Sunday, November 13, 2011

Relatively Fabulous

I promised to post this last week, so here it is. I wrote it for a local gay newspaper that didn't give me much space, so it's more compact than most of my writing, but I think it says all that needed to be said about the book.

The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, by Daniel Harris
New York: Hyperion, 1997

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away, there was a gay culture. It was made up of willowy young men who worshiped Judy and Bette, who shyly purchased silk caftans by mail order, and composed moist personal ads in hopes of finding a True Friend with whom they never even thought of having sexual contact.

This Edenic state of affairs, alas, was doomed. First the Stonewall rioters forced everyone to be relentlessly gay-positive. If you dared to suggest that gay people might not be perfectly happy all the time, you'd be forced to ... well, I'm not sure what you'd be forced to do, but it wasn't pretty. Then the hothouse blossoms of the 1940s and 1950s, who apparently seldom saw sunlight, metamorphosed into revoltingly wholesome househusbands, fixing up houses and tending their lawns and tans. Worse yet, they began watching pornography on their VCRs and sewing kitschy panels for the AIDS quilt. The high artistic standards of the heyday of gay culture came a-tumbling down.

Or so Daniel Harris would have you believe. In The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, Harris seems to argue that gay (male) culture reached its peak during the repression of the 1950s, and that as we have become less fearful and more visible, we've also become "hopelessly mired in an emotionally stagnant state of euphoria." Personally, I think he's nuts. I'd really like to read one of those relentlessly gay-positive novels that we supposedly drowned in during the 1970s, but like snuff films no genuine specimen has ever been sighted. (Much like the dread Politically Correct Movement -- does anyone know the address of its headquarters? I want to make a modest donation to the cause.)

As for those househusbands he despises so much -- there's something wrong with being a househusband? Especially since a few pages later he's citing them and their gentrified neighborhoods as one of the many benefits Homo-Americans have brought to the world.

And those personal ads from the 1950s: Harris must surely know that the U. S. Post Office would have shut down any publication which printed anything racier than the coded and terrified hints he shows us. But those same gay men who collected "Japanese screens, Persian carpets, kimonos, capes, MGM stars, and British accents" also collected sailors and hustlers. They cruised Lafayette Park and bathhouses and highway rest stops and YMCAs even as they dreamed of finding a Whitmannic comrade. The real ancestor of today's gay personal ads is that ancient male folk art, restroom graffiti.

Harris keeps confusing "gay liberation" (an eccentric vanguard movement and worldview which owed as much to Thoreau as to Marx) with 1990s commercial gay male culture. He jeers at "naive leftist conspiracy theories," but then raises his own alarm: "We invited corporate America into our lives." He wants a sort of gay Rambo-in-drag, I think: "Not this insufferable house husband who dreams of dandling babies but a countercultural rebel ... whose behavior was an open affront to straight life, not a feeble imposture of it." Naive leftist fantasies, anyone? Get 'em here.

In the end, Harris makes even less sense than the cliches he's attacking. "The leather community has submitted to a process of banalization that has rendered it harmless in the eyes of the heterosexual majority ..." Which I guess is why "the leather community" features so prominently in Christian antigay propaganda: because most heterosexuals find it as unthreatening as water sports or bare-breasted lesbians fisting in the streets.

"Boosterism," sniffs Harris, "has largely replaced real discussion about gay culture." Was there ever much real discussion about gay culture? I'd say there's more now than there used to be -- there just isn't much in this book.

[P.S.  You think I was mean in this review?  See what the Kirkus reviewer (whom I agree with) had to say.]