Entertainment » Culture

Have we reached a post-gay America?

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Mar 7, 2011

At first glance, the 2011 awards season for television and film would appear to be perhaps the most inclusive of queer faces and themes of any year in recent memory with shows like Glee and Modern Family, films like Kids Are All Right and the actors therein - both straight and gay, namely Chris Colfer, Jane Lynch, Eric Stonestreet and Annette Bening - emerging as some of the year's biggest winners in pop culture.

And these shows and films are just the tip of the iceberg -- Rachel Maddow and Ellen Degeneres are celebrated as among the best in their fields. Lady Gaga's new "gay anthem" Born This Way - love it or hate it - has shown a global, if rudimentary, spotlight on queer issues. And it seems as though every major company (particularly in the entertainment and technology industries) and many A-list Hollywood types had something to say for the It Gets Better Project.

But even as these representations seem to indicate a previously unimaginable level of saturated gay in pop culture today, there are some important distinctions to be drawn between the gay pop icons of today and those of yesteryear. These works -- with the possible exception of Glee -- showcase queer people doing, by and large, ordinary things. No longer is the main headline "gay film" or "gay television series," but instead, these projects all showcase a certain symbiosis or symmetry, even, between gay and straight. You won't see Maddow rocking a flannel or a mullet or Stonestreet's character on the much-lauded Modern Family sporting anything bedazzled with rainbow anything.


Gayborhoods: a thing of the past

At the same time, LGBT twenty- and thirty-somethings in urban centers around the country are eschewing the previously compulsory "gayborhoods" of Chelsea, Boystown and the Castro in favor of the East Village, Brooklyn, Wicker Park and elsewhere. Decades-old gay bars and LGBT-geared bookstores around the country -- previously the queer community’s centers for cruising, politicizing and everything in between -- are shuttering. As budding ’mos, kids are coming out sooner, rejecting so-called "gay culture" and embracing terms like "genderqueer," "queer" or any number of other terms that seem to carry less baggage than old generations’ conceptions of gayness and lesbianery.

You probably know where this is heading, so let’s just get it out of the way: These developments have caused some in the community to decry (or in other cases, applaud) the apparent arrival of post-gay. Out with the leather bars and pride parades, in with the.. whatever it is straight people "do," as the distinction between gay and straight heads ever closer toward being an anachronism.

No longer constrained by identity labels, has a post-gay revolution arrived where we are truly free to be, simply, you and me? Or is the idea of "post-gay" simply a privilege-soaked, urban-centric theory ultimately rendered irrelevant by the continued inequality and discrimination felt particularly by many of the most often vulnerable LGBTs, including people of color, transgender people and LGBTQ youth.

Regardless of which side of the great post-gay debate you fall on, the topic offers an opportunity to take a step back and evaluate, once more, the state of "gay culture," who its benefiting and, perhaps, who it may be leaving out along our continued battle for full federal legal equality.


A post-gay history lesson

Both concerns and celebrations over the idea of "post-gay" are not new. Several articles and books critical of "gay culture" popped up across the zeitgeist in the mid- to late 1990s, including Mark Simpson’s controversial book Anti-Gay and Daniel Harris’ The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture.

In 1998, Gabriel Rotello published a piece in the Advocate that pondered whether gay culture had taken on a "frightening assimilationist role."

"Those who cherish the traditional aspects of distinct gay and lesbian culture -- from Judyism (Judy Garland worship) to lesbian separatism, from piano bars to leather bars, from drag to softball to sex clubs -- are afraid that this edifice of fabulousness is about to go the way of disco," Rotello wrote.

Rotello eventually concluded the op/ed with the assertion that that the disco death of "gay culture" may not be such a bad thing after all.

"[I]t seems like the best of both worlds. We get to enjoy the fruits of full citizenship and compete freely in the mainstream world," Rotello continued. "I feel as though I have seen the future, and it isn’t assimilation or separatism. It’s having it both ways. And the funny thing is, that’s the direction gay people are inevitably going, screaming all the way."

On July 8, 1998, Salon.com published playwright Daniel Reitz’s article "Toward a post-gay world." The piece reflected on Reitz’s own mellow mood toward the city’s usually boisterous Pride parade and posed the question of whether the concept of a "gay culture" had reached a point of extinction.

[T]here’s much evidence that gays themselves don’t even know what a gay agenda is," Reitz wrote. "True liberation is about not needing or even wanting to feel gay, either in the sense of being defined by one’s oppression or its opposite of being defined by one’s sexual activities."


Post-gay today

Reflecting on that piece twelve years since its publication, Reitz said he wrote it under the assumption that "things were getting better in terms of visibility and acceptability" for the LGBT community. He told EDGE he wasn’t sure if he truly believed it then -- and knows he doesn’t buy his own argument today.

"With things getting better, the idea was that parades and those events orchestrated and planned for visibility were not as needed because we were becoming visible pretty much in a mainstream way," Reitz said. "But in spite of the fact that so much has changed in those 12 years, I still feel I’m actually angrier than I think I ever was in terms of this idea that we’re actually making progress."

Reitz added he feels there will always be a countercultural element to identifying as gay or lesbian, regardless of the number of openly queer representations in mainstream American culture. That sort of exposure (and the education which often accompanies it) can only be seen as a good thing, aiding the improvement of the quality of queer peoples’ lives and rights, rather than indicative of a gay cultural collapse. This is particularly important to note at a time where so many LGBT people continue to struggle, in a way disproportionate to their heterosexual peers, with suicide, depression, substance abuse and discrimination.

"I guess people want to believe it’s progress to imagine a world in which all these parades and all that are not as relevant but I actually think that gay culture is as relevant and as necessary now as it ever has been," Reitz said.

But even as the notion of post-gay is controversial - or even agitating to many, some leaders within the community have continued to take gay culture to task for a tradition that has not always been the most inclusive of those who fall outside of the community’s decided-upon norms or ideals.

Some LGBT media, who play the role of framing and curating our ever-changing queer world for their readers and followers, have taken to exploring post-gay cultural theories than others. There is perhaps no better example of an LGBT media source offering such critiques than The New Gay, a queer news and entertainment webzine "for people over the rainbow," fronted by editor-in-chief Zack Rosen.

Rosen has been no stranger to controversy for his staff’s and particularly his own critiques of queer culture. Most recently, Rosen described Lady Gaga’s new self-designated "gay anthem" Born This Way as "the latest lump of sequined coal to fall from Stephanie Germanotta’s meat diaper into our open ears." He has, at other times, spoken out against other "gay icons" including Liza Minnelli, questioning whether such icons truly represent the community as a whole.

While Rosen said he doesn’t buy into the "post-gay" argument, he does understand why more people may be embracing it today. Rosen said he never really felt like he "fit in" with gay culture and he and some friends created The New Gay as a way to explore a less constrained sense of what fell under the queer umbrella and create a space for other people who didn’t feel included in an increasingly mainstreamed gay culture.

"You want to be gay and be proud of who you are, and fit in and fight for this culture, but when you’re hit with thing after thing you don’t identify with from the culture, you almost don’t want to be gay," Rosen told EDGE. "I’m not sure what some of these things have to do with my life."


Pros and cons of Post-gay

Levi Jones, a Washington, DC-based writer for The New Gay, said the phenomenon of younger people embracing post-gay culture includes many LGBT people embracing social circles that are, in many ways, more diverse and not isolated to lesbian women and gay men being divided from one another. In terms of "gay icons," younger queer people feel more free to embrace anyone from Nicki Minaj to Betty White, Paula Deen to Tina Fey, Johnny Knoxville to John Goodman.

The phenomenon has also been aided greatly by the proliferation of social networking, online dating and even smartphone applications like Grindr which have forever altered how everyone, but particularly LGBT folk, meet each other. Whereas "coming out" would have previously entailed one’s first trip to the gay bar, now, the process can be explored pseudo-anonymously before a quick update of "Interested In" on one’s Facebook page is eventually made.

Coupled with a broader perception of safety outside of so-called "gay ghettos," the dilution of the central role of the gay bar -- and its music, fashions and even hair styles -- for queer socializing creates a clear case that the physical spaces preserving "gay culture" have lost a certain potency.

Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, said gay people are not the only people dealing with the ramifications of this cultural change, as countless other groups of people are also losing their common culture with the onset of so many media options being at their fingertips. But the movement of dating and meeting toward the Internet has made a profoundly unique impact on LGBT lives.

"The Internet has made meeting partners much easier, and the the bubble of safety has expanded exponentially as attitudes have changes. But, that has created more of a diffusion, not erosion of gay culture," Besen said.

"The upside is that people are healthier, there are not as many lives ruined through public sex arrests and increased acceptance has made life much easier," he added. "The downside is there is a loss of camaraderie, the excitement and energy of most gay bars has been drained and the quick thrill of cruising or public sex is largely evaporated."

But the idea, he added, that the movement has reached a point of "a sort of post-gay Utopia" is "absurd."

"People are always attacking, mocking or rejecting those who are different. I don’t know if we will reach such a post-gay place, and certainly not in my lifetime," Besen said.


Leaving the ghetto

Cathy Renna, a media consultant and the former long-time spokesperson for GLAAD, also hesitated to trumpet the arrival of a post-gay Utopia, but did acknowledge a major difference in the way in which younger queer generations are socializing both within their own community and in relation to other groups. They have, in many ways, rejected the gay ghetto in a way similar to how many ethnic groups, throughout U.S. history, including the Irish, Germans and Italians, moved away from living in segregated areas of prominent urban centers and became more integrated into the community at large.

"The idea when you came out a generation back was that you had to have just gay friends because no one else was really interested," Renna said. "It was hard to live completely open lives and not be able to count on that level of community support."

Today, instead, many younger LGBT people are basing their social circles with a priority on shared interests more often than a shared sexual identity. In many ways, this is a sign of marked progress on the part of the queer movement, moving toward a world where people "live in a culture where people can be out and have their own lives, and it’s just one part of who they are" -- a defining characteristic of post-gay.

"They’re not interested in this need to hang onto identity politics in the way that my generation and those in the past have so tightly clung onto," Renna added. "There’s no longer a laser focus on sexual orientation as the defining characteristic in their life. We’ve gotten to a point where I think that happens a lot less."

But, Renna added an important caveat: "That is not a world that too many of us live in." Yet, at least.

Katherine Sender, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor who specializes in LGBT issues as they relate to popular culture, advertising and other realms, also acknowledged the breaking down of divisions between gay and straight social spaces, which ultimately is a positive development carrying potential political benefits.

"I do think what you’re talking about here is more fluidity in social circles and possibly in sexual behavior and identity than we’ve seen before and, in general, I think that ends up being a good thing and opening up doors between groups and between types of affiliations that haven’t been so open before," Sender told EDGE.


Beyond visibility to equality

And so the question of post-gay really becomes a question of what the long-term effect of the recent explosion of media visibility will have not only on queer culture, but also within the political realm. While Lady Gaga’s "Born This Way", Modern Family and Glee may affirm the normalcy and acceptability of queer lives, the sheer fact remains that it’s not always easy to live open queer lives.

Coming out still impacts our friends, neighbors and coworkers who otherwise may not have taken an interest in our inequality. We still must hit the streets to remind our compatriots of our struggles to live free and open lives. And the community still, unfortunately, has a long way to go before a "post-gay" world truly becomes a reality for all LGBT Americans.

Suzanna Walters, Indiana University gender studies professor and author of the 2001 work All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America, too, compared post-gay claims to claims of the United States being "post-racial" because of the election of President Obama or "post-feminist" because of laws prohibiting discrimination against women.

"The homophobia is obviously alive and well and the structures of gender norms are still alive and well," Walters told EDGE. "As long as sexuality remains a dividing line in terms of power, as long as there are kids who are discriminated against and therefore run to suicide because of anti-gay animus, as long as the closet is still a place of last resort for so many people, the idea of post-gay is just wishful thinking."

Sender agreed.

"We have a tendency to think the battle has been won and everyone is free to be whoever they want to be and I don’t think that’s the case," Sender added. "I think the media have, in some ways, gone farther than the political landscape certainly has so far and there’s still a lot of work we can do socially and culturally."


Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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