Back in the late 1990s, my old friend Tina Benez used to complain about how commercialized gay culture was becoming. She said that a gay identity was something you had to create for yourself, and then go out and fight for it. Now, she said back in about 1998, you could buy a gay identity off the rack. I’ve been thinking about that remark from about 14 years ago a lot lately.
Our struggles are hardly over. Even if we get everything we want in terms of marriage equality, there is still no antidiscrimination law on the national level. It will still be legal in most states to deny gays and lesbians housing, employment, and public services, married or not. And yet, we’ve clearly reached a watershed moment with public opinion changing rapidly and dramatically. I can remember when the idea of genuine gay marriage seemed to be nothing more than a joke, even amongst ourselves. That same sex marriage would actually become legal reality in any state, let alone in 8 of them, would have seemed to be sheer lunacy just 10 years ago. For younger folks these days, gays and gay relationships are not some dark occult secret, or locker room joke, but part of the furniture. For them, it is part of “normal.” Normal. Now there’s a word I usually avoid using. Who gets to decide what is “normal” and why? To be able to determine what is normative is a very great power, and one that in the case of LGBTs has been historically abused by social enforcers from clerics to psychologists. And yet, I can’t think of another word to describe the attitude of younger generations to the gays and lesbians among them. To them, being gay or lesbian is so acceptable as to be ordinary and unremarkable.
Gays and lesbians are becoming a visible and regular part of contemporary culture, and part of the cultural fabric of Western society. A surprisingly large number of people who aren’t gay identify strongly with our struggles and experiences (well, it’s a surprise to me anyway). What about that distinct gay identity that Tina talked about? Where is that now? Is it gone? Are we losing it? Should we lose it? Should we keep it?
I’ve always thought of gay identity, and how gays feel about it, as a spectrum of views. At one end is someone like Andrew Sullivan who for a long time advocated complete assimilation into mainstream culture. I can remember that for years he wanted the whole idea of a gay identity to disappear as same sex love and family life became acculturated into “normal” society. At the other end was the late Harry Hay. He was about as close to a separatist as any gay thinker could get. Hay believed that gay men and lesbians should embrace their sexuality and the culture around it that makes them distinct, and set themselves apart from a mainstream society that is fundamentally corrupt at the root. Others on Hay’s end of the spectrum like Allen Ginsburg believed that a distinct gay identity was a positive liberation from a society built on aggression, greed, and racism.
There’s something to be said for both of those ends of the spectrum. Andrew Sullivan and thinkers like him represent the desire to shed the criminal and marginal status assigned to gays and lesbians. Harry Hay represented the desire for liberation of our desires and a positive embrace of our identity in the face of our oppressors. Most gay men fall somewhere in the middle of those two poles. I probably incline a little more toward Harry Hay than I do to Andrew Sullivan. I suspect that this might be less of an issue for lesbians with their historic experience of double discrimination, for being female and for being gay. Gay men, especially white gay men, still enjoy some of the privilege society accords to their gender.
Now, gays and lesbians (but especially young gay men), are a much desired target marketing demographic. Businesses really have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by standing by their gay customers against petition drives and mail in campaigns by religious fanatics.
Gays and lesbians may well play an important role in electoral politics this year, though I think the financial and political clout of LGBTs is over-stated, even by supporters. There just aren’t enough of us, and unless a Koch brother comes out the closet, there really isn’t that much money there (David Geffen and the whole Velvet Mafia are small potatoes compared to what’s in Karl Rove’s rolodex). Even so, we are an important voting bloc, especially in local politics in major cities.
And now there are gay conservatives, and conservatives who support marriage equality and civil rights for gays. I’ve never been a fan of the Log Cabin Republicans. With the advent of GOProud, my attitude toward the Log Cabin has softened a little. GOProud really are the quislings we always accused the Log Cabin of being. I’m not sure the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the military would have happened without the Log Cabin Republicans who really worked on this issue. I can’t think of any other gay/lesbian organization able to reach that peculiar military culture that is at once very communitarian and very conservative, and be able to speak their language. The end of discrimination in the military was a great accomplishment and a great service to us all whether we served in the military or not, whether we like the military or not.
Historically, gays were considered to be unholy, an offense against God by their very existence; disloyal, gays were outside the familial bonds of community and could not be trusted; and criminal, their desires were beyond the pale of decency and so it was fair game to project all kinds of grotesque fantasies of child rape and sexual aggression upon them. That gays and lesbians could overcome and even change such deeply ingrained prejudices, and the legal framework built upon them, is a major historic accomplishment. Gays and lesbians want what everyone is entitled to by birth, freedom and dignity. The argument is over what that is supposed to look like. For some, it is a kind of same sex mimic of conventional society. For others, it is something quite outside convention. For most, it is somewhere in between.
Me with Tina about 1998
I think one of the most remarkable consequences of the increasing acceptance of same sex relationships is the rise of gay parenting.