The woman in the audience was furious, old-time furious. Clearly she had been stewing all evening, if not for decades. When question-and-answer time finally came, she rose and yelled and, what seemed worse, shook her finger at the dais. How dare we – she presumably meant my generation of fortyish gay men – betray the movement, the movement she had fought and sacrificed for? How dare we dishonor her suffering and ideals, not to mention the thousands dead, by doing … what? Well, she wasn’t so clear on that. Perhaps by becoming parents (my partner and I have two boys) or by writing for mainstream magazines or by speaking on panels that didn’t include her. “Imitating heterosexuals” is a phrase I think I remember her shouting. But what would that mean? Was my hair ill-styled?
I hope I said: “What was the point of gay liberation if not to liberate gay people? Or did you only want to fight?” But I probably just shook in my sporty half-boots, which seemed to support her point instead of mine.
I hadn’t heard that kind of public gay anger in years, and I can’t say I’d missed it. The wastefulness of well-intentioned activists mauling each other, the excruciating dullness of the habitual haranguers: These were features of the movement I’d happily outlived. But I knew, too, that anger had played a major role in gay liberation – in all liberations – even if it derived as much from lousy childhoods as from perceived oppression. So, later that night, the baby-sitter dismissed, I tried to understand why the woman had reviled me, and the answer was plain: for passing her by.
The gay moment is over, or that one is, anyway. We have fallen short of realizing the angry woman’s dreams, but we did do something at least as important: We moved forthrightly into the larger world. Not just as comic or aesthetic relief, but as power brokers, opinion-makers, pillars, and parents.
If this sounds like a profoundly bourgeois achievement, that’s because it has largely been a white, male, disposable-income revolution. So stipulate that the job is not done. aids is not over, especially for black men. Homosexuals still can’t marry (Vermont notwithstanding) anywhere in this country, or adopt together except in a few places, or serve openly in the military. You won’t be getting your Interior Decorating badge from the Boy Scouts anytime soon. Stipulate, too, that we occasionally find ourselves subject to impromptu firings or non-hirings, slurs or punches, knifings, burnings, or all-but-crucifixions on Wyoming fences. Stipulate all that and still, if you look at the past 30 years – the past ten especially – you have to conclude that while losing almost all the battles, we have won the war. By which I mean that most of us feel surer, safer, more integrally American than anyone dreamed possible in 1970. And new generations of gay kids are taking as their birthright what we could not even imagine.
But I don’t think the finger-pointing woman was merely envious. I think she was trying to issue a warning about the costs of our achievement. What kind of movement, she seemed to ask, would bury its veterans before they were dead? She meant herself, but I was also reminded of Harry Hay, one of the founders of gay liberation – albeit a proponent of a sweet, sissified, semi-separatist offshoot called the Radical Faeries. Hay lives on at 88, scraping by on charity. Perhaps one of those new gay retirement homes in Florida should take him in, for publicity value.
Neither anger nor sweetness is the currency of the new gay moment. Currency is the currency. Did Andrew Tobias get to be a chief fund-raiser for the Democratic Party just because he was the Best Little Boy in the World? No. It was his genius for tapping the new gay wealth that got him his place at the table. Did Dr. Laura tank because heterosexuals were offended by her homophobic slurs? No. It was an economic argument that did her in: Advertisers were convinced that their products wouldn’t sell in proximity to so much hatred.
This is not to argue against success. Money may well do more to change American attitudes toward homosexuals than morality ever did. A recent Carnegie Mellon study, as summarized in the Washington Post, found that “the number one thing that correlates with a region’s high-tech success is the concentration of gay people living there.” This suggests a link if not an equation between tolerance and economic supremacy; but what will happen to our boats of liberty when the tide of money that lifted them up inevitably goes out again?
We may not have much solid ground to return to. Take the planned merger that will combine Out, The Advocate, PlanetOut and Gay.com (among others) into one giant media conglomerate. These magazines and online services, originally valuable to the extent they served the community, are now redefined purely as assets and sold to the highest bidder. (Major investors in the merged company would include such mainstream players as Chase Capital Partners, Silicon Valley’s Mayfield Fund, AOL Investments, BMG Entertainment, and Creative Artists Agency.) And we have already begun to cede much of our literal territory, too. As heterosexual moneybags move into the neighborhoods that gay people made chic, the gay people themselves are packing up the Calphalon and heading for new frontiers. Chelsea, like the haunted Village before it, is emptying out: Ghettos are passé! More and more homosexuals want to live heterogeneously, whether in bustling melting pots like Jackson Heights or in the kind of staid, child-oriented enclaves (Park Slope, and even New Jersey!) they spent their own childhoods escaping. But with the diaspora in full swing, a question arises: Once we’ve dispersed enough, will we cease to exist as a publicly discernible minority? If so, will that represent the ultimate success or failure of the movement?
I know how the woman in the audience would answer that question: We have not just collaborated with the enemy but joined them. She probably would have said the same of Betty Friedan, who argued for approximately the same shift in tactics at the parallel point in the women’s movement. In The Second Stage, Friedan urged her colleagues to abjure factionalism, male-bashing, and ideological rage in order to get on with the important (and, after all, rather radical) agenda of remaking the actual lives of women and men.
That was 1981. Twenty years later, has the gay movement finally entered its own second stage? With a vengeance, I’d say. Consider that gayest president ever: Bill Clinton. A sensitive mama’s boy with a permanent hard-on, he stunningly embodied the homosexual stereotype at both of its contradictory extremes. He also did more to improve the position of gay people in America than anyone else ever has. Not because of any notable success with legislation; indeed, the enormous failure, right off the bat, of his military policy made many professional homosexuals wonder if they’d wasted their one good shot. They hadn’t, because Clinton consistently modeled for America what he was unable to enforce: not just tolerance or compassion but respect. How? By using the word gay so comfortably in speeches, by gladly attending gay-rights functions, by naming so many openly gay people (and, just as important, some closeted ones) to meaningful positions in his administration – in short, by feeling our pain as enthusiastically and indiscriminately as he felt everyone else’s.
The problem with such gestures isn’t that they’re small and incremental but that they’re easily perverted. Perhaps Clinton made us complacent as we entered the second stage. How else to explain that Al Gore, his pro-gay heir, drew only 71 percent of the gay vote (compared with 90 percent of the black vote)? When one quarter of self-described gays and lesbians support a candidate whose stand on gay issues is dim at best, something fundamentally new is happening. Is homosexuality no longer the most important subject in the homosexual agenda? One could almost see that as a good development, as a harbinger of liberation’s third stage. But brushing off Gore was not a sign of maturity; it was a sign of amnesia. How could we, of all people, not recognize the dangerous argument George W. Bush advanced in his bid to “restore dignity” to the Clinton White House?
Maybe we’ve come too far.
I’ve heard people warn that in spending our temporary wealth to purchase so much normalcy, we risk selling off something more valuable: our unusualness. But unusualness isn’t a very high bar. Yes, we invented the camp sensibility, elevated affectation to an art form; we’ve done wonders with flowers and Princess Diana’s hair. These translations of despair have been (leaving aside works of individual genius) our gift to the world. Let the world have them; personally, I doubt they are worth mourning any more than the minstrelsy of Stepin Fetchit. The fabulousness of oppression is never fabulous enough.
If there is anything truly worth preserving about gayness, it is the lesson each gay person is forced to learn about what love costs, and is worth. And even when that lesson is generally acknowledged, when the gay battles (and not just the war) are won, there will be plenty of other battles to fight. aids may or may not have stabilized in Chelsea, but it is killing far more people in sub-Saharan Africa than ever saw Bette at the baths. Plus, there are still those pesky issues of race and war and old age and poverty, not to mention the overheated, exhausted earth. With our newfound economic power, with our fairy dust that turns ghettos into high-tech wonderlands, with the strength of Will & Grace’s ratings and the glow of Clinton’s bear hug, what will we choose to do about other people’s lousy childhoods? How will we learn to love the rest of this tacky old world?