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 Ellenwouldn't work," Lebowitz says, "because where could you go with it? What would it be about?"

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 gaythat 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 Ellenof 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 Housekeepingseal 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 gayan 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."

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 Creaturesand 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 Americais 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."

Most of the gay male artists interviewed for this piece say they are searching for new sources of arousal, exploring their feelings for women--especially butch women--and for straight men. "Just as any woman lusts after a gay man," says Atilla Richard Lukacs, "gay men lust after straight men." But the homo/hetero dyad is remarkably effective at suppressing these desires, along with whatever else might be contained in the self-definition Todd Haynes offers: "I'm a non-practicing bisexual."

As these transgressive stances percolate up from the vanguard, they have already begun to rock the mainstream. Consider a relatively conventional indie comedy like The Opposite of Sex, in which a gay man and his twinkie lover navigate the shoals of sex and intimacy without falling back on the refuge of a rigid identity. True, all the hot stuff in this film is straight, but at least it has the funky aroma of the new queer art, in which sexuality is a point of departure, not a destiny.

"I'm gay and I'm an artist, so to that extent I'm a gay artist," says Stephen Trask, the 31-year-old songwriter and coauthor of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. "But I grew up influenced by people like John Lennon, who wasn't gay. What he did was to create a persona in his songs, and my persona is someone who writes about love and power relations from the perspective of a gay man." With his band Cheater (named after a prosthetic vagina worn by trannies), Trask has been gigging around the Downtown scene for the past five years, honing a repertoire that cannot be sung by someone of the opposite sex to cover its tracks, because it's inflected by the unmistakable signs of being queer.

"I never had a problem in straight clubs," Trask says. "I only had a problem when I sent a tape to record companies. The only real impediment has been industrial." But now that Hedwigis a hit, Trask may get to live out his wildest fantasy: becoming the first rock star to explore the role of "predatory bottom." As in this stanza from "The Brush":

What I want is
to be taken
to be taken down a peg
I've got my pride
and it's running down my leg
When I'm in love I
want to take it
I can take it, take a shove.

Elton John it ain't, but this lyric crosses over and touches the abandon and surrender at the core of all sexuality. That's the mark of the new queer sensibility: It's universal without being straight. Or, as Stephen Trask puts it, with the assurance of a young man who has always been out but never been willing to live in a ghetto of desire: "Homosexuality is not my subject. I'm a subject who is gay."V

Research: Nita Rao

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