Thoughts on Gay Pride, Or Why Lady Gaga is Ruining ‘Us’
So tomorrow is the day of the LGBTIQ Pride day in New York City, where I live. And as is usual this time every year, I’m filled with deep ambivalence. What might it mean to ‘be’ a ‘gay man’ today? What is ‘gay culture’, and how does that relate to what it might mean ‘to be gay’ today, in 2010?
Let me just say this: I think Lady Gaga is ruining ‘us.’ I think its time we get over her, and get over gay culture. And by us I mean all of us – gay, straight, and others. Lady Gaga is a symptom of a huge problem.
Some Philosophical and Queer Studies Disclaimers
Firstly, a few disclaimers. When I ask what it means to ‘be’ a ‘gay man’ today, or the relation between these notions and ‘gay culture’, I put these terms in quotes because I find them problematic. I describe myself as a gay man in many situations because I feel it is a shorthand, and a useful one. It allows you to be categorized, and as a form of ‘strategic essentialism’, it allows you to easily slot yourself into certain places in discourse, to take up a ‘voice’ which easily aligns with particular political and social projects. The term ‘gay man’ also describes me fairly well, at least from ‘common sense’ usage of the term. I have only dated men for many years, and see that generally being the case for the future.
But if you ask the philosopher/theorist in me, you get a different story. I don’t believe in sexual identity, or any other sort of personal identity, as anything more than useful fictions. Furthermore, I think the very notion of ‘being’ gay, or ‘having’ a ‘sexual identity’ is problematic. People exist in states of continual flux, and notions of identity create a fiction of ‘essence’, some notion that we ‘are’ something pre-existent or true that is then ‘expressed’ in a series of characteristics. Fictions of identity allow for political projects to more easily form, but they also lend blindspots to these projects, blindspots which often exclude those who don’t fit into such neat categories.
Queer studies evolved as a response to all this. Queer critique argues that we’ve got to fight not only against specific norms, but the process of normalization as such. To use terms employed by Deleuze and Guattari, we’ve got to learn, all of us, to not think as ‘subjected groups’ (‘I want rights for myself’), but as ‘subject groups’ (‘How do we make freedom possible for all, and dismantle not only the forms of oppression current today, but work to limit oppression as such?’). Queer studies is a shift in this direction, but fails to incorporate anti-racism, anti-mysogyny, anti-anti-immigrantism, and other forms of anti-oppressive politics within its structure. This is why I think we need something like a ‘discourse of the oppressed’ (a term inspired by the work of Paulo Friere), a form of political speech against oppression as such.
So when pushed, I tend to identify myself as a queer person, or someone who generally dates men, or something like that. But I see identification as shorthand, no matter what.
But then there is gay culture. Like it or not, I am interpellated by gay culture. Others refer to me as gay, and I refer to myself that way to simplify things in many circumstances. Those I date refer to themselves as gay.
And yet, having come out of the closet late, I don’t identify much with what is often termed ‘gay culture.’ I grew up in a very rather homophobic, machismo inflected Italian-American community on an island in the suburbs of New York City. I identify less with that Italian-American culture than with the intellectualism that got me out of there. I see myself first and foremost as a theorist, a creator of cool lenses for looking at the world, a teacher, an ‘outside the box’ constructor of new visions. Gay is just one of the things about me.
And gay culture isn’t. I don’t like ‘gay music’, like Madonna or Lady Gaga, but rather, the rock music, particularly progressive rock, that I grew up playing in various bands through high-school and college. I have little fashion sense, never felt like I wanted to ‘be’ or ‘become’ a woman or dress in ‘women’s clothes.’ While I’m missing many of the trappings of hyper-masculinity as well (ie: I’m not into sports, don’t make fun of things feminine), I’m hardly what a gay man is ‘supposed to be.’ Musical theater makes me break out in hives. In general, I tend to shy away from extreme gender performances in either direction, though I see the usefulness of playing up certain gender traits in certain circumstances.
Why am I such a bad gay man?
Furthermore, does criticizing ‘gay culture’ mean that I’ve still got internalized homophobia to deal with? While I think we all have that, all the time, is that what such criticism is about? Is there a way to criticize mainstream gay culture in ways that push us to be more than what we’ve limited ourselves to be, without falling into the trap of simply sublimating ‘gay self hate’?
Gay History, Psychic Positions, and the Straight-Jacket of Masculinity
From a Freudian perspective, it completely makes sense that there are two tropes within dominant, mainstream gay culture today – the hyper-macho man, and the effeminate woman. For in fact, for eons, men who have desires for other men have been forced to either 1) act like men who don’t have desires for other men, and often prove this via ‘hyper-masculine’ behavior, or 2) imitate ‘women’ in a variety of ways, so as to seem ‘harmless’ to the ‘men’ whose masculinity is somehow threatened by them. The result is that now that gay folks can ‘come out of the closet’, it is still in many ways divided between hyper-masculine ‘muscle-queen’ types (as well as variations thereupon, such as the leather daddy) and more effeminate ‘theater/drag-queen’ types (as well as variations thereupon). Either way, we get a troping on traditional models of masculinity and femininity. Let the flurry of stereotypes begin.
Of course, I use a lot of scare quotes above. Because, as many have argued, masculinity is a performance that is constantly threatened, and there’d be no notion of the ‘masculine’ without its constant abjection, rejection, and dejection of women and ‘failed men’, or the ‘effeminate’ gay men, as well as the constant policing against the potential infiltration of ‘the men’ by ‘muscle-queen’ types. To be a man, one must never be too manly (muscle-queen) or too un-manly (theater/drag-queen).
Masculinity, as the trope of these performances, has been unquestionably one of the greatest catastrophes of humanity, resulting in violence against women and queer folks throughout history. It has also resulted in a lot of pain for the men forced into this straight jacket as well.
But where does that leave us today?
Gay Culture Today, or, the Cult of Lady Gaga and the trials of Peter Pan
Thank goodness, masculinity in all its forms within culture seems to be on the wane. Women are entering the workforce in droves, and men in many metropoli are actually starting to help with child-care, take paternal leave, and therefore come to appreciate the extent to which what was traditionally seen as women’s labor is hard work. What’s more, within many metropoli, queer folks are increasingly accepted. ‘Hetero men’ might now openly have gay friends, and not feel threatened that this means they ‘are gay’ as well. The times are a’changin.’
And so is gay culture. No longer is the community divided sharply into ‘muscle-queens’ and ‘drag-queens.’ In fact, there is more and more that leads often to a mixture of both tropes in the same individual.
And yet, there is still something about gay life today that smacks of Peter Pan. As queer folks, many of us were denied having that silly adolescence in which it was possible to explore sexuality, dating, crushes, and things of that sort. Because of lingering homophobia, still many of us continue to come out once we get freedom to move away form our parents, though the internet is changing this quickly. But since many queer folks still miss going through their sexual awakening in junior high, there’s a big tendency to want to experience that later.
Hence the ‘Peter Pan’ complex of many gay men, in which an idealized childhood is romanticized. If we were missing a queer adolescence, we were certainly missing a queer friendly childhood. Which of us was told at age five that it was for boys to like boys, girls to like girls, wear whatever clothes we wanted to, etc? Even the most liberal parents are often surrounded, even in the most liberal metropoli, by parents who might object to a child coming to school in ‘gender different’ clothing. How silly we still care about these things! But even if the school were ok with it, the child coming home on the subway or schoolbus might be beat up. And this is how it all starts.
And so many queer folks long for a childhood we never fully had. And we identify with the few roles allowed to queer folks in society, roles which play up many of the aspects of a childhood deferred: entertainers, hairdressers, performers of all sorts, jokers, quipsters, fashion types, etc. Non-conventionally gendered men are ferreted off to parts of society that can be ignored as ‘just playing around’, and this is why men who love men, and queer folks of all sorts, have always felt safe havens within the world of theater, circus, the arts. The fields where a society sends its odd folks to be harmless with each other together. Out from the realm of politics, and into the realm of interior design. Gay folks make pretty things, and like to pose. Or so the story goes. Of course, the narrative is a little more complicated when you start to include other queer folks, but the narrative of societal marginalization, pigeon-holing into certain roles, and silencing remains the same.
The point is that queer folks to some extent, but gay folks in particular, have been completely marginalized into the realms of performance and aesthetics. Queer theory has found much empowerment in performance and performance studies, reading drag as radically subversive of political norms. But drag is also a cage that reproduces traditional ideas of femininity even as it mocks them. As many queer theorists have also argued, drag/mimicry subverts as it reproduces, it always is and was a double-edged sword, which is as good as it gets when you’re kept out of social power.
The Importance of Being Earnest, or, From Lady Gaga to Oscar Wilde to Barney Frank to Harry Potter
But gay culture still seems caught in the ‘hangover’ of the tropes of its own oppression. Yes, drag is liberating, and so is musical theater, but it is also very, very limiting. ‘Gay popular culture’ has built its own identity on these traits. And in today’s marketing drenched world, everyone has a niche, otherwise, how can they be marketed to? So from a form of protecting ourselves in code to a niche marketing tool, ‘gay popular culture’ has emerged as a way in which we come to know ourselves, perform ourselves, become convinced of ourselves, show others we’re ‘like them’, build ‘community’, etc.
But what are we building around? I’m not merely decrying consumerism, that’s easy enough to decry in general in regard to all within contemporary capital. There will be some within every group which just love to be commodified. But what disturbs me is the extent to which this is the case with gay men in particular. And while I understand that after being robbed of having your own culture, you can start building your own culture by embracing the signs of resistance against your own oppression, the signs of resistance are still imbued with the forms of that oppression itself.
Of course, any oppressed group has this dilemma. This is not to say that all oppressed groups are ‘the same’, but rather, that there are key commonalities between types of oppression. By articulating the differences between the ways in which oppression dominates people, we form a commonality in difference that allows for resistance. And one of those commonalities is that resistance eventually turns into a cage.
Gay popular culture, as marketed to us by others, and by us to us, is really, really limiting. Why is it that gay men only show up prominently in theater, music, design, etc? Is this only because dominant culture only allows us into these fields? Or is it because we ourselves limit ourselves to these fields, only ‘find these fields interesting’? Why is it that gay folks so often in other fields continue to labor silently, because those fields have ‘nothing to do with sexuality’?
I find myself working as a critic, philosopher, and theorist. Sometimes, I speak to queer studies and theory, but not always. But I think it is ESSENTIAL that I not ONLY work on queer theory and studies. Firstly, I think its crucial that I spend a great deal of my time, whenever working on queer issues, talking about things like race, class, immigration, etc. When I teach queer studies classes, my biggest goal is to show those queer kids that being for gay marriage simply isn’t enough, you’ve got to be as committed to anti-racism and anti-oppression in general if you’ve understood anything of the larger lesson to be gleaned from your own oppression. When I teach more mixed classes, I try to stress the interconnections between forms of oppression in general. This hits me as crucial.
But I think its also very, very important that I work on things that have NOTHING to do, at least on the surface, with gender or sexuality. The result is that I sometimes feel guilty when I work on these seemingly ‘less political’ things, but also feel it is important that I not be limited such that my ‘gender and sexuality’ come to define my existence. But when I can find ways to link what I work on back to politics, in the widest sense of the word, its essential to me that I do, because queer folks, and all oppressed folks, have a ‘second sight’ in this regard, can sense certain tropes of marginalization a mile off, because we’ve experienced them, or have learned from those who’ve taught us how to see them.
Which is why I feel it is important to function as someone ‘queer’, and as a ‘philosopher’, and to keep these in constant tension, mixing in the form of ‘both/and’, without allowing the ‘both’ or the ‘and’ to take precedence.
And its with this in mind I’d like to ask fellow gay folks this: don’t limit yourselves. Don’t push other gay folks to limit themselves either. We can do more than just perform or deal with beauty. Gay and queer folks can be in any line of work, be experts in any field, can read any type of books, watch any type of TV show, wear any type of clothes. So often the groupthink at work within ‘gay culture’ produces a degree of homogeny which is truly startling to me. Everyone reading the same one book, listening to the same 2-3 pop singers, wearing variations on the same clothes. Cloning, in general, as a way to find an identity.
Oh, and for what its worth, I’ve got nothing against Lady Gaga per se. She’s openly bi, and has been publicly pro-queer in a variety of ways, taken part in some protests and marches, though also someone who is perpetuating and riding off the wave of mainstream gay culture. While I’m not sure that’s the best of things to perpetuate, for all the reasons outlined above, she seems to at least not be shying away from relatively mainstream forms of activism.
But is playing the historical roles laid out for us the only roles we want in our repertoire? As Barney Frank recently said (and I wish I could find the quote, it was something to the effect that) ‘the notion that all gay men are good at fashion is a dangerous stereotype.’ I couldn’t agree more. Because it perpetuates the notion of the immutable separation of roles in society, and ways that supports various sorts of symbolic violence, and occasionally, physical violence when people violate what they are ‘supposed’ to be and do. Frank himself is a living example of the way in which an out gay man can queer the expectations society has for him, and I give him a lot of credit for being nerdy, geeky, unfashionable, serious, etc.
This is why I think gay marriage and gays in the army are two fights with potentially huge implications. I think it is very wrong to reduce gay folks, or queer politics, to these things as well. Many have argued that the ‘gay marriage movement’ is heteronormative, and there are ways in which this is the case. Yes, many queer folks want to be ‘just like the straights’ when it comes to marriage and raising kids. But we also will produce families that are different, and perhaps slowly and over time, the oppressive structures of the contemporary nuclear family will begin to rework themselves.
The army is a whole different deal. I am against armies in principle, but they are a part of the world we live in. Openly gay males in the army completely queers the ideal of masculinity at work in these armies, nearly as much as having female soldiers of any sexual set of desires does the same.
Queering Cultural Ghettoization
But will we ever have a stupid action movie in which the lead male ‘just happens’ to be gay? Or the lead woman ‘just happens’ to be a lesbian? Or one of them ‘just happens’ to have had a different gender than the one they were born with? Or genitals differently formed from the majority of folks?
Today often in stupid action movies (one of the ‘lowest common demoninator’ genres in contemporary hollywood) there ‘just happen’ to be black characters and even heroes who aren’t in ‘black’ movies, or otherwise somehow ghettoized. But this is a VERY recent phenomenon. The fact that a movie can be written with the lead intended for either Denzel Washington or Bruce Willis is a huge step. Because it means that aspects of the traditional movie story plot that SEEMED neutral had to be rethought so that a black character ‘just could’ play the part. For example, getting rid of the ‘black buddy’ that we see in early Bruce Willis Die Hard films. Those sorts of subplots need to be removed or remodeled for the lead role to truly be neutral.
In the same way, could Harry Potter ‘just have’ been queer? (And I must say I’m shocked whenever I encounter those Harry Potter films, and the only people of color are background characters, and this in a story line based on fighting exclusion of the ‘pure bloods’).
Getting out of the ‘cultural ghetto’ requires that the ghetto be queered both from the outside in and inside out. This means that we need to expand what we desire to be. We can be more than just entertainers or artists. Queer folks of all types need to move out of the models that we have accepted as those which were ‘allowed’ to us. And of course, this requires first that we are safe, and this requires legal and social protections. And yes, there are many much more pressing concerns in the world, like making sure that people aren’t dying from malaria, or unjust wars. But queering culture is important as well, in its own restricted way, and we shouldn’t have to choose working on problems big and small.
I think its important for gay men to start to be mathematicians, engineers, to be able to ‘be serious’. I never cease to be amazed when I look at online personal ads, I see the same set of books, movies, music, and this one phrase listed over and over again: “no-one who takes themselves too seriously.” Of course, queer folks in general have always been pushed to the margins, and gay men in particular had to be funny and harmless to get by. But why limit ourselves this way? Why can’t we be seriously too?
Cynicism, Irony, and Post-modern detachment – oh so queer?
Irony is of course a key trope in postmodernism of all sorts. And there are many ways in which post-modern culture is a mass appropriation of many of the survival strategies of queer folks. Andy Warhol’s camp stylings within Pop Art are a clear case in point of how one man’s attempt to code his own longings became the voice of a generation that continually disavowed that sexuality had anything to do with it. Andy glorified Marylyn – but does that mean that we NEED to glorify Lady Gaga?
Of course, it is also important that people denied fun in a variety of areas in their lives are able to have fun in others. Queer folks need to be able to have joy, and Lady Gaga gives many of us joy. But as we saw with psychoanalytic feminism from the 70’s, this fun is on terms designed by those who have oppressed us. There are other ways to have fun.
Perhaps these days its pretty revolutionary to be Barney Frank. I bet he has a lot of fun queering people’s expectations, albeit a slightly different type of fun than that had with Lady Gaga, that post-modern fun, ironic, of ‘I know its silly, but its so much fun!’ According to psychoanalysis, this sort of ironic detachment is disavowal, a key mechanism of any sort of fictional pleasure. But the question is not whether we immerse ourselves in fiction, but the extent, and which fictions.
Cynicism, the primary mode of engaging with culture in postmodern times, makes us often feel that we can partake in something without doing is ‘seriously.’ Retro-80’s parties allow us to mock the techno-seriousness of the 80’s, while partaking in it of ourselves. Perhaps this is why ‘not being so serious’ is the hallmark of both mainstream gay culture and postmodernism. I like Barney Frank because he’s pretty damn serious. Even though I don’t always agree with him, I generally admire his stance, his mode of engagement with issues. When I think of potential role models for gay culture, I think Barney Frank much more than Lady Gaga.
Barney Frank doesn’t seem to be without fun, but rather, he evidences a different type of fun, the type that comes about through being able to produce a lifework, to effect change, to feel not just fun, but also fulfillment, satisfaction. That’s something I think that both Lady Gaga-ites and dominant society often deny themselves. We need the ability to be serious, because there are different pleasures to be had, and we are limiting ourselves if we cannot be earnest as well as fun and ‘fabulous.’ There are many joys and pleasures that come in other ways, and we do ourselves a great disservice if we let these go.
Gay politics in the 70’s and 80’s was earnest, and needed to be earnest, but today, so many of us are scared of the one thing that Oscar Wilde was himself highly ambivalent about being: earnest. Oscar Wilde used comedy to carefully cover up his queerness, to encode his critiques of the dominant society. But as soon as he tried to actually say things directly, by putting the entire British legal system on trial, turning his own trial into a trial of the laws and social norms themselves, as soon as he dared speak ‘earnestly’ about the ‘love that dare not speak its name’, they killed him, for after 2 years in Reading Gaol, there was nothing left of Wilde’s health, physically or mentally.
I often fear that in our continued glorification of Lady Gaga, gay men continue their fear of being earnest, of moving beyond the muscle-queen/drag-queen dichotomy, and the feeling of comfort that familiarity breeds. And of course, fantasy is great when your reality is still not that great. But in fact, gay culture today remains largely white, upper-class, and in many ways, still very, very limited and limiting. And even queer studies generally stays within the realms, generally, or art, literature, and performance.
But what might a queer studies of physics or math produce? There have been such forms of critique within feminism, and I have little doubt that an inherent masculinist whiteness pervades the very ways in which our culture does math and science. The entire discipline of ethnomathematics, for example, the work of Ron Eglash, speaks to these very issues. Eglash, in his book on African Fractals, for example, shows how the notion of numbers as a ‘straight line’ is privileged in the west over the more African forms of recursion and fractality. This is not to say that recursion is better, but that it has been repressed in many ways because it has become linked with socially abjected signifiers, or because linear forms have been linked with culturally valorized signifiers.
What have we given up to be fabulous? I have no doubt at one point we needed to be fabulous, it was our only option. The cult of the Diva, however, of the tough woman who won’t take any shit, leaves both gay men and strong women ultimately stuck, however. Hillary Clinton is at her weakest when she’s playing the diva, and she’s at her most powerful when she’s mixing and matching, synthesizing and going beyond, queering, in fact, notions of what a female leader is and could and should be.
When we can’t tell anymore what about Hillary’s political leaderhips style is feminine and what is masculine, maybe just a little something of the world may have changed. And when commentators get beyond asking Barack Obama if he’s incarnating the stereotype of the ‘angry black man’, simply because our country has stopped asking that question, then something will have changed as well.
Likewise, when gay men no longer get compared to divas, maybe something will have changed as well. There is a difference, I think, between cherishing our history, and being constrained by it.
And perhaps when gay porn is no longer filled with gay-for pay muscle-queens with unrealistic bodies, yet our popular culture filled by Lady Gaga, well, even though I’m not sure Barney Frank would be a better crooner, there’s a part of me that wonders if there can be a Barney Frank of music.
Or of other domains, a ‘Barney Frank’ who doesn’t repeat Frank’s political seriousness by means of imitation, but can be serious in their own way in their own domain, but differently from both Frank and dominant hetero and gay cultures . . .
Cross-Activism and the Discourse of the Oppressed
Where does this leave us? I just think that if gay men, and those who pigeon-hole them, could get beyond the fact that gay men should like Lady Gaga, we’d be doing something. Something different. And different is what we need, when the status quo looks like it does.
Can we seriously begin to understand the role of oppression in our histories? Can we begin to form a discourse of the oppressed that, in the words of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, can help us put together some form of counter-hegemonic bloc that can actually gain some traction against the contemporary world-system?
If we have what I have else where called ‘cross-activism’, well, I think that’s a start. When queer folks start to show up at anti-anti-immigration rallies, then maybe immigrant rights folks will start to show up at ours. Anyone can be for protecting themselves, but real political change comes about when you start fighting to protect others. This is why I think ‘cross-activism’ is essential to create change on a massive scale. It produces coalitions, and produces the conditions within which diaolgue can occur between groups.
I also think we need to not only look for new solutions, but to change the problems. This is what I’ve spoken of elsewhere as ‘intervening within the landscape’ of a politico-social system. For example, most queer folks don’t get too excited about campaign finance reform and the need for publicly funded elections. But I think if we reformed campaign finance, our entire political culture could change, and we’d see a massive reduction of corporate influence. This would I think have many incredibly helpful effects on our society, from which many folks, including queer ones, could benefit.
Finally, the development of a ‘discourse of the oppressed.’ The system in dominance in our society rules by ‘divide and conquer.’ Only by seeing the ways in which racism, mysogyny, homophobia, anti-immigrantism, all share certain traits can we learn to work together in enough force to really change things. Developing a discourse of the oppressed can also help us see more clearly the ways in which Lady Gaga is as much a cage as she is liberatory for us. Black organizations have the same dilemma with the ‘gansta rap’ image in hip-hop, but there is so much more consciousness of this. Queer folks need to have this discussion as well, and beyond academia.
I’m not saying we all need to assimilate to hetero culture, or that ‘gay culture’ as it is now is somehow bad. I’m simply saying its really, really limiting. And that I for one am tired of being limited, not only by heteros, but by the pressure to conform in the gay world.
Rather than surrender to ‘straight’ culture, we should slowly and progressively work to expand what both gays and straights think terms like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ might mean, culturally, sexually, politically, etc.
And so, with gay pride coming up tomorrow, I find myself ambivalent as usual. Luckily, the parade has a more political side that works to remind queer folks that there’s more to life than just being fabulous as a full-time job. But what if we dared to be more than just fabulous on a more regular basis? Or, god forbid, tried to take the pressure off of ourselves, and stop having to be fabulous for a few seconds? Certainly even hetero women and men have the pressure to be gendered all the time. I wonder why gay men have felt such a need to impose new restrictions on ourselves.
Its time to get beyond identity, and the politics of identity, because identity keeps us tied to our past, including our old defense mechanisms, even after they stop working well for us, and it divides us from potential allies. No, we need to change the turf on which the game is played. Rather than culturally ghettoize ourselves and continue to do so, we need to break down the walls of the ghetto, to queer the distinctions that keep it in place. And keep moving queering and denormativizing other social distinctions as well.
Its time to figure out what it might be like for gays to be in the same lockerroom shower as straight guys and for no-one to care, and no-one to ignore it either. Or for gays to be able to be serious or fabulous, and no-one cares about regulating the difference because both were fine options. In a horrific world, these are tiny starts. Of course, we ALSO need to work on the larger global issues as well, including the ways in which that locker-room, so central to so many fantasies, paranoid and desirous, was most likely built by underpaid and underprotected immigrant labor. We need to connect the dots on many, many levels, to continually defamiliarize ourselves and our friends from the world as status-quo. This is what a discourse of the oppressed would hopefully start to do.