The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture
Though many in the gay community strive to be accepted into mainstream society, assimilation is watering down a once vibrant culture, rendering it as bland as a production of Streetcar without Blanche Dubois. As corporate America opens its arms and the gay population comes running, the commercialization of gay culture makes it conventional—imagine Valley of the Dolls with M&M’s.
In this provocative, brilliantly reasoned book, charged throughout with a penetrating eye and stinging wit, Daniel Harris examines the many shadings of the gay experience as they have evolved over time, including the demise of camp and kink, the evolution of personal ads, the origins of the underwear revolution, the changing face of porn and glossy magazines, the morph of drag queens and leathermen, and the marketing of AIDS as commodity.
Daniel Harris comes on strong: “For far too long, the book trade has provided gay readers with nothing more than the literary equivalent of a warm glow, a soothing linguistic salve for the walking wounded, as if we were all still 13 and were all still mustering the courage to come out, as if, after 25 years of gay liberation, we all still needed to be scolded and cajoled into self-acceptance…. Homosexuals are not permanent intellectual convalescents. They are thriving, mentally, if not physically, and it is time that they remove their bandages, raise themselves off of the soft, snug, and commodious bed of uplifting ideology in which they have slept for decades, and face some important truths about a culture desperately in need of being shaken out of its complacency.”
Harris musters an impressive body of evidence to show how many of the elements of gay culture are rooted not in a “psychological fetish” for, say, Bette Davis movies or shiny leather boots, but in a “social fetish”; gay men, in other words, bonded together over Hollywood divas and kinky sex because it’s something they could do together that set them apart from their heterosexual peers. But as society becomes increasingly more tolerant of queerness, Harris argues, gay men feel less need to be culturally unique. And their culture slowly disappears into the mainstream. With its analyses of the deterioration of camp’s hold over the gay community, the evolution of drag queens and leathermen, and the kitschy commodification of AIDS, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture quickly became one of the most controversial gay-themed nonfiction works of the ‘90s when it was first published. It remains as provocative today. —Ron Hogan