Queering the Culture

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

If gayness is an attitude rather than a narrative, you'd think it could readily be expressed in music, the most affective art. But until recently, homosexual composers--and there have been many--were unidentifiable as such. How can the music of Copland, Cage, and Cowell be called gay? Some critics make the case for Schubert and Tchaikovsky, but as composer Ned Rorem notes, "Maybe Schubert wrote music the way he did because he was ugly and syphilitic." At 74, Rorem has hardly shied away from gayness in his illustrious career, but he insists that, as a subject, "homosexuality is boring, except insofar as it is a political issue, and politics is terrible for art."

Yet so compelling is Rorem's sense of belonging to something called gay that he has set a number of texts by gay poets to music. "If I were to write another opera," he says, "I would want it to be about men together and in love, without it in any way being problematic or suicidal." When you consider the representation of queer desire in opera--from Claggart's virulent fixation on Billy Budd to the Countess Geshwitz's voracious passion for Lulu--it's clear what would be revolutionary about a simple same-sex romance.

"There are no stories of love between women in opera," says Paula Kimper, the composer of Patience and Sarah. "There aren't even many operas where women live." No wonder this opera, based on a true story of two 19th-century pioneering women, has attracted all the buzz of a lesbian sitcom in the classical-music world. "It's being called the Ellen of opera," Kimper quips. Even the 80-year-old mother of librettist Wende Persons, who only recently deigned to use the L-word, is bringing her bridge club to see her daughter's work. Says Persons: "I think of Lincoln Center as the Good Housekeeping seal of approval."

All culture commemorates, which is why, whatever their doubts about ideology, most queer artists are determined to make queer art. In painting and photography, this impulse has spurred a new interest in the male nude, but it's also inspired the visual equivalent of Angels in America. "There's a dichotomy in gay photography that relates to the political moment," says gallery owner John Wessel. "There are artists who feel they must document their sexuality more than ever now, and there are others who want to present a more communitarian, spiritual point of view." Both tendencies exist in an art world once studiously closeted and now studded with openly gay men. "Everyone younger than Hockney is out," says Wessel. Along with this emergence has come a new breed of collectors for whom the sexual identity of an artist is an asset. Gone are the days of the gay patron with a copy of the David in his parlor and a beefy nude on the bedroom wall. "There's been a shift from buying explicitly gay art to supporting gay artists," Wessel explains.

But this new market, which has made gay an imprimatur, is creating its own backlash. "I think of the rainbow flag as a trap," says painter Atilla Richard Lukacs. "It puts everybody and everything under the same banner. It's all so American. I mean, even the gay body has become generic. There's a kind of fascism here."

Queer theorists like Samuel Delaney call this "the totalizing tendency of the mainstream," which strains the texture from any culture until it is reduced to an easily digested broth. "What it does is cut off the person in the dominant position from the very things that feed him, while justifying the oppression of anyone in the margin." Race, class, and gender--the trinity of identity politics--are the greatest areas of tension when it comes to gay mainstreaming, because these are the things that make queers truly queer. As the old gay-lib slogan has it, "We Are Everywhere." Yet by locating homosexuality in the white middle class, the culture avoids confronting the anxious fact that all identities ultimately overlap.

The charade of assimilation leaves many gay people with an eerie sense of absence from the table, even as they are being served. "Take The Birdcage," says Delaney. "Now I'm a black gay man with a child, and I just don't recognize anything in that film. It's a movie that turns me radically into a straight person looking at these freaks."

The calmest people in queer culture may be the publishers at houses that pioneered lesbian and gay fiction. Since the mid '80s, they've seen cycles of boom and bust, and the consensus among them is that "the gay moment is over," as Ira Silverberg, editor in chief of Grove Press, puts it. He means that serious queer books are giving way to celebrity memoirs like the forthcoming autobiography of Chastity Bono. This is a vivid illustration of Oscar Wilde's maxim about the two sources of unhappiness: not getting what you want, and getting what you want. "The older I am, the less certain I become that there is some single explanation for everything," says Nancy Bereano, the publisher at Firebrand Books, "except that bigness has built into it a usurping of the very thing being absorbed."

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