Reassessing the Gay Cultural Paradigm

Last week's historic passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the U.S. Senate underscores the strength of the current groundswell that has been years in the making but, in just the past couple of years, has suddenly overtaken a growing majority of Americans with the conviction that full LGBT equality is a self-evident matter of fairness and core civil rights.

As this trend continues to gain momentum, it challenges the gay community itself to reassess and redefine the prevailing cultural paradigm that has shaped its collective identity since the radical hedonist days following the Stonewall era in the 1970s. I was a pioneer activist in those early gay liberation days and witnessed firsthand, from my vantage point in the San Francisco Bay Area, how the cultural tidal wave of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" quickly overwhelmed our movement and has maintained a dominant role in our culture to this day.

As award-winning gay playwright Tony Kushner wrote in an introduction to a 2000 reprint of Larry Kramer's epochal play The Normal Heart, there "is a crying need for principled, intelligent, vigorous explorations of how a genuine morality can be introduced into our newly minted freedom." As the momentum toward total equality began making such amazing gains, I took up Kushner's challenge through 100 weekly essays that I wrote for the Washington, D.C., gay magazine Metro Weekly from 2010 to 2012. I summed up the collection (recently published as a book, Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility's Central Role in the Progress of Civilization) with a final essay entitled "What Now, Lazarus?" in which I wrote the following:

After all this, then what? Do we assimilate into the male-dominated, profoundly unequal and militaristic prevailing society, becoming, as stupid TV sitcoms or right-wing scions seeking to co-opt us would have it, absorbed and indistinguishable from all that? Do we angrily repudiate assimilation with radical, postmodern "queer theories" and behaviors that define us in terms of perpetual rage?

Or do we follow the alternative approach that has been the subject of this series ... consistent with what history shows are core expressions of our naturally inherent and vitally important gay souls? Preponderant qualities of heightened empathy and compassion for the underdog, of an alternative sensual perspective ... applied to all aspects of life, and a constructive non-conformity account for the amazing contribution our "tribe" has brought to the benefit of all humanity for thousands of years.

This is the kind of conversation in which the gay community needs to engage seriously at this historic moment, and I am hopeful that my essays contributed to that.

Since the gradual emergence of the modern gay rights movement in the late 19th century, our tribe's brave visionaries have contributed to this dialogue with notions that I discussed in my essays. Countless examples of this were imbedded in their art, poetry and writings, such as Walt Whitman's references to "great poets" in his Leaves of Grass, and E. M. Forster's talk of an "aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky" in his anti-war pamphlet What I Believe.

The late gay author Paul Monette wrote in On Becoming:

Gay and lesbian people who have fought through their self-hatred and their self-recriminations have a capacity for empathy that is glorious and a capacity to find laughter in things that is like praising God. There is a kind of flagrant joy about us that goes very deep and is not available to most people.

Larry Kramer, upon accepting a Tony Award in 2011 for the revival of The Normal Heart, which was written from this perspective during the darkest days of hedonism's grip on our movement after the first outbreak of AIDS in the early 1980s, said, "We are a very special people, an exceptional people, and ... our day will come."

In The Normal Heart, Kramer's autobiographical character, Ned Weeks, cries out as the reality of the AIDS epidemic sinks in:

I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Henry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjold. ... The only way we'll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn't just sexual. It's all there -- all through history we've been there, but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what's in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth. ... That's how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war. Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us.

This spirit, focusing on the gay community's exceptional gifts -- our transformational gifts to the whole world -- must form the basis our new cultural paradigm, shaping the self-identities of forever-unfolding new generations of our tribe.