Saturday, March 17, 2007
Change, Not Demise
Over the past couple of weeks, two different theories emerged that predicted the future end of “gay culture.” In the first, a Baptist minister speculated that babies would eventually be chemically altered invitro if scientists discovered a “gay gene.” This, he argued, would prevent gay men and lesbians from ever being born. The second, seemingly less sinister prediction, involved an Associated Press story that noted that “gay villages” are disappearing from urban landscapes. As urban demographics change, major cities’ explicit or implicit gay neighborhoods, like the West Village and Chelsea in New York City, Washington's Dupont Circle, or Boston's South End, have become diluted with (mostly white) heterosexual couples. Some argue that queer folk have become so accepted by mainstream society that such neighborhoods are no longer viable as queer-only spaces.
To my mind, there are many things wrong with each of these arguments. Both presume that there is an essentialized gay identity. One bases gay identity in biology. The other bases it in geography. Neither, though, pays attention to the complexity of sexuality.
There is not much to say about the Baptist minister’s desire to wipe queer people out of existence. Of course, it warms my heart to be construed as a “biological error” or some type of evolutionary dead-end. These types of arguments suggest nothing about actual biology. Rather, they speak to the tremendous emphasis this society still places on sexual practice to structure social relationships. Some have suggested that the minister’s acknowledgment of the possibility of a genetic “cause” of homosexuality is a step-forward by itself. In the immortal words of Shania, that don’t impress me much.
On the contrary, the history of twentieth-century homophobia is a story of science looking for same-sex desire to be rooted in some type of somatic pathology. Looking for the “cause” of homosexuality in order to “treat it” is not novel, even among radical Christians. We can find plenty of evidence of gay men and women who suffered horrific medical experiments to end their same-sex desires. Perhaps the only change here is that the minister is proposing that those experiments take place on embryos rather than actual adult individuals.
These “scientific” efforts are never accompanied by studies seeking to find the “cause” of heterosexuality. If we find the heterosexual gene, would the good Baptist consider it my right, as a parent, to ensure that my children came out gay? I am going to guess no.
The argument about geography, however, is also alarmist about the demise of “gay culture” as well. This vantage point, however, undermines queers’ agency just as equally.
An argument exists that queer folk have wider social networks than previous generations. Because of this larger network, they continue, there is not a need to have as much invested in a “queer community.” This, I think, is a dubious argument. Queers, as a minority, have always had to grapple with the larger population. Our social networks have always extended beyond bedrooms and bars. Perhaps what has changed is that those networks overlap more than they did in the past as the need for secrecy has been reduced for most people.
There are also branches of the queer community that hold divisive perspectives that celebrate these changes in urban life. One group advocates for total queer assimilation, exclusive monogamous marriage, and middle-class values as the only “legitimate” way to express one’s queerness. This group implicitly or explicitly argues that the more queers “act like” their hetero counterparts the more we will be “accepted” by general society. To them, “gay ghettos” are frustrating reminders of that difference.
In a similar tone, there are a few advocates for the intellectually hollow “post-gay” identity. This group claims to have “evolved” beyond what they imagine as urban-gay life. They have decided that they way they live their identity and express themselves is more “authentic” than other queer people. Both of these positions are self-serving as a means to claim a smug superiority over their queer brothers and sisters. They also naïvely believe that sexual difference no longer matters in this nation (even as they are perfectly willing to deploy their sexuality in social and economic situations where it will benefit them (such as working for a queer-oriented company)).
Just because we are no longer arrested for our sexual practices does not mean that we have achieved sexual freedom. Ignoring that a difference exists between queers and heteros is not helpful. Even worse is naming those differences as being the “fault” of stubborn urban queers who refuse to assimilate.
To be honest, I neither celebrate nor mourn the changing geographic organization of this nation’s cities in relation to sexuality. Rather, I think that we need to be more cognizant, as a group, about why these changes occur and how we interpret them. Moreover, we also need an awareness about the historical circumstances that resulted in the creation of the these neighborhoods in the first place.
I don’t believe that we are on the verge of an era of sexual ambiguity or that gay identity is about to disappear. First, people with desires for same-sex sex are always going to be inclined to congregate with each other. The mere desire to have sex, especially a desire for efficiently finding a sex partner, is going to prompt people to find predominately queer establishments.
While the urban landscape might be changing, I find that the number of queer-only venues to be on the rise. Gay and lesbian cruises, for instance, have become a tremendous cash boon for the tourist industry. Likewise, internet services exist that specialize in everything from random hook-ups to long-term marriages. This has provided new means to increase the level of contact among the queer population. We also live in an era with countless magazines and a television network that market exclusively to the queer community.
Changes in the urban geography, I believe, are not necessarily rooted in a decreased desire among queers to associate together. Rather, I think that commercialism has temporarily usurped those spaces. Instead of clamming that queer identity is fading, I believe we need to be more aware of who is controlling the image of that identity. In a trend appearing across the urban and suburban landscape, major corporations are seeking to create a “sameness” of experience in order to peddle their wares. Pottery Barn might have replaced a local gay bar, but that does not necessarily mean that there was a lack of interest in the that bar. Rather, any locally owned establishment simply can’t compete with economic power of such enterprises.
Moreover, my anecdotal encounters with various gay men in Boston suggests a dissatisfaction with this trend. Most gay men that I have met express a desire for more queer establishments and neighborhoods. It’s just a matter of time before entrepreneurial individuals meet this demand. Probably these new centers will be located in different areas, but they will still serve community needs.
We can’t ignore that changes in information technology, social concepts of sexuality, or economic shifts that have opened the possibilities for greater queer mobility and interaction. What this means to me, though, is that a sense of queer community has become increasingly diverse. We need to resist the notion of queer identity as waning or the idea that society is becoming more homogenous.
Both the Baptist minister and arguments about the “loss of gay culture” presume that we, as a group, are powerless to define our own identities. Notions of a shared identity do not emerge from biology or by simply living in the same neighborhoods. Searching for a single source or meaning for queer identity collapses the diversity of our community. Rather, community and shared identity emerge from our interactions. It is the acknowledgment of shared experiences and a shared position within the larger society that has the potential to unite us queer folk.