A few weeks ago while sampling the delights of my university town’s gay scene (a club night every other Wednesday), I bumped into someone I only vaguely knew. I was keen on dancing the night away to a mix of Beyonce, One Direction and ABBA. He seemed much more intent on an earnest discussion of matters of the heart.
We retreated to the bar where he told me he had come out last week and started to ask a string of questions: “How did you know you were gay?” “When?” “Who did you tell?” “Have you told your parents?” “How did your friends react?” Before I could fully answer he launched, Wikipedia-style, into a potted history of gay culture, rattling off facts about the film Morocco, the life and times of Christopher Isherwood and the effects of the Stonewall riots.
Let’s be honest, who hasn’t, in times of uncertainty, turned to the all-knowing oracle of Google to provide answers to life’s big questions? Understandable, then, that faced with a revelation about his sexuality he would attempt to ground himself in some pre-existing culture in which he can find a place. I was struck by his need to find, and reminded of my own former reliance on, precedents and people who had also shared in this experience.
This process of engaging with the wider gay world is changing. In days gone by, homosexuality existed as a definite subculture, a world apart that was marginalised, but also self-contained and clearly defined. There was an urgent and shared political agenda. This, of course, is no longer the case: as Bruce Bawer points out in a fascinating article for Forbes, gay culture is now, thankfully, a central facet of mainstream cultural and political life.
What with equal marriage legislation and bills on adoption rights and decriminalisation working their way through parliaments across the globe, the barriers that once enforced silence on queer communities are being steadily eroded. He sees within this a certain collapse of gay cultural institutions into the mainstream, something which is a testament to how far the gay rights movement has come in the last few decades.
But what are the ramifications for my friend above? Where does this leave someone trying to negotiate an identity when what that identity represents is becoming less and less certain? The crux of the matter, in my opinion, lies in the fact that there is a huge gap between the idealised images of equality and harmony that exists in representations of gay relationships in pop culture at the moment (see Modern Family and The New Normal) and the reality of life for the gay 16 year old in rural Arkansas.
What could result is a generation cast adrift, who can find security neither in a specific institutions nor in the mainstream that supposedly now represents them. Whether we like it or not, homosexual people the world over are discriminated against and belittled. Without marginalising the gay voice, it is imperative to find some kind of culture that will help those looking for guidance to work through the specific experience of being gay today.
My point is that the trap that needs to be avoided is one of saying that the gay rights movement has gone “far enough,” that simply because equal marriage is on the agenda or that discrimination in the work place has been reduced, or that homosexual characters are becoming more and more commonplace on television screens, that it is time to declare the chapter of inequality over. What happens on the level of legislature or in LA film studios has in reality little to do with everyday experiences.
A move towards less differentiation between “straight” and “gay” culture is undoubtedly a good thing, but in calling for these boundaries to be removed we need to be acutely aware that attitudes don’t change so quickly. I’m not saying that homosexuality isn’t “normal,” but that it’s going to take a long time for people to recognise that. Young people can’t be left in limbo while this happens.
Gay culture is therefore undoubtedly in a state of flux as it negotiates its exit from a marginal position to one of more mainstream acceptance. As Bawer points out, plays, novels and TV programmes with homosexual themes are not simply for a homosexual audience, and what would have once been considered a shocking affront to public morality can now easily be found in cinemas throughout the land.
These changes are exciting and I’m going to set myself a task for the next few weeks. I’d like to a take a (partial, personal) romp through some examples of gay literature, film, music and television. I make no claims of authority or objectivity, but I’d like to see what people coming out today have at their disposal to negotiate their sexual identity with and what messages these examples are saying about what place LGBT identities are beginning to occupy in the twenty first century.
If nothing else, it will be a tremendous cover story for when I’m caught reading Fifty Shades of Gay.