Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Is For Ay-leet

(Not work-safe. You have been warned:)

Jeez, so much is on my mind and I don't know where to begin. I guess there's nothing to do but pick a place and dive in.

Details is a fashionista magazine that began its existence in the 1980s with, as I recall, an eye to the gay male market. After a few issues it began to tone down gay content (whatever that might have been) to pursue a fashion-conscious straight male readership, sort of proto-metrosexual. Those who've read this blog for any length of time will probably guess that I never paid Details much attention, any more than I do to Opera News or GQ. I noticed the flap over a hopefully satirical 2004 piece called "Gay or Asian?", because the diversity managers at my university passed the word along, but beyond that Details has not been in my radar.

This past week, though, some of the gay blogosphere got excited about an article on the magazine's website (I don't know whether it appeared in print) called "The Rise of the A-Gay." The writer has, like Columbus, discovered a whole new gay world: like, omigod! there are like these totally hot, totally rich gay men! They vacation at Gstaad! They wear perfectly tailored Savile Row suits instead of off-the-rack! And even though some of them are opera queens, they are like totally butch, which will cause you straight guys to develop a "man crush" on them, making your wives go Hmmm. And although the writer claims that these guys don't want to be part of a "closeted group or velvet mafia", he names no names. "And they can pull off having much-younger boyfriends without looking creepy."

The only source quoted by name in the piece is one Laura Gilbert, a pop-culture maven with her very own personal A-gay, whom she drags to gay bars and uses to torture other straight women. "A-gays mark measurable societal progress ... People can now be out without being expected to swish. It's the Neil Patrick Harris/Portia de Rossi brand of gay."

I love trendoids. They're always discovering the newest big thing that on second thought turns out to have been around since the dawn of time. Armistead Maupin wrote about a clique he called "A-gays" in his first Tales of the City book, published in 1976. There've always been upscale homos and their circles -- W. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, various Hollywood and Broadway circles and so on -- and I daresay Natalie Clifford Barney and Radclyffe Hall would have thought of themselves as A-dykes if the terminology had been available to them. "We are everywhere" is a durable gay-movement slogan, and "everywhere" includes living La Vida Rich and Famous.

And this notion that "People can now be out without being expected to swish"? Of course that's an evergreen too. Gay men who came out (as opposed to being pigeonholed as queens from childhood) have always rejected the expectation to "swish," which comes from straights no less than gays. As long ago as 1971, then-closeted sociologist Laud Humphreys published an article in a professional journal, Transaction, entitled "New Styles in Homosexual Manliness." Nor were those styles exactly new then. To combine both themes, consider this quotation from one of Humphreys's informants, speaking of a park "near the heart of a metropolis on the eastern seaboard":
Back around 1930, when I was a very young man, I had sex with a really old fellow who was nearly 80. He told me that when he was a youngster -- around the end of the Civil War -- he would make spending money by hustling in that very park. Wealthy men would come down from the Hill in their carriages to pick up boys who waited in the shadows of the tree-lined walks at night.
So there you are: homos with money, homos who don't "swish", a writer who hopes some of that money and class (but maybe not the homo part) will rub off on him. BFD. Yet this little squib drove some gay bloggers right off the deep end. "Fuck You, Details Magazine!" is the title of a post by one, a self-described "gay men's health activist and thinker", who was so enraged by the "heteronormativity, embodied" of the piece that he neglected to think about the heteronormative, homophobic/misogynistic aspects of using "Fuck you" as an insult. His fury was inspired by the article's opening claim that A-gays are "smarter, sexier, and far more successful than you'll ever be." Y'know, there are literally dozens of people who are smarter, sexier, and more successful than I'll ever be. It's not something that keeps me up nights, but then it's not news to me either.

"This isn't just an expose on the new gay elite, it's a hit piece on sissies everywhere," he bellows in boldface, then delivers another ringing, butch "Fuck you!" to Details: "I haven't ever picked up your trashy excuse for a magazine, and I won't be anytime soon." (Cancel my subscription! Oops, I don't have one. But if I did...) I can't help but recall that the sissies of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, whom the Details writer dismisses as the old public face of American queerdom, now in the dustbin of history, were also denounced by PR-conscious Homo-Americans for collaborating with the patriarchy. Or whatever. As a hit piece on sissies, I don't see the A-gays article as having much of a punch. Any self-respecting sissy, including me, is most likely to deliver a sassy Snap! or two to the writer and the magazine, while recalling what one of the openly gay sociologist Martin Levine's clone informants told him: "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls."

Meanwhile, over at Christopher Hennessey's Outside the Lines blog, where the Details piece was linked, one commenter fumed, "Jesus H with the A-Gay crap. Basically, they are creating a class system within the Gay 'community'". I'm not sure why she felt the need to put "community" in quotes, which suggests that she doesn't take gay community seriously to begin with; but more important, class divisions among gays are nothing new and don't need Details to 'create' or maintain them.

Another commenter declared the article "a big steaming turd" and its subjects "the fags who have decided they need to be butch or lipstick lesbos to fit in. They can kiss my big, fat sissy ass." This is more serious. I've noticed that a good many people (not just gay ones) assume that anyone with a different style of self-presentation is motivated by false consciousness: those who dislike gender nonconformity denounce sissies and bulldykes for "fitting the stereotype" out of a wicked desire to give decent gay people a bad name, while gender nonconformists accuse their counterparts of covering up their difference out of a desire to "fit in." No doubt both groups had moms who accused them of Just Behaving Like This To Drive Me Crazy. My mother used that line on me too, yet I managed somewhere along the line to realize that other people's behavior, no matter how much it annoys or offends me, is not born of a calculated desire to annoy me, but of other reasons that probably have nothing to do with me. (It should also be noted that gay communities, which are not much more tolerant of difference than the straight, have their own peer pressure aimed at controlling behavior and style. And incidentally, "Kiss my ass", no matter how sissy it is, is also a homophobic putdown.)

Much of this goes back to the great debates over whether gay people should "assimilate" or not. The thing is, we are born assimilated. Almost all of us had straight parents and grew up in a heterosexual milieu. At some point we emerge from the great Babylonian exile of gay childhood, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called it somewhere. Of course, we no more leave behind all of our parents' folkways than than the children of Israel left behind all the customs of Babylon, or of Egypt before that. Nor should we try to, if only because we'll always be ambivalent about what we reject. It takes serious work to reach the point where one can think about what of theirs to keep and what to abandon, and what to accept in the exile communities our foreuncles and aunts built.

Can it really be news to anyone that there are rich queers and bourgeois queers and blue-collar and pink-collar and poor queers? I guess it can, which doesn't inspire confidence in their knowledge of the world generally. The gay men I've known over the past several decades have been pretty ambivalent about class, often haunted by a desire to rise to the level of the people they imagine to be their betters. Remember the poor brown and black drag queens of Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning whose dream was to become rich white women? Gay men's culture has always had this aspect, exemplified by the way our slang borrows from High Society, with its "coming out" (derived from debutantes' emergence into the marriage market), "tearooms" (public restrooms used for cruising), "queens" and so on. Coming out for me also meant leaving the working-class (with aspirations to shabby-genteel) background of my childhood and adolescence for the world of the University, with academia's own special ambivalence about the status of the scholar in society. I didn't have Raymond Williams's class consciousness, but I recognize something of myself and some of the people I met in his account of his first years at Cambridge in the 1930s:
The myth of the working-class boy arriving in Cambridge – it has happened more since the war, though the proportion is still quite unreasonably low – is that he is an awkward misfit and has to learn new manners. It may depend on where you come from. Out of rural Wales it didn’t feel like that. The class which has dominated Cambridge is given to describing itself as well-mannered, polite, sensitive. It continually contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others. When it turns to the arts, it congratulates itself, overtly, on its taste and its sensibility; speaks of its poise and tone. If I then say that what I found was an extraordinarily coarse, pushing, name-ridden group, I shall be told that I am showing class-feeling, class-envy, class-resentment. That I showed class-feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody fortunately enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well-mannered and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive and deprived people.
Within a few years I had stopped wondering if I'd find a place among the gay men I met in the University, because I'd realized that I didn't want a place among them. I had my own sense of entitlement, based not only on high SAT scores but on my parents' love and encouragement (though it took me some years longer to realize what a foundation of confidence and optimism they gave me, and how much I owe them for that). When I encountered gay people whose sense of entitlement was based on their middle-class background and professional status, despite their aggressive ignorance and complacency (to say nothing of their racism and sexism) I found that I didn't recognize their superiority, and wandered off in directions more interesting to me. Whether those directions are superior generally is not for me to say; I only know that they're better for me.

Maybe I should be angrier about the Details piece -- it seems to have been written as a provocation of some sort -- but I don't see it as having any bearing on me. There are rich gay men? They've always been there. Will they let me play with them? Who cares? I'm not much interested in their world, nor do I care if they're interested in mine. I can't help suspecting that the anger the article inspired is born of envy and a sense of exclusion from a world of Savile Row suits, fairy-tale weddings, refinement, and class -- that these writers nevertheless identify with and aspire to. Right now I think there are more important things to worry about. But what do I know?