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.


dykewife said...

we're all a total fluke of nature. when one considers the sheer variety of genetic conditions that occur ranging from those that kill infants to those of inhereted propensities to cancers, obesity, high blood pressure and more, it's a wonder that anyone makes it to adulthood.

however, with genetic conditions such as tay-sachs, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and the multitude of other genetic killers, one would think the minister had higher priorities than "curing" gayness.

happily that's unlikely to happen. while there have been studies of the possibility that mothers' own biological reaction to carrying fetuses (fetii?) affecting males there's no such indicator for lesbians. the minister would be more useful if he helped find a cure for paedophilia and child molesters.

i live in a community where there is no "gay village" area. it's just too small to have such a thing.

Anonymous said...

I think what Dykewife says about her community is pertinent. While there may be some shift in the core gay areas of big cities, due to gentrification and other economic pressures, gay culture already exists without a gayborhood throughout small towns and medium sized cities. Just because it's in the news and speculated upon as a trend doesn't make it so. If anything, I think the gay culture is expanding, rather than shrinking, and that it is as much virtual as it is geographical.

Speaking of which, it's 11:00 and time to go to the bar and discuss culture while listening to disco.

Frank said...

They ain't ever gonna find a "gay gene." Except for a handful of genetic disorders and traits, most characteristics have multiple genes that interact with the environment, both during gestation and life, that cause them. And that's not even taking into account the complexities of the human mind that do so much more than simply express genetic imperatives. At best, they'll find a set of genes or gestational environmental factors that are statistically likely to produce queer individuals, but do not guarantee such an individual. But genes, especially ones that work in concert with others, are slippery things: most of them do more than one thing. Tinker with them to get a "nice, normal" straight baby and you might just produce one that's a sociopathic killer or has some painful and debilitating disease that cuts short their life. I'm sure that, sadly, there would be some fundie loonies who would consider that a fair trade-off, but most people just wouldn't go for it.

Arthur Schenck said...

When I was an activist, back before any sort of pre-natal genetic therapy was a possibility, we always used to say that the one thing that would make the religious right pro-abortion was if they found a "gay gene". In a sense, that's what that preacher is advocating. Am I the only one who finds what he's talking about to be not just Mengele-like eugenics, but a type of genocide?

Fortunately, I think Frank is right and one single treatable "cause" is unlikely to be found.

As for "gayborhoods," it's so true GayProf: "community and shared identity emerge from our interactions." It seems to me that the diversity of our communities, not tied to geography or anything else, is our strength because they don't exist in a single time or space.

Preachers can't destroy what they can't find.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually a little sad myself, because my experience with a "gay ghetto", DuPont Circle, was a wonderful and healthy experience for me after years of living in a rural area. I felt such a release, such happiness, being in an area where men and women walked freely hand-in-hand.
However, I doubt DuPont or most of these other areas will lose their "uniqueness" anytime in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

In Toronto where I'm from the gay village on Church street, while not dying, certainly feels less relevant than it used to.

But that's because there are more queer friendly bars and spaces in the city outside of it than there ever were before. The art fags hang out in Parkdale where there are some queer friendly bars that also do regular gay nights, married guys live in riverdale and can walk down the street holding hands, Bloor West is pretty friendly too.

I imagine Toronto is one of the safest cities in the world to be gay in, as such there is more than one nieghbourhood we can congregate in.

The one thing I do worry about is the lack of young men in the gay village. A lot of the young guys I meet are out but are gay apologists. They want to get married and live in the suburbs which is all fine and well, but they like to pretend that thier sexual difference is a non-issue, even as they are not out at work, not integrated with thier families, and spend a lot of time blaming 'flaming' gay men for thier lack of acceptance in the straight world. It's a disturbing trend to blame yourself and your gay brothers instead of trying to understand and fight societal homophobia.

Anonymous said...

What about the "I'm not gay" gene for straight guys who like oral sex from gay men or the "objects in the anus" gene from straight guys who like penis-shaped objects? Maybe a "gay hookers don't count" gene for married men would be to their liking.

The "gay gene" b.s. is more of the same biological separatism/superiority that's been around since skull bumps and sizes were used to assert White/Black differences in intelligence.

Earl Cootie said...

While I agree that our queer culture will exist without geographical borders, there's a lot to be said for easy access.

Now and again, I hear something on the debate over L/G/B/T sections in bookstores, and my mind tears briefly. It smacks of segregation, yes, but this segregation is useful on those occasions when I get tired of hetero stories and just want to read about us queers, without having to read through hundreds of jacket descriptions to find my targets.

Doug said...

Change occurs. A lot of time and effort are spent trying to figure out why. I try (key word: try) to spend my time adapting to the change, because it exists no matter why.

The religious aim is to prevent change and rule out difference, a cause that will always fail. The people who pay heed to such attempts ultimately will be disappointed. The rest of us have to suffer through their efforts, and they never seem to stop trying.

tornwordo said...

It seems to me that a gay district makes it easier to congregate. Less fear and all that. I can't imagine them disappearing, though I don't necessarily want to LIVE amongst the bars and drama, lol. Hey, did you come to Montreal and not tell me? I know a picture of my city when I see it.

Mike said...

There will always be clusters of gays in the urban areas mostly because gays in small towns know they want choice beyond the ten gay men they find in their rural county of Nebraska. And guys in Boston don't want to drive to Athol, Methuen or Newburyport for hookups. The current slew of gay neighborhoods are largely a victim of their own success. These neighborhoods won't vanish, but perhaps the critical mass of homos will find a new magnetic pole on the map of Boston, L.A., Seattle and elsewhere.

Way at the back of my mind is the absolute dread that annoying Christians will morph into some kind of Hezbollah and begin a campaign to physically wipe out what they cannot defeat with passages from the Bible or medicine. I'm not sure what the tipping point is when cities turn into Beirut, Belfast or Baghdad.

Roger Owen Green said...

Not that it's exactly the same, but I'm always brought up short when I read things such as "Queers, as a minority, have always had to grapple with the larger population" and that whole assimilationor separation conversation, since it also applies to the black community. And the comment someone made about the bookstore (also about integration vs. separation, this time of the literature) is also spot on.

Anonymous said...

I live in a small city where there are no gay bars or clubs, let alone a gay neighbourhood. My only experience of such were my daily walks in the gay "village" in Vancouver last summer, which gave me a kind of "my people" feeling which I had never encountered previously. Although fully out at home and work, I felt an empowerment that I'd never before experienced.

Seeker Onos said...

Now here is an interesting quandry: "Gay Gene™ or no Gay Gene™..."

For the better part of my 20s, I was "indoctrinated" (if you will) with the very believable notion that my desires to snog up with menfolk were due to some weird gene handed down by some Great Fey Ancestor (with variants suggesting soy formula or hormonal trauma or moon phases being other possible causes).

Considering that I am one of two gay siblings out of a total of three children... I had put a great deal of stock in the doctrine of the Gay Gene™.

The thing is, I have heard many gay men complain that _IF_ given a choice (let us continue with the presumption that sexuality/sexual preference is some immutable thing hardwired into our being, perhaps by the Gay Gene™)... that they never would have "chosen" to be gay, with all of its intendant issues and problems vis-a-vis seamless integration into the wider fabric of society.

Well then: if it were possible (which I believe to be very unlikely) to tweak some imaginary Gay Gene™... wouldn't those same men be lining up to have some treatments (or more likely, have their offspring "de-gayed")...?

I don't know, but all things being equal -- I know for myself, I'd have done nicely without much of the drama of growing up with that gay thing chewing around at the back of my soul, worrying about whether or not I'd get decked if I tried to court some guy, thrown out of the military (I came awfully close to that thanks to that dreadful DADT law), or worse, be chosen as a victim of a hate crime...

...if such a thing had been medically treatable.

Of course, I've mentioned before that I believe that the cause of those desires (and as many other issues that afflict mankind) are not medical as much as they are spiritual.

However, I think that to hold out hope for some gay gene to prove some theory is intertwined with whatever genetic tampering may come of trying to "cure" homosexuality.

In short: one must give up the plank of the "gay gene" in order to completely reject the notion of tampering with said gene.

As for the gay ghettos, I think that as more people find that the lines of sexuality are increasingly blurred, that the 1.5% of the world that is gay will become more like the 5% of the world that is not strictly monosexual in their choices of partners, and we will find more of a concentration of LGBT friendly activities dispersed in the wider world, with a heavier concentration in what had formerly been the black-and-white zones of "it's safe to hold hands south of 23rd St and west of Sixth Ave" we acknowledge as the ghetto today.

In other words, I think that the ghettos will always exist, but will be a tad more diffuse than present.

AJ Chavez said...

Well, I know I can definitely say that I miss living in the gayborhood (although it could be exhausting at times).

Seeker Onos is right, I believe, to say that gay areas will be more diffuse.

One thing that comes to mind that hasn't been directly addressed (although GayProf did bring up changing economic realities with the Pottery Barn example) is simply the changing design of cities--particularly with the mass use of cars and the federal funds which have gone into building highways.

It is frustrating how dependent we are on cars for the most basic things. A lot of what gay neighborhoods provide is chance socialization through simple day-to-day things like going to the grocery store, walking in the park, etc.--the kinds of things that a lot of us have to hop in a car for. With the way cities are designed nowadays, such interaction is less likely to take place. People, gay and straight, are becoming increasingly isolated in the U.S., through class stratification and separation from one another vis-a-vis 3000 (or, more likely, 4000 or 5000) pound oases.

The Goldfish said...

The eugenic issue is, as Frank says, nonsense. From a disability perspective I've written about this quite a bit, particularly here and here

As for a queer identity, again, to use disability parallels, the thing that connects people with all variety of different physical, cognitive and psychological impairments can only be our social experiences, the way we are regarded and treated and the artificial barriers we face.

I think this is a useful parallel because queer people do actually have one innate similarity. A person with Cerebral Palsy and a person with Schizophrenia, for example, do not. It's an entirely social phenomena which connect the two.

And because of this powerful social experience, you get disability culture and arts. In an equal society, this would be as ludicrous as having ginger-haired theatre or brown-eyed ballet. However, in a society which sets us apart, it is not.

Maybe to a lesser extent, I do think that with growing equality there will be a dramatic change in the idea of "gay culture".

It's not so long ago that a gay male friend of mine in his fifties, but only out for a few years, said quite seriously, "You know, I sometimes wonder if I am in fact bisexual. After all, I've never been that into musicals."

GayProf said...

DykeWife: I think that the majority of queers' experiences are closer to yours. Most of us probably live in cities and towns that never had a distinctive village.

Marlan: Dance at the disco like your life depends on it.

Frank: I fear the experimentations more than any real chance of them actually discovering a biological cause.

Arthur: It totally reminds me of eugenic-type language.

Chad: If DuPont does change there will simply be a new DuPont.

Andrey: Yes, I agree that there is an increasing trend among queers to police each other. That is very destructive.

Anon: Well, Tedd Haggard seems to fit the profile that you suggest.

Earl: Having a social identity does not mean segregation. Yes, it only makes sense within our cultural discussions; however, we are part of those discussions. Trying to erase those identities don't change the reality.

Doug: There is an odd way that people often assume automatically that change is bad.

Torn: Indeed, it is Montreál. Alas, though, I have not visited there in several years.

Mike: But we already see such violence, no? Gay clubs are often burned or even bombed. Those attacks, however, are rarely covered as "terrorist attacks" in the media.

ROG: The logic that is often deployed is "If we weren't different then we would be the same." We live, though, in a society where those differences (racial, sexual, gender) have real institutional and historical power

Cooper: It is my feeling that people will always want to congregate with others who share similar experiences or places in society.

Seeker: I would never want to be straight. If I were straight, then I couldn't date men. That seems so sad to me.

A.J.: I think that you are right that the insane investment in autos in this nation is leading to all sorts of problems.

Goldfish: You also bring up a good point about how the media and other forces outside of queer people are influencing assumptions about our identity as well.

goblinbox said...

"Ignoring that a difference exists between queers and heteros is not helpful."

Yeah, but focusing on those differences in a concentrated effort to maintain an us/them polarity isn't helpful either. (In other words, just because the nutso Xians are doing it doesn't mean everybody else has to.) To paraphrase Richard Chamberlain, 'My sexuality is really only interesting to me.' Celebrating diversity is nifty, sure, but harping on it is just plain irritating.

People want to find common ground. So shouting, "I'm marginalized! I have a bigger burden to bear than you do, and you can't possibly understand me ever ever ever!" does not foster tolerance or integration.

Everyone is marginalized to some point. Everyone. (To wit, I felt "at home" and among "my people" the first time I went to a Dead show, because all the legs and armpits were hairy, and everybody smoked pot.) The gay community often prints as if victimhood is a right, a badge -- and, as a straight white middle class humanoid, I get tired of the implication that it's somehow my fault that some people who like to have sex with people of their own sex felt guilty about it once in tenth grade, or had parents who were assholes about it, or had their feelings hurt. Sure, there has been real victimization, and yes, there are real asshole homophobes out there. I get that. We all get that. But! Just as feminists who spout blatantly incorrect stats to support their tightly-clung-to downtrodden status make me oh so tired, so do the occasional hysterical diatribes by the gay community about how there just ain't been enough progress. Gay marriage is coming. Gayness is not just tolerated but so integrated across the culture that everyone uses gay slang. The vast majority of the idiot rednecks that I know say that they don't care about sexual orientation as much as honesty! Just like women, y'all HAVE come a long way, baby, and it's time to mellow out with the defensiveness and demands and start getting on with it.

I don't disagree, though, that the concept of "curing gayness" bugs the shit out of me. It's like curing blackness or femaleness or left-handedness or high intelligence. (Let's all go read some Vonnegut!) But most stuff coming out of that icky Xian particular sector is totally useless and we've all known that for a long time. Behold the statistics; church attendance is way down and people tend to self-identify as "spiritual" rather than "religious," because thinking people are less interested in having dogma force-fed to them than they've ever been. The day is coming when who one screws is simply another fact about them and nothing more than that, and part of me feels like taking umbrage at a priest's dorky thought-experiment shows a defensive jumpiness in the community that should be addressed even more than the offensive ramblings of a man in a dying profession.

Mike said...

Mike: But we already see such violence, no? Gay clubs are often burned or even bombed. Those attacks, however, are rarely covered as "terrorist attacks" in the media.

Such attacks now seem random and the acts of individuals. What I fear is concerted and systematic attacks akin to Kristalnacht. Of course the right wing is quick to label gays as playing "the victim card" and having a culture of "Victimology." So I guess to them Matthew Shepard was playing the victim card when he was tied to the fence in Wyoming.

Arthur Schenck said...

So I guess to them Matthew Shepard was playing the victim card when he was tied to the fence in Wyoming.

So, true, Mike. I think what some people don't get is that what we talk about is only the tip of the iceberg.

So you'll pardon me, goblinbox, for not being excited that in a few places some hetero people are marginally less intolerant than they once were. Even in some decidedly liberal areas in America gay people are being attacked and even killed precisely for being honest--living their lives openly. Sorry, didn't mean to tire you with talk of victimization.

I agree that there's nothing to be gained through "my victimization is worse than your victimization", but let's get real here: No state legislature is rushing to adopt constitutional amendments to force women to shave their armpits and legs, or to deny their human rights for failing to do so. Faulty memory, I know, but I can't seem to remember the last time a bar was blown up because Deadheads went there.

I'm glad you think things are so much better for us homos, but perhaps you can appreciate why we may not all want to go play The Glad Game and ignore the very real threats to our safety and lives.

GayProf said...

Goblinbox: It's interesting that you imagined this post about victimization. On the contrary, I imagined it about persistance.

As for ideas about equality, we live in a nation where 45 states out of 50 have passed some type of measure limiting our basic civil rights, including marriage, within the past decade. It might be useful to take a poll of your gay friends and see how many of them are out in all aspects of their life. You might be surprised by how many are still not comfortable being out to their family or on the job.