Please forward this error screen to 81. Photos by Getty Images, Thinkstock, London gay cruising, Wikimedia Creative Commons.
In an increasingly accepting world, homosexual men are all too eager to leave their campy, cruising past behind. But the price of equality shouldn’t be conformity. I follow his gaze toward the massive tangerine-on-yellow She-Ra painting that anchors one end of the room—a tough lady if there ever was one. Then, over to the poster for Pedro Almodóvar’s Todo Sobre Mi Madre—the madre here a primary-colored, Picasso-lite Cecilia Roth—on the opposite wall. Bryan Lowder is a Slate associate editor and the editor of Outward. He covers life, culture, and LGBTQ issues. Gayness may be found not just in whom you sleep with, but also in the sort of sheets you insist on sleeping between. This move away from broad-brush gay stereotypes is wise to a point. Ascribing an obligatory cultural component to homosexuality has caused a range of problems, from the merely annoying Oh you’re gay?
Want to Listen to This Story? Slate Plus members can stream or download the full version of J. Try out Slate Plus for free for two weeks. History shows that the divide between gays who reject any cultural embroidery on their sexual orientation and those who spend evenings hand-stitching it has been around since homosexuality, as a human category, was invented. The clarity of this statement is striking.
Gay cultural practice is something that must be chosen, cultivated, and celebrated. The trouble is, if we sever the presumptive tie between homos and gayness, we may soon find ourselves in a situation where there’s no one left who is interested in learning how to be gay. Hence the was in this article’s headline. The past tense seems only appropriate when gayness’s dominance as the primary cultural expression of homosexuality in the West is in such rapid decline. To do that, we’ll have to look back to the origins of gayness among the urban fairies and queers at the turn of the 20th century, trace how gayness evolved alongside homosexuals and their political movements over the following decades, and finally, reflect on the useful practices we can distill from it today. There is a very specific gay sense of history in which nothing really happens until such time as you identify yourself as a gay man. In all my years of attempting to make sense of this thing called gayness—the long conversations with gay friends and lovers and elders, the lingering in gay bars and gayborhoods around the world, the self-syllabizing of classic camp films and serious gay literature, the amassing of a considerable library of critical and academic writing on the subject—few lines have felt as correct to me as this one.
It went like this: A guy in my freshman class with whom I’d been friendly online invited me to his dorm—I was not out as a homo even to myself yet, not really, but he could tell. After some hemming and hawing on my part and cajoling on his, we had sex. I walked out of the dorm and onto the quad. It was a clear, brisk night, the moon impressively bright for the light-polluted New York sky. I sat on a bench and reflected on the encounter. Later, I came to a curious realization about that moment: I have a hard, almost impossible time remembering what I was like before it.
I mean this quite literally—I know that I existed before gay, that I had a pretty great childhood and adolescence in upstate South Carolina. But that guy—the nerdy, vaguely effeminate band geek with the bad hair—seems like a stranger to me now, or like a character from a movie I haven’t seen in years. This, of course, is rather strange. But I suspect it’s a characteristic experience for those homos who, after assuming the mantle of cultural gayness, become so fixated on understanding its meaning that their lives are in turn defined by the quest. Or at least some of us have been.
For some people it was your whole life, your soul. For others it was what you did on the weekend. How do you establish traditions for an ethnic group that has just been invented? But why did that culture develop in the first place? It’s not obvious that a shared sexual attraction or behavior should be a foundation firm enough upon which to construct a shared cultural practice. This naming was a powerful thing.
How would you react to such a sudden paradigm shift? The first is to embrace the label as an accurate description of your malady and seek treatment, whether medical or spiritual. The second is to reject the label—or accept it, but insist that it only describes a minor sexual deviation that really shouldn’t matter that much. But how do you establish traditions for an ethnic group that has just been invented? One option, which some homosexuals took and still take, is to imagine gayness as a sort of mystical essence that transcends space and time such that you and Alexander the Great could totally gossip about boys. Scouring the past for recognition and pedigree this way can be fun, but it’s fundamentally ahistorical. 1895 represented a sort of lurid press conference for the emerging ethnic group.
Historians of gay community in the U. I didn’t have the chance to explore the female perspective on gayness in my piece. So I talked to fellow Outward editor June Thomas about gay men and lesbian culture, the history of female gayness, and more. AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. San Mateo, California, articulates the homophile ethos well in a 1958 letter to the editor of ONE Institute Quarterly, a sort of quasi-academic journal for early gay sociology. Obviously these are different sorts of publications with different tones, but the ideological shift the excerpts reflect is clear. In the first, the rather modest notion that homosexuals might think about things differently is met with accusations of mental illness while in the second the author celebrates the wonderfully baroque accoutrement of gay sex and jokes about the anxiety over gay male gender presentation.
Throughout this period, the notion of gay cultural practice occupies an interesting position—it was often seen as counterproductive or irrelevant by activists, and yet it was experiencing a period of vibrancy it hasn’t seen since. If that sounds contradictory, consider a parallel like Prohibition: Official talking points often have little to do with people’s actual behavior. Between WWII and the AIDS crisis, the meaning of gayness and the development of gay cultural practice was a subject of intense, generative debate. Defenders of gayness are so uncool these days that when they do speak, they are practically booed from the room. When AIDS ravaged gay men in the 1980s and early ’90s, it necessarily ravaged gay culture.
For one thing, it immediately rendered the more frivolous-seeming gay practices like camp secondary to basic survival. But more important, it disrupted the process of gay cultural transmission that had gone on since the turn of the century. Justin Sayre, a writer and performer who runs a monthly variety show dedicated to the continuation of gay culture, recalled the moment he felt this painful absence most acutely. I was taken to a cocktail party where there were a bunch of older gay men, and everyone was dull, dull, dull. In White’s view, then, it’s largely because of the historical rupture of AIDS that we have the gay rights discourse of the mid-’90s till the present day. Ours is a moment defined by a striking amount of cultural amnesia and predicated on an understanding of gayness as a mundane biological difference without any cultural component to speak of—at least not in mixed company. Of course, one could argue that this model has worked: Minimizing gayness has been the linchpin of assimilation, the central tactic in obtaining access to conservative institutions like military service and marriage.