On the Misguided Notion that Gay Culture Is Over

14Nov07

Andrew Sullivan expressed the idea (and admittedly, with thoughtfulness) in an essay he wrote a few years ago for the New Republic, while more recently British playwright Mark Ravenhill tackled the same theme (with much less success) for The Guardian. Their collective story goes something like this: in the dark ages of oppression (i.e., approximately 5000 years) that preceded Stonewall, there was no gay culture, but subsequent history was marked by a period of enlightenment during which gay-themed work, initially made by and for a small subculture, gained increasing prominence in the mainstream thanks to — in the words of Andrew Sullivan — “the music of Queen, the costumes of the Village People, the flamboyance of Elton John’s debut; the advertising of Calvin Klein; and the intoxication of disco itself, a gay creation that became emblematic of an entire heterosexual era.” Or according to Ravenhill: “[Twenty years ago], gay histories were charted, gay stories speedily told and disseminated, gay erotica sold on the high street.” All of this, of course, changed with AIDS, but — and here’s the happy ending — we are now in an era in which the story of being gay has become so commonplace (and accepted) as to be irrelevant, or certainly not compelling in an artistic (i.e., dramatic) or cultural sense of the word. Again, Andrew Sullivan: “It is what we always dreamed of: a world in which being gay is a nonissue among our families, friends, and neighbors,” and Ravenhill: “Every time I try to write ‘gay,’ I start yawning. Why has the pink fountain pen run dry? Why do I have this strong sense that ‘writing gay’ is a project that is now totally over?… It feels as though every aspect of the gay experience has been narrated, performed and picked over in the past 30 years.”

While we see some truth in this narrative, it is but the smallest peninsula on a much larger continent these writers and others like them — that is to say, almost every critic at The Times — fail to acknowledge, which is that when understood properly, “gay culture” has existed since the dawn of civilization and can be expected to continue until its demise. By this we are not talking about civil rights, slender “coming out” tales, or the happy integration of minorities into the bourgeois fuel supply of the capitalist machine; rather, we refer to gay culture as one that offers timeless insight into an aesthetic of loss, remembrance and artistic obsession for the truth. Some explanation: loss is implicit to the gay experience to the extent that reproduction is not a natural byproduct of our deepest, most innate desires for another human being. In short, were we to ever be shipped off to a desert island with the object of our fantasies, within a lifetime this island would be devoid of people; this is a fundamental difference in our makeup that will always set us apart from those otherwise inclined (and here, it is important to note, we do not envy them). Next, remembrance is the corresponding ability to take stock in the meaning of life — why are we here and what have we done? — a process made all the more compelling and painful by the inevitable (and pessimistic, if exhilarating) conclusion that our lives on some important level are truly worthless and insignificant, and moreover filled with nothing so much as longing for that which we can never obtain (except through death). A recognition of this truth is empowering to the extent that it allows us to strip away the more superficial and aristocratic notions of human worth that have always plagued society and to acknowledge the one — and most important — respect in which we are all essentially (and equally) human. Third, painful as life inevitably proves itself, art is always there to rescue us — at least temporarily — to provide an oasis on which we can occasionally look out at the desert and feel the bliss and wonder that comes from understanding exactly what we see; accordingly, the greatest artists (and here we submit that some significant percentage of them will always be gay) are those who present this landscape most convincingly.

Seen through this lens (and just as they have done throughout recorded history) masters of the gay voice can be expected to produce timeless works of art for the foreseeable future, and it is only the uneducated and narrow-minded who fail to appreciate this, and instead would have us believe that a few gay characters on mainstream television signifies the end of gay culture. To the contrary, we would argue that the gay voice — at least as we have defined it — is not only to an unfortunate degree absent from a larger cultural dialog but is more relevant than ever in a society whose leaders have displayed nothing but rampant optimism in formulating and implementing naive policies that were doomed to fail from the start.

Ravenhill concludes his essay by stating: “Right now, I’m eager to explore the strange, twilight world of the heterosexual – to expose its anguishes and mysteries and unconscious comedies. Maybe one day there will be something to pull me back to the gay experience, the sense of something new to be said about the gay world. But, for the moment at least, my lavender quill is at rest.” What is ironic here (or perhaps moronic would be equally apt) is that Ravenhill seems to think that by excluding gay characters from his work, he will necessarily be no different than anyone else writing about “heterosexuals”; we, however, are inclined to view this as a pathetic (for being so unconscious) and childish plea to find his own gay voice, and in this respect he is hardly alone.

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