Queering the Culture

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

The irony is that few lesbians or gay men who operate in the belly of the beast buy the notion of a queer mainstream. "I've always felt it was bogus," says Sarah Petit, the former editor of Out. "The corporations that put out money keep track of it in a different way. There's this tallying of gayness or lesbianness as a market that is, in my mind, a form of prejudice. At this point, if you say to someone, 'gay book,' they wince because they think it won't work. In Hollywood, you say, 'lesbian film,' and they say, 'Go Fish,' and it's over."

Lesbian chic--that media wet dream--dictates that the dykes who do cross over will be sleek, and that the sex between them will consist mainly of stroking and brushing each other's hair. "Penetration is almost never shown, though it's a big part of lesbian sexuality," notes eroticist Tristan Taormino. "I mean, I can't imagine a dyke with a dick in a mainstream film, unless they're gonna punish her."

But strap-ons are only part of what's missing from the picture. "Butch is the thing that can't cross over," says Nancy Bereano. "It's boring to most men, except when it gets packaged as the trapped-in-the-wrong-body kind of thing." Age is another reason to avert the male gaze: "Women over 50 completely disappear," notes playwright Paula Vogel. And the bonding that is such a central aspect of lesbian life is rarely represented in the mainstream. "It seems like there's a million images of male bonding," says choreographer Elizabeth Streb, "but it threatens a culture if the women within it decide to band together."

There's a place for dykes at the cultural table if they're young, ambiguous, and preferably alone. But any image more centered, more connected to a community, is likely to earn the response Ellen got from her critics: She can't "transcend" her sexuality. Only in what Holly Hughes calls "the wetlands" does an unmediated lesbian culture meet its audience--in small theaters and performance spaces not so different from the vest-pocket venues where Jack Smith showed Flaming Creatures and Joe Cino ran his little café some 30 years ago. These places still exist for lesbians in a way they don't for gay men. "I was at a benefit last week where Peggy Shaw sang 'My Way,' " says Alicia Svigals, violinist and composer for the Klezmatics, "and it was thrilling to be in such a deeply gay environment. It was formed by oppression, but it's so bad to think it will go away."

Yet the price of shtetl warmth is high for artists with ambitions to address the culture as a whole. Paula Vogel is a lesbian playwright who won a Pulitzer prize this year for How I Learned To Drive, which is not a lesbian play. "Tony Kushnerhas achieved the recognition that he transcends the gay category," Vogel says. "But in order to do that, the category has to be visible. You need to have a critical mass in order to see that Angels in America is about America, and lesbians won't get there until female subjectivity is seen as universal, in the same way that male subjectivity is."

This gap between lesbians and gay men--between invisibility and saturation--is where the queer cultural explosion meets the old oppression. The mainstream tracks women toward one kind of destiny and men toward another, denying both a fully realized individuality. "I think we're almost at the point where white gay men have been admitted into the human race," says Holly Hughes. But the cry of the young gay male artist is: let me out.

"The best thing homosexuality can do is go back into the closet," says Atilla Richard Lukacs, "because it's the secret fetishes that develop out of the closet that make everything so interesting."

At 30, Lukacs is determined to forge a path outside the gay culture around him, and toward an old-school sensibility that probably began to wane with the rise of gay Democratic clubs, and had all but vanished by the time RuPaul got a TV talk show in 1995. By now, this happy-homo ambience has seeped into the very marrow of the gay sexual scene. "There's no eye contact at gay clubs anymore," says Lukacs. "They just look at each other's tits." Then he adds, "I don't really have a specific kind of sexuality."

This is not that movement of the media's homo elite known as postgay. It's more like a determination to recapture the original intention of gay liberation, which had less to do with forming a sexual identity than with smashing the categories it creates. "Gay culture today has begun to resemble the power system that's been oppressing us," says Todd Haynes, whose forthcoming film, Velvet Goldmine,presents a very different model, based on the glam-rock scene in London during the late '70s that "seemed to manifest itself in an attack on stable identities. There were all kinds of blurs going on."

This concept of the blur, in which any desiring combination seems possible, is the standard of a new queer art emerging in opposition to the gay mainstream. Its object is to recover not just the adversarial stance of homosexuality but the horniness that's been lost to AIDS and assimilation. "I finally understand Foucault," says Wayne Koestenbaum, author of The Queen's Throat, "as I experience a diminution of my investment in sexuality." Along with the proliferation of gay images has come a loss of what Foucault called "sites of resistance" and their inevitable connection with desire, resulting in Koestenbaum's complaint about gay identity: "The thrill is gone."

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