|Posted on December 24, 2015 at 12:55 AM|
By Dennis Stone
Nonetheless, a community of gay people would still exist, if for no other reason than it would be useful for meeting people. And there would be a segment of gay people who felt alienated from mainstream society, which would seem to them staid, predictable, lacking in life and creativity. They would band together as a refuge from that stifling environment. It would be much like elements of the artistic community that has existed for generations – a sort of alternate universe of rebellion against societal expectations.
But that disaffected community would be much smaller than the gay community we have known and of which we’ve been a part. To a large degree our community has been the product of oppression. Remove that oppression, remove the barriers to a full life within the larger society, and for many you would remove the factors that would lead them to making the community a central part of their lives.
There is a schism in the gay world today. On one side are people who passionately believe in the need to maintain our traditional gay community. They feel we are a unique people, with unique traits, and banding together through the generations has allowed us to celebrate those traits. It has provided protection, purpose, identity, and a membership in a band of brothers and sisters that enriches our lives in a way that would be otherwise impossible. Some, like Larry Kramer, believe that being gay provides people with qualities that actually make them superior to straight people.
On the other side are people who are much like the gay people I suggested would result from a world without prejudice. They don’t see themselves as part of a separate subculture, but rather as “regular” people who just happen to have a sexual orientation that is different from the majority. Their orientation is not a life transforming part of their identity, but just one part of what makes them a whole person. Most seem to understand and value gay history, while some really don’t much care. Most tend to see the gay community as something important for others, but not as something they’re much interested in themselves. In fact, some see the gay community as producing its own brand of conformity.
People on the traditionalist side of this schism are not happy with people who have what I call the “new millennial gay outlook.” Actually, that’s an understatement. Many are highly critical and downright angry. They see the new breed as traitors to history and to the brave men and women who blazed the trail to today’s freedom. They feel personally offended that a culture that evolved over generations is not more treasured, and they see its vitality and its very existence at risk.
The ultimate cause of the schism is the continuing movement of the societies of the United States, Canada, Western Europe and other places toward the world of acceptance that I asked you to imagine earlier in this piece. No, we are FAR from that utopia, with a lot of work yet to do. But it is a simple fact that millions of gay people in the world today live day-to-day lives of openness, with accepting friends, family and co-workers. Lives where straight people aren’t enemies or strangers, but are friends.
Many of these people have come of age in such an environment. They have not felt like they had to hide their identities, they have not felt alienated, they have not felt scared and alone. And therefore they have not felt the need to seek out a specialized community. They aren’t in a storm, and so they don’t need a port.
During the first year of this website a local high school senior named Paul wrote several articles for me. Paul came out to his classmates in middle school, with almost no negative fallout. He had an intense curiosity about what it had meant to be gay in the earlier, darker times. He seemed a bit in awe of what earlier generations had to go through, and he respected them for it, and for their work in trying to make things better. But he had no interest whatever in joining this thing called “the gay community.” He valued his friends, and the thought of exchanging them for a new set of friends just so he could be around other gay people was unfathomable.
Traditionalists tend to think that the new breed is somehow choosing to “adopt” straight culture. That there is a desire to become like straight people, and therefore abandon their heritage. That is certainly not true of younger people like Paul, who are simply going where their hearts – unencumbered by fear and alienation – are taking them.
In my experience it is also not true of older people who are following that path, the ones excoriated by some as assimilationists. To assimilate is to abandon your genuine nature in a shameful attempt to be like the people you envy in the mainstream society. The people I see are not doing that. Like the younger people, they are just following their instincts, instincts freed from the barriers and inhibitions of the past. Two guys who marry, adopt a child or two, and stop going regularly to the bars are not saying, “gee, I’ve always wanted to be like straight people, and thank goodness I can finally give up this phony gay life.” Rather, they are free to be whatever they want to be. It’s not criminal and it’s not traitorous if they want a life that is different from the traditional gay life. A life that we were essentially forced into.
Four of the most profound words in the English language are “to each his own.” If we all adhered to that philosophy there would be no schism in our gay world. The essence of the gay rights movement through the decades has been to persuade straight people that they should apply those four magic words to us. How disappointing it would be if we were unable to follow that dictum ourselves.
No matter how we may feel about current trends, the movement away from the traditional gay community, the movement toward what the traditionalists disdainfully label as assimilation, is inevitable. The genie is out of the bottle. Just like the cultural conservatives can never go back to a country without gay marriage, or even further to a country where gay people were mostly hidden, the traditionalists among us can’t go back to a world where we all seemingly live in a world much like that of Queer As Folk’s Liberty Avenue. It’s just not going to happen. The closer we get to true freedom the more this phenomenon of “the new gay” will manifest itself.
So where do I come down personally regarding the schism in our world? I deeply respect our history (I was a part of it, coming of age prior to the AIDS crisis), and I appreciate what gay pioneers and activists have done to bring us to where we are today. I also respect and value what the traditional gay community has meant to millions through the years.
But while I have one foot in the “new world” and one in the traditional world, my heart has me leaning toward the new. It feels liberating, it feels expansive, and it feels exciting. This is how the world was meant to be, how it should have been from the very beginning. There are terrific straight people out there who I don’t want to avoid knowing because of a barrier that is increasingly artificial. Larry Kramer thinks we are superior to straight people, but I don’t agree. As our modern society evolves, the commonality of our humanity is increasingly greater than any differences that arise from our sexuality.
For fifteen years I’ve been in a fantasy baseball league with ten straight guys. No one cares that I’m gay; I’m just one of the guys. If someone were to approach me about leaving that league for a gay league I’d have no interest. I like the guys in my league, and leaving them just to be around other gay guys seems absurd. In a way, that’s a microcosm of the tectonic shift in the gay world over the past ten to twenty years. In the past not only would I not have been welcome in a league like that, but I would not have chosen to be involved if I could be in a gay league instead. Now, the fact that I’m gay is not an issue for my fellow owners, and their being straight is not an issue for me. (As an aside, I’ve won the championship in seven of the fifteen years. Hmmm….Maybe Larry Kramer was right after all!)
I understand that to many our increasing freedom is a double-edged sword. How can you argue with greater acceptance, and less pain and marginalization? But it comes at the price of the inevitable de-emphasis on the traditional community, and an increase in so-called assimilation. There is indeed power and safety and identity to be found in the traditional community.
I also realize that the idea of this freedom is a foreign concept to many in the Western world, and to most in many other parts of the world. What I’ve been talking about is a fantasy to them. That is why we must continue to fight for the Equality Act and other laws. Why we must continue to support any efforts to improve conditions in Russia and other dark corners of the world. Why we must donate to organizations and causes that work to make life better for victims of prejudice of all kinds. The “new gay” outlook should not include traits such as apathy and self-absorption.
I am not here to write the obituary for the traditional gay community. Many gay people will continue to find great value there. But it would not be inaccurate to say that its glory days are passing. The oppression that birthed it and nurtured it and made it essential is receding. The corollary is more freedom, more opportunities, lives that are safer and more open. That’s a tradeoff I’m happy to make.