Talk of the Town - No angels July 08 2000
The dubious meaning of gay identity
Last week was the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the riot against police by patrons of a gay bar in New York City in 1969. The event precipitated the gay rights movement and is commemorated annually in cities around the world, including Atlanta, with pride festivals. This year's gay pride events followed the Millennial March on Washington of a few months earlier. That event, controversial for its unenthusiastic effort to include minorities in its planning, is now under FBI investigation for financial improprieties, particularly in the conduct of its very profitable market where souvenirs of Pride were sold.
As such, the Millennial March on Washington typified what the word "gay" has come to imply as an identity (outside the fundamental choice of sex partners of the same gender): membership in a mainly white middle-class marketing group. A comedian a few years ago expressed the broader irony of what the gay movement has become. "Gay people," she said, "are the only people in America who want to get married and serve in the armed forces now."
Consider what a radical change that is from the early Stonewall movement. In those years, a gay identity implied an affinity for other movements that sought overthrow of the oppressive institutions of the dominant culture, not assimilation into them. "Coming out of the closet" was understood not to be just a personal act but a political statement that opposed the state's effort to control sexual pleasure. The state controls the body through laws that criminalize and stigmatize certain sexual behaviors (like "sodomy," until recently) and reward those who marry and subject themselves to mandatory monogamy.
Coming out in the '70s also meant allying yourself with liberation movements of feminists and ethnic minorities. It meant willfully inhabiting a space in the margins of society for the purpose of creating an alternative culture whose agenda was a critique of the dominant culture. Thus, communities like San Francisco's Castro and New York's West Village — now often misnamed "gay ghettos" — became sites of radical artistic, sexual, social and political expression.
The transition from the radical gay identity of the '70s to today's assimilationist one leaves people like me feeling gay only in the basic sense of our choice of sexual partners. I don't blame anyone particularly for this change from the radical to the mainstream. It is easier to work for civil rights than for overthrow of corrupt institutions. So, much has been gained by the politics of assimilation. But much that was edgy, radical and startlingly creative has been lost, too.
Nowhere is this more evident locally than in the "official" art show of Atlanta Gay Pride at Trinity Gallery now. The show, Hairdos and Tractor Pulls, seems far more addressed to the dominant culture than to people it means to document — gays, bisexuals and lesbians who grew up in the South.
I mentioned to the gallery owner that I was surprised that, with the exception of King Thackston's drawings, the show seemed to have little to do with sex — odd to me since it pertains to people who enjoy diverse forms of sexual pleasure. He told me that, in fact, almost half the images submitted were sexual, but he intentionally limited their inclusion because he thinks being gay is mainly about being "different" in broader senses. But when you look at most of the images in the show, those "differences" are hard to discern. Granted, the show's theme is personal, and isolation is the experience of most young gay people, but it is surprising not to see more of the figures set amid the personal sexual landscape that made them vulnerable to both the oppression of the dominant culture and the mainstream identity now transmitted through gay popular culture itself.
Interestingly, in a show by a handful of artists, angels figure prominently. It is easy to guess why: the incidence of death in the gay community because of AIDS, the usual description of angels as androgynous, their representation as winged beings of transcendence, the penchant gay people have developed for thinking of themselves as "good."
It is reasonable to ask whether the differences of gay people are effects of our sexual orientation or results of oppression. Gay people, compared to the official canon of procreative heterosexuality, have sex only for pleasure — and will never have it for any other reason. The power (and danger) conferred by pleasure for its own sake is acknowledged as long ago as the story of Eden. And, as Michel Foucault noted, where there is power, there is resistance, even inside those who hold power.
I think — as the edgier queer theory movement advocates — we will have to begin asking ourselves why we now resist the question of what, in our difference, we have to teach and change in the dominant culture, rather than what it has to give us as benefits of normalization.
We are not angels. And some of us are quite proud of not being so.