For the better part of two decades, I have spent much of every summer in the small resort of Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. It has long attracted artists, writers, the offbeat, and the bohemian; and, for many years now, it has been to gay America what Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard is to black America: a place where a separate identity essentially defines a separate place. No one bats an eye if two men walk down the street holding hands, or if a lesbian couple pecks each other on the cheek, or if a drag queen dressed as Cher careens down the main strip on a motor scooter. It’s a place, in that respect, that is sui generis. Except that it isn’t anymore. As gay America has changed, so, too, has Provincetown. In a microcosm of what is happening across this country, its culture is changing.
Some of these changes are obvious. A real-estate boom has made Provincetown far more expensive than it ever was, slowly excluding poorer and younger visitors and residents. Where, once, gayness trumped class, now the reverse is true. Beautiful, renovated houses are slowly outnumbering beach shacks, once crammed with twenty-something, hand-to-mouth misfits or artists. The role of lesbians in the town’s civic and cultural life has grown dramatically, as it has in the broader gay world. The faces of people dying from or struggling with aids have dwindled to an unlucky few. The number of children of gay couples has soared, and, some weeks, strollers clog the sidewalks. Bar life is not nearly as central to socializing as it once was. Men and women gather on the beach, drink coffee on the front porch of a store, or meet at the Film Festival or Spiritus Pizza.
And, of course, week after week this summer, couple after couple got married—well over a thousand in the year and a half since gay marriage has been legal in Massachusetts. Outside my window on a patch of beach that somehow became impromptu hallowed ground, I watched dozens get hitched—under a chuppah or with a priest, in formalwear or beach clothes, some with New Age drums and horns, even one associated with a full-bore Mass. Two friends lit the town monument in purple to celebrate; a tuxedoed male couple slipping onto the beach was suddenly greeted with a huge cheer from the crowd; an elderly lesbian couple attached cans to the back of their Volkswagen and honked their horn as they drove up the high street. The heterosexuals in the crowd knew exactly what to do. They waved and cheered and smiled. Then, suddenly, as if learning the habits of a new era, gay bystanders joined in. In an instant, the difference between gay and straight receded again a little.
But here’s the strange thing: These changes did not feel like a revolution. They felt merely like small, if critical, steps in an inexorable evolution toward the end of a distinctive gay culture. For what has happened to Provincetown this past decade, as with gay America as a whole, has been less like a political revolution from above than a social transformation from below. There is no single gay identity anymore, let alone a single look or style or culture. Memorial Day sees the younger generation of lesbians, looking like lost members of a boy band, with their baseball caps, preppy shirts, short hair, and earrings. Independence Day brings the partiers: the “circuit boys,” with perfect torsos, a thirst for nightlife, designer drugs, and countless bottles of water. For a week in mid-July, the town is dominated by “bears”—chubby, hairy, unkempt men with an affinity for beer and pizza. Family Week heralds an influx of children and harried gay parents. Film Festival Week brings in the artsy crowd. Women’s Week brings the more familiar images of older lesbians: a landlocked flotilla of windbreakers and sensible shoes. East Village bohemians drift in throughout the summer; quiet male couples spend more time browsing gourmet groceries and realtors than cruising nightspots; the predictable population of artists and writers—Michael Cunningham and John Waters are fixtures—mix with openly gay lawyers and cops and teachers and shrinks.
Slowly but unmistakably, gay culture is ending. You see it beyond the poignant transformation of P-town: on the streets of the big cities, on university campuses, in the suburbs where gay couples have settled, and in the entrails of the Internet. In fact, it is beginning to dawn on many that the very concept of gay culture may one day disappear altogether. By that, I do not mean that homosexual men and lesbians will not exist—or that they won’t create a community of sorts and a culture that sets them in some ways apart. I mean simply that what encompasses gay culture itself will expand into such a diverse set of subcultures that “gayness” alone will cease to tell you very much about any individual. The distinction between gay and straight culture will become so blurred, so fractured, and so intermingled that it may become more helpful not to examine them separately at all.
For many in the gay world, this is both a triumph and a threat. It is a triumph because it is what we always dreamed of: a world in which being gay is a nonissue among our families, friends, and neighbors. But it is a threat in the way that all loss is a threat. For many of us who grew up fighting a world of now-inconceivable silence and shame, distinctive gayness became an integral part of who we are. It helped define us not only to the world but also to ourselves. Letting that go is as hard as it is liberating, as saddening as it is invigorating. And, while social advance allows many of us to contemplate this gift of a problem, we are also aware that in other parts of the country and the world, the reverse may be happening. With the growth of fundamentalism across the religious world—from Pope Benedict XVI’s Vatican to Islamic fatwas and American evangelicalism—gayness is under attack in many places, even as it wrests free from repression in others. In fact, the two phenomena are related. The new anti-gay fervor is a response to the growing probability that the world will one day treat gay and straight as interchangeable humans and citizens rather than as estranged others. It is the end of gay culture—not its endurance—that threatens the old order. It is the fact that, across the state of Massachusetts, “gay marriage” has just been abolished. The marriage licenses gay couples receive are indistinguishable from those given to straight couples. On paper, the difference is now history. In the real world, the consequences of that are still unfolding.
Quite how this has happened (and why) are questions that historians will fight over someday, but certain influences seem clear even now—chief among them the HIV epidemic. Before aids hit, a fragile but nascent gay world had formed in a handful of major U.S. cities. The gay culture that exploded from it in the 1970s had the force of something long suppressed, and it coincided with a more general relaxation of social norms. This was the era of the post-Stonewall New Left, of the Castro and the West Village, an era where sexuality forged a new meaning for gayness: of sexual adventure, political radicalism, and cultural revolution.
The fact that openly gay communities were still relatively small and geographically concentrated in a handful of urban areas created a distinctive gay culture. The central institutions for gay men were baths and bars, places where men met each other in highly sexualized contexts and where sex provided the commonality. Gay resorts had their heyday—from Provincetown to Key West. The gay press grew quickly and was centered around classified personal ads or bar and bath advertising. Popular culture was suffused with stunning displays of homosexual burlesque: the music of Queen, the costumes of the Village People, the flamboyance of Elton John’s debut; the advertising of Calvin Klein; and the intoxication of disco itself, a gay creation that became emblematic of an entire heterosexual era. When this cultural explosion was acknowledged, when it explicitly penetrated the mainstream, the results, however, were highly unstable: Harvey Milk was assassinated in San Francisco and Anita Bryant led an anti-gay crusade. But the emergence of an openly gay culture, however vulnerable, was still real.
And then, of course, catastrophe. The history of gay America as an openly gay culture is not only extremely short—a mere 30 years or so—but also engulfed and defined by a plague that struck almost poignantly at the headiest moment of liberation. The entire structure of emergent gay culture—sexual, radical, subversive—met a virus that killed almost everyone it touched. Virtually the entire generation that pioneered gay culture was wiped out—quickly. Even now, it is hard to find a solid phalanx of gay men in their fifties, sixties, or seventies—men who fought from Stonewall or before for public recognition and cultural change. And those who survived the nightmare of the 1980s to mid-’90s were often overwhelmed merely with coping with plague; or fearing it themselves; or fighting for research or awareness or more effective prevention.
This astonishing story might not be believed in fiction. And, in fiction, it might have led to the collapse of such a new, fragile subculture. Aids could have been widely perceived as a salutary retribution for the gay revolution; it could have led to quarantining or the collapse of nascent gay institutions. Instead, it had the opposite effect. The tens of thousands of deaths of men from every part of the country established homosexuality as a legitimate topic more swiftly than any political manifesto could possibly have done. The images of gay male lives were recorded on quilts and in countless obituaries; men whose homosexuality might have been euphemized into nonexistence were immediately identifiable and gone. And those gay men and lesbians who witnessed this entire event became altered forever, not only emotionally, but also politically—whether through the theatrical activism of Act-Up or the furious organization of political gays among the Democrats and some Republicans. More crucially, gay men and lesbians built civil institutions to counter the disease; they forged new ties to scientists and politicians; they found themselves forced into more intense relations with their own natural families and the families of loved ones. Where bath houses once brought gay men together, now it was memorial services. The emotional and psychic bonding became the core of a new identity. The plague provided a unifying social and cultural focus.
But it also presaged a new direction. That direction was unmistakably outward and integrative. To borrow a useful distinction deployed by the writer Bruce Bawer, integration did not necessarily mean assimilation. It was not a wholesale rejection of the gay past, as some feared and others hoped. Gay men wanted to be fully part of the world, but not at the expense of their own sexual freedom (and safer sex became a means not to renounce that freedom but to save it). What the epidemic revealed was how gay men—and, by inference, lesbians—could not seal themselves off from the rest of society. They needed scientific research, civic support, and political lobbying to survive, in this case literally. The lesson was not that sexual liberation was mistaken, but rather that it wasn’t enough. Unless the gay population was tied into the broader society; unless it had roots in the wider world; unless it brought into its fold the heterosexual families and friends of gay men and women, the gay population would remain at the mercy of others and of misfortune. A ghetto was no longer an option.
So, when the plague receded in the face of far more effective HIV treatments in the mid-’90s and gay men and women were able to catch their breath and reflect, the question of what a more integrated gay culture might actually mean reemerged. For a while, it arrived in a vacuum. Most of the older male generation was dead or exhausted; and so it was only natural, perhaps, that the next generation of leaders tended to be lesbian—running the major gay political groups and magazines. Lesbians also pioneered a new baby boom, with more lesbian couples adopting or having children. HIV-positive gay men developed different strategies for living suddenly posthumous lives. Some retreated into quiet relationships; others quit jobs or changed their careers completely; others chose the escapism of what became known as “the circuit,” a series of rave parties around the country and the world where fears could be lost on the drug-enhanced dance floor; others still became lost in a suicidal vortex of crystal meth, Internet hook-ups, and sex addiction. HIV-negative men, many of whom had lost husbands and friends, were not so different. In some ways, the toll was greater. They had survived disaster with their health intact. But, unlike their HIV-positive friends, the threat of contracting the disease still existed while they battled survivors’ guilt. The plague was over but not over; and, as they saw men with HIV celebrate survival, some even felt shut out of a new sub-sub-culture, suspended between fear and triumph but unable to experience either fully.
Then something predictable and yet unexpected happened. While the older generation struggled with plague and post-plague adjustment, the next generation was growing up. For the first time, a cohort of gay children and teens grew up in a world where homosexuality was no longer a taboo subject and where gay figures were regularly featured in the press. If the image of gay men for my generation was one gleaned from the movie Cruising or, subsequently, Torch Song Trilogy, the image for the next one was MTV’s “Real World,” Bravo’s “Queer Eye,” and Richard Hatch winning the first “Survivor.” The new emphasis was on the interaction between gays and straights and on the diversity of gay life and lives. Movies featured and integrated gayness. Even more dramatically, gays went from having to find hidden meaning in mainstream films—somehow identifying with the aging, campy female lead in a way the rest of the culture missed—to everyone, gay and straight, recognizing and being in on the joke of a character like “Big Gay Al” from “South Park” or Jack from “Will & Grace.”
There are now openly gay legislators. Ditto Olympic swimmers and gymnasts and Wimbledon champions. Mainstream entertainment figures—from George Michael, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rosie O’Donnell to edgy musicians, such as the Scissor Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, or Bob Mould—now have their sexual orientation as a central, but not defining, part of their identity. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association didn’t exist when I became a journalist. Now it has 1,300 dues-paying members in 24 chapters around the country. Among Fortune 500 companies, 21 provided domestic partner benefits for gay spouses in 1995. Today, 216 do. Of the top Fortune 50 companies, 49 provide nondiscrimination protections for gay employees. Since 2002, the number of corporations providing full protections for openly gay employees has increased sevenfold, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Among the leaders: the defense giant Raytheon and the energy company Chevron. These are not traditionally gay-friendly work environments. Nor is the Republican Party. But the offspring of such leading Republican lights as Dick Cheney, Alan Keyes, and Phyllis Schlafly are all openly gay. So is the spokesman for the most anti-gay senator in Congress, Rick Santorum.
This new tolerance and integration—combined, of course, with the increased ability to connect with other gay people that the Internet provides—has undoubtedly encouraged more and more gay people to come out. The hard data for this are difficult to come by (since only recently have we had studies that identified large numbers of gays) and should be treated with caution. Nevertheless, the trend is clear. If you compare data from, say, the 1994 National Health and Social Life Survey with the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, you will find that women are nearly three times more likely to report being gay, lesbian, or bisexual today than they were eight years ago, and men are about 1.5 times more likely. There are no reliable statistics on openly gay teens, but no one doubts that there has been an explosion in visibility in the last decade—around 3,000 high schools have “gay-straight” alliances. The census, for its part, recorded a threefold increase in the number of same-sex unmarried partners from 1990 to 2000. In 2000, there were close to 600,000 households headed by a same-sex couple, and a quarter of them had children. If you want to know where the push for civil marriage rights came from, you need look no further. This was not an agenda invented by activists; it was a movement propelled by ordinary people.
So, as one generation literally disappeared and one generation found itself shocked to still be alive, a far larger and more empowered one emerged on the scene. This new generation knew very little about the gay culture of the ‘70s, and its members were oblivious to the psychically formative experience of plague that had shaped their elders. Most came from the heart of straight America and were more in tune with its new, mellower attitude toward gayness than the embattled, defensive urban gay culture of the pre-aids era. Even in evangelical circles, gay kids willing to acknowledge and struggle publicly with their own homosexuality represented a new form of openness. The speed of the change is still shocking. I’m only 42, and I grew up in a world where I literally never heard the word “homosexual” until I went to college. It is now not uncommon to meet gay men in their early twenties who took a boy as their date to the high school prom. When I figured out I was gay, there were no role models to speak of; and, in the popular culture, homosexuality was either a punch line or an embarrassed silence. Today’s cultural climate could not be more different. And the psychological impact on the younger generation cannot be overstated.
After all, what separates homosexuals and lesbians from every other minority group is that they are born and raised within the bosom of the majority. Unlike Latino or Jewish or black communities, where parents and grandparents and siblings pass on cultural norms to children in their most formative stages, each generation of gay men and lesbians grows up being taught the heterosexual norms and culture of their home environments or absorbing what passes for their gay identity from the broader culture as a whole. Each shift in mainstream culture is therefore magnified exponentially in the next generation of gay children. To give the most powerful example: A gay child born today will grow up knowing that, in many parts of the world and in parts of the United States, gay couples can get married just as their parents did. From the very beginning of their gay lives, in other words, they will have internalized a sense of normality, of human potential, of self-worth—something that my generation never had and that previous generations would have found unimaginable. That shift in consciousness is as profound as it is irreversible.
To give another example: Black children come into society both uplifted and burdened by the weight of their communal past—a weight that is transferred within families or communities or cultural institutions, such as the church, that provide a context for self-understanding, even in rebellion. Gay children have no such support or burden. And so, in their most formative years, their self-consciousness is utterly different than that of their gay elders. That’s why it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between gay and straight teens today—or even young gay and straight adults. Less psychologically wounded, more self-confident, less isolated, young gay kids look and sound increasingly like young straight kids. On the dozens of college campuses I have visited over the past decade, the shift in just a few years has been astounding. At a Catholic institution like Boston College, for example, a generation ago there would have been no discussion of homosexuality. When I visited recently to talk about that very subject, the preppy, conservative student president was openly gay.
When you combine this generational plasticity with swift demographic growth, you have our current explosion of gay civil society, with a disproportionately young age distribution. I use the term “civil society” in its classic Tocquevillean and Burkean sense: the little platoons of social organization that undergird liberal democratic life. The gay organizations that erupted into being as aids killed thousands in the ‘80s—from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to the aids Project Los Angeles to the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington—struggled to adapt to the swift change in the epidemic in the mid-’90s. But the general principle of communal organization endured. If conservatives had been open-minded enough to see it, they would have witnessed a classic tale of self-help and self-empowerment.
Take, for example, religious life, an area not historically associated with gay culture. One of the largest single gay organizations in the country today is the Metropolitan Community Church, with over 40,000 active members. Go to, yes, Dallas, and you’ll find the Cathedral of Hope, one of the largest religious structures in the country, with close to 4,000 congregants—predominantly gay. Almost every faith now has an explicitly gay denomination associated with it—Dignity for gay Catholics, Bet Mishpachah for gay Jews, and so on. But, in many mainstream Protestant churches and among Reform Jews, such groups don’t even exist because the integration of gay believers is now mundane. These groups bring gays together in a context where sexuality is less a feature of identity than faith, where the interaction of bodies is less central than the community of souls.
In contrast, look at bar life. For a very long time, the fundamental social institution for gay men was the gay bar. It was often secluded—a refuge, a safe zone, and a clearing-house for sexual pickups. Most bars still perform some of those functions. But the Internet dealt them a body-blow. If you are merely looking for sex or a date, the Web is now the first stop for most gay men. The result has been striking. Only a decade ago, you could wander up the West Side Highway in New York City and drop by several leather bars. Now, only one is left standing, and it is less a bar dedicated to the ornate codes of ‘70s leather culture than a place for men who adopt a more masculine self-presentation. My favorite old leather bar, the Spike, is now the “Spike Gallery.” The newer gay bars are more social than sexual, often with restaurants, open windows onto the street, and a welcoming attitude toward others, especially the many urban straight women who find gay bars more congenial than heterosexual pickup joints.
Even gay political organizations often function more as social groups than as angry activist groups. HRC, for example, raises funds and lobbies Congress. Around 350,000 members have contributed in the last two years. It organizes itself chiefly through a series of formal fund-raising dinners in cities across the country—from Salt Lake City to Nashville. These dinners are a social venue for the openly gay bourgeoisie: In tuxedos and ball gowns, they contribute large sums and give awards to local businesses and politicians and community leaders. There are silent auctions, hired entertainers, even the occasional bake-sale. The closest heterosexual equivalent would be the Rotary Club. These dinners in themselves are evidence of the change: from outsider rebellion to bourgeois organization.
Take a look at the gay press. In its shallower forms—glossy lifestyle magazines—you are as likely to find a straight Hollywood star on the cover as any gay icon. In its more serious manifestations, such as regional papers like the Washington Blade or Southern Voice, the past emphasis on sex has been replaced with an emphasis on domesticity. A recent issue of the Blade had an eight-page insert for escort ads, personals, and the kind of material that, two decades ago, would have been the advertising mainstay of the main paper. But in the paper itself are 23 pages of real-estate ads and four pages of home-improvement classifieds. There are columns on cars, sports, DVDs, and local plays. The core ad base, according to its editor, Chris Crain, now comprises heterosexual-owned and operated companies seeking to reach the gay market. The editorial tone has shifted as well. Whereas the Blade was once ideologically rigid—with endless reports on small activist cells and a strident left-wing slant—now it’s much more like a community paper that might be published for any well-heeled ethnic group. Genuine ideological differences are now aired, rather than bitterly decried as betrayal or agitprop. Editorials regularly take Democrats to task as well as Republicans. The maturation has been as swift as it now seems inevitable. After all, in 2004, one-quarter of self-identified gay voters backed a president who supported a constitutional ban on gay marriage. If the gay world is that politically diverse under the current polarized circumstances, it has obviously moved well beyond the time it was synonymous with radical left politics.
How gay men and lesbians express their identity has also changed. When openly gay identity first emerged, it tended toward extremes of gender expression. When society tells you that gay men and lesbians are not fully male or female, the response can be to overcompensate with caricatures of each gender or to rebel by blurring gender lines altogether. Effeminate “queens” were balanced by hyper-masculine bikers and muscle men; lipstick lesbians were offset by classically gruff “bull-dykes.” All these sub-sub-cultures still exist. Many feel comfortable with them; and, thankfully, we see fewer attempts to marginalize them. But the polarities in the larger gay population are far less pronounced than they once were; the edges have softened. As gay men have become less defensive about their masculinity, their expression of it has become subtler. There is still a pronounced muscle and gym culture, but there are also now openly gay swimmers and artists and slobs and every body type in between. Go watch a gay rugby team compete in a regional tournament with straight teams and you will see how vast but subtle the revolution has been. And, in fact, this is the trend: gay civil associations in various ways are interacting with parallel straight associations in a way that leaves their gay identity more and more behind. They’re rugby players first, gay rugby players second.
One of the newest reflections of this is what is known as “bear” culture: heavy, hirsute, unkempt guys who revel in their slovenliness. Their concept of what it means to be gay is very different than that of the obsessive gym-rats with torsos shaved of every stray hair. Among many younger gay men, the grungy look of their straight peers has been adopted and tweaked to individual tastes. Even among bears, there are slimmer “otters” or younger “cubs” or “musclebears,” who combine gym culture with a bear sensibility. The varieties keep proliferating; and, at the rate of current change, they will soon dissipate into the range of identities that straight men have to choose from. In fact, these variations of masculinity may even have diversified heterosexual male culture as well. While some gay men have proudly adopted some classically straight signifiers—beer bellies and back hair—many straight men have become “metrosexuals.” Trying to define “gay culture” in this mix is an increasingly elusive task.
Among lesbians, Ellen DeGeneres’s transition from closeted sitcom star to out-lesbian activist and back to appealingly middle-brow daytime talk-show host is almost a microcosm of diversifying lesbian identity in the past decade. There are still classic butch-femme lesbian partnerships, but more complex forms of self-expression are more common now. With the abatement in many places of prejudice, lesbian identity is formed less by reaction to hostility than by simple self-expression. And this, after all, is and was the point of gay liberation: the freedom not merely to be gay according to some preordained type, but to be yourself, whatever that is.
You see this even in drag, which once defined gayness in some respects but now is only one of many expressions. Old-school drag, the kind that dominated the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, often consisted of female impersonators performing torch songs from various divas. The more miserable the life of the diva, the better able the performer was to channel his own anguish and drama into the show. After all, gayness was synonymous with tragedy and showmanship. Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis: these were the models. But today’s drag looks and feels very different. The drag impresario of Provincetown, a twisted genius called Ryan Landry, hosts a weekly talent show for local drag performers called “Showgirls.” Attending it each Monday night is P-town’s equivalent of weekly Mass. A few old-school drag queens perform, but Landry sets the tone. He makes no attempt to look like a woman, puts on hideous wigs (including a horse mask and a pair of fake boobs perched on his head), throws on ill-fitting dresses, and performs scatological song parodies. Irony pervades the show. Comedy defines it. Gay drag is inching slowly toward a version of British pantomime, where dada humor and absurd, misogynist parodies of womanhood are central. This is post-drag; straight men could do it as well. This year, the longest-running old school drag show—”Legends”—finally closed down. Its audience had become mainly heterosexual and old.
This new post-gay cultural synthesis has its political counterpart. There was once a ferocious debate among gays between what might be caricatured as “separatists” and “assimilationists.” That argument has fizzled. As the gay population has grown, it has become increasingly clear that the choice is not either/or but both/and. The issue of civil marriage reveals this most graphically. When I first argued for equal marriage rights, I found myself assailed by the gay left for social conservatism. I remember one signing for my 1995 book, Virtually Normal, the crux of which was an argument for the right to marry. I was picketed by a group called “Lesbian Avengers,” who depicted my argument as patriarchal and reactionary. They crafted posters with my face portrayed within the crosshairs of a gun. Ten years later, lesbian couples make up a majority of civil marriages in Massachusetts and civil unions in Vermont; and some of the strongest voices for marriage equality have been lesbians, from the pioneering lawyer Mary Bonauto to writer E.J. Graff. To its credit, the left—gay male and lesbian—recognized that what was at stake was not so much the corralling of all gay individuals into a conformist social institution as a widening of choice for all. It is still possible to be a gay radical or rigid leftist. The difference now is that it is also possible to be a gay conservative, or traditionalist, or anything else in between.
Who can rescue a uniform gay culture? No one, it would seem. The generation most psychologically wedded to the separatist past is either dead from HIV or sidelined. But there are still enclaves of gay distinctiveness out there. Paradoxically, gay culture in its old form may have its most fertile ground in those states where homosexuality is still unmentionable and where openly gay men and women are more beleaguered: the red states. Earlier this year, I spoke at an HRC dinner in Nashville, Tennessee, where state politicians are trying to bar gay couples from marrying or receiving even basic legal protections. The younger gay generation is as psychologically evolved there as any place else. They see the same television and the same Internet as gay kids in New York. But their social space is smaller. And so I found a vibrant gay world, but one far more cohesive, homogeneous, and defensive than in Massachusetts. The strip of gay bars—crammed into one place rather than diffuse, as in many blue-state cities—was packed on a Saturday night. The mix of old and young, gay and lesbian, black, white, and everything in between reminded me of Boston in the ‘80s. The tired emblems of the past—the rainbow flags and leather outfits—retained their relevance there.
The same goes for black and Latino culture, where homophobia, propped up by black churches and the Catholic hierarchy respectively, is more intense than in much of white society. It’s no surprise that these are the populations also most at risk for HIV. The underground “down-low” culture common in black gay life means less acknowledgment of sexual identity, let alone awareness or disclosure of HIV status. The same repression that facilitated the spread of HIV among gay white men in the ‘70s now devastates black gay America, where the latest data suggest a 50 percent HIV infection rate. (Compare that with largely white and more integrated San Francisco, where recent HIV infection rates are now half what they were four years ago.) The extremes of gender expression are also more pronounced among minorities, with many gay black or Latino men either adopting completely female personalities or refusing to identify as gay at all. Here the past lives on. The direction toward integration is clear, but the pace is far slower.
And, when you see the internalized defensiveness of gays still living in the shadow of social hostility, any nostalgia one might feel for the loss of gay culture dissipates. Some still echo critic Philip Larkin’s jest that he worried about the American civil rights movement because it was ruining jazz. But the flipness of that remark is the point, and the mood today is less genuine regret—let alone a desire to return to those days—than a kind of wistfulness for a past that was probably less glamorous or unified than it now appears. It is indeed hard not to feel some sadness at the end of a rich, distinct culture built by pioneers who braved greater ostracism than today’s generation will ever fully understand. But, if there is a real choice between a culture built on oppression and a culture built on freedom, the decision is an easy one. Gay culture was once primarily about pain and tragedy, because that is what heterosexuals imposed on gay people, and that was, in part, what gay people experienced. Gay culture was once primarily about sex, because that was how heterosexuals defined gay lives. But gay life, like straight life, is now and always has been about happiness as well as pain; it is about triumph as well as tragedy; it is about love and family as well as sex. It took generations to find the self-worth to move toward achieving this reality in all its forms—and an epidemiological catastrophe to accelerate it. If the end of gay culture means that we have a new complexity to grapple with and a new, less cramped humanity to embrace, then regret seems almost a rebuke to those countless generations who could only dream of the liberty so many now enjoy.
The tiny, rich space that gay men and women once created for themselves was, after all, the best they could do. In a metaphor coined by the philosopher Michael Walzer, they gilded a cage of exclusion with magnificent ornaments; they spoke to its isolation and pain; they described and maintained it with dignity and considerable beauty. But it was still a cage. And the thing that kept gay people together, that unified them into one homogeneous unit, and that defined the parameters of their culture and the limits of their dreams, were the bars on that cage. Past the ashes of thousands and through the courage of those who came before the plague and those who survived it, those bars are now slowly but inexorably being pried apart. The next generation may well be as free of that cage as any minority ever can be; and they will redefine gayness on its own terms and not on the terms of hostile outsiders. Nothing will stop this, since it is occurring in the psyches and souls of a new generation: a new consciousness that is immune to any law and propelled by the momentum of human freedom itself. While we should treasure the past, there is no recovering it. The futures—and they will be multiple—are just beginning.
Andrew Sullivan is a contributing editor at The New Republic and author of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get it Back.