How ‘Gay Style’ Was Coopted and Corrupted

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Recently a friend emailed me pictures of his new home in San Francisco—a Victorian remodel that cost, well, let’s just say that the price rivals some nations’ gross national product. When I opened the photos, I immediately recognized the house—not that I have ever actually been there. It’s the same house that I’ve seen in Miami, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Phoenix.

Welcome to the new gay æsthetic, brought to you by the likes of Pottery Barn, Ikea, Restoration Hardware, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The interiors, like their owners, are super neat and clean—granite countertops, halogen lights with dimmers in the kitchen, throw blankets tossed over muted-colored sofas, and a color palette that usually involves a periwinkle bathroom and a pumpkin kitchen.

I remember living in San Francisco when the Pottery Barn opened its retail store at Castro and Market. At the time I didn’t realize the significance of this. But years later, while watching the very first episode of Queer Eye, I recall a sinking feeling that something was amiss. The “gay æsthetic” had been hijacked. Six months later I was standing at the checkout counter at Bed, Bath and Beyond (after much eye contact in the Beyond section) when I saw next to the cash register The Fab 5’s Guide to Looking Better, Cooking Better, Dressing Better, Behaving Better and Living Better. Flipping through its pages, it struck me that the styles and sensibilities it represented were anything but “queer.” People of my generation will remember a time before the word “queer” had any positive, reclaiming connotation—a time when it was simultaneously an insult and a fact. We were queer by definition and by derogation. We stood apart, even in places where to do so was a risky proposition.

In rural Florida in the late 1970’s, I managed to find my way through various channels into a very closeted, underground network of local gay folks. As a teenager I remember the first time I entered a gay household. It seemed so large and colorful, full of antiques, large canvasses of homemade erotic art that celebrated a newfound sexual freedom (if you can’t buy it, paint it yourself!), chandeliers hanging from trees in the backyard (thank you, Liberace), an outdoor shower (influenced no doubt, by 70’s California porn videos). It was as if I had entered someone’s secret playhouse of sensual delights. Another friend’s house was full of opera memorabilia, a grand piano (that they actually played), and a screaming parrot named Magda after the famous diva Magda Olivera. These were sanctuaries from a hostile world—homes where gay men could be really gay because their outside world wasn’t. We set ourselves apart. We had no interest in looking like the Joneses.

Times have changed. We’ve shed our sexual identity for a social identity. And so, 25 years later I find myself in living rooms where there’s no erotic art, where the piano is only for show, and the artwork has a corporate sterility, as if all style were dictated by a modern gay version of the kids’ clothing line Garanimals. There seems to be a prevailing belief that flamboyance will always be marginalized; and now that we’ve gotten a taste of a middle-class respectability, we’re prepared to sacrifice our originality and artistic edge and allow ourselves to be subsumed into a uniform æsthetic defined by corporate America.

Fran Liebowitz once said, “Gay people make culture, straight people make babies.” I wonder if I could get a baby in periwinkle to go with my cucumber throw rug. Babies in a full palette of colors—now there’s a marketing idea I could get behind.

 

David Gilmore, host of Public Radio International’s Outright Radio, lives in Tucson, AZ. Visit his website at www.outrightradio.org.

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