The following is an article I wrote for the January 10, 2011 relaunch of Escape OKC Magazine, Oklahoma’s premiere queer culture magazine.
A friend recently posted an open question on his Facebook profile about the mainstreaming of GLBT culture, and whether or not that is a good thing.
He posited that there are vast differences in heterosexual and homosexual relationships, and that moving away from a typically gay culture may send the wrong message to GLBT youth who have yet to take their place in our adult society. He asked if we are perhaps sending the message that it’s better to “blend in rather than be who and what [we] are.” In a response, I offered my unique perspective, which I will expand upon here.
I came of age in the late 1990s, at the tail-end of a very different type of “gay culture” replete with rainbow boas & bumper stickers, pleather pants, and frosty tipped outrageousness. It was very much the “in” thing to know someone who was gay, or especially to be gay. Being gay was still rather underground. Far from being illegal – as it had been only decades before – gay culture was still taking baby steps toward becoming a part of mainstream life and discourse in America.
As has often been pointed out, there was no Will & Grace, no Ellen, and no real positive portrayal of GLBT life in mainstream media. To see someone gay on television or in movies (apart from indie gay films) was usually to witness the sad clown, comic foil, evil perpetrator, or lowly victim.
As Peter Tatchell remarks, greater visibility of GLBT men and women today is a welcome change in our society, although it has yet to afford GLBT people legal equality, and that homophobia still exists, if only in a more subtle fashion (Tatchell, 1998). Filmmaker and provocateur John Waters once said in an interview that he “had more fun when it was illegal to be gay,” and stated that while he does not desire to marry or serve in the armed forces, he recognizes others’ right to want that (Smith, 2007).
Indeed, the advances GLBT people have made in recent years are to be celebrated. People are realizing more and more that GLBT people are their friends and neighbors, children and coworkers. The truth, however, is that once something becomes integrated into the mainstream society’s consciousness, it loses its edginess and uniqueness – that sense of identification as ‘different.’
As one who has always considered himself on the outside of things, I miss that edginess somewhat. I miss when it was “cool” to be gay, just like it was once verboten and “cool” to have tattoos – something else which has been integrated into mainstream society, and could arguably be said to have lost some of its edge. But, I miss it in a nostalgic way; much like I miss a time when we could hear more than today’s top pop-starlets on the radio. We regard such things with a fondness, but we move on. Change is the only constant. Personally, I would love to hear PJ Harvey, Sufjan Stevens, and Patti Smith on mainstream radio, but I don’t think that’s happening any time soon either.
So, is the mainstreaming of gay identity and culture a good thing? Is it natural? Political? Reactionary? And why does it matter?
When something becomes more broadly accepted and understood, there is less of a need for it to be regarded as “different;” rather, it begins to blend into the wider cultural landscape, and becomes just one more thread in the vast fabric of humanity. While I speak for no one but myself, I think that moving away from typical (and, to some, stereotypical) gay culture says to GLBT youth that “being gay isn’t weird anymore. You’re okay; it’s just one part of who you are, like your hair color, musical tastes, and so forth.” It says that we’ve moved past the need to define ourselves by our sexuality.
I do not identify with much of so-called “gay culture,” and have not for many years. And so, by choice I have moved away from it, both literally and figuratively. I do not consider myself part of the “GLBT Community” simply because I have identified in the past as a gay man. For me, the fact that someone is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered no more connects us than the fact that they are Caucasian or that they wear Converse “connects” us. Sure, we have some shared historical cultural associations for belonging to the same societal subculture, but that’s often where the similarities end.
And therein lies my point – we don’t need to ghettoize ourselves anymore. The majority of my friends have always consisted of other men – many of them gay-identifying men, with a couple of straight people and lesbians in the mix. However, since moving myself outside the gay universe, I now find my friendships are comprised of the entire spectrum of humanity – different genders, different backgrounds, different ideals and occupations, having perhaps no shared cultural identity between them. In fact, as I think of these friends, I realize at least as many if not more identify as heterosexual. Not that it even matters, but I provide this detail simply for contextual reference.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am in a long-term relationship with a transgendered female, so I’m sure this does inform some of my opinions. My wife transitioned a few years after we began our relationship. I find myself straddling the heterosexual and homosexual worlds equally. I have experienced “heterosexual privilege” on an intimate level that I had not prior to her transition. We maintain our gay friendships and ties to the community, but to the larger world we are seen as just another opposite-gender couple.
It is no secret that GLBT people today still face many challenges, and (for the moment, at least) a sort of conservative/fundamentalist backlash to recent inroads. However, on the whole, many people (including me) simply don’t deem it necessary to continue defining ourselves by culturally-imposed labels. As John Morley famously put it, “Labels are devices for saving talkative persons the trouble of thinking.”
Some GLBT people are wary of blending into the larger identity – indeed, some rail against it. I am on the other side of this fence, I suppose. I used to strongly identify myself as part of the GLBT world – so much so that a friend once told me it seemed as if that was all there was to me. Today, I identify myself first and foremost as a man, an artist, a friend, a husband, etc. I only aim to present myself in this world as Jason, and everything that comes along with that moniker, whatever it entails.
In fact, I am finding that sense of edginess and freedom again in the expression of surprise people have when they casually learn that my wife happens to be transgendered. And these conversations do not happen in our city’s gay enclave, Oak Lawn, but rather when chatting with our neighbors, or in a conversation with a coworker…that is to say, if it ever comes up at all.
In short, we exist not in the confines of the “gay lifestyle.” We do not live and breathe our way through a lavender world, but in real life, lived on our own terms. Those of us who choose to move outside the prescribed roles of the “GLBT Community” may someday be seen as pioneers rather than defectors – perhaps time will tell us that. We may someday be known as those who chose to buck the trends of all that gay culture has become and strike out on a new path. We are not ignoring or negating gay culture, or aping heterosexual conventions. Instead, we are helping create a new world where being gay isn’t any more noteworthy or separatist than preferring chocolate over vanilla. So, I guess you could say that blending in is being who and what we are – just people.
In closing, I leave you with these words…
“I came to live in a country I love; some people label me a defector. I have loved men and women in my life; I’ve been labeled ”the bisexual defector” in print. Want to know another secret? I’m even ambidextrous. I don’t like labels. Just call me Martina.” – Martina Navratilova
Click on the illustration of the men at the top of the article to visit David M. Buisán’s blog, and see more of his outstanding work at his official website: www.buisanart.com.