Your Last Defense Is Self Defense

Siege and Queer Resilience in the Age of "Defund the Police"

Salter Street Films/New Line Cinema

Aphoto of Matthew Shepard hung in my favorite high school teacher’s classroom. His podium was covered in Keith Haring-inspired art, and he taught us about Harvey Milk, and he taught us about the Twinkie defense, and that Matthew Shepard was tied to a fencepost and left for dead. I was 16 and I was in the closet, and learning about the history of the gay community made me ache. I ached to tell my teacher exactly why I was so emotional in class, so overwhelmed was I to hear about queer history for the first time. I also ached because the queer history I was learning was a history of death. Matthew Shepard, Keith Haring, and Harvey Milk had finally been given to me and in the same moment were taken away, gone in an instant as soon as they were here.

The following year, in a different class, my Government teacher attempted a lesson about a school that participated in the Day of Silence. A straight student at that school wore a shirt with a slogan about straight pride, and the administration made him turn his shirt inside out. We were supposed to be discussing whether the school had the right to limit the student’s free speech, and somehow my classmates turned this into a discussion about whether the school should have been allowed to permit the Day of Silence protest at all. They claimed that the very acknowledgment of gay students infringed on the rights of straight ones. My teacher sat back, crossed his arms, and let my classmates debate. “I don’t care if you’re gay, but stay away,” one football player quipped. “It’s not a civil rights issue,” another insisted. “It’s not like anyone’s ever been killed for being gay.” I was 17 and I was in the closet and I ached. I somehow found the strength to say, “Haven’t you ever heard of Matthew Shepard?”’

He had not. It was June. It was Pride Month. And I ached.

Siege (1983) understands that ache. The film is a low-budget exploitation thriller from Canada, and it’s almost 40 years old, and it understands. At the beginning of the movie (which was also released as Self Defense—multiple titles being a hallmark of B-movies, as distributors tried to maximize profits by releasing films under different names until something stuck), we’re informed that the police department in Halifax, Nova Scotia has gone on strike. News footage—actual news footage, from an actual police strike—shows crowds forming outside the police station and cars doing donuts in the street, as a general sense of lawlessness overtakes the city.

The story begins in a gay bar in an old church basement called the Crypt—an acknowledgement of a gay history tinged with death, of our ability to find community and celebrate one another even among the dead. A gang of hoodlums pull up outside and enter the bar with bats, shouting slurs at the patrons and roughing them up. They wear armbands identifying themselves as members of the New Order, a reactionary right-wing group dedicated to restoring the hetero-patriarchal order threatened by the existence of places like the Crypt.

The particular target of their ire is the bartender (Dug Rotstein), a handsome curly-haired guy wearing a sailor outfit and scarf that likely felt sexy and thrilling when he put it on; now, under the withering gaze of the violent homophobes at his door, he probably feels silly. Ashamed. Still, when the gang leader called Goose (Jeff Pustil) demands a drink, the bartender stands firm. “We can only serve members,” he insists. 

Watching this sequence, I ache, because I know what’s coming. This is an exploitation flick from the ‘80s, after all. In short order, the bartender lies dead, gone as soon as he was here. 

What we don’t expect, however, is the ruthlessness of what happens next. The befuddled gang members call their leader, a man in a leather jacket named Cabe (Doug Lennox). When he shows up at the Crypt, he decides that the only way to prevent the New Order from getting in trouble for the death of the bartender is to eliminate all of the witnesses. He lines up the patrons—a lesbian couple, an older man, some younger guys—and methodically executes them all. A pillow to the head. A silenced gunshot. And down they drop.

I felt the ache on another June morning, in 2016, when I woke up and learned about the shooting that had taken place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. After a morning spent glued to Twitter, worrying about whether I’d be safe at the Pride parade in downtown Pittsburgh, I decided to go anyway. Mere hours after the shooting, many people marching already carried signs in support of Orlando. We danced and celebrated each other and remembered those we’d lost. I was no longer in the closet, but still, I ached.

The massacre at the Crypt is horrific. It’s harrowing and hard to watch, and the torturous terror of what’s unfolding is acted well by all involved. But unlike the gory, brutal sequences to follow, in which many other bodies will be torn apart and after which many other characters will lie dead, the murdered queer people at the Crypt are given a sort of quiet dignity in death. Though they’re executed in a shocking, brutal manner, the film doesn’t dwell on the gory details of what it would look like for someone to be shot, point-blank, in the back of the head. The only body we see is the body of the boy in the sailor suit. That’s enough.

Cade doesn’t manage to execute everybody at the Crypt. One gay man named Daniel (Terry-David Després) manages to slip away, and a shadowy chase scene ensues across the rooftops of Halifax. Daniel ultimately ducks into an apartment building where a group of college kids are waiting out the police strike, and when he tells them what’s going on, they decide to shelter him, to protect him from the murderous fascists outside.

For the rest of the film, the apartment residents lay traps for the men attempting to claim their final victim. Much gunfire is exchanged; both sides suffer losses, and the action is thrilling, gory, and violent, like all the best exploitation films. This is a movie that revels in its shock value, as most B-movies do, but it’s also a movie that’s fiercely sympathetic to its gay characters in a way that feels quietly revolutionary. Not once does it occur to the residents of the apartment building that the gay man in their midst isn’t worth protecting. Not once does the film suggest that the characters at the gay bar had it coming, that this is some sort of karmic retribution for their perverted sexuality.

That being said, the basic setup of Siege seems reactionary and conservative at first. This is a movie that ostensibly seems to suggest that police are essential to maintaining order in society—that without uniformed officers patrolling the streets, society will immediately devolve into chaos because of the lack of oversight. But Siege has a trick up its sleeve, something that ties the whole film together.

I recently heard about someone I knew in high school who spoke up at a school board meeting. As with many schools across the country, the place where I grew up is embroiled in controversy about whether school libraries should be allowed to contain materials that mention the existence of gay people. We seem to be backsliding, returning to the time I grew up wherein it was socially acceptable to be openly homophobic.

The guy I knew gave an impassioned speech about what it was like to grow up gay when we were in school, desperately seeking any sort of representation. He confessed to having been suicidal, to no longer wanting to live because he felt so isolated. After he begged the school board not to make modern kids go through what we went through back in the day—to please let them grow up in a world where their first exposure to queer people isn’t inextricable from death—as he walked back to his seat, someone in the crowd called him a pedophile.

My old Government teacher, the man who once sat back and let my classmates claim that no one’s ever been killed for being gay, is now the school principal.

Much of the marketing for Siege focused on the concept of self-defense. “Fight crime. Shoot back!” reads one tagline. “Your last defense is…Self Defense,” reads another. But that’s not really what’s happening in the film. The residents of the apartment building aren’t just defending themselves; they’re defending a minority—an oppressed, victimized gay man who has just witnessed an unimaginable horror. Our only defense, in other words, is to defend each other.

It’s a message that feels shockingly radical, and it’s one that has only grown more and more relevant 40 years on. In the age of “Defund the Police,” of national conversations about the role of policing, Siege resonates by suggesting that community defense is the way forward. If the police aren’t around to protect us, then we must protect one another.

I feel that old familiar ache when I read the news these days, when I hear about violent mobs showing up at family-friendly events like Drag Queen Story Hour, shouting down gay people and innocent children with slurs and threats. These children are just being introduced to the world of queer acceptance and are already learning that it comes with pain. I feel the ache when I scroll through the Libs of Tiktok Twitter account, which sics violent mobs on queer people expressing themselves online. In other words, I hear the words of the fascists in Siege echoing through the news every day. 

“We are the ones with the guts to stand up and say what everyone else is afraid to say,” one of the members of the New Order snarls at the patrons of the Crypt. “A lot of people think they gotta sound liberal these days. Don’t think that means they like you perverts!” It could be, word for word, a tweet from any online troll who claims to be a defender of free speech, who in actuality is full of hate. It doesn’t occur to them that people can actually accept one another, truly, wholeheartedly, and not just because they’re told they must. The fascists in Siege may as well be accusing society of “virtue signaling,” or accusing the gay people at the Crypt of “grooming.” The language has evolved ever so slightly, but the hate remains.

One of the VHS covers for Siege gives away the game. The background is a gigantic police badge, and the tagline reads, “Their badge is a license to kill.” In the film’s final seconds, after the chaos of the deadly night has died down, after some of the protagonists have survived it, we learn that the New Order aren’t just people taking advantage of the lack of police. They are the police. The fascists who are violently imposing an order of compliance and subjugation on the population are police officers, taking advantage of the lack of oversight to act out their basest, most evil fantasies.

In this, as in many exploitation films, Siege has it both ways. The film successfully revels in the shock of its premise, thrilling viewers by asking them to consider a world where a lack of law enforcement means that citizens have to take up arms to protect themselves. But it isn’t just a vicious, brutal what-if scenario, meant to caution people against wishing the police didn’t exist. It’s a vicious, brutal warning, a plea for people to recognize that policing itself is rotten to the core.

Again, in the age of “Defund the Police,” Siege feels eerily prescient. We’re forced every day to reckon with the fact that policing is out of control, that officers given a badge and a gun feel that they can run amok in the streets, bending society to their will. We watch, feeling helpless, aching, as police officers protect the fascists who are attacking queer people, defending their right to threaten the lives and safety of oppressed minorities rather than standing up for the rights of queer people to exist without the constant threat of violence.

Siege also offers a way forward. If the police won’t be there for us—if, in fact, the police are actively complicit in our oppression—then we must protect not just ourselves but each other. Daniel is terrified of the evil that lurks outside the apartment door, occasionally hiding when the fascists manage to breach it, but that’s okay; other people are willing to put their lives and bodies on the line to protect him. And when push comes to shove, Daniel does stand up for himself, protecting his protectors as much as they sheltered him.

It’s comforting to watch a film like this, in an odd sort of way. It’s a welcome acknowledgment that violence against gay people does exist—that there are people out there willing to recognize it and confront it in the media rather than sweeping it under the rug or pretending that queer people have brought it upon ourselves. It seems strange to find comfort in a film that shows violence against queer people with such honesty, but Siege makes it feel survivable, in a way, by providing not just the problem but a solution. We remember the boy in the sailor suit and we know that we must survive.

Today, their city. Tomorrow…yours!” reads another tagline common to Siege posters. This sort of thing has come to our cities already, and has in fact been here for a very long time. What matters next is what we do about it. Siege suggests that we’ll be able to find a way out and through, and to keep the ache at bay, I have to believe it.