Sunday, November 06, 2005

The end of gay culture?

Andrew Sullivan has published a scintillating, provocative essay entitled "The End of Gay Culture" in The New Republic, now conveniently accessible on his blog ( This piece combines perceptive personal observations with apt citations of statistical evidence.

Still, I find his main thesis unconvincing, for three reasons. The first has to do with chronocentrism, the second with topocentrism. The third offers a premature death-certificate.

1) Chronocentrism. Sullivan seems to assume that gay culture started in the disco era in the mid-seventies--that is, not long before he reached our shores. Prior to that ebullience there was only a gray, monotonous landscape of clandestinity.

As one of those inconvenient old-time guys, I can attest from personal experience that my hometown of Los Angeles harbored a lively and varied gay culture in the early fifties. Unless I could borrow an ID, I couldn't get into a gay bar--I was too young. But there were other scenes. At the edge of the Pacific was Muscle Beach, where an early version of the bodybuilding variant of gay culture flourished. In high school and college I belonged to gay circles, and we held private parties. There was always cruising in Pershing Square and other outdoor spots, and of course countless movie theaters, where one could do all sorts of things in the dark. Deliberately asexual in tone, the Mattachine Society held regular meetings. Various churches were known to be gay friendly. There were other circles less known to me, as the world of Hollywood stars like Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson (not to mention all sorts of set designers, hairdressers, make-up artists and the like), together with the black scene in South Central LA.

There was a corresponding variety of personality types, including the elegant (who liked to sport expensive clothes), the blasé, the salt-of-the-earth type, the body builder, the drag queen and so forth. Sullivan finds it remarkable that there is no single gay identity any more. Well, there never was, for we were always different from each other in lots of ways..

When I was still a child, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard, Tennessee Williams, Jim Kepner and many others were taking advantage of the many opportunities offered by "gay LA."

In 1956 I moved to New York City, where I found a similarly complex and vibrant scene. Nor were things restricted to big cities. I had my first gay sexual experiences in San Bernardino, CA.

Ranging back through World War II, the Harlem Renaisance, and before, historians have taken much trouble to recover this evidence. Sullivan's presentation would benefit from consulting their works.

One can travel a long ways farther in the time machine. A century ago there were other, but often-similar scenes. See, e.g., the work of George Chauncey, Jim Levin and many others.

European historians have documented varied scenes of gay culture in 19th century London, 18th century Paris, 17th century Portugal, and 15th century Florence--to name four particularly well documented sites. The earliest such discovery known to me stems from my late mentor Warren Johansson, who excavated evidence of a gay-cultural scene, complete with "bohemian" trappings, in the London of the 12th century.

2) In addition to chronocentrism--the restriction to a single slice of history from ca. 1975 to the present--Sullivan's essay seems oddly localized. Many of the examples derive from observations at the Provincetown enclave. Of course P-town in not Massachusetts, and Massachusetts is not America--or the world. Elsewhere, as Sullivan acknowledges, gay culture is in retreat (as in the Netherlands) or struggling to emerge (in much of the Third World). It seems that there is an recurrent cycle of repression, emergence, flowering, and finally (to an unknown extent) mainstreaming. But as the Netherlands, and now apparently France and other advanced countries seem to be showing, one can go backwards as well as forwards.

Let me reiterate the main point, though. Gay culture is not of recent origin. In fact that is what "culture" must mean--something handed down over many generations. For that reason gay culture, or more accurately gay subcultures, are unlikely to disappear, though they may be threatened and embattled from time to time, blunted by kindness as well as by repression..

3) The third problem in Sullivan's essay stems from the "end-of" meme. This tempting gambit is often more rhetorical than real. Almost two millennia ago Pliny the Elder opined that art had ceased in the 121st Olympiad (ca. 292 BCE), Yet as Pliny also notes (a salutary reminder) art revived again in the 156th Olympiad (ca. 156 BCE). Giorgio Vasari thought that art had gone into an irreversible decline after the death of Michelangelo in 1564. In the early 19th century Hegel thought that his own age had finally seen the end of art. A living art critic, Arthur Danto, has told us that art ceased in 1964. It is odd, though, that something that looks very much like art persists. The "end-of" template is in vogue. So it is that the death of all sorts of other things, from ideology to "intelligent writing," have been duly noted. Francis Fukuyama has informed us of the end of history itself--though one doesn't hear much about this purported demise nowadays.

It seems likely that the death of gay culture, together with that of art, ideology, history, and the rest, has been much exaggerated.

Concluding reflections. As has been noted, it would be more accurate to speak of subcultures, since gay and lesbian culture is not monolithic--and probably never has been. Sullivan assumes that pluralism emerged only ca. 1975. However, I observed it Los Angeles in the fifties. Magnus Hirschfeld depicted it in Berlin over a century ago.

The central problem, though, is that the word culture is used in two different senses (two at least that are relevant here; there are others). First, is the broad definition favored by anthropologists, who see culture as the complete ensemble of practices, beliefs, and artefacts that serve to constitute the special characteristics of any given human group. Over against this definition stands a narrower one: culture is essentially high culture, achievements in philosophy and poetry, art and music that register achievements in civilization. These are thought to be accompanied by refinements in sensibility, so that we speak of a "cultured" person, someone of "deep culture," and so forth. In common parlance someone who fixes obsessively (and often superficially) on these accomplishments is termed a "culture-vulture." Sullivan is taking gay culture in the broader, anthropological sense. However, when gays and lesbians recite lists of "greats," such as Michelangelo, Wilde, and Stein, they are honoring the narrower sense of culture.


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