It’s gay pride month again, and that means it’s time for the straight media to deliver its annual state-of-the-gay report.
If experience is any guide, this exercise will involve a lot of triumphalism about the progress of the gay movement, as measured by the increasing cultural assimilation of young lesbians and gay men into American society as a whole.
Gay men in particular, who used to frighten the horses with flamboyant displays of sexual outlawry, gender treason and fabulousness, have supposedly dropped their insignia of tribal belonging and joined the mainstream. Gay men, it seems, have become indistinguishable from normal folk. Now, that’s progress for you!
Back in the Bad Old Days, or so the story goes, there was such a thing as an edgy, subversive gay male culture. But it was an artifact of homophobia. Older gay men may still thrill to torch songs, show tunes, classic Hollywood melodramas and Lalique; they may still spend hours arranging the furniture just so.
But all that foofy stuff looks irrelevant to modern gay men, who don’t see themselves as belonging to a separate culture, let alone such a queeny one. For today’s gay men, life is composed of PTA meetings, church socials and Nascar races.
The problem with such a claim — besides its denial of the Lady Gaga phenomenon — is that we’ve heard it for so many decades now that it can’t possibly be true. At least since the 1970s, gay men have been drawing invidious generational comparisons between gay boys in their teens and 20s — modern, liberated, enlightened, untouched by gay culture, “utterly indistinguishable from straight boys” and “completely calm about being gay” (as Andrew Holleran put it in his 1978 novel, “Dancer From the Dance”) — and older gay men, fanatically attached to an outdated gay culture and convinced that it is the only gay culture there is.
(Of course, those sorry gay men in their 30s and 40s, who allegedly cling to an outmoded, passé version of gay culture, must be the very same people who, only a few years earlier, were those pioneering gay teenagers, taking their first innocent steps in a brave new world without homophobia, ignorant of gay culture and indifferent to it.)
But let’s set aside whether the rumors of the death of gay culture are really true or greatly exaggerated. Why is it so important, particularly at this moment, that gay culture be pronounced, if not dead, then on its way out? Does the possibility of a distinct gay culture express the notion, now scandalous, that gay men might be different from other people? Does it challenge the myths of gay assimilation and gay ordinariness?
Yes, all of the above. Gay men who play by the rules of straight society and conventional masculinity, and who don’t aspire to belong to any other way of life, are more acceptable, to themselves and to others. The last obstacle to complete social integration is no longer gay sex or gay identity, but gay culture.
And yet gay culture is not just a superficial affectation. It is an expression of difference through style — a way of carving out space for an alternate way of life. And that means carving out space in opposition to straight society.
“Whenever speech or movement or behavior or objects exhibit a certain deviation from the most direct, useful, insensible mode of expression or being in the world, we may look at them as having a ‘style,’ ” Susan Sontag wrote in 1965. Style itself represents a deviation from the ordinary. It has to stand out, or stand apart from the world as it is given, in order to qualify as style.
To understand gay male culture as defined by style is to alter our sense of its meaning. That is especially useful when it comes to all those gay male styles that reveal some connection with femininity. Such gender-deviant styles make some gay men nervous, not only because they impugn their virility, but also because they recall those hoary Victorian definitions of homosexuality as a congenital abnormality involving a pathological reversal of sex roles — a mental illness.
Instead of worrying that the feminine associations of diva worship, interior decorating or the performing arts may make gay male psychology look diseased, the real question we should ask about gay style is what its refusal of canonical masculinity achieves and what it enables its practitioners, straight or gay, to do.
To inquire into melodrama, camp, irony, drag, bodybuilding or Art Deco as “gay” styles is to seek the content of gay culture in its practices — to describe the intervention gay culture makes in the world as it is given. Everything depends on the all-important and elusive meaning of style.
That very notion may seem paradoxical. “Style,” after all, is routinely opposed to “content.” And, indeed, style is not a sign or a representation of anything else. Rather, it is a thing in itself, whose meaning is right there on its surface but remains difficult to specify.
Unless we figure out how to specify that meaning, we will never understand gay male culture. We will never understand why it still survives, or why so many people, straight and gay, are so overeager to declare its death. And we will never understand the most essential thing about it: how gay culture continues to perform a sly and profound critique of what passes for normal.
David M. Halperin, a professor of the history and theory of sexuality at the University of Michigan, is the author of the forthcoming book How to Be Gay.