Photo by Jack GouldIt's that time of year again, when Orange County's gays and lesbians unfurl the rainbow flags and take to the streets to publicly celebrate their queer selves and to honor the many achievements of the Gay Liberation movement. Just don't expect Daniel Harris to show up.
Harris is a gay man and the author of The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, a book in which he argues against the popular notion that recent gay history—from 1969's Stonewall Riots to the present—is an almost unbroken chain of progressive, onward-and-upward events. Harris doesn't deny that gays have achieved a place at the social table. That's just his point: they have, and it's killing them. “The end of oppression necessitates the end of the gay sensibility,” he argues. Translation: straight America is destroying gay America by mainstreaming gay culture to death. All the things that make up gay culture—gay pornography, camp humor, S-M, drag and glad-to-be-gay rhetoric—all that stuff has become Gap-ad material, the scripted gags of popular sitcoms and daytime talk shows. None dare call it cultural transformation; it is mere commercialization, at the end of which, he asserts, you'll find the cultural boneyard, home of spats, opera and 1960s radicalism.
When it isn't co-opted, gay culture has been denied by gay America's most ambitious. “Mainstream society is willing to accept the homosexual only when he is stripped of his subversive, erotic identity and remade in the wholesome image of the straight man, a process that will ultimately destroy the gay sensibility, eliminating its distinctive characteristics,” Harris writes. Far from being fully emancipated from the pre-Stonewall dark ages, we are more enslaved than ever. “The repressed, censorious and moralistic culture that preceded the sexual revolution had at least one distinct advantage over its modern, hedonistic counterpart: its squeamishness prevented the free dissemination of the sexual images that now victimize gay men by providing the punitive standard against which we measure the mediocrity of our sex lives, as well as the inferiority of our bandy-legged, stooped-shouldered bodies,” he writes. Ah, for the good old days, when the repressive machinery of mainstream America helped forge a unique gay identity.
Harris fails to imagine what might have happened if gay men had—to borrow a phrase from feminist Luce Irigaray—”refused to go to market.” Refusing to place blame solely on the hulking shoulders of corporate America, he writes that gays have not only been exploited but, like cultural whores, have also willingly sold themselves.
Not one to mince words, Harris' fierce intellectual shrewdness combined with a wickedly dry sense of humor and elegant prose style makes for a compelling read. He's a gifted thinker, but the one part of his mind that doesn't get a workout in this book is the area that exercises subtlety. Although acutely sensitive to the slightest historical shifts, his intellect has the delicacy of a jackhammer. The grim picture he paints, while owing an unnamed debt to the work of gay philosopher Michel Foucault, bears little of the latter's gift for illuminating the tiniest escape routes. Harris does not depict any instance in which gay men have withstood capitalism's appetite and survived culturally intact. It is quite apparent by the end of the book that he believes such resistance simply hasn't occurred; but this monolithic aspect of his vision ultimately detracts from the power of his argument.
If you take them seriously, Harris' provocative conclusions cast a shadow over Gay Pride Festivals. They call heavily into question not only this year's theme (“A Prideful Past; A Powerful Future”) but also the legitimacy of the event. If you believe Harris, Pride Festivals don't celebrate authentic liberation; rather, they mark another year of cultural disappearance, paying our respects to a bunk history riddled with a false sense of achievement.
Here's what others make of Harris' thesis:
In 1993, Eric Anderson of Huntington Beach High School came out as one of the nation's first openly gay high school coaches. He now runs an online newsletter (GumbyGazet.com) for OC gay youth. “There are many ways to go about trying to be accepted, but in the end, the goal is the same: for the culture to no longer be seen as 'radical' or 'unique.' As it gains acceptance, gay culture is bound to change—a change that is neither good, nor bad, just change.” Joseph Amster is the editor of the gay publicationOrange County/Long Beach Blade. “There is still a very strong gay culture, but it no longer needs to be as outrageous for the sake of visibility. The more flamboyant members of the community successfully increased visibility, making it more comfortable for those who had been living in silence to come out. So, no, gay culture is not in decline, but it is stronger than ever. Shows like Will N Grace are a good example. Could a show like that exist without a strong gay culture to build on?” Artist Randy Pesquiera was born and raised in Orange County. He has been a gay-community activist and organizer since the 1970s.“I fully agree with Harris that the gay-liberation movement has been romanticized. In Orange County, the gay community has virtually disappeared into the beige of suburbia. Here, it's mainly about money. I'm sure this “capitalization” of community is everywhere in the country: the economy is booming, and the community is more concerned about e-commerce than the right to marry, or that it's still illegal for us to have sex in several states.” Mitchell Goldstone is an out member of the Irvine Chamber of Commerce's board of directors. His company, 30-Minute Photos, is a participant in IBM's diversity campaign.“Harris's cynicism needs a fashion lesson. All wardrobes have to be updated; last year's—and certainly styles from decades ago—get stale. The gay movement hasn't lost its distinctive character; it just changed its clothing, left the closet and grew up. But that doesn't mean we should be all starry-eyed. Discrimination still lingers. The pending Knight Initiative [the so-called Defense of Marriage Act] is a prime example that activism is still needed.” Bob Gentry, a former mayor of Laguna Beach, who was at one point the only openly gay elected official in the country.“As a gay man who remembers the pre-Stonewall era, I take exception to Harris' premise that the gay movement has resulted in only surface acceptance. Pre-Stonewall days were marked with a silent, shameful lot of men, afraid to identify as gay even to themselves. Stonewall launched a social movement that has had tremendous impact on American life and the gay community. We are helping to shape the culture, much as people of color have done for decades. Why is this happening? The post-Stonewall era is characterized by one great phenomenon —being out. Have we lost our 'gay sensibility'? Absolutely not. It is just different today. We see ourselves as a much larger whole. We are an emerging community still finding itself, defining itself, being itself, individual by individual.”
The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture by Daniel Harris; Hyperion. 320 pages. $24.95 hardcover.