Will Success Spoil Gay Culture?
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Published in: January-February 2004 issue.


TEN YEARS AGO, the AIDS crisis dominated the discourse and the psyches of the gay male community in America. Friends and lovers had died or were dying. Ten years ago, sodomy was illegal in a large majority of the states. Although these laws were rarely enforced, the Supreme Court had ruled in 1986 that they were enforceable. Ten years ago, GLBT folks still had every reason to think of themselves, for better or worse, as members of a transgressive minority. That gave us the chance to define ourselves in opposition to something: persecution in general, inadequate or overpriced AIDS treatments, don’t-ask-don’t-tell policies from a new administration that had promised us better, preachers of hatred in the churches and on the radio.

But it was already clear by 1993 that our worst fears of the previous decade would not materialize. This was partly due to all the courageous gay men and lesbians who came out of the closet in the first quarter-century after Stonewall (June, 1969). But it was also importantly related to the gay community’s positive and aggressive response to AIDS. The fact that the epidemic drove so many people—patients, friends, lovers—out of the closet had a result few people dared hope for. Not only did it force most Americans to learn there was a decent and suffering person they loved who was gay; it also galvanized gay politics and gay writing.

AIDS caused American gay culture as a whole, and not just gay men as individuals, to come out of the closet and enter mainstream society. Of course, there had always been powerful GLBT people in every corner of society, but in general they had served in silence when it came to disclosing their sexual orientation. Disaster caused many of them—especially in government and entertainment, often goaded by activists such as Larry Kramer and others—to tell their families, friends, business associates, government agencies, audiences, and political pollsters who they really were. At that point they were instantly radicalized and tended to become involved politically in ways that only a few intellectuals had previously done. Many people owe their lives to the fact that gay people in organizations like act-up behaved obnoxiously, and also to the fact that our country responded, on balance, with concern rather than with the “I told you so” that many of us had expected.

The change of consciousness toward GLBT people culminated in the sweeping decision by a conservative Supreme Court to strike down all sodomy laws last June. Even as that was happening, Canada was moving to legalize gay marriage, while the U.S. was making progress on a parallel course toward the recognition of civil unions. TV shows appeared with their mostly stereotypical but nevertheless lovable gay characters. Can we now foresee a day when gay people will have attained full equality in all important respects? And what would a world of perfect equality be like? What would it mean to be gay in a world in which the fact that a friend, sibling, aunt, or uncle was gay was about as relevant as her hair color? What are the implications of a world in which GLBT people have become familiar features in the family, the media, literature, and the political scene? Such a scenario would pose a serious challenge to the perpetuation of “gay politics,” to say the least; less clear is what would happen to gay and lesbian literature, art, and popular culture.

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