The Queen of Disco is dead, and today my cake is definitely left out in the rain. I must have listened to Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park Suite”—all eighteen, gaudily orchestrated minutes of it—hundreds of times. No, I’m not a child of the ’70s, but it’s a testament to the enduring allure of Summer’s 1978 mega-hit that by the time I was a baby gay tripping through the New York City club scene in the late ‘90s, “MacArthur Park” still closed out the night. Well, not the night exactly, more like the next day’s afternoon—around 2 pm, when DJ Junior Vasquez at Twilo would play the whole track as a come-down treat for the last remaining revelers. Not some shitty tribal-techno remix, and not the 1968 Richard Harris original (which has its own weird pleasures), but the Giorgio Moroder-Donna Summer version, the only version that has ever really mattered—with its protracted, string-and-horns bridge sections and Summer’s incendiary voice at its very best. As Moroder’s over-the-top arpeggios flung us into “Heaven Knows,” and Joe “Bean” Esposito on second lead played call-and-response to Summer—“Baby, please… Baby, please… please don’t take your love from me…”—the lights would come up. A little alarmed at how ragged we all looked, we’d start to file out of the club.
Out on the street in the sudden sunlight, we’d sometimes pass by black church ladies in their Sunday finery, and there might be a quick look of recognition and a shared smile. We were both leaving church, our respective houses of worship. And it seemed fitting that Donna Summer (née Gaines), raised up in the gospel tradition as the daughter of devout Christians, sang us home.
If disco is the byproduct of the merging of black and gay cultures, the common music of the urban oppressed, then Donna Summer is its undisputed avatar. Her status as a gay icon is, on paper at least, the most perplexing. There’s none of the camp associated with Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, none of the studied theatricality and genre-hijacking charms of Madonna or Lady Gaga. But what Donna Summer captures better than any other gay icon is the appeal of the fallen. In the coos and purrs and climaxes of “Love to Love You Baby,” Summer celebrates herself as a good Christian girl gone bad, or one might say, a woman liberated to love.
There’s something about this Donna Summer—and about that unexpected Sunday moment between the nightclub and the church—that conservatives just don’t get. Why don’t religious African-Americans behave and vote more like their white, evangelical counterparts? Why aren’t more straight black leaders at the forefront of the anti-gay movement? What is it that binds gays and straight African-Americans together? These questions have long infuriated the religious right. Just take a look, for example, at recently leaked memos from the National Organization of Marriage that exposed their cynical strategy to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies.” The memo continues: “Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots…”
At one point, Donna Summer might have been one of these spokespeople. In the mid-’80s, as a born-again Christian, she allegedly said that AIDS was God’s punishment for the sins of homosexuality. Her fans rebelled, and she apologized, writing a letter to ACT UP explaining that she was “unknowingly protected by those around me from the bad press.” “If I have caused you pain, forgive me,” she pleaded. Most did, and today many a gay has gone into mourning. Sure, the fear of a boycott was a powerful motive for Summer to recant her anti-gay remarks, but I’d like to think that her apology was sincere, that in spite of her religious beliefs, she forged a deeper understanding between her faith and her gay fans, one based in the common rhythm of liberation that epitomized her best music. “A couple of people I write with are gay, and they have been ever since I met them. What people want to do with their bodies is their personal preference,” she later remarked.
As the whole world now knows, it’s also President Barack Obama’s “personal preference” that same-sex marriage be legal. And as if on cue, today the New York Times released details of “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good.” Short on economic policy, the plan’s central proposition—other than rehashing the specter of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and black liberation theology—is the similarly cynical plan to recruit an “extremely literate conservative African-American” to argue that Obama duped the country into thinking he’s a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.” In the double whiff of homosexuality (metrosexual and Abraham Lincoln) implicit in that bizarre caricature, one of the right-wing’s greatest fears is revealed. That gay (like black) just might be cool, at least cool enough for a politician to want to approximate in style. And so he must be torn down as what?—a poseur? Not a real metrosexual at all? Maybe even a secret homophobe?? Or too metrosexual to be really black???
Don’t think too hard about it; the architects of the Ricketts Plan surely haven’t.