Gay men, who used to frighten the horses with flamboyant displays of sexual outlawry, gender treason and fabulousness, have supposedly dropped their insignia of tribal belonging and joined the mainstream. Gay men, it seems, have become indistinguishable from normal folk. Now, that’s progress for you!
Back in the Bad Old Days, or so the story goes, there was such a thing as an edgy, subversive gay male culture. But it was an artifact of homophobia.
All that foofy stuff looks irrelevant to modern gay men, who don’t see themselves as belonging to a separate culture, let alone such a queeny one. For today’s gay men, life is composed of PTA meetings, church socials and Nascar races.
The problem with such a claim — besides its denial of the Lady Gaga phenomenon — is that we’ve heard it for so many decades now that it can’t possibly be true. At least since the 1970s, gay men have been drawing invidious generational comparisons between gay boys in their teens and 20s — modern, liberated, enlightened, untouched by gay culture, “utterly indistinguishable from straight boys” and “completely calm about being gay” (as Andrew Holleran put it in his 1978 novel, ‘Dancer From the Dance’) — and older gay men, fanatically attached to an outdated gay culture and convinced that it is the only gay culture there is.
But let’s set aside whether the rumors of the death of gay culture are really true or greatly exaggerated. Why is it so important, particularly at this moment, that gay culture be pronounced, if not dead, then on its way out? Does the possibility of a distinct gay culture express the notion, now scandalous, that gay men might be different from other people? Does it challenge the myths of gay assimilation and gay ordinariness?
Yes, all of the above. Gay men who play by the rules of straight society and conventional masculinity, and who don’t aspire to belong to any other way of life, are more acceptable, to themselves and to others. The last obstacle to complete social integration is no longer gay sex or gay identity, but gay culture.
And yet gay culture is not just a superficial affectation. It is an expression of difference through style — a way of carving out space for an alternate way of life. And that means carving out space in opposition to straight society. Style itself represents a deviation from the ordinary. It has to stand out, or stand apart from the world as it is given, in order to qualify as style.
To understand gay male culture as defined by style is to alter our sense of its meaning. That is especially useful when it comes to all those gay male styles that reveal some connection with femininity. Such gender-deviant styles make some gay men nervous, not only because they impugn their virility, but also because they recall those hoary Victorian definitions of homosexuality as a congenital abnormality involving a pathological reversal of sex roles — a mental illness.
Instead of worrying that the feminine associations of diva worship, interior decorating or the performing arts may make gay male psychology look diseased, the real question we should ask about gay style is what its refusal of canonical masculinity achieves and what it enables its practitioners, straight or gay, to do.
Unless we figure out how to specify that meaning, we will never understand gay male culture. We will never understand why it still survives, or why so many people, straight and gay, are so overeager to declare its death. And we will never understand the most essential thing about it: how gay culture continues to perform a sly and profound critique of what passes for normal.
In April the NY Times ran a story questioning whether Judy Garland was still a gay icon:
I have this theory that because of the holocaust that was the AIDS epidemic and its annihilation of the previous generation of gay men, the faith of our fathers risks extinction. Today, Judyism, like Yiddish, is little more than a vague cultural memory.
Over at the Village Voice this week, Michael Musto had a converstation with an attractive, young gay actor (of course) who refuted the end of Judyism claim. Musto concluded that the gay generational gap is wider than ever! (Exclamation point his own), though Halperin would argue perhaps it’s just as wide as ever!
And now that I’m on the subject of gay generational divide… even earlier, director Bruce LaBruce and gentleman writer Brenden Shucart pissed on each other’s “Death and Rebirth of Gay Culture” arguments in Vice magazine and the Huffington Post respectively.
Gay culture is dead. I guess the idea of gay culture was always an oxymoron, but lately I find myself declaring to it more definitively, “You’re dead to me,” as you might say to a former lover. Now, the gay movement is a zombie movement. It vaguely looks like its former self, operating remotely like it used to, going through the motions. But there’s no real life to it, no purpose, beyond bland consumerism. The engine of the gay movement used to be an idea of adventurous and extreme sexuality. Gay culture itself was regarded by the status quo as something pornographic and sexually radical. Today, with the emergence of the gay conservatism, pornography appears to be the last bastion of sexual radicalism. That’s why I always express solidarity with gay pornographers. They’re the last glimmer of glamour in the gay movement.
If you think our people are broadly moving in the wrong direction, as I often do, you have a responsibility to not only get out in front of the crowd and tell them they’re going the wrong way, but to show them the right way to go. He could have used those column inches to tout any number of amazingqueer artists, gay historical figures, or places around the world where gay rights are imperiled. Instead he chose to talk about what he ate on his vacation and disparage homos who want to be parents.
It seems that since the 90s, when irony became the ideological Muzak permanently piped into the background of our culture, the youth of today have lost their bearings to such an extent that satirical writing has become almost indecipherable to them. Even though I went to great lengths in the column to indicate that I was merely launching a provocation, and I deliberately ended up obliquely comparing gay culture to luncheon meat (well, that part was pretty accurate), the HuffPo scribe took everything I said with painstaking seriousness. My advice to her, aside from avoiding writing for corporate publications that don’t pay, is to please choose your battles. That I have the temerity to critique gay culture, or even declare it dead, does not make me your enemy. Glee is your enemy.
You’ve basically told the generation of queer artists and activists who have come up behind you to give up and go home. (And since you stopped using “queer” in the ’90s, I’m sure you won’t mind if we wear it for a while).
BOY TOYS TALK BACK: Soooooooo do you think gay culture is dead?