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Butch Femme

Butch Femme

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Published by: api-26190824 on Jan 11, 2009
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The End of Gay Culture
The End of Gay Culture
Assimilation and its meaning.
Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic
Published: Monday, October 24, 2005 
For the better part of two decades, I have spent much of every summer in the small resort of Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. It has long attracted artists, writers, the offbeat, and the bohemian;and, for many years now, it has been to gay America what Oak Bluffs in Martha's Vineyard is to blackAmerica: a place where a separate identity essentially defines a separate place. No one bats an eye if twomen walk down the street holding hands, or if a lesbian couple pecks each other on the cheek, or if a dragqueen dressed as Cher careens down the main strip on a motor scooter. It's a place, in that respect, thatis sui generis. Except that it isn't anymore. As gay America has changed, so, too, has Provincetown. In amicrocosm of what is happening across this country, its culture is changing.Some of these changes are obvious. A real-estate boom has made Provincetown far more expensive thanit ever was, slowly excluding poorer and younger visitors and residents. Where, once, gayness trumpedclass, now the reverse is true. Beautiful, renovated houses are slowly outnumbering beach shacks, oncecrammed with twenty-something, hand-to-mouth misfits or artists. The role of lesbians in the town's civicand cultural life has grown dramatically, as it has in the broader gay world. The faces of people dyingfrom or struggling with aids have dwindled to an unlucky few. The number of children of gay couples hassoared, and, some weeks, strollers clog the sidewalks. Bar life is not nearly as central to socializing as itonce was. Men and women gather on the beach, drink coffee on the front porch of a store, or meet at theFilm Festival or Spiritus Pizza.And, of course, week after week this summer, couple after couple got married--well over a thousand inthe year and a half since gay marriage has been legal in Massachusetts. Outside my window on a patch of beach that somehow became impromptu hallowed ground, I watched dozens get hitched--under achuppah or with a priest, in formalwear or beach clothes, some with New Age drums and horns, even oneassociated with a full-bore Mass. Two friends lit the town monument in purple to celebrate; a tuxedoedmale couple slipping onto the beach was suddenly greeted with a huge cheer from the crowd; an elderlylesbian couple attached cans to the back of their Volkswagen and honked their horn as they drove up thehigh street. The heterosexuals in the crowd knew exactly what to do. They waved and cheered andsmiled. Then, suddenly, as if learning the habits of a new era, gay bystanders joined in. In an instant, thedifference between gay and straight receded again a little.But here's the strange thing: These changes did not feel like a revolution. They felt merely like small, if critical, steps in an inexorable evolution toward the end of a distinctive gay culture. For what hashappened to Provincetown this past decade, as with gay America as a whole, has been less like a politicalrevolution from above than a social transformation from below. There is no single gay identity anymore,let alone a single look or style or culture. Memorial Day sees the younger generation of lesbians, lookinglike lost members of a boy band, with their baseball caps, preppy shirts, short hair, and earrings.Independence Day brings the partiers: the "circuit boys," with perfect torsos, a thirst for nightlife,designer drugs, and countless bottles of water. For a week in mid-July, the town is dominated by "bears"--chubby, hairy, unkempt men with an affinity for beer and pizza. Family Week heralds an influx of childrenand harried gay parents. Film Festival Week brings in the artsy crowd. Women's Week brings the morefamiliar images of older lesbians: a landlocked flotilla of windbreakers and sensible shoes. East Villagebohemians drift in throughout the summer; quiet male couples spend more time browsing gourmetgroceries and realtors than cruising nightspots; the predictable population of artists and writers--Michael
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The End of Gay Culture
Cunningham and John Waters are fixtures--mix with openly gay lawyers and cops and teachers andshrinks.Slowly but unmistakably, gay culture is ending. You see it beyond the poignant transformation of P-town:on the streets of the big cities, on university campuses, in the suburbs where gay couples have settled,and in the entrails of the Internet. In fact, it is beginning to dawn on many that the very concept of gayculture may one day disappear altogether. By that, I do not mean that homosexual men and lesbians willnot exist--or that they won't create a community of sorts and a culture that sets them in some waysapart. I mean simply that what encompasses gay culture itself will expand into such a diverse set of subcultures that "gayness" alone will cease to tell you very much about any individual. The distinctionbetween gay and straight culture will become so blurred, so fractured, and so intermingled that it maybecome more helpful not to examine them separately at all.For many in the gay world, this is both a triumph and a threat. It is a triumph because it is what wealways dreamed of: a world in which being gay is a nonissue among our families, friends, and neighbors.But it is a threat in the way that all loss is a threat. For many of us who grew up fighting a world of now-inconceivable silence and shame, distinctive gayness became an integral part of who we are. It helpeddefine us not only to the world but also to ourselves. Letting that go is as hard as it is liberating, assaddening as it is invigorating. And, while social advance allows many of us to contemplate this gift of aproblem, we are also aware that in other parts of the country and the world, the reverse may behappening. With the growth of fundamentalism across the religious world--from Pope Benedict XVI'sVatican to Islamic fatwas and American evangelicalism--gayness is under attack in many places, even asit wrests free from repression in others. In fact, the two phenomena are related. The new anti-gay fervoris a response to the growing probability that the world will one day treat gay and straight asinterchangeable humans and citizens rather than as estranged others. It is the end of gay culture--not itsendurance--that threatens the old order. It is the fact that, across the state of Massachusetts, "gaymarriage" has just been abolished. The marriage licenses gay couples receive are indistinguishable fromthose given to straight couples. On paper, the difference is now history. In the real world, theconsequences of that are still unfolding.Quite how this has happened (and why) are questions that historians will fight over someday, but certaininfluences seem clear even now--chief among them the HIV epidemic. Before aids hit, a fragile butnascent gay world had formed in a handful of major U.S. cities. The gay culture that exploded from it inthe 1970s had the force of something long suppressed, and it coincided with a more general relaxation of social norms. This was the era of the post-Stonewall New Left, of the Castro and the West Village, an erawhere sexuality forged a new meaning for gayness: of sexual adventure, political radicalism, and culturalrevolution.The fact that openly gay communities were still relatively small and geographically concentrated in ahandful of urban areas created a distinctive gay culture. The central institutions for gay men were bathsand bars, places where men met each other in highly sexualized contexts and where sex provided thecommonality. Gay resorts had their heyday--from Provincetown to Key West. The gay press grew quicklyand was centered around classified personal ads or bar and bath advertising. Popular culture was suffusedwith stunning displays of homosexual burlesque: the music of Queen, the costumes of the Village People,the flamboyance of Elton John's debut; the advertising of Calvin Klein; and the intoxication of disco itself,a gay creation that became emblematic of an entire heterosexual era. When this cultural explosion wasacknowledged, when it explicitly penetrated the mainstream, the results, however, were highly unstable:Harvey Milk was assassinated in San Francisco and Anita Bryant led an anti-gay crusade. But theemergence of an openly gay culture, however vulnerable, was still real.And then, of course, catastrophe. The history of gay America as an openly gay culture is not only
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The End of Gay Culture
extremely short--a mere 30 years or so--but also engulfed and defined by a plague that struck almostpoignantly at the headiest moment of liberation. The entire structure of emergent gay culture--sexual,radical, subversive--met a virus that killed almost everyone it touched. Virtually the entire generation thatpioneered gay culture was wiped out--quickly. Even now, it is hard to find a solid phalanx of gay men intheir fifties, sixties, or seventies--men who fought from Stonewall or before for public recognition andcultural change. And those who survived the nightmare of the 1980s to mid-'90s were often overwhelmedmerely with coping with plague; or fearing it themselves; or fighting for research or awareness or moreeffective prevention.This astonishing story might not be believed in fiction. And, in fiction, it might have led to the collapse of such a new, fragile subculture. Aids could have been widely perceived as a salutary retribution for the gayrevolution; it could have led to quarantining or the collapse of nascent gay institutions. Instead, it had theopposite effect. The tens of thousands of deaths of men from every part of the country establishedhomosexuality as a legitimate topic more swiftly than any political manifesto could possibly have done.The images of gay male lives were recorded on quilts and in countless obituaries; men whosehomosexuality might have been euphemized into nonexistence were immediately identifiable and gone.And those gay men and lesbians who witnessed this entire event became altered forever, not onlyemotionally, but also politically--whether through the theatrical activism of Act-Up or the furiousorganization of political gays among the Democrats and some Republicans. More crucially, gay men andlesbians built civil institutions to counter the disease; they forged new ties to scientists and politicians;they found themselves forced into more intense relations with their own natural families and the familiesof loved ones. Where bath houses once brought gay men together, now it was memorial services. Theemotional and psychic bonding became the core of a new identity. The plague provided a unifying socialand cultural focus.But it also presaged a new direction. That direction was unmistakably outward and integrative. To borrowa useful distinction deployed by the writer Bruce Bawer, integration did not necessarily mean assimilation.It was not a wholesale rejection of the gay past, as some feared and others hoped. Gay men wanted to befully part of the world, but not at the expense of their own sexual freedom (and safer sex became ameans not to renounce that freedom but to save it). What the epidemic revealed was how gay men--and,by inference, lesbians--could not seal themselves off from the rest of society. They needed scientificresearch, civic support, and political lobbying to survive, in this case literally. The lesson was not thatsexual liberation was mistaken, but rather that it wasn't enough. Unless the gay population was tied intothe broader society; unless it had roots in the wider world; unless it brought into its fold the heterosexualfamilies and friends of gay men and women, the gay population would remain at the mercy of others andof misfortune. A ghetto was no longer an option.So, when the plague receded in the face of far more effective HIV treatments in the mid-'90s and gaymen and women were able to catch their breath and reflect, the question of what a more integrated gayculture might actually mean reemerged. For a while, it arrived in a vacuum. Most of the older malegeneration was dead or exhausted; and so it was only natural, perhaps, that the next generation of leaders tended to be lesbian--running the major gay political groups and magazines. Lesbians alsopioneered a new baby boom, with more lesbian couples adopting or having children. HIV-positive gaymen developed different strategies for living suddenly posthumous lives. Some retreated into quietrelationships; others quit jobs or changed their careers completely; others chose the escapism of whatbecame known as "the circuit," a series of rave parties around the country and the world where fearscould be lost on the drug-enhanced dance floor; others still became lost in a suicidal vortex of crystalmeth, Internet hook-ups, and sex addiction. HIV-negative men, many of whom had lost husbands andfriends, were not so different. In some ways, the toll was greater. They had survived disaster with theirhealth intact. But, unlike their HIV-positive friends, the threat of contracting the disease still existed whilethey battled survivors' guilt. The plague was over but not over; and, as they saw men with HIV celebratesurvival, some even felt shut out of a new sub-sub-culture, suspended between fear and triumph butunable to experience either fully.
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