Not Just Village People

Not Just Village People

Once confined to the closet, gays are now making headway in mainstream society.


With the smoke still rising from the fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center, it seemed like an opportune time to throw some faggots on the fire. Or so thought Jerry Falwell, when, on Pat Robertson's 700 Club program, he proclaimed that God permitted the terrorist attacks because He was pissed off at those who have "tried to secularize America"– civil libertarians, abortionists, pagans and, his favorite bêtes noires, gays and lesbians.

Falwell's demagoguery, though disgusting, was predictable. But then something surprising happened. The rabid reverend was immediately engulfed by a tidal wave of denunciation, from virtually every segment of society outside the insular world of American fundamentalism. Not only mainstream and liberal voices weighed in; even fellow conservative Rush Limbaugh and the National Review and Weekly Standard added their reproaches.

Falwell wasn't the only right-winger to use the WTC catastrophe to bash gays. Groups like the Traditional Values Coalition and The Family Research Council have deplored as "antifamily" efforts to provide benefits to gay partners of people killed in the towers on September 11. The Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition commented that "this is just another example of how the gay agenda is seeking to overturn the one man, one woman relationship from center stage in America." But their meanspiritedness was rejected by public officials such as New York Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer and the state's Republican governor, George Pataki, all of whom have supported such assistance.

You could say that the distaste for Falwell's rant was one sign of a post-September 11 truce–at least momentarily–in the culture wars that had raged until the Islamist faith-based initiative brought us all together in one big patriotic group hug. I prefer to think that three decades of struggle since the Stonewall uprising have given gays and lesbians social visibility and, to a lesser degree, political clout, such that brazen appeals to bigotry don't go down as smoothly as they used to.

The homophobic rhetoric from America's Taliban and the general repudiation of same make a neat metaphor for the current status of gays and lesbians, and they illustrate one of the key arguments of Suzanna Danuta Walters in All the Rage. So many years after Stonewall, homophobes still attack homosexuals, often scapegoating them for the purported decadence of society. But the greater public profile of gay people has changed in the interim, along with the context in which such attacks are made. Not so long ago, few outside the gay community or liberal activist circles would have denounced Falwell, and certainly not his comrades on the right.

Walters, a sociologist and member of the Research Advisory Board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), sees both opportunities and dangers in the new, heightened visibility of gay people. "Visibility is, of course, necessary for equality. It is part of the trajectory of any movement for inclusion and social change…. There is nothing worse than to live in a society in which the traces of your own existence have been erased or squeezed into a narrow and humiliating set of stereotypes." But, she cautions, "visibility does not erase stereotypes nor guarantee liberation."

Walters asks, "If the problem once was perceived as invisibility itself, then how is the problem defined in an era of increased visibility? If the closet was the defining metaphor for gay life in earlier eras, then what do we make of the swinging door that is gay life in the nineties and beyond?"

Today's is a best of times/worst of times situation: "Never have we had so many openly gay elected officials, or so many antigay initiatives." Pop culture may be replete with images of gay life, but hate crimes are increasing, discharges of gays and lesbians from the military have risen precipitately since Don't Ask, Don't Tell was enacted and state legislatures all over the country are rushing to pass laws banning same-sex marriage.

Walters's argument is similar to that advanced by cultural critic Michael Bronski, who, in his excellent 1998 book, The Pleasure Principle, described a tension between "heterosexual fear of homosexuality (and the pleasure it represents) and the equally strong envy of and desire to enjoy that freedom and pleasure." In Bronski's analysis, heterosexuals try to mitigate their own conflicts over their desire for freedom and pleasure versus their longing for an ordered world built on "traditional values" by refusing to grant homosexuals full citizenship, basic civil liberties or minimal respect for their person and sexual integrity. Says Walters: "The paradoxes we are witnessing now (the simultaneous embrace and rejection) are reflections, if you will, of a culture terrified of the potential disruption that full inclusion and integration would provoke."

Although some commentators have described a paradoxical situation in which gay cultural progress unfolds in a retrogressive political environment, Walters claims that both politics and culture abound in contradictions. "The cultural moment is not wholly embracing, nor the political moment wholly rejecting: both realms coexist and interact in an uneasy mix of opportunity and opposition, inclusion and exclusion."

Walters, attentive to confusing contradictions and to the possibilities for progressive change they present, offers a dialectical reading of the current situation. Cultural visibility, she notes, can be "synonymous with commercial exploitation." But sometimes it "can really push the envelope, bringing complicated and substantive gay identities into public view," with the effect that intolerance, if not eradicated, is at least undermined. She sets out to identify "these disparate moves of visibility so we are better able to understand which forms…are the ones that shake up the world and which ones just shake us down."

Walters focuses her pop culture criticism on the "Gay Nineties," a decade in which depictions of homosexuality flourished on television and in the movies, theater, pop music and advertising. She emphasizes the tube because it "has become our national cultural meeting place, a site of profound social meaning and effect," and because the "story of gays on TV is a more complicated, fractured, and ultimately interesting one than its filmic counterpart."

Perhaps it's just as well that Walters develops this TV-centric approach, for her film criticism tends toward the obvious. Hollywood produces compromised representations that offer a safe, liberal view of gay life, in which homosexuals (usually white males) are either just like straight people or are colorful but harmless eccentrics. In these films–Philadelphia, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything!, Julie Newmar, In & Out and numerous others–homophobia is easily overcome because it is, after all, just a matter of mistaken attitudes, not a deeply entrenched social prejudice. Independent and foreign films, not under the same commercial constraints of having to reach the largest possible audience, are more realistic and challenging. The late Vito Russo made the same observation two decades ago in his landmark The Celluloid Closet.

Walters notes that it was not until the 1970s that "any substantive depiction of gays occurred on entertainment, 'fiction' TV…." The subsequent decade saw some timid efforts, mostly "one-shots," in which a sitcom or drama presented a discrete gay episode. The 1980s, however, began to open the doors for what became, in her view, "the boom in gay representations of the nineties."

Sometimes Walters's TV criticism leaves the impression that it's propaganda she really wants. She scolds The West Wing for an episode in which a gay Republican rationalizes his support for an antigay bill by claiming that the GOP's agenda is more important to him than sexual politics. But gay Republicans really do say such things! Presenting a member of this strange species accurately doesn't legitimize his views, which is what Walters charges. And given the thoroughgoing liberalism of The West Wing, it's evident (though not to Walters) that the show doesn't endorse those views, either.

But she can also be right on target. The most successful gay-themed show, NBC's Will & Grace, is "a puzzle. Dabbling in double standards [Grace gets to have a sex life; Will doesn't] yet indubitably gay. Apolitical yet surreptitiously aware. Familial yet hedonistic. Gay male centered yet with two of the strongest female characters on TV. Devoid of larger community yet assuredly not tokenized."

She singles out for particular scrutiny–and commendation–the 1994 "lesbian kiss" episode of Roseanne and the very funny and subversive episode of The Simpsons directed by gay filmmaker John Waters. Both are notable because they "are not out to make homosexuality accessible and assimilable, they are not designed to make heterosexuals feel less threatened and to make gays feel more 'accepted.'" Both shows "deal hilariously with the strange mix of fear and fascination, desire and disgust that marks heterosexual engagement with the vision of the homosexual." "The gay characters are not the problems to be solved here, nor is homophobia the vaguely vile emotions of outside agitators. Heterosexual leads are here the problems: it is their discomfort, homophobia, bigotry that must be confronted."

Walters sees this more radical approach as both the strength of the canceled sitcom Ellen and its undoing. Ellen DeGeneres's character, Ellen Morgan, "was not solely seen and understood through the eyes of heterosexuals eager to counter their own fears. The series implicated Ellen in a larger world of gay people, with other gay characters, lovers, gay spaces, and even gay in-jokes. In other words, the series decentered heterosexuality and centered homosexuality, now no longer satisfied with being the object of heterosexual curiosity."

Walters is adamant that ABC canceled the show because it was "too gay." Ellen DeGeneres was "an acceptable homo when she promised tearfully (in interview after interview) that she just wanted to be the girl next door, and that the series would never foreground her gayness, quite to the contrary she repeatedly stated. But the show did become a gay sitcom and that was clearly unacceptable." Walters says although homophobia was the culprit, it was a "quite specific form" of bias. DeGeneres's show "was not cancelled simply because she depicted homosexuality, but because she refused to be then re-closeted, to relegate her gayness to the 'been there, done that' realm." (Walters's book was completed before DeGeneres's recovery at CBS in The Ellen Show, which has her playing a small-town dyke. The network has so far been a big booster, ordering additional episodes and changing her time slot to put the series in the vicinity of the megahit Everybody Loves Raymond.)

Walters detects a new kind of liberal homophobia underlying ostensibly sympathetic programs. A 1993 NBC documentary hosted by Maria Shriver "constructs a very particular narrative" about gays and AIDS in which gay men, under the threat of disease and death, abandoned their wanton, reckless behavior to become sober citizens. "The implication here is not that gay people rallied around each other to deal with AIDS, but rather that gays themselves needed saving as gays, and that it was the disease that made us 'clean up our act.'" Other well-meaning journalistic attempts include a Bill Moyers documentary that exemplified the mainstream media tendency to distinguish good gays–in committed relationships, churchgoing, wanting to parent, craving acceptance–from bad queers who wear leather, have sex with more than one person and otherwise don't want to be normalized or assimilated. Noting that both the Shriver and Moyers shows presented gay and lesbian couples doing wholesome domestic things, Walters exasperatedly wonders, "How many scenes of cooking and gardening do we need to see to prove the point that gays are human too?" Such depictions, she aptly notes, represent "a failure of imagination…where equality can only be posited as sameness."

It is refreshing, Walters observes, to see gay characters as "decent, loving human beings who are not homicidal serial killers, suicidal losers, or angst-ridden closet cases." Yet she contends that the introduction of the "good gay" often depends on a desexualization and loss of community. Heterosexual characters, after all, "can be valorous, brave, noble, without being stripped of passion and desire." In other words, "the emergence of the new good gay reveals to us both how far we have come…and how steadfastly double standards still prevail."

But breaking down sexual double standards doesn't necessarily result in verisimilitude. Turning to the Showtime cable series Queer as Folk, Walters recognizes "the breakthrough quality of its depiction of sexuality" while indicting the show for "substitut[ing] sexuality for community" and for implying "that gay sexual expression means an absolute erasure of everything else," including work and friendship. Moreover, as she astutely observes, the "Queer" sex doesn't even seem all that pleasurable.

Walters's attenuated discussion of cable TV, limited to Queer as Folk and the woman-centric If These Walls Could Talk films on HBO, overlooks the most in-your-face depiction of homosexuality on the small screen–the prison melodrama Oz, also on HBO. In the pressure-cooker, hyperviolent world of the Oswald maximum-security prison, virtually all inmates except Muslims engage in gay sex–some because women aren't available, or to exert power over other men, or because they discover, to their surprise, that they like the sex. Some inmates, including previously straight men, even fall in love with each other. OK, so they're mostly convicted killers. But this show at its best leaps right into Genet territory, with powerful images of passion and betrayal. (Not to mention that it features the most male nudity you're likely to encounter outside of a porn film or an off-Broadway show.) I'd rather spend time with the anguished, violent, complex same-sexers of Oz than with boring über-guppie Will Truman and his buddy, the shrill stereotype "Just Jack."

The latter chapters of All the Rage largely leave pop-culture criticism behind to focus on the social and political realities that media images often distort. Walters wades into the controversies over gay marriage and parenting, saying that these issues "will, I am convinced, be the last holdout in the battle for gay and lesbian rights." As a leftist, she unsurprisingly urges gays and lesbians not to mimic heterosexual patterns, instead endorsing "a utopian construction of 'families of choice' that is not bound by definitions of blood, of law, of sex, of gender." In other words, she wants homosexuals not only to challenge "traditional values" but also to replace them with more fluid and creative constructs. Walters makes a persuasive argument, but it's also a familiar and predictable one.

More interesting are her observations about one of the most notable aspects of the new visibility–the constitution of gays and lesbians as a "niche market" catered to by both straight and gay commercial interests. Walters acknowledges that gays and lesbians "can no more be outside the commodity machine than any other group: to turn difference into an object of barter is perhaps the quintessentially American experience." If all social movements and subcultures eventually become commodified, then the fundamental question facing gays and lesbians isn't assimilation into "mainstream" heterosexual, capitalist society versus subcultural identity and resistance. Such formulations, argues Walters, fail to capture the complexity of the moment, in which assimilationist and radical impulses both clash and coexist. Yes, "the rainbow world is a food court and shopping mall"; but it is also "filled with righteous young queers, whose insistence on the absolute right to visibility has spawned a tidal wave of teen trouble for heterosexual business-as-usual."

Walters views the story of gay visibility as one of "simultaneous containment and display, progress and regress, shattering of old ways and their reassertion." Refusing prognostication, she says we can't see how the still unfolding narrative will play out. "The space beyond visibility may be filled with commodified queens and buttoned-down wannabes, but it is also filled with possibilities unimaginable in previous eras. As the gaying of American culture continues on its uneven path, heterosexuals will–I am convinced–come to know themselves differently, to see their sexuality in less finite and tandem ways, opening up their sense of family, of place, of intimacy." This is essentially the same point historian John D'Emilio made in his 1983 book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: "As the life cycle of heterosexuals exhibits greater variety and less predictability, they have come to face many of the choices and experiences that gay men and women confront."

But in the almost twenty years since D'Emilio's book was published, antigay sentiment has not only endured but, as Michael Bronski has argued, in some ways seems even more entrenched. (One of the consequences of being visible is that it makes it easier to be stigmatized.) So what will it take to move beyond this contradictory and confusing moment and achieve what Walters wants–"a kind of conscious, conscientious integration, where lesbians and gays are full citizens in a society that is fundamentally altered by their inclusion"? She doesn't say, exactly. But it's hard to argue with her insistence that a critical consciousness of both the pitfalls and possibilities presented by today's increased visibility is essential to advancing the gay agenda in the new millennium.

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