Queering the Culture

Oscar Wilde on Broadway, Lesbian Opera at Lincoln Center, Sparky the Gay Dog on TV. Be Careful What You Wish For.

In the same week Trent Lott dusted off his jackboots and compared homosexuals to kleptomaniacs, a New Yorker with an open mind could fill every evening with gay entertainment. Even as fanatics tried to suppress a gay Jesus play, one could watch Oscar Wilde kiss his beloved Bosie in venues on and off Broadway. Or marvel at Peggy Shaw plumbing the depths of menopause in a business suit. Or glam it up with a hard-rocking transsexual named Hedwig. Or slather over Shakespeare's R & J, an all-boy version of the quintessential hetero text.

Even as Pat Robertson predicted that Orlando would be destroyed by meteors because Disney World hosts Gay Days, you could watch Sparky the Gay Dog frolic in the animated pastures of South Park. You could drool over Ally Sheedy devouring her dewy downstairs neighbor in High Art, or savor the wit and wisdom of the Lady Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. You could take in the Gay Men's Chorus at Carnegie Hall, or look forward to Patience and Sarah, the world's first lesbian opera with a happy ending, at Lincoln Center next month.

Even as the city shutters sex shops and cracks down on gay bars, there's been an explosion of another kind of queer culture--the crossover kind. Queer stuff is popping up all over the mainstream, with an openness unprecedented in Western history. Not even ancient Athens celebrated the array of same-sex relationships that casually unfolds in sitcoms and soaps. Homophobia may still be a currency in Congressional politics; gay rights bills may be stalled in many states (including New York); but in the land of Oz, where the American imagination plays, something has definitely changed.

Yet all is not fabu on the yellow brick road--at least according to the Friends of Dorothy. Interviews with over two dozen queer artists--in fields ranging from theater and film to music, dance, literature, painting, and photography--reveal a broad consensus that the gay cultural explosion has a downside. There is apprehension about the banalizing impact of mainstreaming--fear that it means the end of gay culture since, as Fran Lebowitz quips, "only when something is over is it accepted." And there is rage about the contortions lesbian and gay artists must perform to grab the brass ring of commercial success.

But there is also excitement at the prospect of visibility, especially among lesbian artists, who have yet to benefit to the same degree as gay men from the culture's newfound fascination with things queer. "A part of me is eternally 13 and wants to have pop-culture stars," says performance artist Holly Hughes, the coauthor of O Solo Homo. "There's something affirming and enlarging about it. But at the same time, there's this contraction, which you see in the backlash against Ellen. She went from being the subject of radical chic to someone who couldn't transcend her lesbianism." Even as it invites you in, Hughes notes, the culture "tells you to make yourself smaller."

Artists who work to give form and meaning to the complexities of gay experience are acutely aware of the processed image mass culture demands. What passes for gay in the mainstream is a marriage of convenience between the liberal impulse and the deeper terrors that make real queerness unbearable to straight society. The product of this unstable union is an almost relentlessly positive creature fit for only one thing: interfacing with normalcy. For many queer artists, this humpy, happy Q-man has become the enemy.

"We've been placed on the mantel right next to the statue of Sidney Poitier," says filmmaker Todd Haynes. "But I don't want to be in everybody's living room. I don't want to be the perfect male who dances with the female lead at her wedding--which is now a genre. It actually concerns me, this enforced agenda of incorporating positive gay images, because what's at stake is our resistance to a culture that hasn't resolved its feelings about homosexuality."

All minorities face some version of this trial-by-assimilation when they first enter the mainstream. Jews and blacks, among others, know all about the mixed message being beamed at lesbians and gays. But when it comes to queers, the process of cultural absorption seems especially fraught. For one thing, it isn't at all clear what sets homos apart from heteros, since either may do the nasty that marks the other. What makes a queer has more to do with attitude than with sex--and attitude is a notoriously pliant thing. So when mainstream culture throws up images of gayness stripped of its traditional traits--its fondness for fruity masculinity and feminine gravitas--does that represent a liberation from stereotypes or a backhanded attempt to make queerness disappear?

"It's deeply confusing," says critic Wayne Koestenbaum. "If we were formerly ungrounded, in not finding images of ourselves in the culture industries, what happens when there is suddenly lots of possibility for cheerful acquiescence to cultural product? It's a visceral experience of radical ungrounding that is supposed to be good news."

Blacks and Jews are all too grounded in historical narratives of resistance and genocide, but homosexuality exists in every group, and its impact rarely registers on the map. "Homosexuality is not a story," says Fran Lebowitz. "It isn't even a moral subject, because in a moral universe, this is the least interesting thing about people." So how can there be a successful novel or play--or even a sitcom--that is simply about being gay? "I knew Ellen wouldn't work," Lebowitz says, "because where could you go with it? What would it be about?"

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