'The Trouble with Normal':
The death of queer culture

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

As my dentist, of all people, finished work on me last week, he told me a story about meeting a heterosexual man who complimented his appearance and called him sexy.

"A lot of people would say he must be gay," I said, laughing.

"Definitely not. I know his wife, too. They have a very conventional marriage."

I hesitated before my next statement because, although I believe it, I know many people find it utterly strange. "You know," I said, "I meet many straight people now who are queerer - more comfortably odd -- than most gay people I know."

"Bingo!" he said, to my surprise.

It is a queer phenomenon. Gay culture, as it has been understood throughout most of the last 50 years, is in a radical change. Being openly gay once meant standing against the normative values of the culture in many ways besides the obvious sexual one. Gay liberationists formed alliances with other radical political movements. They battled society's broad culture of sexual oppression - not just the particular taboo against same-sex interactions. They attempted to create new religious and spiritual forms.

In recent years - particularly since the 1993 publication of Virtually Normal by Andrew Sullivan - the gay movement has become principally preoccupied with securing the rights to marry and serve in the armed forces. (In Sullivan's view, when these rights are achieved, the gay movement should cease existence.)

While marriage and military service seem like benign, reasonable objectives, they actually represent a massive shift in the political and social ideologies of gay people. The gay movement has come to be completely dominated by white, mainly male members of the bourgeoisie. Because of that, the movement has shifted largely from trying to change the bourgeoisie to trying to join it. (Those who remain more devoted to more radical agendas tend to be called "queer" instead of "gay" now.)

And this brings us back to the conversation between me and my dentist. As gay culture becomes more and more assimilationist - represented by the embarassingly bland suburban gay couple, Jim and Jim, in the film American Beauty - its historic queer character of transgressing the boundaries of the status quo moves into other populations. Just as white American youths now appropriate African-American urban style, they have begun to appropriate the rebellious aspects of queer life, in every respect from gender-bending appearances to sexual experimentation.

It is very difficult now for anyone who opposes the new bourgeois gay movement to find a voice inside gay culture. In fact, as the writing of this very column demonstrates, it is easier to give voice to these ideas outside the new monolith of conservative gay media.

The recent publication of The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, by Michael Warner, a professor of English at Rutgers University, is something of a breakthrough. Warner teaches American literature and the relatively new discipline called "queer studies". His book, as the title suggests, is a rebuttal of Sullivan's Virtually Normal, though it is also seems significant to me as an attempted rapprochement between academic queer theory and popular gay culture.

We chatted:

I should say at the start that even when I felt myself disagreeing with your book, I loved reading every page. It recovers depth of thinking for gay people, which is nearly impossible to find in popular queer media now.

I do make the point repeatedly in my book that part of what has happened in gay life is the appearance of magazines like Genre. These are purely market-driven slick media, meaning they represent bourgeois values. They are going after the biggest possible readership in order to sell the most advertising, so they are not going to risk difficult ideas.

It's quite clear to me, since I travel a good bit, that this isn't just happening at the national level. Local gay media now are pretty consistently conservative and market-driven, often conspicuously anti-intellectual.

Oh, absolutely. The magazines promote a collection of columnists who are glib and controversial but are often unbelievably uneducated in the history of gay people, to say nothing of the way they ignore the fascinating stuff coming out of academic life. I recall a column by Gabriel Rotello [gay columnist for Newsday and author of Sexual Ecology] in which he mentioned, as if it were a big discovery, the treatment of homosexuals as a "third sex." Of course, this was a literal movement during the 19th century. He was completely shocked to learn this was an actual part of our history.

I went to the local gay bookstore here recently and asked two clerks for the queer theory section. Neither had a clue what I was talking about. Then I looked around. All of the books out front were about, literally, finding your "inner boyfriend," getting a bigger chest, arguing your way into acceptance by the church or, of course, getting married.

That's the market at work…One of the most dramatic developments in the '90s has been the continuing development of gay studies programs - queer theory -- at universities around the country, but at the same time utter separation between academics and the rest of the gay world. Part of this is that academics have difficulty making their language comprehensible to the general public, but it's just as much true that the new magazines are not interested in their ideas. They are difficult, risky, very challenging.

So we have queer theory, a very cerebral and often radical analysis of ideas about the meaning of sexual identity and gay history, and we have a very bourgeois popular press that doesn't seem much interested in these considerations. It is as if the academics are preserving a culture that has been forgotten. Some would say it <I>should<B> be forgotten.

Yeah. As I say in my book, I think AIDS has a lot to do with that. A great part of the generation of people involved in the formation of gay liberation died, obviously. But beyond that, our energies were generally invested in coping with the epidemic….

And we are left with a generation of gay men and women who have no sense of historical continuity, yes? It often feels to me that young gay people are rediscovering what was forgotten but meanwhile the bourgeois values of assimilation are dominant.

We have something like cultural amnesia. In my book, I list all of the ethics and beliefs that guided academics and activists in the '70s. These formed a common ethical vision for people actively engaged in the movement. There was agreement, for example, that marriage is idealized through mythology and did not represent a solution for gay people. It was popularly agreed that marriage rewards those inside marriage and punishes those outside it and is fundamentally inequitable. It would have been very hard to find anyone who didn't agree that self-esteem can't be purchased by disavowing consensual sexual practices even when they are despised by others.

And some would say that this rather radical agenda is no longer relevant to the great majority of gay people today, that in fact returning to it would be going backward.

A tired argument. It presumes everything moves forward and, as I say in my book, history is full of examples of people losing their way and having to find their way back to what's important. We lost our way during AIDS.

And how did people like Andrew Sullivan gain ascendancy when we became lost?

I list all of the factors in my book. Some of them are specific to queer life. Some are about broad changes in the culture like the big-money capitalization of political groups and media - including gay ones…And one thing you can observe is that AIDS provided erotophobic people as otherwise diverse as Larry Kramer, Mike Signorile, Bruce Bawer, Sullivan and Gabriel Rotello convincing reasons to advocate their moral agendas which go largely unchallenged in the new media. Gays should be monogamous and married and if they were, there'd be less AIDS, this argument goes.

A fair portion of your book is devoted to advocating for the right of people to have public sex. That is an awfully hard thing to defend.

Yes it is, but it's important as part of the right of people to be open in their sexuality. What we call public sex is rarely really public.….The struggle here is about the right to resist normative sexual standards. This is not just a gay issue. Tune in a talk show and you see people of all sexual tastes speaking and fighting with extraordinary frankness. It's very often about the coercive nature of people's sexual expectations of one another. There is lot of resentment in the general culture about this idea of people having to be "normal." Now, this was what the queer movement was about in the past - fighting the notion of normal. It is no longer trying to connect to that, and I think it's a huge loss for queers -- for the whole culture, which has learned so much from us in the past.

Who in the culture is conducting that struggle now?

It is probably moving to youth culture. I think it's good that some group is continuing to protest these really oppressive notions of what is normal, particularly about sex, but it makes me sad that gay people have given it up.

You begin your book, ground it, in a discussion of sexual shame. You maintain basically that it is inevitable.

Americans are totally obsessed with sex on the one hand and we are completely moralistic on the other. I quote Leo Bersani: 'There's a big secret about sex: most people don't like it.' We love it but we don't like it because it's the place you are guaranteed to go out of control sooner or later. An authentic response - the historic one among queers - is that nobody needs to pretend they are above the indignity of sex, the mess it makes. To look nice and dignified, to pretend the queer movement is about the recent identity of being gay and has very little to do with sex is a doomed effort. That's the point of marriage - to make us look dignified in the silly sense of the word. But look how dignified the married like Bill Clinton end up looking! Doesn't it make so much more sense to work to create an understanding that dignity and all kinds of sex, messy as it is, are completely compatible?

Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing

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