved like that, why can’t I?” As a result, film maker Adam Baran proceeded to film a documentary on Blue’s life having met him at a Twin Peaks fan convention. His struggle as a queer teen, using David Lynch’s iconic character as a template to live his life, is depicted as a coming of age story within Northwest Passage that explores the effect Twin Peaks had on its LGBTQ+ fan base as opposed to the inclusion of queer characters on screen.

Baran’s comparison of Northwest Passage to “a gay Boyhood” seems a fitting one, explaining in the documentary’s Kickstarter post how Blue’s “abuse, sexuality, homelessness and addiction are tracked through 12 years of his adolescence, examining what was happening to him during that period.” It’s unlikely that solely Twin Peaks fans shall experience the documentary in a positive way, more so able to reflect how a show whose subtle, yet highly important, queer inclusion impacted its audience in a fashion deemed extreme by many.

Northwest Passage Clip 3: The Man From Another Place from Adam Baran on Vimeo.

As Baran elaborates, “I think there are so many teens now who, you know, maybe they’re not watching Twin Peaks and turning themselves into Twin Peaks characters, but they’re still struggling to find out who they are. And that’s really the core of the film.” For a show whose allure was gained from the mysterious, the irregular and the abnormal, it seems only fitting that Twin Peaks should cause an impact in a way that would be deemed ‘queer’, in its original sense, to many.

In a sense, Twin Peaks creates a fitting representation of what it’s like growing up as an LGBTQ+ teen. Unable to reveil who you really were, unable to be the person you wanted to be, unable to work out who or what you like as you felt totally encapsulated in a sort of Lynchian underworld. As the show incorporated queer characters or attributes in a way that avoided feeling demeaning, comedic or for shock value, Lynch’s creation drew in an LGBTQ+ fan base that have helped achieve Twin Peaks it’s decade-spanning legacy (even if some took it a tad further than others.) Awash with hallucinations, murderers and the supernatural, Twin Peaks still made room to deliver some LGBTQ+-centric, one of a kind queer moments… and some damn fine cups of coffee.

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