The End of Gay Culture


The End of Gay Culture
by Andrew Sullivan
Post date: 10.13.05
Issue date: 10.24.05

[ Editor's Note: TNR highlights some of Andrew
Sullivan's most powerful articles about gay life in
America in a collection inspired by this article. ]

For the better part of two decades, I have spent much
of every summer in the small resort of Provincetown,
at the tip of Cape Cod. It has long attracted artists,
writers, the offbeat, and the bohemian; and, for many
years now, it has been to gay America what Oak Bluffs
in Martha's Vineyard is to black America: a place
where a separate identity essentially defines a
separate place. No one bats an eye if two men walk
down the street holding hands, or if a lesbian couple
pecks each other on the cheek, or if a drag queen
dressed as Cher careens down the main strip on a motor
scooter. It's a place, in that respect, that is sui
generis. Except that it isn't anymore. As gay America
has changed, so, too, has Provincetown. In a microcosm
of what is happening across this country, its culture
is changing.

Some of these changes are obvious. A real-estate boom
has made Provincetown far more expensive than it ever
was, slowly excluding poorer and younger visitors and
residents. Where, once, gayness trumped class, now the
reverse is true. Beautiful, renovated houses are
slowly outnumbering beach shacks, once crammed with
twenty-something, hand-to-mouth misfits or artists.
The role of lesbians in the town's civic and cultural
life has grown dramatically, as it has in the broader
gay world. The faces of people dying from or
struggling with aids have dwindled to an unlucky few.
The number of children of gay couples has soared, and,
some weeks, strollers clog the sidewalks. Bar life is
not nearly as central to socializing as it once was.
Men and women gather on the beach, drink coffee on the
front porch of a store, or meet at the Film Festival
or Spiritus Pizza.

And, of course, week after week this summer, couple
after couple got married--well over a thousand in the
year and a half since gay marriage has been legal in
Massachusetts. Outside my window on a patch of beach
that somehow became impromptu hallowed ground, I
watched dozens get hitched--under a chuppah or with a
priest, in formalwear or beach clothes, some with New
Age drums and horns, even one associated with a
full-bore Mass. Two friends lit the town monument in
purple to celebrate; a tuxedoed male couple slipping
onto the beach was suddenly greeted with a huge cheer
from the crowd; an elderly lesbian couple attached
cans to the back of their Volkswagen and honked their
horn as they drove up the high street. The
heterosexuals in the crowd knew exactly what to do.
They waved and cheered and smiled. Then, suddenly, as
if learning the habits of a new era, gay bystanders
joined in. In an instant, the difference between gay
and straight receded again a little.

But here's the strange thing: These changes did not
feel like a revolution. They felt merely like small,
if critical, steps in an inexorable evolution toward
the end of a distinctive gay culture. For what has
happened to Provincetown this past decade, as with gay
America as a whole, has been less like a political
revolution from above than a social transformation
from below. There is no single gay identity anymore,
let alone a single look or style or culture. Memorial
Day sees the younger generation of lesbians, looking
like lost members of a boy band, with their baseball
caps, preppy shirts, short hair, and earrings.
Independence Day brings the partiers: the "circuit
boys," with perfect torsos, a thirst for nightlife,
designer drugs, and countless bottles of water. For a
week in mid-July, the town is dominated by
"bears"--chubby, hairy, unkempt men with an affinity
for beer and pizza. Family Week heralds an influx of
children and harried gay parents. Film Festival Week
brings in the artsy crowd. Women's Week brings the
more familiar images of older lesbians: a landlocked
flotilla of windbreakers and sensible shoes. East
Village bohemians drift in throughout the summer;
quiet male couples spend more time browsing gourmet
groceries and realtors than cruising nightspots; the
predictable population of artists and writers--Michael
Cunningham and John Waters are fixtures--mix with
openly gay lawyers and cops and teachers and shrinks.

Slowly but unmistakably, gay culture is ending. You
see it beyond the poignant transformation of P-town:
on the streets of the big cities, on university
campuses, in the suburbs where gay couples have
settled, and in the entrails of the Internet. In fact,
it is beginning to dawn on many that the very concept
of gay culture may one day disappear altogether. By
that, I do not mean that homosexual men and lesbians
will not exist--or that they won't create a community
of sorts and a culture that sets them in some ways
apart. I mean simply that what encompasses gay culture
itself will expand into such a diverse set of
subcultures that "gayness" alone will cease to tell
you very much about any individual. The distinction
between gay and straight culture will become so
blurred, so fractured, and so intermingled that it may
become more helpful not to examine them separately at

For many in the gay world, this is both a triumph and
a threat. It is a triumph because it is what we always
dreamed of: a world in which being gay is a nonissue
among our families, friends, and neighbors. But it is
a threat in the way that all loss is a threat. For
many of us who grew up fighting a world of
now-inconceivable silence and shame, distinctive
gayness became an integral part of who we are. It
helped define us not only to the world but also to
ourselves. Letting that go is as hard as it is
liberating, as saddening as it is invigorating. And,
while social advance allows many of us to contemplate
this gift of a problem, we are also aware that in
other parts of the country and the world, the reverse
may be happening. With the growth of fundamentalism
across the religious world--from Pope Benedict XVI's
Vatican to Islamic fatwas and American
evangelicalism--gayness is under attack in many
places, even as it wrests free from repression in
others. In fact, the two phenomena are related. The
new anti-gay fervor is a response to the growing
probability that the world will one day treat gay and
straight as interchangeable humans and citizens rather
than as estranged others. It is the end of gay
culture--not its endurance--that threatens the old
order. It is the fact that, across the state of
Massachusetts, "gay marriage" has just been abolished.
The marriage licenses gay couples receive are
indistinguishable from those given to straight
couples. On paper, the difference is now history. In
the real world, the consequences of that are still

Quite how this has happened (and why) are questions
that historians will fight over someday, but certain
influences seem clear even now--chief among them the
HIV epidemic. Before aids hit, a fragile but nascent
gay world had formed in a handful of major U.S.
cities. The gay culture that exploded from it in the
1970s had the force of something long suppressed, and
it coincided with a more general relaxation of social
norms. This was the era of the post-Stonewall New
Left, of the Castro and the West Village, an era where
sexuality forged a new meaning for gayness: of sexual
adventure, political radicalism, and cultural

The fact that openly gay communities were still
relatively small and geographically concentrated in a
handful of urban areas created a distinctive gay
culture. The central institutions for gay men were
baths and bars, places where men met each other in
highly sexualized contexts and where sex provided the
commonality. Gay resorts had their heyday--from
Provincetown to Key West. The gay press grew quickly
and was centered around classified personal ads or bar
and bath advertising. Popular culture was suffused
with stunning displays of homosexual burlesque: the
music of Queen, the costumes of the Village People,
the flamboyance of Elton John's debut; the advertising
of Calvin Klein; and the intoxication of disco itself,
a gay creation that became emblematic of an entire
heterosexual era. When this cultural explosion was
acknowledged, when it explicitly penetrated the
mainstream, the results, however, were highly
unstable: Harvey Milk was assassinated in San
Francisco and Anita Bryant led an anti-gay crusade.
But the emergence of an openly gay culture, however
vulnerable, was still real.

And then, of course, catastrophe. The history of gay
America as an openly gay culture is not only extremely
short--a mere 30 years or so--but also engulfed and
defined by a plague that struck almost poignantly at
the headiest moment of liberation. The entire
structure of emergent gay culture--sexual, radical,
subversive--met a virus that killed almost everyone it
touched. Virtually the entire generation that
pioneered gay culture was wiped out--quickly. Even
now, it is hard to find a solid phalanx of gay men in
their fifties, sixties, or seventies--men who fought
from Stonewall or before for public recognition and
cultural change. And those who survived the nightmare
of the 1980s to mid-'90s were often overwhelmed merely
with coping with plague; or fearing it themselves; or
fighting for research or awareness or more effective

This astonishing story might not be believed in
fiction. And, in fiction, it might have led to the
collapse of such a new, fragile subculture. Aids could
have been widely perceived as a salutary retribution
for the gay revolution; it could have led to
quarantining or the collapse of nascent gay
institutions. Instead, it had the opposite effect. The
tens of thousands of deaths of men from every part of
the country established homosexuality as a legitimate
topic more swiftly than any political manifesto could
possibly have done. The images of gay male lives were
recorded on quilts and in countless obituaries; men
whose homosexuality might have been euphemized into
nonexistence were immediately identifiable and gone.
And those gay men and lesbians who witnessed this
entire event became altered forever, not only
emotionally, but also politically--whether through the
theatrical activism of Act-Up or the furious
organization of political gays among the Democrats and
some Republicans. More crucially, gay men and lesbians
built civil institutions to counter the disease; they
forged new ties to scientists and politicians; they
found themselves forced into more intense relations
with their own natural families and the families of
loved ones. Where bath houses once brought gay men
together, now it was memorial services. The emotional
and psychic bonding became the core of a new identity.
The plague provided a unifying social and cultural

But it also presaged a new direction. That direction
was unmistakably outward and integrative. To borrow a
useful distinction deployed by the writer Bruce Bawer,
integration did not necessarily mean assimilation. It
was not a wholesale rejection of the gay past, as some
feared and others hoped. Gay men wanted to be fully
part of the world, but not at the expense of their own
sexual freedom (and safer sex became a means not to
renounce that freedom but to save it). What the
epidemic revealed was how gay men--and, by inference,
lesbians--could not seal themselves off from the rest
of society. They needed scientific research, civic
support, and political lobbying to survive, in this
case literally. The lesson was not that sexual
liberation was mistaken, but rather that it wasn't
enough. Unless the gay population was tied into the
broader society; unless it had roots in the wider
world; unless it brought into its fold the
heterosexual families and friends of gay men and
women, the gay population would remain at the mercy of
others and of misfortune. A ghetto was no longer an

So, when the plague receded in the face of far more
effective HIV treatments in the mid-'90s and gay men
and women were able to catch their breath and reflect,
the question of what a more integrated gay culture
might actually mean reemerged. For a while, it arrived
in a vacuum. Most of the older male generation was
dead or exhausted; and so it was only natural,
perhaps, that the next generation of leaders tended to
be lesbian--running the major gay political groups and
magazines. Lesbians also pioneered a new baby boom,
with more lesbian couples adopting or having children.
HIV-positive gay men developed different strategies
for living suddenly posthumous lives. Some retreated
into quiet relationships; others quit jobs or changed
their careers completely; others chose the escapism of
what became known as "the circuit," a series of rave
parties around the country and the world where fears
could be lost on the drug-enhanced dance floor; others
still became lost in a suicidal vortex of crystal
meth, Internet hook-ups, and sex addiction.
HIV-negative men, many of whom had lost husbands and
friends, were not so different. In some ways, the toll
was greater. They had survived disaster with their
health intact. But, unlike their HIV-positive friends,
the threat of contracting the disease still existed
while they battled survivors' guilt. The plague was
over but not over; and, as they saw men with HIV
celebrate survival, some even felt shut out of a new
sub-sub-culture, suspended between fear and triumph
but unable to experience either fully.

Then something predictable and yet unexpected
happened. While the older generation struggled with
plague and post-plague adjustment, the next generation
was growing up. For the first time, a cohort of gay
children and teens grew up in a world where
homosexuality was no longer a taboo subject and where
gay figures were regularly featured in the press. If
the image of gay men for my generation was one gleaned
from the movie Cruising or, subsequently, Torch Song
Trilogy, the image for the next one was MTV's "Real
World," Bravo's "Queer Eye," and Richard Hatch winning
the first "Survivor." The new emphasis was on the
interaction between gays and straights and on the
diversity of gay life and lives. Movies featured and
integrated gayness. Even more dramatically, gays went
from having to find hidden meaning in mainstream
films--somehow identifying with the aging, campy
female lead in a way the rest of the culture
missed--to everyone, gay and straight, recognizing and
being in on the joke of a character like "Big Gay Al"
from "South Park" or Jack from "Will & Grace."

There are now openly gay legislators. Ditto Olympic
swimmers and gymnasts and Wimbledon champions.
Mainstream entertainment figures--from George Michael,
Ellen DeGeneres, and Rosie O'Donnell to edgy
musicians, such as the Scissor Sisters, Rufus
Wainwright, or Bob Mould--now have their sexual
orientation as a central, but not defining, part of
their identity. The National Lesbian and Gay
Journalists Association didn't exist when I became a
journalist. Now it has 1,300 dues-paying members in 24
chapters around the country. Among Fortune 500
companies, 21 provided domestic partner benefits for
gay spouses in 1995. Today, 216 do. Of the top Fortune
50 companies, 49 provide nondiscrimination protections
for gay employees. Since 2002, the number of
corporations providing full protections for openly gay
employees has increased sevenfold, according to the
Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Among the leaders: the
defense giant Raytheon and the energy company Chevron.
These are not traditionally gay-friendly work
environments. Nor is the Republican Party. But the
offspring of such leading Republican lights as Dick
Cheney, Alan Keyes, and Phyllis Schlafly are all
openly gay. So is the spokesman for the most anti-gay
senator in Congress, Rick Santorum.

This new tolerance and integration--combined, of
course, with the increased ability to connect with
other gay people that the Internet provides--has
undoubtedly encouraged more and more gay people to
come out. The hard data for this are difficult to come
by (since only recently have we had studies that
identified large numbers of gays) and should be
treated with caution. Nevertheless, the trend is
clear. If you compare data from, say, the 1994
National Health and Social Life Survey with the 2002
National Survey of Family Growth, you will find that
women are nearly three times more likely to report
being gay, lesbian, or bisexual today than they were
eight years ago, and men are about 1.5 times more
likely. There are no reliable statistics on openly gay
teens, but no one doubts that there has been an
explosion in visibility in the last decade--around
3,000 high schools have "gay-straight" alliances. The
census, for its part, recorded a threefold increase in
the number of same-sex unmarried partners from 1990 to
2000. In 2000, there were close to 600,000 households
headed by a same-sex couple, and a quarter of them had
children. If you want to know where the push for civil
marriage rights came from, you need look no further.
This was not an agenda invented by activists; it was a
movement propelled by ordinary people.

So, as one generation literally disappeared and one
generation found itself shocked to still be alive, a
far larger and more empowered one emerged on the
scene. This new generation knew very little about the
gay culture of the '70s, and its members were
oblivious to the psychically formative experience of
plague that had shaped their elders. Most came from
the heart of straight America and were more in tune
with its new, mellower attitude toward gayness than
the embattled, defensive urban gay culture of the
pre-aids era. Even in evangelical circles, gay kids
willing to acknowledge and struggle publicly with
their own homosexuality represented a new form of
openness. The speed of the change is still shocking.
I'm only 42, and I grew up in a world where I
literally never heard the word "homosexual" until I
went to college. It is now not uncommon to meet gay
men in their early twenties who took a boy as their
date to the high school prom. When I figured out I was
gay, there were no role models to speak of; and, in
the popular culture, homosexuality was either a punch
line or an embarrassed silence. Today's cultural
climate could not be more different. And the
psychological impact on the younger generation cannot
be overstated.

After all, what separates homosexuals and lesbians
from every other minority group is that they are born
and raised within the bosom of the majority. Unlike
Latino or Jewish or black communities, where parents
and grandparents and siblings pass on cultural norms
to children in their most formative stages, each
generation of gay men and lesbians grows up being
taught the heterosexual norms and culture of their
home environments or absorbing what passes for their
gay identity from the broader culture as a whole. Each
shift in mainstream culture is therefore magnified
exponentially in the next generation of gay children.
To give the most powerful example: A gay child born
today will grow up knowing that, in many parts of the
world and in parts of the United States, gay couples
can get married just as their parents did. From the
very beginning of their gay lives, in other words,
they will have internalized a sense of normality, of
human potential, of self-worth--something that my
generation never had and that previous generations
would have found unimaginable. That shift in
consciousness is as profound as it is irreversible.

To give another example: Black children come into
society both uplifted and burdened by the weight of
their communal past--a weight that is transferred
within families or communities or cultural
institutions, such as the church, that provide a
context for self-understanding, even in rebellion. Gay
children have no such support or burden. And so, in
their most formative years, their self-consciousness
is utterly different than that of their gay elders.
That's why it has become increasingly difficult to
distinguish between gay and straight teens today--or
even young gay and straight adults. Less
psychologically wounded, more self-confident, less
isolated, young gay kids look and sound increasingly
like young straight kids. On the dozens of college
campuses I have visited over the past decade, the
shift in just a few years has been astounding. At a
Catholic institution like Boston College, for example,
a generation ago there would have been no discussion
of homosexuality. When I visited recently to talk
about that very subject, the preppy, conservative
student president was openly gay.

When you combine this generational plasticity with
swift demographic growth, you have our current
explosion of gay civil society, with a
disproportionately young age distribution. I use the
term "civil society" in its classic Tocquevillean and
Burkean sense: the little platoons of social
organization that undergird liberal democratic life.
The gay organizations that erupted into being as aids
killed thousands in the '80s--from the Gay Men's
Health Crisis to the aids Project Los Angeles to the
Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington--struggled to
adapt to the swift change in the epidemic in the
mid-'90s. But the general principle of communal
organization endured. If conservatives had been
open-minded enough to see it, they would have
witnessed a classic tale of self-help and

Take, for example, religious life, an area not
historically associated with gay culture. One of the
largest single gay organizations in the country today
is the Metropolitan Community Church, with over 40,000
active members. Go to, yes, Dallas, and you'll find
the Cathedral of Hope, one of the largest religious
structures in the country, with close to 4,000
congregants--predominantly gay. Almost every faith now
has an explicitly gay denomination associated with
it--Dignity for gay Catholics, Bet Mishpachah for gay
Jews, and so on. But, in many mainstream Protestant
churches and among Reform Jews, such groups don't even
exist because the integration of gay believers is now
mundane. These groups bring gays together in a context
where sexuality is less a feature of identity than
faith, where the interaction of bodies is less central
than the community of souls.

In contrast, look at bar life. For a very long time,
the fundamental social institution for gay men was the
gay bar. It was often secluded--a refuge, a safe zone,
and a clearing-house for sexual pickups. Most bars
still perform some of those functions. But the
Internet dealt them a body-blow. If you are merely
looking for sex or a date, the Web is now the first
stop for most gay men. The result has been striking.
Only a decade ago, you could wander up the West Side
Highway in New York City and drop by several leather
bars. Now, only one is left standing, and it is less a
bar dedicated to the ornate codes of '70s leather
culture than a place for men who adopt a more
masculine self-presentation. My favorite old leather
bar, the Spike, is now the "Spike Gallery." The newer
gay bars are more social than sexual, often with
restaurants, open windows onto the street, and a
welcoming attitude toward others, especially the many
urban straight women who find gay bars more congenial
than heterosexual pickup joints.

Even gay political organizations often function more
as social groups than as angry activist groups. HRC,
for example, raises funds and lobbies Congress. Around
350,000 members have contributed in the last two
years. It organizes itself chiefly through a series of
formal fund-raising dinners in cities across the
country--from Salt Lake City to Nashville. These
dinners are a social venue for the openly gay
bourgeoisie: In tuxedos and ball gowns, they
contribute large sums and give awards to local
businesses and politicians and community leaders.
There are silent auctions, hired entertainers, even
the occasional bake-sale. The closest heterosexual
equivalent would be the Rotary Club. These dinners in
themselves are evidence of the change: from outsider
rebellion to bourgeois organization.

Take a look at the gay press. In its shallower
forms--glossy lifestyle magazines--you are as likely
to find a straight Hollywood star on the cover as any
gay icon. In its more serious manifestations, such as
regional papers like the Washington Blade or Southern
Voice, the past emphasis on sex has been replaced with
an emphasis on domesticity. A recent issue of the
Blade had an eight-page insert for escort ads,
personals, and the kind of material that, two decades
ago, would have been the advertising mainstay of the
main paper. But in the paper itself are 23 pages of
real-estate ads and four pages of home-improvement
classifieds. There are columns on cars, sports, DVDs,
and local plays. The core ad base, according to its
editor, Chris Crain, now comprises heterosexual-owned
and operated companies seeking to reach the gay
market. The editorial tone has shifted as well.
Whereas the Blade was once ideologically rigid--with
endless reports on small activist cells and a strident
left-wing slant--now it's much more like a community
paper that might be published for any well-heeled
ethnic group. Genuine ideological differences are now
aired, rather than bitterly decried as betrayal or
agitprop. Editorials regularly take Democrats to task
as well as Republicans. The maturation has been as
swift as it now seems inevitable. After all, in 2004,
one-quarter of self-identified gay voters backed a
president who supported a constitutional ban on gay
marriage. If the gay world is that politically diverse
under the current polarized circumstances, it has
obviously moved well beyond the time it was synonymous
with radical left politics.

How gay men and lesbians express their identity has
also changed. When openly gay identity first emerged,
it tended toward extremes of gender expression. When
society tells you that gay men and lesbians are not
fully male or female, the response can be to
overcompensate with caricatures of each gender or to
rebel by blurring gender lines altogether. Effeminate
"queens" were balanced by hyper-masculine bikers and
muscle men; lipstick lesbians were offset by
classically gruff "bull-dykes." All these
sub-sub-cultures still exist. Many feel comfortable
with them; and, thankfully, we see fewer attempts to
marginalize them. But the polarities in the larger gay
population are far less pronounced than they once
were; the edges have softened. As gay men have become
less defensive about their masculinity, their
expression of it has become subtler. There is still a
pronounced muscle and gym culture, but there are also
now openly gay swimmers and artists and slobs and
every body type in between. Go watch a gay rugby team
compete in a regional tournament with straight teams
and you will see how vast but subtle the revolution
has been. And, in fact, this is the trend: gay civil
associations in various ways are interacting with
parallel straight associations in a way that leaves
their gay identity more and more behind. They're rugby
players first, gay rugby players second.

One of the newest reflections of this is what is known
as "bear" culture: heavy, hirsute, unkempt guys who
revel in their slovenliness. Their concept of what it
means to be gay is very different than that of the
obsessive gym-rats with torsos shaved of every stray
hair. Among many younger gay men, the grungy look of
their straight peers has been adopted and tweaked to
individual tastes. Even among bears, there are slimmer
"otters" or younger "cubs" or "musclebears," who
combine gym culture with a bear sensibility. The
varieties keep proliferating; and, at the rate of
current change, they will soon dissipate into the
range of identities that straight men have to choose
from. In fact, these variations of masculinity may
even have diversified heterosexual male culture as
well. While some gay men have proudly adopted some
classically straight signifiers--beer bellies and back
hair--many straight men have become "metrosexuals."
Trying to define "gay culture" in this mix is an
increasingly elusive task.

Among lesbians, Ellen DeGeneres's transition from
closeted sitcom star to out-lesbian activist and back
to appealingly middle-brow daytime talk-show host is
almost a microcosm of diversifying lesbian identity in
the past decade. There are still classic butch-femme
lesbian partnerships, but more complex forms of
self-expression are more common now. With the
abatement in many places of prejudice, lesbian
identity is formed less by reaction to hostility than
by simple self-expression. And this, after all, is and
was the point of gay liberation: the freedom not
merely to be gay according to some preordained type,
but to be yourself, whatever that is.

You see this even in drag, which once defined gayness
in some respects but now is only one of many
expressions. Old-school drag, the kind that dominated
the '50s, '60s, and '70s, often consisted of female
impersonators performing torch songs from various
divas. The more miserable the life of the diva, the
better able the performer was to channel his own
anguish and drama into the show. After all, gayness
was synonymous with tragedy and showmanship. Judy
Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis: these were the
models. But today's drag looks and feels very
different. The drag impresario of Provincetown, a
twisted genius called Ryan Landry, hosts a weekly
talent show for local drag performers called
"Showgirls." Attending it each Monday night is
P-town's equivalent of weekly Mass. A few old-school
drag queens perform, but Landry sets the tone. He
makes no attempt to look like a woman, puts on hideous
wigs (including a horse mask and a pair of fake boobs
perched on his head), throws on ill-fitting dresses,
and performs scatological song parodies. Irony
pervades the show. Comedy defines it. Gay drag is
inching slowly toward a version of British pantomime,
where dada humor and absurd, misogynist parodies of
womanhood are central. This is post-drag; straight men
could do it as well. This year, the longest-running
old school drag show--"Legends"--finally closed down.
Its audience had become mainly heterosexual and old.

This new post-gay cultural synthesis has its political
counterpart. There was once a ferocious debate among
gays between what might be caricatured as
"separatists" and "assimilationists." That argument
has fizzled. As the gay population has grown, it has
become increasingly clear that the choice is not
either/or but both/and. The issue of civil marriage
reveals this most graphically. When I first argued for
equal marriage rights, I found myself assailed by the
gay left for social conservatism. I remember one
signing for my 1995 book, Virtually Normal, the crux
of which was an argument for the right to marry. I was
picketed by a group called "Lesbian Avengers," who
depicted my argument as patriarchal and reactionary.
They crafted posters with my face portrayed within the
crosshairs of a gun. Ten years later, lesbian couples
make up a majority of civil marriages in Massachusetts
and civil unions in Vermont; and some of the strongest
voices for marriage equality have been lesbians, from
the pioneering lawyer Mary Bonauto to writer E.J.
Graff. To its credit, the left--gay male and
lesbian--recognized that what was at stake was not so
much the corralling of all gay individuals into a
conformist social institution as a widening of choice
for all. It is still possible to be a gay radical or
rigid leftist. The difference now is that it is also
possible to be a gay conservative, or traditionalist,
or anything else in between.

Who can rescue a uniform gay culture? No one, it would
seem. The generation most psychologically wedded to
the separatist past is either dead from HIV or
sidelined. But there are still enclaves of gay
distinctiveness out there. Paradoxically, gay culture
in its old form may have its most fertile ground in
those states where homosexuality is still
unmentionable and where openly gay men and women are
more beleaguered: the red states. Earlier this year, I
spoke at an HRC dinner in Nashville, Tennessee, where
state politicians are trying to bar gay couples from
marrying or receiving even basic legal protections.
The younger gay generation is as psychologically
evolved there as any place else. They see the same
television and the same Internet as gay kids in New
York. But their social space is smaller. And so I
found a vibrant gay world, but one far more cohesive,
homogeneous, and defensive than in Massachusetts. The
strip of gay bars--crammed into one place rather than
diffuse, as in many blue-state cities--was packed on a
Saturday night. The mix of old and young, gay and
lesbian, black, white, and everything in between
reminded me of Boston in the '80s. The tired emblems
of the past--the rainbow flags and leather
outfits--retained their relevance there.

The same goes for black and Latino culture, where
homophobia, propped up by black churches and the
Catholic hierarchy respectively, is more intense than
in much of white society. It's no surprise that these
are the populations also most at risk for HIV. The
underground "down-low" culture common in black gay
life means less acknowledgment of sexual identity, let
alone awareness or disclosure of HIV status. The same
repression that facilitated the spread of HIV among
gay white men in the '70s now devastates black gay
America, where the latest data suggest a 50 percent
HIV infection rate. (Compare that with largely white
and more integrated San Francisco, where recent HIV
infection rates are now half what they were four years
ago.) The extremes of gender expression are also more
pronounced among minorities, with many gay black or
Latino men either adopting completely female
personalities or refusing to identify as gay at all.
Here the past lives on. The direction toward
integration is clear, but the pace is far slower.

And, when you see the internalized defensiveness of
gays still living in the shadow of social hostility,
any nostalgia one might feel for the loss of gay
culture dissipates. Some still echo critic Philip
Larkin's jest that he worried about the American civil
rights movement because it was ruining jazz. But the
flipness of that remark is the point, and the mood
today is less genuine regret--let alone a desire to
return to those days--than a kind of wistfulness for a
past that was probably less glamorous or unified than
it now appears. It is indeed hard not to feel some
sadness at the end of a rich, distinct culture built
by pioneers who braved greater ostracism than today's
generation will ever fully understand. But, if there
is a real choice between a culture built on oppression
and a culture built on freedom, the decision is an
easy one. Gay culture was once primarily about pain
and tragedy, because that is what heterosexuals
imposed on gay people, and that was, in part, what gay
people experienced. Gay culture was once primarily
about sex, because that was how heterosexuals defined
gay lives. But gay life, like straight life, is now
and always has been about happiness as well as pain;
it is about triumph as well as tragedy; it is about
love and family as well as sex. It took generations to
find the self-worth to move toward achieving this
reality in all its forms--and an epidemiological
catastrophe to accelerate it. If the end of gay
culture means that we have a new complexity to grapple
with and a new, less cramped humanity to embrace, then
regret seems almost a rebuke to those countless
generations who could only dream of the liberty so
many now enjoy.

The tiny, rich space that gay men and women once
created for themselves was, after all, the best they
could do. In a metaphor coined by the philosopher
Michael Walzer, they gilded a cage of exclusion with
magnificent ornaments; they spoke to its isolation and
pain; they described and maintained it with dignity
and considerable beauty. But it was still a cage. And
the thing that kept gay people together, that unified
them into one homogeneous unit, and that defined the
parameters of their culture and the limits of their
dreams, were the bars on that cage. Past the ashes of
thousands and through the courage of those who came
before the plague and those who survived it, those
bars are now slowly but inexorably being pried apart.
The next generation may well be as free of that cage
as any minority ever can be; and they will redefine
gayness on its own terms and not on the terms of
hostile outsiders. Nothing will stop this, since it is
occurring in the psyches and souls of a new
generation: a new consciousness that is immune to any
law and propelled by the momentum of human freedom
itself. While we should treasure the past, there is no
recovering it. The futures--and they will be
multiple--are just beginning.
Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at TNR.


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