Did the '90s Rob Me of My Gay Political Conscious?

In a recent Advocate op-ed, Neal Broverman described the process of getting past the lingering self-loathing and embarrassment he felt about being perceived as really gay; not just as someone whose primary sexual/romantic/emotional relationships are with the same sex, but as someone who is invested, loudly and openly, in gay life and the continuing struggle for LGBT equality. I could easily relate to his discomfort around embracing a gay identity that encompassed all aspects of his life, but his cultural reference points -- Friends, My So-Called Life, Melrose Place -- and '90s adolescence struck a deeper chord, and the years in which our emotional trajectories had run parallel got me thinking about that decade itself, and wondering how much of what he and I had felt was universal to the gay experience, and how much was grounded in a specific generational milieu.

Was the reluctance to identify wholeheartedly with the gay community only the result of internalizing the miasma of homophobia that pervades the culture, or could it also be a particularly gay manifestation of a brand of embarrassment that many in our fiercely individualistic generational cohort, regardless of orientation, feel to varying degrees about explicit political and social engagement and community identification? Have the effects simply been more pernicious because we needed to find community more?

The mid-nineties were years that seemed politically engaged on the surface. Bisexuality -- at least according media reports -- was trendy, everywhere you looked you could see Greenpeace and Amnesty International buttons on backpacks, and academic discourses of identity politics had pervaded the broader culture via alarmist, reactionary discussions of "political correctness," but the general tenor of youth culture was apathetic and ironic, and middle class kids who had no reason beyond their youth to feel alienated copped a pose of bored disaffection.

On television, teenagers like Daria, Beavis and Butthead and Jordan Catalano who thought everything was just so lame were among the most popular characters, and even fairly anodyne fare like Friends is striking now for how relentlessly sarcastic it is, its primary mode of humor consisting of one friend trying to express something genuine, while another undercut that emotion with a snarky quip that cut off any further display of emotion. Enthusiasm and concern and notions of "community" were just so... dorky. One legacy of this popular culture for me and many friends has been an almost pathological aversion to seeming too earnest that lingered long after we had graduated from high school, well into adulthood.

The surface desire to always seem cool for the sake of seeming cool was genuine, but it also protected from having to acknowledge the seething, bottomless pain that I felt almost every moment of adolescence. Disaffection was a useful pose for ignoring the reality that I was socially ostracized. An ironic detachment helped in negotiating external homophobia, but as I grew older, it became a way of denying inner homophobia; as long as my motivation was simply to seem cool, I could convince myself that it stemmed from discomfort with aligning with any group identity, and deny that there was one specific group identity I was avoiding. Individualism was one of '90s Cool's primary manifestations, and saying things like "I'm just me" was widespread among cool kids of the day, but I suspect no kids were asserting it quite as desperately as the gay kids were.

Even in college when overt homophobia was swiftly censured, and it may have been less necessary, the pose lingered. The word "community" in reference to anything beyond an immediate physical or social environment seemed too touchy-feely, and was the source of many jokes among my friends about ever more specialized in-groups. At best, I might acknowledge that I belonged to a subculture because I'd learned to embrace camp, but only because it mocked even as it embraced. A camp sensibility may genuinely love that which it mocks, but the ironic filter through which it appreciates was where I found utility.

Like Broverman, I also hesitated to share many explicitly gay links on social media, but only those that demonstrated things like compassion and solidarity. Slideshow of Leigh Bowery's outfits? Hedwig coming to Broadway? Review of Allan Hollinghurst's latest novel? Sure. The continuing legacy of AIDS in the culture at large? Gay people being persecuted in Uganda? Rising rates of LGBT youth committing suicide? None of those sounded very hip. There wasn't much countercultural chic in unalloyed tragedy, and acknowledging violence and discrimination was acknowledging vulnerability, both personal and subcultural, and vulnerability was at odds with the wry detachment that was second nature, but that also felt like the only way of being strong.

As I've become more attentive to how a conditioned aversion to sincerity also looks a lot like shame and disloyalty to my community, I've actively tried to shake it. Beyond moral considerations, being consumed by seeming cool is not a cute look in one's 30s, and though I still reflexively chafe against the word "community," I regularly force myself to discuss "our community" and not just a distanced "gay people." I'm better at dismissing the voice in my head that shouts "DORK!" whenever I speak without the distancing filter of invisible air quotes that has pervaded so many conversations in the past.

Reading a recent item about a Kentucky gay couple denied a marriage certificate by the county clerk, my immediate reaction was righteous indignation. How dare someone in a glorified clerical position think that their personal beliefs based on a desert text from thousands of years ago mean that they don't have to obey the law and do their job? Without thinking about how earnest I might appear, I went to post it on Facebook. As I pondered what to say, I started to feel that any expression of rage and resentment would pale in comparison to what I felt, but worse, might not come across as sharp and clever. After some thought, I wrote, "When mid-level functionaries rise above their station" and hit post. Dismissive, snobby and too-cool-for-school, but the instinct to share meant my heart was in the right place, right?