A few weeks ago, I overheard two young boys talking in the hyperactive, rushed tones that could only come from the fourth grade. I missed the gist of the conversation, but I did overhear this gem: “You have a girlfriend? That is so gay!” I don’t condone using that word in a derogatory sense, of course, but I couldn’t help being amused at how it was used in the context of the sentence. I couldn’t help but wonder: what is gay these days?
Not so long ago, the gay culture that defines us was as rich and varied as the men and women who fought so hard to establish our foothold in history. Now the culture itself is fading as we deconstruct our subcultures into smaller and smaller pieces. Soon it will be impossible to distinguish between what is gay and what is straight.
Sure, that’s what we’ve all dreamed of — a world where we would be treated as equals and being gay would be a non-issue. A world where we could get married and have a family and lead lives of quiet normalcy. But once upon a time, being gay was what helped us define ourselves as individuals and with each new step forward we leave a little more of that behind.
Maybe it is this very notion that continues to fuel the homophobia which rears its ugly head in smaller towns and in other countries around the world. The fact that one day we will all be the same seems to scare the hell out of the religious fanatics who breathe fire and brimstone around their fundamentalism, and the extremists to be found in Iran, Nigeria, Mauritania, Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and United Arab Emirates, where the punishment for homosexuality is death.
Not all countries respond to homosexuality with capital punishment, but where different cultures take root, so do different attitudes toward those who are different. I often wonder if I would have more in common with a gay man who grew up in Africa or Japan than his straight countrymen would have with straight men in America. Within the boundaries of heterosexuality, the only thing that separates people around the globe are the cultures of their country, but when two people are gay, they have a shared bond and experience that seems to transcend their nation’s heritage and its traditions.
We all have to face the same things such as the pain of coming out and the search for others like ourselves, not only for friendship but for companionship as well, all under the constant fear of society’s repercussions. The gay culture binds us as one global fraternity.
So what exactly is gay culture? Like any other culture it is merely the customs, arts, social institutions and achievements of our community and how they will be remembered in history. The culture itself is still pretty young — if you consider 40-something years to be young — and it all began with a defining event on the 28th of June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in New York. From these spontaneous, violent demonstrations against the police a new revolution was born as small communities grew in urban areas where sex was the glue that bound the people together in bathhouses and bars.
But with every revolution there are casualties. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to a substantial political office was assassinated on the 27th of November 1978, and a mere three years later, the first case of AIDS was reported, drawing a dark and poison curtain over our newfound liberation.
Fear and death held the community in their iron grip. An entire generation of pioneers was wiped out as the plague swept through us without mercy. You would think that something so devastating would destroy the fragile beginnings of our subculture, but instead it bound us together as we mobilized politically and made sure the world saw all of the victims’ names stitched into a massive quilt. It also showed the world that we could not and would not be stopped. Who knows how Harvey Milk would have guided us through this dark chapter in our history if his life had not been cut short, even though his death inspired many, including Cleve Jones, who later envisioned the AIDS quilt that served as a reminder to those we had lost along the way.
When the plague receded as treatments advanced in the mid-90s, it seemed that sexuality exploded again with the advent of the circuit, where sex and drugs coiled around a throbbing dance beat as it had just 20 years before.
Why worry about a disease that could be controlled when you are fucked up in a sweaty crowd of perfect bodies? And why think about a generation that paved the way when being gay in a big city is as accepted as every other supporting character on television?
Nowadays, instead of speaking about homosexuality in hushed whispers, it is met with shining examples of out-and-proud citizens of the world. On the one hand, it is a stellar accomplishment that today’s gay youth have so many role models and examples, but on the other hand, it lessens the pressure for them to become role models themselves.
A gay child born today will grow up knowing that in many parts of the United States and the world, gay couples can get married, which will result in a sense of normality and self-worth that previous generations could not even fathom.
And as the Internet expands, reaching further into our lives until the inevitable chip is implanted in our brains, it will reduce the need to be out in the community where socialization actually occurs.
When I was 17 and walked into my first gay bar (after acquiring my first fake ID) I was blown away by all of the gay people who I never knew existed. It was a world where I could be myself and be around others like me, drinking and dancing and hooking up, all with a soundtrack of 120 beats-per-minute. Will the gay bar scene dissipate as well? Will the gay community follow the lead of the Borg on Star Trek and assimilate?
Trading in your cockring for a wedding ring doesn’t make you any less gay. It just means we have realized that our culture is not defined by sex the way it used to be — or at least the way most of society perceived it.
Sex is a part of gay and straight society — who doesn’t like getting laid? — but at its core it is about love and happiness, regardless of who you are or who you choose to spend your life with. We will always be a minority no matter how far our strides take us.
Remembering how our history was created keeps our culture alive and there is still plenty of work to be done to redefine to the world what it means to be gay. Find your voice. Speak out. Take giant leaps forward but never forget who you are or who you were. There can be no revolution without evolution.