The dubious meaning of gay identity
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
Last week was the anniversary of the Stonewall
Rebellion, the riot against police by patrons of a gay bar in New York
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 MMOW 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
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 East 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. (And if, like me, your appetites have migrated from
gender to gender, the entire issue of "gay" identity becomes
very fuzzy.) I don't blame anyone particularly for this change from the
radical to the mainstream. Sheer practicality probably required it. 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 and 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
(though all here are buff and male), their representation as winged beings
of transcendence, the penchant gay people have developed for thinking
of themselves as "good". Perhaps it's simply that in the gallery's
decision to not emphasize the sexual, its jury turned toward spiritual
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 for not being
Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing
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