Civil Liberties

The Gay Rights Movement Has Gone Mainstream -- But Is That a Good Thing?

New York's gay community just won the kind of equality that will make us just like everyone else. But do we want to be just like everyone else?

This story first appeared inNext Magazine.

As the sweltering month of June ushers in Pride, who knew that it would also beget one of the gayest summer blockbusters of the year—X-Men: First Class? The central dilemma facing the mutants as they discover and learn to accept their super powers is whether they hide their gifts to fit into human society, or revel in and celebrate what makes them different, knowing that if they do, they’ll never quite fit in? In other words, what is gained, and what is lost, by going mainstream?

It’s a question well worth asking in 2011, as many of the cultural and political goals of the mainstream gay rights movement have been won, or are close to being so. Put aside for a moment the depressing news about youth suicides, bullying and gay bashings—or the temporarily thwarted push for marriage equality in New York and the rest of the country. Instead, squint your eyes a little, and take a look around. It’s been a hell of a year for the gays.

While the president finally moved to repeal DADT, and he along with every celebrity and Mayor Bloomberg rushed to shoot their “It Gets Better” videos, Mother Monster, patron saint of the born-this-way gays, garnered more followers on Twitter than the President. At suburban multiplexes audiences fell hard for the two moms portrayed in Academy Award-nominated The Kids Are All Right, while on the small screen the gays snagged their own reality show, The A-List: New York; Modern Family’s gay dads were nominated for Emmys (Eric Stonestreet won); and Glee’s Chris Colfer won a Golden Globe for brilliantly bringing Kurt Hummel to life each week. Colfer was also named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet this year according to Time Magazine.

All of which is to say, in 2011, the gays have arrived—and are now firmly entrenched in American mainstream culture. A cause for celebration, right? Not everybody thinks so. This year as we celebrate Pride, there’s a notable queer backlash a-brewin’ on the margins. It’s not quite the gay Tea Party movement, but more voices seem to be proclaiming: we’re here, we’re queer, and there are a lot more interesting things about gay life than Lady Gaga’s new album or going to the chapel.

“In my standup routine lately I’ve been pleading with the rich gays not to start getting married and hav[ing] children,” says performer and writer Mike Albo,. “It’s a real problem. How are they going to afford those big houses on Fire Island that we get to crash at if they have to pay that private-school tuition? How mainstream do we get before we all become Republicans?”

Albo’s joke is hardly academic. The New York Times recently reported that in New York State the majority of deep-pocketed funders lobbying for a gay marriage bill this year are wealthy, conservative members of the Republican Party. With polling now showing a majority of New Yorkers supporting gay marriage, the issue is now when, not whether, it happens. Great, right?

Depends on where you’re sitting. Kenyon Farrow, a writer, activist and former director of Queers for Economic Justice, is quick to point out the implications this could have on national politics if mainstream gay issues like marriage equality come to be seen not as radical rewriting of the status quo, but as mainstream, even bedrock, conservative issues. “I think the GOP sees which way the wind is blowing, and where the poll numbers are going, and they’ve decided to turn marriage into a conservative issue. New York State will be the testing ground for a national strategy,” Farrow tells me.

But if mainstreaming is the goal, what lies at the end of the rainbow? Is the future of the gay mainstream one in which gays assimilate into a conservative political culture mostly unconcerned about other minority groups and the class divide in the United States? Where we become the same kind of alpha-male bankers that almost took down the world economy? Or one where we increasingly bow down to our own narrow, stereotyped version of “mainstream gay”—muscled, manscaped and marriage-minded?

Forget politics for a minute, and you’ll find plenty of people who think any move toward the mainstream—whether Chelsea-fied or conservative—is just so damn…boring. I caught up with Earl Dax, a promoter and producer known for serving up decidedly non-mainstream queer culture in New York and beyond. “Gays in the military isn’t my top priority, nor is marriage [equality],” Earl tells me. “That laser focus makes me think about that book, A Place at the Table. But I don’t want a place at the table of the status quo. The table is fucked up. I want the status quo to change.”

Earl runs Pussy Faggot, a popular party that regularly attracts hundreds of attendees, and that the New York Times covered flatteringly while refusing to publish its actual name. The name comes from an infamous bar brawl where another gay promoter went off the rails and started walloping on Earl at an event, kicking him, spitting at him and calling him a “pussy faggot.” After the smoke cleared, Earl dusted himself off from the nasty bout of gay-on-gay violence, and decided to throw a party. “It seems like it has started to resonate with people in a strong way, while completely alienating the majority of the population,” Earl tells me about his roving party that brings together live performance, DJs and visual artists. “There is obviously something in the name that announces this is not your HRC rainbow flag event.”

I also caught up with the guys behind Gayletter.com, the insurgent weekly newsletter of gay and gayish New York happenings that recently celebrated its two-year anniversary and is run by two expats, an Australian and a Dominican. “[Co-editor] Tom [Jackson] and I were having a big discussion about the reason we’ve had so much success with the Gayletter, and I think it’s because we’re not trying to fit in or cater to any one scene,” co-editor Abi Benitez tells me. “I sense a lot of the generic fitting-in thing happening with the gay scene, the conformism, the gay muscle-boy outfit. It doesn’t seem all that different from the straight girl saying she’s only going to marry the guy if he’s a banker or a doctor. It doesn’t seem like it’s helping to break stereotypes.”

The Gayletter boys know their audience, and try to give everything their own twist. “A promoter was writing to us and talking about all this VIP experience and such, and we were like, ‘but what does this have for our readers?’” Benitez relates, explaining their editorial process. “So we ended up writing the whole thing up about how to go to this event and drink as much as you can for cheap.”

And maybe that’s the other half of it. Getting by in a city that can still bankrupt anybody in an afternoon has become more mainstream than ever. “I’m not a sociologist, but it seems like the ‘mainstream’ is also about defining gay life along class lines, especially as the culture at large gets more and more divided along class lines,” Mike Albo says. “But what’s so great about mainstream anyway? Trash reality TV? An unfaltering allegiance to Lady Gaga? Expensive cruise vacations and a disposable outfit for the Black Party? There are a lot of guys without much money who are still out there having plenty of fun, and still having sex with each other.”

And that’s not just because the gay Sex and the City dream of expensive cocktails, fabulous outfits and forays to the Hamptons is a little more out of reach for most of us these days. It also looks increasingly like an ideal that a lot of gays don’t want to reach for in the first place.

Joseph Huff-Hannon is an award-winning writer, and a campaigner with All Out, a new global LGBT campaign organization.