Is there such a thing as "gay culture" any more? Do we have any cultural practices that distinguish ourselves as a group from the general public? Are we even one large distinctive group, or are there crucial differences among us that make us a number of sub-groups, and if so, how do we label those groups? These have been issues since the American Psychiatric Association said we didn't suffer from a mental illness in 1973. Despite the pressures that some elements of gay liberation put on us not to be hetero-normative in any aspects of our life, the gains we have made in the past 42 years have made us less distinguishable from the population as a whole, and, in at least six states, we have all the rights and privileges of citizenship that non-gay citizens have.
This hasn't made some people who cling to the possibility of human liberation that the gay liberation movement championed very happy. Two months ago, I introduced you to some of the writings of James McCourt, who has created a social and cultural history of pre-Stonewall gay New York. I framed the discussion by observing that
McCourt is chronicling a specific type of gay life, the gay culture that has supposedly disappeared because we've become more assimilated.This prompted Steveningen to raise an important question about memory, history and tradition:
Is assimilation robbing us of a unique culture built from decades of being forced to live under the radar? Or is it embellishing our culture and releasing us to openly embrace its uniqueness?Important questions! Live issues within the LGBT community too, and at least one of our talented writers has taken a stab at answering these questions.
I begin this analysis on the cultural side, and we have a very celebrated guide to gay culture, where it was, where it is now and what happened that was published in 1997.
I had every intention when I first conceived of this diary to make fun of it, because the book emphasis "either/or" at the expense of "both/and." But a couple of recent diaries have raised the stakes on this. The fact I'm writing this 15 years after the book was published shows that there are still some live issues here, and I'll treat what deserves respect in the book with respect.
Harris is concerned that assimilation has had a corrosive effect on all the elements that animated the gay sensibility that preceded Stonewall and tried to persist through the 1970s. Why?
Homosexuals are being accepted so quickly by the general public that two of the most valuable features of our culture, our involvement with the arts and camp, our highly mannered style of humor, are disappearing.I can hear some of the members of the LGBT Kos community applauding here, and I'd caution you to stop for a moment. If we can be fired in 30 states just because we're gay, we're NOT assimilated.
The problem is that Harris believes we've succumbed to the siren song of commercialization. It's not just me; George Chauncey, reviewing the book for the New York Times in September 1997, has this to say:
Harris, who writes frequently for Harper's Magazine and Salmagundi, joins a growing chorus of urban gay writers lamenting gay men's loss of their radical edge and their supposed transformation into little more than a profitable niche market.Yes. Harris goes through a number of elements of gay culture that have turned into their opposite: The ridicule of divas (and yes, the man behind tmz.com is gay), the evolution of drag into genderfuck, even the designation of types of sexual behavior. Some of them are just silly --two chapters on the changes in gay pornography (one for film and one for literature), one on the death of kink (it didn't die, but AIDS made it hide more than it did during the 1970s) -- but some aren't. I'm beginning to feel like McCourt in Queer Street here because I remember how subversive After Dark magazine was during the 1970s (it died in 1983). I'm not so sure about the disparagement that the Church of Cole Porter threw at men who went to the gym during the late 1970s, calling buff guys in flannel shirts and jeans "Castro Clones" to mask the fact that everybody in certain bars in 1970s New York (for those of you who remember, Uncle Charlie's North) dressed the same way.
Echoing Sartre's suggestion that it was only the anti-Semite who made the Jew remain Jewish, Harris argues that gay culture was a response to the exclusion of homosexuals from the dominant culture, and that assimilation spells the end of its distinctive sensibility. He charts its decline in everything from the rhetoric of gay political magazines and the iconography of gay pornography to gay men's attitudes toward assimilation itself. He poses genuinely interesting and significant questions and brings a thoughtful and unsentimental intelligence to them.
Chauncey has similar problems with the book:
The trouble is that Harris's forays beyond his own experience reveal little understanding of gay life before the gay liberation movement. Like many of his contemporaries, he is tied to an image of gay life then as simultaneously more adventuresome and pathetic, and more witty and self-loathing, than it really was. (One chapter, for instance, treats the timidity of gay personal ads in the 1950's as clear expression of their authors' isolation and desperation, rather than [as] a tactical response to censorship.) He also ignores the racial, ethnic and regional diversity of gay culture today.Actually, there are only two chapters in the book, and even then, not entire chapters, that really help Harris make his point. Like McCourt, he bemoans the death of camp, observing that it cannot survive our release from the social burden of homosexuality. Why would we need it?
What sets us apart from all other minorities . . . [is that] we are, by definition, . . . an invisible minority, . . . [and thus] we must invent from scratch those missing physical features that enable us to spot our imperceptible compatriots who would remain unseen and anonymous if they did not display . . . in their immaculate grooming and debonair style of deportment, the caste mark that constitutes the essence of the gay sensibility.Well, maybe not in the age of Manhunt (incidentally, the owners of Manhunt donate to Republican candidates) and Grindr, but there's something to distinctiveness. Then, there's a chapter called "Glad-to-be-Gay Propaganda." He is particularly dismissive of Bruce Bawer and his book A Place at the Table (1993) which he believes said nothing that Andre Gide didn't say in 1924. It all results in a decline in the quality of gay literature. Not entirely correct, but not entirely incorrect (David Leavitt) either.
So maybe Harris is on to something? Chauncey again:
What looks meekly assimilationist to Harris, like the campaign for same-sex marriage, still can look outrageously transgressive to others. Indeed, his confidence that gay culture is assimilated and his insouciance about the threats to it posed by the religious right mark his book as one only a gay urbanite could have written. Few gay men outside big cities have the luxury of worrying about whether they're becoming too straight.I can't really bemoan the changes that have taken place between 1969 and now, and even between 1969 and 1997. First, there's the whole "both/and" thing. Second, if the internet changed anything, it's been how gay men communicate with each other. Personal ads? Migrated to the internet to any number of sites, some general and some amazingly specific. It's even led to a decline in the number of bars and, at least in the cities I know well, a ghetto-ization of them. But the most important thing Harris says is that gay sensibility, and by extension, gay identity, matters.
So have greater exposure in the media, more celebrities coming out, a military that accepts our service (and wasn't that more about job discrimination than anything else?), and the growing acceptance of marriage equality made us less distinctive? I don't think so. We still like musical comedy (Glee!) and divas of all kinds (Lady GaGa), and drag hasn't gone away (RuPaul's shows on Logo). Harris even knows that; his most recent book, Diary of a Drag Queen, is described by Google Books thus:
The sudden break-up with his long-term partner along with the untimely death of a close friend sent cultural critic Daniel Harris—a top gay journalist whose literary and cultural criticism has been praised by Janet Malcolm, Alexander Cockburn, Dale Peck, and Gary Indiana—into a deep depression. Complicating matters was his accompanying mid-life crisis, which entailed facing up to the harsh realities—and daunting challenges—of an aging gay man finding a new partner in today's youth-worshipping gay world. Then Harris discovered for the first time dozens of men of all ages and sizes online shopping for sex partners in cyberspace. But he soon found that more than just gay men trolled gay sex sites; plenty of "straight" guys sought male sex buddies online, too, but often with one proviso: their male partners had to dress in women's clothing. Although Harris had never before done drag and had no prior interest in women's accessories, he set to work learning the ropes of cross-dressing once easy access to this pool of handsome, desirable and frequently off-limit men was made available to him. Diary of a Drag Queen is a revealing, comic, and sexually charged chronicle of hundreds of one-night stands in high heels.No comment. Our culture has been embellished, Steven. Things change, it gets better, deal with it!
8:41 PM PT: I really appreciate the way we're sharing our pasts and our understanding of them in the comments, especially the fact that there isn't any intergenerational rancor of any kind. This is exactly how we share and transmit our traditions, no matter how much things have changed.