Is That All There Is?: Queer Culture and Politics on the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall




THIS WEEKEND IS THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY of the Stonewall riots in New York City, the event popularly credited with launching what we recognize as the modern LGBTQ movement. In the past two months, as rainbows have been splashed over every conceivable storefront and product, and Pride seems to be a citywide event in Los Angeles and elsewhere, I’ve seen things I never could have imagined as a queer child growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, in the 1980s and ’90s. In that world, being gay meant George Michael, it meant Melissa Etheridge, it meant a turbulent time for Ellen and Ellen DeGeneres, it meant The Real World’s Pedro Zamora struggling with AIDS, it meant DOMA and DADT ; it meant fear, it meant uncertainty, it meant being haunted by the specter of death from STDs, homophobia, or both. Queerness wasn’t here, and it wasn’t yet. It was something you were going to do elsewhere, and when you got there, you’d better be careful.

In May 2019, some three decades later, Pete Buttigieg, an arm around his husband Chasten, stares back at me from the cover of Time — an openly gay man who is a serious contender for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination. A gay man on the cover of Time, and it wasn’t a special issue about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a write-up of a daring-yet-ultimately-tragic mainstream film about “the gay experience,” or a damage-control story about some barely closeted queen who is now ready to tell the public his “truth.” Those were the stories I was used to consuming with anxious yet comforting identification. This was something different.

A few weeks later, as CNN Tonight with Don Lemon blared into the low-lit quiet of a friend’s house, I overheard pundit Hilary Rosen say, in the midst of a discussion with Lemon and fellow commentator Keith Boykin: “[T]he three of us are gay, right? […] I came out in politics when a politician wouldn’t even talk — when politicians wouldn’t even talk to me. […] Now, it’s a completely different story.” That “totally different story” is, of course, that there are three openly gay media figures on a primetime cable news program, as well as the fact that they aren’t the only ones. Anderson Cooper (CNN), Gio Benitez (ABC News), Shepard Smith (Fox News), Rachel Maddow (MSNBC), Jane Velez-Mitchell (HLN/CNN), and many others are out on the small screen in front of millions of Americans regularly, and it doesn’t seem to be causing anyone to turn the channel.

These images add themselves to a care package I wish I could send to my younger self. They take their place next to others from the realm of the aesthetic that I would also have loved to see as a kid, images that vibrate more deeply with structures of queer feeling and desire than their news media counterparts: Elio throwing his body upon Oliver in the film adaptation of Call Me by Your Name (2017), uncertain of what will go where (and how), but certain of his desire; the moment when Blue slides in next to Simon on the Ferris wheel and the crowd cheers at the end of Love, Simon (2018); the ecstasy of Sasha Velour pulling away her fire-red wig to reveal a cascade of rose petals falling to the beat of Whitney Houston’s “I Get So Emotional” in the season nine finale of RuPauls Drag Race. This is the image repertoire that could have helped me see a world where gay people can thrive rather than suffer through the marginal, hard-won lives that were the narratives of my youth. And yet, these images of normative romance and pop culture success are also the source of a nagging, persistent conflict about what counts for progress in the chasm between then and now.

Context, as always, is important. Despite its affirmative power, that Time cover of Buttigieg doesn’t feel that empowering to me (and I’m not alone). Pete and Chasten hardly look like lovers, for one; the shot could just as easily have been a candid photo of two mid-level managers, in their identical navy slacks, bemoaning tall Q3 expectations at the company barbeque. Part of the politics of that cover image informs what I call the “apologies” Buttigieg must make to the American public, the badges of respectability he must wear, so that he can be considered a candidate as a gay man: he’s married, he wants to have children, he’s a Christian, he’s a military veteran, he’s a Harvard graduate, he reportedly has some level of fluency with seven languages, he taught himself Norwegian so that he could read his favorite crime novels in the original. Of course, it’s also important that he’s a white, cisgender male.

Buttigieg has to be all of these things if he wants to be considered a viable challenger to Donald Trump, a thrice-married philanderer who has made a sport out of lying to the American people, trampling over basic norms of decency as he spews incendiary and disgusting rhetoric about people of color and immigrants, an alleged draft dodger who mangles his native language, a man who uses the American people as a bargaining chip in the now-national project of the greater glorification of himself. Buttigieg’s achievements are commendable, but there’s a certain sadness I feel at realizing that only this superhumanly Best Little Boy in the World could become the first gay presidential nominee. While Americans elected a president who admitted on tape to grabbing women by their genitals, would they ever elect a gay man who isn’t interested in marriage, isn’t interested in having children, and whose leaked text messages might reveal that he likes rimming? The scales have never been balanced in this country between those at the center and those at the margins, but they feel almost cartoonishly imbalanced in the present moment. That’s what I see when I look at that Time cover: progress, but also its limits.

Context is important, as well, to Hilary Rosen’s “the three of us are gay” moment on CNN Tonight. The comment was made during an on-air discussion about why Americans, especially Democrats, should be willing to forgive Joe Biden’s past support for the Hyde Amendment — legislation that would very strictly limit access to abortion. “If [we] didn’t give politicians some room to evolve on issues,” Rosen explained, “we’d never have friends.” While I understand the Realpolitik of Rosen’s position, I can’t help but hear in it the logic of a gay apology similar to Buttigieg’s, a willingness to look beyond the harm that others have done because otherwise “we’d never have friends.” But are these the friends we want? Is this the world that queers across the spectrum of our community fought for when they pushed back against oppression at Cooper Do-nuts in 1959, at Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966, at the Black Cat Tavern in 1967, and at the Stonewall Inn in 1969?

I’m not the only one who feels this way, of course. Many LGBTQ celebrities who have appeared in omnipresent Pride advertising campaigns, hawking everything from shoes to shaving razors, have also been forthrightly critical about the way businesses splash the rainbow across their products without meaningfully supporting queer communities. Likewise, Gay Twitter has been abuzz with hot takes on the commodification of Pride and tomorrow, the Queer Liberation March in New York will offer an important counter to today’s thoroughly commercialized Pride Parade. Here, we can see the deep ambivalence of queer life and culture under present-day capitalism. Appearing in advertising is perhaps what counts most for being “seen” in American life, and yet it’s also the moment you become a product for others’ profit, in which you are seen and then sold. These are the critical voices, always present in our history but growing louder now, calling our attention to the persistence of injustice and worrying about our collective future in an era of unprecedented queer visibility and acceptance.

Does it get better, as The Trevor Project implores us to believe? Sure. I’m happy. I have loving and supportive families, chosen and biological. I’ve shared my life for the past 13 years with a man who inspires, challenges, and loves me. I have a cat, live by the beach, and get to spend most of my time reading and writing about queer stuff. But I must also acknowledge that, amid the technicolor whirl of Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, my feelings are a bit ambivalent, a bit stuck. The queer activism that culminated in Stonewall, and certainly in the Gay Liberation movements that followed shortly thereafter, was one of real radicality. It was against the police, it was a critique of capitalism, it was a critique of marriage and other social conventions, it was a critique of the military-industrial complex. When we survey the landscape of contemporary gay life this Pride Month, are we seeing the natural outgrowth of queer political vision after Stonewall — the ways that movements change in response to history’s onward march — or are we seeing a departure from that vision?

Queer activists fought, and many died, for the progress we mark in the possibility of a gay presidential candidate in 2020, in the constitutional affirmation of gay marriage, in such broad cultural visibility and acceptance. These are real and dramatic changes. But the contemporary politics we see in Pride celebrations seems to sidestep a radical queer vision that seeks to challenge the structures of capitalism, racism, misogyny, and other ills that continue to afflict our society. Over the past 50 years, the LGBTQ community has made real gains, but still I find myself wondering, in the key of Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” What I’m trying to say, reader, is that I’m conflicted. And maybe you are, too.

Holes in History

Around this time last year, Martin Duberman, one of the foremost historians of LGBTQ life in the United States, published his polemic Has the Gay Movement Failed? By Duberman’s lights, the answer is yes, it has indeed failed in the years since Stonewall, and that failure can be seen in the movement of mainstream LGBTQ political energy away from broadly impactful legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) — first introduced in 1994 and subsequently introduced (and defeated) in nearly every year since — in favor of the more limited, assimilationist push toward gay marriage and military service protections. As I like to remind people, not everyone has to get married, but in the current world order, everyone does need to have a job. In a recent interview, Duberman and I groused about how, as money and influence filtered into the “gay movement,” it became more the stuff of mainstream political aspirations, of canapés and cocktails shared by the elite at glittering Human Rights Campaign (HRC) galas. What Duberman and I wanted for the LGBTQ community wasn’t merely the public presence of our most affluent members, but rather a political movement that would address, in ways resonant with the radical ethos of the queer past, the needs of our community’s most vulnerable members: the poor, people of color, women, transgender folx, sex workers, and others.

A few days after the Duberman interview aired, I received a long email from a self-described former “mid-level member” of HRC Boston who, piqued at my on-air quip about canapés, offered some historical context for the movement away from ENDA and toward marriage. It was, by his account, something of a fluke. “[ENDA fights] were going on in one place,” he explained,

but simultaneously, Mary Bonauto was working on marriage at GLAAD. I felt strongly that marriage was not the priority […] [but] it seemed to me that the LGBT movement was always heterogeneous and worked on multiple fronts, however much I might have wished for a sense of utopian unity.

What surprised everyone, he added, was that Bonauto and GLAAD were successful, as could be seen from the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in favor of gay marriage. “I can tell you that lots of us had no strong feelings about gay marriage,” he recalled of that moment.

But it was as if we’d been beavering away at one point in the wall of legal homophobia when all of a sudden Mary Bonauto and GLAAD opened up a hole at a completely different place. We didn’t ruminate much on why, or what the long-term cultural or legal impact would be if we switched over to that instead of pushing ahead with ENDA. We just observed that Mary opened up a hole in the wall, sort of got stuck in it, and [we] went over to help.

These exchanges bring to mind the generational gaps — what I call the “holes” in queer history — that are particular points of struggle in the LGBTQ community’s account of our complicated past. While communities organized around the lineage of the biological family have the benefit of cultural history transmitted over the dinner table, at holidays, and those family trees everyone has to draw in primary school, queer people don’t have such an institution. Our history is transmitted through gossip, through art, through books, through the connections we happen to make with older friends in bars or on the street. These spaces are dwindling, as many of us note the steady erosion of queer bars, neighborhoods, bookstores, and other businesses. When they go away, we will be left to the whims of whatever story mainstream and state institutions want to tell us. With those spaces also goes a fundamental and historically important resource for organizing and collective action, spaces where our history, our political and sexual desires, can be shared, developed, and channeled.

Amid these everyday losses is another major hole in our history: the trauma of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s. What we lost in that period was more than just the utopian vitality of Gay Liberation; it was a generation of mentors. There have been some wonderful attempts to bring this history back in recent film and television, where it seems we may be experiencing a renaissance in the representation of this moment in queer history as it corresponds to contemporary feelings of urgency around political activism. In the second season opener of FX’s Pose, characters played by Sandra Bernhard and the incredible Billy Porter attend an ACT UP meeting, their anger channeled into action against a cruel and callous Reagan administration that demeaned and devalued the lives of gay men, leaving them to die in the early days of the epidemic. Drawing on the culture of Paris Is Burning, Jenny Livingston’s iconic 1990 documentary centered on the queer Black and Latinx ball culture of 1980s New York, Pose does important work representing queer-of-color experience on-screen and behind the camera (transgender luminary Janet Mock is a writer, producer, and director of the show, which features a number of transgender and non-binary performers). Yet, is it a call to action in the present or an entertaining, glossy packaging of that historical moment, one responsive to a need for more inclusive representation and a perennial interest in the narratives of a serial drama? Can it be both?

Across the Atlantic, Robin Campillo’s BPM (2017) explores the relationship between two young men who join ACT UP in Paris, following them as they engage in protests, fall in love, and manage seroconversion and death. The documentary 5B (2018), directed by Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss, tells the story of the brave, compassionate nurses who created the country’s first AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital, a place where their radical practice of care emphasized emotional and physical contact with dying patients, against the protocols of a cold medical establishment riven by fear and disgust. As I watch these movies today, they feel as if they’re from a world apart, a world that isn’t really my own. What does this history mean to us in the era of PrEP and Grindr, marriage and mainstream visibility, progress and the nagging persistence of shame, uncertainty, and alienation for LGBTQ youth?

Several books published in the past month have attempted to address this question of generational divide and how it might complicate our narratives of progress. In Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives, clinical psychologist Walt Odets argues that today’s gay community is fragmented by the experience of three defining years: 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots; 1981, the year in which the first public reports of HIV (then known as Gay-Related Immune Disorder, or GRID) appeared in The New York Times; and 1996, the year in which highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) would usher in a significant drop in mortality rates. Those Odets refers to as “the older-group” include people who experienced the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic firsthand, who bear the severe trauma associated with the uncertainty of those years and the impact of seeing so many friends die. “Middle-group” men are those, like myself, who came out after the introduction of HAART treatments in 1996 and thus have little direct experience of the epidemic. Yet the middle group is marked by the “frightening association between gay men, AIDS, and horrible, disfiguring deaths” that was the stock in trade of a well-meaning but still harmful program of HIV/AIDS prevention education. The “younger-group” consists of those born into a period of increasingly “less ominous prognosis” for STDs and who seem to reflect the sexual values and experiences of Gay Liberation’s pioneers.

In Out in Time: The Public Lives of Gay Men from Stonewall to the Queer Generation, Perry N. Halkitis redefines these three groups as the Stonewall Generation, the AIDS Generation, and the Queer Generation. While approaches to sexual health, relationships, and LGBTQ identity vary widely across generations in both studies, queers’ understandings of themselves and the trauma they continue to experience offer some counterintuitive points of connection. If we read this march of generations along the narrative of progress, we would expect the Queer Generation to be forthrightly proud, confident in their identity, and protected in a society where they enjoy the same rights and validation as their heterosexual peers. But that is not so. Both Odets and Halkitis find that the younger generation struggles with intimacy and self-worth. Though things have changed, their feelings of isolation from friends and family as a result of coming out, their fears that they don’t fit into a queer world or a straight one, are achingly familiar. Also familiar are the more violent but no less systemic accounts of harassment, abuse, and above-average rates of suicide and homelessness for LGBTQ youth.

History hurts, but it also heals. Over the past academic year, I’ve been teaching a course at UCLA centered on the intersection between LGBTQ art and politics from Stonewall to the present. One of the things I hear most from my students is how much they appreciate learning their history. We pull at the threads we find in the archive, we rely on the voices that are still with us to tell us about the past, we read novels and we watch films and we look at art to construct a history that has, in so many ways, been hidden from us or papered over in the progress narrative. Coming into contact with their history made my students feel less alone with their complex queer experience. They could recognize how their feelings of alienation and loneliness — feelings of not embodying the normatively masculine, feminine, white, glamorous, and affluent iconography of mainstream LGBTQ identity — were expressed by other queer people across time, in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), in selections from This Bridge Called My Back (1981), in Audre Lorde’s Zami (1982), in the poetry of Tommy Pico, Chen Chen, and others. For many of my LGBTQ students, the divides that have confronted our community for decades — the tensions between a white gay male centrism and the needs and experiences of QPOC, women, and trans folx; between normative affluent gays and their radical queer counterparts — had seemed like a crisis of the moment rather than a historical struggle for inclusion. Restoring the historical texture and density of these conflicts, especially the pull between assimilationism and anti-assimilationism, helped them not only understand their own queer lives but also connect with a vital political debate that spanned decades. Likewise, restoring our complicated and nuanced history to the queer present can revitalize and sharpen our struggle for a world in which every experience under the rainbow of LGBTQ identity can flourish.

Queer Politics After Pride

So, what can we learn from queer history and how can it inform our lives now, some 50 years after Stonewall?

Perhaps the most important lesson is the unfinished business of a coalitional queer politics. By this, I mean an engaged attention to the dream of a Gay Liberation movement intimately connected to the struggles of people of color, women, those who exist between and beyond the gender binary, immigrants, and all who have been marginalized by the hegemonic straight state. Crucially, I also mean engaged attention to the social structures that have often thwarted the realization of such coalitional politics — the misogyny, racism, classism, and nationalism that are alive and well in modern LGBTQ communities. We must celebrate the connections that early leaders like Harry Hay saw between the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, and the Gay Liberation movement, but we must also understand and learn from the tensions that led women to leave the Gay Activists Alliance to found the Lesbian Feminist Liberation group in 1972, that led to the Salsa Soul Sisters as an autonomous Black and Latina activist collective in 1974, and that led the members of the Combahee River Collective to vehemently disagree with a radical separatist position that would require them to break political solidarity with men of color on the basis of sex in 1977. We must wrestle with why it is that transgender and gender nonconforming folx and sex workers were the first to fight back against the police at Stonewall and yet, 50 years later, are still the most vulnerable members of our community. We must wrestle with these issues, and we must work to change the structures that support and reproduce them. That’s what a history of queer activism was after, right?

History may also teach us the usefulness of the ultimately irresolvable tension between the assimilationist and anti-assimilationist poles of LGBTQ politics. From the days of the Mattachine Society’s radical fracture in 1953, when founding members including Harry Hay left the organization as new leaders strove to tamp down the group’s investment in subverting the heterosexual state, to the homo-nationalist logic of a contemporary politics that argues for marriage and military service, there have always been members of the LGBTQ community who want to be just like everyone else and there have always been those who want to celebrate queer difference as a resource for building newer, better worlds. Rather than see this political binary as an internal battleground, we might do better to think of it as pushing forward rights and political vision on a number of fronts. Even as the more radical camps within LGBTQ communities point us to a horizon of queer politics for which the status quo can never be enough, those groups fighting for integration with the mainstream have managed to secure important rights within the culture and society where we live right now. Those rights — so long as they are not seen as an end in themselves, so long as we recognize the historical truth that state institutions will not save us — can help support and fuel those pushing a more radical and inclusive world into being.

A third lesson concerns the benefits and costs of visibility for LGBTQ people and experiences, one that brings me back to the ambivalent feelings with which I started this essay, marking the real progress we’ve made as a community and confronting the ways in which that progress can feel like a departure from the more radical goals of the immediate post-Stonewall movement. On the one hand, moving our stories into mainstream media like TV and film does tremendous service to young queers looking for a sense of place and identity while also educating cisgender, heterosexual allies. On the other hand, the movement into mainstream, corporatized media also limits the kinds of stories we can tell, the ways in which we can tell them, and what purpose those stories ultimately serve. In comparing Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978) with Showtime’s Queer as Folk (2000–2005) and The L Word (2004–2009), we see the movement from novels that attempted to represent the agony and ecstasy of Gay Liberation for a queer audience to TV series that, at least in part, use the representation of gay and lesbian sex to titillate straight audiences and sell subscriptions. We must continue to invest our energies in queer art and representation that pushes boundaries and speaks to the community as a necessary and important counterbalance to the narratives that make us salable to a mainstream, heterosexual audience.

Likewise, we need to recognize that visibility always precedes backlash. Just as Gay Liberation in the 1970s was met with Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, so too did queer politics in the 1980s and ’90s result in similar waves of conservatives looking to degrade our lives and claim us as an existential threat to American culture. Today, in the wake of Trump’s election and the surge of a hypocritical and violent evangelical Christian movement that has in its sights women’s reproductive rights, immigration, voting rights, employment and health-care protections for LGBTQ people, we can see just how fragile the rights we’ve fought for half a century to achieve really are. Knowing how our queer progenitors faced similar struggles is an important part of preparing ourselves for the battle ahead, and therefore, it is also imperative that we of the younger generations actively reach out to older generations to listen and learn from them.

As the glitter fades at the end of this Pride Month, I hope that we can also embrace a few important principles for queer politics moving forward. The first is that there is no such thing as purity in queer politics, nor should purity be the goal of any LGBTQ movement. We are a diverse people with diverse experiences, and our politics should reflect that diversity. We shouldn’t insist on conformity to radical or assimilationist ideals and scripts, but rather should recognize that most of us are a blend of the two and should let each choose their own path. Fighting with one another over who subscribes to which fundamental beliefs is a waste of energy and a betrayal of the various forms of individuality and different thinking that gave queer politics its vitality in the first place. Purity, after all, is for the pious, and the pious are never much fun.

In similar fashion, we must also recognize that the institutions of the state were not built to support us and we have only a limited capacity to effect real and systemic change within them. As much as some of us work to reform the system, we must also, in tandem with the movements of people of color, immigrants, and women in the United States and elsewhere in the world, work to build new systems and new ways of relating to one another through and across difference that will foster greater freedom and equality.

Finally, we need to protect one another and recognize both what unites us and the various ways society divides us across the axes of race, class, and gender, among other social identity markers. Antiblack violence is an LGBTQ issue, anti-Muslim violence is an LGBTQ issue, the Flint water crisis is an LGBTQ issue, voting rights are an LGBTQ issue, gender pay equity and fighting against sexual harassment is an LGBTQ issue, indigenous rights to life and land and immigrants’ freedom to build their own dreams in this country are LGBTQ issues. This is so, I claim, because LGBTQ people are represented in every single one of these and other struggles, even if they aren’t the most visible members of those movements.

So, as you head out into the post–Pride Month dawn, consider our history, consider our present, and consider the possibilities for our future. We have much to celebrate and much to fix and we have no time to waste.

¤

Eric Newman is LARB’s gender and sexuality editor.


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