|Posted on June 17, 2013 at 8:30 PM|
A Point/Counterpoint Debate
By Dennis Stone and Andy Nemec
"We live in a post-gay world."
Them's fightin' words, at least if they're said on a gay website. But is the disdain for the concept valid? Are people who use the term getting way ahead of events and realities? Or are those who would say something like that on to something, do they see a new reality that some have been slow to recognize?
It is generally believed that the term was coined by British journalist Paul Burston in 1994. The term first received widespread notoriety when it was used by then “Out” editor James Collard in a piece in the New York Times in 1998 in which he argued that gays had culturally moved to a point where we should no longer define ourselves exclusively by our sexuality, and no longer think “solely in terms of struggle”, i.e., “us vs. them”.
In his superb study “Post-Gay Collective Identity Construction”, Amin Ghaziani divides the gay American experience into three eras:
1. The Closet Era. This era covers the period before World War II, when the lives of gay people were “characterized by concealment; isolation; feelings of shame, guilt, and fear; and duplicity (living a double life).”
2. The Coming Out Era. Ghazian considers this period to cover World War II to 1997, though it became most dominant after Stonewall. The era is marked by increasing openness, as large numbers of gays began to come out of the closet for the first time and make their presence known to society at large.
3. Post-Gay Society. From 1998 on, gay society has been increasingly marked by “assimilation”, which is a bad word to many, but really means that gays have portrayed themselves and thought of themselves as not that different from the rest of society. To a large degree we’ve traded in “us vs. them” for “us AND them”. Our sexuality has become for many just one of many traits, not the only important trait. And most importantly, large numbers of us are able to live open and free lives, where our sexuality does not hinder us.
I recently discussed this issue with my friend and fellow part-time writer, Andy Nemec. So Andy, we now live in a post-gay world, right?
Andy: I don't think it's all that simple. I don't think that we live in a society that is truly post-gay. Have we been assimilated and truly treated as equals? Largely, no. Is it really “Us AND Them”? Sometimes. In spite of recent changes in marriage laws in a relatively small number of states and more favorable public opinion polls, we still do not have universal marriage equality and job protection. In many places, one can still be evicted simply for being gay.
Add to that the fact that not all gay people are on board for this. Some people feel that such assimilation is really conforming to heterosexual norms, and they want no part of it.
One journalist's suppositions do not make a post-gay world, no matter how well-intentioned or desirable they may be. If anything, I think we're in an awkward transitional phase.
Dennis: That’s the big misunderstanding at the core of all the angst generated by the term “post-gay”. NO ONE who uses the term is saying that equality has been reached, or that all gays live an easy, happy life. If you’re being bullied, if your family rejects you, if you’re afraid to come out because of the environment you’re in, the term rings hollow.
But the term is not being used to imply that the gay rights struggle has been won. Rather, it reflects a massive shift in how mainstream society views us, in the way that many of us now view ourselves, and in the freedom millions of us now have in living our lives.
Many of us can be out at work, and bring our boyfriends to family gatherings; we can watch gay teenagers kiss and forge relationships on network TV; we can shop together for cars or houses or home furnishings; in my city we can walk hand in hand around the lakes. Are we guaranteed that no one will express disapproval? No. But mainstream society is now on our side, and we can live in ways that were inconceivable until recently.
As a result of these changes, many gays, especially younger people, no longer view their sexuality as the one trait that dominates and defines their lives. It is now one of many traits. And because of that, straight people are no longer “alien”, no longer the enemy. With a large majority of young people now supporting marriage equality, it really is “us AND them”.
This is new, this is monumental. Some observers think we need a word to identify this new reality, and many of them have used “post-gay”. It is not meant to be taken literally.
Andy: I understand that this term is not to be taken literally. Yes, we've made progress - significant progress at that - and that's fantastic. It's truly wonderful that you can walk about the city not having to hide your relationship. But I think that there's more to the story.
Recent public opinion polls show about a 50% support among the general population for marriage equality, a good barometer of attitudes toward gay people in general. But one must also remember that figure is an average – some places may see 75% support, others may only see 25% support.
Which makes the story not so rosy for a lot of us. Even in the progressive enclave of Greenwich Village in New York City, Mark Carson was murdered in May of this year - just blocks from the Stonewall Tavern. That's a community that is about as pro-gay as one could hope for.
Dennis: I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the tragic Mark Carson situation. The whole violence issue really deserves a conversation of its own since it is so multi-faceted and much more complex than most have realized. But for the sake of this discussion, let me just say this. We have to be careful to not allow situations like that to cloud our vision of how revolutionary the changes of the past 10-20 years have been, and how much society has changed in its perception of us.
Elliott Morales, Mark Carson’s accused murderer, has lived on society’s margins, having spent ten of his 33 years in prison, and temporarily living with a friend who was uncomfortable with the guns Morales kept in the house. Late one Friday night, after an evening of drinking, he shot one of our brothers. But I will not allow him to represent society at large; I will not allow him to make me feel like a victim.
Andy: Yes, Mark Carson's situation is extreme and not an everyday occurrence. However, it's indicative of the larger problem of significant anti-gay bias. Even if a person does not take his or her hate to the level of actually murdering someone, this bias shows up in other ways. While I know that things have gotten better, you're still not always going to get a welcoming reception in a lot of places if you announce that you're gay.
Let’s use an example from popular culture. We both watch “Teen Wolf”. The gay character Danny lives a quintessentially post-gay life. He’s totally out to everyone, and his gayness is not a problem for him or anyone else. It’s just one of his traits. Straight guys ask if they’re attractive to him, he takes a boy to the school dance, Scott dances with him to avoid getting tossed out of the dance by the coach.
Or look at Kurt Hummel of “Glee”, who lives a similar life in New York. Or look at my life. I’ve been out at work for over ten years, and have been promoted twice since then. Or look at your life.
The life Danny lives, the life Kurt lives, the life I live, the life you live; we couldn’t have lived like this 20 years ago. We need to recognize how earth shattering this new reality is. “Post-gay” is simply the term that is used by some to describe this new freedom to live openly like everyone else, and also to describe the recent tendency by many to see their orientation as just one part of their identity.
Andy: I am happy that you and a lot of us can have professional success and a life largely without fear. But remember, the other examples you cite are TV shows. And while they are sometimes a good indicator of society's attitudes, they also can be forward-looking rather than reflective. There are some schools like the ones depicted in Teen Wolf and Glee. I was just tickled pink to hear of the “Cutest Couple” yearbook story we saw at the start of this month. (They deserved the honor, they really are a cute couple!). But for every feel-good story we hear about gay youth being accepted, there are other real-life bullying episodes that we hear about. It's tough to get too enraptured in the post-gay movement when you hear those stories.
Looking at the struggles of other minority groups should give us pause. Remember, it took quite a while for this country to get to “post-Irish”, “post-Italian” or post-any-other-ethnicity. Not to mention that we still have quite a race problem in this country and it's been nearly 150 years since the Civil War ended.
Acceptance of any minority group takes a lot of time, it comes in spurts of rapid progress and longer periods of stagnancy with sometimes stunning reversals in between. We were making remarkable progress in changing people's attitudes in the 1970s until the AIDS crisis hit at the tail end of that decade. A lot of good work and good will went away when HIV was labeled as “the gay cancer”.
I think that America is developing a post-gay attitude, but it is still emerging from the “coming out” phase. We'll get there, but it's going to take a while yet.
Dennis: It sounds like we both recognize how far we’ve come, and we both acknowledge there is still more to do. I choose to focus on how far we’ve come, and you choose to focus on how far is left to go.
Andy: Oh, I am not totally pessimistic. But consider this: as I mentioned earlier, a lot of gay people are not on board yet. Gay is a unique and distinctive quality that is, to some people, antithetical to assimilation, and can lead them to a life of “separateness” that they embrace. Some gays value that distinction; it's part of their identity. To a certain degree, they are right – a lot of us see ourselves differently than the majority of the population because of who we love. Which means that breaking into the post-gay phase is a challenge – not only for straight people, but for some gay people as well.
Photo: Rainbow Flag by Manny Hernandez via Flickr Creatve Commons. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
Dennis: But here’s the thing. No gay person has to adopt the post-gay attitude if they disapprove of it or they aren’t comfortable with it. If they want to maintain a unique sensibility that is distinct from the straight world, if they want to live a life dominated by their orientation, there’s nothing wrong with that. For them. That’s the beauty of it. More and more of us now have the freedom to live as we please. Not only are we free to choose who to love, we are also free to choose the type of gay life we want to live. To each his own.
Think about why the unique gay sensibility evolved as it did. Gay people in the 50s, 60s and 70s grew up in a hostile environment where there was little acceptance to be had. Gay sex was illegal, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, job or housing protections didn’t exist, there were no positive depictions on television, and few straight people could be trusted with a coming out story. Banding together into insular, often secretive communities was a survival mechanism.
Now consider a young boy or girl coming of age today in an accepting family, with a gay/straight alliance at school, with Kurt and Blaine, Ellen, and many others on TV, and with positive coming out stories constantly in the media. The forces that drove us together in the past, that literally mandated our separate lives, no longer exist for large numbers of our younger brothers and sisters. This reality is not negated by the fact that large numbers of other younger people aren’t yet that lucky.
Andy: True enough, it is easy to focus on the bad and minimize the good. As time goes on, I have no doubt that we will get to a post-gay society. As you've pointed out, there has been lots of progress made in a number of areas. I am not dismissing the idea – I hope I live long enough for me to comfortably feel that all of us, not just some of us, do truly live in a post-gay society.
Dennis: I have a surprise for you that will allow you to technically win this debate. Awhile back I personally gave up using the term "post-gay". I'm fine with the term as it is used by social scientists and others to describe the new world in which many gays now find themselves. However, there is so much misunderstanding and animosity created by use of the word that using it is counter-productive. And in literal terms it certainly implies that we've gone farther than we have. And so I have coined the term "new millennial gay experience" or "new millennial gay outlook".
Andy: Well, using the term might be best confined to something like “I live in a post-gay community” - it's more of the reality as of right now. Saying that the whole country is post-gay is stretching it, I think. And I don't think this is an argument to be won or lost, this is a discussion about the modern world, and I find it very interesting. The more we talk about it, the more likely it is to come about - and sooner rather than later. For me, I would welcome a truly post-gay world.
Dennis: So I think we can end with a fair amount of agreement. You agree that the gay world we live in today is dramatically different than anything we’ve seen before, and is truly a new era. And I agree that we still have work to do, and that “new millennial gay experience” is a better term than “post-gay”.
Andy: Yes, I am thrilled to see the things I've seen in the last 10 years, things I would never have dreamed of happening when I was just figuring out who I am. You can't deny the progress being made, even if you have to acknowledge the work that remains to be done.
Dennis: I’ll drink to that. And I’m buying!
Andy: You have no idea what you're in for.