We Live In a Post-Gay World. Or Do We?

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:

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.

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Reply ColinRow
1:11 PM on August 25, 2019 
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Reply Hue-Man
8:20 AM on June 30, 2013 
Wow, I'm so happy I came back to check out the later comments! Everyone makes such great observations :-) And Hue-Man, THANK YOU for the post about Canada --- I especially enjoyed reading in on the Canada Day long weekend ;-)

Here's a CBC TV News video from June 29th on Toronto Pride and "post-gay" issues. The website includes this cryptic sentence (which I won't spoil although it echoes some of the issues I talked about previously. The Canadian Gay Agenda has important but limited number of items.). "But, for some equality is still a goal, not a reality, and the struggle is far from over."
4:14 PM on June 29, 2013 
Wow, I'm so happy I came back to check out the later comments! Everyone makes such great observations :-) And Hue-Man, THANK YOU for the post about Canada --- I especially enjoyed reading in on the Canada Day long weekend ;-)
Reply Dennis Stone
8:23 PM on June 22, 2013 
Hue-Man - I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I actually like One Direction quite a bit. If their camaraderie is all show, just for the cameras, they sure do a hell of an acting job. They seem to me like they honestly like each other, and enjoy doing stuff together. I just don't think they could keep that act up constantly like they do. And despite what some say, I think they're quite talented. So sue me!
Reply Hue-Man
3:35 PM on June 22, 2013 
Dennis Stone says...
Hue-Man - I've never heard "post-equality" before, but I like it better than "post-gay". Though here in the U.S. we couldn't use that now since genuine equality isn't here yet. You're right about straight guys changing, but we gay people don't do the process any favors when we suggest that any straight guys who show affection are really gay. For example, the One Direction guys. Or I remember when two of the Gossip Girls guys were living together for awhile - obviously that proves they are gay, people said. So many of us have an underlying psychological need to see gay people everywhere.

Dennis, The 1D phenom is part of the whole "please don't take my picture and plaster it all over the teen magazines" game of publicity that celebrities - famous for being famous - engage in. The teen hearthrob, whether Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, The Monkees, Justin Bieber or any of the boy-bands, is fun to watch but not to be taken seriously. For 1D, the playtful homo-eroticism sells tickets to teen girls and increases recording revenues. I'm not critical of them or the other passing fads because sometimes they develop into major musical talents - like my childhood's boy-band, The Beatles.
Gay men speculating about Gossip Girl room-mates is ridiculous - none of us will never know what's happening until the tell-all book is written in 4 decades. Most of us have a hard enough time figuring out what's going on in our own relationships let alone in an industry that's based on deception (artistic or otherwise) and self-marketing.
Reply Hue-Man
8:50 PM on June 21, 2013 
To avoid the smug Canadian label or sounding preachy, I thought I would back up and provide my view of what I called the post-equality environment in Canada, 8 years after the federal equal marriage law being enacted and even longer for other rights that are referred to in U.S. shorthand as DADT, ENDA, and housing, adoption, and immigration sponsorship for partners and spouses.
First, there is almost no political discussion about gay rights. Or as the National Post (Canada's version of The Wall Street Journal) said last year: "The rise and fall of the Wildrose Party [in the Alberta provincial election that they were supposed to win] confirms a truth about Canadian politics, political strategists say: Social conservatism has become an ?electorally toxic? Pandora?s box that parties should actively avoid on the campaign trail."
drose-loss/ The linked article describes the innocuous statements - by U.S. standards - about gays and immigrants that lost the election. Since then an out lesbian, Kathleen Wynne, was elected premier of the country's largest province, Ontario.
Second, the equality laws seem to be working. The Human Rights Tribunal in my province receives discrimination complaints - sex, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, etc. It covers a broad area - employment, services, tenancy, etc. The most recent annual report (page 12 of 34 in the .pdf file) shows 52 sexual orientation complaints in a population of 4.3 million.
2.pdf Obviously, there is a lot of "invisible" discrimination - the gay couple's rental application that never moves up the waiting list, promotions not given, job applications that "get lost", personal indignities - that cannot be addressed other than by educating the broader community.
IMO, Canadian culture has had to adapt to 40 years of 250,000/year legal immigrants (2.5 million in U.S. population terms) plus about the same number of temporary workers and foreign students. Gay rights have been accepted as part of that same integration process - NOT assimilation. In a province where 30% of the population was born outside of Canada (nearly 43% in Metro Vancouver), these immigrants quickly become citizens who then vote in city, provincial, and national elections. Discriminating against any minority is political death. (Here's a report from a professor at UC Berkeley which summarizes how and why it works. )
I would be interested to know whether the experience has been similar in the Netherlands and Belgium - the other "early-adopters" - although I assume the the Dutch immigrant problems and the Belgian French/Flemish separation issues trump gay issues.

Finally, back to the post-gay or post-equality issue, what exactly is meant by "assimilation" of gays and lesbians into the heterosexual mainstream? If it's Coronation Street's gay Marcus moving in with Maria, it ain't gonna happen! I know it's hard to lift your head up when you're down in the trenches but what will "success" look like when the legal structures are in place for full equality for LGBT people? (This is where I duck - I've read the gay radical pronouncements but don't understand how it leads to anything other than " gay ghettos". Sorry for the long boring dissertation.)
Reply The_Fixer
11:50 AM on June 20, 2013 
Wow, nice to see familiar faces and see the comments. Like Dennis says, we agree a lot with each other, but we wanted to start a discussion about this - so Dennis chose the point-counterpoint format. Glad to see the article spurred that discussion.
Thanks for the kind words!
Reply Dennis Stone
9:52 AM on June 20, 2013 
Hi Ulysses! Welcome to the site. The funny thing is, I agree with both of us too!
Reply Ulysses Dietz
6:54 AM on June 20, 2013 
Hey, guys! I"d love to sit and drink with you - but it's far away...and I don't get to drink till Fridays. You already know that I agree with both of you. Here in my little liberal bubble town of Maplewood, we live in a lot of post-ways. Post-racial (one of the most successfully integrated towns in all of the USA - look it up), post-religion (inter-religious couples, people of all faiths) and, of course, post-gay(ish). Gary and I moved here 33 y ears ago, and are probably the best-known "old gay couple" in town - and we've seen the world change to make this town a place ideal in which to raise our two non-white adoptive children. But the world is still a scary place for many gay teens and adults - I just read the other day that far too many gay folk still cannot come out to their parents, long into adult-hood, and can't be out at work (so they fear). In my new temporary post at my museum - I'm literally the first out gay museum director in the northeast EVER. You know I'm not the only gay man in the museum world - so those numbers are telling. We are not in heaven yet, but, as Andy says, guys of our generation have seen such huge positive changes, it's hard not to feel that maybe we're post-gay. But, bottom line: I need my gay friends. Straight people are not the same to me as gay people. At nearly 58, I need young gay folks and love gay restaurants etc. etc. as much as I did when I was young. I don't want to lose that sense of special kinship - now that young gay men see me and my partner as their future - when they get married, that is. :)
Reply Yiannis
12:40 AM on June 20, 2013 
Both Andy and Dennis made very good points, but I'm more with Andy in this. Especially if you take into account the situation in the rest of the world. I have recently seen the documentary "Call me Kuchu" about the way gays are treated in Uganda and believe me, there's nothing post-gay about it. If anything, the foothold we have achieved in North America and Western Europe permits us to work for the rest of the world as well. I believe that, in the new millennium, our scope can't be anything but global.
Reply Cole
12:20 PM on June 19, 2013 
My biggest problem with the term "post-gay," as you guys already pointed out, is that it implies that there is no further work to be done. I am currently living in a small town again after several years in one of the most inclusive areas of Columbus, OH, so I can definitely say that there is still "work to be done." By this, I don't mean that I consider myself to live in a enclave of hate. In fact, I am 45 minutes from a city of a couple hundred thousand with a gay mayor. I consider my environment to be fairly common.

I also understand that we all know that there is "still work to do" and can see that refuting this statement is not what is really implied by using the term. The enemies of equality, however, are now using this very interpretation of "post-gay" against us. They are trying to paint the situation in such a light to say that we really have everything now that we deserve, and that we are now pushing for "special rights." You know, like those special rights to marry, work, and live with a roof over our heads. We saw these (laughable, to us) arguments trotted out before the Supreme Court this year. These arguments can be persuasive to average Joe and Joline, who are too quick to imagine that every gay is wealthy and privileged. The damage done by promoting the idea of our being in a post-gay society is that it puts forth the idea that gay rights is no longer an area of pressing concern.
Reply Dennis Stone
2:35 AM on June 19, 2013 
Hue-Man - I've never heard "post-equality" before, but I like it better than "post-gay". Though here in the U.S. we couldn't use that now since genuine equality isn't here yet. You're right about straight guys changing, but we gay people don't do the process any favors when we suggest that any straight guys who show affection are really gay. For example, the One Direction guys. Or I remember when two of the Gossip Girls guys were living together for awhile - obviously that proves they are gay, people said. So many of us have an underlying psychological need to see gay people everywhere.
Reply The_Fixer
2:29 AM on June 19, 2013 
Well done Dennis & Andy --- very informative, as well as entertaining ;-) You guys make a great team! Oh, & congratulations on the launch of your new site!!! It looks great!

Thanks, Cathy! It was an interesting project when Dennis brought it to me. Good to see you here!
Reply Hue-Man
1:08 AM on June 19, 2013 
Reading the Pink News piece today about Pride Parades, I' ve been thinking about these issues but I referred to them as "post-equality" rather than post-gay. Perhaps it's from living in a country where equality has been substantially achieved in law - Federal trans-gender human rights legislation being the major exception - but LGBT Canadians are making their choices in how they want to live their lives in the environment you've described. My guess is that we will participate fully as another hyphenated-Canadian community in a mult-cultural Canada.
The list of Vancouver's parades is an example of how it is developing: Chinese New Year, St. Patrick's Day, Vaisakhi Day, Canada Day, Pride, and Santa Claus.
s-Annual-Holiday-Parades-In-Vancouver-Bc.htm If I attend the Vaisakhi Parade, I don't worry about joining the Sikh religion any more than the 700,000 people who watch the Pride Parade expect to turn gay! Celebrate your identity and have some fun. As for the internal gay divisions, I hope they're resolved in the same way as the Irish on St. Patrick's Day - everyone is Irish!
Your point about acting prudently is spot-on - if laws were 100% preventive, we wouldn't need police, courts, nor prisons. Gay-bashing will never go away but should diminish as mainstream society gets more comfortable with LGBT people.
Last point is related - gay visibility is changing men who identify as straight. The "gay-panic" threat level has been downgraded so that straight men are allowed to have gay friends without threatening others' perception of their sexuality. The Teen Wolf gay/straight scenes may not fully reflect today's reality but suggest how they may evolve in the future (gay-hating enclaves excluded).
Congrats and Good Luck!
Reply Dennis Stone
10:18 PM on June 18, 2013 
Cathy - Thanks for the kind words!
9:57 PM on June 18, 2013 
Well done Dennis & Andy --- very informative, as well as entertaining ;-) You guys make a great team! Oh, & congratulations on the launch of your new site!!! It looks great!