It’s June, the month that cities around the country celebrate LGBTQI pride. Lots of corporations celebrate too, because they don’t see the risk in supporting the gay community that they once did. Gay has gone mainstream. And that’s great. But whenever something is gained – in this case, acceptance in the general public – something is lost. What’s lost, or at least slowly disappearing, is what was once easily recognized as a separate gay culture.
It hit me in a recent visit to the Castro district in San Francisco, a city that I left fourteen years ago for the sunshine of southern California. Fourteen years ago 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. I used to think to myself, “If the folks back in New Hampshire could see me now.”
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. (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/the-end-gay-culture). 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. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/135764/americans-acceptance-gay-relations-crosses-threshold.aspx).
It must be stated that with all the gains in recent years, the LGBTQI community hasn’t yet won equality. According to the Trevor Project, LGB youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. Last month, London Chanel became the eighth trans woman murdered in the U.S. this year, in what advocates have labeled an “epidemic” of transphobic violence. Last year, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence programs reported over 2,001 incidents of anti-LGBTQ violence in 2013. In many parts of the country one can be fired for sexual identity or gender identity. But the general trend continues to be greater acceptance generally.
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, 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 be 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.
Now the Castro is on its way to becoming an artifact. West Hollywood and Chelsea are increasingly expensive playgrounds for straight trust fund kids – many of whom enjoy the gay bars, but just for the music. These ghettos are going the way of Little Italies and Chinatowns – important in their day, now… something else.
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?
Again, does any of this matter? Gays and lesbians are about to, if Supreme Court watchers are right, achieve the victory of marriage equality nationwide very soon. That was something unthinkable a generation ago. Of course, not every gay man or lesbian wants to marry. Not every straight man or woman wants to marry. But marriage has been the number one goal of the gay rights movement for over a decade now. We have been pounding on the door of what has been a straight institution for a long time.
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. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article about this in the New Yorkerlast year:
“Mainstream American society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves.
“But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture. And the lesson … is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.”
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? Could the general shared experience of gays be nothing more than hookup apps? Okay, I’m dating myself. 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.