One of my favorite Letterman routines involves Dave going shopping at a Manhattan store called Just Bulbs, where he proceeds to torture a salesclerk by asking for anything but bulbs. What he really wants, he says, is a certain kind of lampshade. After repeatedly deflecting Dave's queries with a terse cheerfulness, the exasperated clerk finally barks, "We don't carry shades just bulbs." So Letterman sweetly asks where he might find a shade. "Well, I suppose at a store called Just Shades," his unwitting foil responds.
Cue a shot of the storefront of Just Shades (yes, it actually exists on Spring Street, on the Lower East Side). It's classic Letterman: found comedy, where reality or surreality is the punch line.
I thought of the Just Bulbs–Just Shades routine recently when I heard the news that Viacom is developing a gay-and-lesbian cable channel. To me, that's a punch line, too: Just Gays.
Twenty-four hours and 365 days a year's worth of same-sexiness? Now, there's an idea so cutting-edge it sounds practically . . . Canadian! Yes, it turns out our neighbors to the north have already been there, done that: There's a seven-month-old Toronto-based all-gay cable network called ugh PrideVision, with shows like Dyke TV and Frisky Femmes.
Even worse, we've basically been there, done that, too: There are, of course, plenty of queer characters on American TV (from Malcolm's geeky gay pals on Malcolm in the Middle to the sensitive gay desk assistant on NYPD Blue) and many of them are rather interesting and complicated. And there even seems to be room for serious, politically charged pro-gay programming: HBO and NBC aired competing Matthew Shepard movies last month.
In fact, queerness is so pervasive the embrace of gay style and sensibility is omnipresent not only on television but in the culture at large that it prompts the question: What's left that's truly hetero? Never mind Just Gay. What's Just Straight?
The easiest answer is that if something is aggressively un-gay, or anti-gay, then it must be straight. But of course that's the wrong answer. It's taken for granted, for instance, that the notoriously homophobic world of rap music is ultra-hetero. But it turns out that what P. Diddy really wanted to do when he grew up was break into fashion(!). Andre from OutKast who has the most flamboyantly perverse style sense since Prince went and wore that crazy-ass dress at the Grammys; Lil' Kim is, for all practical purposes, a drag queen. Ghetto fabulous is, after all, fabulous, and the defining gesture of the rap repertoire is still the lusty crotch grab. Art hasn't been this phallocentric since Robert Mapplethorpe.
If it's nearly impossible to think of any groups that are entirely un-gay, it's even harder in New York, at least to think of any individuals who are. Right now I'm doing a mental inventory of my heterosexual friends, and "straight" almost universally fails as a designation. I've got an SMWAAROONM buddy (Straight Male With an Apartment Right Out of Nest Magazine). And an SFBWMOWUT girlfriend (Straight Female but Would Make Out With Uma Thurman). And an SMWARDW college roommate (Straight Male With a Really Dykey Wife). And an SMWGHWMAAFD neighbor (Straight Male Who Gets Handsy With Me After a Few Drinks). And so on.
Polymorphous sensibility, if not polymorphous sexuality, is now the norm. In New York City, pure, unbridled, good old-fashioned heterosexuality can seem actually peculiar. It's the exception, not the rule.
Gay creative types have been whining for years about how gay culture has been losing its edge. In fact, it hasn't been lost it's been appropriated. "Breeder culture" cheerfully submitted to insemination by gay culture, garnering wit, wisdom, and wardrobe tips from the nonreproductive class.
The truth is, it's hard not to be a little nostalgic for the mystery, the dark edge afforded by the closet. Gay culture now is about stating the obvious. Such as Rosie O'Donnell is gay.
It's rude to say it, but Rosie feels so over as a cultural phenomenon now that she's out. Part of what made her interesting was that she had a secret. At least when she was openly closeted, there was a bit of frisson, some intrigue to her. This is anticlimax.
For a while, I also thought it was cynical, opportunistic: She's got a book to sell. But then it became clear that she's actually serious about the struggle. She's a multi-millionairess talk-show queen, but she's still a second-class citizen in parts of this country. That would include Florida, where anti-gays have succeeded in classifying her as an unfit parent. She's an American icon (to millions of lumpen suburban stay-at-home moms, at least), but she hasn't forgotten she's not fully American.
Gays may own pop culture and the remaining anti-gays may be a dying breed, but they don't plan to go quietly, and they still want to fuck with us on a daily basis.
It's easy to forget that. Living and working in New York, where so many people are, on the surface, having a gay old time, we've become sated on inclusion. Hence the impulse to reclaim the one part of gayness that the straights won't ever be quite comfortable with: the sex itself.
Earlier this month, a friend excitedly e-mailed me about "a COMPLETELY OUTRAGEOUS, history-making nightlife event" that he'd just attended: a meatpacking-district successor to a certain oversubscribed East Village party that featured "a Jacuzzi with a full orgy on the second floor flanked by cabanas stuffed with guys having sex." The bacchanalia, the first in a planned new series, surely had something to do with the continuing post-Giuliani throwing-off of shackles. And some of it is logistical: Cops, post–September 11, have rediscovered that they have more important pursuits than "chasing naked, well-hung men around a nightclub," as one promoter refers to the raids on his attempted Rudy-era parties. Back rooms are back, and go-go boys and girls are taking it off, taking it all off, at an increasing number of clubs.
Sometimes the wild abandon almost seems like a reclamation project. It's an awful lot of fun playing sexual outlaw getting to feel Just Gay again. In our nightlife, we can still go where no straight person has gone before. Good for us. But in the end, it may be a distraction, a way of forgetting what's actually COMPLETELY OUTRAGEOUS: that the anti-gays think they get to control not only whom we fuck but whom we love.
We're nostalgic for the ghetto, but the ghetto isn't ours to define.