Scan It: Fortifying the Fringe

Alan Sinfield's new Gay and After (Serpent's Tail, $17.99) manages to raise a host of questions we thought were answered long ago: How do people arrive at a gay identity? What does it mean to be gay? And most important, what does gay mean?

Sinfield begins by examining the formation of gay identity on both the individual and group levels. But he is most interested in the complicated ways that sexual dissidents interact with the mainstream--the personal, cultural, and political negotiations that are necessary as queer individuals and organizations attempt to make their way in the world. Sinfield looks at such gay subcultural artifacts as the poems of Stephen Spender and Thom Gunn, novels by Jean Genet and David Leavitt, and the recent films Philadelphia and Jeffrey as he considers the creation of gay myths, the processes of gay artistic production, and the interactions of what he calls the straightgeist and the homosexual fringe. While recognizing gay cultural and artistic achievement, Sinfield sees that there is still a long way to go--he calls for gay subcultural work to become more "purposeful, informed, and critical." Sinfield's political analysis is equally clear-eyed. He recognizes the limits of identity politics whether in the form of various radical queer movements or the equally radical assimilationist strategies of Bruce Bawer and other contemporary gay conservatives. He argues that "we have to develop a theory and a politics that will enable us to recognize that our identities (like those of heterosexuals) are constituted through cultural interactions, and are provisional and permeable."

This may sound like very slow going, but Sinfield's gifts as a thinker and his talents as a writer keep Gay and After from becoming ponderous. He asks difficult questions and tackles the complicated issues in a fierce and lively style that makes Gay and After a rare accomplishment--important cultural and political analysis that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

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