A Paler Shade of Gay

When the international Gay and Lesbian Choruses Association came to Tampa last year, it was the biggest summer convention this city has ever seen. Some 6,000 delegates from around the world jammed the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Tampa Convention Center for a week, drawing tens of thousands of spectators to hear them perform and take part in scores of parties and special events staged at area nightspots and attractions.But the week's high point, politically and culturally speaking, came at opening day festivities overseen by actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein. The gravel-voiced scene-stealer from "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Independence Day" got the crowd laughing with a few jokes and then rasped out an introduction to Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who, unbeknownst to most conventioneers, had only given the event tepid support until that moment. Nevertheless, he ambled toward the podium at his goo d-natured-Greco best, smiling a mayor-like smile and holding out his hand in greeting to Fierstein.Who promptly kissed him.That's right. He laid one on the mayor of a city that less than five years previously had voted to repeal a local law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The irony wasn't lost on the delegates, who broke out in gales of laughter and wild applause. Greco recovered nicely, offering a courtly welcome and wishing the crowd an enjoyable week in the Big Guava. It all played well in the morning papers.Now, think back six, seven years ago. Can you imagine such a scene taking place? Without David Caton having a coronary on the steps of City Hall? Without the Klan marching down Kennedy Boulevard? Without some blowhard Baptist preacher predicting that Greco would turn into a pillar of salt as Tampa was devoured by locusts?Yet, there it was, an exquisite moment frozen in time, Harvey kissing Dick to the applause of thousands, undeniable proof of the unconventional humor, punch and style of gay culture.But not everyone with a finger on the pulse of gay culture feels its heart beating so strongly. A growing number of gay writers and critics sees gays edging dangerously close to a mainstream that threatens to wash away our individuality, leaving our culture a weak, watered-down, homogenized version of its previous 150-proof self. It's hard to hit the newsstand these days without reading one of their musings on The End of Gay Culture As We Know It.A brilliant but flawed essay by Daniel Mendelsohn in "New York" magazine last fall titled "How Queer Culture Lost Its Edge" was one of the first. It read, in part, "The most dramatic cultural assimilation of our time has been the heterosexualization of gay culture. As homosexuality has moved, however slowly, toward the mainstream, there's been less and less for gay culture to do what it's best at, which is to stand on the margins and throw shade."Sex columnist Dan Savage offered a commiserating interview with fellow gay writer Daniel Harris, author of "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture" (Hyperion, 1997). In the piece's introduction, Savage blithely opines, "Gay culture is reactive, a response to circumstances and social restrictions that gay people have historically had little or no control over."Offers Harris, "You remove the oppression and the marginalization and you've removed the whole need for the ethnic identity, the collective identity that led to the political advances. That is what I think is happening. The political strides we make a re necessarily going to lead to the dissolution of our ethnic identity. That's an inevitability."And these are hardly the only people expressing such opinions. In the current issue of "Out" -- the national gay and lesbian lifestyle mag -- author Edmund White wrings his hands over the "sanitization of gay literature," claiming that prudes are purging sexual expression from our culture. A piece I wrote for a recent issue of "The Advocate" focuses on accusations by a new New York group called Sex Panic! that some leading gay writers -- Larry Kramer, Michelangelo Signorile and Gabriel Rotello, to name a few -- are pushing gay culture too far to the right. These writers, they say, are having a more detrimental effect on gays than the far right.What's going on here? When I woke up this morning, it was the best time in the history of the planet to be gay. That may not be saying much, but it's important to note the facts. There are more laws and policies benefitting gays and lesbians (though s till not nearly enough), more openly gay public figures and officials (though still proportionately far fewer than our presence in the population), and more major motion pictures, plays and books featuring gays than ever before (thoug h few "mainstream" works include characters who resemble anyone I know).Locally, I haven't noticed any shortage of gay bars or gay-related events. Tampa's 10-day Pride Film Festival just finished a strong Tampa Theatre run, and Tampa AIDS Network's Art for Life recently drew 4,000 to the Convention Center. At USF, I'm the advisor to the campus Gay, Lesbian and Bi Coalition, one of the university's biggest students groups. Ever try bowling at Regal Lanes on Monday night? It's tough, unless you belong to the gay league, whose dozens of teams book every lane in the alley.Likewise, local gay businesses are more successful than ever. Tampa's MC Film Festival has grown from a smallish video mail-order service in recent years to a sizable Kennedy Boulevard business, selling film, apparel, music and magazines. Tomes & Trea sures, this area's oldest and most successful gay bookstore, has recently moved from the space it inhabited for a decade on Howard Avenue to one just down the street that doubles its size and allows it to be landlord to several other gay businesses. And "Watermark," a gay news publication I edit, has grown from a 30-page monthly to 60-plus pages every two weeks in less than three years.I could go on like this for pages. The evidence that gay culture is not only not in decline but is infused with a vibrancy that extends its reach far beyond a cloistered set of urban gays and far into the hinterlands is compelling and undeniable. What some gay writers see as decline is more correctly interpreted as transition, a chameleon culture changing its colors and shedding its skin as the environment and climate in which it lives changes, too. Do some of these writers have a point? Well, maybe -- if one accepts their seeming premises that the edge of culture on which they cut their teeth is the best or most interesting that gays have to offer.Take Harris, for instance. His often-quoted "Rise and Fall" is the work of an older New York gay man approaching our collective culture from a rather narrow perspective -- one much different, I think, than that of the vast majority of gay men. His book's opening chapter, for instance, goes on at length about his fascination with Hollywood divas and his identification with them as a young man growing up in North Carolina. It is an experience and sensibility that he sweepingly projects as universal for gay men."The influence of Hollywood films was so pervasive among young homosexuals that it insinuated itself into our voices, weakening the grip of our regio nal accents, which were gradually overridden by the artificial language of this imaginary elite. Even today I have never succeeded in exorcising Joan, Bette, Grace, and Kate from my vocal cords, where they are still speaking, having left the indelible mar k of Hollywood's spurious interpretation of classiness, culture, and gentility branded into my personality," writes Harris. " ... At the very heart of gay diva worship is not the diva herself but the almost universal homosexual experience of ostracism and i nsecurity, which ultimately led to what might be called the aestheticism of maladjustment, the gay man's exploitation of cinematic visions of Hollywood grandeur to elevate himself above his antagonistic surroundings and simultaneously express membership i n a secret society of upper-class aesthetes."Puh-leeze. I don't think I'm alone among gay men -- certainly not among the fairly broad circle in which I move -- in saying I've never engaged in "diva worship" or counted Joan, Bette, Grace or Kate among my influences. In fact, as much fun as I think the camp culture to which Harris refers is, I've never identified with it. Old Tallulah Bankhead movies bore me to tears, probably in the same way that my interest in Daniel Day-Lewis films, Jim Grimsley books or baseball would leave Harris cold. Different strokes, as they say. But I bristle at the notion that the diversity of our tastes and specifically the decline of the popularity of his within gay culture represents some watering down of queer sensibility.Reviewing "Rise and Fall" for "The New York Times" last month, George Chauncey offered this perspective: "... (Harris') 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.""These kinds of writings reflect more the mid-life crises of these writers than they do the vanishing cult ure of the gay and lesbian community," says Nadine Smith, a 32-year-old lesbian who was one of four national co-chairs of 1993's mammoth March on Washington. Smith, who lives in Clearwater, now serves as executive director of the Tampa-based gay political action committee, The Human Rights Task Force of Florida (I'm a Task Force co-chair)."There's sort of an arrogance in attempting to define the gay culture," she continues. "Whose gay culture? ... It's not about assimilation. Karen and I got married, but we didn't say, OK, you take on this role, I'll take on that role. Our marriage bears little resemblance to traditional concepts of marriage. To say we're assimilating into these institutions just isn't so."Like Harris and Mendelsohn, those making the "change is bad" argument seem to think the current culture lacks imagination, is somehow missing a creative spark. And that they attribute to a sense of complacency that has come from progress realized thro ugh the gay civil rights movement. The very gains that I cited above, to that way of thinking, foster a sort of sensibility that sadly inclines gays less toward a glittering life of fabulousness or in-your-face militantism and more toward, say, the marriage to which Smith refers above. As Mendelsoh n himself wrote, " ... culturally speaking, oppression may have been the best thing that could have happened to gay culture. Without it, we're nothing."Really? Consider this from People for the American Way's new book "Hostile Climate" , a nationwide repo rt on anti-gay discrimination and harassment: "Despite or because of their rising profile in popular culture, gay Americans are the targets of rampant institutional contempt at work, church and in the halls of government." The book includes state-by-state case studies of 228 documented incidences of discrimination in 1996 (up from 180 the previous year), many of them from far outside urban areas. I'm sure these individuals have strong opinions of their own as to how well gay culture has been assimilated i nto or accepted by the mainstream.Mendelsohn mistakes the most obvious forms of cultural expression as the only ones that are exciting or valid (elsewhere in the New York piece, he romanticizes about the early days of ACT UP and the early '90s "outing" craze that forcibly dragged publ ic figures out of the closet). Likewise, Harris equates the disappearance of the kimono-wearing gay aesthete with passage of a superior era (it's no mistake that his book's title is a slight spin on "The Rise and Fall of th e Roman Empire"). Sense a pattern? These are critics stuck in the goo of their own nostalgia, having difficulty saying good-bye to the only version of gay culture they have ever known, one romantically exiled to the margins where they could revel in their own outlaw status. Now they complain that they're no longer cutting-edge. Sort of like the 40-year-old who spins the FM dial to the "easy listening" station and is horrified to find one of his favorite high school tunes in heavy rotation."It's like people longing for the nostalgic '60s that never existed -- where all young people were freedom fighters or hippies," says Smith. "It's not true, but it's kind of romantic."Gay culture has always been about creating a subculture in the midst of a dominant culture that rejects gays and lesbians. For the first time, we gays find ourselves in the midst of a culture that in some tentative and awkward ways accepts us -- and not just silent, subordinate gays, but those who are out, living their lives exactly as they wish. Why limit yourself to a clandestine gay nightclub -- as many gays historically have, simply because there was no other place in which they felt safe to be themselves -- when you feel perfectly comfortable walking down Seventh Avenue, holding hands with your boyfriend (and in my case, husband)? And why should the latter be thought of as "less than" the former?As wrong as I think those lamenting the demise of gay culture are, I can understand most of their ideas. One assertion that baffles me, however, is the somewhat separatist notion that taking our place at the table represents assimilation."Pretty much everyone you talk to," writes Mendelsohn, clearly meaning every one of his friends in New York, "feels that the edge, in more than one sense of the word, is gone from urban gay culture. ... Today, the biggest issue in gay politics isn't t he moral justification for outing uncooperative closeted politicians or stratagems for disrupting Easter services at St. Patrick's but the rights to marriage and inclusion in the armed forces. ... Gay culture ... has gone from "pater-ing les bourgeois" to aping them."Let me get this right: Outing some here-today-gone-tomorrow politician would be "cutting-edge," but demanding permanent legal protection for and recognition of gay relationships is assimilationist? Demanding the right to serve openly in and participat e, as employees, in the benefits of the armed forces, which are supported by our taxes, is bourgeois?It would be a rejection of everything that the gay rights movement has worked for over the past 30 years to decline to take part in the very culture that we have worked so hard to join. Would we argue for ABC not to air the "Ellen" coming out episode? Against efforts to grant us the right to marry? To adopt children?Maybe we should be wearing smoking jackets and trading bon mots from "Mildred Pierce" , or dyeing our hair chartreuse and making profane placards for a rowdy demonstration at City Hall. But the very act of being who we are a nd insisting that we be allowed to live our lives as we wish does more for the collective gay culture than anything I can imagine, as we approach the end of 1997.Does today's gay culture make for engaging media events, clever bumper stickers or political theater? Perhaps not. But who said the purpose of gay culture is to be some sort of spectacle, a trifle for the entertainment of society at large?Maybe the sharpest edge is that which cuts deepest before anyone knows the blade has been unsheathed.


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