Erik A. Sanjuro: Erik A. Sanjuro is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Southern California. His specialty areas are in American Government and Political Communication.
The 1990s are supposed to be a high time for gay male culture. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal Defense are knocking down homophobic laws left and right. There are a record number of gay characters on television. Even the specter of AIDS has somewhat lessened thanks to new hope from improved medications.
Not everyone is pleased with how things are going, however, as GAY MEN AT THE MILLENNIUM clearly shows. The book, a collection of short excerpts from a diverse group of gay men from all walks of life, shows that under the glossy veneer of mainstream gay culture there lies a great deal of disagreement over where we as a group should turn next.
GAY MEN AT THE MILLENNIUM reads a great deal like the proceedings of a support group, with each contributor speaking to a different concern about being gay in the 1990s. Every author is persuasive in his own way, some using logic and statistics, with others relying upon the power of raw emotion to convey their main points. The language is informal, at times even obscene, which only adds to the reader's sensation that they are being spoken to directly by the authors.
Editor Michael Lowenthal has chosen to break his collection into three sections: sex, spirit and community. Each section contains numerous perspectives on what life is like today for gay men.
Lowenthal states in the introduction that “the gay movement is in mid-life crisis.” (6) Those who led the fights from the 1950s up till today have grown old or weary of the process. The time is right for a new generation to step forward and assume control of the gay cause. However, as several authors in the book point out, the younger generation has not yet risen to the task.
Perhaps due in part to this lack of clear leadership, there is a great deal of argument over where we as a group should move next. There is no clearer example of this crisis of consensus than in the area of sex.
“There has never been, I suspect, a society as obsessed with sex and as ignorant as ours,” poet Michael Lassell harshly states. (21) We need to embrace sex, he argues, in order to connect with our creative sides.
Author Michael Bronski takes gay men to task for being unable to talk about sex in a meaningful way. “The irony is that while talk about sex has always been a salient, vital part of gay male culture, honest discussion about sex is as scarce as good acting in a porno movie,” declares Bronski in the scathing tone he employs throughout his piece.
When it comes to the issue of AIDS, there is little agreement either. While journalist Jesse Green rues the second wave phenomenon of new HIV infections, former porn star Scott O'Hara proudly states that he engages in unprotected sex with multiple partners. Green explains why more and more gay males are having unprotected sex in the ‘90s in his brilliant piece “Flirting With Disaster.”
Many gay men feel they are doomed to eventually get AIDS, Green says, and ignore condoms in order to speed up what they believe to be the inevitable. There is also the problem of the idolization in gay culture of HIV-positive males. Green believes that this glamorizing of a fatal disease has added greatly to this current generation's lack of fear of AIDS.
The next issue tackled by the book is less emotional but equally important, that of fidelity. Novelist G.D. Travers Scott and Out columnist Michelangelo Signorile provide compelling evidence that both monogamous and open relationships can work. Scott offers a list of levels of monogamy and invites couples to choose the one best for them.
Signorile complains that it is difficult to remain in a relationship when so much of gay culture is based on being single. “The gay male focus on singledom affects in a big way how gay men interact on a daily basis,” he states. Those gays who have no sex or money to offer are virtually invisible in our culture, Signorile writes, which gives young gay men the impression that they are fated to wind up alone and lonely once they are no longer in their sexual prime.
Religion has historically been seen by gay men as the seed of oppression, Lowenthal notes in the introduction to his book's section on spirit. As more and more gay priests and rabbis have come out, however, and as the church itself has become more accepting of gays and lesbians, so too have the attitudes of gay Americans changed about spirituality.
Gays have historically been seen as being very spiritual people, pioneering gay activist Harry Hay points out in his piece “Remarks on the 3rd Gender.” We need to reclaim “our own sense of an ancient and historical legitimacy,” says Hay, who cites the Native American berdache as an example of a culture in which gays were active in their group's spiritual life.
Log Cabin Republican Bruce Bawer discusses how conservative Christians like Pat Robertson have perverted the teachings of Christ by attacking gays and lesbians. We need to take the Bible back from these hate mongers, he says.
Author Andrew Sullivan and Rabbi Yaakov Levado, a pseudonym, discuss how difficult it has been for them to accept their gay identities while remaining faithful to their respective faiths. Sullivan concludes that gay love is not against the teachings of Jesus. Levado, a practicing rabbi, concludes that since God had decided to make him gay it must also be acceptable for him to find a male lover.
“I have come to understand my gayness as akin to my Jewishness: It is integral to my sense of self,” Levado writes. Conditions have improved in the Jewish community for gays as far as acceptance, he writes, though a large number of Jews would prefer for gays and lesbians to remain invisible.
The section ends with a series of essays about men dealing with AIDS. Though these pieces are touching, they provide little insight into where gay men as a group may be headed on the dawn of the new millennium.
The most contentious section of GAY MEN AT THE MILLENNIUM is certainly the last one on community. As Lowenthal correctly states, it is impossible for there to be only one gay community since it is such a tremendously diverse group. Greater freedoms have allowed gays to enter areas where it would have been impossible before. A gay Republican was an oxymoron just a few years ago, but now there are many people like Bruce Bawer questioning the liberal leadership of the gay rights movement.
As our community becomes more and more diverse, it also becomes less unified. “At the end of the millennium, the ‘gay community' runs the risk of being nothing more than a convenient marketing niche,” Lowenthal predicts.
At the beginning of “Going In,” possibly the best piece in the book, novelist John Weir angrily announces that he no longer wants to be gay. Weir argues that the gay movement has been monopolized by “straight-acting, white-appearing, gay guys,” who do not represent the majority of queer America. (253)
“The gay movement is largely helmed by white men who crave what they were promised as children but denied as adults because of their sexuality; they want their guaranteed access to power.” (259)
Weir also lashes out at the gay rank and file, who follow the trend setters like sheep, with little thought. “Homosexuals are emerging as the yuppies of the 1990s,” he quips.
“Gay men are such a straining, susceptible horde of self-loathing, hump-happy pleasure seekers that anyone with a decent set of biceps and a smidgen of media savvy could lead them where no fascist, or televangelist, has ever gone before,” Weir charges.
Weir's commentary is quite harsh and many people may disagree with his statements, but the arguments he makes are insightful and everyone interested in gay culture should at least read them.
Literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn shares Weir's contempt for modern gay life. He states that “Pretty much everyone you talk to feels that the edge has disappeared from urban gay culture.” (238) He points to the 1980s as the height of gay culture.
Mendelsohn looks at the recent history of gay media and politics to prove his point that gay culture is in decline. Gay publications such as OUT are much more mainstream than predecessors like OUTWEEK, he says. Movies like “The Birdcage” are not revolutionary, he argues, but instead only serve to reinforce societal norms by portraying gay couples as similar to heterosexual ones.
Mendelsohn also points to the demise of ACT UP as a clear sign that gays are no longer fighting against the system, but are now becoming a part of it. This is a bad thing, he argues, since it makes us less interesting as a group.
“In purely aesthetic terms, at least, oppression may have been the best thing that ever happened to us,” he writes. “Without it, we're nothing.” (238) The utter stupidity of this statement reveals a great deal about the author's motivation in writing this piece. Evidently, he is unhappy that gay culture is not as flippant and campy as it once was. This is a condition that the majority of gays and lesbians would most likely gladly accept in exchange for equal rights and protections.
The “Community” section also contains the perspectives of several racial minority writers. Black author Keith Boykin calls into question the strategy of gay leaders to only portray “positive” images of lesbians and gays, which he feels leave a great deal of the community behind.
“We might expect that a homosexual assimilation strategy, that puts forward only ‘positive' images of lesbians and gays will leave behind the parts of the community that suffer double and triple discrimination because of other differences based on race, class, gender, appearance, or education.” (221)
Finally, Andrew Holleran discusses the age bias present in gay culture. Much like Signorile's piece, Holleran explores the many ways in which mainstream gay culture is targeted at the young and beautiful, tossing the elderly aside.
The many perspectives offered in this book may at first glance serve to confuse, but when taken together provide a realistic portrayal of gay male life in the 1990s. While the authors may have disagreed on several specific points, there appears to be a consensus opinion that the definition of the “gay community” must be expanded to include many more people and that it may be unwise for such a small group of leaders to try to make decisions for such a diverse group of people.
GAY MEN AT THE MILLENNIUM does an outstanding job of canvassing the most important issues facing gay men today and of presenting the most important opinions about these matters. Editor Michael Lowenthal has done a magnificent job of creating a brutally honest collection of thoughts from some of America's most important queers voices.
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