The Mainstreaming of Gay Culture

It’s August and both parties’ political conventions are in the rearview mirror.  I was struck by many things at both conventions, but what stood out was the shout outs to LGBTQs, not just on the Democratic side, where you’d expect it, but on the GOP side as well.  

Donald Trump is explicitly trying to woo gays and lesbians. He’d better hope they don’t take a look at the GOP’s platform, which is the most explicitly anti-gay party platform in history, or look at the history of his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who signed into law a widely scorned discriminatory bill in his own state. But it’s nice to get a shout-out, even if it rings hollow. 

On the Democratic side, Sarah McBride was the first transgender person ever was asked to speak at the DNC and the convention had a record 27 transgender delegates in attendance. Civil rights groups are praising the party’s platform as the most progressive in history.  

Yes, there are still Americans who think of LGBTs as an abomination, even if they don’t say so in polite company. Yes, there are puzzling discriminatory bills like the bathroom law in North Carolina. Still, that law has received more derision than praise in the broader culture, and the NBA has pulled its All Star game out of Charlotte because of it.   

And even among the group traditionally hostile to gays and lesbians, things are shifting, mostly along generational lines. Among millennial evangelicals, full rights for LGBTs is a no-brainer.  Are we really to believe that as they hit middle age, this group will reverse course on believing LGBTs should be included in American life? I don’t think so.  

Without painting an overly rosy picture, it’s much easier for LGB’s (and to a lesser extent, Ts, although that’s changing too) to come out to family and friends, raise kids, get married, and do anything that any other American would. For more than a year, people in every state have heard men say “my husband…” and women say “my wife…”   We have been pounding on the door of what has been a straight institution for a long time. As of 2015, we’re admitted.   

But when something is gained, something else is sometimes lost. In this case what’s lost, or at least slowly disappearing, is what was once easily recognized as a separate gay culture. There is a whole generation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and gender conforming youth coming of age now who will have to learn about “gay culture” from books and documentaries.  

It hit me in a recent visit to the Castro district in San Francisco, a city that I left fifteen years ago for the sunshine of southern California. Back then there were men in leather chaps, with and without jeans underneath, shops that sold “campy” items – or gay S&M gear, and feather boas. The bars reeked of poppers. Leather and handcuffs.   

You can still find rainbows in the Castro. But the people in the bars aren’t necessarily going to be gay men or women. In fact I was astounded at how many baby carriages I saw on the street. And straight couples, hand in hand. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  

But I had to ask myself: As the U.S. quickly evolves to be more humane and accepting of gays and lesbians, what happens to gay culture?  

I’m far from the first to raise the question. Andrew Sullivan did that almost a decade ago.   And the disappearing gay culture has been a hot topic among academics like Amin Ghaziani, a sociologist who penned the 2014 book “There Goes the Gayborhood?” and Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA’s Williams Institute. These scholars have hard numbers that show what we’ve been seeing for years: gay ghettos are becoming frankly, not much more fierce or fabulous than the random Midwestern mall. 

Their consensus is that three trends are responsible for de-gaying gay culture:

  • Rapidly growing acceptance in the general population.

  • Millennial LGBTs who are less likely to cite sexual orientation as the most important part of their identity.

  • Greater use of social media to find each other – and hook up – eliminating the need for gay bars and other gathering places. 

Just last month, Gallup released a survey showing that Americans’ acceptance of gay relationships is at an all-time high – we passed the 50 percent threshold in 2010. 

But as Americans become more accepting of gays, gays are becoming, well, less gay. Or, more accurately, gay culture is being diluted and gay and lesbian Americans are losing much of their culture and history. 

So what? What was the point of gay culture to begin with? And what is, or was, gay culture? 

The gay ghettos of Castro, West Hollywood, Chelsea, and Chicago’s Boys’ Town were, for people like me, refuges from the feeling of apartness we had felt in our suburban hometowns, a place to fight loneliness by being with their “tribe.” It was also like a gay finishing school, a place where uniquely gay identities could be formed. Gay men flocked to these neighborhoods throughout the late 20th century, dancing – or not – drinking – or not – having sex – if they wanted to. But even if they engaged in none of those things, they stayed because they felt solidarity with those who shared a sense of gay identity. 

Bars have been at the center traditional gay culture. What about the rest of gay culture? Well, what is gay, anyway? Think of that hit show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. For many straight Americans, that’s what gays were: sophisticated, witty, fashion mavens who knew how to coordinate and decorate and pair the right wine with an entrée. Even then, only ten years ago, there were plenty of straight people who knew this was an exaggerated stereotype that not every gay man fit. Gay men for the most part knew it was a minstrel show. That urban sophisticate archetype was, for decades, the only positive portrayal of gays, but those who were gay knew that not everyone was going to fit that mold. 

So, good riddance to the gay esthete stereotype? Maybe.

What about the divas, the movies, the touchstones of gay life that would always get gay men singing in a piano bar. Liza! Who? “No wire hangers, ever!” What are you talking about? Auntie Mame! Who’s aunt? Drag queens? If they’re not really trans, then what’s the point of drag? 

I think we can compare the assimilation and fragmentation of gay culture to the assimilation of most minority cultures into the mainstream.  Assimilating into the predominant culture has traditionally been a prerequisite for fuller acceptance and recognition of rights.

If we define culture as the things that people of a certain persuasion hold dear, the activities they engage in, or the shared understanding of what makes the world tick, then what binds gays now?  But I miss that sense of being an outlaw, and the feeling of togetherness and shared identity that went with it.

What is essential to gay life will survive. But as with all cultures, what is not essential will pass. Perhaps to be only minimally remembered, and the term “gay” will seem quaint and outdated, a relic of the past when sexual identity mattered more, and gays and lesbians needed a common set of cultural touchstones to remind them that they belonged somewhere.

Yet, compared to when I was a kid, youngsters can come out of the closet and not necessarily face ostracism or get beaten up. Our president tweets “All people deserve to live free from fear, violence and discrimination, regardless of who they love.” Companies don’t dare portray gays as laughable stereotypes. And I can walk down the street with my partner and our two young girls and not get jeered at.

We’re mainstream now. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

David Morse is author of two books: Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-Or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation and Kissinger and the Yom Kippur War.

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